Homer recounts how, trapped inside a monster’s cave, with nothing but his wits to call upon, Ulysses once saved himself by twisting his name. He called himself Outis: “No One,” or “Non-One,” “No Man,” or “Non-Man.” He blinded his barbaric host and eluded him, becoming anonymous, for a while, even as he bore a name. Please join us for a discussion between two of our most admired critics of the way in which a grammatical possibility can be an incitement for thought.
Philosophers never forgot the lesson that the ancient hero taught. From Aristotle and his commentators in Greek, Arabic, Latin, and more modern languages, from the masters of the medieval schools to Kant and his many successors, thinkers have exploited the possibilities of adding “non-” to the names of man. Aristotle is the first to write of “indefinite” or “infinite” names, his example being “non-man.” Kant turns to such terms in his theory of the infinite judgment, illustrated by the sentence, “The soul is non-mortal.” Such statements play major roles in the philosophies of Maimon, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and Hermann Cohen. They are profoundly reinterpreted in the twentieth century by thinkers as diverse as Carnap and Heidegger. Heller-Roazen draws a lesson from persistent examples. The philosophers’ infinite names all point to one subject: us. “Non-man” or “soul,” “Spirit” or “the unconditioned,” we are beings who name and name ourselves, bearing witness to the fact that we are, in every sense, unnamable.
Daniel Heller-Roazen is Professor of Comparative Literature at PU and one of our most versatile critics. His books many previous books include Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers, The Fifth Hammer: Pythoagoras and the Disharmony of the World and The Enemy of All: Piracy and the Law of Nations. Michael Wood is a celebrated literary and cultural critic and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at PU. He writes regularly for the NY Review of Books and the London Book Review. His many influential books include The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risk of Fiction; The Road to Delphi: the Life and Afterlife of Oracles, and Literature and the Taste of Knowledge among many others.
Co-sponsored by Princeton University's Program in Humanistic Studies at the Humanities Council