A Brief Discussion of Genre and Burkean Form

[I’ve been looking through some boxes of papers and found this one. It was written a year and a month ago. My definition of rhetoric has changed slightly since then, but it’s still an interesting piece. Not only that, but it also contains in it several things that I’m still thinking about and trying to piece together. I have made some very minor changes.]

I have several points I’d like to make, and I wonder if I need to have a single controlling idea other than the fact that all of what I want to say is somehow related to Amy Devitt’s book Writing Genres.

First of all, I don’t understand how literary genres and rhetorical genres can be separated. I see literary genres as types or kinds or subsets of rhetorical genres. Rhetorical genres include literary genres, but rhetorical genres also include other genres that are not literary. I see things this way because I define rhetoric as influence via symbol-using. Rhetorical genres are genres that try, in some way, to influence and identify with an audience. Not only do I see literary genres as subsets of rhetorical genres, but I also think we start to run into trouble when we separate literary genres from rhetorical genres. We run into trouble because literature really does influence people, whether people like it or not and whether people notice it or not.

But what about that second question, “Is there something about the nature of literary genres that aims for universality or transcendence, and is that something not (and never going to be) a part of ‘rhetorical genres’?”? (Wow. Two question marks at the end of that sentence.) That’s a good question. That question assumes that there may be something within literary genres that is outside of the realm of rhetorical genres. Unless, of course, there is something within the realm of rhetorical genres that also aims at universality or transcendence. Interestingly enough, this is a difficult question that I have recently been wondering about, so I appreciate the opportunity to try to put my thinking in to language. I think there is something in rhetorical genres that aims at universality or transcendence. Rhetoric recognizes that human beings are different, but we still attempt to transcend those differences and cooperate with one another. Saying yes is cooperation. And rhetoric tries to get people to say yes with each other, even though we come from different backgrounds, hold different ideologies, and see different sides of a thing.

But is that kind of transcendence different than literature’s aims for transcendence and universality? I don’t think it is. I don’t think it is because, first of all, literature is still within the realm of symbol-using. But second, and more importantly, literature enables human beings to have shared experiences with one another. And it is these shared experiences that allow us to transcend our differences. As embodied spirits, we can’t get outside of our bodies (even if you don’t agree with the first part of that sentence, you’ll still agree with the latter). But we can have experiences that allow us to share common ground with other human beings.

Anyway, that’s where I am right now in my thinking about that subject. If I may, I’d like to change the subject just a bit. I’d like to talk more about Devitt’s book. As I was reading, I became interested in the relationship between genres and Kenneth Burke’s definition of form. Devitt claims that genres cannot merely be defined by formal features, and I tend to agree with her. Although I find it somewhat amusing that, while Devitt claims that genres cannot merely be defined by formal features, she actually does define them by formal features—the act of describing and defining anything must be done by saying what it is. And as soon as you say what something is, you assert that it has some kind of formal feature. As genre is described, it becomes based on formal principles—those that have just been named. But those last three sentences were kind of an aside. What I want to do is compare Burkean form with Devitt’s discussion of genres.

Alright, I’ll be honest—I find it somewhat unfortunate that Devitt only cites one of Burke’s books, The Philosophy of Literary Form. I think she does because that’s the book that sounds like it would talk the most about genres. But what Devitt doesn’t seem to notice is that Burke once said that his entire theory was summed up in his early book, Counter-Statement. This is the book where Burke defines form very differently and very generously. He says that form is “an arousing and fulfilling of an audience’s expectations” (Counter-Statement 217). “A work has form,” he writes, “in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence” (124). Burke’s definition of form sounds somewhat similar to Devitt’s inclusion of expectations in her theory of genre.

Devitt says that genre is “visible in classification and form, relationships and patterns that develop when language users identify different tasks as being similar” (Writing Genres 31). From the second sentence of her book, Devitt asserts that we use genres “to meet expectations” (1), and this word, expectations, and its variations (expect and expectation) repeatedly appear in Devitt’s book. In other words, she sees some kind of relationship between genres and expectations of readers and audiences.

