The unexamined life is not worth living; nature loves to hide; you can't step in the same river twice. No doubt we've all grown up hearing aphorisms, but perhaps we take their importance for granted. Andrew Hui, the author of the first full book on the theory of the aphorism, guides us through the history of the short philosophical saying from Heraclitus to Nietzsche and beyond.
Unusually, you have written a book about the aphorism. Let’s start with the most basic question: What is an aphorism?
To be aphoristic about it, an aphorism is simply a short saying that demands interpretation. Now, aphorism belongs to a big family with first and second cousins: proverbs, maxims, epigrams, epigraphs, oracles. On the scale of intelligibility, proverbs are usually authorless commonplaces or folk wisdom—for example, ‘out of sight, out of mind’, ‘variety is the spice of life’, or ‘don’t change courses in the mid-stream.’ These are short, basic sayings that are easily understood (though I admit that they are often culture-dependent).
“There’s something very dialectical about the aphorism”
On the other end, there are the utterly enigmatic ones like the pronouncements of the Delphic oracle, or the oracle bone inscriptions in early China inscribed on tortoise shells or oxen scapula. These are the extreme cases of gnomic sayings that demand interpretation.
The aphorisms I chose for my book are somewhere in the middle, and they are written by philosophers. The question that animated my book was: What’s the relationship between philosophical thinking and the aphoristic form? We usually think of philosophy as discursive argumentation: it’s logical; it proceeds by step-by-step demonstrations. What I’m interested in is fragmentary thinking and non-discursive arguments. ‘Atomic’ thinking, as it were.
It’s interesting that you focus on statements that require interpretation. Presumably, you discount fortune cookies and mere short sentences. For a piece of writing to count as an aphorism, there has to be an intention on the part of the writer, and some degree of success achieved in presenting the reader with something that makes him or her pause to think.
Yes. There’s something very dialectical about the aphorism. Once we read it, we have an internal dialogue with ourselves or an imaginary one with the author. In that sense, the aphorism functions as a catalyst for philosophizing oneself. I’m drawing here from Alexander Nehamas’s work and from Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life. Nehamas’s argument is that Nietzsche, Montaigne and Socrates—whether they have a dogma or doctrine or not, who knows—what they really want us to do is philosophize, to do philosophy. Aphorisms, then, are an invitation to philosophy.
Aphorisms have been used widely within Chinese philosophy, where there’s a tradition of a sage or philosopher saying pithy things which the student or reader or hearer is left to mull over, and to interpret. There’s a moment of contact with a teacher and a moment of reflection. Although we have a lot of aphorisms in Western philosophy, the context in which they appear isn’t necessarily a pedagogic one like this.
Let’s stick with the Chinese case first. There’s a construction of the figure of Confucius as the authoritative author of various sayings. But Confucius is not an author. Each of the saying in the Analects is preceded by “Confucius says”; it’s his supposed disciples that recorded the primal moment of verbal enunciation.
“Aphorisms are short; they’re bite-sized; they give you room for thinking”
Now, this gets into the methodological part of my book, which is that in order for us to study aphorisms, we can’t just do philosophical analysis—we must also be philological. With the Confucian aphorisms, we have to figure out why the disciples wanted to record them, and how a commentarial tradition enveloped around particular sayings—often a very voluminous one.
I’m interested in the primal authority of the master and how his followers, or the epigones, as it were, have a lot of dissent, arguments, and disputes about what the teacher’s original meaning was. This is what Max Weber calls the transition from charismatic authority to codified bureaucracy.
But that doesn’t sound radically different from the argument that you find, for instance, in Quentin Skinner’s work about history: that to understand any philosophy, you have to understand a lot about what the thinker meant at the time the words were written, who that person was replying to implicitly, what the words would have meant in context to the contemporary readers.
For Quentin Skinner, there is the authority of Machiavelli, of Hobbes. We know Machiavelli and Hobbes wrote these words. Whereas with Confucius this is a really fluid state of oral textual culture. Sinologists these days are really battling against this teleological movement that says, ‘First there was orality and then there was texts.’ But in reality, it’s much more fluid.
