Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Schopenhauer and the postmodern: part two (final)

The Futility of Art: Postcultural semiotic theory, realism and libertarianism
 1. Contexts of meaninglessness
If one examines presemanticist narrative, one is faced with a choice: either accept realism or conclude that language is capable of deconstruction. Sartre uses the term ‘textual rationalism’ to denote the role of the participant as artist. ...
The above quote is a meaningless, unique and machine-generated excerpt of an academic paper from the pomo-generator. Its section heading (after only three page reloads to avoid notations) is pure serendipity.

Criticisms of postmodernism based on the dismal quality of its academic writing are cases of mistaken identity. With some of its original authors, however, what at first glance seems overly verbose and difficult to understand is often a case of the author struggling with his language in order to select the precise wording for a concept that could easily be misinterpreted. I often have that problem, myself. It is not the postmodernist philosophy that is at fault, it is the affected academic writing style which is applied to whatever might be in vogue at the time.

This is why I can title this post "Schopenhauer and the postmodern". The latter is a major philosophy in our time and what Schopenhauer wrote was largely about the major philosophies of his own time. So it is the fact of academic fashion rather than the nature of any fashion which is really at fault. In other words, it is a matter of the Zeitgeist in and of itself.

I have taken excerpts from three of Schopenhauer's essays and present these quotes in the order in which they appear. The example of underlining is Schopenhauer's and my minimal interjections are enclosed by square parentheses. The selection process was not easy as there is so much more I could have used. I avoided passages that consisted of large numbers of examples not only to save space but because some of these examples would be less familiar to today's reader than they were in his time. The full essays can be read by following this link to the Internet Archive (Project Gutenberg). This was the translation used in my Google Play eBook. I have compared it with other English translations and found no differences in meaning, whatsoever. I recommend paying the small price for the eBook for the functionality of the medium (although it, absurdly, does not permit copying).


When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental
process. It is the same as the pupil, in learning to write, following
with his pen the lines that have been pencilled by the teacher.
Accordingly, in reading, the work of thinking is, for the greater part,
done for us. This is why we are consciously relieved when we turn to
reading after being occupied with our own thoughts. But, in reading, our
head is, however, really only the arena of some one else's thoughts. And
so it happens that the person who reads a great deal--that is to say,
almost the whole day, and recreates himself by spending the intervals in
thoughtless diversion, gradually loses the ability to think for himself;
just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk. Such,
however, is the case with many men of learning: they have read
themselves stupid. For to read in every spare moment, and to read
constantly, is more paralysing to the mind than constant manual work,
which, at any rate, allows one to follow one's own thoughts. Just as a
spring, through the continual pressure of a foreign body, at last loses
its elasticity, so does the mind if it has another person's thoughts
continually forced upon it. And just as one spoils the stomach by
overfeeding and thereby impairs the whole body, so can one overload and
choke the mind by giving it too much nourishment. For the more one reads
the fewer are the traces left of what one has read; the mind is like a
tablet that has been written over and over. Hence it is impossible to
reflect; and it is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one
has read if one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later,
what has been read does not take root, but is for the most part lost.
Indeed, it is the same with mental as with bodily food: scarcely the
fifth part of what a man takes is assimilated; the remainder passes off
in evaporation, respiration, and the like. ...

From all this it may be concluded that thoughts put down on paper are
nothing more than footprints in the sand: one sees the road the man has
taken, but in order to know what he saw on the way, one requires his
eyes. ... [The difference in experiential from book learning]

It is because people will only read what is the newest instead of what
is the best of all ages, that writers remain in the narrow circle of
prevailing ideas, and that the age sinks deeper and deeper in its own
mire. ...

This condition of things shows why the scientific, literary, and
artistic spirit of the age is declared bankrupt about every thirty
years. During that period the errors have increased to such an extent
that they fall under the weight of their absurdity; while at the same
time the opposition to them has become stronger. At this point there is
a crash, which is followed by an error in the opposite direction.
[See Enantiodromia and it is also a good explanation of cultural lag]
To show the course that is taken in its periodical return would be the true
practical subject of the history of literature; little notice is taken
of it, however. ...

In German philosophy Kant's brilliant period
was immediately followed by another period, which aimed at being
imposing rather than convincing. Instead of being solid and clear, it
aimed at being brilliant and hyperbolical, and, in particular,
unintelligible; instead of seeking truth, it intrigued. Under these
circumstances philosophy could make no progress. Ultimately the whole
school and its method became bankrupt. For the audacious, sophisticated
nonsense on the one hand, and the unconscionable praise on the other of
Hegel and his fellows, as well as the apparent object of the whole
affair, rose to such a pitch that in the end the charlatanry of the
thing was obvious to everybody; and when, in consequence of certain
revelations, the protection that had been given it by the upper classes
was withdrawn, it was talked about by everybody. ... 

