The Aphoristic Style

A clatter of gnomic utterances:  Scholar Island.

Only one possible literary genre can accommodate what seem to be alternative, though to the ancients not incompatible, worldviews: the "collection" of randomly arranged, self-contained aphorisms. In this form, the wisdom of more than one age and more than one temper can be stored side by side. It is not merely the literary form of the collection, however, that allows for this ecumenical generosity. Aphoristic expression itself implies an entire philosophy and worldview. According to this philosophy, experience and thought about experience can be stored best in independent short sayings and poems. The aphoristic worldview also implies that no systematic exposition is intended, for any systematic arrangement or exposition would endanger the independence and originality of an insight stored in a small literary unit. The masters of wisdom have no interest in or conception of completeness or logical presentation of their insights and indeed avoid it. Perhaps one can explain the underlying idea in terms of the distinction between "systematic" and "aphoristic" thought. Systematic thought tends to doctrinalism and the development of comprehensive, complete, and finally closed ideologies. Aphoristic thought, by contrast, remains open-ended and fragmentary. One can always add to the corpus of aphoristic expression, for it can never be complete. Thus aphoristic thinking is more a style of thought than a particular doctrine. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz explains, "It comes in epigrams, proverbs , obiter dicta, jokes, anecdotes, contes moraux--a clatter of gnomic utterances--not in formal doctrines, axiomized theories, or archetonic dogmas."

Bernhard Lang, The Hebrew God: Portrait of an Ancient Deity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

The Lang quote comes via About Scholar Island, where there is more on the why's and wherefore's of the aphoristic style.

December 14, 2005


Nice passage. I've commented on part of it ... indirectly.

Jeffery Hodges

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Posted by: Horace Jeffery Hodges | Dec 14, 2005 9:53:41 PM

Thanks. For the comments and the links to the Geertz papers, at which I've never had occasion to look until now.

Posted by: Greg | Dec 14, 2005 11:06:00 PM

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