The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by mwh » Sun Sep 22, 2019 1:52 am

Seneca, You say part of my earlier post was not the point you wanted to make. Well, why should it be? This is not a discussion with you alone.
(As to womb vs. vagina, obviously she’s thinking of having given birth to her husband/son (+sibs) rather than the incestuous sexual act itself that resulted in it. But they’re inseparable. I said vagina since that is properly a scabbard, where you sheathe a sword. To spell it out: she has first to sheathe his sword in her own “vagina,” just as he had originally done with his “sword,” if it is to reach her capacious uterus.)

I think we all understand what you are saying, but do you understand what I am saying? You say in my most recent post I make a good point (lumping me together with Barry), but you don’t seem to have grasped what it is. I wrote in response to your saying you had no idea how Homer’s point of view could be discovered. I was gently—too gently, evidently—suggesting how.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Sun Sep 22, 2019 11:37 am

mwh wrote:Seneca, You say part of my earlier post was not the point you wanted to make. Well, why should it be? This is not a discussion with you alone. ......

I think we all understand what you are saying, but do you understand what I am saying? You say in my most recent post I make a good point (lumping me together with Barry), but you don’t seem to have grasped what it is. I wrote in response to your saying you had no idea how Homer’s point of view could be discovered. I was gently—too gently, evidently—suggesting how.
Cicero would have been proud of your opening sentences.

The good point you made was about the state of texts. I ignored your "gentle" suggestion about "how Homer’s point of view could be discovered" because I don't think it adds up to anything. It's an interesting thought experiment but nothing more.

Michael Tippet when interviewed about the interpretation of his operas (he wrote both text and music) remarked that he was fascinated and hugely encouraged by the diversity of productions. The fact that performers had found new meanings in his work of which he was unaware was something he felt he could learn from. Of course some authors are highly controlling of the meaning of their work. Wagner's operas are full of instructions about how they are to be performed and "purists" get very upset when they are ignored. Yet even that megalomaniac said after the first ring cycle "next time we will do it completely differently".

"Authorial intentions" don't seem to me a very helpful way of interrogating the past.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Bart » Mon Sep 23, 2019 9:05 am

Seneca, I do appreciate you took the time to answer my questions. No doubt you make valid points about the assumptions we bring to a text and the necessary subjectivity of our interpretations. The view from nowhere, to put it with Thomas Nagel, is not accessible to us. However I see no reason why this uncertainty should drive us into the kind of epistemic despair and relativism you seem to entertain.

Truth statements can be made about the Iliad. It’s not because the criterion of truth to evaluate them is lacking, that all are equally valid. In mwh’s words, some interpretations are better than others. In fact, it’s precisely because such statements are possible that we can have real discussion and disagreement about a text. If all we bring to the party are our preferences and interests, it would fall flat very soon. De gustibus etcetera.

To take mwh’s example of the missing book 24: some guesses/ interpolations will be better than others. I would trust mwh’s over mine for example any day. And the absence of a criterion of truth doesn’t diminish this fact. Better still, the text might be recovered after all and our interpretations/ guesses compared to it.

Finally, you write:
I think real argument is possible because we live at the same time and I can understand and have sympathy with your point of view.
You leave the door open here to real understanding of and sympathy with the point of view of contemporaries, as a way out of pure subjectivism. But why not extend this to Homer? It’s much more difficult, sure, he’s of a different culture and age, we'll never be completely certain, and so and so on, but why should it a priori be impossible?

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Mon Sep 23, 2019 11:59 am

Bart I do not see any " kind of epistemic despair and relativism". Because I am reluctant to say as mwh does "that some interpretations are better than others" it does not mean that I value all interpretations equally.

My problem is with those who want to make absolute judgements along the lines that "this is what Homer meant" or "intended" and thereby privilege that interpretation. I remain committed to the rigorous analysis of texts and what people say about them. In that analysis we can argue with each other. As with the musical examples I gave in a previous post even if an author were to state their "intentions" we remain free to find other meanings which may or may not convince other readers.
If all we bring to the party are our preferences and interests, it would fall flat very soon. De gustibus etcetera.
It's my contention that we cannot do anything other than bring our preferences to the party. I don't think this makes things flat. Reading Homer or any text with insights from psychoanalysis or feminism and gender theory (to name a few fields only) adds interest for me and broadens my understanding. I want us all to be open about what we bring.

