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Why the Author Didn’t Die

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 14, 2015

Somewhat pedictably, I once had a younger brother who went to his grandfather and said, “We aren’t having a surprise party tonight.” He, of course, was flabbergasted when we shouted at him for it.

Not quite as predictably, the auteur theory of film criticism has had its detractors almost since its inception. Really, no one sensible actually subscribes to it now. After all, no one actually believes that Scorsese is a Catholic filmmaker or that Bergman was engaged with his faith or that Richard Linklater likes hearing people talk.

I’m not much of a subscriber to the term “auteur,” but Carruth earns it as writer-producer-director-cinematographer-editor-composer-star. He reveals images that can be coldly clinical or a sun-dappled gold, put together in cleanly severed, occasionally overlapping bits to an insidiously affecting soundtrack.
Melissa Starker

Okay, let’s stop. There’s obviously something going on here. Critics don’t want to be auteurists, but they seem overwhelmingly to default into that mode of speaking. Really, pretty much every review out there talks about the movie in terms of what the director wants to do, or what the director likes to do, or something else about the director.

The questions here, obviously, are why they don’t want to be auteurist, and why they talk as if they are anyway.

One reason for the first is, no doubt, something that happened among literary critics eighty or so years ago: new criticism. It was a movement that started by analysing poems as ‘self-contained objects;’ among its many facets was a rejection of the poet’s explanation of the poem as gospel. Or, as a friend put it when I told him about this essay, “do you really want to go around shipping paintings with explaining artists attached?” But, while I’ve seen arguments won and lost by someone invoking ‘the intentional fallacy,’ I’m yet to see a literature reviewer (in venues that can be called reasonably mainstream for an interested outsider, a spectrum from which I’m picking all my film reviewer quotes as well) start a sentence with “I’m no auteurist but…” In fact, most happily talk about the author’s vision. So, I have trouble ascribing it as the most important reason for the existence of such sentiments among reviewers of film.

The main reason, I believe, is implied in that above quote: movies involve a lot pf people; to say that it all comes from the director’s head is… a bit naive. Giving it to Jim Emerson,

Any movie is a highly evolved and complex synthetic organism, the result of weeks or years of labor, and the product of chance and circumstance as well as artistic vision. By the time it reaches its final form in the marketplace (only to be superseded by the further revised DVD version a few months later), it has been through countless evolutionary phases, the result of thousands upon thousands of conscious and unconscious decisions by hundreds upon hundreds of people. In some cases, there’s an Intelligent Designer at work (usually the director, but sometimes the producer or the writer or an actor or studio executives, and generally a combination of them all), but even the greatest filmmakers are hardly omniscient or infallible.

Now, neither do I want to dip my toe into a decades-old debate among professional philosophers, nor do I want to talk about correct ways to split the blame; what I do want to do is ask why people speak like films spring from the intentions of auteurs when their stated beliefs don’t really allow it – why the hell they enjoy committing two intellectual sins in the way they go about their jobs.

And not always at the same time. Simon Abrams in his review of the latest X-Men film (I just opened the review at the top of the rogerebert.com site) performing one and then the other (emphasis mine):

Singer’s assured grip on his characters is what makes his X-Men movies the best of the bunch. He’s exceptionally good at pacing and realizing set pieces like Magneto’s prison break or the first fight between the Sentinels and the future X-Men. The film also takes time out to wink at viewers, as when Wolverine, now without a metal skeleton, lets out a confused sigh of relief as he quietly passes through a metal detector.

For the answer, let’s talk about this card game I play a lot called ‘Literature.’ It’s a game where the deck is split into sets, and each team tries to collect as many sets as possible, by asking specific members of the opposing team for specific cards; the most important rules are, you can’t ask for a card unless you have a card of the same set in your hand and you can’t lie about whether you have a card you’ve been asked for. So, the only completely certain piece of information you’re giving the opposite team is, I have a card in this set and this teammate of yours does or doesn’t. But, the people in my card-playing group often score whole sets after hearing two or three cards being asked from the other team (the sets are of six or seven cards each). How?

In the 1946 article ‘The Intentional Fallacy,’ Aubrey Beardsley and William K Wimsatt make an argument that is (very) roughly this: hearing a sentence doesn’t give you definitive proof of the utterer’s intention, because there exist misunderstandings and randomly and arbitrarily generated sentences and ambiguous sentences, and so it’s a mistake to think that the most fundamental property of a piece of writing or an utterance is the intention of its author. While many specifics of the argument and the exact proposition being argued changed over time, Beardsley mostly stuck to something like this skeleton throughout his life.*

The analogy is obvious. Hearing a person ask for a card doesn’t give you definitive proof about anything except that they have a card in that set and whether the askee has it, and so it’s a mistake to ascribe to the opponent particular reasons for having asked that particular card – and it’s even stupider to make inferences from the ascribing of the reason. But, as I’ve said, we do perform such mistaken reasoning and we bet on it being correct, and (even if I say so myself) we don’t come out of it looking like complete idiots.

