Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Problem With Prefaces

Philosophy has a problem with prefaces, or rather quite a few problems. Hegel argued in the preface to his first major work, that prefaces in philosophy invariably violate the spirit of the work as a whole. The point of the piece is the way one makes the case, and the side comments at the beginning about the author’s aims, or the main drift of the content to come, these can only get in the way.

Heidegger has a different worry. Our interpretation of the meaning of a piece is based on our fore-understanding of the ideas presented in it, but as we come to understand the point of the author we re-understand the meaning of each of the author’s ideas. This looks like circular reasoning, and it is, a “hermeneutical circle” which exists in the very heart of the human way of understanding things. We understand each idea or thing we encounter based on the ideas and things we already understand. Circles are just how humans think. But this means that there is nowhere to start, no first thing to understand, no possibility for preface. You must understand each aspect of a system of thought in order to understand any aspect of a system of thought. By the time any philosopher worth a damn is ready to say anything of any importance, they want to say many, many things at once, and can find no best place to start.

Analytic philosophy has another worry, noticed first by Australian logician David Makinson. Authors often say something in the preface to the effect of “doubtlessly there must be some errors in my book somewhere.” And they have good grounds to - most books of any importance have errors. Yet the author believes each of the claims in the book, while also believing that not all of the claims of the book are true. How is this possible? How is it rational? It looks like it requires the author to believe a contradiction, that each of their claims individually is true, but that not all of them are true at once. Yet, even on reflection it seems that we want to believe both, to assert that yes I think I am right about each individual case, but I think I am probable not right about each and every case.

You see a preface requires putting together the whole of what is to follow into a simpler and shorter form than what is to follow. And yet if you could do that you would have said it all more briefly in the first place. So almost by definition a preface is always a lie; it always makes things short, by getting things wrong. The whole and the preface are always in tension.

Writing a preface is about synthesizing the material, and synthesis is hard. Writing a good summary requires distilling the essence of a lot of careful and detailed thought and writing, and summarizing oneself requires being better than you already are at exactly what you are already trying to do.

And yet the fields of literature and wisdom abound with examples of people trying to distill an important point down to the tersest summary possible. We have whole genres of epigram, aphorism, proverb and haiku. The great poet Catullus summarizes his own terribly complex feelings for his beloved in 2 lines

I love and I hate. Perhaps you’re asking why I do it.
I don’t know. But I feel it so, and I am tortured.

And so a summary, like most literature, is always both a lie and a truth. My own (terribly long) dissertation, involves among many other things a genre of Buddhist writings called “perfection of wisdom” literature (prajnaparamitas). There was one in 8000 lines (the one I studied), and later expansions to 18,000 lines, 25,000 lines, and even to 100,000 lines, but then people started writing summaries. The perfection of wisdom in 300 lines is called the Diamond Sutra, and is quite popular. Even more popular is the Heart Sutra, a prajnaparamita only 28 lines long. But those wiley Buddhists even developed the most heroic of all summaries I am aware of, “The Perfection of Wisdom in a Single Syllable.” That’s right, they believed that they had summarized their wisdom and teaching to a single syllable. It was “a-“. In Sanskrit, as well as English, this is the generic negation prefix, as in a-theist, or a-symmetric or a-historical. This summary too, is both a lie and a truth.

What a preface is really trying to do is to summarize a book down to a page or even a paragraph. To summarize a blog that with luck will go on for months and years and be filled with interesting ideas, profound insights and wonderful prose (ok I’ll settle for vaguely amusing prose), into a single prefatory blog entry.

Try heroic summary sometime. Summarize everything of value you have learned into a single page, a single paragraph or a single aphorism. It isn’t impossible, but it is hard, and it is a lie and a truth. It is also valuable. It forces us to return to essentials, to seek the meaning behind the chatter. So this post is pretty much what you will get on my blog: ruminations, sidetracks, academic trivia, and a genuine attempt to get past all that to the things that really matter.

Once in the past I summarized my understanding, with the whole numbers, 0, 1, 2, 3, … But that point was pretty obscure. Maybe I’ll try to explain it, someday. Instead I’ll try putting it into the classic aphorism couplet.

Wisdom helps one flourish, avoid problems, and cope.
We’re fools, but for wisdom like that we can still hope.

Other have talked about flourishing and avoiding problems, but I don’t think enough has been said on the philosophy of coping, and I think that a lot of the philosophical points I have tried to make over the years on ethics and epistemology and logic, can be understood in terms of coping. And the way I read the news, and the signs of the times, and the blogs of smart people, we are going to have to do a lot of coping over the next few years.

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