This Week’s Special: Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”

By Daniel A. Kaufman

http://employees.csbsju.edu/dbeach/beautytruth/Sontag-Against%20Interpretation.pdf

On tap this week is Susan Sontag’s influential attack on a certain kind of intellectualist approach to art, in “Against Interpretation” (1964), reprinted in the collection Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966).

The kind of interpretation that Sontag is against is not the common, largely unconscious variety that is always going on, in every engagement that we have with the world, but rather the sort that comes, consciously, from a specific theoretical orientation.  “Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations’,” Sontag writes.  “By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules” of interpretation.”

Sontag maintains that interpretation in this vein historically has involved an effort to take something that is in some way unacceptable, yet too important to discard, and render it acceptable by turning it into something else.  The Stoics, for example, interpreted away all of the bawdy and monstrous features of the Greek gods, as described in the Homeric myths and Greek theater, so as to render them suitable for the somewhat rigorous Stoic morality, and similarly – and for similar reasons – Rabbinical and early Christian interpreters “spiritualized” the overtly erotic Shir Hashirim.

What counts as unacceptable and what sorts of interpretations are employed as remedies will vary.  In our own era, Sontag maintains that what has become unacceptable is that anything should fail to be an object of intellectual interest and investigation.  She blames this, to a large degree, on the extent to which the scientific view of the world and of the human experience of it dominates all others and especially the sensual and experiential.  Not only has it guaranteed that the human intellect and human intellection are the characteristics and activities we take as most distinctive of us and hold in the highest esteem, but it has literally produced a world that is at every level intertwined with the fruits of scientific intellection, in the form of industry and technology.

Art is put in a position, then, of being “in need of defense,” as Sontag describes it.  To take the work of art as simply something to be experienced, something to stimulate us, in various ways, is to render it unimportant and superficial, for it is to suggest that art operates on us at the least important levels of our nature.   But when we treat the work of art as the bearer of all sorts of hidden – and not so hidden – meanings, it becomes an object of literary or some other variety of interpretation, and this raises it up to the level of intellectual investigation.

Interpretation need not necessarily be a bad way of engaging with literary texts and other artworks, especially in those circumstances in which literature and the arts have been co-opted into propaganda of one kind or another, such that a simple experiential engagement with them is actually a pernicious kind of manipulation.  But in the hyper-industrial, hyper-technological world of late 20th and early 21st century America, the interpretive impulse is almost unequivocally bad, according to Sontag.  Not just because by insisting on the interpretation of works of art, we reinforce the “hypertrophy of the intellect,” characteristic of a science-dominated society like ours, but because we rob ourselves of a much-needed source of experiential stimulation.  For one of the other features of our science-dominated  – and industrial – world is mass consumption and the inevitable overstimulation that comes with it; an overstimulation that actually diminishes our ability to experience and feel.  As Sontag says, near the end of “Against Interpretation”:

Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modem life-its material plenitude, its forms of narration. Perhaps film criticism will be the occasion of a breakthrough here, since films are primarily a visual form, yet they are also a subdivision of literature. 10 sheer crowdedness-conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed. What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

And in her final line:

“In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

I hope you enjoy Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” as much as I do, and, as always, I am very interested to hear your thoughts on it.

Daniel A. Kaufman is Professor of Philosophy at Missouri State University, and his main areas of interest are aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language.

Categories: This Week's Special

23 Comments »

  1. You describe two problems:
    First
    She blames this, to a large degree, on the extent to which the scientific view of the world and of the human experience of it dominates all others and especially the sensual and experiential.
    for it is to suggest that art operates on us at the least important levels of our nature.

    And second
    For one of the other features of our science-dominated – and industrial – world is mass consumption and the inevitable overstimulation that comes with it; an overstimulation that actually diminishes our ability to experience and feel.

    So the scientismic culture has diminished the importance of the sensual and experiential while at the same time with the mass production of art has come an oversupply. This has meant intense competition which in turn has entailed it becoming louder, bolder and brasher as it attempts to capture our attention. It has become a race to the bottom.

    These two problems have combined in that the first problem has created the second problem.

    Your diagnosis:
    What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

    But how are we to do that? Remember that the critic has only one tool at his disposal – words. And when you use words you must inevitably talk about content for the simple reason that words cannot convey the sensual and the experiential. For example, no matter how you describe the Mona Lisa your words will only be a vague shadow of what you experienced.