Hell, if Beardsley and Wimsatt’s article were taken too seriously, it would have been a mistake for us to have shouted at my little cousin, even if he’d told our grandfather that there was a surprise party.

It’s fairly trivial for most of us not to extend the argument all the way to the third case. And, at least for me personally, it was somewhat harder to stop it before the second; I spent years worrying that any statement that was even slightly suspect was reverse psychology but then it could also be reverse reverse psychology and but then why not add any arbitrary numbers of reverses to it and… HOW DO I STOP MY CLASSMATES FROM PLAYING PRANKS ON ME? It is a lot harder, I think, to explicitly prohibit it from the first case – especially since it does apply there.

I mean, obviously right? Well, the generally insightfful Film Crit Hulk has a few choice words for you:

YOU MAY NOTE THAT WHAT ALL THESE ABOVE ASSUMPTIONS SEEM TO LACK IS THE CRUCIAL UNDERSTANDING THAT A WRITER / DIRECTOR IS MAKING ALL THESE THINGS HAPPEN ON SCREEN. YES, THE WORLDS OF FICTION VERY MUCH HAVE GODS ORCHESTRATING EVERY LITTLE BIT OF DETAIL. WHICH MEANS THAT THERE ARE VERY CLEAR INTENTS TO ANY AUTHORIAL NARRATIVE, FOR THEY ARE ALWAYS TRYING TO CONVEY TO YOU SOME KIND OF MEANING ABOUT HUMAN BEHAVIOR, MEANING, AND IMPORT. THIS ISN’T SOME HIGH-MINDED TAKE ON IT EITHER. THAT’S WHAT ART IS. IT DIRECTLY CONTRIBUTES TO OUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE UNIVERSE. AND WHETHER THE ART IS MEANT TO POIGNANT, ENTERTAINING, ESOTERIC, OR OUTRIGHT INDULGENT, THERE ARE STILL VERY CLEAR STATEMENTS BEING MADE ABOUT “HOW LIFE WORKS,” WHETHER THE AUTHOR MEANS THEM OR NOT. AND THUS, IT’S THE AUTHOR’S RESPONSIBILITY TO CONTEXTUALIZE THAT MEANING. AND NO, THAT DOESN’T MEAN AN AUTHOR HAS TO EXPLAIN THEMSELVES. AND YES, THAT MEANS THE AUTHOR HAS THE RIGHT TO DO IT BADLY. AND NO, THAT DOESN’T MEAN PEOPLE CAN’T TOTALLY MISINTERPRET THAT ART (WITH THE MOST FREQUENT BEING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DEPICTION AND ENDORSEMENT). THAT MAY SOUND LIKE A LOT OF LEVELS, BUT WE UNDERSTAND THIS PRETTY CLEARLY. IT’S HOW AND WHY WE’VE BEEN TELLING STORIES SINCE THAT AESOP GUY GOT HIS FABLE ON.

Okay, let’s stop again, and contemplate what happens if we outlaw the idea of intention when talking about art. The first thing that happens is that thematic analysis becomes boring; while we can say ‘this movie dealt with these themes,’ we cannot say ‘this movie took this stand on that problem.’ The second thing that happens is, we either lose all concept of quality or end up in an unreasonably narrow one, depending on what you replace aesthetic unity with.

Now, modus ponens or modus tollens? I could go on about this for a thousand or so words and still not reach a definite conclusion. Roughly I’d say I prefer modus tollens, because a lot more things make a lot more sense that way. But there’s no reason to get into that, because I have a much more convincing argument that clarifies the issue and what I believe is one word being used for two different but related things.

See, why did my grandfather figure out there was a party? In short, to some approximation, he asked himself why his grandson would even bother telling him there was no party if there was in fact none.

Similarly, how do we figure out things in literature the card game? We ask ourselves why the asker is asking for that particular card. Some answers just make a lot more sense and explain more facts about the asker’s behaviour, and so we take them to be the ‘correct’ answers.

