A Lyceum Member writes, proposing a Philosophical Happy Hour topic: What is certitude? What role do signs play in achieving certitude? What role do signs play in intuition? Can I be certain about my mother’s love – is it intuited through signs, or through some other means?
The notions of certitude and intuition have played an important role in modern philosophy for centuries. But what are they? While they are subject to dispute and revision (say, this Wednesday, 10/4!) it should be helpful to offer provisional definitions. We may identify certitude as a firm conviction in the truth of the proposition which admits no doubt under current circumstances. Intuition, on the other hand, may be defined as an immediate and non-discursive grasp of some truth. Intuition, very often, is held to extend primarily if not exclusively to objects beyond the sensible. This
Semiotics contra Modernity
René Descartes puts certitude at the center of his noetic revolution: the method of skeptical doubt rejects anything which cannot be situated on indubitable grounds, and thus the justification of any claim to knowledge requires that it be grasped with certitude. Attempting to combat this skepticism, Locke and other self-professed empiricists attempted to demonstrate how sense perception gives rise to true knowledge. But because many apparent objects and experiences in even our banal, daily lives defy reduction to the strictly sensible, the notion of intuition outlined above gains greater prominence.
[intuition] is a cognition not determined by a previous cognition of the same object, and therefore so determined by something out of the consciousness… Intuition here will be nearly the same as “premise not itself a conclusion”; the only difference being that premises and conclusions are judgments whereas an intuition may, as far as its definition states, be any kind of cognition whatever. But just as a conclusion (good or bad) is determined in the mind of the reasoner by its premise, so cognitions not judgments may be determined by previous cognitions; and a cognition not so determined, and therefore determined directly by the transcendental object, is to be termed an intuition.
But just such a cognition, Peirce goes on to argue, cannot exist: that is, every apparent intuitive grasp of some truth is, in fact, an unrecognized process of semiosis, the use of signs. Does there remain a role for intuition in our noetic theory? What happens to the notion of certitude?
We’ll tackle these (and any related topics) this Wednesday (4 October 2023) from 5:45 until 7:15 pm ET. Use the links below!
Philosophical Happy Hour
Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.
The contemporary controversy concerning education centers around the institutions tasked with providing it. We ask ourselves what curricula should be implemented, what teaching methods are most effective, and how governmental agencies can assist in the growth of educational institutions—we debate the morality of teachers and their influence, the rights to speech and questioning, the difficulty of grading and assessment and so on and on. All too rarely, especially as these disputes intensify, do we pause to question our presuppositions concerning the true nature and purpose of education itself. Indeed: long is it overdue that we turn our gaze away from the institutional structure and instead towards the individual, the family, and especially the parents who themselves are not only the first teachers of their children, but who ought to teach them always—who ought to be models from which their children learn throughout life.
This is not to deny the necessity of educational institutions—not only as pragmatic necessities for parents who cannot afford to homeschool but also for higher learning of every kind. Yet, though necessary, institutions will always be insufficient. We cannot outsource or offload the responsibility for education to any institution or collection of institutions. Institutions are lenses that help bring clarity and focus; but they are not the light.
Education, as any experienced educator knows, consists in guiding rather than informing; in fostering the right questions rather than the correct answers. Intellectual nourishment, however, requires a holistic approach. Going to the gym five days a week will do relatively little for one’s health if all other hours of the day are marked by constant consumption of junk food and buttery baked goods. So too, the best teaching in school cannot eradicate contrary examples given at home—nor, for that matter, should this be required. For the student to see his parents’ leisure hours consumed whole by television or distractions encourages inheritance of the same infertile habit. Every human being signifies to every other not only through words and actions, but by the virtues and vices cultivated in one’s person. We not only think through signs; we are ourselves symbols, signifiers of the truths and goods in which we believe, shown through our actions.
Thus, we must reorient our perspective on education: the foundation—the first symbol by which its merit is conveyed to the child and spread throughout the culture—cannot be found in the institution but rather only within the household and particularly in parents aflame with their own love for wisdom and learning. This love becomes a first spark in the lives of children—to be focused and brightened by the lenses of educational institutions. But they can neither start nor maintain that fire.
This love of learning and discovery passed from parent to child need not be of abstruse topics—neither metaphysics nor science, theological controversy nor philosophical dialectic—but can be rooted in the very life of the home: in the tradition of family, in the cultivation of land, in the play of language through story and invention. Principally, this love must kindle the natural desire to know, that sits at the heart of every human being. That parents may seek development of their own higher education, of course, serves all the better, for this demonstrates that learning not only satisfies curiosity or amusement, but that it requires discipline, and that this discipline earns the soul richer rewards.
