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Blog - Blogue

  • Don't Unplug, Plug In

    Friday, January 22, 2016

    I love the internet as much as anyone. I’m not here to decry or lambaste. It has created, what would have been a fairly short time ago, an unimaginable world of sharing thoughts and ideas, technology and innovation, lives, joys, sorrows, struggles. It’s helped people connect, get married, stay married. Furnish your house, fill your fridge, your sock drawer, book a vacation, find a ride, play, read--and eventually, at some point in there, for the academics and budding academics alike, research.

    It’s a marvelous tool, but it’s also a world of big shiny objects that feed an all-too-ready wanderlust. A mindsucker and a time-zapper, if ever there was one. If you want to watch a morning slip away without tackling a blessed thing you intended, just open 8 of your favourite sites at one time. Your Word document, your essay, book, blog, etc. will begin to collect dust very quickly. As a perennial student, I’ve noticed that the favourite addiction of our age poses particular problems. I began my studies not before the internet (though many days I feel that old), but before the internet was nearly as interesting and useful as it is now. My attention span seems to be in direct negative correlation with the many interesting things to do online.

    The dazzled and distracted state created by the internet poses particular problems for students of philosophy and theology. It’s a tough go, the highest sciences. Try reading Anselm’s argument or Kant’s Critique with less than 100% attention and you’ll see what I mean. Most of us need 150% attention to get 50% comprehension.

    Yet, this isn’t a rally cry for the unplugged movement or a chance to try and sell you on the very fruitful life that exists in a web-free world. The thrill of the browse has gotten beneath my skin far too much for that. I’m writing simply to offer a trick that I’ve developed based on a lovely little excerpt from St. Thomas on curiosity. He says that it (curiosity: the vice opposed to studiousness) is “looking around in all directions curiously and inordinately”. If we could embody a vice in any entity I think this one’s name would be “Mr. Web”.

    Anyways, on very good days, when I have the temperance and courage to do so, I ask myself the following question to try and quell the rage of curious inordinateness: What am I hoping to do online? And then I do that thing. And that’s it. Close the browser and back to what’s at hand. It seems simple but it’s probably the most difficult form of aestheticism I’ve practiced. If you have a clear path of what it is you need to know/do when opening the time sucking beast, and you clearly have other things that are supposed to be happening, the likelihood of getting those other things accomplished goes up. Binge surfing goes down. There can be a need to read the newspaper, to watch Netflix, to check Facebook. Making it a purposeful exercise instead of a mindless one helps us get back control so we can do the thing and then get on with our lives. Have a purpose when going online.

    Don’t unplug, plug in.

  • On Anscombe and Wittgenstein

    Friday, January 08, 2016
    Louis Roy O.P.

    As a doctoral student in Cambridge, I paid a visit, in 1981, to Professor Elizabeth Anscombe in order to ask her authorization to attend her course on “Existence.” She was the best disciple of Ludwig Wittgenstein and a strongly built, formidable (in the sense of “to be feared”) lady. Her esteem of me was perhaps rather low, since she had heard me, in a Sunday homily at Blackfriars’ chapel, wanting to say “successively” about the Samaritan woman, wrongly say that “she had successfully had five husbands.” During homilies, she and her husband Peter Geach, himself also a renowned philosopher, would look at the preacher with severe, apparently distrustful eyes. Given that they had got in touch with the Dominican prior provincial of England to accuse of heresy a friar at Cambridge who was on the whole more traditional than me in his ideas, it was intimidating to preach in front of these two powerful and highly critical intellects.

    She nonetheless graciously consented to my presence in her course. During our conversation, I blundered again by mentioning my interest in Lonergan’s thought. She replied, making short pauses: “Lonergan … Lonergan … He is obscure … And when occasionally he writes clearly, he is wrong!” Needless to say, I never uttered Lonergan’s name again in front of her. Peter Geach confided that the three times he began to read Insight, Lonergan’s masterpiece, he fell asleep.

    In class, she spoke very slowly, with an aristocratic pronunciation. She was obviously thinking aloud, with the help of a few notes on very small pieces of paper. At times, Peter Geach would express a thought and, being seated in the front row, this big man would turn towards us and look at us pointblank in a dire silence, as if to ask, “Who among you, doctoral students, would dare contradict me?” Evidently, the two of them were not keen on dialogue; they could be blunt and tough with people who disagreed with them.

    Yet they cared for Dominicans and they invited me to dinner once. Their residence had no curtains – a bit like the bare house Wittgenstein had designed for his sister. Seated on the floor, they drew for me the truth tables (or logical constants) of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus on a little black slate. Realizing that I was not understanding much about those tables, I was afraid they would summon me to rephrase the gist of what they had taught me – which I would have been incapable of doing. Fortunately, I did not undergo this humiliation, because it was soon time for supper. The prayers were pronounced with piety. Suddenly John, a simple-minded person who would spend his days in town, speaking with anybody – including me –, appeared and ate with us. The Geaches had invited him to occupy a room in their home, but he declined, explaining he would prefer staying next door, in the shed.

    For all their staunch and militant conservatism – they played a key role in obtaining permission to maintain the rite of Pius V in several parishes of England –, they were generous and charitable. I am the one who gave them the news that the Dominican who had received them into the Catholic Church had died. This Dominican had previously left the Order. I do remember that Elizabeth was moved and I was struck by the fact that far from condemning his having renounced the exercise of his priesthood, she said, with compassion and tenderness, “Oh, Tony.”

    When Wittgenstein became very sick, he asked Elizabeth to find him a priest in order to prepare for reconciliation with the Church. Wittgenstein had been for decades what the British call “a lapsed Catholic.” He added: “I want a priest who is not a philosopher.” The Dominican Conrad Pepler told me, with British humour: “Then Elizabeth chose me!” He and Wittgenstein met a few times, but he passed away before making his confession. Conrad, with whom I lived in Cambridge, was a very holy and prayerful friar, with profound insights into the Christian life. Wittgenstein could not have found a better spiritual accompaniment as he prepared for his encounter with the God of love.

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