As Martindale writes "On Gadamer' view (in Truth and Method) "the truth of works of Art is a contingent one: what they reveal is dependent on the lives, circumstances and views of the audience to whom they reveal it." [Warnke (1987), 66] In Gadamer's words, it is part of the historical finiteness of our being that we are aware that after us others will understand in a different way" [Gadamer (1975) ] I feel confident at being able to include this because mwh no longer reads my posts.

I hope this goes a bit further in answering your questions. Again I fear I am not being very persuasive.

Edit

I should have thanked you, Bart, for your patience and for raising issues which I find very interesting.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Bart » Mon Sep 23, 2019 12:14 pm

seneca2008 wrote:
Mon Sep 23, 2019 11:59 am
Again I fear I am not being very persuasive.
Oh, you're doing fine :)
Now, why should you want to persuade me to your interests and preferences by the way? Is it because you think -malgré toi- they are right? Anyway, thanks for the discussion, seneca.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Andriko » Fri Oct 11, 2019 9:38 am

RandyGibbons wrote:
Thu Sep 12, 2019 7:59 pm
"They give three leaps and go on singing" - I really love that!
I thought that was wonderful too, and it reminded me of Zorba, actually, and the idea of just experiencing things as they are, freely and instinctively, as opposed to approaching things in, for example, a dry and rationalistic way which can produce longwinded logical discussions and take the participants further and further from the subject and it's soul.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Callisper » Fri Nov 01, 2019 7:43 pm

seneca2008 wrote:
Mon Sep 23, 2019 11:59 am
I remain committed to the rigorous analysis of texts and what people say about them. In that analysis we can argue with each other. [...]
It's my contention that we cannot do anything other than bring our preferences to the party.
These are the two strands I struggle to reconcile. As you protest you cannot bring "anything other than...preferences" to a discussion on a literary text, with what armoury do you engage someone in fruitful argument?

My post had nothing to do with authorial intention and its discoverability. I do not see why the existence or absence of objective truths about a text should be predicated upon or even linked to that.

But why stress that an author's intention cannot be uncovered? To me that's like saying to a physicist that, because they cannot uncover the most fundamental laws underlying nature and descriptive of it, there is no point in rational enquiry. On the one hand, this fact shouldn't dissuade anyone from pursuing (objective) knowledge and truth; on the other, perhaps with some level of rigour, we may one day be able to get a good measure of those fundamental laws. Why should literary criticism be viewed any differently?

(As for your remark that interpretations have varied radically - perhaps, and perhaps they all have something going for them (perhaps not!): but this is an argument from authority. It doesn't help understand why those interpretations vary, and one must believe that all responsible parties were adopting a rigorous process and unimpeachable method, for your conclusion to follow; which, even then, would not necessarily preclude objective truth from existing on other aspects of texts, where, say, all/most respectable interpretations have historically concurred.)

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Sat Nov 02, 2019 7:13 pm

Callisper

In much of this thread I have argued against points of view which people have put forward. My own positive point of view is Gadmar's which is loosely that we are trapped in out own time and that our interpretations depend on that fact. we are incapable of stepping outside our own time. We can imagine as many alternative positions as we like, but they remain rooted in the way we think now and how we currently interpret (receive) the past. We can be sure that in the future interpretations will be different
Calisper wrote:But why stress that an author's intention cannot be uncovered? To me that's like saying to a physicist that, because they cannot uncover the most fundamental laws underlying nature and descriptive of it, there is no point in rational enquiry. On the one hand, this fact shouldn't dissuade anyone from pursuing (objective) knowledge and truth; on the other, perhaps with some level of rigour, we may one day be able to get a good measure of those fundamental laws. Why should literary criticism be viewed any differently?
When I criticise a point of view on this board it is a failure of my powers of expression if that is interpreted as a desire to prohibit anyone from expressing how they receive/interpret a text. I do object when people try to privilege their points of view without being aware that that is what they are doing. You may accuse me of doing precisely that and I would reply that I accept that what I say is of a temporary nature and in the future there will be alternative ways of approaching interpretation.