By showing this intellectual discipline to children—and, indeed, one’s whole community—the parent (or even the unmarried and childless adult) exposes the lie that education after childhood constitutes a mere hobby or pastime. At the Lyceum Institute we aim to provide a digital community which supports this continued pursuit of learning—as, indeed, education always is enriched by being shared with others. In fact, no education occurs alone; it is handed down by ourselves and by others and flourishes thereby, through books and records of findings and thought. But a living engagement takes it further: brings it into the life possible only through conversation, through disputation, through real questioning. Community, structured by an institution, helps shape the lens through which the lights of learning shine brighter.
With discussion sessions beginning this coming Saturday (9/23), I would be remiss if I did not put out a final call for registration in our Fall seminars. We have three provocative offerings, each of which promises to confront the errors of modernity in radically differing ways.
Rosenstock’s insights have to do above all with speech, time and history – topics infamous for their unpredictability, and fractious in their irreducibility to mere ratiocination or univocal definition. Aristotle, after all, reminds us that, due to the very nature of human events, there will never be a science of history. And yet, with all the ambiguities and surprises, it is in time and history that we live and move and have our being. We use propositions and syllogisms, but they do not provide us with a human dwelling, nor can they console us in our trials.
The term “phenomenology” has received a multitude of meanings over the past several centuries but today refers primarily to the loose collection of approaches initiated by Edmund Husserl with his 1900 (and revised in 1913) Logichse Untersuchungen, or Logical Investigations. Yet these approaches, while all see in phenomenology something foundational about how it is that human beings know, vary widely in their conduct. Prominent among them, and very frequently misunderstood, is the phenomenological approach advocated by Martin Heidegger—who, although perhaps the best-known of Husserl’s students, also perhaps departs the most radically among all the phenomenologists from his one-time teacher.
The importance of habit’s influence on action has been well noted by Saint Thomas and his followers (as, indeed, by all thoughtful followers of Aristotle) with respect to virtue and vice. This influence will be only as it were, however, an incidental object of our study. For, of particular importance in this seminar will be not only a consideration of habits as developing the individual, but as constituting the intersubjective reality of environment, community, and culture: of habits not only as they cause a coalescence of actuality in the human being (secundum se) but between human beings and the world (ad aliud).
Put otherwise, if we are to understand the full importance of habit, we cannot see it merely as something within ourselves as individuals but must recognize its influence on how we relate amongst ourselves.
The term kulturkampf, literally “culture struggle”, has long-since been translated into English as “culture war”. I have no desire to participate in a “culture war”. Indeed, as I will argue here, the very notion of the “culture war” is not only misguided but harmful. But as someone living within a culture, however, I do believe it is inevitable that I and everyone else—willingly or not, consciously or not—everyone does participate in the struggle over culture.
Semantics of War and Struggle
Why this “quibbling over semantics”? Before I get to the semantics themselves, I have to say that I have never accepted as legitimate the objection that one is quibbling over semantics. Words are important. They signify concepts, and concepts are that on the basis of which all human history (all that is truly human, that is) has unfolded. If you do not believe words are important, there seems to be no reason for you to read this—or anything. In fact, the objection of “quibbling over semantics” presumes a nominalist or at least idealist divorce between cognitive activity and things independent of cognitive activity; but pursuing that question would take us far off track.
Returning therefore to the semantics of “struggle” and “war”: I protest the latter term because it suggests an entirely inapt metaphor. War, to be waged justly, must have a reasonable expectation of victory. One adopts violent means out of necessity: the need, namely, to produce or restore an orderly way of life that allows human beings to pursue their natural and fitting goods. War should be irregular. And before anyone thinks about bringing it up, let me say that there is an entirely different way in which the concept of “spiritual warfare” or “spiritual combat” must be understood, which would take us into a discussion well outside the boundaries of what I am here to discuss today; but which, succinctly, may be presented by saying that there are conditions for decisive victory in matters of the spiritual soul of the human being. Not so in matters of culture, which is, by nature, an intrinsically temporally-unfolding suprasubjective reality constituted through a pattern of relations which attains a new foundation in every human being who is born and reared within a society of other human beings. Or to put this in other, simpler words, culture is an ever-present and ever-developing reality which can only exist through the exchanges human beings have with and towards one another. It is never final, because we human beings, as existing on earth, are not final; we, by nature, are creatures that change both over the course of our individual lives and over the course of generations. So long as humans have freedom of thought and will, culture may change.
What’s Wrong with the World?
