The Letter

The Letter is a medium of communication. The letter is usually intended for only one recipient and written for an audience of the directed person. Sometimes we have letters which are ‘open’, a recent example of this is from Stephen Fry. Where an audience of the thinking public are also witness to the content of the letter.


Chris Bateman wrote a blog post recently about the way in which social media is changing the pre-established norms of blogging. As there is less of a ‘bloggosphere’ as there used to be, media like Huffington Post, or major news services with comments pages and open columns like Guardian’s CIF seem to merge the established print media with online media, as well as its interactivity. Bateman gives a suggestion of models to keep blogging communities going.


When I was thinking about Bateman’s suggestions, there is an implicit or explicit (I can’t tell which) implication of two things:


  • Explicit claim: We should keep the blogging communities we have established in lieu of the more interactive and diverse media outlets out in today’s internet age

  • Implicit claim: There is something worth preserving in the medium of blogging as it is construed


Bateman invited some reactions to his post, in a way I am reacting to what was written, but on the other hand not replying to it at all (I call this the Adorno response) in the terms he has set it. To get back to the original point of my post, lets start thinking about letters again.


Letters have been an invaluable historical resource for scholars in philosophy. Descartes’ had extensive letters from his publisher, and through his publisher, a network of critics, which included Thomas Hobbes, on his ‘Meditations’. The letter has been of interest in personal correspondences as well, in instances where there has been philosophical import as well as a telling amount of personal insight into either of the writers also. It has recently been in blog discussion of a series of letters between Mercuse and Adorno on the 60s student activists. This serves as social document, historical and intellectual document and records of a life.


Of course there are other mediums these days. I know of friends who have little conversations through the medium of tumblr posts and hashtagging, there are short and not always sweet messages through twitter, which effectively serves as the equivalent of a world wide IRC where everyone is invited and there are no proper admins (yet). There are of course IMs. Most of the emergent forms of contact are much more immediate than the letter, and give much more of a sense of ephemerality to them. That said, I am reminded of an romantic couple who once said their IM conversations should one day be the thing of published prose, due to the juxtapositions of romantic messages to a sudden shift to banal topics.


The blog in the age of instant transmission, served as a more enduring form. The blog served as preserving the vanguard of media such as the essay, the discussion, the panel, the contrarian response. I like blogs. I like the diversity of them. Like paper, they can be hidden, sometimes burned away though not as easy to forget them as so much of online content is archived these days. Blogging has more potential for bringing diverse audiences than the printed essay, blogging can communicate many different things. I follow a blog from an olympic weightlifter who talks about her diet and social life or being starstruck meeting celebrities; I follow fitness blogs; I follow blogs about cancer.


Then there are blogs which serve as a lightning focal point, although not intentionally so or even with such initial pretensions. Leiter Reports has reached its 10th year and has brought about discussion of issues which have framed academic philosophy from within and without. When I think about the blog (as a genre) and its future, I think about the letter. I suspect most contemporary philosophers will have letters, although I’m more certain many philosophical correspondences have occured through emails or facebook messaging. I wonder if things like that might be studied in the future for some kind of exegetical import.


I have a few friends with whom I prefer contacting them through long emails. We write in essay length format to talk about ourselves, things on our mind, and general insights. I have one blogging friend who I have encouraged to document some of her experiences through the medium of blogging, so that our conversations have had a much wider audience. I don’t think the letter has died, or will die. There are still people who will have pen pals, still people who will write letters. Or it might be that the notion of letter writing and correspondences may be superimposed upon emailing, or through the blog. Likewise, blogging does not have social media and a changing online climate to worry about, it will change in some way to account for it.


When I think of the letter I think of how immensely informative and insightful letters are in historical philosophy: such as the correspondences between Leibniz and Clarke; Frege and Russell; or anyone Kant or Adorno corresponded with. Letter writing is not lost, it’s just different now. I’d be interested in seeing what emergent forms arise.



David Hilbert on Unification

At the end of David Hilbert’s Mathematical Problems, Hilbert goes into the details for his motivations for what we may call unity of science thesis. These reasons are as poignant today in my view as they were in his own time. Motvations could be summarised thusly:


  • Divergences/fracturing mathematics into subdisciplines will mean specialised areas will not engage with other areas outside their specialism

  • The most important innovations are driven by simplicity, more refined tools and less complication.


The first thesis is a problematic of overspecialisation and genrefication of any kind of academic research. Becoming so niche that one is essentially writing for a peer group that is too specific and few. Perhaps this is inevitable in the world of industrial research and constant innovation. If we are to believe that subdisciplines and specialisation are a necessity, then we cannot understand Hilbert’s second thesis, of parsinomy. Granted, more needs to be elaborated if such a unification thesis were to work. Unification has its own problems, but there is a bonus to clarity and it is a matter of fact that many great scientific innovations are of the sort that unify and simplify seemingly irrelevant areas (Maxwell Equations or Relativity for example).

