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Authorial Consistency

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  • E Bruce Brooks
    To: WSW Cc: Synoptic; GPG In Response To: Anonymous On: Authorial Consistency From: Bruce It is possible to define a humanist as someone who never took, or
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 1, 2009
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      To: WSW
      Cc: Synoptic; GPG
      In Response To: Anonymous
      On: Authorial Consistency
      From: Bruce

      It is possible to define a humanist as someone who never took, or never got
      through, first year calculus. Calculus is the mathematical language of
      change. It is at some points highly counterintuitive, in part I think
      because change itself is counterintuitive. Those capable of intuiting, or of
      coming to be capable of intuiting, a dynamic situation *as such* are
      relatively rare birds. Those particular birds have a better sense of nature
      than the rest of us, as Feynman ruefully remarked in his Cornell lectures.
      And quite logically, they tend to populate our laboratories of the hard

      I once wrote a little manual explaining how the various resources and needs
      of a public library interpenetrate. How (for example) collection size and
      the optimum parking lot area are functions of the same variable. And in
      having that manuscript test-read by highly intelligent, personable, and
      interested library-school-trained colleagues, I repeatedly came up against
      the fact that whereas the equation

      a = 6b

      is fine with them, they lose it at the sight of

      a = 6 log b

      And it didn't help when I put a table at the back; they were panicked by the
      concept itself. So I never in fact published the manual, and the principles
      of library management remain unknown to this day.

      Unfortunately for management science, "6 log b" is the kind of thing we get
      whenever one variable grows at a different rate than the other, that is,
      when the relation between the two cannot be graphed as a straight line. A
      curved line is required, and it is things like the calculus, and the kind of
      thinking it represents, that give you the specific curved line. It seems
      that precisely this and analogous curved lines separate the goats from the
      other goats, and never again shall the twain meet over lunch. To both their
      detriment, as I suspect.

      The standard humanistic sense of personality, then, which is probably also
      the standard human sense of personality (and which may indeed tend be true
      of the standard personality itself, irrespective of any opinions about it),
      is that it is essentially fixed and constant. It may "develop," to use a
      term beloved of literary theorists, but if so, usually along a straight
      line. The tragic flaw, in the developmental view, is usually there at the
      beginning, and the skillful biographer is the one who can bring out that
      sometimes hidden continuity. That's fair enough, and there are some
      biographical treatments of, say, Churchill which seem to be successful at
      that task. The faults and the virtues are not mutual refutations; they are
      actually the real faults and the real virtues of the same intelligible
      underlying guy. But lives that show a genuine dislocation, a mid-course
      break rather than a continuity, like those of Paul or Luther, or the
      transfigurations centerpieced in the works of Wagner, are usually handled
      with more aplomb by the pathologists than by standard biographical methods.
      With such data, we are getting back into the range of the lab, rather than
      the typewriter.

      An apparent authorial change, therefore, say a doctrinal inconsistency in
      the writings that now go under Plato's name, thus tends, for one reason or
      another, to be a problem for those who care about Plato in the first place,
      not only those indulging an a priori expectation that the concept "Plato"
      will have a simple and constant content, but also those who realize that
      people in fact tend to be simple. Roughly four responses to corpus
      inconsistencies are possible:

      (1) The corpus is composite, and some of that stuff is by other people, each
      of whom is a recognizably consistent person. If it is possible to arrange
      the works in chronological order, the changes will manifest themselves as
      shifts in opinion, each opinion with a different person behind it, and it
      will be sometimes be possible (as with Laudz within the DDJ) to say at what
      point the original persona leaves off, and a different one or ones take
      over. An accretional school text tends to present this kind of picture.

      (2) The corpus is singular, but it includes both early and late works. If it
      is possible to arrange the works in chronological order, the changes will
      reveal how the author changed his own opinion over time. If that change
      cannot be expressed as a linear development, this explanation will remain
      problematic for some readers, but anyway, that situation does occur. An
      authorial corpus with sufficient time depth, produced by an author with
      sufficient exposure to external changes or catastrophes (eg, the Lisbon
      Earthquake or the Revolt of the Seven Kings), tends to present this kind of
      picture. And of course if the author was famous enough, or if his
      organizational structure continued in force after his death, you may get
      spuria at the edges of the already developmental genuine corpus, as is
      precisely the case with Vergil or Sywndz. The fake icing on the already
      mutable genuine cake.

      (3) The corpus is singular, but the author is pathologically affected. Such
      things happen, but the written report of them is not necessarily a very
      comforting object to keep on your coffee table.