Allow me an anecdote. When I taught ethics at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, a secular school in Boston, Massachusetts, I started each semester by giving the students a notecard on which to write their names, email addresses, a hobby or interest, and—in a single sentence or less—something they believe to be wrong with the world today, with the promise that I’d give my own answer later in the semester. Their answers ranged from the very thoughtful to the kind one might expect in a caricature of a beauty pageant. Most were focused on what could be called systematic societal issues: poverty, inequality, abuse of power, ideologies, a lack of charity or honesty among people as a whole, and so on and so forth. Throughout the semester, we read a variety of thinkers influential in ethics: David Hume, J.L. Mackie, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, Philippa Foot, Marilyn Frye, and so on. Each, in some way, provides a “system” for ethics either as a whole or with regard to some specific problems: rules or sets of principles which, if followed, are promised to improve society. They might be rather loose rules or principles, or rather strict ones—but all had in mind the same goal, despite the significant differences in their means. Mind you, I was required to provide a survey course covering a broad range of thinkers and theories—ideally, I would have focused the course more intently on better thinkers, but the conditions of my employment were non-negotiable. Regardless, being required to teach a wide range of theories and thinkers, I spent most of the semester showing how these proposed systems have intrinsic and unavoidable flaws, no matter how strictly observed; how they fail in other words, how they do not provide us a secure and ethical society, and how they may be overcome or abused. Towards the end of the semester, we would read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—after the first book of which, I would read their answers as to what’s wrong with the world back to them. They would remember my promise, and that it was my turn.
“What’s wrong with the world?” I asked myself, out loud, before them. “Me,” I would answer; “I am.”
You might recognize this answer from a legend about Chesterton—I freely admit that I lifted it. But it is, I believe, a good teaching tool: yes, there are many systematic problems with our country, our world, our politics, and our culture. I cannot control any of those problems. I can try to change them, but I cannot control them; for all are dependent upon millions of wills not my own. I am, by nature, in control only of myself and even that only to a limited degree (i.e., I cannot will myself to be something I naturally am not—as I cannot will myself to be a top-tier athlete—maybe a decent one, but genetically that has always been out of my grasp—nor can someone born a man will himself to become a female, and so on). The circumstances into which we all are born are beyond our control. What is in our control is our capacity for virtue, the decisions and choices that we as individuals make. Naturally, this extends into those with whom we have close relations: our individuality is only relative, and we are ourselves constituted largely through the relations we have with others. But the faculty of the will extends efficaciously only to the self. We may influence others through a kind of formal causality—objective or specifying causality, to be precise, which is just what I was attempting to do with those students, showing them the truth through a careful, painful, difficult process, one class session, one reading, one assignment, one Socratic hour at a time—but we cannot control their wills. We can only attempt to specify objects for their thinking, propose to them what we believe is true, and strive to show them—most especially through how we live ourselves—the truth of the good, and thus that it is desirable.
Struggle and Habit
It in this inability to control others and the difficulty of showing the truth in which the struggle over culture consists. It is perennial; it occurs again and anew with each individual human being who grows up in this or any other society. Believing that ever there could occur a society where the demonstration of what is true is not difficult, where the struggle for it does not recur on a daily basis, is a fantasy which obscures the truth of the matter. There are no shortcuts: the effect of specifying formal causality does not and cannot occur on a cultural scale through the impositions of force. It is a gradual process of developing habits and requires careful and constant attention. I had relatively decent success, teaching my ethics course, in persuading students to think that Aristotle was a very good starting point, to recognize that claim as true, in other words: but only because they were small classes of no more than 22 students. (I doubt the effects were lasting, unfortunately—a single isolated course with students exposed to little else of similar thinking. But I may hope that their thinking has remained on the track set down by the course, given the intensity of our discussions.) That is not to say a larger class could not have been likewise incipiently persuaded; but affecting such a first step towards persuasion among most of a large crowd would likely have been only superficial, a fleeting adherence born not of intellectual conviction but birthed merely through winning the moment—through presenting them a fictionalized, fantastic version of Aristotle: the bold, counter-cultural Stagirite who stands athwart modernity, etc., etc.
In the age of mass media, and especially the internet, where any message has the potential to reach masses of people, such reductive approaches possess a seductive allure—especially if we conceive of the cultural struggle as being a war. We see this video, or that trend, or this or that celebrity spreading a false message; we see their YouTube hit counters ticking over into hundreds of thousands, millions, hundreds of millions of views; this odious Tweet (Twixt?) garnering countless likes and retweets, that Facebook post being shared over and over again; misinformation being spread far and wide; and we feel that we must combat these numbers with our own. Alarms blare in our mind and we hear the shouts of: “They are beating us! They are winning! We are losing!” They are gashing us; so we must, we think, respond in kind. We fashion exaggerated narratives, pseudo-historical accounts—we put on airs of gnosticism, of being the elect, being “those who know”.