I think the essential difference between the scientific method and literary studies is that in the former we have a clear idea of what we regard as "true". Someone proposes a theory and then it is tested by experiment. It either succeeds or fails and if it passes it is "true" until an alternative hypothesis tested again by experiment replaces it. Current theory is so far removed from the experience and normal educational achievement of the vast majority of people, who do not have sufficient grasp of the mathematics involved, that a lot of what we are told has to be taken on trust. I have never developed my general argument in the direction of science but I doubt that it too is immune from the baggage we bring with us to other fields of study.

In literary studies it seems fairly clear that the interpretations we put forward are not "objective" in the sense of scientific claims. There are no experiments to prove anything.

The fact that I don't accept the idea of "objective truth" shouldn't preclude anyone from making interpretative claims about a text. Nor does it mean that I think all claims are equally valid or interesting.
Callisper wrote:(As for your remark that interpretations have varied radically - perhaps, and perhaps they all have something going for them (perhaps not!): but this is an argument from authority. It doesn't help understand why those interpretations vary, and one must believe that all responsible parties were adopting a rigorous process and unimpeachable method, for your conclusion to follow; which, even then, would not necessarily preclude objective truth from existing on other aspects of texts, where, say, all/most respectable interpretations have historically concurred.)
The point I was trying to make about the interpretation of texts over time has nothing to do with "an argument from authority". Why particular interpretations varied is something examined in reception studies. I was making a simple point that it is foolhardy to look for "timeless values" in texts because one can find over time many often contradictory views. Vergil is particularly prone to changing political interpretation depending on the circumstances of the particular readers concerned.

I fear this post has probably deviated quite far from the original post which I so heartlessly criticised. But those who claim there is such a thing as "objective truth" in the interpretation of literary texts have a hard task to show us exactly what they mean. I think it has to involve something more cogent than [when] " all/most respectable interpretations have historically concurred"

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by jeidsath » Sat Nov 02, 2019 11:54 pm

Historians have exactly the same problem, and their solution is to be concerned with technique and methodology: primary sources, original languages, independent lines of evidence. These techniques are all specific attacks against the problem of interpretation.

Being concerned with interpretative stance first, instead of technique (technique is dreadfully hard work), is about being popular and getting academic jobs and selling books (and grooming co-eds and high school girls if you are Jean-Paul Sarte). A dreadful temptation for someone with narcissistic personality disorder, the disease of our age.

If you are concerned with understanding dead writers, the answers are obvious: learn their language more fully, read them more widely, eschew secondary sources, check your work using the hard sciences when you can. But it's a lot harder work than if you stick with Gadmar.
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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by RandyGibbons » Sun Nov 03, 2019 8:10 pm

Joel - I bow to your expertise, but I'm not sure I understand why the hard work of technique (as you put it), on the one hand, and theory, on the other, are mutually exclusive, especially perhaps for an adult whose interests may have broadened as his or her hair has whitened (as opposed to, say, a twenty-year old blind and deaf girl drinking in the world through literature for the first time). And personal opinion: I don't agree that "being concerned with interpretative stance" is about being popular or getting academic jobs or selling books or impressing young girls. We all have to make a living. I have my own criticisms of the academic world (which I probably have more personal experience with than you), but I cut that holier-than-thou crap a long time ago.

