If you have misunderstood me

It is so much the easier for me to accept your mis-statements if I assume they betray some underlying misunderstanding.

It would be so much easier for you to helpfully locate my responses if you realize I am responding to the ways in which I believe you have misunderstood me.

Considerable stress ensues if one of us insists ‘no, I have understood you’ for asserting I nearly understand you engenders no power-language, but insisting on my understanding limits your ability to speak on your own account. Now we both are to wrestle for the same ground — and presumably the ground ought to be yours first.

In this our usage more closely relates to epistamai in Greek or oferstandan from Old English wherein our piecing together stands upon this (cf. http://www.etymonline.com, maintained by D. Harper).  The word picture is of a conqueror, not of a partner in discourse.

How better to dismiss another than with the words I understand?  To do such is to disinherit the other’s power of commanding her own words.

But if I assume we are wielding two competing misunderstandings, the bugle call to unending allegiance to what I probably did not intend dies away in favor of a chance to listen to you — to listen without immediate concerns of power.  We should become accustomed to the body postures which accompany the most harmful of misunderstandings — the shoulders of dismissal and the accompanying upturned lips along with the spinal tilt of self-rectitude and compare these with the relaxed focus necessary to give any worthy other a hearing.

Of course hearing is more difficult than non-hearing.  A ready mind must readily dismiss more than it accepts and so many misunderstandings may persist.  The commitment, daily, should be to unstop the ears quickly and with it to un-tense the neck so a positive misunderstanding might be attained.


…is officially recognised by the Oxford Dictionary Online (as are ‘truthiness’ and ‘muggle’ if you were quavering on me*).

Recognised: so often we wish our meaning to be given proper attention, often by either institutional authorities or those wielding power over us in the moment, able to largely determine our significance.  This is all too telling of academic performance, but it de-scribes plenty of other situations as well (e.g. the upcoming biathlon which is the NFL Scouting Combine**).  We ‘re searching in such moments to have our work legitimated.

It was in such a spirit that the all too young Nietzsche submitted the work translated as ‘The Birth of Tragedy, a work not well met by scholars of the field of study at the time.  Another young scholar sought to raise his credentials by trashing this work.  I won’t mention his name for I have already forgotten it.  He has only come across my radar because I am rereading through the Nietzschian corpus (or what of it I possess) and stopped to grasp Peter Gay and Walter Kaufmann’s remarks.

Nietzsche’s work was n’t recognised at first.  Kaufmann lists his class sizes during Nietzsche’s years as chair of philology: they were generally between six and ten (the worst being two!) so there was little legitimation to be found amongst Nietzsche’s student followership.  He became something of a gnat to the up-and-coming Germany of his day, an opponent to its narcissisms.  So the opportunity to support his work was missed.

After Hitler’s rise to power (and yes, we ‘ve skipped a World War), many of Nietzsche’s statements were deliberately taken out of context so that he was read as an anti-Semite, when in many cases he was anti-anti-Semitic (though certainly not a Semitophile).  Here I lean on Kaufmann’s expertise and what I can recall of my former readings.  I can at least defend that Nietzsche is n’t the source if you ‘re looking for pro-Aryan material (that is n’t what the Ubermensch is really about, only what it’s too often misunderstood to mean).  So he was n’t recognised at first, and his writings were then assimilated into an agenda he (at least on the whole) would n’t have supported (he criticised Germany as a ‘true European’).  ‘Understanding’ can all too easily be one of the most dangerous forms of misunderstanding.

But let ‘s bring it back around.  I ‘m very much inclined to agree with Peter Gay when he claims that Nietzsche suffered from writing too well.  While the older Nietzsche adequately critiqued the youthful mistakes of his younger self (in An Attempt At Self-Criticism): [‘that voice should have sung and not spoken’ is the gist], he still was searching out the questions which drove Birth of Tragedy.  For example: 

“Is the resolve to be so scientific about everything perhaps a kind of fear of, an escape from, pessimism?”

~Nietzsche, Attempt at Self Criticism, an   trans. Walter Kaufmann in Basic Writings of Nietzsche (2000): Modern Library, NY

These are the sort of questions which ought to have circulated throughout the popular and academic discourse, but instead (as they say in ‘the Wire’) ‘everybody has a career’.  At the time this is all most scholars could think about.  Kaufmann had to do a great deal of work rehabilitating Nietzsche’s image from his greatest mis-readings within academia.  Ironic that now such names are all too forgotten.  Those names which endure are those which pose the questions, even if they do so too eloquently.