Pyrrhic Wars of Formal Causality
But the battlefield of those who wage war on the truth is fantasy. To engage them in combat is to step on to that battlefield; to have to use their weapons, weapons which rely upon a kind of seduction into a way of living rather than understanding the truth about the good—weapons which aim at the lower rather than higher faculties of the human being. This would be to abuse the influence of objective causality.
I do not mean to suggest that fiction and fantasy cannot be put to good use. They can be powerful means for telling stories which elucidate truths better than can be done by any philosophy. But with the degradation of good philosophical thinking the fantastic loses its proper context of significance. For a right formation of the moral imagination there must also be the claritas of good intellectual judgment: not only that there may be produced good works of creative fiction but that their interpretation might be guided correctly. To gain these two goods of intellectual correctness and imaginative rectitude proves not a matter of battle, but of struggle. It is lived by each of us individually and realized culturally in our being with one another. Approached as a war, you may “win” a battle here or there—changing a school curriculum, passing a law, discrediting a movie or television show or speaker—but fought as battles, they are inevitable pyrrhic, costing us more than they gain.
An older version of this is available in audio form here:
Rosenstock-Huessy’s is a powerful and original mind. What is most important in his work is the understanding of the relevance of traditional values to a civilization still undergoing revolutionary transformations; and this contribution will gain rather than lose significance in the future.
Join us for an invigorating seminar that delves into the profound thought of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a Jewish convert to Christianity, World War I veteran, and multifaceted thinker of the 20th century. A maverick philosopher and teacher, Rosenstock-Huessy emigrated from Nazi Germany to Harvard—where he was marginalized both for an interdisciplinary approach (before it was fashionable) and for unapologetically using the word “God” frequently in class. Thankfully he found a congenial home at Dartmouth College where his thought was given free reign until his death in 1973. Despite often being overlooked by conventional academia, his vast collection of works continues to resonate with contemporary scholars and has been praised as seminal by many critics.
The seminar promises to unlock the sui generis insights and methodologies that set Rosenstock-Huessy apart. His philosophical contributions defy easy categorization but open doors to understanding aspects of reality previously unnoticed. His ideas, stemming from unexpected cultural corners, offer a refreshing perspective on time, speech, and history—topics notoriously challenging to pin down.
Participants will explore Rosenstock’s enduring insights, focusing on his unique “grammatical method” of understanding. This approach safeguards against the modern tendency to reduce human reality to mere “scientific” statements. The discussion will also probe his perspective on the precedence of the second person over the first in our encounter with reality, his critique of prioritizing space over time, and his innovative “Cross of Reality” to reorient human consciousness.
Furthermore, the seminar will address Rosenstock-Huessy’s theories on the origin of language, emphasizing the primacy of hearing over seeing. It will also explore his alignment with other “speech thinkers” of the last century and his intricate understanding of history as a central theme converging all his insights.
This seminar invites scholars, students, and curious minds to engage with the challenging and inspiring works of this often-underappreciated thinker. It offers a stimulating journey into philosophical realms that continue to enrich and provoke our modern understanding of the cosmos and our place within it. Join us for this enlightening exploration that promises to be both intellectual revelation and tribute to one of the past century’s most intriguing and neglected minds.
1. The “Impure Thinker” that was Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy Readings: » [Primary] ERH. “Teaching Too Late – Learning Too Early,” from I Am an Impure Thinker, 91-114; Wayne Cristaudo et al. “Introduction: Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888–1973)”, in Culture, Theory and Critique, 2015, vol. 56, 1 (12 pages). » [Secondary] Peter Leithart. “The Relevance of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy,” First Things, 06.28.07 (seven pages); Wayne Cristaudo. “Why Rosenstock-Huessy Matters: Personal reflections on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of his death,” unpubl., 2023 (29 pages).
2. Philosophy, Language and 20th Century “Speech-Thinkers” Readings: » [Primary] ERH. “The Uni-Versity of Logic, Language, Literature,” chapter 3 of Speech and Reality, 67-97. » [Secondary] Harold Stahmer. ” ‘Speech-Letters’ and ‘Speech-Thinking’: Franz Rosenzweig and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy,” Modern Judaism, Feb. 1984, 57-81.