I see several connections between the way Burke defines form and the way Devitt discusses genres. One connection that I see is in Devitt’s discussion that genres at once both empower and enslave authors. Interestingly enough, Burkean form does the same thing. Authors can apply Burkean form by creating and then satisfying expectations and desires in readers. But an author can’t just say whatever he or she wants to say. Authors create and then fulfill desires and expectations by first getting to know an audience and coming to understand that audience’s ideologies. An author then uses what he or she knows about audience ideologies to create and fulfill desires and expectations in a target audience. This is how Burkean form both constrains and liberates an author, similar to Devitt’s discussion about how genres both empower and enslave authors. Greig Henderson has written the following about Burkean form, but I think it also applies to the way Devitt describes genres: “the rhetoric of form not only has a suasive impact upon the audience; it also has a suasive impact, conscious or unconscious, upon the author. While we are using the formal, rhetorical, and ideological resources of language and literature, they are using us” (Unending Conversations 140).

On Plato and Being Removed from the Truth

What is truth?

As soon as I typed that question, my thoughts went directly to the scene in the New Testament when Pontius Pilate asks Jesus that very question (the reference is John 18:38, in case you were wondering). But I’m not going to discuss Christianity in this post, at least not directly, and not necessarily intentionally. Instead of discussing truth from a Christian perspective, I’m going to discuss it from a–shall we say Pagan?–Pagan perspective. If, of course, we consider Plato to be a Pagan.

Yep, there he is. Plato.

Plato seems to believe that truth is what is–it is things as they really are. A useful definition, but he also seems to believe that we can’t know things as they really are unless we practice philosophy. For him, we’ll remember, philosophy is the love of wisdom and the love of truth (Republic 476e2-3). And truth is not and cannot be discovered via empirical means. At least, that’s what Plato seems to believe.

But I’m not going to take the time right now to discuss how Plato thinks we discover truth. I’m only going to point out a few interesting passages.

In Book VII of his Republic, Plato has Socrates say that “calculation and arithmetic . . . lead us towards truth” (525a6-b1). He believes this because numbers are abstract and universal. Numbers are everywhere, and the principles of mathematics are universal and can be applied in a variety of circumstances.

Perhaps I’ll write more about that subject later.

Moving on, this may sound weird, but I think to some degree reading Plato has helped me to be a better teacher, at least to the degree that he believes this:

[T]he power to learn is present in everyone’s soul and . . . the instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body. This instrument cannot be turned around from that which is coming into being without turning the whole soul until it is able to study that which is and the brightest thing that is, namely, the one we call the good . . . Then education is the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it. It isn’t the craft of putting sight into the soul. Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately. (Republic Book VII 518c2-d7)

In other words, Plato always has Socrates ask his students questions, and the point of the dialog form that Plato constantly writes in (except for, perhaps, the Apology) is to show that the most important truths are only discovered, and the best teachers help students to discover for themselves. On that note, David A. Bednar once said, “The best lessons are caught, not taught.”

I wonder, since Aristotle was Plato’s student, how much of the above-quoted passage influenced Aristotle’s thinking. (There’s a whole bunch of stuff throughout Plato that alludes to what will later be known as Aristotle’s golden mean from his Nicomachean Ethics. There’s some other stuff, too, but too much for a parenthetical aside.) At any rate, in the first sentence of Book I of his Metaphysics, Aristotle says that “All human beings by nature desire to know.”

Now, we could talk about how sometimes the questions Plato has Socrates ask are a bit strange. We could also talk about how it gets a bit funny to see Plato constantly making people agree with Socrates (I believe Wayne Booth someplace calls this person that’s always agreeing the “Yes-man”), but Plato is smarter than I think sometimes he is made out to be. Notice that most of his dialogues are at least three times removed from the truth, the actual event. Take Plato’s Symposium, for example. Plato is telling us through the eyes of Apollodorus, who heard the story/dialogue from Aristodemus, who was with Socrates at Agathon’s house on the evening the story takes place. We’re several times removed from the truth here because Plato is trying to teach us that things as they really are are not always directly and consistently available to us as mortals.

I suppose I should now come full circle and quote from the New Testament, this time on purpose. Very well. Here’s the Apostle Paul on a similar idea:

But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God . . . But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:9-11, 14)

Strategic Naming (in this Case, a Tree)

Sometimes we take names for granted.