Seneca - I haven't read Gadamer, but since you seem to like him (and since this thread is wildly off in a direction I never ever would have imagined!), I'm curious if you've read his The Beginning of Philosophy (or perhaps that is indeed the book you are referring to?). This summer I read André Laks and Glenn Most's The Concept of Presocratic Philosophy: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. In the final chapter ("What Is at Stake") of this short but dense book, Laks posits that the Presocratics, considered as a group rather than as individual thinkers, illustrate paradigmatically two possible ways of relating to origins, and in particular to the origins of Greek rationality. One way, which in the beginning of the book he dubs Socratic-Ciceronian, is under the aegis of the other and of discontinuity (Socrates abandoned a philosophy of nature for the sake of a philosophy of man), the other, under the aegis of the same and of continuity (Platonic-Aristotelian: Socrates passed from a philosophy of things to the philosophy of the concept). To illustrate, Laks chooses two authors from the German tradition, Gadamer (discontinuity - Laks is not convinced) and Ernst Cassirer (the whole of history is the (continuous) “history of the self-discovery of the logos”).

Though interested, I somehow doubt I'm going to get around to reading either Gadamer or Cassirer (the follow-on book Laks has left me most interested in is J.-P. Vernant’s The Origins of Greek Thought and its arguments against a/the Greek Miracle). But, Seneca, I was wondering in any case if you've read the-above cited work of Gadamer, and if so, I'd like to know your thoughts on it.

Randy Gibbons

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Callisper » Sun Nov 03, 2019 10:32 pm

Thank you: looks like we can drill down to the core issue here -
seneca2008 wrote:
Sat Nov 02, 2019 7:13 pm
I think the essential difference between the scientific method and literary studies is that in the former we have a clear idea of what we regard as "true". Someone proposes a theory and then it is tested by experiment. It either succeeds or fails and if it passes it is "true" until an alternative hypothesis tested again by experiment replaces it. Current theory is so far removed from the experience and normal educational achievement of the vast majority of people, who do not have sufficient grasp of the mathematics involved, that a lot of what we are told has to be taken on trust. I have never developed my general argument in the direction of science but I doubt that it too is immune from the baggage we bring with us to other fields of study.

In literary studies it seems fairly clear that the interpretations we put forward are not "objective" in the sense of scientific claims. There are no experiments to prove anything.
I'm glad we made it this far!

In my view what you've written is not in fact the case. A proposed idea can be tested against the evidence present in the text. When reading literary scholarship on classical texts, it is nothing short of imperative (if you work in the field yourself, or wish to; perhaps not if you do so purely for enjoyment) to weigh up the claims and arguments you find using that evidence for veracity or at least credibility. This is why, say, Philip Hardie's work on epic - since you mention Vergil - has such shelf-life: not because his ideas are particularly 'interesting' or outstandingly stylishly expressed, but because they ring true. The evidence he marshals, together with the instincts of scholars who read him (and these instincts are really just the subconscious command of more evidence), convinces practically everyone that he has said something defensible - something which, upon close consideration, will outweigh the counter-evidence, and thus prove true - about the Aeneid. (Of course, this is not the case for all his work - but enough of it to substantiate, I think, my point.) There is plenty more such that remains to be said on classical texts, which I (transparently facetiously) labelled "the obvious" in my second post:

'...the concept under discussion arises from English and European criticism, where it was perhaps partly warranted, due to the abundance of high-quality critical attention texts of great interest in these (modern) languages have received - as a result of which "the obvious" has long since been stated and firmly known.'

That is to say, critical comment on texts in modern languages, in academic faculties which have been well-developed and productive (on a rigorous and scientific level) for hundreds of years, and which have preferenced the same set of authors for most of that time, is a different ball-game. Some of those authors really have been 'done to death,' and maybe practically all that is objectively true about their most famous pieces, everything which the evidence would appear to distinctly confirm, has been said. That is why, in such domains, literary criticism becomes more of an openly interpretive procedure without harsh judgement of right-or-wrong. (I do not with Joel judge this as necessarily bad, let alone decrying academia, which, in spite of his vitriol, seems, at least in classics, to show the same preferences and value structure I am espousing here, and which in the study of other literatures is at worst harmless.) When it comes to our classical texts, a number of barriers and differences, of which I outlined a couple in my previous post, mean that we are essentially way, way behind on this game.

