Broken Knowledge

Frank Kermode

  • The Oxford Book of Aphorisms edited by John Gross
    Oxford, 383 pp, £9.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 19 214111 2
  • The Travellers’ Dictionary of Quotation: Who said what about where? edited by Peter Yapp
    Routledge, 1022 pp, £24.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 7100 0992 5

Richard Rorty has made us familiar with the distinction between two sorts of philosophy, which he calls ‘systematic’ and (I think infelicitously) ‘edifying’. The first sticks to the central epistemological tradition, which assumes that it can deal systematically and progressively with reality; the second is essentially of the periphery, and its exponents are pragmatical opponents of the institutional tradition. They include Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, William James, the later Wittgenstein and the later Heidegger, all philosophers who ‘want to keep the space open for the sense of wonder which poets can sometimes cause’. Bacon once called wonder ‘broken knowledge’ – a definition that suits Rorty’s needs. These people, he argues, substitute for continuous inquiry into the way things are all manner of discontinuous instrumentalities, and one of these is the aphorism.

So John Gross’s Oxford Book of Aphorisms might, if properly used, be less a book to nod over than a neo-philosophical catena, an instance of the edifying that ousts the epistemological. As a matter of fact, it contains some strong anti-systematic remarks. ‘Philosophy, hoping and promising at first to cure all our ills, is at last reduced to desiring in vain to remedy itself,’ opines Leopardi; and Lichtenberg was there or thereabouts before him: ‘For a long time now I have thought that philosophy will one day devour itself. Metaphysics has partly done so already.’ Not long after Leopardi mused thus, we find without amazement that, in the view of Kierkegaard, ‘in relation to their systems most systematisers are like a man who builds an enormous castle and lives in a shack nearby; they do not live in their own enormous systematic buildings.’ Aphorisms may be shacks of this kind, or they may be specially designed shacks made by people who dislike or cannot build castles.

The natural rival of this Oxford Book is the Faber Book, compiled by W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger and first published in 1962. Auden was himself an aphorist (he is represented in Gross’s collection), and Kronenberger was a connoisseur of the form, so their book, which will take a bit of beating, is equally eligible for use as materia neophilosophica. The piece of Kierkegaard quoted above can be found in both books, but on the whole there is not much overlap. I checked out the sections on religion: the Faber, unsurprisingly, has twice as many entries as the Oxford, but there seem to be only three repeats. In one of these, Xenophanes observes that Ethiopians say their gods are snubnosed and black, while Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair (‘gray eyes’ in Auden). Another is by Kafka: ‘The true way goes over a rope which is not stretched at any great height but just above the ground. It seems more designed to make men stumble than to be walked upon.’ (‘Designed more’?) Finally Cesare Pavese states that ‘religion consists of believing that everything that happens is extraordinarily important. It can never disappear from the world, precisely for that reason.’

Since these morceaux have a double endorsement, one might say what one thinks of them as aphoristic substitutes for philosophy. Not a great deal, I fear. Kafka seems well below his best: you could as well say ‘fallen off’ as ‘walked upon’, which implies that the true way is easier than it is. Pavese’s observattion isn’t entirely true, for there are things held to be indifferent, and only to very unusual modes of attention can everything seem extraordinarily important. So his ‘precisely’ seems a bit strong, his inference too bold. And ho-hum to Xenophanes. Of course all these aphorisms suffer in translation; wisdom leaks away, like poetry.

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