I’m walking across campus with a friend. It’s almost 9:00 in the morning, the air is cool, and we pass two trees. One of them is beginning to turn a bright orange, but the other is still a deep green and, judging from what I think I know of that kind of tree, will probably stay that way until it dies. If I wanted to, I can gesture to my friend and say, “Look at the differences in color between those trees,” and she will know what I mean. I just have to say the word tree, and understanding–as well as an act of directing the attention–will take place. In this moment of calling attention to a particular tree, however, I’m not really thinking much about what a tree is or why I’m calling it what I think it is. I’m simply admiring its beauty.



No, this is not the tree.
Courtesy of WikiCommons

But if I wanted to, I could call it something different. I could have pointed to the deep green tree and called it, not a tree, but a “tall green thing”? Would my friend have understood me? Well, probably. Perhaps certainly, at least if I was gesturing to the “tall green thing” and she noticed my gesture. But she would, at least, probably wonder why I had chosen to call the object at which I was pointing a “tall green thing” instead of a tree. Since both of us have a mutual understanding of what the word tree means, she may be curious as to why I had given the object such a peculiar name. My act of calling the tree something is an act of naming, and my acts of naming, though most of them are subconscious (or perhaps unconscious), are influential because these acts do something, both to those who hear them and those who use them.


Suppose, further, that I had named the object, not merely a “tall green thing” or even a tree, but a Bristlecone Pine. By calling the object something, I have named the object. And the words with which I choose to name the object reflect, to some degree, my own understanding of the world. By giving the tree that name of Bristlecone Pine, I may reveal several things. First, I may reveal that I know (or think I know) enough about the tree itself to identify it as a Bristlecone Pine. I may also reveal that I know (or think I know) enough about Bristlecone Pines in general to be able to identify a specific instance of the kind. If I am correct in my act of naming, I have revealed that I really do know what I thought I knew. But if I am incorrect, I could be one of two kinds of people: I could be the kind of person that thought I knew that my act of naming was correct but was in fact mistaken, or on the other hand, I could have been the kind of person (and this is the worst kind) that did know that he was mistaken but deliberatly called the tree something that it wasn’t as part of an attempt to deceive others. Whatever I do, by choosing to call the object a Bristlecone Pine instead of a tree or a “tall green thing,” I have also subtly influenced the way hearers have understood what I have said and who I am as a person who has an ability to speak.

Whatever I choose to call this thing, my choice reflects my own belief, knowledge, and attitude in the moment of naming whatever that thing is. I can point to the tree and say, “Green Thing!” and I’ll both assert and reveal something different than if I raise my chin in its general direction and say, “Pinus longaeva.”

Most of the time when we speak, however, we’re less conscious of the names that we give things. Part of education, I believe, is to make our acts of naming conscious, deliberate, and above all, honest. Not only that, but as soon as we develop the ability to see what happens in a moment of naming, we begin to cultivate the capacity to be a careful and cautious judge of the acts of naming that happen all around us.

(By the way, as far as I know the tree discussed above is not in fact a Bristlecone Pine or Pinus Longaeva. I just chose a random pine tree to write this article. I don’t know very much about trees, but then again I’m not really talking about trees here, either.)

Being Actors

[The following is a post that was written on June 23, 2011.]

Don’t read this unless you want to be put to sleep.

. . .

Okay. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. (Don’t worry–it’s not that bad.)

Most people would agree that the more you practice something, the better you get at it. Aristotle wrote,

For the things which we have to learn before we can do them we learn by doing: men become builders by building houses, and harpists by playing the harp. Similarly, we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage. (Nicomachean Ethics II.1)

Ralph Waldo Emerson is attributed to have said, “That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do, not that the nature of the thing is changed, but that our power to do is increased” (I can’t find the reference to this anywhere in his works; let me know if you know where it is). And even the more recent Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, writes about how experts are those which have done something–practiced at it–for 10,000 hours. We become better at what we do.

But we can also be defined by what we do. Let me explain. Being embodied creatures that have the ability to choose, we necessarily choose some things over other things. Aristotle wrote that “every action and choice, seem to aim at some good” (Nicomachean Ethics 1.1). His statement suggests that we do what we do because we believe that it will, in some way, make us happy.

