Ebooks and Philosophy: Odd Writings and Aphorisms

It’s no secret that philosophers are often odd people.  They also write strangely sometimes, too.

“No, really?  We didn’t notice.”  Yes, I know philosophical writing is notoriously bad—there’s a reason I put a pot leaf sticker on my copy of Heidegger’s Being and Time*—but some philosophers (oddly enough, often the ones who could actually write) use very odd formats for their works.  Though several philosophers have peculiar styles they’re associated with—Plato’s dialogues, Nietzsche’s aphorisms, Aquinas’ disputed questions—two thinkers seem to have writings that beg to be dealt with in a way electronic publishing could do a better job of than print media ever could.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Speaking of odd people, let’s start with LW.  Wiggy was the epitome of really weird dudes.  From attacking Karl Popper with a fireplace poker to telling a student who’d been in a car accident she couldn’t use her metaphor of choice because she’d never been a dog who’d been run over by a car, he was kinda strange.  Oh, and let’s not forget the cult of personality or his tendency to look into your soul.

His first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was also kinda strange.  A set of seven statements with long explanations, the Tractatus claimed to solve all philosophical problems by showing us a way to mystically dispose of the known, visible world, allowing a Zen-like understanding of the transcendental (and unspeakable) truths of ethics and aesthetics.  Of course, he later revised these claims in the (better known) works published after his death, but . . .

The Tractatus works by positing an axiom (e.g., “3”) with additional bits, elaborations, and notes given subordinate numbers (3.121, a commentary on 3.12, which is on the same level as 3.11 and 3.12, both of which are subordinate to 3.1, which is under 3).  Of course, this means that 2 comes directly after 1.121, rather than 1, to which it is equal, but so it goes.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The structure of the Tractatus almost seems like a series of drop-down menus—like you should start at the top with the seven fundamental propositions, then expand each, digging deeper as you go.  When I first read it, I thought of viewing it in a kind of “Tractatus Explorer,” a computer program that did just that, letting you click a proposition to see the tree of commentary underneath it.  Ebooks, of course, are in the perfect place to be able to allow readers any format they want to explore Wittgenstein’s work; it can be delved into one proposition at a time, as if it were a printed book, but also in formats that help the reader interact and explore the work in new ways, visualizing the connections in new and perhaps significant ways.

Blaise Pascal

Pascal’s Pensées have been through more editions than you can shake a stick at.  From the first edition that redacted all the anti-Cartesian bits** to the “scientific” Brunschvicg edition and the more historical ones of Lafuma and Sellier, the work has certainly been sliced, diced, and reworked.

It still doesn’t make sense.

“He has three lackeys.”  “He lives across the water.”  “A poet, and not an honest man.”  What Does It All MEAN???  Yes, there are passages of great eloquence and power, that deserve their place in French literature—but, let’s face it, the author died while writing it, so parts of it are still in outline.  Thus, if we observe the order it was left in, the Pensées seems to jump between topics, not following any real order, with hugely significant parts filed in the “miscellaneous writings” section.***  Finally, there are parts in the Sellier that aren’t in Lafuma that aren’t in Brunschvicg that sure as heck weren’t in the first edition.

Thus, we shouldn’t feel so bad about reordering the fragments, but using the text of the more recent or likely authentic editions.  For all that can be said about the Brunschvicg edition, it does make sense to start out talking about reason and the mind, which is where Pascal starts his investigations.  It also makes sense to cut all the stuff about prophecy and the Bible, which, um, wasn’t exactly Blaise’s strength.

Okay, if that seems rather too much like a Thomas Jefferson cut-and-paste-gospel, we could at least stick it somewhere after the wager, where it makes sense, rather than interspersed in with everything else.  Nobody’d even notice the move.

What’s more, we’d be able to compare the orders of the various editions at a glance.  While the usual tables of Sellier-Lafuma correspondence are nice, they don’t really let you see the flow of the various editions—the order the editors saw in the pensées, the gradual buildup of Pascal’s arguments, the transition through despair from the mundane to grace.  As someone who keeps coming back to Pascal, I’d love to have the ability to see how each fragment had changed—and all the ways it could lead elsewhere.  Each thought seems to lead in different directions; to be able to change the tree of connections and work with the text in a way paper, scissors, and rubber cement just don’t let you do would allow for a fuller understanding of Pascal’s thought.

This odd, fragmented work really does need the freedom and power electronic publishing offers to actually come into its own.  Though the threads of the Pensées are there, the texture is unfinished and fluid, allowing for permutations and recombinations, and, perhaps, new paths for exploration.

We’ll see how this works, won’t we?

*”Our analysis of the world hood of the world has constantly been bringing the whole phenomenon of Being-in-the-world into view, although the constitutive items have not all stood out with the same phenomenal distinctness as the phenomenon of the world itself.”
**That really famous (and misinterpreted) quote from Pascal about how the heart has motives reason cannot understand?  Pascal’s literary executors cut it.
***This is a particular beef of mine with Lafuma and Sellier; not only is the part about the two kinds of mind Brun. starts with shoved into the “miscellaneous” section at the end, but so is the Wager.  You know, the only part of the Pensées anyone ever writes about, it seems.

One thought on “Ebooks and Philosophy: Odd Writings and Aphorisms

  1. Pingback: Print Ain’t Dead Yet « Intentio Lectoris

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