Sunday, June 28, 2009


If anyone reading this for some reason decides to write this kind of blog--and feel free, you poor misguided fool--here's a little clue that you've hit upon a word you should write about. First, you find yourself thinking about it in the middle of the night, and second, you start finding reasons why you should not post about it. Such reasons are usually ignoble.

I've used the word polemic, of course. Well, at least I've read it, and thought I could use it in a sentence if pressed. Polemic has something to do with argument--or an argument, at any rate. If I said, "I don't mean to be polemical", as I almost did recently, before I thought better of it, I would have meant, something like, I don't mean to be divisive, or maybe argumentative. But as usual, the more I think about it, the less I know. Does polemical really mean what I think it does? And where does it come from?

The thought I had in the middle of the night was: is it related to pole? Could it really be as simple as that? Because before that, I have to admit I hadn't a clue. And maybe I still don't. Let's find out...

Well, my understanding of the word is basically right, but my etymology was, in fact, too easy. Polemic, according to the Free Dictionary, means 'a controversial argument, especially one refuting or attacking a specific position or doctrine'. Okay, so far, so good. But it has nothing to do with poles or polar, all that. It comes from through the French polemique (sorry, can't do the accent marks) from the Greek polemikos, meaning 'hostile', which in turn derives from polemos, war.

Funny, it did cross my mind that it might have something to do with the Greek polis, city, or cit-state, which I'd guess it does. But I discounted that idea.

Hmm, I guess I should apologize when I'm being polemical. Good to know.


  1. Interesting and self-deprecating! I also thought of the Classical Greek debate-tradition (a la Plato and his disciples).

    Would the interesting back-and-forth between you and Peter over Freud/Darwin/Einstein/Marx, (those somewhat fallen pillars of psychology/evolution/science/revolution) qualify as a polemic? A 'polite polemic' perhaps?

    When we read History of English (as in British) Literature in our college, we had to read up Victorian Age and the 'crisis of faith', and that was where most these names (except Einstein) figured. They all seemed to me to be highly original theorists, whose novelty has been surpassed/modified/countered as the discourses progressed.

  2. Sucharita, I suppose it was, although I wouldn't say it was a very heated exchange, compared to some I've seen in the blogosphere.

    No, Einstein really wasn't part of the mix, it's just that I knew there were three Big Names and I couldn't think of the third for awhile.

    Your Victorian 'Crisis of Faith' study does really point up the connection, though. It makes you realize that people's assumptions were attacked on every side in that era, and no wonder they became rather fanatic adherents to the new 'non-faiths' in self-protective reaction. I have no problem with the theorists coming up with new ideas, but people do seem to leap on a bandwagon very unreflectively.

  3. I remember the term from my Philosophy studies in High School.
    Heraclitus thought that the only fundamental law is change, and that war and strife are central to every process, from the microcosm to the macrocosm:

    "We must know that polemos (war) is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being through strife necessarily."

    "Polemos is lord of all things; it has shown some to be gods and some mortals, it has made some slaves and others free. . . . Everything originates in its strife . . . . Strife is justice; and all things both come to pass and perish through strife. "

  4. Very apt, Marco, though somewhat depressing. I am kind of hoping that Heraclitus isn't right.

    I would say for one thing that strife doesn't have much to do with justice.

  5. He means it in the sense that everything is in a continuous state of flux - you can't bathe in the same river twice - and equilibrium is just the harmony of opposing forces who pull in different directions - he makes the example of a tensed bow.
    Every object in time is shaped by the interplay of forces who work to either sustain it or tear it down- generated and destroyed anew every istant, and therefore both identical and non-identical to itself.
    His view has many similarities with Oriental Philosophies such as Taoism, and prefigures modern Physics (The Laws of Thermodynamics).

  6. I suppose I'd have to read Heraclitus to argue with his position. But I still don't see what any of it has to do with justice.

  7. All things come into being through conflict. Justice is the tension of opposing forces which reach some kind of equilibrium - but each individual force is striving to push in different directions.

  8. Okay, but I would have thought that "Justice" was a transcendence of conflict--something larger that overcomes the endless blood feuding, etc. An abstraction that allows an end to inevitability.

    Are their philosophers who refute Heraclitus specifically?

  9. Trascendence of conflict? Reminds me of the Freudian opposition between Pleasure Principle and Death Instinct. Death is the end of desire - and of conflict.
    And it is the end of conflict that would bring inevitability - an eternity of unchanging stagnation.
    But it is also true that for Heraclitus,all of the world changes/evolves through a single principle/law which governs the whole. So, from another perspective, those conflicts could also be seen as surface manifestations of necessity/justice/the will of god or similar concepts.

    "Wisdom is one thing. It is to know the thought by which all things are steered through all things."

  10. Actually, I was thinking that the Oresteia was going to be the response to Heraclitus, but just caught a glance at someone's paper saying that Aeschylus' viewpoint was closer to Heraclitus than is commonly thought. So I may need a backup plan. We'll see.

  11. Seana

    I wonder if its possible to say anything that isnt polemical. Can anyone really be neutral, ie divorce themsleves from where they came from and how they are? I'm skeptical.