And if my cousin or the card-asker told me that his intention was something else, I wouldn’t care (unless they suppplemented with some extra information previously unknown). My answer is still better, because it explains more things (unless the extra information shifts the balance). As you can see, I hope, there are two things here hiding under the word ‘intention.’ There’s the intention, and there’s the answer to the question “why this, then?”

This generalises to all interactions; when we say we’ve come to know a person, we mean that from zir behaviour we’ve abstracted out a model of why ze does things, and that model is reasonably accurate and detailed. The reason we identify the model in our heads with the person in question is that we are aiming to make the model mimic the person, and the reason we can identify them is that our models actually do output the right behaviour some reasonable fraction of the time for situations not too far from normality.

Now, the solution to the whole issue of intention should be easy to state. As a reviewer, it is interesting to me to make a model of what the piece of art wants to communicate in my head; then, I just talk about why the model is outputting such things, except I phrase it in terms like ‘the movie wants to do this and that’ because it’s less effort and I assume everyone elses accepts this phrasing. The director/writer/artist is but a convenient anchor for this model, since we are much more comfortable ascribing intention to a person than to an inanimate object.

And this also makes clear the extent to which the intentional fallacy is a fallacy: you can’t cite an author to prove that someone’s reading is wrong, unless you’re willing to either ship paintings with artists attached to make sure that inferred intention doesn’t diverge from authorial intention or decide that communication doesn’t really ever happen.

*It seems traditional to associate Beardsley rather than Wimsatt to the idea, and I’ll follow that here.
Secondly, it seems worth noting that, despite the fact that I’m going to make a whole bunch of statements, I’m not necessarily contradicting Beardsley; in fact, the only thing I definitely know about how far he intended his arguments to go is that it changed over time as various people replied to him with various degrees of convincingness.

Posted in Philosophical Ruminations | Leave a Comment »

I am Naari, Hear me Roar

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 10, 2015

Earlier published at The Scene, Mad About Moviez and Former People.

If you listen closely, it's a meow.

If you listen closely, it’s a meow.

“[Mrs Ramsay] had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential; which an old woman could take from a young man without loss of dignity, and woe betide the girl – pray Heaven it was none of her daughters! – who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones.”
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

The first time I remember meeting Mrs Ramsay was, in a sense, at least a year and a half before I read even my first Woolf novel, Mrs Dalloway, when I read Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. And I’ll be honest: it baffled me when I first read it.

The Wikipedia summary of act one of the play is

The play opens at Christmas time as Nora, Torvald’s wife, enters into her home, “thoroughly loving her life and surroundings (Ibsen, 1871, p. 590).” An old-time friend of hers, Mrs. Linde, arrives to her home seeking employment. At the same time, Torvald “has just received news of his most recent job promotion (Ibsen, 1871, p 590).” When Nora learns of her husband’s promotion she instantly and excitedly hires Mrs. Linde. In the meantime, Nora, who is playing the ordinary housewife, is unhappy with her husband and becomes very distraught with him. While conversing, “Mrs. Linde complains about her most difficult past, and Nora mentions that she has had a life in resemblance to Mrs. Linde’s (Ibsen, 1871, 590).”(Emphasis added.)

But before we get to Nora, we should acquaint ourselves with Mrs Bennet. I read Pride and Prejudice a while after Mrs Dalloway, but nevertheless she forms an important precursor to both Nora and Clarissa. One thing Austen is not famous for but is an important element in the book is her judgmentalness towards characters she doesn’t approve of. Probably the character who gets the most flak from her is Mrs Bennet, a tactless housewife whose only aim in life is to get her five daughters married as quickly as possible. Not having read any other books by Austen, I can’t say how common it is, but I’m willing to bet that her acerbic criticism of Mrs Bennet’s narrowness is not a moment of whimsy. Any feminist worth zir salt will tell you exactly why this is a horrible thing to do. Melissa McEwan, in an article about allegations often made against feminists of ‘man-hating,’ wrote,

“There are the stereotypes—oh, the abundant stereotypes!—about women, not me, of course, but other women, those women with their bad driving and their relentless shopping habits and their PMS and their disgusting vanity and their inability to stop talking and their disinterest in Important Things and their trying to trap men and their getting pregnant on purpose and their false rape accusations and their being bitches sluts whores cunts… And I am expected to nod in agreement, and I am nudged and admonished to agree. I am expected to say these things are not true of me, but are true of women (am I seceding from the union?)”

