More True Than Truth, Research Time, 05/01/2015

I decided at the end of last semester at Sheridan College’s Communications post-grad program, that boning up on some media theory would help build my abilities in my new field. The program is very good at teaching the details and techniques of communications in today’s media environment, but I still see some gaps in exploring the details of why those techniques are effective and probing the limits of their effectiveness. 

So I whipped out a book from my shelf that I had ordered a year or so ago, with a vague feeling that I’d need it eventually: The Laws of Media by Marshall McLuhan and his son Eric (although Eric’s role as a ghostwriter for his father, and the book’s publication well after the elder McLuhan’s death is a sign that its author is mostly Eric). 

How we conceive of the world changes
the world itself.
The book starts with very foundational investigations that explore how our cultural presuppositions about the nature of space and expression condition how we experience and think. The central topic in these sections is exploring the differences between how the ancient Greeks conceived of and experienced the world, and how we do. It’s particularly interesting to me, as someone who’s studied a lot of Western philosophy over the last decade and change. 

In my time working as a philosophy teacher, I developed a lot of gripes about the way philosophy was typically taught in universities. Most of my gripes applied to the introductory levels. These should be the most important courses in an entire program, because it’s the first opportunity to sink your disciplinary hooks into new students and attract majors from among the general crowd. 

But because none of the students were all that practiced in reading, discussing, and writing about philosophy (as you’d expect of an introductory class), the material was often simplified to such a degree that it became either boring, irrelevant, or nonsensical. What especially bugged me was the simple way that intro courses typically handled ancient Greek thought.

It wasn’t that the central questions of philosophy, broadly conceived (What is God? What is the good? What is the nature of being?) are all that different. But there are radical differences in the presuppositions and the approaches that we and the ancient Greeks take to those questions. One that has particular relevance for the philosophical issues inherent to a Communications program is the ancient Greek conception of truth and what it means to speak truth.

The key term is logos. McLuhan describes the full connotations of this word for the ancient Greek mind, and it’s a fascinating concept. Forget its contemporary meaning as the root of our words for logic and the scientific disciplines (the various -ologies). 

Someone who speaks logos is literally speaking being. He isn’t just making a claim that he supposes is true, or makes a claim as part of advocating its truth. He isn’t pronouncing his own authority on what is true. To speak logos is literally to become a conduit that expresses existence itself. Logos is a speech act that makes what you say true. 

We don’t really have a concept for this anymore. The closest analogy I can think of in my fairly immediate reaction is the concept of prophecy in Jewish and Muslim theology. Their central presupposition is that prophecy doesn’t happen anymore, and that it was pretty rare to begin with, there being only a handful of genuine prophets over several thousand years. 

I've met many Analytic philosophers
who dismiss all European philosophy
because they consider Heidegger an
obscurantist. But he really did write in
a purposely obscure way, because he
wanted to restore philosophy to be a
discipline of sages, as it was in
ancient Greece.
But sages were everywhere in ancient Greece, and the ones we remember today, we call the pre-Socratic philosophers: Thales, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, Pythagoras, Philolaus, Empedocles, Leucippus, Democritus, and many others. We’re often taught their philosophies as if they were advancing arguments and giving reasons, but this doesn’t accurately reflect how they and their society thought of their work.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were the first to conceive of philosophy, the vocation of devotion to wisdom, as making claims, giving reasons for them, and developing techniques to move from one reason to another and ground a reason as such. Martin Heidegger called this the beginning of true philosophy’s decline precisely because it departed from the vocation of sages.

Parmenides writes:
Χρὴ τὸ λέγειν τε νοεῖν τ' ἐὸν ἔμμεναι· ἔστι γὰρ εἶναι, “Chré to legein te noein t’éon emmenai esti gar einai.” It needs must be that what can be spoken of and thought of is. Legein, in its infinitive form logos, is the speech that, in the act of speaking it, must be. 

Philosopher-sages (remember, the original model of philosophy that predates Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the typical Big Three) wrote no arguments, only poems and verses. Their texts were of the same form as epic poetry, performative recitations that expressed the nature of being, which were intended to be memorized in the immediacy of listening itself.

The original model of a philosopher was a prophet of nature.

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