But we can go a step further. Kenneth Burke reminds us that “a focus upon object A involves a neglect of object B” (Permanence and Change 49). And to choose something is to focus one’s time on doing a thing for a period of time. And by focusing our time on one thing in a given situation, we become the kind of person that is doing the kind of thing that we have chosen to do in the moment that we choose to do it. We become that kind of person during that specific moment, and we can be defined by the kind of person that would do what we have chosen–because we have chosen what we have chosen. We become the kind of person that, having chosen A, has not chosen B, C, D, E, F, G, etc. for the moment in which we are doing A. In other words, you are what you do, and what you do also defines, to a degree, what you are.

A Hierarchy of Appeals, From Aristotle

This is from Aristotle’s Rhetoric (some translations of the book are called The Art of Rhetoric). You can pick up any copy of the Rhetoric and find this passage at 1356a. It’s a bit lengthy, but well, it’s worth it.
This is where Aristotle introduces ethos, pathos, and logos in Chapter 2 of Book 1:

“Of the means of persuasion provided by way of speech, there are three forms, for some are in the character of the speaker [ethos], some consist in putting the hearer into a certain disposition [emotion, pathos], and some are present in the speech itself by showing or appearing to show something [logos]. Persuasion is by means of character [ethos] whenever the speech is spoken in such a way as to make the speaker trustworthy; for we are more persuaded, and more quickly, by decent people, about all matters without exception, and . . . character, one might say, has in it just about the most decisive means of persuasion. Persuasion is by means of the hearers whenever they are led on into passion [pathos] by the speech, for we do not render our judgments the same way when grieved as when delighted, or when friendly as when hostile . . . And persuasion is by means of speech whenever we show something that is true, or appears so, from things that are persuasive on each subject.”

Now, after typing all that out, I feel a sort of desire to say a bit about it.
One of the things that Aristotle implies here is that there is a sort of hierarchy of the three rhetorical appeals: ethos is at the top, pathos is next, and logos is at the bottom. The reason for this is because when we hear a logical argument, we believe it, but our brains actually reason differently depending on the emotional state that they–we–are in (hence Aristotle’s statement, “we do not render our judgments the same way when grieved as when delighted, or when friendly as when hostile”). New studies in Embodied Cognitive Science will actually confirm this idea that, at least to some degree, we reason from emotional states of mind (see, for example, Mark Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body). Crazy, right? But there is an appeal that’s even higher than pathos, and that’s ethos. Ethos is at the top of the hierarchy because ethos is character–what and who a person is–and the emotions strong as they are, are in the body, both the body of the speaker and the listener, and the body is an essential part of who and what a person is. Additionally, when a speaker makes an emotional appeal on an audience, if the audience trusts that speaker, then the audience will transfer that trust to the emotions that they are now having! “[F]or we are more persuaded, and more quickly, by decent people, about all matters without exception.” Another translation of the same passage reads, “We believe good men more fully and more readily than others.” When it comes to ethos, trust is the key word.

So here’s the question. To what degree is trust an emotion?

Just Some Thoughts about Rhetoric

[I wrote the following post on Thursday, May 12, 2011. I am reposting it here because it is easier to access on this blog.]

I’m writing this because I need an audience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to read it. Then again, if you do read it, I’d certainly be interested in your thoughts.

In the renaissance, students were educated in what was called the trivium–logic, grammar, and rhetoric. Rhetoric tended to focus on the study of formal patterns that we use in our speech. One example of a formal pattern, antimetabole, is the ABBA form in Kennedy’s statement, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” (the “your country” is the A and the “you” is the B).

Renaissance philosophers believed that the rhetoricians studied and taught these formal patterns because you can throw a bunch of them in a speech and result in having an “eloquent” or “flowery” piece of work. But the rhetoricians themselves disagreed. For them, formal patterns like tropes and figures were not just ways of speaking, but they were also ways of thinking and ways of acting. In other words, they were ways of being.

Let me give a classic example: repetitio. Repetitio means to repeat something (a word, an idea, or a syllable). Here’s an example: I came, I saw, I conquered (some translations say “I overcame” instead of “I conquered”). Notice how the “I” is repeated. That’s repetitio. Simple enough. And by the way, since the “I” is repeated at the beginning of successive clauses, this case of repetitio is also an anaphora. An anaphora is a certain kind of repetitio that repeats something at the beginning of successive clauses. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Repeating something is an action, and by repeating, emphasis is placed on the thing that is repeated. The more something is repeated, the more it sticks in our minds. By repeating the “I,” in “I came, I saw, I conquered,” the speaker–remember, this is Caesar–is emphasizes his own actions. He is in every clause, and the emphasis is places on him as the conqueror. Furthermore–this is from Lanham–the “I came, I saw, I conquered” are all statements of similar length, as if Caesar means that conquering was as easy as coming and seeing. From this statement, Caesar reveals, somewhat, his self-pride. The focus of his statement is on him and his accomplishments.