3. The Grammar Before and Beyond Our Grade-School Primers Readings: » [Primary] ERH. “In Defense of the Grammatical Method,” chapter 1 in Speech and Reality, 9-44. “The Grammar of the Soul,” from Practical Knowledge of the Soul, ch. 5, 18-33. » [Secondary] ERH. “Grammatical Health,” “Genus (Gender) and Life,” and “Editor’s Postscript,” chapters 12, 13 and 14 of The Origin of Speech, 110-129.
4. Time vis-à-vis Space in the “Cross of Reality” Readings: » [Primary] ERH. “Articulated Speech,” chapter 2 from Speech and Reality, 45-66. » [Secondary] ERH. “The Penetration of the Cross,” ch. 7 in The Christian Future (165-198); Peter Leithart. “The Cross of Reality,” unpubl., 2017 (11 pages).
5. Human Speech – Evolved Ululation, or the Posterity of Poetry? Readings: » [Primary] ERH. “The Authentic Moment of Speech,” “The Four Diseases of Speech,” and “Church and State of Primitive Man,” from The Origin of Speech, the first three chapters, 2-27. » [Secondary] ERH. “The Speech of the Community,” ch. 9 from Practical Knowledge of the Soul, 48-61; “The Four Phases of Speech,” and “The Quadrilateral of Human Logic,” from I Am an Impure Thinker, 53-68.
6. History and Its Revolutions Readings: » [Primary] selections from Out of Revolution. » [Secondary] Norman Fiering. “Heritage vs. History: ERH as a “Physician of Memory,” from Understanding Rosenstock-Huessy, 60-93.
7. “Judaism Despite Christianity” Readings: » [Primary] ERH. “Prologue/Epilogue to the Letters – 50 Years Later,” 71-76; 171-194, from Judaism Despite Christianity -The Letters on Christianity and Judaism between ERH and Franz Rosenzweig. » [Secondary] Raymond Huessy. “A Reflection on the 1916 Correspondence between Rosenstock and Rosenberg,” in The Fruit of Our Lips, 303-311.
8. The Christian Future Readings: » [Primary]chapters from ERH. The Christian Future, 1946, and passages from The Fruit of Our Lips, 2021. » [Secondary] Peter Leithart. “Future and the Christian Era,” Theopolis, 2017.
Lyceum Institute seminar costs are structured on a principle of financial subsidiarity. There are three payment levels, priced according to likely levels of income. If you wish to take a seminar but cannot afford the suggested rate, it is acceptable to sign up at a less-expensive level. The idea is: pay what you can. Those who can pay more, should, so that those who cannot pay as much, need not. Lyceum Institute members receive a further discount (see here for details).
One payment covers all 8 weeks.
If you prefer an alternative payment method (i.e., not PayPal), use our contact form and state whether you prefer to pay as a Participant, Patron, or Benefactor, and an invoice will be emailed to you.
[2023 Fall] Rosenstock’s Thought – Public Benefactor
Upper-tier payment. Recommended for those with full-time employment in well-paying professions and sufficient resources to provide a little more.
[2023 Fall] Rosenstock’s Thought – Public Patron
Middle-tier payment. Recommended for those with full-time employment and children, or for those in professions that do not pay as well as they ought, such as clergy and teachers.
[2023 Fall] Rosenstock’s Thought – Public Participant
Basic payment. Recommended for those who are currently students, with part-time employment, or who cannot afford to pay more at the moment.
Tuis ergo obsequiis, lector, si quis veritatis, non novitatis amator occurreris, haec quaecumque sunt, offerimus tuoque iudicio mancipamus, certi, quod si quid boni repereris, non nostrum esse, facile poteris apprehendere. Vale.
John Poinsot, Cursus Philosophicus – “Lectori”, Quarta Pars Philosophiae Naturalis
The study of Scholastic Latin—by which specifically we mean the Latin which emerged from the Carolingian Renaissance of the late 8th century and which lasted until the decline of the schools in the 17th century—presents several unique challenges. Most critical, however, is the philosophical and theological complexity which developed over its centuries. The great thinkers of the Scholastic tradition were often subtle, not only in their ideas but in how they expressed their thoughts.
One cannot truly learn Scholastic Latin, then, apart from some learning of its philosophy. Our Introduction to Scholastic Latin course—open to all enrolled members—has been designed with this truth in mind.
Overall Course Structure
This course is not intended for the faint of heart! Students should be generally familiar with the basics of Latin grammar and in possession of a core vocabulary before beginning the course. Enrolled members who have completed our Latin II course with a B+ or higher or Latin III with a B- and higher are eligible to participate. All others may take a placement test. (If you are not a member of the Lyceum Institute and wish to take our Scholastic Latin course, enroll by 22 August 2023 to take a placement test. Elementary courses will be offered starting in January 2024.)