There’s a great metaphor that Chinese scholars use. In early texts, they say, there are three states of matter: gas, liquid, solid. Gas is the free process of oral communication or debates, all floating in the atmosphere; liquid is the manuscript culture, where there’s a lot of fluidity and variants; and solid is print where things are fixed.
Because we’re talking about Confucius, it’d be great to pin this to your first book choice, The Analects.
There are numerous English translations starting from Arthur Waley’s. There are all sorts of different versions, written by people who’re analytic philosophers, or cultural historians. I like Edward Slingerland partly because it includes the commentarial tradition.
I’ll read one example. “The master said, ‘These days it is hard to get by without possessing either the glibness of Priest Tuo or the physical beauty of Song Chao.’” Someone might well ask: who is Priest Tuo, and who is Song Chao? What the commentarial tradition does is provide different types of glosses and answers to that kind of question.
That becomes this great motor engine of subsequent philosophical and intellectual thinking in China. This is how ‘Confucius’ becomes ‘Confucian’, and ‘Confucian’ becomes ‘Confucianism’. This edition is really good at showing both the constructed-ness of the original Analects and the vast exegetical machine that has driven the Chinese philosophical tradition through the centuries.
If you were addressing a Western reader who’s just picked up the Analects, how should he or she go about reading it? Are there things that we should be doing as readers that are different from when we approach a more familiar philosophical text?
There are different ways of reading the Analects. One is that you can read it as a document of ancient Chinese culture that has continuing relevance. In that respect, the edition I’ve chosen is great, because it gives you the sense of the commentarial tradition and what other people have thought about it.
“The aphorism will not work shorn of its literary vividness”
Now, if you are like my colleague Bryan van Norden, you would try to figure out what Confucius is trying to say about benevolence, about goodness, about a theory of friendship. You can read The Analects shorn of its historical context. Or you can approach it historically like Michael Puett of Harvard, who is interested in early China and also the reception throughout the dynasties and its continued relevance up to today.
What about the subjective tradition? If I go into an art gallery not very well informed on history, there’s a great deal I can get from my interaction with pictures, even though my interpretations may be historically incorrect and full of my own personal associations. I’m taken into a reverie where I start to reflect on things that matter to me. What about an analogous way of reading aphorisms?
Oh, absolutely. Aphorisms lend themselves very well to that. They’re short; they’re bite-sized; they give you room for thinking. The time it takes you to read an aphorism is shorter than the time it takes you to come to understand it.
Michael Puett’s lecture course on early Chinese philosophy treats it as life advice—and it’s one of the largest at Harvard with over 700 students!
Could you quote a favourite Confucian aphorism, one that you find easy to remember?
Sure. Here’s a good one: “If I hold up one corner of a problem, and the student cannot come back to me with the other three, I will not attempt to instruct him again.”
Wow, you should have that on your office door.
Exactly! I love this because it completely contradicts the notion that Confucian learning is something that’s passive and regurgitative. This is asking the student to do the problem-solving his or herself. Confucius is going to give you one vector in the parameters of the room, and you figure out the other one. In a way, Confucian thinking is quite algebraic.
What I love about aphorisms is you can take the whole thing away with you, mentally. They’re intrinsically portable. There’s no sense of loss when you close the book because they’re usually short enough to remember verbatim.
Aphorisms function really interestingly as mnemonic devices.
Perhaps that leads us to Heraclitus, your next choice. His most famous and memorable fragment is that you can’t step in the same river twice. This to me seemed initially superficial, but on reflection, is completely profound. It captures, potentially, many ideas about the nature of time, the self, experience, desire and so on. Could you say a little bit about Heraclitus and why you chose this book of his aphorisms here?