Anyway, that’s why students in the Renaissance were taught tropes and figures. They believed that speaking was acting. Speaking reveals and betrays who we are. They believed, like Quintillian, that since “No man can speak well who is not good himself” (Institutio Oratorio II.xv.34), instruction in tropes and figures was also instruction in how to act well.
But wait. Can you really do this? Can you analyze someone’s speech patterns–or someone’s rhetoric–and discover something about their character? Renaissance rhetoricians would say yes, definitely. And I think Kenneth Burke would say yes, too.

For Kenneth Burke, we’re using rhetoric whenever we use symbols to “induce cooperation in beings that . . . respond to symbols” (A Rhetoric of Motives 43). Probably the most apparent way in which we use symbols is in language. Language is a system of symbols. The words, the sounds, the syntax and sentence patterns all have meaning for beings that speak the same language. We use symbols to communicate, and these symbols also have patterns. Some of these patterns happen because our languages have rules that other speakers of our language will expect us to follow. Other patterns we can create or mimic because we like the sound of them. There are still other forms that Burke says

we might call innate forms of the mind. These forms are the ‘potentiality for being interested by certain processes or arrangements,’ or the ‘feeling for such arrangements of subject-matter as produce crescendo, contrast, comparison, balance, repetition, disclosure, reversal, contraction, expansion, magnification, series, and so on. (Counter-Statement 46)

In other words, there’s something within us human beings that craves a variety of patterns, and all forms of art–music, literature, paintings, movies–manifest these kinds of forms in some way. There are also many different kinds of crescendo, contrast, repetition, etc.

One reason why we watch the same movies over and over is because they have a variety of the kinds of patterns that we like. The same thing goes with our favorite music. Perhaps this can even explain why we spend time around certain kinds of people. Yes, we like them. But my question is, to what degree can we explain ourselves in terms of balance, repetition, disclosure, reversal, contraction, expansion, magnification, series, and so on”? Language, after all, isn’t the only symbol system we use. We also use things like body language, gestures, tonality, and attitude, personality, style, the list goes on.

We can use formal patterns strategically or subconsciously, but however we use them, do they really reveal–and betray–who we are? We use our symbols strategically or subconsciously to communicate to others what we want and what we are. Can’t we, then, also analyze the ways in which others use symbols to learn something about their character?

At least, that’s what I’m wondering about right now.

Why the Principle of Faith Should be a First Principle of Philosophy (Including, of Course, Epistemology and Metaphysics)

By typing this sentence, I am acting, even though I cannot see what the sentence looks like until it is finished. I cannot touch it or hear it or smell it or taste it. And I cannot see it until it appears on the screen. But I type anyway, trustingthat by moving my fingers, I will hit certain keys, keys that correspond to certain letters that I need to spell out words and sentences. I trust that when each key is pressed, some kind of electrical signals will—somehow—be sent from the keyboard and into the computer’s memory. Somehow, though I don’t quite understand how the whole process works, the letters will appear on the computer screen so that I can see what I am typing. But even though I don’t understand how the entire process works, I really don’t need to understand it. All I know is that it works. I can type sentences if I try it, if I work at it, if I act.


Typing sentences: an act of faith?

But the process of typing sentences doesn’t just include having my fingers hit certain keys. There’s also something that has to happen in order for my fingers to move at all. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I do know that when I will my fingers to move, they move. I think about them shifting from key to key, and they hit the keys that I want them to hit.

(At least, most of the time they do–when I’m typing on a laptop keyboard, my hands are a bit too big for the keyboard, and sometimes I end up hitting more than one key at the same time. But that doesn’t mean that my fingers weren’t headed in the right direction, nor does it mean that they wouldn’t have hit the right key and no other key if I had been typing on a keyboard that I had been more used to typing on.)

