Saturday, 25 July 2015

"by virtue of the absurd"

When I first read Kierkegaard I just didn't get him at all - snippets of brilliant insights and disturbing truths, to be sure, but the 'found' quality of the book kind of jarred me. I needed its roots and foundations if I ever hoped to gain purchase.

Soren Kierkegaard (5 May 1813 - 11 November 1855) was a Danish philosopher, poet and theologian, and is considered to be the first 'existentialist' writer/commentator of some renown. His Christianity, his philosophy, the way his thoughts and ideas express themselves, is all surprisingly simple and even rustic. Rustic, in the sense that he took the Christ's Gospel at face value (who and what he must be, personally, to attain discipleship - his 'knight-hood of faith') and even in the way his central philosophical program is impelled:

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. (Søren Kierkegaard's Journals & Papers IA Gilleleie, 1 August 1835)

In his commentary on who our neighbour is (to us personally) he clearly seeks to find "a truth which is truth for me". There is nothing to suggest he didn't take his words and ideas seriously. He was critical of the very idea of a state religion, especially one that recognized his precious Christian faith as such, not because it was in vogue to hold such 'enlightened' views but because what exists 'by virtue of the absurd' (faith) cannot be objectified without consequences (more precisely: faith cannot be objectified, period):

Not until a man has inwardly understood himself and then sees the course he is to take does his life gain peace and meaning; only then is he free of that irksome, sinister traveling companion — that irony of life, which manifests itself in the sphere of knowledge and invites true knowing to begin with a not-knowing (Socrates) just as God created the world from nothing. But in the waters of morality it is especially at home to those who still have not entered the tradewinds of virtue. (ibid)

Kierkegaard (and his faith) is only seen in true light when we consider that he truly believed that he had 'earned' G*d's wrath:

He is said to have believed that his personal sins, perhaps indiscretions such as cursing the name of God in his youth or impregnating Ane out of wedlock, necessitated [...] punishment. (

To him, faith is not some whimsy, it is an idea for which he is willing to live and die for (having suffered profound angst by the apparent meaninglessness of an unexamined, unclaimed life):

Frequently a person feels his very best when the illness is the worst, as in tuberculosis. In vain he tries to resist it but he has not sufficient strength, and it is no help to him that he has gone through the same thing many times; the kind of practice acquired in this way does not apply here. (Kierkegaard, 1 August 1835)

In the book, Batman and Philosophy, one of the contributors, Christopher M Drohan, writes of this 'owning up' to life:

While the knights of infinite resignation [ie, Batman] are always waiting for some future ideal state, the knights of faith [ie, Alfred the butler] have found it, and are living it presently. Their eternity is not to come, but is found in the moment, as they realize that in loving and serving others they exercise a kind of fellowship that will infinitely sustain humanity. For them, peace on earth must be made with every gesture and every action. And is starts by committing ourselves to another person and by helping that person in every way that we can.

Alfred knows that if we treated others in this way there would be no need for Batman, or for any type of coercive justice for that matter. (Batman and Philosophy, Christopher M Drohan, 2008, p. 194)

We've all suffered (or, been blessed by) moments of crises in our lives that cannot be characterized as anything but 'spiritual'. I've had my share. I think what has saved my rationality from the experience of seeing pure ignorance and want assert themselves in this life and realizing that they are me unchecked, unhindered selfishness that births and sustain's humanity's ignorance and want:

"'Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,' said
Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe,' but I see
something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding
from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw.' 

'It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,' was
the Spirit's sorrowful reply. 'Look here.'

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children;
wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt
down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

'Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.' exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling,
wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where
graceful youth should have filled their features out, and
touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled
hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and
pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat
enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No
change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any
grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has
monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him
in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but
the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie
of such enormous magnitude.

'Spirit. are they yours.' Scrooge could say no more.

'They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking down upon
them. 'And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.
This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both,
and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy,
for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the
writing be erased. Deny it.' cried the Spirit, stretching out
its hand towards the city. 'Slander those who tell it ye.
Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse.
And abide the end.' 

'Have they no refuge or resource.' cried Scrooge.