Even without knowledge of Heraclitus, you and I could spend two hours talking about and unpacking this statement. Who is ‘you’? What counts as the river? What does twice mean in this context? What is the act of stepping? Is this a notion of the flux of all things? There are other Heraclitus fragments that say “all things are one”—so does he believe that everything is one, or does he believe in flux?
The interesting thing for me is that someone who is essentially a poet as well as a philosopher has found an image which has lasted for thousands of years, and which still has the capacity to generate thought in the reader or listener.
I love how you said he’s essentially a poet. As much as he is a philosopher of thought, he’s also a poet of language. The aphorism will not work shorn of its literary vividness.
Much as with Shakespeare, because we don’t know much about Heraclitus, we’re open to make many more interpretations. We don’t know for sure that there was something that he meant by any particular aphorism. We presume there was some teaching that he was conveying or crystallizing in this oblique way, but we don’t know precisely what he believed.
You could go the deconstruction route and say, ‘Well, you can’t step into the same river twice; you can’t read the same statement twice, and so interpretation goes into infinity. Because meaning itself is the aforementioned river’.
There’s so much contained in that fragment, you don’t need anything else. You could spend a lifetime reflecting on just that fragment and what its implications might be. And every time you come back to it, you’ve changed, and maybe it’s changed.
Exactly. And that’s more or less what Pierre Hadot did in his book Veil of Isis. He spent 40 years trying to figure out the very words ‘Nature loves to hide.’
Another brilliant aphorism. Could you give a hint about what it might mean?
According to Hadot, there are at least five ways of interpreting it:
1. The constitution of each thing tends to hide (i.e., is hard to know)
2. The constitution of each thing wants to be hidden (i.e., does not want to be revealed)
3. The origin tends to hide itself (i.e., the origin of things is hard to know)
4. What causes things to appear tends to make them to disappear (i.e., what causes birth also causes death)
5. Form (or appearance) tends to disappear (i.e. what is born wants to die)
My retort to that would be that aphorisms love to hide.
In what sense? They hide possible interpretations beneath a superficial surface?
Precisely in the sense that we interpret ‘you can’t step into the same river twice’: you can’t step into the same aphorism twice. Because you have changed; the aphorism has changed; there’s no fixed meaning to language. What we mean by ‘nature’ or Φύσις is quite different than what Heraclitus meant by Φύσις. It’s precisely the ambiguity of Φύσις that Heraclitus was playing with, because there was no stable notion of it in his time in the 6th century BCE.
So you chose this book of fragments. We’ve mentioned two fragments from Heraclitus already, but we should say that some of the fragments really are fragments—they’re not even complete as aphorisms.
This makes a great pairing with Confucius, because the commentarial tradition of Confucius shortly after his death endeavored to fix a text, fix a canon. Conversely, there is not really a Heraclitean ‘school’; none of his disciples collected the fragments into an authoritative text. So in fact you can’t edit a Heraclitus fragment twice because there are even different variants of ‘Nature tends to hide’.
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
All of Heraclitus’s statements survive second- or third-hand preserved in the corpora of other thinkers. We get a lot in Plato, but the greatest source of Heraclitus is Simplicius, a neo-Platonic commentator. You have a lot of Heraclitus preserved in the church fathers, who were actually very anti-Heraclitean, but they’re quoting him in order to refute him.
That’s interesting. So they may have been setting up straw men.
Exactly. There is no stability of the text, just like there’s no stability of meaning.
With the next choice, you’ve got pretty much a stability of aphoristic content, but not a stability of ordering of the content. This is Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. We’re jumping ahead over two thousand years. There’s a big gap and we’re suddenly in the 17th century, in a Christian tradition. Why did you choose Pascal?
I chose him because I’m interested in the relationship between philosophical thinking and literary form, I see Pascal’s literary production in opposition to Cartesian clarity and disposition. For Descartes, it was all about clear and distinct ideas and rules for the direction of the mind. It was all about the method. For Pascal, “the heart has reasons that reason does not understand.”