I don’t understand how the message moves from my brain to my fingers and makes my fingers hit certain keys. I also don’t understand how, when I press a key on the keyboard, the message of a key getting pressed eventually shows up on the monitor and I can finally see the fruit of my acts. I don’t understand these things. But I still act even though I don’t know exactly how the entire process works. I don’t know how it works, but I trust in the fact that it does work. My act of trusting is knowledge. My act of trusting is an act of faith.

And yet, I could find out, if I wanted to. I could study how the brain works and how it sends messages. I could find out how fingers move or how a keyboard and memory and monitor all work together to produce evidence of my fingers having moved across certain keys. But I do not have to know how they work in order to make them work. And even if I did know how they worked, I wouldn’t be able to efficiently type sentences if I was always thinking about how these things worked while I made them work. “A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing,” philosopher Kenneth Burke once wrote, and “a focus on object A involves a neglect of object B” (Permanence and Change 50).

The same is true for all of our acts. I can talk about making letters and words and sentences appear on a computer screen, or about I can talk about the electrical impulses that are somehow sent from my brain to my different body parts. I can talk about driving or swimming or playing the piano or tying my shoes. I may or I may not know how everything works within each of these processes. But if I am going to drive well, I have to forget about what’s going on under the hood and pay attention to what’s happening on the other side of the windshield.

We can’t always be aware of everything that’s going on. If we are to do something well, we choose to focus on doing that thing. We forget about the feeling of the chair that we’re sitting on. We forget about breathing, though the chair continues to hold us up and our respiratory system continues to take in air.

To have faith is to act without a perfect knowledge. If a perfect knowledge is based on whatever we get through our five senses, then we are constantly acting on faith. There are some things that we know that don’t come through our five senses, and even for the stuff that we do, we’re not always aware of how things come to us through our five senses. If, on the other hand, a perfect knowledge isn’t based on whatever we get through our five senses but is instead based on what we learn from reasoning, then we still act on faith because we have to forget about what we’ve learned through reasoning in order to really do anything. Either way, our actions are based on the principle of faith–we don’t know what is happening or what does happen until after we finish acting.

Typically, the history of philosophy (both in the western and the eastern traditions) has started in the wrong place. I believe that the right place to start is with faith. Joseph Smith once said that “If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong we may go wrong, and it will be a hard matter to get right” (History of the Church 6:303). Philosophies often contradict themselves because they have started wrong. But if we start right, we may go right all the time.

Faith, of course, must be grounded in something. In this post and in all subsequent posts, I claim that the right place to begin is with faith, and the object of faith ought to be God. And if we define philosophy as “the love of wisdom,” as some of the ancient Greeks defined it, then what we’re really doing when we do philosophy is what Paul Woodruff called reverence (cf. Woodruff’s book, Reverence: A Forgotten Virtue).

An Attempt to (Briefly) Define Philosophy

At the end of the last post I asked, “What is philosophy?” a question that is important but also problematic. It is important because, as French philosopher Maurice Riseling has said, “Sooner or later, life makes philosophers of us all.” What exactly he means by that (along with why the question “What is philosophy?” is problematic) will become clear at the end of this post. Hopefully.

So what is philosophy? The quick answer is that it depends on who you ask, but that answer doesn’t really answer the question. At least, not really. When philosophers themselves attempt to answer the question, it is interesting to note that each of their answers is a bit different, and, perhaps ironically, some philosophers even disagree on what it means to do philosophy, leading one to wonder if anyone knows the answer. But of course, the words the answer at the end of that last sentence assume that there is one answer, though I admit that there may not be only one answer to the proposed question. Whatever. For now, I would like to discuss two different but still useful answers. The first answer comes from where the word philosophy comes from, and the second comes from the questions that are asked when we study philosophy.


Plato and Aristotle detail from Raffaello Sanzio’s The School of Athens)

The Word
Our word philosophy comes from the Greek word philosophia. This word is made up of two parts: philos and sophiaPhilos means love or love of, while sophia means wisdom (think of our word for sophisticated). Hence, philosophia originally meant love of wisdom, and philosophers were lovers of wisdom. Personally, I like to broaden the word wisdom to include knowledge and truth. From this perspective, then, anyone who loves wisdom is a philosopher. And yet, note that the active word is not having wisdom or knowing wisdom, but loving it.

