Sunday, 22 May 2016

Thought 219: Keeping Past Works Alive

In classical music, the great benefit of interpreting past compositions, whether in concert or the recording studio, is that it keeps those works alive for a new generation of ears, particularly if the interpretation adds some value to the notes as written and offers new insights into the piece. 

The same applies to intellectual works which are written down, whereby insights by past writers are not only referred to and quoted ad nauseam but made new and original by apposite and skilful interpretation. 

[Which reminds me of a problem Heidegger alludes to in his book What is Called Thinking?, namely the question of why philosophers after Socrates became writers, and philosophy a form of literature. 

Given Socrates was executed for speaking his mind this might have to do with the politically safer nature of hard-to-grasp writing over spoken discourse as well as possible difficulties in verbalising thoughts orally as opposed to writing them down, e.g. because of a lack of like-minded intellectuals to converse with in person. 

Issues of transmission and posterity also surround the question of writing which was made into a genuine philosophical problem by Jacques Derrida.]

Heidegger claimed in his Nietzsche lectures that a great thinker hears what is great in previous thinkers and makes their observations his own by creatively transforming them. 

For, according to him, only the wise know what wisdom is, only the great know what greatness is and only the enlightened know what enlightenment is. 

I have discussed before (Philosophising) how philosophy understood actively as philosophising rather than merely describing established ideas is by nature creative and therefore potentially transformative. 

In terms of the chronology of this blog only my first five posts were creative philosophy in that transformative and original sense. 

And what is original, particularly in philosophical labour, tends to draw from what is most originary in history. In other words, in philosophy as opposed to the sciences, it is beginnings and origins that matter rather than future developments. 

This is no doubt why Pre-Socratic philosophers were seen so favourably by Messieurs Nietzsche and Heidegger and described as purer types than the usual suspects Plato and Aristotle who were relative latecomers in Greek intellectual history, existing as they did at a time of political decline and turmoil in the Greek world. 

Over-preoccupation about origins and beginnings, however, can be quite toxic as noted by Foucault in his argument with Derrida over his book Histoire de la folie a l'âge classique and the word 'purity' can be politically loaded. 

Historically, elite, i.e. literate, Romans were obsessed with Rome's past and its supposed Golden Age and perceived almost all contemporary developments as so many instances of moral and political decline: Horace, Sallust and Tacitus come to mind.

This 'good old days' syndrome is arguably a dead end that is easy to fall into when the present seems intolerable. That does not mean that there is not much to be learnt from the past.