'Are there no prisons.' said the Spirit, turning on him
for the last time with his own words. 'Are there no workhouses.'" (A Christmas Carol, Stave 3: The Second of the Three Spirits)

Becoming Scrooge is a terrifying proposition (the pre- and post-visitation Scrooge, warts and all). I think what Kierkegaard is saying is that becoming Scrooge is G*d's will, the wicket gate.


Saturday, 11 July 2015

I nail ducks to the wall

I think most people who know me would agree that I am a loner. Surrounded by love and affection as much as lack of amity (from both or either side at some points in time) I never really realized loneliness, per se. I've never really been alone and isolated. I think this type of isolation is deadly; what I thought was 'lonerhood' was actually 'heavy into solitude'. And, after every bout of solitude, I've always had the luxury to share things I think about with others.

Everyday, I wake up around 4:30am-ish. I watch the world outside and inside unfold. I have a lot of space and time to draw in, what I call, 'strength'. Regardless of the weather and season outside, each morning is a time for me to appreciate the universe as evidence of divine power and majesty. In the darkness of winter this divine presence is most real. The frozen expanse abides: there, creative potentiality still pulses, awaiting the inevitable coordination of celestial mechanics to bring forth new life.

I read somewhere that the British, after the horrors of the second world war, took up a tradition of nailing painted duck figures onto their walls to symbolize their resolve to reclaim the idyllic life. I took the title of this blog entry from a line in Roger Waters', Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking.

I've always thought the Waters' album was one long, rambling rant of a lunatic. But, as with all remarkable works of art, it is a bit more complex than that: the darkness is superficial. It is merely a shadow rolling across the landscape (lived, individual life against the backdrop of history).

There is something of Max Weber in Roger Waters' writing. He gives a diagnosis but we don't know what to make of it. We feel it in our bones. We assume it is external—the source of this feeling—, but perhaps these dark prophets are adumbrating that all 'feelings' are internal. If, then, it is an issue of interiority (as I think it is) the challenge is personal.

In the Islamic tradition, it is said that the archangel Gabriel's first word to Muhammad was: "Read". Then, after the third admonition to read, Gabriel spoke:

Proclaim! (or read!) in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created-
Created man, out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood:
Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful,-
Who taught (the use of) the pen,-
Taught man that which he knew not. (Quran 96: 1-5)

Clearly, G*d knew that Muhammad was illiterate so the '(use of) the pen' and 'learning' cannot possibly mean our conventional notions of 'learnedness' (where ego figures large) but a state of being that is receptive and devoted to the 'greater' something that is everywhere around us: necessity (that which he knew not, or, the real) and coordination (the use of the pen, or, divine guidance).

Submission to this necessity and coordination is "the peeling away of feeling" (ie, ego) and the realization of the truth: we are submerged in an ocean of love and life. Life seems dramatic, unpredictable and chaotic but that is an illusion: it is an outcome of our ego-striving (ego—itself dramatic, unpredictable and chaotic) rather than these negative features being inherent to the realities of our existence.

Recently, I've brought about factors in my life that made me realize how much I love and am loved. This insight was rather accidentally-obtained because it was an onset of a deep sense of loneliness and its obligatory depression that realized it in my mind. I somehow looked outside of myself and realized the evidence everywhere of how much I'm loved, and have loved.


Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Moral exemplarhood

I'm reading a very interesting article written by Ryan Indy Rhodes and David Kyle Johnson in the Batman and Philosophy book called, What Would Batman Do? Bruce Wayne as an Exemplar (2008, pp. 114-125), where the authors argue that the fictional Batman character has as much right to 'belong' to a list of moral exemplars that have actually existed in history (Buddha, Jesus, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, etc.):

Although most readers probably don't need reminding, let's consider some examples of how Batman exemplifies moral virtues. Justice is a constant aim of his activities, not only in the general sense of fighting crime and protecting the innocent, but in more particular endeavors...(p. 115)

-the authors list an impressive demonstration of Batman's commitment to a 'moral code' in dealing with 'real', individual people as well as the villains (symbols) he is sworn to struggle against. But...