Love is a significant emotion. It is an emotion that causes us to see the world differently (usually more optimistically) than other emotions sometimes do. We desire what we love, and we tend to be happier when we are full of love.

There are different kinds of love, however. But there is only one kind of love which I’m talking about. God is love, 1 John 4:16 says, and the kind of love that God has trumps all other emotions. It has to, because it equals God. Hence, the love I am talking about is a prerequisite to spirituality, which spirituality, philosopher Robert Solomon says, is having the right emotion, at the right time, for the right reason, towards the right person or object, and to the right degree. Solomon also defines love as the expansion of the self to include the other.

The Questions
While “love of wisdom” is a valuable and helpful way to define philosophy, not everyone thinks of philosophy that way. Typically, philosophy tends to be divided up into 5 areas: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, and aesthetics. Each of these areas asks certain questions, a few of which I will list below . Notice that while these 5 categories seem to be separate, they are often mutually inclusive, as we’ll see below.

Metaphysicsask about the nature of reality and truth. Also, questions of metaphysics also include questions of what it means to be. The smart-sounding word for questions about being is ontology. Questions of metaphysics ask these questions:

·         What is truth?

·         What is the nature of reality? What is real?

·         What is the nature of existence?

·         What is space and time? What is cause and effect?

·         What does it mean to be?

·         What is the origin of the universe?

·         Does existence have a purpose?

·         Is there a God?

·         Can God be known?

That last question overlaps with epistemology, since epistemology asks questions that deal with knowing.

·         What is knowledge?

·         How can something be known?

·         How do we know what we know?

·         Can everything be known, or only some things?
·         What are the limits of knowledge?
Logicdeals with questions of proof and argumentation especially formal proof and argumentation.

·         What is valid reasoning?

·         How does a person discern a fallacious argument?

·         What is proof?

·         What kinds of things follow from a set of premises, maxims, or axioms?
Ethicsdeal with questions of right and wrong. Questions of ethics also tend to be closely connected with questions of politics.

·         How should one live?

·         What is right? What is wrong?

·         How should one act in a specific situation?

·         What does it mean to say that something ought to be done?

·         How should human beings interact with one another?

·         What is the best way for human beings to get along together?

·         How should human beings be governed?

·         What is the best form of government?

Aestheticsdeal with questions about the arts, however broadly or narrowly we interpret the arts.

·         What is art?

·         What is good art?

·         What is the purpose of art? What is art for?

·         Why do we produce art?

·         Does art influence us or teach us (is it didactic?) or is it merely self-expression or just a form of entertainment?

Looking at the above questions, note how often they shade into each other. In other words, how can we ask what art is unless we also understand the nature of reality and what it means to be? But, furthermore, before we know what the answer is to that question, we first have to know what it means to know! This is why a study of philosophy is often confusing. It is confusing because to ask one question we must presuppose the answer to the other questions! So, we can’t answer any questions without assuming answers to all of the questions. (Bertrand Russell once said that the value of philosophy is in the questions it asks, not in the answers it gives.) See how confusing this gets? Now read what Scott Soames has to say:

Philosophy has become a highly organized discipline, done by specialists primarily for other specialists. The number of philosophers has exploded, the volume of publication has swelled, and the subfields of serious philosophical investigation have multiplied. Not only is the broad field of philosophy today far too vast to be embraced by one mind, something similar is true even of many highly specialized subfields. (Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, vol. 2, p. 463.)

Yeah. It’s confusing. It makes it hard to start, because we want to start right so that we can continue to go right. Whereas if we start wrong, there’s no point in continuing because if we really are lovers of truth and wisdom, we want to make sure we’re going right and talking about things that are true. If I’m doing a math problem and I start at the wrong place, I need to go back to the beginning to start it right. I can’t keep going from the wrong place because I will never get the right answer. Joseph Smith once wrote, “If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong we may go wrong, and it will be a hard matter to get right” (History of the Church 6:303).