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  2. All very good, but it won’t help you much with _A Pilgrim’s Progress_. Riffing on Labnut’s comment about scientism, approaches such as neuroaesthetics seems more interested in that which can’t be easily verbalised, and might be less successful with for example conceptual art
    http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/LEON_a_00324

    Seeley [Naturalizing aesthetics: art and the cognitive neuroscience of vision Journal of Visual Art Practice 2006 5:195-213]
    discusses the relationship between neuroaesthetics and philosophy of aesthetics:

    Cognitive science and aesthetics, as I have defined it, rests on the tacit assumption of this epistemic aspect of [Alexander] Baumgarten’s program. [Semir] Zeki and [Jennifer] McMahon argue that artists’ aesthetic practices and viewers’ aesthetic experiences are the product of an intuitive awareness of sub-linguistic perceptual processes dedicated to clarifying image structure, and that the aesthetic interest these perceptual experiences yield is measured relative to what they reveal about the structure of perception.

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  3. Dan,
    Sontag answers your last question in the final parts of the essay
    Yes, after seven pages she gives a brief, outline prescription that hardly tells me anything at all. Her words seem to be more a wish than an answer.

    Sontag says
    What is needed is a vocabulary—a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary—for forms. * The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form.
    and
    Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis.

    But I doubt the validity of her answer. Let me give(briefly) the personal, untutored, unacademic view of an unaesthetic un-philosopher.

    Powerful art is evocative art. It arouses thoughts and feelings in me. Every time I view or experience any form of art I find that experience is greatly enhanced and given meaning when, through discussion, I share that experience with my fellow viewers.
    By sharing this I explore and validate what is evoked in me. The others’ experience in turn lead me to discover new insights, enriching my experience.

    For me, at least, art is essentially a social experience. What I need is not a ‘vocabulary of forms’ or a ‘loving description’ to describe what we saw, as Sontag says, after all we saw the same thing. What I need is a language that describes the thoughts and feelings that were evoked in me when I viewed/heard the art so that I can share these experiences and hear the experiences of others. Time and again I have discovered that it is in the sharing that I discover the value of art.

    On my theory, at least, the only meaning art has is the meaning it succeeds in evoking in me. The more sensitive and perceptive I am the more meaning I will perceive. The greater the skill of the artist the greater the meaning the artist will succeed in conveying. This is validated and multiplied by the shared social experience of art and a shared social understanding of the art will emerge from that.

    Let me qualify my words. When we search for meaning we are searching for the wrong thing. It is value that we search for. We tend to use the words interchangeably and this is where the mistake begins.

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  4. labnut,

    “Yes, after seven pages she gives a brief, outline prescription that hardly tells me anything at all.”

    The answer is to be found in the list of critics she remarks. Together, they would have been recognizable to her readers of the time as belonging to what became known as Structuralist Criticism (largely informed by, but not identical, to Structuralist anthropological and linguistic theories). Structuralist Criticism promised to disclose how art worked within a given culture, without insistence on aesthetic valuation or discussion of what artists were supposed to be ‘teaching’ us.

    This was part of the ancient yet still ongoing debate initiated in Plato, and not simply over mimesis. What Plato has Socrates suggest is that if poetry cannot educate, it has no real value, and produces harm by deluding people. Thus the demand that has echoed since, that art must *both* entertain and educate *properly* – that is, instruct audiences in moral virtues and consequences. At the time Sontag wrote, the New Critics, who had a strong vocabulary for analyzing poetic structures, were also insisting that great writers were also great moralists, whose poems could be shown to deliver ‘messages’ that clever students were then supposed to uncover, largely through analysis and translation of metaphor. Structuralist criticism was developed on the idea that it was of more interest to discover *how* metaphors worked than what ‘messages’ were delivered through them.

    Sontag’s list also reveals a bias towards what is known as ‘stylistics’ – the choices writers and artist make that identify the author from text to text.

    The best example text to read here is Jarrell on Whitman: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~perelman/classes/english088/rj_somelinesfromwhitman.html

    The most revealing names listed are Benjamin and Barthes.

    Benjamin worried whether art was simply losing intrinsic value altogether in an industrialized, mass-media world, a concern Sontag echoes. Barthes valued ‘writerly’ texts in which the reader could lose him/herself in a state of ‘bliss,’ and wrote an ‘erotics of (literary) art,’ “The Pleasure of the Text.”

    Stylistically Sontag’s essay owes a lot to these two.

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  5. Ejwinner,
    The answer is to be found in the list of critics she remarks.

    Yes, and that is why I remarked, with exaggerated irony
    the… untutored, unacademic view of an unaesthetic un-philosopher.

    An un-philosopher, such as myself(a re-treaded metallurgist), lacks the familiarity with the material, training and most importantly, access to the resources, to be able to read the references.

