What does it mean?

We have been studying Conrad in my Grade 12 class:

In his “Heart of Darkness” Conrad has his narrator say:

“The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”

What do you think this comment says about the meaning of “yarns” in general?
Meaning is a tough one. I deal with the meaning of meaning in class almost every day. What does that poem mean? What does that story mean? Does it mean just what the teacher says it means? I continue to use this section from Bob’s bible book in class. I find it helps.

Three possibilities present themselves for consideration and discussion: 1. intention, 2. text, 3. interpretation. The meaning, argue some, is to be found in the intention of the author. If we could only know what the author intended then we could know what the story means, or, we could then measure the intention against the accomplishment. This approach is seen in the “let’s call the author” approach to literary criticism. “If anybody knows what’s going on it’s bound to be the author.” This approach would have us study history, psychology, biography and anthropology in order to understand texts. The New Critics reminded us that the text itself is important, although they emphasized it to the exclusion of all else. Authorial intention, they argued, is difficult if not impossible to ascertain, while the artifact itself, the text, is present to be studied. Reader response critics point out that meaning resides in the mind/brain of the reader. Everyone has sat in a literature class and wondered if there was indeed any answer to the problem of multiple interpretation other than the cynical one of giving the teacher what you think she wants.
Here is a record of such a debate centering around a modern and brief poem. “Aren’t you just reading that into the poem?” Very often the English teacher cannot prove the validity of his/her interpretation, try as s/he might to build a logical case: the design s/he has just traced out in the webwork of a poem’s connotations and reverberations (perfectly logical in her eyes) begins to waver as students fire at him with alternative connections, last year’s high school teacher’s equally logical structure, and antagonistic literary critics (“Well, if you’re so hot why haven’t you published?”). As the design melts back into a flow of possible meanings, the teacher stammers his/her appeals to justice, then to mercy, but the class has passed sentence: ring-binders snap shut like so many hungry alligators, and the students march off to physics where issues are clear. The teacher exiles herself to an hour of solitary confinement in her office.
Below is a record of a similar trial, with some concluding judgements. The bone of contention is a poem by Robert Frost:
Dust of Snow
The way the crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
The first testimony took place in the classroom of Norbert Artzt, who had written

the poem on the blackboard, and proceeded to reveal its perfectly logical pattern.