Every field ultimately reaches a point where interpretation and hence subjectivity begins to creep in as a matter of exhaustivity. This is when weighing up evidence - as you call it, "experiment" - becomes impossible. Science hits such barriers too (look at what happened to string theory). Joel's analogy with history is a good one and you'll find exactly the same as I pointed out for literature: some historical facts are so defensibly correct that we do not question the evidence (would you have much patience for the suggestion that the Second World War never happened?); it is the others that current academia focuses on, whether it attempts to establish truth from evidence on a question not yet settled, or engages in the kind of interpretation which goes beyond evidence and cannot but be subjective. But my point is that the first category I mentioned exists there too. And as classical scholars we have a way to go before we've cleaned up.

-------
seneca2008 wrote:
Sat Nov 02, 2019 7:13 pm
I was making a simple point that it is foolhardy to look for "timeless values" in texts because one can find over time many often contradictory views.
As I intimated, to suggest that a multiplicity of opinions to choose from precludes one from being true (or truth from being discoverable) is to credit all those with such opinions with a substantial degree of credibility and hence is an argument from authority. This doesn't ultimately matter much since it's not critical to your argument.
Last edited by Callisper on Sun Nov 03, 2019 10:41 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by Callisper » Sun Nov 03, 2019 10:37 pm

jeidsath wrote:
Sat Nov 02, 2019 11:54 pm
If you are concerned with understanding dead writers, the answers are obvious: learn their language more fully, read them more widely, eschew secondary sources, check your work using the hard sciences when you can. But it's a lot harder work than if you stick with Gadmar.
I wouldn't agree with what I bolded (though I do like the rest of your post). Like I said in the above response to seneca, classical academia is displaying the value structure I have outlined here and shows distinct preference for truth-seeking over subjective interpretation, in deed if not in word. Have a look at people who obtain top academic posts (at least in the UK and Europe). No-one is saying (or, rather, no-one really believes) you should value the latest Aeneid PhD diss. coming out of your uni's pipeline as highly as Hardie. And if you really are "eschewing secondary sources" you are missing all of that truth I mentioned that's already been discovered. You are, in essence, wasting your time (if your goal is to know as much, objectively, about the texts as possible). What happened to standing on the shoulders of giants?

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Sun Nov 10, 2019 6:02 pm

RandyGibbons wrote:Seneca - I haven't read Gadamer, but since you seem to like him (and since this thread is wildly off in a direction I never ever would have imagined!), I'm curious if you've read his The Beginning of Philosophy (or perhaps that is indeed the book you are referring to?). This summer I read André Laks and Glenn Most's The Concept of Presocratic Philosophy: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. In the final chapter ("What Is at Stake") of this short but dense book, Laks posits that the Presocratics, considered as a group rather than as individual thinkers, illustrate paradigmatically two possible ways of relating to origins, and in particular to the origins of Greek rationality. One way, which in the beginning of the book he dubs Socratic-Ciceronian, is under the aegis of the other and of discontinuity (Socrates abandoned a philosophy of nature for the sake of a philosophy of man), the other, under the aegis of the same and of continuity (Platonic-Aristotelian: Socrates passed from a philosophy of things to the philosophy of the concept). To illustrate, Laks chooses two authors from the German tradition, Gadamer (discontinuity - Laks is not convinced) and Ernst Cassirer (the whole of history is the (continuous) “history of the self-discovery of the logos”).

Though interested, I somehow doubt I'm going to get around to reading either Gadamer or Cassirer (the follow-on book Laks has left me most interested in is J.-P. Vernant’s The Origins of Greek Thought and its arguments against a/the Greek Miracle). But, Seneca, I was wondering in any case if you've read the-above cited work of Gadamer, and if so, I'd like to know your thoughts on it.
Randy thank you for your interesting post. The Gadamer book I was referring to is "Truth and Method" which he wrote in 1960. A translation was published and a revised version is here https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/truth-and ... 780936246/ It is a summation of G's life's work on hermeneutics.