By contradistinction, two loquacious but un-academic figures who have significantly shaped Western thought, Socrates and Jesus, left no directly recorded material.  They were not illiterate, but were so decidedly in the moment that they could n’t be bothered.  They also were not recognised in a manner similar to how we legitimate them today.  The fire of their influences is barely captured by their respective followers (perhaps the generally poor manners of their transcribers best reveal how great were their lives).

The short of it is that too often those from whom we would seek affirmation, professional or personal, are either unwilling to give it when warranted or unable to see what should be granted.  I do n’t deny that you may have legitimate reasons for rejecting Nietzsche, or for that matter Jesus or Socrates, but you should fully daemonstrate what you have to say.  You too may have something which ought to be given space in the greater discourse, but who is to say that currently the right minds are those self-appraised ‘academic’?  These too may swiftly be forgotten — what is left to consider is how will you and I chose to be forgotten: as ‘lettered’ or ‘illiterate’?








*quaver is, I ‘m disappointed to mention, actually a word attested by Middle English ‘quaveren’ meaning ‘quiver’…my usage as a variant of ‘waver’ is n’t attested….yet

**’bi’ because many scouts will be tempted to determine the quality of the applicants by (1) how physically impressive the player looks in a track suit and (2) how quickly the potential player sprints 40 yards in said track suit.  Meanwhile, I have yet to see a professional football player sprint out of a track stance whilst protected by naught but a layer of spandex; it seems an un-explored strategy.


I ‘ve tried enough times to disturb some difference worth mentioning in describing my upbringing or culture to recognise I do n’t easily produce a helpful product.  ‘My home is different from here in that…’  Worse yet, I found myself endlessly searching for what distinguished ‘me’.  Some of us should cede the field upon dis-covering we are not experts.

I ‘m not sure exactly why, but over the past year I ‘ve been collecting reasons not to write a book.  One is being added tonight: the best biography (=least mis-leading?) is rarely the auto-biography.  In short, I should perhaps choose not to retain sole privilege of recounting what boundaries of events and experiences distinguish me from you.  A third party may do a fairer job.

Part of the reason is because I rarely become aware of the mis-understandings which constitute my daily existence.  I react not to the world as it is, but to the world as such — as I expect it to be.  As such I am hoping the approximations produce acceptable results — but who would I be to tell you what was most important about my story?  My job is at best to invite you in to the home in which I myself am a stranger, and let you misunderstand it for yourself.

So I ‘m giving up my rights as an authorised witness in order to extend the horizons.  I do n’t doubt I could add a few ‘we don’t do that’s which might dissuade the easier misunderstandings, but I do not pretend to know who is in the best position to know how specifically I may best be misunderstood.

Mannerisms of Mis-Understanding: a Case Study

“In fact, the passive is not distinguished from the middle in most of the inflected forms of the Greek verb; …[distinct passive inflections in the future tense] did not develop before the classical period, and the [aorist], with certain verbs at least, could also have a ‘middle’ sense…finally, the verbal forms that could be used either as ‘middle’ or passive sentences are far more frequently to be interpreted as middle than as passive.  In short, the opposition of voice in Greek is primarily one of active v. ‘middle’.  The passive was a later development (as it was in all the Indo-European languages); and it was at first relatively infrequent.

~John Lyons, Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics, CUP, 1968: p. 373 (8.3.2 — ‘Active’ and ‘middle’ in Greek)

As I was reading this, or rather as I was being read (is that ‘middle’ or passive?), I initially thought of showing this to one of my Greek professors.  But then, I only paid attention to a few questions on the very edge of what was covered in the course; the practicality of the translation-skills themselves were of little interest to me when I was being tested for accuracy instead of for innovation, creativity, or charm.

This thought quickly faded as I realized that I do n’t honestly know the full implications of this paragraph.  I infer that I should need an advanced degree in linguistics to know what this means, so I begin toying with the idea of reaching out for a Ph.D. in the field (this is n’t the first time I ‘ve considered it).  Then contrast this with the severity that after page 373 I ‘m still not very clear what page 372 was about.  If I should attain to this degree, I could perhaps then explain page 373, but it is unlikely that any of my friends not named Mr Lyons could call my explanation meaningful, as it’d be spoken in the most foreign of languages.


That is to say, should I obtain an advanced degree in linguistics, I should most easily be misunderstood.  The pursuit of coherence again proves to be the path of mis-understanding.