We have divided this course into two parts, each of which will run for eight weeks. The first part will run from September 4 (9/4/23) through November 5 (11/5/23). The second will run from January 8 (1/8/24) through March 11 (3/11/24). In Part I, we will highlight several of the key grammatical and syntactical differences between Scholastic and Classical Latin. Students will become familiar with the structure of Scholastic writings and engage with key terminology of the Thomistic tradition. Part II will continue expositing some of the differences (particularly the “loosening” of several conventions) and introduce students to a wider variety of Scholastic authors.
The primary objective of the course is to instruct students in the competence of translating Scholastic Latin into English. Such focus will help us to unveil the philosophical insights of the texts examined. This is not a spoken-language course. Students will, however, have the opportunity to practice reading and pronouncing Latin, with focus on the Ecclesiastical pronunciation.
Each week will feature a combination of readings and translation exercises. Translation exercises are to be completed and submitted before the week begins. Readings should be completed before class. Classes will focus on reading from assignments, sight-reading new material, and discussing the assignments, both as to grammar and philosophy. The instructor will provide expository materials on particularly difficult points of grammar and philosophy alike each week as well.
The primary text for this course is Randall J. Meissen, LC’s Scholastic Latin: An Intermediate Course. This text includes H.P.V. Nunn’s Introduction to Ecclesiastical Latin, a grammar which succinctly illustrates many of the ways in which Scholastic Latin differs from Classical (and which students may wish to purchase separately for the sake of convenience). Supplemental notes and readings will be provided by the instructor. Students may also wish to purchase a copy of Dylan Schrader’s very brief Shortcut to Scholastic Latin. All additional readings, including those used for Translation Exercises, will be provided by the instructor.
All of our Introductory Latin courses—including Introduction to Scholastic Latin—are included in every level of membership for the Lyceum Institute. See enrollment options here. Enroll by 22 August 2023 to participate in Scholastic Latin!
Distracted from distraction by distraction Filled with fancies and empty of meaning Tumid apathy with no concentration -T.S. Eliot 1935: “Burnt Norton” (first of the Four Quartets), III.
Few poets ever have and likely ever will attain the prescience of T.S. Eliot. I find myself repeating, with increasing frequency, the lines quoted above: not only so that I might recall myself to focus, but to name the phenomena seen in others. We find ourselves struggling to hold meaningful conversations, dismayed either by others inattentiveness or ensnared by our own distractions.
But without conversation, we suffer an enormous blow to the integrity of our human way of life. We ought instead strive to affect a recovery of the habit of conversation. Here, allow us to explore some avenues through which such a recovery might be made.
The Language of Conversation: Holding vs. Having
First, it is important that we be able to say what a conversation is. As with many common phenomena, we likely take for granted that we “know” what a conversation is without needing to define it. But this kind of “knowledge”—experiential familiarity—does not help us overcome our present conversational malaise. In other words, we need to deepen our knowledge of conversation if we wish to have better conversations.
The way we speak about conversations, as with many other things, often reveals our underlying beliefs about what a conversation is, even if we are not consciously aware of that belief. For one thing, it seems that the phrase “holding a conversation has become increasingly rare, replaced by the more transactional “having a conversation.” The distinction between holding and having a conversation is subtle yet significant. “Holding” a conversation implies a sense of presence, responsibility, and of participation. The conversation is held between two people. By contrast, “having” a conversation suggests something that each individual gets or receives from the other(s) involved. It turns the conversation into a possession. This shift in language seemingly reflects the deeper, atomistic individualism pervasive in our society.
It implies, that is, that conversations have become commodities, something we acquire or consume, rather than an essential aspect of our human connection.
Holding Ourselves in Conversation
But holding a conversation is not merely a transitive, extrinsic action. We hold a conversation only by holding ourselves within it. We hold to the conversation. How often do we find ourselves not present or open to the other? Do we listen for an opportunity to speak—to rejoin, respond, to deviate into something else—or do we listen to what is being said? Do we listen so that we might hear or so that we might get something out of it?
Technology has undeniably altered our habits of conversation. Smartphones, in particular, have become both a distraction and a crutch, frequently drawing us away from in-person interactions. But are there other ways technology, other technologies, that affect our conversational habits?
One interesting aside to consider is the role of AI and chatbots like ChatGPT which may shape our conversational habits. The promise of instant feedback and the ability to return immediately to whatever topic offered by these platforms can reinforce the transactional attitude toward conversation: an exchange of information, on-demand. The silence, the gestational pause of thinking, of truly reasoning, plays no role in these technologies. Even our text-messaging habits lean into this: the absolute horror of being too long “left on read” without receiving a response.
