In the modern period, it was customary to commence a work with a letter to the reader, apologizing for the text they are about to read, and explaining the aims and purposes of writing it in the first place. This was convenient, because you got to say that your work wouldn’t be very good, before anyone else complained about it, letting yourself off the hook, and then also telling people why you were bothering with it. Since introductory posts are still a useful concept, the conceit of an epistle to the reader seemed like a good one to take advantage of here, and I also want to let myself off the hook in case this blog turns out turns out not to be very good.
This blog may not turn out to be very good. I am pretty sure the idea for the blog is a good one. The idea is to look at what modern philosophers had to say about human nature, and see if we can glean any good insights about human nature from it. However, if I had to pick the single greatest insight from modern western European philosophy (not that it is exclusive to modern philosophy, because this insight is present in classical Greek philosophy, Indian Buddhist philosophy, medieval European philosophy, Arabic philosophy, and so on), it is that there can be a shockingly large gap between ideas and reality. Anyway, my point is, in standard Epistle to the Reader style, I need to pre-apologize that what you will read in the blog posts that I write may not be worth the time I spend writing them, or the time you spend reading them, because as great as this idea is, maybe I won’t do a great job at it.
So, the purpose of this blog is for me to explore modern philosophy texts that touch on various aspects of the question “what exactly is ‘the deal’ with humans?” (not a direct quote), and see if I can make any sense of what they are saying, and see whether what they are saying makes any sense.
I don’t exactly know how this is going to go, because I don’t have a plan—or rather, I have Napoleon’s plan—and the whole idea for the blog came to me when I tweeted a joke about how an angry teen might reverse the words in the name of an early modern text while yelling at their modern philosophy parents (“maybe you should try to write an essay concerning UNDERSTANDING HUMANS, JEEZ”), but regardless of how we got here, I do think the idea is worth pursuing.
Apart from “in order to be sort of pretentious”, you might ask “why is this introductory post written up as a letter, and labeled as an Epistle?” That’s because the other thing that I think about a lot with modern philosophy is genre. One of the things that happens, if you spend a lot of time reading—and especially teaching—modern philosophy, is that you think much more about the genre in which things are written than when you read mostly contemporary philosophical writing. Contemporary philosophical writing has a really nice virtue of the authors (mostly) saying what they want to argue, as much as possible, in a more or less straightforward way, and laying out the argument (hopefully), as clearly as they can. Before the journal article and academic monograph came to fully dominate the way philosophy was done, there were so, so many different genres of philosophical writing. Not just essays and treatises which are (more or less) forerunners to what we do now, but dialogues, meditations, the epistolary form, actual correspondence, pensées (not sure if that’s a full genre or if Pascal was just foreshadowing tweetstorms), the geometric method, plays, poems, novels and (probably) more.
I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about what the specific trade-offs are in terms of what we lost or gained in narrowing the range of genres in which we tend to write; other than that there were definite gains in clarity by shifting to generally always writing in the assertoric mode. But, since we don’t deliberate about which genre to write in ourselves, we aren’t especially keyed in to how to read the different genres, and especially not how they functioned in that period, so we’re apt to miss a lot of stuff that would have been patently obvious to the folks at the time, simply because we don’t think of plays or poems as instances of philosophy any more.
Every single year when I teach the correspondence between Descartes and Princess Elisabeth, students ask whether the two of them were flirting, because of how the start of each letter has them tripping over themselves with “I’m not worthy to talk to you” and “you’re so smart I must have been too stupid to understand what you were saying” and “I was so sad I didn’t get a chance to see you in person when you were in town but if I had seen you in person I would have been too embarrassed to speak” type remarks (these are not exact quotes). This is especially heightened given the contrast with Descartes’s very hostile responses to some of the objectors in the Objections and Replies to the Meditations.
Is this way of writing a sign of actual warmth of feeling between them, or is that just how people wrote letters back then? The contrast with the Objections and Replies doesn’t seem like the best evidence one way or the other, since the objections and replies were definitively a public performance for defending the meditations from criticism. Sometimes correspondence was intended to be public when it was written, but the correspondence with Elisabeth wasn’t when it was written.
Every so often when I am starting an email or a letter with “dear”, I’m reminded that, taken literally, doing so means that I am addressing the recipient as dear to me. But I start emails to near strangers with “Dear [so-and-so]”. It’s so formulaic that people basically never even notice that they’ve been told they are dear to me, when I do so. And some letter writing conventions were so formulaically adhered to in the past, that people maintained obsequious sign-offs in their letters to each other, even when negotiating the details of how to attempt to kill each other. So that certainly could change some aspects of how we read the opening passages of the letters in the Elisabeth-Descartes correspondence. My point isn’t to settle the subtext of the Descartes-Elisaebeth correspondence here, but just to point out (as I do for my students) that I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what sort of phrasing acrobatics are required in order to neutrally email my co-workers asking them if they will read a paper and give me feedback, so it is hard to imagine there wouldn’t be analogous sorts of dynamics for the two of them.
I’ve been rambling about genre a lot because the first essay (concerning understanding) humans that I’m posting concerns a poem by Margaret Cavendish. And I’m not an expert on interpreting poetry. I may very well drop the ball with my interpretation of what Cavendish is trying to say with the poem. But I’m going to try!
Regards, Your Most Sincere and Grateful