Mittwoch, 30. September 2009

Aesthetics & Estrangement

I'm not sure why it hasn't occurred to me before that Kant's aesthetic theory can be understood in relation to the Russian formalists' concept of ostranenie ('defamiliarization', 'making strange'). The idea that literary language (for example) is language used in such a way that it is remarkable or unusual, that we are led to consider things in a new light. Kant's ideas about beauty are of course part of a larger theory of how we form judgments about the world. Beauty is thus essentially about understanding; the beautiful is what seems immediately comprehensible and yet resists comprehension. It seems appropriate that one of the examples of the beautiful that he gives is the arabesque, with its Oriental (and hence, exotic, strange) associations.

This is of course only one reading of Kant. Where the Formalists differ most significantly from Kant is in the idea of making strange. Kant's aesthetic object derives its beauty from some inherent quality of the thing, and thus it tends to feel rather static. Ostranenie carries with it a sense of renewal, of transformation. Beauty as an unveiling, a stripping away of the ordinary.

Certainly this is part of the very personal appeal which learning languages has always had for me. The challenge of reading texts in another language makes one more sensitive to things which one would otherwise take for granted.

Sonntag, 27. September 2009

A Moment of Weakness

So, just in case anyone was taking bets, I've been in Germany less than a week, and already I've managed to purchase several books (as though I weren't lugging around enough stuff as it is).

I went to the Pergomon Museum this morning so I could see the Ishtar Gate and some other exhibits which had been closed when I was there last summer...The weekly antique market was set up in the street outside, and of course I couldn't just walk by without seeing whether any of the booksellers had anything good, now could I? For three Euros I came back with a commentary by Denniston and Page on Aeschylus' Agamemnon, and a two volume text + commentary in German of Greek lyric poetry. There were some other interesting titles, but I restrained myself fairly well, I think, the stuff in German I should be able to find again if I really want it, but the Greek texts were too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Montag, 21. September 2009

Final preparations

Punk of course had to help me with the packing...

And make sure that nobody meddled with the contents of my suitcase...
And finally test out the view from my half-emptied bookshelf...

Sniff. I'll miss the little monsters.

Samstag, 19. September 2009

A Wish

I've always liked this brief enigmantic story by Walter Benjamin. Times like now when I'm running around trying to arrange things and wondering what the purpose of all of it is, it seems particularly appropriate.

"The Wish"
Walter Benjamin

One evening at the close of the Sabbath the Jews sat in a poor inn in a Hasidic village. All of them were locals except for one whom no one knew, a very poor and tattered fellow who cowered in the background in the shadow of the oven. The conversation turned to this and that, until someone asked the question what each of them would wish for if he were to be granted one wish. One wanted money, another a son-in-law, a third a new workbench, and so it went around the group.

After all had spoken their turn, only the beggar in the corner by the oven remained. Reluctantly and with hesitation he replied to their questioning: “I would that I were a mighty king and ruled in a great country and lay asleep at night in my palace and enemies broke across the borders and by dawn the riders had penetrated to my castle, and that there were no resistance and I, frightened from my sleep, not even having time to dress myself, wearing only my shirt, had to take flight, and that I were pursued over mountains and valleys, through woods and across hills until I arrived here and found safety on this bench in your corner. That is what I wish.”

The others looked at him uncomprehendingly. “And what would you have as a result of all that?” asked someone. “A shirt,” was the answer.

Source: Walter Benjamin. “Der Wunsch.” In Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. IV, Part 2, p. 759. Translation is mine, the original will follow if I can find where I put the photocopy of the text.

Samstag, 5. September 2009

Aristotle & semantics (IV)

Categoriae 1. 1a 1-15

Ὁμώνυμα λέγεται ὧν ὄνομα μονον κοινόν, ὁ δὲ κατὰ τοὔνομα λόγος τῆς οὐσίας ἕτερος, οἷον ζῷον ὅ τε ἄνθρωπος καὶ τὸ γεγραμμένον. Τουτων γὰρ ὄνομα μόνον κοινόν, ὁ δὲ κατὰ τοὔνομα λόγος τῆς οὐσίας ἕτερος· ἄν γάρ τις ἀποδιδῷ τί ἐστιν αὐτῶν ἑκατέρῳ τὸ ζῴῳ εἶναι, ἴδιον ἑκατέρου λόγον ἀποδωσει.

