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Blog Log

Wednesday, March 24, 2004  

Apparently, Howard Zinn has a new edition of his People's History coming out. "Howard Zinn's History Lessons" by Michael Kazin, written for
Dissent Magazine - Winter 2004, is a tough, critical analysis of Zinn's historical style. Perhaps the most controversial of Zinn's new work can be encapsulated by this excerpt:
"The latest edition of the book includes a few paragraphs about the attacks of September 11, and they demonstrate how poorly Zinn's view of the past equips him to analyze the present. 'It was an unprecedented assault against enormous symbols of American wealth and power,' he writes. The nineteen hijackers 'were willing to die in order to deliver a deadly blow against what they clearly saw as their enemy, a superpower that had thought itself invulnerable.' Zinn then quickly moves on to condemn the United States for killing innocent people in Afghanistan. "

posted by Marc | Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Friday, March 12, 2004  

Lee Harris at Tech Central Station reminds us that academics must remember to laugh and puts forth Socrates as an example.

Let me begin with an observation: It is good for us to have a sense of our own absurdity, and it is even better to remind ourselves of our own absurdity every so often by laughing at ourselves, and even by encouraging others to laugh at us as well.

Now what is so good about all of this?

First of all, it is a cure for what the English essayist William Bagehot has called "the bane of philosophy," namely pomposity; and this accounts for why Socrates made so many jokes at his own expense. For example, throughout Plato's dialogues he is constantly making jocular remarks about his own shortcomings -- he compares himself to a gadfly and to a torpedo fish; he harps on his pug ugliness, and confesses his girlish giddiness around good-looking boys. He mocks his own intellectual powers, and complains of his inability to follow other people's arguments, begging them to go back to the very beginning.

Scholars have a term for this characteristic of Socrates. They call it "Socratic irony," and, as scholars so often do, they assume that what Socrates is doing is precisely the kind of thing that they do themselves. Socrates, they say, is only pretending to be less wise than the person with whom he is carrying on a conversation, and all for the purpose of making the other party look even more stupid. It is a rhetorical trick, deliberately designed to stress the enormous gap between the wisdom of Socrates (read "the wisdom of the scholar") and the ignorance of Socrates' interlocutor (read "the ignorance of the average Joe.")

This is the reason many students come away from philosophy 101 courses hating Socrates. He reminds them of their professors. He is the superior jackass who sadistically enjoys baffling and showing up the student's lack of knowledge, just as the Socratic method once employed in law school involved the tormenting of law students over tricky questions.

All wrong -- completely and absolutely wrong.

Socrates' method had one and only one aim. He wanted to get other people to laugh at their own pretension to wisdom, just as Socrates scoffed at his. His self-mockery was not designed to heighten the contrast between his superiority and other people's inferiority, but to invite other people to see the folly of their claim to possess a higher truth than their fellow men -- just as Socrates did himself.

Recall that Socrates never picks on people who are merely going about their business. He may chat with them, and pursue a line of inquiry with them, but he never applies to them the full force of his dialectic powers the way he does with those men who publicly boast that they have found a higher truth -- men like the famous sophists Gorgias and Protagoras, so convinced of their superior insight that they are prepared to charge students a tidy sum to impart it. With men like this, Socrates can sometimes appear merciless; and yet we must never forget what Socrates is trying so manfully to achieve. In each case, Socrates' objective is to get these pompous jackasses to realize, in a sudden flash of insight, the absurdity of their arrogant pretensions.

This describes Socrates' celebrated dialectic method. He never argues from his own position -- he has none; but instead he takes the other guy's position, as it has been formulated in words, and then asks whether these words really represent the other guy's true position. Is the fellow saying what he really means to say, or have his words betrayed his original intuition?

posted by Marc | Friday, March 12, 2004

Monday, March 08, 2004  

A nice eulogy to Daniel Boorstin, a populist American intellectual
by David Greenberg.

posted by Marc | Monday, March 08, 2004

Thursday, March 04, 2004  

I just discovered this interesting site called Passionate about History and Technology. It's author seems to be keeping abrest of recent historical finds and developments.

posted by Marc | Thursday, March 04, 2004

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