 The conclusion of Hilbert’s lecture is as follows:

The problems mentioned are merely samples of problems, yet they will suffice to show how rich, how manifold and how extensive the mathematical science of today is, and the question is urged upon us whether mathematics is doomed to the fate of those other sciences that have split up into separate branches, whose representatives scarcely understand one another and whose connection becomes ever more loose. I do not believe this nor wish it. Mathematical science is in my opinion an indivisible whole, an organism whose vitality is conditioned upon the connection of its parts. For with all the variety of mathematical knowledge, we are still clearly conscious of the similarity of the logical devices, the relationship of the ideas in mathematics as a whole and the numerous analogies in its different departments. We also notice that, the farther a mathematical theory is developed, the more harmoniously and uniformly does its construction proceed, and unsuspected relations are disclosed between hitherto separate branches of the science. So it happens that, with the extension of mathematics, its organic character is not lost but only manifests itself the more clearly.

But, we ask, with the extension of mathematical knowledge will it not finally become impossible for the single investigator to embrace all departments of this knowledge? In answer let me point out how thoroughly it is ingrained in mathematical science that every real advance goes hand in hand with the invention of sharper tools and simpler methods which at the same time assist in understanding earlier theories and cast aside older more complicated developments. It is therefore possible for the individual investigator, when he makes these sharper tools and simpler methods his own, to find his way more easily in the various branches of mathematics than is possible in any other science.

The organic unity of mathematics is inherent in the nature of this science, for mathematics is the foundation of all exact knowledge of natural phenomena. That it may completely fulfil this high mission, may the new century bring it gifted masters and many zealous and enthusiastic disciples! [David Hilbert, 1900]


K457: Mozart as a metaphor

After my solo performance last month I have been thinking about continuing with my piano practice. I have also thought about picking up exactly at the point where I left off with my late piano teacher. Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C minor. That’s sonata 14 K. 457. The last few pieces that I worked on with my piano teacher in the final few weeks were scary. In some ways the represent something analogous to old relationships, old romances.


There is something unresolved about those pieces. Those pieces represent something unresolved in me. There’s a Rachmaninov piece where I just couldn’t get some of the speeds right, or just didn’t put the elements together in a performance worthy way. With the Mozart piece, I am reminded of the fact and semi-insult of my music teacher ‘Bob’, that I work very much on showy vignette short pieces. Could I ever work on an extended piece, such as a whole Sonata? I did perform Coleridge-Taylor’s Petit Suite de la Concert. But I never felt that I had performed or learned a piece that was part of a deeper pianistic canon.


So lately I’ve been trying to resolve this. IT feels like an internal journey going through the Mozart piece. There are different movements, a fast one, a slow one and a recapitulation one. Typical Sonata form. There’s something about Mozart that I find terrifying. Most of the other pieces of music I’ve worked on can be often clever, but there’s something continually insightful in the fingerings, the harmonies and the structure of Mozart’s music. There’s something beautiful about it that is not as obvious as the actual sonic experience of the music. I enjoy playing fun stuff like Scott Joplin or jazzing it up with friends, but usually there is not much intellectual depth to it. The pedagogical issues in Mozart are such that one cannot cheat with practicing and good technique.


This Mozart sonata is more than a piano piece to me, but reflects a form of philosophising, a form of introspection, a form of therapy. I fear it, therefore I must face it. There are many things in life that we fear that seem to become bigger as a fear object if we avoid it. This is one demon I wish to face.


There are other kinds of morals as well when practicing Mozart. The vision of music (and the world) as a variety of nuances: Forte vs. piano, legato vs. staccato, left hand vs. right hand. In music as in life, we can’t be overly one of these things all the time, doing so would be a flaw of character and a lack of depth and diversity. I tend to go for pieces that fulfill certain tendencies, but Mozart reflects and emotionally tempered and varied outlook, much more than say, Beethoven or Chopin after him. Often playing piano or legato can go against one’s present mindset, and so playing Mozart requires one to forcibly summon the mindset for smooth legati or piano volumes when the piece needs it.


One the thing I especially like about practicing Mozart is how it stays with me after I play it. It stays with me in the harmonic vocabulary when I’m improvising something else or even in a different style. It stays with me in life, knowing when my behaviour needs a staccato or a forte volume. It stays with me from the very careful passages I go through in a microscopic way, if I see it in another piece that requires say, an arpeggiation. It’s quite intimidating how much level of detail is in the Mozart sonata. Its exactly because it is daunting that I am so drawn to it. That has become an aspect of my outlook, to know that the daunting things often are most rewarding