    John Rawls founded an entire school of philosophy on the idea that people should be neutral between competing goods, but I dont think that can ever happen. Being polemical is being human.

  12. For anyone still reading down here besides myself, here is the link to that paper on the Heraclitian tendencies of the Oresteia . Aeschylus may possibly support my vague view of Justice, but this paper doesn't. Still, it's very interesting.

    I'm perfectly happy to accept the all is in flux idea, but this whole constant strife model does get me down. It seems to me that there is quite a lot of life and even being that has nothing to do with strife, struggle and conflict at all. I know that these things are a large part of the whole, but I still don't believe that they are the whole. And certainly in human society, it would grow quite tiresome if that were all there was.

    Or, as my v word would apparently have it, 'undrol'

  13. Hi, Adrian--

    I thought I was just talking to myself down here, so that wasn't a response to what you said. But since my research on this word drew up its basis in the Greek word for 'hostile', well, yes, I do think people can refrain from being polemic. I don't think it's opposite is 'neutral'. I think it's opposite is probably something like, 'receptive'.

    I suspect this is going to sound too Santa Cruz for words to you, but we have a lot of improv troops here, enough that even I have been educated by the improv-ers on some of the basics. So one of the things they say is that when someone makes an offer on stage, or, for anyone reading who doesn't know the term, a kind of idea of where to take the sketch, you aren't supposed to refuse it, but to say 'yes, and'. So you build upon the other person's idea, you don't smash it into the ground and start up something new on your own. Of course that could be used in an utterly fake way in real life, but it is a kind of model for hearing the other person as if they might actually have some insight into things before you move on in your own direction.

    I think that what's human is to have strong opinions about things. But what's more human is to realize that other people have strong opinions too. And that just once in a blue moon, they might be right, and you (I) might be wrong.

  14. Seana, you shouldn't take conflict and strife with a meaning so strict and literal.
    Think about the fact that every act of creation is also the destruction of a previous status quo, every movement affects its surroundings, even the tiniest single cell organism strives to live "attacking" its environment.

    v-word: subbuz (subbuteo played in a kibbutz)

  15. If Heraclitus had said that all is striving, ie, making an effort, I would have a lot easier time swallowing it. But it's interesting that striving and strife are so close, and have related origins. I wonder if it looks quite the same in Italian.

  16. In Italian strife is conflitto (conflict) and to strive is sforzarsi sforzo=effort. So, no.
    In Ancient Greek, the meanings of words like Polemos and Eris may be broader than their English translations. The fact remains that everything that strives to live does so by killing (in the case of animal lifeforms) or consuming (plants )elements of its environment -in this sense growth, life, death are all expressions of change and strife.

  17. Everything changes, I buy. Everything dies--or ends--I also buy. But I don't think plants using the sun for photosynthesis could be considered conflict. Consumption, yes. Conflict, no.

    My problem with saying that all is strife is that we are such metaphor using creatures. If all is strife,then strife becomes permissable on a societal level as 'just the way it is'. For example, Social Darwinism, which was really getting ahold of the wrong end of the stick. All is not strife in the human sphere. It's not even strife all that much of the time. But you're right. We kill and consume a lot of other things to make that human sphere possible. And of course do murderous things to each other from time to time.

  18. The plants
    1) do make use the soil (have you asked him if he likes to be disturbed?)
    2) fight for their space outmanoeuvering other species and fighting among themselves for the access to resources - does every seed become a plant?

    But his concept of strife doesn't exclude the concept of justice, or harmony- only this arises from an equilibrium of different forces. Just as every decision arises from the weighing of competing viewpoints. Much of what is art/politics/culture results exactly from the binding together of forces who left alone would go in different directions.

  19. Marco,

    I am sure that you and Heraclitus would actually win this argument. However, it leaves us no hope. Personally, I am not interested in justice as temporary equilibrium, except of course as it randomly benefits solitary cases. And, of course, every solitary case is a whole world, a universe.

    I'm sorry about the jungle that is nature. But as human beings, I do think we are called to an idea of justice that contradicts that. Make of it what you will, but I believe that Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa would make short shrift of the underlying order of the universe. As, I think, would you and I.

  20. Seana,

    Nice post as usual. I think Adrian is onto something here - it's impossible not to be polemical no matter how much you try not to be. It seems even the most insignificant things nowadays cause a lot of argument, but maybe that's just my own personal biases creeping in here.

  21. Thanks, Brian.

    I wonder if its just a coincidence that you and Adrian have both been trained in the legal profession that you see the world this way...

    No--I really don't know if it's possible to be non-polemical or not. Certainly I'm not personally a good example. I just meant that we so often think of argument or debate as the free exchange of ideas, and it's interesting to see that the word itself has its basis in hostility and even war. And we often tell ourselves that we are just trying to educate someone else when really we are trying to bludgeon them into accepting our point of view.

    I just read an interesting review in the New York Times of Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism: a Writer's Manifesto. Basically, Helprin got chewed up by the blogosphere for something he said, and this is his 'polemical' response. The reviewer takes Helprin to task for basically descending to the level of his critics, but it's all quite timely and worth pondering.

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