Intros to European Philosophy: Nietzsche


Previously read: Birth of Tragedy, the, ‘Seventy-Five Aphorisms from Five Volumes’, Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, Case of Wagner, the, Ecce Homo.  But, I have n’t read him in awhile: the last time was the gap-year between undergrad and masters.  Also, when the title is European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (ed. M. Beardsley), you ‘re a bit happy to finally have arrived at the end. Of the philosophers to be found therein, I feel most familiar with Nietzsche.  You could accuse me of starting this blog as a place to exercise (probably not exorcise) Nietzsche and Kierkegaard’s stirrings.

Key texts: Beyond Good and Evil (abr.)

Overall impression: Nietzsche was n’t an unfamiliar subject, but I was for once able to locate him against (often) Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel.


**’^`’ *


Abstrusest im-pulses


“Indeed, to understand how the abstrusest metaphysical assertions of a philosopher have been arrived at, it is always well (and wise) to first ask oneself: ‘What morality do they (or does he) aim at?’  Accordingly, I do not believe that an ‘impulse to knowledge’ is the father of philosophy; but that another impulse here as elsewhere, has only made use of knowledge (and mistaken knowledge!) as an instrument. (European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche ed. M. Beardsley, p. 808)”

I ‘m quite partial to these sentiments regarding the ‘true vital germ’ of philosophers; they are not chosen for knowledge’s sake but in view to accomplishing some other aim, an aim which is all too often contrary to the means of communicating it.  Beware the one who is elusive in this matter.


Begging the Faculty and Opiates


“But let us reflect for a moment – it is high time to do so.  ‘How are synthetic a priori judgments possible?’  Kant asks himself – and what is really his answer? ‘By means of a means (faculty)’ – but unfortunately not in five words, but so circumstantially, imposingly, and wish such a display of German profundity and verbal flourishes, that one altogether loses sight of the comical niaiserie allemande involved in such an answer… One can do no greater wrong to the whole of this exuberant and eccentric movement…than to take it seriously, or even treat it with moral indignation… But is that – an answer?  An explanation? Or is it not merely begging the question?  How does opium induce sleep?  ‘By means of a means (faculty),’ namely the virtus dormitiva, replies the doctor in Moliere,

Quia est in eo virtus dormitiva,

Cujus est natura sensus assoupire.

[Because it contains a soporific power,

Whose nature is to dull the senses. ~ trans. Monroe Beardsley] (p. 811)”

We should expect scalding remarks from Nietzsche; it is our weakness then to be surprised and reflect little on the content therein.  Opium induces sleep because it has a ‘soporific effect’, just as any other physical explanation fails to explain the phenomena in absence of the physical relation – the same could be said for our explanations of gravity: things fall because the smaller mass experiences the pull exerted by the greater.  We still have no idea why.  Why then we should agree with Kant, if he has ‘explained’ nothing – it does not matter, for Nietzsche, as they are in our mouths only false judgments (p. 812).


Who exactly is doing the thinking here?

“With regard to the superstitions of the logicians, I shall never tire of emphasizing a small, terse fact, which these credulous minds are unwilling to recognize – namely, that a thought comes when ‘it’ wishes and, not when ‘I’ wish; so that it is aperversion of the facts of the case to say that the subject ‘I’ is the condition of the predicate ‘think.’  Something thinks; but that this ‘something’ is precisely the famous old ‘ego,’ is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, and assuredly not an ‘immediate certainty.’ (European Philosophers, p. 815)”

Even the something which thinks is imposed by the observer.  So much for Descartes, but then, this is what happens when Nietzsche is allowed the last word: he relishes it.


In a name, prejudice lurks


“But it seems to me again that in this case Schopenhauer also only did what philosophers are in the habit of doing – he seems to have adopted a popular prejudice and exaggerated it.  Willing seems to me to be above all something complicated, something that is a unity only in name – and it is precisely in a name that popular prejudice lurks, which has got the mastery over the inadequate precautions of philosophers in all ages. (p. 816)”

The will is certainly an important matter for both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, a matter too much neglected in many prominent philosophical systems (Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, and to some extent Hegel), but it is certainly a complex matter.  It is not simply enough to know that the will to power or the will to action are the reason for which we think and discuss matters, we must not make the mistake of Descartes in allowing it to be simple.