While this is an illustrative quote, it doesn’t really explain the situation: it boils down to the fact that hating people for doing what they are socially conditioned to do is just another aspect of subjugation – freedom involves the freedom to act in socially acceptable ways too (there are much deeper issues here, to do with the criticism of not being aware of the world beyond one’s own nose but there are arguments against that being phrased against women and the associated domestic and cosmetic concerns but not men and the associated concerns about cars and sports and business and being aware of the world beyond one’s own nose in extremely kyriarchial terms etc – it’s a part of what’s encoded in the word ‘femmephobia’ which means hatred of the womanly).

Nora, like Mrs Bennet, starts off the play as an extremely ‘shallow’ (the deep/shallow dichotomy needs to be tackled in a separate piece altogether – but it’s probably not too hard to appreciate the fact that I hate it) woman, living entirely in the sphere of her social life, her relationship with her husband and her housewifely duties; she’s basically a doll, in her doll’s house. The play is about how she breaks out of the doll’s house in her head and then walks out of the doll’s house owned by her husband.

And, despite such a seemingly clear arc, it baffled me till I was reading a collected edition of some of Harold Pinter’s plays. At least two of them (The Birthday Party and The Room) had a housewife figure who, when faced with her domestic idyll giving way to gaping chasms in her path, tried to make it right by pretending nothing was off and trying to convince everyone, through entirely friendly social persuasion, that everything was all right and they should stop acting so fucking messy. Now, this made sense to me: it was a classic story of the abyss staring at someone and that person closing her eyes and trying to jump over it – it’s one of the most fascinating arcs I’ve ever encountered.

What defines all these women –and countless similar characters, including our very own Charulata and every Bollywood mom ever – is a certain brittleness of character. They’ve been trained all their lives to be the emotional and spiritual backbone of their families, the susheel naari, and they’ll do that no matter what, damn those men and their annoying egos. Tropes like a mother desperately searching for her child or acting as an intermediary between a feuding father and offspring sound like clichés even though I for the life of me can’t come up with examples.

Now, the fact that this is how women are often portrayed speaks directly of the prevalence of oppression and is therefore not a good thing (but, to be clear, it is not in itself evidence, though it is part of a larger class of things that is at least motivation for plausibility). However, the other fact is that in most Bollywood movies the moms are not the central characters, and that is a manifestation of misogyny (and other things) too; what is a good thing is that there is a subgenre of narrative art, and often created by men, which tries to use these tropes to at the same time point out the effects of oppression and provide sympathetic portrayals of the women – that is nice.

But, you know, everything I’ve spoken about was created by men; to really take these tendencies as far as they need to go needs women (well, I don’t see any reason it should in principle but in practice women are the only people I’ve seen go the distance on this – this may of course have something to do with the fact that they have probably at times had to actually consider the possibility of being Charulatas).

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is the story of, and from the point of view of, a woman whose intellectual freedom and her awareness of the oppressiveness of the thinking-is-bad-for-women world around her can’t coexist; it causes a fragmentation of her experience (I ought to warn you that that’s just my favourite way of phrasing it), which boils down to her describing herself tearing down the not-too-subtle-symbol-for-oppression wallpaper in the third person.

Clarissa Dalloway is a woman who long ago chose a stodgy, conventional man over an adventurous intellectually open and respectful free spirit whom she loved. One of the best things Mrs Dalloway does is make a deep case to us that that may not have been the right choice but it definitely was a right choice. Yes, she isn’t respected for her not inconsiderable intellectual capabilities, but she chose a certain sort of emotional stability over that, and it’s not as if her intellectual life is dead: beneath her veneer of the party hostess is the woman, the one who carefully picks her guests for a very specific purpose:

“But why should she invite all the dull women in London to her parties?”

“But to go deeper, beneath what people said (and these judgements, how superficial, how fragmentary they are!) in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?”

“And yet for her own part, it was too much of an effort. She was not enjoying it. It was too much like being — just anybody, standing there; anybody could do it; yet this anybody she did a little admire, couldn’t help feeling that she had, anyhow, made this happen, that it marked a stage, this post that she felt herself to have become, for oddly enough she had quite forgotten what she looked like, but felt herself a stake driven in at the top of her stairs. Every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself, and that every one was unreal in one way; much more real in another. It was, she thought, partly their clothes, partly being taken out of their ordinary ways, partly the background; it was possible to say things you couldn’t say anyhow else, things that needed an effort; possible to go much deeper. But not for her; not yet anyhow.”

But, let’s cross 1950 already. What’s the situation like after the feminist movement got a hold? Obviously, the domestic woman is still a prevalent character, as is her brittleness, from The Godfather’s women to Carmela Soprano, from every Bollywood mom ever to the crazy punisher of Ek Hasina Thi, from the bar dancer who doesn’t want her sister to marry a prominent thief to – as a friend entertainingly called the anti-heroine in Maqbool – Lady Maqbool. And, as I’ll explain, the quality of portrayal is not significantly better.