Since Batman is a fictional character, it would seem that he cannot be referenced by language. That is, because Batman is not real, sentences about him do not operate in the same way as they do about things that really exist. (p. 117)

The finer points of the authors' argument are compelling and interesting; I would tend to root for their argument whole-heartedly. The two lines of reasoning above are similar to the ones I proposed in Socrates the Man somewhere in this blog.

But there is a sweet irony in this particular paper: if we should deny Batman membership to this 'elite' list of real historical exemplars for the simple fact that Batman is fictional, perhaps we should re-examine historical figures in light of the inevitable embellishments of tradition and demand the same standards of them.

An 'exemplar', you see, is best interpreted semiotically rather than lexically: it is more an embodiment of a set of idealized characteristics than it is in reference to a person. After all, "What is a pond"? -depending on who and what you are (a dragonfly, a person, a frog, a bird, etc.), what makes a pond a 'pond' changes because your needs and emphases change (even from season to season).

Yeshua ben Yosef is my Lord and Savior, and no historical treatment of His figure can change that: He is an embodiment; He is an inevitability; He is expressed in the Nazarene (John 14:6). Period. Full stop.

But I also admire the Batman character. And, for different reasons. The Batman is not only psychologically-real, but psychologically-real that instantly makes him more than a fancy, a whimsy but a well-developed and highly adaptable (ie, stable) characterization of moral exceptionalism.

He has a certain integrity that is preserved across a broad spectrum of backgrounds and re-tellings. Miller's Batman (though the most original telling, to be sure) is inherent and adumbrated in the earlier iterations by other writers. There is an ineffable pedigree linking everything. Even Adam West's Batman has his place in this substantive mythos.

In the Inuit tradition, the Batman figure is very familiar, more so than the Christ figure (though Christ is readily accepted by Inuit): Kiviuq, for eg, is a 'normal' human being cast into exceptional circumstances. He is flawed but ultimately perseveres. And the story continues...

However, Inuit do not somehow mistake the Kiviuq character as someone real: he is an exemplar of human curiosity and ingenuity. Where he goes and what he does is restrained by the seasons and geography. These features are not obvious but may be justifiably extrapolated in each 'episode': it is autumn when the story begins because Kiviuq becomes lost in a sea storm and lands to a place where the bumble-bee woman ultimately 'invents' ice that traps him before he can qajaq safely away; in one episode, Kiviuq has to traipse across a gigantic cooking pot (ie, hunting area) where in one end  he jumps onto seal blubber (ie, Marble Island) and hops over to a series of ribs (ie, Belcher Islands on the other side of the Hudson Bay).

Each telling is different but, throughout, Kiviuq exhibits exquisite sensitivity and sensibility towards animals that he encounters (another hint to times of year) that justify Inuit hunting culture as much as are expressed by a realistic 'person' in Kiviuq that we may try and emulate and strive to be.


Thursday, 25 June 2015

A note on continuing translating The Little Prince

Someone left me a note on my Inuktitut translation of The Little Prince which got me thinking about resuming the translation—actually, I've been thinking about it before. What kind of stumped me a while there was looking for an Inuktitut name for the planet Jupiter. I think there are names for some planets but I'm beginning to doubt there is a name for Jupiter in Inuktitut.

The Little Prince—by the French writer and poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944)—makes reference to Jupiter near the beginning of the story. Though hardly important to the overall telling of the story, a seamless reference in the translation is what I prefer; I think italicizing Jupiter will work just as well...

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Batman and Philosophy: the dark knight of the soul


I couldn't help but open my birthday present early this year. In it was a book called, Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul, ed. Mark D White and Robert Arp. It makes an immediate disclaimer: "This book has not been approved, licensed, or sponsored by any entity or person involved in creating or producing Batman, the comic, the film, or the TV series."

What an excellent read.