G. spent much of the '30s concentrating on Greek philosophy partly as a means of surviving the Nazi regime. He was offered a post in classical philology at Halle in 1939 but accepted a post in Philosophy at Leipzig. Presumably the earlier offer was some testament to his linguistic abilities. If you are interested in an introduction to his thought I recommend The Philosophy of Gadamer by Jean Grondin trans Kathryn Plant 2003.

Truth and Method is a difficult work with which I struggle. I came to it via Martindale's "Redeeming the text" which I have often mentioned on this forum and about which I dare say nothing more for fear of provoking MWH. :D This is not the place to expound G.'s philosophy - if indeed it could be done in one post. My interests are primarily literary and it this which attracts me rather than the pure philosophy. G. loved poetry and thought that the "truths" that were expressed there, although different from "scientific truth", were nevertheless valid and provide useful (essential?) insight into being human. He set out to investigate what that "truth" might be. To quote Warnke (1987) on G. (In Martindale p7) "the truth of works of art is a contingent one: what they reveal is dependent on the lives, circumstances, and the views of the audience to whom they reveal it." As M. says "Interpretation also involves a constantly moving "fusion of horizons" between past and present, text and interpreter. Accordingly, to use a more Eliotic formulation, we have to learn to respect not only the presentness of the present but also its pastness, and not only the the pastness of the past but also its presentness." (I beg your indulgence for breaking my self denying ordinance on quoting M.) G.'s thought was quite distinct from the ideas of "postmodernism" and I confess that often I mix that strand of thought into his and have probably given an erroneous impression of his work.

Next time I am in the library I will look at Laks and Most. (I have a lot of respect for the latter's work). But it sounds like reading it is a long term project.

Callisper - thank you for your interesting posts too. I think we are much in agreement. Of course arguments have to be weighed and evidence evaluated. The area of difference is I think encapsulated in your statement that "Every field ultimately reaches a point where interpretation and hence subjectivity begins to creep in". I think that subjectivity is inevitability there from the outset. There is nothing we can do to avoid it. That doesn't mean to say that interpretation is a waste of time, far from it. We can derive much from refining our understanding of texts. But we can be certain as G. says that in the future "others will understand in a different way".

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by RandyGibbons » Mon Nov 11, 2019 10:44 pm

Thanks, Seneca, for your thoughts and references on Gadamer.
My interests are primarily literary and it this which attracts me rather than the pure philosophy. G. loved poetry and thought that the "truths" that were expressed there, although different from "scientific truth", were nevertheless valid and provide useful (essential?) insight into being human.

Speaking strictly about my own interests, I'd say I'm probably the reverse. My path to Gadamer would probably be Husserl -> Heidegger -> Gadamer, especially since I'm trying to work my way right now through Husserl's Logical Investigations. You say Truth and Method is a difficult work with which you struggle. I'll see your Gadamer and raise you by Husserl!

On the other hand, I've personally never had any interest in literary theory, though I love poetry (and poets: my wife is one) and figures like Rilke and Yeats were huge factors in my emotional and intellectual maturation. Whatever "truth" is, yes, I believe there's a form(s) of it in poetry.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by seneca2008 » Fri Nov 15, 2019 3:55 pm

Hi Randy

I have got the Laks book out of the library and see that Most is the translator. I have also got Gadamer's "The beginning of Philosophy". I don't really know anything about the "presocratics" (however capitalised :D ) beyond some quotes and a few names so it will be an education. I will post some thoughts if I can find anything illuminating to say. But this is an interesting area to look at because of the way "beginning" is implicated in and implies "ending". A problematic area.

I think I will leave Husserl on one side. But the progression you talk of via Heidegger is reminiscent of the theme of Gadamer's "Beginnings of Philosophy" and it is interesting how we think (almost) teleologically.

Thanks for opening up a new avenue for me to explore.

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Re: The Blind Poet and the Blind Reader

Post by RandyGibbons » Tue Nov 19, 2019 3:56 am

I think I will leave Husserl on one side.
I wouldn't recommend Husserl to anyone but a masochist. Though for my own purposes I'm getting something out of it (the Logical Investigations, that is).

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