    This site has taken an academic turn, which is reflected in its tag-line, ‘Philosophers Club’. I can understand and sympathise with the aims but it does tend to exclude people like myself. Which is also fine because I can admit my limitations and watch from afar, enjoying what I can make sense of.

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  6. Susan Sontag is “taking an academic turn,” but Quine isn’t?

    Our banner changes every week. Last week was a bar full of people drinking Guiness. This week is a bar called “The Philosophers Club.” Next week…

    Getting the whole bar thing?

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  7. Dan,
    Susan Sontag is “taking an academic turn,” but Quine isn’t?

    Cumulatively.

    If it’s not your thing, no worries. We’re all about variety here.

    And its great. I appreciate the challenge and the way it opens new, unexpected horizons. I do though struggle with the references. The academic publishers charge ludicrous fees for access to articles, especially for people like myself with devalued currencies.

    A $25 article will cost about 4 Big Mac Meals in the US and about 15 Big Mac Meals in South Africa(http://bit.ly/1XSrpln – in 2012, it is rather worse now). For more about Burgernomics see this artilce – http://www.economist.com/content/big-mac-index

    From the article:
    Burgernomics was never intended as a precise gauge of currency misalignment, merely a tool to make exchange-rate theory more digestible“, “a gourmet version of the index.“, “its actual price gives a supersized measure of currency” 🙂

    I can go one better:
    I found Sontag’s thesis hard to swallow and nearly choked on her references that were in any case indigestible. However I did savour the arguments, but you will think my criticisms are toothless. You should be thankful I did not use any salty language.

    I’m going to give up punning for Lent, but that will only be next year.

    Getting the whole bar thing?

    I was wondering about that but reluctant to make inferences from two instances. I actually like the Philosophers Club illustration, my earlier remarks notwithstanding. My vote would be to keep that illustration.

    Next week…” – http://bit.ly/1OFGqkc (perhaps we should raise the bar)

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  8. Setting aside aesthetic theory or the formalized disciplines of artistic interpretation and criticism, I am sympathetic to much of what labnut has to say about the experience of art. Coincidentally, over at Massimo’s Plato’s Footnotes, he makes reference to an article by Alva Noë. (A link is provided below.) Of course, the intent of Daniel’s article here on Sontag is aimed at a different target than is Noe’s. Still, I think I hear echoes of labnut’s comments in some of what Noe says.

    http://chronicle.com/article/How-Art-Reveals-the-Limits-of/232821/

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  9. labnut,

    Sontag was not an Academic. She was part of the New York literati, public intellectuals with professional writing credentials with respected educated opinions on a wide variety of cultural and political issues. In the ’60s/’70s, this would have included the like of Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, William F. Buckley, Nora Ephron, and, if you liked ’em a little raw, Norman Mailer. They published novels and journalism, also wrote plays and screenplays, their essays appeared in magazines and journals targeted to those invested in continuing traditions of cultural literacy and developed literate taste – Low circulation journals like the Partisan Review, higher circulation weeklies like the New Yorker.

    I mention these 2 because they are also mentioned in a review of Against Interpretation archived by the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/1966/01/23/books/booksspecial/sontag-interpretation.html?_r=0 – this will give you a better flavor of the era. Sontag would have felt confidant that her readers would be familiar with most of the writers she named.

    So who were these expected readers? At the time, anyone with an undergraduate degree in English or other languages, as well as many coming out of college from a variety of other fields, from history to music. Also college students working toward such degrees. Also the self-educated with cultural aspirations, such as would-be poets, musicians, actors.

    The educated reader of the day could have an impressive library – books were cheap then – including most of the texts Sontag remarks. Such readers would also be expected to have at least curiosity in the arts, especially those of the 20th Century, and of course the living arts being practiced in the day.

    Hardly utopia, but a richer cultural environment than we have today – and not requiring a doctorate to inhabit.

    Rising anti-intellectualism, increased professional specialization, decreasing literacy, dumbed-down 24/7 electric media, poorly informed digital culture, unstable economics with little predictability – all the trends of the past 35 years have gone to undoing the culture Sontag addressed – and in some ways, pretty much as she could have predicted.

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  10. My intention, here, was to give an account of what I take to be the most salient points in Sontag’s piece, pitched at a level that would be comprehensible to an educated non-specialist. To the extent that I have failed to do that, it is my fault.

    As for the references, are you suggesting that we not include them? Because only some people have access to academic libraries? This seems unwarranted. And besides, as a matter of basic intellectual integrity, when one writes articles like these, one ought to provide one’s sources.

