Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

A few years back, I wrote my BA thesis about the change from geocentrism to heliocentrism around 1600. The questions were quite simple; why did so many intellectuals at the start of the 17th century change from a geocentric worldview to a heliocentric one? The decline of Ptolemaeus, rise of Copernicus and 15 minutes of fame of Tycho. Interesting!

Today I’m reading The Little Comment of Copernicus (Het Kleine Commentaar van Copernicus) by Herman Kattenberg. Somehow he feels the need to compare contemporary knowledge with geocentrism and Copernicus’ heliocentric alternative. Secondly, he points at “ruling dogma’s” as a reason for some poor choices Copernicus made.

Comparison. A history book is supposed to answer questions about history. If I would like to know more about astronomy, I wouldn’t pick-up a history book. The whole comparison between contemporary knowledge and Copernicus and others is redundant. Besides, it wrongly suggests that a theory won acceptance because it’s simply true. 

Dogma. Let’s assume that the 16th century intellingtsia isn’t stupid. A “ruling dogma” shouldn’t be approached as a backward stupidity that blocks intellectual progress. Trying to incorporate new theories and observations in already existing ones isn’t an example of a lack of courage. Instead of ignoring theological and astrological parts of texts, they might be vital to understand the whole situation. The distinction of society in spheres isn’t always identical and equally strong to the ones contemporary Westerners experience. Why did Copernicus write this and that?The dogma’s, obviously!

This approach doesn’t even start explaining why Copernicus wrote what he wrote and why it became influential only 50 years later.

When you want to critique someone in a useful way and show the other that he is wrong, you must research from what point of view he looks at the case – because from that point of view he is usually right – and recognize its validity […]” – B. Pascal, Pensees nr 701. 

Unlike Pascal’s case, studying history isn’t so much about proving someone wrong. But the point to be made remains the same. What was the point of view of Copernicus, Tycho and others? What position did they take in the network of entities that made their opinion valuable?

“Sauf le nom” or “On the Name” by Jacques Derrida. The translation of the title could also be “But the name”. Does God only has his name or everything but his name? Whatever title we use, the word or name “God” is central in this little book. It’s a dialogue about language, negative theology, spiced with lovely quotes from Angelus Silesius.

The text is written after Derrida missed a conference on Negative Theology. Basically, negative theology says that you can only define God in what it is not. From this point of view, Derrida wrote a dialogue on the name “God”.

The sentence “God is this and that” presents us with a list that gets immediately destroyed by negative theology. Now, prayer is speaking to God and letting Him speak to you. It’s addressing the unreachable beyond the name. It is this reaching-out that destroys the name. Every attempt in the negative theology turns itself into dust. But since the name is its own medium for destruction, it has to float around. Destruction is only possible through itself, but, it’s like an immortal man cutting off his own limbs, at some point you simply don’t have the means anymore and it has to stop. The difference here is that there doesn’t seem to be an end-point.

The name “God” is used as a medium that is supposed to bring us to something beyond the name. The problem is that nothing seems to get through alive. Derrida quotes multiple parts of Angelus Silesius. One of them is quoted twice and it seems more relevant than Derrida makes it in his discussion of the quote. It says “You can’t reach the sun with your arrows. I can take the eternal sun at gunpoint with mine.” The cited fragment doesn’t say that he can hit target, he can only aim, reach-out. And just like with God, every attempt of actually reaching-out with be self-destructive.

Moving towards the impossible makes living valuable. Reaching out to God is the most extreme way. But in general, when goals are set within the boundaries of what is considered possible, there is no real action or progress.

There are two ways to view language. The formal way, it’s to catch, tame and limit names in order to make their use easier. And then there is the more complex view of a language with a history, a language that is constantly changing and his unexpected relations and elements.

These two ways of viewing language are connected with a different view of what naming does. What is it to give someone a name? Is it a formalization that will bring someone within the realm of speech? Or is it an attack on its otherness, an imposed limit?

I didn’t talk about every topic in the book. There is Heidegger, love, death, different manners of speaking etc. My interpretation might be different from others in many ways. Derrida is a mad-man… A brilliant madman, but a madman nevertheless.