Well, the form is a bit fomulaic in the beginning. Compare this entry in a Standford search engine for published papers in philosophy: entry: but once the authors of the Batman book get into contrasting 'deontology' and 'consequentialism' with 'virtue ethics' things get interesting quickly (virtue ethics, says the author, "emphasize character traits, called virtues or excellences, rather than judging specific acts (as deontology and utilitarianism do)." (James Digiovanna, Is It Right To Make a Robin?, p. 21)

This 'virtue ethics' approach looks very familiar to IQ and its notions of 'education'. In discussions where I listened in on and contributed to, the Inuit elders who participated said that IQ education aims to "make a (whole) person" (ie, inuliurniq - lit. 'making of a person') who is able to think and problem-solve even in the middle of nowhere with only what he's brought himself.

Digiovanna continues:

Virtue ethics also takes into account differences, such as differences of character, the different roles people play, and the different cultures in which they live. While he strives to uphold abstract moral principles that he thinks are always right, Batman seems to understand that different sorts of characters demand different sorts of actions. Not everyone should be a Batman or a Robin. The specific character type needed to be a superhero is not suited to everyone, and society demands different roles from each of us. (ibid)

Not only are we all unique as beings but that every event in time is itself uniquely unfolding; it has a beginning and an end (Inuit elders everywhere always says this). How we respond as ethical beings has some influence in the outcome. The Inuit elders spoke at length about the issue of suicide by Inuit youth...the contrast is poignant:

...Plato and Aristotle (384-322 BCE), emphasized building character, noting the importance of training someone to be ethical, rather than simply explaining how to be ethical. (ibid, p. 23)

Trying to be an ethical person is hard. It certainly does not come naturally: it accompanies grief and heart break.


Monday, 25 May 2015

Socrates the man

I've been working (somewhat peripherally to a group at work) to come up with a series of statements to try and develop a philosophical foundation for the use of Inuktitut at work (or, more precisely, use bilingualism at work). I call them 'axioms' and their 'corollaries' not so much because they're self-evident as Euclid's axioms on geometry supposedly are but because I think Spinoza's framework is cool.

These aren't all necessarily original but they provide me with some clarity of thought:

Axiom: "all human languages are equal"

Corollary 1: "grammar defines that equality"

Axiom: "concepts and ideas are not words"

etc. etc.

As a linguist, I've always been fascinated by such gems as "little, green ideas dream furiously" (actually it is: "colourless, green ideas..."), and I think I've got it why such constructs may be generated but are meaningless nonetheless. It has to do with how and what kinds of adjectives and adverbs are allowed in language: there are abstract nouns that require abstract adjectives and concrete nouns that require concrete adjectives...and so on.

But what has been mulling in my mind is how the syllogistic about Socrates the man works. I think I know why and how it works. But first here is the syllogism:

all men are mortal;
Socrates is a man;
therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Again, the abstract vs concrete notion applies here. Socrates the man is clearly different from 'man' per se in that Socrates the man may take on adjectives in ways that the notion of 'man' cannot and vice versa. There are 'old men' to be sure, but Socrates the man wasn't always old (despite all my mental images of him he was once a young boy, he grew up and died) whereas once I've inserted 'old' before 'men' I've collapsed the idea into that one grammatical specificity.

I've been doing a running joke with my students here in Baker Lake by mangling the calque 'good morning' in Inuktitut. Though I swear I use proper Inuktitut versions of adjectives the ones I use aren't of my dialect (nor anyone's for that matter in how I use them) and I get amused looks because they understand what I'm saying but what I'm saying doesn't make much sense.

This notion of specificity is an important concept in what I'm trying to achieve in what I opened with in this entry here. In mathematical terms it'd be a group (or, a set but I prefer group). We all know that literal translation rarely works and why it doesn't work happens at many different levels but that doesn't negate the possibility of translation. A translation that works well does so because of what is called the Karenina Principle. It's kind of hard to explain so I'll just quote a text I recently drafted for the course we just completed:

Some Persistent Issues Surrounding Translation
Besides the structural issues that arise when we try and do translation—which are, as we saw, technical in nature and, therefore, can be solved given the proper means and research—there are also deeper issues that seem rather insurmountable in comparison to the structural ones. The reason for this is that these deeper issues are not only technical but also philosophical and/or even ideological in nature.

