Archive for February, 2009

One of my recent posts to another discussion board–my apologies for the lack of context, but it is hopefully interesting enough despite it’s contextual isolation:


Everyone should look like this when they try to persuade people.

Everyone should look like this when they try to persuade people.




“I think your remarks and observations are very interesting, and especially for me, the questions about truth.  Your distinction between truth and persuasion is well-taken; judges and juries are, in theory, supposed to sift through many different stories and testimony to try to arrive at what happened.  I like the way you put it, though—you said that “In this sense, the decision making process in the court room is not about what is legal and what is illegal, but about what sounds more true to juries and judges.”  I think that our language shows the way we frame the issue:  that people and witnesses may come and tell stories and even tell what they remember of the event, but a judge is asked to weigh these, along with the nature of people and use both reason and common sense to determine which testimony or claim is closest to the truth.  We would not speak of it thusly if somewhere, in our assumptions of the world, we did not have an understanding that there was actually something that happened, and that it happened in a certain way, and to know the way it actually happened is called knowing the truth about the event, and knowing it differently than it actually happened is called not knowing the truth.  There is a measuring rod that we assume is there, even if we cannot fully know the measuring rod—the Truth.  I believe that even if we cannot know the Truth fully, we can know it truly, meaning that we can know things that are true (Not that everything we think we know to be true actually is—we maybe in a state of mind that we call being wrong).  We cannot know the Truth in every case, nor can we know the Truth in all its fullness (how exactly did the car hit the pedestrian?  What were the motives and thoughts of the driver and the victim?  In what way did slight movements affect the outcome?)  but we can know the Truth to some degree.


What I firmly reject is the assertion that Truth does not exist.  I believe it does exist, and although it may not be able to be known fully, it can be known to some degree.  I believe that it is common belief and acceptance of this principle that not only allows people to implement and trust in legal systems, but also allows us to pursue justice in any degree or to get angry at injustice and take action.  I would, then, not use the term truth to describe what you did in the field of rhetoric; instead, I would use the same words Aristotle did—words like personal appeal, essential facts, conclusions, knowledge, etc. 


I also think that a common mode of (wrong) thinking that many people sometimes fall into (including myself) is that we may say that because, at first inspection, many different statements seem to conflict, then there must be relative truths.  While it is not my goal or intention to argue against this here, I am trying to point out that another option, that the circumstances that produced these statements and the statements themselves may possess greater nuance than we may be aware of.  I think that often people claim relative truth in a situation because it is much easier to simply accept this idea than it is to continue to investigate all the nuances of the situation, which may be more of a chore than we wish to manage.  I know that sometimes it’s more of one than I want to manage.”

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The other day my illustrious co-worker and office-mate David innocuously mentioned a website that he thought was funny.  Like any hard-working and conscientious employee, I immediately took a break from the extremely difficult work I was doing to indulge in a few moments of laughs.  Several hours later the time approached 5:00 pm and I silently cursed my procrastination and not-so-silently blamed my coworker for messing up my chi for the day.  I thought I would post some links to this website, called Cracked.com, so that I can drag other people down into my own non-productivity, thus making my own self-esteem rise and therefore make myself feel better and less guilty.

My favorite things about this website are the lists they post, but more than just the mere fact that they have hilarious lists and do a little research, their writing is hilarious.  Sometimes crude, sometimes intelligent, but always funny, this website is definitely one to bookmark in my humble opinion.  Below are links to my favorite lists.  

1) in honor of Valentine’s Day, check out 5 Reasons Being Single Sucks Even More Than You Thought.  

2) You must absolutely read this:  7 Items You Won’t Believe Are Actually Legal.


They would have listened to Milton if he walked in with this instead of the Swingline.

They would have listened to Milton if he walked in with this instead of the Swingline.



3) The 6 Most Insane Moral Panics in American History.  I haven’t actually read this one yet, but I’m looking forward to it, and how could you not be interested in something with this title?

4)  The 5 Most Ridiculous Lies Ever Published as Non-Fiction.  

5)  The worst offenders in the category of misogynistic TV ads.  Not an endorsement; but a collection with which to marvel at our own stupidity.  8 TV Ads That Hate Women. 

I also highly recommend one of the lists about really tough soldiers, but I wont’ link directly to it here.  It’s easy to find.  

I hope you laugh as much as I did.  I think my coworkers and students probably think I’m insane due to the fact that I laughed really loudly for about 2 straight hours.  I wonder what I would do if I heard someone belly-laughing in their office for a long time. At any rate, ye be warned!  consume at work only if you’re prepared to get nothing done for the rest of the day.  And if you’re sensitive to swearing, I’d suggest skipping this website.  Their posts, while flipping hilarious, aren’t known for especially flowery speech–you know–the kind Baptists or 7th Day Adventists use in church.

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This is a response that I wrote to a classmate’s post on my class discussion board, but I thought I’d post it here as well just to get the brain juice-a-flowin’!  We were discussing Descartes’ scientific writings, and were talking about a section he wrote on optics:


I appreciate your honesty about your struggle with Descartes.  I am amazed, like many others, at how closely his ideas are to modern ones.  I suppose that in some respects, we think that we’re making such great progress with ideas, but then we find that often the classic thinkers or even the ancients are already there ready to meet us, having gotten there before us long before. 