Dibakar Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar’s Shanghai features a cascading set of women who are prompted into action by the deeds and misdeeds of the men in their lives; at its centre is an ultra-rich half-white woman who only pays lip service to the cause of the poor people around her till her boyfriend/teacher is murdered and then goes on an investigation spree for justice (which also solves the problems of the aforementioned poor people), even after finding out that sleeping with his students is a common behaviour for the man.

Or, for a less conflicting example, let’s turn to the well of American TV series. Specifically, Cougar Town, created by Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel. It’s a ‘hangout comedy’ (or whatever they’re calling it nowadays) about a group at whose centre is the intensely motherly Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox); she got pregnant at sixteen and the father couldn’t provide so she raised her kid on her own and now (eighteen years later) she’s a well-off real estate agent. And, you know what, she is usually a fluffy ignorant irascible woman but she commands respect like few other characters I’ve ever seen; ‘hear me roar’ is actually a line she might say when she gets worked up, and she will be taken seriously. And then there’s even more: she’s a depressive. There are whole episodes about her unstoppable downward spiral, and they often contain some of the show’s greatest moments. But it’s as if there’s an on/off switch. Certain episodes will be about her internal life and certain episodes will focus on her exclusively as an anchor for social dynamics; it could have been a great show if the writers had been able to handle these elements with the consistency and respect with which they handle all the others.

“Because my daughter needs me.”

On the other hand, there’s Gilmore Girls, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino (and her husband Daniel Palladino is a non-trivial creative force too). It’s also about a woman, Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) who gets pregnant at sixteen, finds the father inadequate, and begins her own life. The series begins sixteen years after that, and at its centre resides the relationship between Lorelai, her daughter Lorelai urf Rory (Alexis Bledel) and her mother Emily (Kelly Bishop). And it features a massively inclusive world – every side character gets a fully-fledged personality, so much so that the other relationships are almost as important as the central ones.

And at the centre of this network of relationships? Lorelai. Not only is she dangerously close to being defined solely by her relationships, she speaks in an unending stream that makes it easy not to take her seriously. Further, we are introduced to her at the cosiest, happiest period in her life, after she’s finished her rise from maid with baby on back to manager of the inn, when she is free to just sit back and have fun with her daughter (whom she’s really close to).

It could have been very easy to go through this show considering her an unbelievably fun and lovely person, but not necessarily someone to respect and look up to, had it been written by the team of Cougar Town. But it’s not, and so it’s not.

An epicentre for these considerations is the thirteenth episode of the third season, “Dear Emily and Richard,” in which Rory gets stuck alone at the birth of her half-sister and simultaneously we get to see the events surrounding Rory’s birth, though they are already well fleshed-out in conversation. And this episode honestly alters your perception of Lorelai. It’s not as if I didn’t respect her before, but this is an episode where we get to really see the hard, strong core that allowed her to go from a super-rich family to maid to manager. We see how she heard the father’s resigned agreement to marrying her and told him to go away, and ran away from her suffocating home, and how for her her loyalty to her daughter is everything; she may have been a person with a bright future at some point in her life, but now her life is defined by her daughter and her daughter above all else, and that’s neither ‘okay’ nor ‘not okay’ but just is.

We can narrativise all these similarities and the attendant differences in many ways, but that would be an exercise bordering on facility; it’s too easy to impose a conventionally feminist understanding of reclamation of women’s identities and stories but not give any reason other than ‘my narrativisation, based on the examples that I picked explicitly to support it, makes intuitive sense and is therefore right.’ But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a well-established trend, or at least a strain; and it certainly doesn’t change the inherent value of the characters and pieces of art.

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A New Source of Horror

Posted by Ronak M Soni on August 16, 2011

(Horror is so odd. Not terror, which is what you feel when a bus is rushing down on you or when you are confronted with a phobia of yours, but the deep, vertiginous horror that you feel in the pit of your stomach.

Reading H P Lovecraft a couple of months back and thinking about why exactly we feel such a thing, and why everyone understands what you mean when you talk of this feeling, has taken my thinking into various knots whose existence have fairly changed the way I look at the human intellect and led me to explore deeper the connection between intellect and the body. That’s what I should be writing about rather than this, which a weird fiction aficionado characterises as angst rather than true “cosmic horror,” but I’m too lazy and the subject gets me too confused. Hopefully I can come up with a post about it sometime in the next year or so, but there’s a good chance I won’t be able to.)