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  11. Dan,
    To the extent that I have failed to do that, it is my fault.

    I think you succeeded admirably in your exposition of Sontag’s paper. It immediately made sense to me. The shortcoming in Sontag’s paper, I thought, was that she devoted almost all her attention to describing the problems of criticism and briefly waved her hands in the direction of a putative solution. That made her paper unbalanced. I had expected her to devote as much effort to describing the solution, which did not happen. You confined yourself to an exposition of her paper and thus repeated the structure of her paper, which was your goal, after all.

    In a certain sense the problem was caused by me coming to the paper with the wrong expectations.

    As for the references, are you suggesting that we not include them?

    No, I agree on the necessity of providing one’s sources. I think though the development of your argument should not depend on the references. In other words you should provide enough information that one can at least glimpse the argument without consulting the references.

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  12. Do not neglect the fact that Sontag appears to be addressing her own very small community of East Coast intellectuals. As Dan writes

    In our own era, Sontag maintains that what has become unacceptable is that anything should fail to be an object of intellectual interest and investigation. She blames this, to a large degree, on the extent to which the scientific view of the world and of the human experience of it dominates all others and especially the sensual and experiential. Not only has it guaranteed that the human intellect and human intellection are the characteristics and activities we take as most distinctive of us and hold in the highest esteem, but it has literally produced a world that is at every level intertwined with the fruits of scientific intellection, in the form of industry and technology.

    The argument then is that they have become too intellectual, and I would agree whole heartedly in the sense that surviving in the canyons of NYC does disconnect one from a large and valuable set of diverse experiences. On the other hand, if that is all one has access to, who am I or anyone else to tell them to let go of their hyper-intellectual interests, or any other such efforts.

    Where I hang out, intellectual excess afflicts no one, myself included. Here we suffer from an excess of nature and opportunities to go out and do stuff. It is quite refreshing then to encounter someone capable of intellectual flourishes. The point I am making is that the vast majority of humanity does not really care about the problems of cosmopolitan elites.

    Sontag does make a good general point: it is better to be exposed to a wide set of experiences, but I think she is wrong to seize upon a cheap opportunity to beat up on science and technology. And yes, the human intellect is the most characteristic feature of the species, but it is just a small part of the whole, IMHO.

    “What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” Yes, but the way forward is not by dialing back “the hypertrophy of the intellect”. In some ways we already see, hear and feel too much. Our intellect has not yet learned how to deal with all these new inputs. Your piece is therefore a small intellectual step in the right direction.

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  13. I see nothing cheap about her critique of some of the effects of science and technology in a hyper-capitalist, overconusmption oriented society. Could you be more specific about what’s “cheap” about her critique?

    Also, she would want to deny that the intellect is the defining feature of the species, and so would I. David Hume would agree.

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  14. Also, she would want to deny that the intellect is the defining feature of the species, and so would I. David Hume would agree.

    Agreed. The intellect is but one part of the defining whole which is made up by our

    1) capacity for love, 2) capacity for beauty, 3) capacity for the sensual, 4) capacity for moral behaviour, 5) capacity for purposeful action and 6) capacity for intellectual enquiry.

    It is not merely that we possess these capacities that sets us apart but the depth and intensity of these capacities. If you can weep when you read the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, soar on the beauty of Wordsworth’s words, thrill to Mozart’s Horn symphony, rage at some injustice and grieve desperately for the death of your beloved dog, then you will be experiencing some of the capacities that make us unique.

    Today’s climate of scientism together with the epidemic of consumerism is blunting our capacities. The most articulate expression of today’s scientistic culture is this piece by Rodenberg – http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/on-the-human/2009/11/the-disenchanted-naturalists-guide-to-reality/

    This one dimensional picture of reality denies what is most real and valuable about us. The sad thing is that this attitude is becoming normal. I asked a young friend, a final year student in physics and mathematics(at UCT), to read this. She responded:

    Wow … The article itself says nothing that most sciencey types of people haven’t thought about. I kinda struggle to see the point in writing it, unless it was to put a bunch a reductionist arguments in one place so it would be easy to respond to them in one go. To be clear, I don’t think the author is necessarily wrong… I just think the facts he’s pointing out are already well-known, and he doesn’t seem to be adding any value.

    She thinks this attitude is so normal that it is hardly worth writing about.

    I see that I left out our capacity for the transcendental, probably because I sensed that our atheist readership would deny it. 🙂

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  15. Hi Dan and Labnut,

    The original statement was
    the human intellect and human intellection are the characteristics and activities we take as most distinctive of us“.
    These are certainly our most striking characteristics, as far as we are concerned. There are many other characteristics that enter into the definition of the human, but what is more striking than our ability to think, talk and write? The symbolic content of our talk is absolutely unique. Human intellection is fundamental to culture too. What then could be more characteristic?