Here is part of his report (printed in College English, April 1971):
“What is on the board?” I ask again.
Someone says “words.”
We have taken the first step. “What do these words do?”
“They make a statement.” …
I digress. “Is the statement a complete one?”…
The answers come. They are seeing the words.
“In what time of year does the thing take place? Is winter a time
of life and growth? What about snow? What about dust?”…
The young man with the long hair is in a frenzy. “The bird is
scattering dust on the poet’s head. He is burying him. Good grief!
He is burying him.”
Everyone feels the chill. They are cold now. They are afraid.
Winter, dust, crow, snow, hemlock tree- the images are coalescing.
The deep structure of the poem is emerging in their heads.
Suddenly the momentum stops.
“But why?” someone asks. “Why if the man gets a premonition
of death does his mood change for the better?”
We move back to “the way”. I ask how the bird shakes the snow
down on the man, why he does it….
The bird is drying his wings or landing or taking off. The bird is
indifferent to the man walking beneath him. I ask what this bird’s
indifferent act might mean in the context of the experience. Some-
one suggests that the meaning may lie in the man’s feeling about
what has happened. The man recognizes that nature is indifferent
to the life of any particular man.
I ask again what the thing on the board has said. The long-haired
boy speaks. He is a genius. He will burn down the White House
some day. “The poet has realized through this experience that
death is inevitable and incalculable. It can come at any time, any
place, to anyone. The poet knows he’s wasting his time in regret,
wasting life.” The boy becomes prophetic; his name is Jeremy. “The
poet has had an epiphany. That is why his mood changes.”
Counter-testimony came from Laurence Perrine – after reading Artzt’s report he wrote, in The Explicator, March, 1972:
“The way” in which a crow shakes down dust of snow on Frost’s
speaker is left unspecified, thus permitting several possibilities. I
can see them chiefly as four: Beautifully, animatedly, cheerily, and
humorously. First the poem presents a scene of visual beauty, black
etched against white, the movement of the scattered snow
counterpoint against the immobility of the evergreen tree. Second,
the action of the crow presents a bit of life and animation in a
scene otherwise frozen and without life. Third, the scattering of the
snow on the speaker is almost an acknowledgment of his presence,
a greeting, a communication between the two living actors in the
scene. Fourth, the snow’s falling on the speaker suggests a touch of
humor, as if the sly crow were playing a practical joke on him. The
beauty of the action, its evidence of life, its suggestion of a greeting
and the touch of humor in it combines to lighten the mood of the
Recounting a very simple incident, Frost strove to give it an
utter simplicity of form and language. His one sentence poem has
only one word with as many as two syllables.
Two additional points. First, the fact that the crow’s action saved
only part of a day the speaker “had rued” does not imply that his
sorrow was too pervasive. He may have made a social blunder, for
instance, and his wife may have spoken sharply to him; but he is
hardly mourning his wife’s death or the loss of a child.
Nevertheless, the point of the poem lies in the discrepancy between
the smallness of the crow’s action and the extent of its effect: it is
this that tells us most about the sensitivity of the speaker, his
responsiveness to beauty and life, and his love of nature.
To judge this case, what voice could be more authoritative than Robert Frost’s? In the film Lover’s Quarrel With the World (1963) he states:
There’s a little poem of mine, an old one. It goes like this. (He
recites “Dust of Snow”.) See now. Let’s look at that fair and square.
(He recites it again, more slowly.) And someone says to
me,”Very sinister poem!” And I said, “Sinister?” “Yes, the crow, the
crow is a black bird.” And I said, “The crow figures all sorts of
ways, but all right , I don’t argue. And what more?” “The hemlock
tree.” And I said, “Yes?” And he said, “but Socrates, Socrates –
death of Socrates.” Well you get surprises in this world. I never
thought of that. I live with hemlock trees, and it’s not the weed that
Socrates drank at all. And it’s all wrong with the tree. I’m partly
just as much from the city as the country. But I’m a little more
country than city. And I know what a hemlock tree is.
Yet there is a higher appeal. Here is Auden:
One sign that a book has literary value is that it can be read in a
number of different ways. Vice versa, the proof that pornography
has no literary value is that, if one attempts to read it in any other
way than as a sexual stimulus, to read it, say, as a psychological
case-history of the author’s sexual fantasies, one is bored to tears.
Though a work of literature can be read in a number of ways, this
number is finite and can be arranged in a hierarchical order; some
readings are obviously “truer” than others, some obviously false,
and some like reading a novel backwards, absurd. That is why,
for a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than
the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable for, in relation to its
readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be
read in an infinite number of ways.
Need Frost be aware of this hierarchy? In fact, need he be aware of fairly basic implications of his poem? We often need others to help us grasp the meaning(s) of our own dreams. Often the creative work functions as an “other” to the one creating it.
But in case the issue seems to be resolving or dissolving into valid subjective realities, here’s a new confrontation, revealed by a broader context. After the appearance of Perrine’s attack on him, Artzt (author of the first article) wrote to Jeremy for moral support. Jeremy was then at a Federal Correction Institute for burning draft cards and a draft office. His reply:
What really craps me out is that guys like you and Mr. P. take these
things so seriously. Both of you ought to take a long walk in the
What matters in this world is action. When words turn into action
you have poetry. When they sit on the page or in the classroom you
have nothing.
I’ll tell you what you can do for me – you can stop the war. When
the murders are done with, write me again and tell me what you did
to stop the killing.

  • from Reading the Bible . . . by Bob the Marine

The “New” Fox

The ‘new’ face of Fox News

English: Television commentator at CPAC in .
English: Television commentator at CPAC in . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Minutes into Fox News’s 8 o’clock programming last night, Tucker Carlson looked into the camera and said, “It’s all so bewildering. Things are changing really fast.” He was talking about health care legislation, but the statement could also be applied to his own rise to the most coveted real estate in the cable news landscape. Today, as Carlson wraps up his second week in the chair long occupied by Bill O’Reilly, we check in with the new face of Fox.