Balance: Held by the Word, rather than the World
As humans, we navigate a delicate balance between active and passive engagement. However, it seems that our current approach to conversations may have disrupted this equilibrium. We must consider whether we are too passive or too active, or perhaps passive or active in the wrong ways. Reflecting on our conversational habits and our relationship with technology is an essential first step toward rekindling the art of meaningful dialogue.
Perhaps the best way to rectify this conversational degradation is, in fact, by having one: a thoughtful, careful, and meaningful participation—not an exchange, but truly communicating in the pursuit of truth. Join us this Wednesday for our Philosophical Happy Hour, exploring this critical aspect of human connection and rediscovering the beauty of holding, and being held by, a conversation.
Philosophical Happy Hour
Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.
The Lyceum Institute is dedicated to nurturing the habits of lifelong intellectual development through the use of digital technology, making high-quality education accessible to a meaningfully diverse community of like-intentioned persons. As a non-profit institution, we rely on the generosity of our supporters to continue providing exceptional learning experiences that foster genuine thinking and self-improvement. How do we provide this education and how can you help?
All of our programs are structured and conducted with the intent of building key habits of intellectual virtue: studiousness, diligence, orderliness, focus, knowledge, insight, and the humility to recognize, respect, and adhere to wisdom. These habits are cultivated in an atmosphere that emphasizes forming and asking questions—questions asked of others, of the tradition, of the present world, and most of all, of oneself. We cannot improve without knowing what we lack, and we cannot discover answers if we do not know the questions.
Traditional institutions of higher education remain invaluable, but insufficiently meet our current needs. Students must overcome obstacles of time, place, and considerable financial expense to attend such programs. Moreover, wars of ideological opposition, serving only to distract from an honest pursuit of the truth, have decimated the courses and curricula of many universities. By contrast, the digital environment of the Lyceum is flexible, affordable, and concerned with the inquiry into and discovery of what is true, regardless of its provenance or associations.
Members and Studies
Members of the Lyceum Institute come from a wide range of backgrounds and with a diversity of experience: factory workers and truck drivers, PhDs and medical doctors, students and retirees, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim; with backgrounds in the humanities and the sciences, with decades of study or just beginning—we all seek the same good and are bound by the common desire to know. Humility before true wisdom, possessed by none but loved by all, provides the foundation for our community.
Together we are building a new way of learning: one not constrained to a course of months or years, but which integrates itself into the whole of human life.
Since joining [the Lyceum Institute], I feel that I have found a place in the digital wasteland to call home: a home where I learn and discuss more about philosophy, the classics, art, theology and psychology; a home where my interests are taken seriously and given room to grow; a home where I find others living consciously, respectful of the thoughtfulness of others, motivated by the wisdom of the past, and wrestling with the answers for the future.
At the core of this new way of learning stands a principle of financial subsidiarity. Put simply, we do not want financial barriers to stand in the way of individuals serious about integrating their love of wisdom into daily life. Thus, we encourage all of our members who can to pay more, so that those who cannot, may still participate. But we also rely upon donations from the broader community to supplement this model of subsidiarity.
Every member that we gain is another light in the dark—brightening not only our own digital community, but bringing that light to friends and family and their local communities. Every donation we receive is fuel for those flames.
Even if membership is not right for you, you can help us to brighten the world. Donate to our Spring Fundraiser by 8 June 2023, Better Self-Critics, to help us reach our quarterly goal, or set up a recurring donation here.
An excerpt from the concluding pages of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Part II, recollecting time spent in the Butyrki transit prison of central Moscow. In particular, he here notes a contrast with the prisoners of his own generation—most of whom fought in the Second World War with some pride in their service for the Motherland—and the younger prisoners. This younger generation, while their peers were busy “falling in love with an easy life”, saw through the falsehoods of socialism.
Dawn of the Great Truth
Was it not here, in these prison cells, that the great truth dawned? The cell was constricted, but wasn’t freedom even more constricted? Was it not our own people, tormented and deceived, that law beside us there under the bunks and in the aisles?
Not to arise with my whole land Would have been harder still, And for the path that I have trod I have no qualms at all.
The young people imprisoned in these cells under the political articles of the Code were never the average young people of the nation, but were always separated from them by a wide gap. In those years most of our young people still faced a future of “disintegrating,” of becoming disillusioned, indifferent, falling in love with an easy life—and then, perhaps, beginning all over again the bitter climb from that cozy little valley up to a new peak—possible after another twenty years? But the young prisoners of 1945, sentenced under 58-10, had leaped that whole future chasm of indifference in one jump—and bore their heads boldly erect under the ax.