How to think clearly, how to reveal the nature of reality, how, despite skepticism, to get to the core of beliefs that cannot be doubted . . .
For Descartes, you escape from the unknown to the known in small steps incrementally. There’s an order to your thinking. And if you’re confused, you start from first principles, from clear and simple ideas, and an Archimedean fixed point, the cogito. and move onto more complicated things. It’s very geometric. There is an architectonic to Cartesian reasoning . . .
He even talks about the ‘foundations’ of knowledge and reasoning in terms of an architectural metaphor; ‘building on sand’ and so on.
Yes! This is of particular interest for me because my first book was about ruins, and from ruins I thought into thinking about fragments, and from fragments aphorisms.
In any case, for Descartes, it’s about the God of the philosophers. He basically accepts the scholastic proofs for the demonstration for the existence of God. Whereas for Pascal, his God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; his is a God of Revelation rather than the Cartesian God of Reason. For Pascal, it’s all about the hidden God. God is like Nature for Heraclitus: God loves to hide.
“The fact that his thoughts exist as fragments makes it much more generative and interesting to read Pascal because you can think with him”
So how do we approach God? Pascal was really grappling with that. His process of discovery is revealed through the struggle of the composition of the Pensées. It was to be called ‘the apology for the Christian faith’, and the title Pensées was applied posthumously by his editors. He’s grappling with how to express himself and express his God.
Both Descartes and Pascal are in that tradition of ‘know thyself’, which is another aphorism—or is it a proverb? I’m not sure. It’s an injunction they approach in radically different ways. But they’re both struggling with understanding the question ‘What am I?’ It’s a fundamental question for both Descartes and Pascal. ‘What am I before God?’ is the big question for Pascal, whereas Descartes’s could almost be cleansed of the theology. Pascal would not be conceivable without religion.
Yes. And Pascal would not be conceivable without his stance against Cartesianism. He acts as a foil. There’s a point in my book where I say “If Descartes’ philosophical quest begins with cogito ergo sum, we may say that Pascal’s begins with timeo ergo sum, ‘I fear, therefore I am.’” It’s this doubt of the certainty of knowledge, the stability of the self, the operations of the heart.
Sure. And I would trace the trajectory from Pascal to Kierkegaard and to Nietzsche. Nietzsche quotes Pascal all the time.
Why did Pascal write in aphorisms?
I think because he was struggling with how to construct an architectonic system. That’s a huge debate within Pascal studies—whether he had an architectonic system or not. My sense is that this architectonic system was doomed to failure at the start. And he died before he could finish it.
Support Five Books
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
But the fact that his thoughts exist as fragments makes it much more generative and interesting to read Pascal because you can think with him. You are a participant in this hermeneutic struggle.
From my perspective that’s certainly true: there’s something about the gaps left by aphorisms that stimulate a different kind of philosophical interaction with the reader. But at the same time, there’s a quality issue. I don’t know how it’s achieved. But it’s not just because this kind of philosophy is expressed in aphorisms that makes them interesting and catalysts to thought: they have to be really good aphorisms to have that effect. It’s like an encounter with great art: you suddenly realize quality when you see it, but it’s very hard to say what it is that makes something have that depth and possibility. Like the Heraclitus fragments, or a Picasso painting, it seems almost too easy, but there’s a lot contained there.
It’s a bit like minimalist art, or even like Jackson Pollock. The initial thought is ‘My five-year-old could do that.’ Maybe sometimes five-year-olds have these oracular moments of wisdom and insight.
Was there a particular reason for choosing this translation of Pascal?
This is the one that works best for me. It’s both readable and scholarly.
Let’s move on to Nietzsche, who’s probably one of the most famous aphorists in the history of philosophy, certainly in Western philosophy. There may be medical reasons why he wrote in aphorisms: he had incredibly painful headaches and bad eyesight; he wore tinted glasses for much of his life. He was suffering, and couldn’t physically sustain long passages of argumentative prose. It was difficult for him. That may be the cause, in some sense, but the effect is amazing.