I really appreciate that you pointed out a part of the reading that I marked but did not write about in my own post.  You write, “[Descartes] continues by saying that any invention that enhances sight or increases the power of sight, is among the most useful of inventions.  The example he uses is the telescope as enhancing the ability of man to view the stars.”  This idea of Descartes’ is a good one on which to linger, because it has such significant ramifications in the way Descartes describes it.  He talks about an invention enhancing sight, and uses the telescope as an example.  Marshall McLuhan, writing in the 20th century, describes any medium as an extension of ourselves.  In his book The Medium is the Massage, he says that “The wheel is an extension of the foot…the book is an extension of the eye…clothing an extension of the skin.”  I can’t help but wonder what Descartes would say if he were to see all the things that extend our sight: telescopes, satellite cameras, camera phones, electron microscopes, surveillance cameras, books, blogs, discussion boards, and even computer programs like iPhoto, which now has face recognition tools in it. 


I would say that you’re exactly right about the fact that the vision of our world has changed over time.  Our vision has been expanded, not just to see the night sky, but it has been extended in different modalities.  If I could have lunch with Descartes I would ask him, in light of the enormity of the expansion of our sense of sight on multiple levels, what the implications are of his claim that the senses are deceptive, and (perhaps) especially sight.  

"The book is an extension of the eye"...What else is?

"The book is an extension of the eye"...What else is?

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Beware the image and the text.  Beware the text, for it can “make the weaker argument appear the stronger” (Plato’s Apology) through the enthymeme and the wily rhetoritician.  Beware also the image, because through repetition and the strength of the sense of vision, it can have a curious side effect to those who are not aware: it has the property of becoming the stronger idea in the mind while choking the weaker ideas until they become latent, just as a large tree will overwhelm the surrounding growth, covering it with its shade, until at last nothing else of strength grows under the canopy of its branches that will threaten it.


The most visceral examples of this phenomenon that I witness day to day is with my students, who watch movies and TV a lot and read a little, if at all.  Consequently, they do not know that the real battle of Stirling was fought on and around a bridge and was not led by someone resembling Mel Gibson in stature.  They do not know that Beowulf was an epic poem over a millennium before it was the film they watched.  They do not stop to realize that battles are fought without soundtracks, and are seldom glorious.  The little history or literature they read in their high school history class or English class (if they read it) is overwhelmed by the images they see and constantly fill their eyes with all the time.  This is not in itself a bad thing; rather it points to both the prominence of the image in our own society, or at least in the culture of the community in which I teach, and the fact that images can be accepted as valid ones simply through repetition.  They are children of fiction, and stories have become their world, but their understanding of stories does not have the transparency that might let in the contextualizing light of the rest of reality.  Their paradigm is opaque, and therefore for them is the only thing they know.  It is difficult, in this state, to make the distinction between fiction, history, narrative, politics, and anything else.  Everything blends into one thing and that thing loses its exhilaration because it is all they know.


This is why I want to teach freshman and sophomores in college.  I want to make a difference.  This is why I want a mead-hall. (nods to Marshall and Rich!)


The Form of mead-hall

The Form of mead-hall




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Gin carts and cognitive surplus

Several weeks ago, I read a short transcript of a speech given by Clay Shirky at the Web 2.0 conference (thanks, Marshall!).  I enjoyed the playful style and the clarity of the speech, but most importantly I heard of the idea of cognitive surplus for the first time. 


You can read the article for yourself here.


And if, after reading, you have anything to say about the article, against the article, or whatever, come back and let me know your thoughts by commenting on this blog.

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In a lecture in one of my classes on Monday, Professor Charles Young (Philosophy, Claremont Graduate University) paraphrased Plato’s opinion (in response to a question) that it takes theory to have art or systematic approach to a craft (techne), which is what we might call practice.  Another student raised the question of “how do we make our practice have the nobility that the Aristotelian practice seems to have?”  I’m guessing that behind this intriguing question is an observation that practice in the days of Aristotle possessed a purity and an objectivity that we wish to have in our own practice.  There is a feeling that if we could simply frame the question or have the right setting or the right arena for our discourse and our rhetoric, our techne/craft/practice would be able to enter a discussion more purely, without as much emotional baggage as it sometimes does today.  If we could simply adhere to a colder form of logic, then our techne would be of a higher sort than it is now. 

To those who hold this idea, even if it is buried under a mass of critical theory or thrown into the corner of our minds under the old deconstructionism we have lying about or the old magazines of postmodern theory stacked on top of one another, I have a few observations.


First, I find this idea in myself.  I not only wish, but at times, find myself believing it to be so that there is a purity of inquiry, a detachment of the researcher, that can be attained if one is careful enough, systematic enough, logical enough, and detached enough.  I wish it to be so because if it were, inquiry and practice would be a lot cleaner and a lot easier. 


The idea that there can be a purity or detachment of inquiry, some kind of pure and logical detachment is, I believe, a false myth.  It is a story that we tell ourselves to serve a social purpose, namely to allow us to retract into our own research problem and leave some of the meta-research questions unanswered.  This is not always a bad thing; sometimes it is necessary because of the scope of our research and we haven’t time to discuss it.


All of this is not new to any graduate student, but it is easy for me, when reading any ancient text, and especially Plato or Aristotle, to find myself indulging in the belief that these ancients, and all their contemporaries, were able to discover this purity of logic, this nobility of reason and discourse, and if we could only see it and all move together that we too, could be like them. 


Maybe this is so, but I wonder, also, if the nobility we think we see in the ancients is real or if it is a reflection of the human desire and search for transcendence—a search to come out of ourselves and be larger than what we are; a search for eternity or Divinity.

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