Συνώνυμα δὲ λεγεται ὧ τό τε ὄνομα κοινὸν καὶ ὁ κατὰ τοὔνομα λόγος τῆς οὐσίας ὁ αὐτός, οἷον ζῷον ὁ τε ἄνθρωπος καὶ ὁ βοῦς. ὁ γὰρ ἄνθρωπος καὶ ὁ βοῦς κοινῷ ὀνόματι προσαγορεύεται ζῷον, καὶ ὁ λόγος δὲ τῆς οὐσίας ὁ αὐτός· ἐὰν γὰρ ἀποδιδῷ τις τὸν ἑκατέρου λόγον, τί ἐστιν αὐτῶν ἑκατέρῳ τὸ ζῴῳ εἶναι, τὸν αὐτὸν λόγον ἀποδώσει.

Homonymous are called those things which have only the same name, but which have a different account of their essence [λόγος τῆς οὐσίας] in relation to the name; in such a way ‘animal’ [ζῷον] is used for both a human being and a drawing. For only the name is common to both, while the account of the essence for this name is different. For if someone were to explain what it is for each of them to be an animal, he will give a particular account of each.

Synonymous are called those things which have both the same name and the same account of their essence in relation to the name; in such a way ‘animal is used for both a human and an ox. For man and ox are both called animal with the same name, and the account of their essence is the same. For if someone were to give the account of what it is for each of them to be an animal, he will give the same account.

λόγος τῆς οὐσίας: translated by Ackrill as “definition”; the emphasis, however, is slightly different than that of ὁρισμὸς in the Physica above.

ζῷον: originally meant ‘animal’ or ‘living thing’, but also came to refer to paintings or other artistic representations.

Aristotle’s use of “homonym” and “synonym” is different than the modern one. Ackrill (71) points out that they apply to things, not types of words. I have followed him in translating ὁμώνυμα and συνώνυμα in the passage as though they were adjectives in order to make this relationship clearer.

The distinction Aristotle makes between homonyms and synonyms seems to involve what we would call different word senses. That is, he distinguishes between two instances of a word where it is being used in the same sense (synonymous) and two instances where the sense is different (homonymous). Note that in his description of synonyms he is not saying that ‘human’ and ‘ox’ mean the same thing, but rather that, since both are hyponyms of ‘animal’, the name applies to each of them in the same way (in Aristotle’s terms, by virtue of their being possessed of both a nutritive and a motive/perceptive soul), whereas a drawing is an animal only insofar as it represents, or has the form necessary for, an animal.

For Aristotle, as will be seen in the section from De partis animalibus below, this homonymous (we might say, ‘metaphorical,’ although where non-metaphorical extension of meaning ends and metaphor begins is difficult to say) use of language seems to be inferior; each word has a central meaning which is connected to the physical thing which it describes.

παρώνυμα δὲ λέγεται ὅσα ἀπό τινος διαφέροντα τῇ πτώσει τὴν κατὰ τοὔνομα προσηγορίαν ἔχει, οἷον ἀπὸ τῆς γραμματικῆς ὁ γραμματικὸς καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς ἀνδρείας ὁ ανδρεῖος.

Paronymous are called those things of a sort which have the name they are called by from something else, while differing in their ending; thus, the grammarian from grammar, and the brave man from bravery.

πτωσις: “falling” or “fall”. Usually used in grammar for the cases of a word, but here Aristotle is using it to refer to derivational, not inflectional morphemes.

Unlike the previous terms, “paronym” corresponds fairly closely with modern usage, although once again it probably refers to things rather than words. Ackrill also suggests that “the derivativeness in question is not etymological. Aristotle is not claiming that the word ‘brave’ was invented after the word ‘bravery’. He is claiming rather that ‘brave’ means ‘having bravery’; the brave is so called because of (‘from’) the bravery he has” (72). This interpretation would be consistent with Aristotle’s thought in general and his concern with qualia in particular, as it does not simply register a grammatical fact (we can derive words from other words), but a certain type of relationship between the name and the characteristics of the thing named. The Greek tends to support this: the use of ἀπό τινος “from something” instead of ἀπὸ ἄλλου ὀνόματος “from another word,” and the examples Aristotle chooses, which both start with the abstract quality from which the noun (for a person) is derived.

Ackrill, J.L. Trans & Commentary. 1963. Aristotle. Categories and De Interpretatione. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mittwoch, 2. September 2009


A medievalist's understanding of the ancient world is very different than a classicist's. This is frustrating and highly disorienting, at least for the classicist.

I'm not sure how much of the structure of the medieval education system (for example) is appropriate to attribute to Aristotle (or even the neo-Aristotelian tradition), although people in the Middle Ages may have believed that they were essentially following ancient sources. One might at least note that their knowledge of Greek texts was often second-hand, either through Roman writers or via Latin translations of the originals.