In the Butyrki church, the Moscow students, already sentenced, cut off and estranged from everything, wrote a song, and before twilight sang it in their uncertain voices:
Three times a day we go for gruel, The evenings we pass in song, With a contraband prison needle We sew ourselves bags for the road.
We don’t care about ourselves any more, We signed—just to be quicker! And when will we ever return here again From the distant Siberian camps?
Good Lord, how could we have missed the main point of the whole thing? While we had been plowing through the mud out there on the bridgeheads, while we had been covering in shell holes and pushing binocular periscopes above the bushes, back home a new generation had grown up and gotten moving. But hadn’t it started moving in another direction? In a direction we wouldn’t have been able and wouldn’t have dared to move in? They weren’t brought up the way we were.
Our generation would return—having turned in its weapons, jingling its heroes’ medals, proudly telling its combat stories. And our younger brothers would only look at us contemptuously: Oh, you stupid dolts!
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol.I, Part II.
Knowledge and History
We must remind ourselves, often, that ignorance of the past condemns us to its repetition. This past need not have disappeared into the mist of ancient history. Ignorance grasps us by default. We repulse it by constant effort. Today, we see many, indeed, “falling in love with an easy life”—unthinking consumption of the lotus flower. It comes today in many forms. Drugs. Pornography. Endless streaming entertainment. The promise of a universal basic income. The hope of automation. Simultaneously, others are realizing the inhumane consequences of taking a daily soporific. Meaningless distractions. Life without purpose. The sickness of pleasure for its own sake. “Good Lord, how could we have missed the main point of the whole thing?” You will find no freedom in such a love; only slavery.
Excerpted from the lectures given to the Lyceum Institute Trivium: Art of Logic Course.
“What more can be said about logic?” I am acutely aware, as I pen these words that I pen them not to be read (even if someone other than myself might and does indeed read them), but to be spoken; to be given in a lecture, that is—a lecture for the Lyceum Institute, a lecture belonging to a course, and a course belonging to a holistic study of all three arts constituting the Trivium. Though logic may be studied on its own, both as an art and as science, its greatest fruit comes when studied integrally with the other arts of the Trivium. This sentiment—or rather, the mixed sentiments of hope, humility, and no small amount of trepidation, since I am myself well aware of my woeful inadequacy as a teacher, especially of logic—this sentiment finds itself grounded by the well-wrought intellectual insights of far wiser men: men such as R.E. Houser, John Deely, and John Poinsot, all of whom I consider my own teachers in this most difficult of subjects. My failings, however, are not a reflection of their abilities: for I have learned logic through their printed works, rather than in-person instruction, and thus have not benefitted from direct correction.
The purpose of these lectures, indeed, is not to say anything new or novel about logic at all. That does not mean there is nothing new to be said about logic, only that I am not here intending to say it. Rather, these lectures aim—as is more broadly the goal of this course as a whole and of our first course of study of the Trivium in the Lyceum Institute—these lectures aim at displaying and explicating the art for a living audience. They form part of a multi-party dialogue: between myself, as the instructor, and you, as the audience; between us, as a class, and the texts, which we read; and between the shared knowledge we gain and the knowledge we yet seek. Between instructor and audience, there is formed a whole; between that whole, the class, and the texts, there is formed a second whole, that shared knowledge. But knowledge, always and invariably, prompts new questions, an inquiry beyond itself. These lectures are merely my own contribution… and rather a minor contribution, at that, in the grand scheme of this dialogue.
Our world—by which I mean not merely the physical environment of earth (though inclusive of it) but rather, more primarily, the specifically human environment of linguistically-perfused culture—suffers a problem of meaning. I have addressed this problem in many other places. We may redress this problem of meaning, however, only through language, and only if we conceive of language in the right way: not merely as an abstract system of arbitrarily-stipulated symbolic communications, ordered principally toward pragmatic ends and for the sake of manipulating that world to our ends (such manipulative bearing being one of, if not the, principal causes of our meaning problem), but rather as the way in which the true meaning of things comes to light in the first place. For developing a facility with language so-conceived, we must study all three arts of the Trivium. In the Art of Logic, in particular, we attend specifically to the illative relation, whereby we discover how language leads thinking through inference to truths not immediately evident—to truths obscured by malfeasant rhetoric or the will-to-power, to truths hidden by those who wish only to bend the world to their wills, instead of standing themselves humbly open to the real.
Sign up for the Lyceum Institute and join us in the study of Logic this Spring! Lectures begin 1 May 2023 and discussions on 8 May 2023. All members are welcome to take the Art of Logic course, at every level of enrollment.