The greatest horror is not in the existence of ghosts or murderous trans-human species with tentacles (both of which I feel fill the same role for horror as God does for existential comfort, the idea that something predicated on the same vicissitudes as day-to-day life is worthy of greater emotion than it simply because it is not our everyday life) but in the passing of time itself — the inexorable, half-noticed way in which time jumps scales — coupled with the need to be productive, the constant asking of oneself, “where have I got?”

There are over thirty days in a month, yet a month consists of but four weeks and a week, but of seven days. It is in this ripple-like effect of wasting even one hour of your life wherein lies the horror.

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A Meta-Philosophy of Life

Posted by Ronak M Soni on May 5, 2010

I was surprised when I learnt that philosophy was Greek for love of knowledge; I’d always thought that love came as -philia and philo- was language. But that was subsidiary, I don’t know Latin and I’ve been under no illusions whatsoever about the fact as far back as I can remember, what really surprised me was that it made so much more sense the other way: ‘language of knowledge’.

Isn’t in fact ‘language of knowledge’ a better definition of philosophy as a field than ‘love of knowledge’? The latter is how I’d describe the major attribute of professional quizzers rather than the people who go about trying to understand why we live our lives the way we do, and how we should change that.

‘People who go about trying to understand why we live our lives the way we do’ might sound like a very restrictive definition of what philosophers do, but I’d disagree: I say that the objector’s definition of the word ‘life’ is too restrictive.

As can be read in the right column of this blog, I am at present reading the London University’s undergraduate text book of philosophy (which describes philosophy as the set of all pursuits of knowledge not deep enough to be their own fields). According to it, philosophy, the field, has four major branches, and virtually anything can be said to belong to one or more of these branches. The branches, in order of discussion in the book, are epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics.

Epistemology is how we argue, metaphysics is how we look at the world, ethics is how we relate to other beings, and aesthetics is how we achieve beauty; philosophy, in other words, is the study of how a well-rounded person lives his life.

But the reason I’m writing this essay is not a desire to brief my readers about what philosophy is. They all understand that; they just wouldn’t put it into the same words that I just did, and in some cases their descriptions will actually be significantly clearer and more definitive than mine.

What I want them to see, however, is not ‘so this is what philosophy is’ but that we are talking about the same thing but describing it differently. In fact, why go for something as complex as philosophy? Describe the shape of your elbow when your arm is bent. “Tapering convexly.” Of course, someone who can write half-decent prose will think up a much better description, but what you’ll realise is that us describing the things around us – assuming that we are seeing the same things for the same words, which itself is an assumption worth examining – is reminiscent of the story of the blind men and the elephant.

Three blind men are told to describe an elephant that they will get to feel about. One touches the trunk and says that the elephant is like a pillar, one touches the tail and says it’s like a floating broom, and one touches the stomach and says it’s like a rock (or something of the sort, I remember six blind men and more plausible comparisons). What I was describing last paragraph is, in fact, even more extreme; it’s as if all three are feeling the stomach and describing it as a rock, a deserted island and a whale.

But, you’ll be thinking, this is so obvious! Therein, dear sirs, lies the catch. When I was in my eleventh, I read an essay by Aldous Huxley in which he claimed that the best essays said things that you already knew. As you can understand, I was completely baffled, and more or less dismissed it, until I realised this, what I’m trying to say here.

Now, I will stop. It is time to step outside the flow for a moment and state clearly what I’m trying to say here. The problem is, it can’t be said, not really, it can only be really led to, because what I’m trying to say here is exactly that what you say is not what you mean, that you can wander around trying to say meaningful things, but even people who agree with you will disagree with you; what I’m trying to say is that the only meaningful way to make a point is to lead the reader to it.

I realise I’m not making all that much sense here, so let me help you by telling you that this is what art is all about. Recently, I was very strongly mesmerised by the movie Chinatown, but every time I tried to write about it I made its morality sound so simplistic that I began to doubt that I liked it for anything more than how well it was made. Jim Emerson, a critic I respect more than almost every other I’ve read, lists Chinatown as his favourite movie of all time, but has never written about it.

Chinatown: Frames & Lenses, Doors & Windows from Jim Emerson on Vimeo.

