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Invocation - Dedication - Acknowledgment

Anyone who has studied Ancient Greek, knows the opening passage of the Iliad. It starts with an invocation of a divine inspiration: "Goddess, sing of the wrath of Achilles, Son of Peleus." The reader, singer, audience, author - all together - ask for divine inspiration in creating, telling and listening to the story. The first ten verses that make up the invocation are a para-text, not properly part of the story itself. This para-text gives a short description of the narrative, the story is about Achilles' tragic wrath against Agamemnon during the Trojan war. In this sense, it functions as an abstract of the main text. However, the invocation also attributes the text itself to a divine agent. At one and the same time, the Goddess is acknowledged as the source of inspiration for the content of the poem, and as the source of protection and support of the poet or the singer. Such invocations, serving the double function of summary and acknowledgment, were common in ancient poetry. Undoubtedly, they are the source of the great variety of para-texts that have been produced in textual history, like the letter of dedication, the preface or the abstract.


Hesiodos en de muze - Gustave Moreau

In a series of papers, my colleague Eugenio Petrovich has quantitatively analyzed one prevalent type of para-text in contemporary analytic philosophy, the acknowledgements in academic papers [1]. Eugenio discusses acknowledgements mainly as a source of information about the social context of philosophical research. The patterns within his corpus potentially reveal to us information about the informal collaborations and the symbolic power distribution within academic, analytic philosophy. As Eugenio's analysis shows, the acknowledgements outwardly portray a rich network of interactions (whether this is actually the case is another matter). This portrayal corresponds to the widely shared self-description of analytic philosophy as a collective enterprise that aims to mimic the social collaboration and collegiality of the sciences (supposedly, in contrast to continental philosophy). Eugenio also shows that the collaborative network portrayed in his corpus of acknowledgements is very hierarchical. The attribution of influence and gratitude is highly skewed: the top 20 most mentioned researchers collect 8,1% of all mentions, while 59,5% of all researchers in the corpus are only mentioned once. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those top 20 researchers are distributed in a handful of top-tier research institutions. Clearly, as Eugenio also claims, acknowledgments do not purely track collaboration or influence - in that case, a handful of people would be massively serving the community at large while, at the same time, doing its most-valued work. Being acknowledged tracks more than collaboration. Mentioning someone in an acknowledgment is also a way of situating oneself within a sphere of influence, or a strategy to draw attention from particular scholars to one's work.


Because para-texts serve multiple social and intellectual purposes, they are difficult to interpret - and, therefore, especially rich and interesting material for anyone interested in understanding a textual culture. Which effect they were intended to have, which social effect they actually had, and the information that we can infer from them (about the text, its author and their context), these are three very different avenues of research. In the history of science, the letter of dedication in the early modern period has received special attention as a rich source of historical information about the social context of science [2]. Galileo's famous letter of dedication to Cosimo II de Medici in the Siderius Nuncius is classical example, filled with poetic similes and literary references. Similarly to invocation of the Iliad, Galileo's letter is both a summary of the text, announcing the discovery of the moons of Jupiter, and an attribution of this discovery to the aid of Cosimo - "under your patronage, most serene Cosmo, I have discovered these stars". In analogy to acknowledgments in contemporary analytic philosophy, Galileo's attribution of his revolutionary discovery to the patronage of Cosimo is not correct (and everyone at the time would have known this). Galileo only came under the protection of Cosimo due to the strategic letter, dedicating Galileo's book to Cosimo and granting the newly discovered moons the name of Medicean Stars. Para-texts are inherently deceptive, because what they say, what they are intended to achieve, and what effect they actually have are not aligned.

Early modern letters of dedication had a great variety of functions. Sometimes, as in Galileo's case, they were aimed to attract patronage, but they could equally be ways to maintain patronage, or express gratitude to family for support, or bear witness to a lasting friendship between scholars. They also served as letters of recommendation, to show off the support of famous colleagues, or they were used to confer authority on one's claim - invoking the fame of powerful patrons or even the all-mighty God. Or, they were used to press an issue, like the fight against protestants, upon a person of power [3].


Luisteren naar Homeros - Lawrence Alma Tadema

From the very beginning, written philosophy most likely had a para-text. The fragments of Parmenides - written in the same dactylic hexameter verse as the Iliad - open with a scene where the author-persona is carried by maidens to a Goddess who will share her wisdom. Whatever wisdom is laid down in Parmenides' texts, it is attributed to divine inspiration, invoked at the beginning of the text. In a similar way, Plato's Apology is a para-text to Plato's oeuvre and to Plato's efforts to continue Socrates' legacy. The Apology is both a summary of Socrates' philosophical program and at the same time clearly attributes Socrates' philosophy to divine inspiration: "But, as I believe, I have been commanded to do this by the God through oracles and dreams and in every way in which any man was ever commanded by divine power to do anything whatsoever" (Apology, 33c). The importance of para-text did not diminish over the centuries, even though its nature and style changed drastically. No para-text in 20th century philosophy has perhaps received more attention than Rudolf Carnap's preface to Der logische Aufbau der Welt . It is the most well-read passage of this (in)famous book, because it situates the logical madness of the book within a sphere of influence that we can understand. Carnap places his attempted revolution for philosophy within the modernist mission to recast man's world through the efforts of man's rational and emotional powers, away from tradition and in close connection to contemporary attempts in the arts and politics of the interbellum period. No Goddess is invoked, instead Carnap writes that "the belief that a new attitude belongs to the future carries this work".