No greater mistake can be made than to imagine that what has been written latest is
always the more correct; that what is written later on is an improvement on what was
written previously; and that every change means progress. Men who think and have
correct judgement, and people who treat their subject earnestly, are all exceptions
only. Vermin is the rule everywhere in the world: it is always at hand and busily
engaged in trying to improve in its own way upon the mature deliberations of the
thinkers. So that if a man wishes to improve himself in any subject he must guard
against immediately seizing the newest books written upon it, in the assumption that
science is always advancing and that the older books have been made use of in the
compiling of the new. They have, it is true, been used; but how? The writer often
does not thoroughly understand the old books; he will, at the same time, not use
their exact words, so that the result is he spoils and bungles what has been said in
a much better and clearer way by the old writers; since they wrote from their own
lively knowledge of the subject. He often leaves out the best things they have
written, their most striking elucidations of the matter, their happiest remarks,
because he does not recognise their value or feel how pregnant they are. It is only
what is stupid and shallow that appeals to him. An old and excellent book is
frequently shelved for new and bad ones; which, written for the sake of money, wear
a pretentious air and are much eulogised by the authors' friends. In
science, a man who wishes to distinguish himself brings something new to
market; this frequently consists in his denouncing some principle that
has been previously held as correct, so that he may establish a wrong
one of his own. Sometimes his attempt is successful for a short time,
when a return is made to the old and correct doctrine. These innovators
are serious about nothing else in the world than their own priceless
person, and it is this that they wish to make its mark. They bring this
quickly about by beginning a paradox; the sterility of their own heads
suggests their taking the path of negation; and truths that have long
been recognised are now denied...

In the secret consciousness that this is the condition of things, every mediocre
writer tries to mask his own natural style. This instantly necessitates his giving
up all idea of being naïve, a privilege which belongs to superior minds sensible of
their superiority, and therefore sure of themselves. For instance, it is absolutely
impossible for men of ordinary intelligence to make up their minds to write as they
think; they resent the idea of their work looking too simple. It would always be of
some value, however. If they would only go honestly to work and in a simple way
express the few and ordinary ideas they have really thought, they would be readable
and even instructive in their own sphere. But instead of that they try to appear to
have thought much more deeply than is the case. The result is, they put what they
have to say into forced and involved language, create new words and prolix periods
which go round the thought and cover it up. They hesitate between the two attempts
of communicating the thought and of concealing it. They want to make it look grand
so that it has the appearance of being learned and profound, thereby giving one the
idea that there is much more in it than one perceives at the moment. Accordingly,
they sometimes put down their thoughts in bits, in short, equivocal, and paradoxical
sentences which appear to mean much more than they say (a splendid
example of this kind of writing is furnished by Schelling's treatises on
Natural Philosophy); sometimes they express their thoughts in a crowd of
words and the most intolerable diffuseness, as if it were necessary to
make a sensation in order to make the profound meaning of their phrases
intelligible--while it is quite a simple idea if not a trivial one
(examples without number are supplied in Fichte's popular works and in
the philosophical pamphlets of a hundred other miserable blockheads that
are not worth mentioning), or else they endeavour to use a certain style
in writing which it has pleased them to adopt...

If a man has something to say that is worth saying, he need not envelop it in
affected expressions, involved phrases, and enigmatical innuendoes; but he may rest
assured that by expressing himself in a simple, clear, and naïve manner he will not
fail to produce the right effect. A man who makes use of such artifices as have been
alluded to betrays his poverty of ideas, mind, and knowledge.
Nevertheless, it is a mistake to attempt to write exactly as one speaks. Every style
of writing should bear a certain trace of relationship with the monumental style,
which is, indeed, the ancestor of all styles; so that to write as one speaks is just
as faulty as to do the reverse, that is to say, to try and speak as one writes. This
makes the author pedantic, and at the same time difficult to understand. ... 

The largest library in disorder is not so useful as a smaller but
orderly one; in the same way the greatest amount of knowledge, if it has
not been worked out in one's own mind, is of less value than a much
smaller amount that has been fully considered. For it is only when a man
combines what he knows from all sides, and compares one truth with
another, that he completely realises his own knowledge and gets it into
his power. A man can only think over what he knows, therefore he should
learn something; but a man only knows what he has pondered.
A man can apply himself of his own free will to reading and learning,
while he cannot to thinking. Thinking must be kindled like a fire by a
draught and sustained by some kind of interest in the subject. This
interest may be either of a purely objective nature or it may be merely
subjective. The latter exists in matters concerning us personally, but
objective interest is only to be found in heads that think by nature,
and to whom thinking is as natural as breathing; but they are very rare.
This is why there is so little of it in most men of learning. ...

Men of learning are those who have read the contents of books. Thinkers,
geniuses, and those who have enlightened the world and furthered the
race of men, are those who have made direct use of the book of the
Much of the above is not original in its concepts and you might want to take a look at the First Preface to Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury in Gerald of Wales ca.1146 – ca.1223, The Itinerary and description of Wales, by way of comparisonSuch writing is more often understood as a lament by the older for "the good old days" than a sociological observation of enantiodromia which, because of cultural lag, takes some decades to personally experience (and an ability to observe such evidence).

Tomorrow, a much shorter piece on Schopenhauer and authenticity (another popular word of our time).

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