Also, take Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, one of the best books I’ve read in a while. I wrote a little piece on it, and followed it up with this:

This little runt of an essay is, I believe, the centrepiece of my method of understanding this book (revealing the understanding itself, in my opinion, would be spoiling the goods).I began planning to portray this beautiful and poignant novella, how it went from an extended whine to parody during its course, how I love Eliot (quoted at title) because he sounds good but Dostoevsky because he goes so deep into what life is, but soon found that my writing skills weren’t up to the job (it’s certainly a pity that writing has become, for me, the major channel for catharsis). To be honest, even Dostoevsky’s weren’t; didn’t this book, after all, begin as a negative review, a negative review supposedly of a book but actually of a genre, a genre that was basically a mindset? If Dostoevsky needs a hundred pages, how can I be expected to do it in a few hundred words?

That’s not the only time I’ve done it. My essay about the movie Lola Rennt, for example, is full of me dodging having to do any real description.

Why? Because, as J. M. Coetzee (one of my favourite writers) says:

If there were a better, clearer, shorter way of saying what the fiction says, then why not scrap the fiction?

I hope that, amid all the above obscurantism, something emerges for every reader, something at least slightly akin to what I was trying to convey, something akin to what even Huxley was trying to convey.

My title for this piece refers to a “meta-philosophy” of life. The word ‘meta-philosophy’ means nothing but a philosophy (the countable noun as opposed to the uncountable one which refers to the field) of how to deal with our philosophies.

My meta-philosophy, as you’ve probably guessed, takes into account what I’ve tried to lead you to. What my meta-philosophy basically does is warn against taking what you say you believe too seriously. My meta-philosophy is: Do not live by your philosophies; let your philosophies live by you.

PS: Going by my own meta-philosophy, I’m leaving this article unedited, except for basic grammar and phrasing.

PPS: Alternate definitions of philosophy, as well as dissections of mine, are welcome and encouraged.

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A Philosophy of Mutability (or) what was supposed to be a love poem

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 31, 2009

Illustration is probably science and religion with the wall being philosophies.

I'm not completely sure why I think this fits here. Not a collage, I swear.

The world is full to the brim with religions and philosophies. Religions are based on faith. Philosophies are, going on what I have observed, based on perspective. Religions are based on belief in a (technically) immutable God. Philosophies are based on belief in a mutable enough perspective. Philosophies, it can be argued, are better for that very reason: mutability is certainly better than non-mutability (please accept this for now; I’ll come to the justification later). Going down that road, it would seem that the more mutable a philosophy is, the more points it would have by default. Actually, the closer mutability is to the heart of a philosophy, the more points it would have by default. Now, imagine a philosophy based entirely, and exclusively, on (its own) mutability. It would be the best possible thing, except for the fact that we need something concrete to work from. So, we’d need a philosophy that, in spite of being based on mutability, provided us with a concrete basis. Now, suppose the principle behind mutability, for we would need something to guide the mutation, itself provided the means for choosing that concrete basis.

In real life, we have natural selection, a mechanism based on a similar process of guided mutation. Is it a co-incidence that long before we had discovered natural selection, we had discovered its intellectual equivalent? (Not really answerable; just a cool parallel.) In fact, is it a co-incidence that natural selection itself was discovered using, and has maintained respectability due to, this very philosophy?

Yes, dear reader, I am talking about the scientific method. It is a method which starts at the basis that everything is a hypothesis, and we have to search for the truth. It is the first system of thought in history that has started from a method for looking for the truth rather than a statement, or at least tentative idea, of the truth; it has replaced knowledge by the search for knowledge, much like the progress of narrative art from the Greek morality plays to the “art for art’s sake” post-modernists. Most people will tell you that science does make the assumption that our senses are right. Let me tell you: science makes many, many more assumptions. It’s just that they are not central to it.

The idea here is what is known as ‘Ockham’s razor’ or ‘Occam’s razor’. Suppose you arranged every hypothesis in the world such that the more assumptions it made, the farther right it would be. Let’s call this the ‘idea line’. Now you start from the left, and say put a razor in as far left as possible. If whatever came out on the left turned out to be useful or not wrong, we would use it. If it didn’t, we would move one space right. This razor that we are shoving is what is known as Ockham’s razor. If you think about it, it’s a logical step away from the premise I have not quite stated, given the need for something concrete to perform our search with.

So, here’s the beauty of the idea line: none of the hypotheses on it are making any pretensions at truth. They are merely making attempts to get at the truth: science’s basic claim is not truth, but the best way to get there.

How come? What if something to the far right of Ockham’s razor is true? Science’s best answer is a question: how can we ever know if it is true? To which, it gets the question how do we have a better idea of the left hypothesis’ trueness than the right one’s?

