January 23, 2013

Philosophy: On "Xanthippic Dialogues"

On "Xanthippic Dialogues"
About ME/CFS


Yesterday I reproduced President Obama's inauguration speech with my comments, and today I found that some of the links I gave -
President Obama's speech + my comments  and President Obama's Address to Congress -  were garbled with whole sections that were links that shouldn't have been there.

Today I repaired this, and I am sorry, but it was not my intention, and I never did this consciously, but on Linux, which I still prefer over MS Windows, there just are no good WYSIWYG html-editors, which is what I need for my site. (I say it as it is, because that is the truth. And if I am to blame, I am willing to take the blame, but not if 90% of my text, after I wrote it, got turned into links, paragraph, after paragraph, after paragraph: I did not do it, nor want it, and it is a shame there is no
good WYSIWYG html-editor on Linux. [1])

Today, there's just a brief bit on philosophy, that also may interest non-philosophers. (And yes, I am a bit better than the last few days.)

1. On "Xanthippic Dialogues"
I have read a lot of 20th century philosophy, but I can't recommend most of it to people without a serious interest in philosophy: Most is not well written, most is quite pretentious, and most is plain wrong, mistaken, biased or misleading.

There are exceptions, such as Bertrand Russell, who can be read both for pleasure and for intellectual profit - History of Western Philosophy, Problems of Philosophy, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits - and there are some others, such as A.J. Ayer, but they really are exceptions.

The reason for this is, in part at least, a combination of lack of real talent combined with academic pretentiousness - as one can find for oneself by reading Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Burke, Berkeley, Hobbes, Montaigne or Plato, for these men could really write, and did not
prosaically walk on stilts, so as to increase their apparent stature, in the manner of George Steiner, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger and many others, also including many analytic philosophers.

I mentioned Plato, who is a great writer, at least in Benjamin Jowett's rendering, though not an easy one, nor one whom I agree with - but intellectual (dis)agreement is not relevant to literary (de)merit.

And this leads to my present subject, which is a book by
Roger Scruton, "Xanthippic Dialogues", which is something like a triple satire: Of Plato's dialogues, of 20th century philosophy, and of Greek scholarship.

It was first published 20 years ago, in 1993, but I just recently read it, and I liked it, and will briefly try to explain why.

To start with Roger Scruton. He is a British philosopher, who specialized in aesthetics, and who seems best known for being a conservative. As it happens, I never was much interested in the philosophy of aesthetics, and I am not a conservative. [2]

Also, I have several times tried to read some of his books - Sexual Desire is one - and got bored, but I also agree with him on several topics, such as this, quoted from the Wikipedia article on him linked above:
He defined post-modernism as the claim that there are no grounds for truth, objectivity, and meaning, and therefore conflicts between views are nothing more than contests of power, and argued that, while the West is required to judge other cultures in their own terms, Western culture is adversely judged as ethnocentric and racist. He wrote: "The very reasoning which sets out to destroy the ideas of objective truth and absolute value imposes political correctness as absolutely binding, and cultural relativism as objectively true."
As judged by the Wikipedia entry, I know relatively little about Scruton, although I was some 25 years ago first attended on him, by people who had read my columns, who accused me that I was "a conservative like" him - which I then quickly established I wasn't.

As I am explaining why I liked his Xanthippic Dialogues: It is certainly not because I am especially favourably impressed by or indeed knowledgeable about Roger Scruton, for I am neither the one nor the other, though we seem to agree more than not on post-modernism.

Next, Plato's Dialogues. I have read these, for the most part, in Jowett's translation, which I liked a lot. Some of it is hard going, and rather a lot of it, especially in The Republic, but also elsewhere, is nonsense, but it remains interesting because much of it is very clever debate, rather than learned scholarly expositions, and it is very clever debate about fundamental questions - of what it is to know, to be human, what there is, what is good, and what is a good society.

It is indeed the quality and the topics of the debates, and the style in which these have been written, that make Plato's Dialogues interesting and enjoyable, much rather than what they argue for.

Then 20th Century philosophy. As I said, I read a lot of it, and I cannot recommend this to most others. Apart from the reasons I gave - pretentious, ill written, mistaken - most of it is blighted by having become a thoroughly academic subject, from which most liveliness and interest has been squeezed as if it would be incompatible with such a serious and learned subject.

Actually, the reason is that most academic philosophers just can't do any better, and are not at all on either the intellectual or the literary level of the great classic philosophers, and in fact are an artificial academic species of their own, that publishes mostly for its own academic kind only, in its own academic journals. This has some merit, sometimes, but is not really what real philosophy was or is about, which is the investigation and criticism of ideas and values, and the pursuit of knowledge, much rather than posing as or becoming a tenured, well respected scholarly sort of person.

Finally, Greek scholarship. I remember enough from what little Greek I learned to be able to read it from the page as if I understand it, but much more often than not I don't, and indeed I long ago found out this is not necessary either, as almost all of the ancient Greek texts have been admirably translated by real specialists. (As are the Latin texts, both - for example - in the admirable Loeb Classical Library).

Not much later I found that Greek scholarship is one of those fields where there is an enormous amount of erudition and shows of learnedness, about what is effectively a rather small field knowledge. (The Loeb Library has a lot of volumes, but all of these are prose, and compared with real fields like biology or physics, Greek scholarship has a small subject, where most that was to be discovered or translated has been discovered or translated.)

So... Scruton's "Xanthippic Dialogues" satirizes or spoofs all of that, and does so admirably, as it also does succeed in giving at least the flavour Plato's Dialogues (as rendered by Jowett, for the effective non-readers of Greek like me), and it also does it quite humorously, namely by pretending that Socrates in fact got his ideas from his wife Xanthippe, while these ideas were misrepresented by Plato.

It makes a number of good philosophical points, also against modern philosophers, in lively prose, as one can find with the help of the Index (itself a piece of satire). And it is a good read, for the most part for the same reason as Plato's Dialogues are a good read: It is clever, witty, well written dialogue about interesting subjects.


[1] There also is on Linux a type of tough guys, that includes women, that insist one should not use WYSIWYG html-editors "because they produce clunky html". I am sorry: My site is over 400 MB, mostly html, and I am human, not a chip. The computer is meant to help make my life easier, rather than that I should exist to write perfectly correct html to facilitate a html-compiler. "Lo, men have become tools of their tools", Thoreau exclaimed, long before there were modern computers. (On that line of argument: Why not return to the goose quill, because this enables the finest handwritten prose?)

[2] My reason not to be interested in the philosophy of aesthetics is not that I am not interested in beauty, but that there were so few texts in its philosophy that I found attractive.

And I am not a conservative but a classical liberal, where the adjective "classical" is really needed, because I mean it in the sense of J.S. Mills's "On Liberty", and not in any of the sense it has been used in politics in the 20st and 21st century.

About ME/CFS (that I prefer to call M.E.: The "/CFS" is added to facilitate search machines) which is a disease I have since 1.1.1979:
1. Anthony Komaroff

Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS(pdf)

3. Hillary Johnson

The Why  (currently not available)

4. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf - version 2003)
5. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf - version 2011)
6. Eleanor Stein

Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)

7. William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
8. Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
Maarten Maartensz
Resources about ME/CFS
(more resources, by many)

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