      (4) The corpus is singular, and the seeming differences are illusory or can
      be otherwise explained. This is the domain of hermeneutical ingenuity; the
      stamping ground of the great harmonizers like Augustine or Ju Syi. The
      product of their labors is a work, or a corpus, purged of its seeming
      inconsistencies, and speaking consistently and at every point to the same
      worldview. Singularity of worldview is much prized in educational circles
      (and quite understandably; it is easier to teach and it is less upsetting to
      the teachees), and these expositions tend to become standard pedagogical
      practice, as happened for instance in China (where the grip of the standard
      harmonizing commentaries was utterly inimical to the operations of the
      Chinese intellect for a thousand lost years, but that's another story) and
      perhaps in other countries also; that I wouldn't know.

      Hermeneutical ingenuity is extravagantly prized in our time, which, even as
      times go, is notably impatient of discontinuities. As witness to which, I
      can now quote the publisher's blurb that an alert WSW member sent me
      privately, evidently interested in the lesson it contains, but perhaps not
      caring to be complicit in its exposure. Here then is the blurb, as lifted by
      my anonymous correspondent from the U Chicago catalog. My comments are in

      Catherine H. Zuckert
      Plato's Philosophers
      The Coherence of the Dialogues
      896 pages, 6 x 9 © 2009
      Cloth $45.00
      ISBN: 9780226993355 Pre-order now. Will publish May 2009
      Synopsis Table of Contents Bio

      Faced with the difficult task of discerning Plato's true ideas from the
      contradictory voices he used to express them, scholars have never fully made
      sense of the many incompatibilities within and between the dialogues.

      [EBB: that is, all previous attempts to read Plato are failures; you can
      clear your shelves of them. Notice also the concept of "truth" as something
      that has to be ingeniously discovered amid the discordant evidence: "truth"
      is never discordant, but always single and consistent]

      In the magisterial Plato's Philosophers, Catherine Zuckert explains for the
      first time how these prose dramas cohere to reveal a comprehensive Platonic
      understanding of philosophy.

      [EBB: Notice "dramas," and cf infra]

      To expose this coherence, Zuckert examines the dialogues not in their
      supposed order of composition . . .

      [EBB: notice the catty "supposed." And notice, more generally, the
      jettisoning of chronological information, of whatever accuracy, arrived at
      by previous scholarship, and the tossing of all the works into the same soup
      kettle, where they are free to be dealt with de novo, and built up into a
      different structure than the one which, in chronological order, they might
      have suggested of themselves. Having banished previous *studies,* the author
      now puts all the *data* on a level]

      . . . but according to the dramatic order in which Plato indicates they took

      [EBB: again we have "dramatic." The changes, it now seems, are not in Plato,
      they rather located in his own artistic and intentional portrait of
      something else]

      This unconventional arrangement lays bare a narrative of the rise,
      development, and limitations of Socratic philosophy. In the drama's earliest
      dialogues, for example, non-Socratic philosophers introduce the political
      and philosophical problems to which Socrates tries to respond. A second
      dramatic group shows how Socrates develops his distinctive philosophical
      style. And, finally, the later dialogues feature interlocutors who reveal
      his philosophy's limitations.

      [EBB: The chronology of the corpus seems to have snuck in again, by the
      kitchen door, when nobody was looking. Apparently the ground has now been
      made safe for it]

      Despite these limitations, Zuckert concludes, Plato made Socrates the
      dialogues' central figure because Socrates raises the fundamental human
      question: what is the best way to live?

      [EBB: Note the focus on Socrates, the subject of some of the dialogues, and
      not on Plato, whose authorial mind we might previously have supposed was the
      subject under discussion. Notice also the universal applicability of this
      question "how to live." That point is immediately developed in the rest of
      the blurb]

      Plato's dramatization of Socratic imperfections suggests, moreover, that he
      recognized the apparently unbridgeable gap between our understandings of
      human life and the nonhuman world. At a time when this gap continues to
      raise questions-about the division between sciences and the humanities and
      the potentially dehumanizing effects of scientific progress-Zuckert's
      brilliant interpretation of the entire Platonic corpus offers genuinely new
      insights into worlds past and present.

      [EBB: Notice "brilliant" as the standard codeword for "hermeneutically
      ingenious" (rather than "empirically perceptive," which is the sense it has
      in the hard sciences). The end of all this ingenuity is a simply
      intelligible Plato - which however satisfying as far as it goes is merely
      one item in an antiquarian repertoire, and who cares about antiquity
      anyway? - but much more importantly, a Plato who, or whose insight, is
      deeply relevant to just the problems that happen to be uppermost in the
      minds of a 2009 readership. A sermonizing Plato, speaking in the present
      tense. But to the methodologically aware, this use of the present tense is a
      warning in itself. As I have said elsewhere,


      - if your solution is relevant, you may be in trouble].


      E Bruce Brooks
      Warring States Project
      University of Massachusetts at Amherst
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