Science, of course, must answer this question. Its answer speaks in terms of probability, or – as many would have it – a different version of probability called truthlikeness. I won’t go into the difference, as I am not outlining the various standpoints in science. What it says is, in essence, this: for a hypothesis further left, a statement stating it is true has a greater likelihood, according to our knowledge, of being true (for any estimation of probability is an approximation based on knowledge). That’s it. From what we know, we can’t justify either God or relativity. It’s just that we can come closer to justifying relativity. This is also why mutability is good: if it can be seen that the doctrine is wrong, it should be open to change. The basis for mutability is the ability to disprove anything that is said, and that – that any concrete claim that is made must be refutable – is the best statement, that I know of, of the premise of the scientific method.

Now – and here’s the crunch –, how do we translate this to action? If we don’t know what’s true, how do we manipulate the world based on what little knowledge we have? There is one response to this: the experimental sciences, a branch of science that only experiments. There is also another, not mutually exclusive with the first, response: approximations. Where these work, they work, like in technology, due to which I am now writing this and you reading it.

And, where they don’t, they don’t. Like in medicine. Much of modern medicine can be considered to be quackery, full of doctors making approximations based on statistics. Many of these statistics are in question, as are many of the approximations: many of Somalia’s children may be getting a vaccine proven to work on eighty percent of Americans, and dying because of the mild version of the disease they are getting.

There is also one case where the scientific method is well nigh useless: outliers, a specific kind of them. Remember that story you heard about the blind woman who could narrate a scene which is supposedly recorded by a trustworthy doctor? How do we know whether that is a figment of someone’s or many people’s imagination, or true but unbelievably infrequent? Most of this stuff is what is known as ‘anecdotal’. This means that it has reached from source to other places without meticulous and rigorous examination at the source, so we really have no idea. Now, suppose many, many independent witnesses, at least a few among whom are experts who have thoroughly cross-examined the situation, corroborate an observation, and it is stunningly improbable, like the Statue of Liberty waving at us and going back to its original position, how do we study it? The answer is that we simply can’t. All studying has to be of the evidence for the event actually having happened, in which case no theory can be verified/disproved, for the simple reason that none of its predictions can. And I can make this point without even referring to the human tendency of hyperbole.

There is another thing, not quite a problem with it but an issue surrounding it, about science: fair discussion. It’s very hard to achieve this. It’s a natural human tendency to employ a more effective means of convincing: show me a man who has never used bad logic to his advantage and I’ll show you an alien (see what I mean? If no, look at what that sentence means). Very often, even when your reasons are good enough, they sound weak, which leads you to hyperbole. There are many lines of argument one can, in a large discussion group, demolish in one sentence, but speak it, and the line of argument is going to go on; that measly sentence just doesn’t take up enough space in your audience’s minds, minds where point after point, argument after argument, thread after thread, are fighting to take up space. In such an environment, what chance does one(1) measly, even if incredibly deep – especially if incredibly deep –, sentence have?

This is just what happens in the case of helplessness. There is another, more natural, tendency to bad logic: that of conviction. I’ve already talked about the difficulty of translating this method to action. For this very reason, many have learnt that it’s better to stick to your guns than listen to someone who’s telling you you’re going to die if you do, possibly. It’s as simple as that. The second guy doesn’t make the good leader, the first guy does.

Also, if you notice, the doctrine that would better fit the first guy is religion, which is why all through history it hasn’t been a conquest of people without science by people out to teach them science but a conquest of people without the invader’s religion by people out to teach it to them. It is the great failure of these conquests that a majority of those invaded in the modern times have learnt science rather than Christianity.

This is also the ultimate demonstration of the power of science. Yes, it has its problems, but it is also the best thing we have, and this is the only way I can possibly end this, something that was supposed to be a love poem to the greatest doctrine of truth – nay, the search for truth – in all of human history.

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The Problem of Change

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 3, 2009

We all say, pretty often, that a person has ‘changed’. But what does that mean? If the person has changed, isn’t he a different person now? If he is still the same person, how can it be that he has changed ? What, basically, do we mean by the word ‘changed’? (This is an easily solved problem, but worth stumbling upon anyway: some essential properties stay the same and some peripheral ones change.) What, also, do we mean by ‘this person’? Is a person simply the sum total of his actions and thoughts, or can his essence be somehow distilled out? In other words, what do we mean by ‘knowing a person’? Does it mean that, given a situation, we can predict what the other person will do? Obviously not. People are too complex for that to be possible. But what does the word ‘complex’ mean here? What, exactly, in a person is so complex that we can never really predict his actions, except in the most mundane of cases? Read the rest of this entry »

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