So while to some degree, we can’t start without answering or assuming an answer to the questions posed above, we have to start someplace. We have to start because the answers to those questions are valuable. We need answers to those questions because those answers help us live our lives. Not only that, but if we do not consciously and deliberately answer those questions, we end up going about our lives assuming an answer to those questions without taking full responsibility for the answers that our acts assume. We need philosophy because philosophy is how we live our lives. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have written,

Philosophy matters to us . . . primarily because it helps us to make sense of our lives and to live better lives. A worthwhile philosophy will be one that gives us deep insight into who we are, how we experience our world, and how we ought to live. (Philosophy in the Flesh 551)

When Riseling says that “Sooner or later, life makes philosophers of us all,” he recognizes that we all assume our own answers to the list of questions above.

So let’s go back to where we began. What do I mean by philosophy? Do I mean the answers given by really smart dead (or mostly dead) people to the questions I’ve listed above? Do I mean that “love of wisdom” thing I talked about at the beginning of this post? My answer is yes and no. An undesirable answer, but a typically philosophical one, nonetheless. Whether the answer is yes or no depends on what we mean by “love of wisdom” and what those dead smart guys’ answers were (to what degree were they right, and to what degree did they start right?). So how will we judge the standard by which we agree with what they say? And how do we start right? The answer is we’ll necessarily judge them by the standard of truth.

But, wait! I’ve already assumed the answer before I’ve “defended” the answer! Surprise, surprise. But that’s where belief (faith?) comes in. We can’t start anywhere without belief. And that will be the subject of the next post.

An Explanation of the Title

Well, here we go.

I’ve decided to call this blog Name Pending, a somewhat ironic title because the title seems to be self-contradictory: how can someone name something Name Pending? Obviously, the name cannot be pending, as the title suggests, because the title itself is Name Pending! And there we have it. A paradox in the first few words of the first post of this blog. Great.

But a paradox is only something that seems to be self-contradictory and really isn’t when it is examined from a better, more comprehensive perspective.

That means we really can name this blog Name Pending without condradicting ourselves, but we need to broaden our perspective in order to see how it isn’t self-contradictory. By naming this blog Name Pending, I don’t only want to convey the possibility that Name Pending may not be the name of this blog forever, but what I’d really like to do is look to the future in a sense. What I am really doing by calling this blog by the name I have given it is asking the question, What’s in a name? And that’s a question that I hope hasn’t become cliche. Because giving a thing a name–calling it something–is naming it. And naming is strategic, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Let me illustrate with a story.

“You think way too much about it,” my friend Ron told me. I had just told him that I had been thinking about starting a blog for several months but couldn’t come up with a name for it. He asked me to share with him a few of the names I was thinking about, and we brainstormed a few more ideas together. And while we discussed ideas for this blog’s name, I suppose he got more than he bargined for because I eventually started talking about the act of naming in general.

“I think the real problem I’m having,” I told him, “is that as soon as I give the blog a name, I bind myself, since in order for that name to be accurate, everything I write under that name should be related, somehow, to that name. And I don’t want to put myself into a box.” The name is a general principle that guides the rest of what will be written, and I’d here add something one of my favorite writers once said, “Each brand of imagery contains in germ its own ‘logic'” (Burke, Philosophy of Literary Form, 148). I continued, “I guess the most accurate thing I could call this blog would be Jarron Slater’s Blog, since everything I’ll be saying will necessarily be filtered through my own perspective.”

“Nah. Do something better than that!” Ron countered. He was right. Jarron Slater’s Blog is pretty bland.

Well, as of right now, Name Pending seems to be the best I can come up with. Not just because it implies the possibility of names changing in the future, but also because it implies that things change in general and our perspective of things also changes over time. Just as my understanding of a car changes when I learn how to drive one and then changes again later when I learn how to perform maintenence on it, so our understanding of words, thoughts, and ideas changes over time as we progress in life. Here’s a really wordy version of that idea: my perception of what I call one thing at one point in time may change I later return to it. That’s why the name of this blog, in one sense, has to be Name Pending.

So, what exactly is this blog about? It’s about things we’ve discussed in this post. It’s about naming, perspective, and change. It’s about understanding and misunderstanding. But it’s also about something else, a word that I’m hesitating to use. We could say, if you promise to keep reading after I say the word, that this blog is about an age old word that is unfortunately used not often enough and has become taboo in some of the circles in which it is used. The word is philosophy.

But what is philosophy? That’s a question that I’ll have to answer another time. It’s also one that won’t be answered once for all time, but will continue to be answered over time, as we’ll see later. Hence, again, this blog’s title.