The escape into normalcy


“That the various philosophical ideas do not evolve randomly or autonomously, but in connection and relationship with each other; that, however suddenly and arbitrarily they seem to appear in the history of thought, they nevertheless belong just as much to a system as the members of the fauna of a continent – is betrayed in the end by the circumstance: how unfailingly the most diverse philosophers always fill in again a definite fundamental scheme of possible philosophies.  Under an invisible spell, they always revolve once more in the same orbit; however independent of each other they may feel themselves with their critical or systematic wills, something within them leads them, something impels them in definite order, the one after the other – to wit, the innate methodology and relationship of their ideas. (pp. 817-818)”

Leave it to Nietzsche or Foucault to say a lot in two sentences, with a lot of Nietzschian/Foucauldian asides to mark their respective streams of consciousness, but still to wander on their way.  It makes for interesting reading and it is n’t ‘clean’ in the manner of some philosophers.  That ideas operate within a discourse and are essentially all reactions to each other (and necessarily they are always in response to some finite series of former reactions) is a point which needs making (even as a reaction, it still needs to be said again as the counterreaction is sure to come back).


“[O]ne should use ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ only as pure concepts, that is to say, as conventional fictions for the purpose of designation and mutual understanding –not for explanation. (pp. 818-819)”

I love considering causality, and alternatives to causal explanations, but prefer to note that ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ are useful in day to day discourse as language conventions; but ought to not be thought of formally as useful descriptors.  For Nietzsche, the only helpful causality is the causality of will (because any who wills certainly expects to make a specific change – to will this thing) (p. 823) and for Ghazali it is most important that causality not limit God’s freedom.

  • This is only an aside, but in speaking of experience Nietzsche leaves this: “[E]xperience, as it seems to me, always implies unfortunate experience? (p. 833)”


Fear of the known

“Every deep thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood.  The latter perhaps wounds his vanity; but the former wounds his heart, his sympathy, which always say: ‘Ah why would you also have as hard a time of it as I have?’ (p. 849)”

I have elsewhere remarked on this passage, so I only here would say that understanding, as truth or knowledge, is power-language and can so be deemed abusive by one who feels experience has given her a right to speak thusly.

Intros to European Philosophy: Rousseau


Previously Read: Not that I recall

Key texts: The Social Contract

Overall impression: The concept of the social contract seems to be wielded much as Kant spoke glowingly of the categorical imperative or Comte (to an amazing extent) waxed about positivism.   Or, he spoke glowingly of an idea I did n’t understand, similar to your professor’s pet philosophy term which does n’t explain what (s)he tells you it does.  Perhaps you ‘re surprised to hear me fret over misunderstanding him, but I ‘m leaning towards he did n’t understand (few of us do) what his ideas sounded like to others.

Still I admire some of his social insights piecemeal while unsure of what the social contract truly would look like in practice.


“Aristotle was right; but he took the effect for the cause. Nothing can be more certain than that every man born in slavery is born for slavery. Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them: they love their servitude, as the comrades of Ulysses loved their brutish condition. If then there are slaves by nature, it is because there have been slaves against nature. Force made the first slaves, and their cowardice perpetuated the condition. (European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, ed. M. Beardsley, p. 323)”

Wow. Blaming slaves for lacking the will to shake off their chains is… Wow. Stating that it is easier for the disempowered to accept their disempowerment (because they could always change their state) ignores the fact that subversive power is necessary both to establish and maintain the institution.  Having just finished 1984 again, I must say that dehumanization is a difficult process and one whose effects we should refrain from laying on the abused.

Far more sensible is:

“War is constituted by a relation between things and not between persons; and, as the state of war cannot arise out of simple personal relations, but only out of real relations, private war, or war of man with man, can exist neither in the state of nature, where there is no constant property, nor in the social state, where everything is under the authority of laws. (European Philosophers, p. 326)”

As he applies this to deny the supposed right of a state to execute its war captives (and then mercifully enslave them or ‘killing his enemy usefully’), I appreciate this. It may be I misunderstand his idea of socialization of slavery’s scope, but at least he denies this ‘right of the state’ to enslave. “Individuals are enemies only accidentally” sums this up well (accidental in the Aristotelian sense) (ibidem, p. 326).

Now that I ‘ve gone and invoked Orwell, I wonder what Rousseau would have had to say about modern warfare in the nuclear age.  It seems so unimaginable; the gulf between those who could imagine a society without war and our annihilationist age of fear which serves to justify perpetual war without relation.

“[T]ruth is no road to fortune, and the people dispenses neither ambassadorships, nor professorships, nor pensions. (p. 338)”

Love it.  That ‘s easily a favorite quote from European Philosophers as a whole.

