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Monthly Archives: February 2014

Snow is just passive-aggressive rain.

I’m still not sure what to think of this book. I really like Paine’s writing style, and I find him pleasingly sarcastic and sassy. However, I  have the some problem with this text that I have with most Enlightenment texts. Seinfeld syndrome. The ideas which were so radical at the time have proliferated and embedded themselves into everyday thought and discourse that when I read this, my reaction to most everything Paine says is “So what?”

I also find the text to be disappointingly uncritical. The majority of a text feels like a bit of a slap fight between Burke and Paine, and most of the text comes off as Paine just going “Nuh uh, cause this and this and this” with everything feeling a bit cursory. Quite often Paine will be laying something out and then saying “its time to move on to the next point.”

The book is littered with ad hominems of Edmund Burke and it prevents actual critical analysis, both of Burke’s argument (I would barely have any idea what Paine was talking about if I hadn’t had previous knowledge with the book, and my edition comes with both The Rights of Man and Reflections on the Revolution in France, so I was able to flip through both texts. My edition has terrible binding though). Josh gave this criticism of my last essay “you tend to focus too much on attacking Freud wherever you see fit, and it ends up eroding your argument instead of his. Try not to be frustrated with Freud himself, instead give solid criticism of his case study”, and I think that applies for Paine too. And because Paine is so focussed on defending and vindicating the French Revolution he does not adequately discuss why the Revolution was necessary or the principles it was predicated on (at least not so far, not finished, but even if he does get to it, he takes too long to do so). History has shown that the French Revolution was far from the perfect, principled moment Paine portrays it as (he was later imprisoned by The Terror, grand irony) and opportunity was lost for critical reflection both by Burke and Paine.

Interesting though is that I found some almost Foucaultian (proto-Foucaultian I suppose) themes in the work, when he discusses despotisms that reside on the institute of monarchy and “this species of despotism, proceeding on through an endless labyrinth of office till the source of it is scarcely perceptible, there is no mode of redress. It strengthens itself by assuming the appearance of duty, and tyrannizes under the pretense of obeying”. Proliferation of despotism through multiple institutions that manipulates our desires. Sounds like bio-power to me.

I’ll end it with a casual moment of anti-semitism from within the book (it was so blatant it made me yell out “Oh no” on the bus, completely involuntarily): “By the universal economy of nature it is known, and by the instance of the Jews it is proved, that the human species has a tendency to degenerate, in any small number of persons, when separated from the general stock of society, and intermarrying constantly with each other.”

You’re a gem, Thomas Paine.

Because I can’t come up with a good title, but also because this book (what little of it I’ve read, but ascertaining from what I’ve read of it) is sort of everything I’m coming to love about philosophy i.e. goofy mental wanking combined with methodological rigour to create something genuinely insightful. What’s interesting is that I find most of the conclusions he reaches, like “action is action under a description” to be those conclusions that seem painfully obvious in hindsight but is hard to come to. The way Hacking approaches his questions is actually kind of a joy to behold.

Also, I don’t rely buy Jung, but the things I’ve ended up studying in Arts One seem to be eerily synchronous with the things I’ve been thinking about. His exploration of the assumption that “memory is the key to the soul” (p. 20), and how we understand ourselves by the causal descriptions we apply to our past are pretty much the theme of a play I’ve been writing (which also makes me a little apprehensive to finish it because I’m always terrified of over-intellectualizing my creative writing).

An idea that raises dizzying, and honestly a little disturbing, possibilities is that of ‘semantic contagion’. That possibilities and causalities present themselves as we describe them is something that I feel most people intuitively grasp, but when it’s implications are laid out like that the far-reaching effects of it is stunning.

To just add one closing remark: I love the ambition of this book. The questions it tackles have implications beyond its field (philosophy of science) and the fact that it makes those really big mental wanky questions (what are our memories? why are our memories? how do I understand who I am?) into something coherent is something that amazes me.

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