Right. That’s the principle of sufficient reason, but that doesn’t explain the principle of final meaning.
If anything, ordinary readers go to Nietzsche for the profound or memorable aphorism more than they do for the system, which others retrospectively project onto it.
Certainly he was ill and he had problems, but he also warned against the biographical fallacy in maxims himself: “The worst readers of maxims are the friends of their author when they are exercised to trace the general observation back to the particular event to which the maxim owes its origin: for through this prying they render all the author’s efforts null and void, so that, instead of philosophical instruction, all they receive (and all they deserve to receive) is the satisfaction of a vulgar curiosity.” So he’s saying, ‘Don’t reduce my thoughts to biography.’
I chose Gay Science because that’s where he really becomes a master of the form: it’s incredibly vivid and incandescent in parts where you get a dazzled by his sheer visionary, aesthetic philosophy of life. But the pivotal moment in which his philosophy became aphoristic and rhapsodic was Human, All Too Human. Before that, he was writing in discursive prose and in essay form. The Birth of Tragedy is quite non-aphoristic in its florid prose; it’s in a way symphonic or operatic.
Large parts of The Birth of Tragedy were written in Richard Wagner’s house, while Wagner was composing in a nearby room, I believe.
That’s why its full title is Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music. Then, he published several essays, for Untimely Meditations. Human, All Too Human marks a turning point; it’s his turn to non-systematic philosophy. It’s highly polemical.
Could you give me an example of one of his memorable aphorisms about aphorisms?
Sure. This is a long one from Human, All Too Human but it captures his aphoristic philosophy really well:
The effectiveness of the incomplete—Just as figures in relief produce so strong an impression on the imagination because they are as it were on the point of stepping out of the wall but have suddenly been brought to a halt, so the relief-like, incomplete presentation of an idea.is sometimes more effective than its exhaustive realization: more is left for the beholder to do, he is impelled to continue working on that which appears before him so strongly etched in light and shadow, to think it through to the end.
I love this passage as a meta-commentary on the nature of aphorism.
It’s not exactly an aphorism itself—it’s a short explanation through an image of the power of not saying everything. In this example there isn’t much room for interpretation, but he uses a memorable image.
Right. There’s something so vivid about the image, the relief-like, incomplete presentation of an idea which is more effective than its exhaustive realization. He’s saying, ‘You, reader, complete it for me. Not just for me, but for yourself.’ Which is why so many philosophical movements afterward claim Nietzsche as its forefather. He allows you that affordance.
Some people would argue that you can’t attach any meaning whatsoever. There are still limits, but his work is much more open than most philosophers’. The same could be said of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writing as well, actually—there are many schools of interpretation of Wittgenstein, another aphoristic writer, in many ways. Though, cumulatively, there are supposed to be classic arguments—like the so-called private language argument—that emerges from a series of fragments. But there’s so much work left for the reader to do. There are different ways of constructing the argument—and scholarly careers to be made doing just that.
You will know Wittgenstein much better than I do, but it’s interesting that the aphoristic form is present in both his early and late period. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, there is the logic of composition, but there are also many moments where his remarks are completely unconnected to each other. It’s not entirely discursive. In the Philosophical Investigations, he reflects, “I have written down all these thoughts as remarks, short paragraphs, of which there is sometimes a fairly long chain about the same subject, while I sometimes make a sudden change, jumping from one topic to another”.
I read a recent interview with somebody who had visited Elizabeth Anscombe after Wittgenstein’s death. They went upstairs and she had all these piles of papers on the floor, and that was Philosophical Investigations. She was in the process of putting the thoughts into some kind of order. Much as with Pascal’s Pensées, there’s a sense that the bundles you put them in determines what the arguments are, in some cases. Their composition in the book, which has now become canonical, was in some sense determined by what was left behind in suitcases. It’s not necessarily exactly how it was conceived, because it wasn’t a completed work.