Usually, philosophers believe only the main text matters. Only the arguments and the ideas themselves are the philosophy. The para-text is superfluous, part of the textual culture in which the work was written, external to philosophy proper. Perhaps due to my training as a classicist, I have never been convinced by any attempt to disconnect philosophy from its broader (textual) culture. When I started studying ancient Greek in 2009, my professor literary studies Kristoffel Demoen had me and my fellow students read a fairly unknown, incredibly short Platonic dialogue, Ion. Ion is a typical Platonic character, an over-confident specialist. Ion is rapsode, a performer of Homer and only Homer, and he boasts about his expertise (technè) to Socrates who – of course - wants to know more about this “knowledge” of the expert. As expected, despite Ion's many efforts to defend that he has special knowledge of Homer, Socrates finds his claims wanting. Plato's message in the dialogue seems clear: there is no knowledge about poetry to be had, and so the performer of poetry does not possess it. Instead, Ion's performance is driven by an external force, a divine power (theia dunamis) that, through the original poet, takes hold of Ion and which Ion transfers to his audience, just like a single magnetic stone can transfer its power to a whole series of iron rings suspended in the air (Ion, 533D). At the end of the dialogue, Ion can only agree with Socrates that the invocation of the Goddess at the start of the Iliad and Odyssey is consequential. The poet, the performer, the reader, they are all suspended from a divine power that moves them on.


The dialogue Ion is a reflection on the para-text which all students of Ancient Greek know, those famous ten initial verses of the Iliad. It's also a reflection on literary studies: is it possible to acquire knowledge about literature, about its influences, its effects? Initially, in the classroom, we focused just on reading the dialogue - something first year university students have to learn, since they are usually trained to translate first and ask questions later. But, gradually, we all came to realize that, by reading the Ion, we were also training ourselves in the classroom to extend Plato's metaphor about the magnet. Of course, we no longer invoke divine powers. Still, we lay bare how the author, the work, the reader and their cultures were connected to each other. There was no escape from the force of influence that drives our understanding of a text, even our own. Para-texts reveal that force.


Late 20th century analytic philosophy has a particular identity - one that can still be encountered today in the wild as it were, namely that it is driven by Truth, the ultimate external force. If so, the history of analytic philosophy can be reconstructed as an ever-growing approximation to Truth, only hampered in its progress by those unnecessary, social roadblocks. This identity is captured well in Timothy Williamson's brilliant summary history of the analytic tradition in How did we get here from there [4]. Williamson tells the story how analytic philosophy evolved from an anti-metaphysical stance to his own position, largely by discussing just the scholars who once held the Wykeham chair at Oxford University - the very chair that Williamson now holds. Naturally, it is not all reason that gets Williamson from the past to his own thought. All the time, non-reason intervenes, e.g. when "fear" of abandoning Wittgenstein's legacy holds older-generation Oxford scholars back. By the end of the essay, Williamson also proclaims that history rightfully doesn't matter to analytic philosophers, because they are oriented to the future, just like the sciences are, "hardly surprising when progress is expected". Williamson is probably convinced that a history of analytic philosophy could be told by bringing out cultural and social influences rather than purely argument and reason. However, such history is inconsequential to him, of no significance to philosophy itself.


Williamson and his views are not without influence. Eugenio's analysis of acknowledgments shows how important his voice is in analytic philosophy: he is the second most mentioned scholar in the acknowledgments of the last 15 years. Despite their great efforts to downplay influence, analytic philosophers don't (can't?) escape it. They still portray it, they still make it manifest, in their acknowledgments, in the inescapable para-text. In 3000 years, the para-text has traveled a long distance. Unlike Parmenides or Plato, philosophers in general no longer invoke a divine influence. It is also increasingly rare that philosophers, like Carnap, invoke a higher cultural goal, like a modernist hope for the rejuvenation of our society. As philosophy is increasingly professionalized, written in standard academic article formats, its para-text has equally become standardized, and certainly grown duller. Now, we write an abstract (obligatory), a statement of funding (obligatory when externally funded) and acknowledgments. These para-texts, at the least, testify of one major shift in 20th century philosophy, that philosophical texts (but probably all academic texts) are increasingly standardized in a singular format that can be used to measure the output of universities. This is only one aspect of the rings of influence and power that bind contemporary philosophers to their petrified, textual culture. The significance of this major shift in philosophy eludes us. Still, by studying philosophy's para-text and its historical change, we can begin to ask questions about that significance. Despite efforts to ignore them, para-texts matter.



[1] Eugenio Petrovich, "Acknowledgments: Informal Collaboration and Symbolic Power in Recent Analytic Philosophy", 2021, Logique & Analyse 256, 425-448; Petrovich, "Acknowledgments-based networks for mapping the social structure of research fields. A case study on recent analytic philosophy", 2022, Synthese 200

[2] Especially, since Mario Bagioli's "Galileo, Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism", 1993, Chicago University Press

[3] Rienk Vermij, "On the Function of Dedications in Early Modern Scientific Books", 2018, Nuncius 33, 171-197

[4] Timothy Williamson, "How did we get here from there", 2014, Belgrade Philosophical Annual 27, 7-37

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