    How to define the human is a whole other story. Yes, Labnut, emotions and intuitions such as love, beauty, sensuality and purpose are also important defining characteristics – even more important. But there are others such as hate, anger, disgust, etc. There are multiple approaches toward a definition of human: biological, religious, philosophical, etc. Our intellectual interactions are our most salient characteristic since it is what we use to wrestle with all our questions.

    The basic point here is to keep in mind that our intellections are easily sidetracked by our personal agendas, possibly leading to simple errors of reason and logic, i.e. simple intellectual biases leading to unwarranted beliefs. Honest intellectual discourse should help us identify these so as to avoid them, if one wants to.

    A similar bias against science and technology is accessed by much of the criticism of scientism: in essence, it seems, because humanity cannot deal with the excess of information, and the excesses of some scientists and some technologies, the fault lies with the scientists. That is too facile for me. The alternative to unfettered intellectual curiosity would be a new dark age!

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  16. Liam:

    Let’s not argue over how to “define” the human. Definitions of terms like this are surely impossible, anyway. Instead, let’s focus on which characteristics *we take* to be the most significant, important, distinctive, etc… And on this we clearly can — and apparently do — disagree. Your allegation that our “intellectual interactions are our most salient chacacteristic” is hardly supported — in the sense of objectively justified — by the anemic reason that follows it. It is your view, fine. But don’t pretend that you can somehow prove it.

    You are of course, correct, that intellections may be “easily sidetracked…leading to simple errors of reason and logic,” but whether or not this is a good or bad thing depends entirely on whether the context one is talking about is one in which intellection is the proper way of successfully navigating it. Obviously, there are many contexts in which it would not be, such as a romantic encounter or sitting and listening to the B-Minor Mass.

    Given that scientism represents a distorted view of science’s role in our overall understanding, I don’t see how criticism of it can constitute a “bias,” at least not in any pernicious sense of the term. Given that scientism is false — and destructive to the search for understanding — bias against it is a good thing.

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  17. Liam,
    A similar bias against science and technology is accessed by much of the criticism of scientism

    To criticise scientism is emphatically not a criticism of science.

    Science is a tool with the capacity for being misused. Scientism is the misuse of the tool called science. To criticise the misuse of a tool is not to criticise the tool. To imagine that a tool cannot be misused is to elevate the tool to demigod status.

    But there are others such as hate, anger, disgust,

    Indeed. For every virtue their is a corresponding vice. The virtues are what rescue us from the vices.

    The alternative to unfettered intellectual curiosity would be a new dark age!

    Huh? Where did that come from? Since when did criticising scientism mean holding back scientific curiosity? I think you have made a huge and unwarranted leap in assumptions. Once again, criticising the misuse of a tool in no way implies that the tool should not be used.

    To use a simple analogy. If a mechanic used a plumber’s wrench to tighten the engine mounting bolts in my car I would be justifiably alarmed and would protest vigorously. But I would never tell the plumber not to use a plumber’s wrench. It is a perfectly good tool in its own domain.

    Honest intellectual discourse should help us identify these so as to avoid them, if one wants to.

    Well, yes, of course. No-one argues against the obvious.
    But did you notice how a moral qualifier crept into your argument when you used the word ‘honest’? This should give you a clue to the vital nature of our capacity for morality. As you rightly imply, intellectual discourse has no value if it is not honest.

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  18. Dan,

    The psychologists seem to agree that the mental activity that sets us apart from the others is human thought/language, and the role that it plays in society. I can’t imagine what our culture would look like if we did not describe our thoughts and feelings to each other. This ‘intellectual’ activity is fundamental to our culture. The birds and the bees have sex and listen to the musical sounds all around. Their culture suffers from their singular inability to talk about it. Symbolic/abstract thought is where we categorically distinguish ourselves.

    I will ask again, what is our most salient characteristic as humans, if not intellectual activity? Our passions are what drive us, but we cannot refrain from talking about them, i.e. intellectualizing them. I agree with you that we should not neglect our passions, quite the contrary.

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  19. I am happy to take Rosenberg at his word when he says that none of his words have any meaning
    That piece by Rosenberg is one of the most depressing and profoundly ignorant thing I’ve ever read

    I like that article because it can be seen as an effective reductio ad absurdum rebuttal of the argument for scientism. But I was shocked when my student friend took the article at face value. It seems that attitude is becoming the new zeitgeist.

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