One of these that have long been known to be problematic to Inuktitut translator/interpreters is the legal interpreting field. The reasons for the difficulties that confront Inuktitut translators are rather too complex for this course to address but there are broad and general cultural and sociological insights that may shed some light into the problem itself. Using the legal system per se as representative of this type of problem, let us see if anything can be done to alleviate the issue somewhat.

Form or Function
The notions of morality, as we know, are culture-specific—ie, are embedded into the structure and psychology of the language itself. This fact alone makes the issue a seemingly insoluble labyrinth of dead ends and false starts with no end in sight. We are swimmers in our own languages after all, and like the fish that may not even realize it is in water, we find ourselves pretty much in the same bind.

It has been said that “Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back” (attributed to the famous Hungarian mathematician, Paul Erdös). It is in this spirit (perhaps overly-naïve) that we should approach the problem of legal interpreting. There are two basic strategies open to us as translators: describing form and/or function.

Form and function are referenced here not in the sense of linguistic terms but rather in the sense of being descriptors of concepts and the processes in which these concepts are used. The reason for this stratagem is that the Inuit language is structured to describe novelty which then can become lexicalized into a root word in its own right.

If we but imagine the notions of “guilt” or “innocence” as two possible outcomes in the formalized ritual of arraignment, we can see immediately that the words themselves can be transcended with surprising efficacy. Having transcended a word trap of the most vicious kind we can now look into the purpose of ‘arraignment’ itself:

“In legal terms, a plea is simply an answer to a claim made by someone [else] in a criminal case under common law using the adversarial system.” (

The question then becomes a matter of phrasing an interrogative in such a way that a plea can be made without getting mired in the philosophical/ideological load of the words in the source language.

The quote above is an example of a 'group theory of translation'. Instead of getting trapped by "guilt" and "innocence" we treat it in binary terms (ie, yes or no; or, agree or disagree). The Karenina Principle also applies because there is really only one way of getting it right.


Saturday, 23 May 2015

Person of Interest

I'm a huge fan of the TV show, Person of Interest, which was created by Jonathan Nolan of The Batman Trilogy. There are parallels, to be sure, between Person of Interest and The Batman Trilogy that are hard to deny. But these similarities go deeper than the obsidian aesthetics into the fracturing of the Batman symbol into the multiple principals of the TV show. And it works; it works beautifully.

The fiction genre called American Gothic has always been evolving into something of the psychologically real and the metaphorically plausible that, I think, is best captured not by description but by 'ephemera' of its kind, such as Cat Power's The Greatest:

Once I wanted to be the greatest
No wind or waterfall could stall me
And then came the rush of the flood
Stars at night turned deep to dust

Melt me down
Into big black armor
Leave no trace of grace
Just in your honor...

In its latest iteration a la Person of Interest superstitious angst gives way to moral angst of fallible, psychologically-real people who find themselves having to deal with the fallout of unmitigated, unhindered development of technology. But technology has always been a character of Gothic fiction, you say?

No doubt. But here we see it forming and evolving organically rather than presented fully-formed and one-dimensional. In Person of Interest there is The Machine (the good guy—Root calls it a her) and Samaritan (the bad guy—whom we know to be neither 'good' nor 'bad' but for its 'father'). There is nothing cursory about Nolan's treatment of his characters.

It is the difference between vintage comic book whose Superman is Nietzschean in nature and Frank Miller's The Batman whom Jonathan Nolan pays homage to in his Batman movies. The 'villains' also are more complex and organically-derived in that they're relatable at some level. The television series format allows that space and time for its characters to develop organically, but under Nolan's genius the characters' can do it even within the two-hours normally afforded in big screen format.

There are rumours going around that CBS has bought only 13 more episodes of Person of Interest after this season's powerful finale. Man, I hope not. If so, Ed The Sock will be proven right:

"...that's enough proof, says Ed The Sock, that in order to stay alive on television for a long time, all you have to do is suck.

According to our sock-puppet commentator, the fact 'Person of Interest'—a show that actually predicted the Edward Snowden NSA whistle-blowing scandal—might not stay on the air is proof that on network television mediocrity rules." (