  • Also, I enjoyed this footnote attributed to the Marquis d’Argenson: “Every interest has different principles. The agreement of two particular interests is formed by opposition to a third. (ibidem)”  ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ much as Oceania is alternately friend to Eastasia or Eurasia based not on some overriding relation but on anti-relation to the other.  Theology too is defensively targeted to defend principles from external and internal opposition (Cf. Ghazali).


And a moment of hubris:

“All my ideas are consistent, but I cannot expound them all at once. (p. 343)”

Sorry, that kind of genius is reserved for the world from whence it comes. Genius is a term given from the outside, a recognition, it is not to be bestowed on oneself when one is unable to communicate adequately. If we must accept all of your precepts pre-simultaneously, we shall reserve our energies for better pursuits.

“The question ‘What absolutely is the best government?’ is unanswerable as well as indeterminate; or rather, there are as many good answers as there are possible combinations in the absolute and relative situations of all nations. (p. 357)”

You’ll have to forgive him, clearly he didn’t feel the impending approach of God’s penultimate kingdom come to earth that is enjoyed in our country (which kingdom?). We must forgive the poor Frenchman who did not see our most glorious day.

On representation:

“As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall. When it is necessary to march out to war, they pay troops and stay at home: when it is necessary to meet in council, they name deputies and stay at home. By reason of idleness and money, they end by having soldiers to enslave their country and representatives to sell it… In any case, the moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists. (pp. 358 & 360-361)”

the Will to Mis-Understanding

290.  Every deep thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood.  The latter perhaps wounds his vanity; but the former wounds his heart, his sympathy, which always says: “Ah, why would you also have as hard a time of it as I have?”

~Beyond Good and Evil (trans. Helen Zimmern) from the European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2002) the Modern Library, NY. ed. Monroe Beardsley: p. 849

If I had to make a guess where the concept (which I still can neither nail down, nor wish to by giving it a definite origin and limit its applications) of trying-to-be-misunderstood originates, my guess would be that the language of it at least sounds Nietzschian at first pass.  But then, what do I know? or so what?

Nietzsche put his finger on the psychology of introspective thinking.  There’s a strong tendency for me to not only believe that certain thoughts are ‘mine’ but further, to guard them as if they were.  Perhaps we should wonder why intellectual property is so closely guarded in Western societies.  It’s because we thinkers also want to have some say concerning how our ideas are appropriated – and sometimes with good reason!

But I’ll move past this thought to consider why any deep thinker would prefer being misunderstood to understanding.  Nietzsche here asserts that the psychological impulse rejects another’s claim to understand because a solitary thinker resists the assertion that her experience is common.  How can anyone else have suffered as I have suffered; this is worth far more to me for I have waited here in the damp cold for enlightenment, but what have you done?  Why should you be paid for the whole day’s work when I arrived before the dawn – when I have not rested!  That she is indignant is easy to grasp in theory, but her tears have been her own and we must not claim them.

So too the friend who has consoled another in hard moments should know better than to utter those ill-fated words I’ve been there.  Pain has its own language and few are permitted to speak it.  The rest of us may sit with him until he should speak, but entrance to this club is bought dearly should we wish to offer our own experience.  While the suffering of the thinker – the travails of her exile – may not amount to the same, it is for her to decide; not us.

Another word on the psychology of being understood (though I hope it will be readily seen that the right to claim understanding is not to be taken up lightly – even if it is not entirely the mourner’s or the thinker’s (I’m tempted to write tinkerer here to show better what I mean for that better approximates the task of the deep thinker) to decide who can speak): We’re talking about power.  After all, we’re drawing from Nietzsche – how could we avoid power talk?

Understanding is about the right to speak – if we understand her, there’s not much left for her to explain.  But if we’re dealing with a deep thinker, not enough can be explained.  It is not that we are unable to offer feedback, it’s that she ought to retain some right to answer.  Otherwise we deny the Will to Power for which she toils.  She approximates, scrapes not only for language with which to construct but also to best communicate her thoughts, and at last presents it.  It may be premature even to assert that she understands her project in full.  Instead she misunderstands well – she has developed a point from which to approximate and communicate her vision, she has a unique misunderstanding.  We may reply to her from our own vantage points, but we should hesitate before we too quickly assert that we understand her.

  • Update: my friend, Jess L, responded with an interesting bit of language that might, I think, be offered instead of the dubious ‘I understand’ – ‘I dig’