For CJR, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer says Carlson has “a real opportunity for him to become the respected gentleman journalist his famed bowtie always wanted him to be.” In the 1990s and early 2000s, Carlson built a journalism reputation as a conservative contrarian, writing most notably for The Weekly Standard. His byline appeared in Esquire, New York, and The New York Times Magazine. But cable news beckoned, and Carlson shifted his efforts to the screen. He passed through CNN and MSNBC before landing at Fox News in 2009, where he was a bit player until the departures of three evening hosts allowed him to vault into the network’s most valuable timeslot.

With O’Reilly’s forced exit over charges of sexual harassment, some in the media (myself included) hoped Fox’s flagship program might take on a more journalistically serious tone. So far, with few exceptions, that has not been the case. Mohajer, who pulls no punches in her column, writes that “Carlson’s early outings suggest the 47-year-old anchor intends to dutifully maintain the bedtime ritual of millions of aging Americans who want to growl at their televisions until it’s time to soak their dentures and dream of an America where many of us didn’t exist.”

Nothing changes: Variety’s Sonia Saraiya reviews Carlson’s new show, which she says follows “a template of the exact same demonizing, disingenuous rhetoric that has characterized his style for years and Fox News’ strategy for decades.”

Twin Earth Puzzle

Twin Earth is a thought experiment by philosopher Hilary Putnam, first in his paper “Meaning and Reference” (1973), and then in his paper “The Meaning of ‘Meaning'” (1975), to illustrate his argument for semantic externalism, or the view that the meanings of words are ultimately not purely psychological. The Twin Earth thought experiment was one of three, the other two being the Aluminum-Molybdenum, and the Beech-Elm cases. Since the publication of these cases, philosophers have proposed numerous variations on the experiment. Source.

Dear Colleagues,

I’m conducting a new trial run of philosophical intuitions on five overall thought experiments that include Twin Earth, Moral Twin Earth, and 3 new scenarios.  At this time, the survey only is for anyone with a PhD or doctorate in philosophy.  I greatly appreciate your help on this.
This trial is different from the one I previously released about a month or so ago and is shorter, so if you took the previous survey, please feel free to also take this variant.
If you can’t finish the first time, click on the link again from the same device to take you back to where you left off.  Thanks, and enjoy!
John J. Park
Clemson University

Philosophy & Religious Studies Department


The most comprehensive study on the bones of Homo floresiensis, a species of tiny human discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, has found that they most likely evolved from an ancestor in Africa and not from Homo erectus as has been widely believed.

Read about the discovery here.

Mozart and Einstein – reblog


A Genius Finds Inspiration in the Music of Another – New York Times: “A Genius Finds Inspiration in the Music of Another

Last year, the 100th anniversary of E=mc2 inspired an outburst of symposiums, concerts, essays and merchandise featuring Albert Einstein. This year, the same treatment is being given to another genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born on Jan. 27, 250 years ago.

There is more to the dovetailing of these anniversaries than one might think.

Einstein once said that while Beethoven created his music, Mozart’s ‘was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.’ Einstein believed much the same of physics, that beyond observations and theory lay the music of the spheres — which, he wrote, revealed a ‘pre-established harmony’ exhibiting stunning symmetries. The laws of nature, such as those of relativity theory, were…

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On Happiness



Stockholm University
May 5–6, 2017

In recent years, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, and other scientists have turned their attention to traditional philosophical themes of happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life. Perhaps not coincidentally, philosophers’ interest in these themes appears to have been rekindled. This two-day workshop aims to close the gap between empirical and philosophical approaches to questions of happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life, in the interest of encouraging the development of an empirically informed philosophy and a science with philosophical awareness.

Goals include to explore the degree to which the conclusions of philosophical reflection and systematic empirical study of issues of happines, virtue, and the meaning of life are converging (or not); what in general contemporary scientists can learn from philosophy, its history and methodology, and what contemporary philosophers stand to gain from engaging with the empirical literature; what in particular recent work has revealed about the nature of happiness (e.g., if it includes an account of the meaning of life) and virtue (e.g., whether it can be understood as a self-transcendent practical orientation); what the power and limitations of empirical methods are in addressing philosophical questions; and whether there remains a space for armchair philosophizing in addressing the topics.

The workshop is sponsored by the Department of Philosophy at Stockholm University in collaboration with the project “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life” <http://virtue.uchicago.edu> which is made possible by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.