Precisely. Pascal says “Words differently arranged have different meanings. And meanings differently arranged produce. different effects.” How you order them structures your interpretation of Wittgenstein, Pascal or Nietzsche.
Going back to Nietzsche, what is your favourite aphorism of his?
This one is from The Gay Science: “What good is a book that does not even carry us beyond all books?”
“What good is a book that does not even carry us beyond all books?”
This applies to his own book, too. Stop reading and start living. In “We philologists,” which is his denunciation of the entire discipline of classical scholarship, he’s saying something like, “So what is the ill of European culture today? Why is there the decline of Western culture?” Oh, it’s because scholars are bent over their back in libraries, re-editing the fragments of the ancients. It becomes nothing but a curatorial culture, he says, instead of a productive one or creative one.
“Bald heads forgetful of their sins”, as WB Yeats put it. The poem it’s from, ‘The Scholars’, ends with the line “Did their Catullus walk that way?” It’s about these scholars annotating texts and coughing in ink, but not really doing much else with their lives.
Yes absolutely. I didn’t know the Yeats poem—I love it!
Your last choice is a book that I don’t know, 300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso. Tell me about her and the book.
Sarah Manguso is a contemporary American author, and I think she is the 21st-century La Rochefoucauld!
There were lots of women in the rarified coterie of the French salon—Marquise de Rambouillet, Marquise de Sablière, and Marquise de Sablé—they all wrote aphorisms alongside La Rochefoucauld. Brilliant though they are, the women aphorists of Paris and Versailles were out-sparkled by the men.
Support Five Books
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
Here’s a really good one from Manguso that I think will resonate with teachers everywhere: “When a student surpasses my expectations, I feel proud and betrayed.”
Here’s another one: “I never joined Facebook because I want to preserve my old longing and also yours.”
Paradoxically, perhaps, that betrays a deep knowledge of Facebook, I’m afraid.
Exactly. I think she is an astute and profound observer of our digital lives today, and how much of our lives are mediated in electronic forms. I think Manguso is able to capture many of our anxieties of the internet age just through this little aphorism.
Is there an anthology of aphorisms that you think is good? Have you encountered anthologies that work, or is it something about an anthology that makes aphorisms out of context too bitty, too separated from their origins?
The power of the aphorism exists in its singularity. And yet, aphorisms always have this herd function. They have lots of friends and socialize quite a bit. They live, after all, in anthologies. And the great aphorist never wrote just one aphorism, but always a proliferation. Nietzsche can’t stop himself; Wittgenstein can’t stop himself. The same with Pascal. So that’s the great paradox of aphorisms: they strive towards singularity but always seem to lapse into multitude.
But what does that mean in terms of anthologies containing aphorisms by different authors? Are any of these useful?
One last question. Well, two questions, really. First, I don’t know of another book about aphorisms. Your book seems to be unusual in zooming in on aphorisms. Secondly, when we look at the great thinkers and how often they’ve used aphorisms in the history of thought, it’s really strange that people haven’t written more about aphorisms.
Lucky for me, right? I really don’t know why this is so, because there are tons of theories of the novel, poetry, or drama. I can tell you how I came to write about aphorisms, though. As I’ve mentioned, my first book was on the poets of ruins in Renaissance literature. So I was interested in architectural ruins. There, I got to think about material fragments and I got to think about architectonic forms. From material fragments, that led me to textual fragments, which led me to aphorisms.
“The power of the aphorism exists in its singularity”
Two other practical reasons why I came to write about aphorisms are that, first, being in Singapore, I’m far away from major libraries of the West. We lack basic scholarly critical editions and reference works in the humanities. But aphorisms are portable. You can get hold of them on Amazon, and they don’t require a huge apparatus of scholarship. And secondly, because there aren’t a lot of other books about aphorisms, I didn’t have to do that much research before starting to write my own book. Sometimes, when you’re in the periphery of knowledge production, it gives you new horizons, new insights and new opportunities to think about something that is very old yet very pervasive.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org