2007 Kids National Spelling Bee II
Bill Long 5/30/07
In the previous essay I listed the 25 words which were in the written round of the 2007 National Spelling Bee before getting lost trying to explain one of them (Bewussteinslage). This essay will try to "get through" most of the others on the list which deserve an exposition. Actually, as I was checking out the 25 words I realized that there was not just one term arising out of pscyhology or philosophy. There were, in fact, three. They must have hired some professor of philosophy or psychology to help them come up with the words. The other two are noesis and periastic. Let's begin not simply defining these words but "placing" them in the intellectual history of our time.
You smell Greek when you see this word. Something noetic, for example, has to do with something involving intellectual activity (from the Greek nous, or "mind"). One can speak of the noetic faculty or "intellect proper," but this concept is more squishy and abstract than you can really imagine. In any case, noesis is a term from phenomenology to describe a "process or act of perceiving or thinking..as opposed to an object of perception or thought." Its first use in English occurred in 1914, when the periodical Mind had the following sentence: "The climax and main emphasis of the present [sc. Husserl] essay lies in the relation of noesis and noema. Yep, we are being unwittingly thrown into the opaque terminology of phenomenology.
A noema, in contrast to noesis, is the object of perception or thought. So, wherever you have noesis, you have noema. Isn't there a song about not being able to have one without the other? By the way, the plural of noema is noemata, so we can seemingly invent words without shame (and often without meaning): "Noemata are not to be found in perceptual life alone. There is a noema corresponding to every act of memory, expectation, representation [etc.]." If this isn't gobbledygook (did I spell that correctly?), I don't know what is. Because you allow people to talk like this, you eventually have sentences like the following, from 1989: "Religious phenomenology needs not the noema but the pistema--from pistis, the Greek word for fatih, which is the capactiy of describing a belief in its own term." Now we are not only in a complete quagmire, but we are pulling in terms from other languages to sink us deeper into the Slough of Intellectual Despond. Let me quickly retreat to the other term so that we can extricate ourselves from phenomenology before we have lost our souls.
Oops. I spoke too soon. I noted an alternative definition of noema in the OED, one that antedates the phenomenological use by more than three centuries. It first was used in English in the field of rhetoric to denote "a figure of speech whereby something stated obscurely is nevertheless intended to be understood or worked out." For example, Peacham's 1577 Garden of Eloquence has the following usage: "Noema, when we doe signify some thing so privily that the hearers must be fayne to seeke out the meaning by long consideration." In other words, a noema in rhetoric is obscure speech, or speech that only yields meaning upon detailed reflection.
Something peirastic is experimental, speculative or tentative. Again, if you know your Greek, you know that the word is derived from peirazein, which means to "try" or "attempt." Although there was no good reason the world couldn't have come into English to describe any conative (the Latin equivalent of peirazein) endeavor, it quickly became associated with philosophy. From 1656 we have: "Of Plato's dialogues are Physick..Logick ...Ethick, Politic, Peirastic." This doesn't tell you exactly what the word means, and so from 1759 we have: "The Maieutic Dialogues..were supposed to resemble Giving the Rudiments of the Art; as the Peirastic were, to represent a Skirmish, or Trial of Proficiency." Well, the word peirastic became separated from any particular dialogue or dialogues and became associated with a style or mode of argumentation. One significant classical scholar of the last generation, WKC Guthrie, argued that there was a distinction in ancient Greek philosophy between peirastic and exetastic dialogue. The latter word doesn't appear in the OED and is rarely used in English. That has never stopped a determined scholar, and so we follow Guthrie's account. In his History of Greek Philosophy (1981) he argues that peirastic examination is "testing or probing" while exetastic is "examining critically." Guthrie sees these as two aspects of the Aristotelian dialectical discussion for analyzing arguments.
But I really don't see the difference between the two. The concept of exetasis (sorry for getting far afield) seems to originate in the Presocratic philosopher Anaximenes. For him exetasis was an "exhibition" of inconsistencies in someone's intentions, deeds or words, and is not a separate genre of argumentation but simply a general method used in every kind of public discourse. Let's leave these words at this point, having learned that periastic is a method of probing or testing an argument. I think the word is almost superfluous; it is what we are supposed to do almost every time we hear someone make a claim--subject it to critical scrutiny.
Let's conclude this essay by switching to the sole religious term of the 25 words: Ananias. It is a male name, found at least two places in the Bible (Acts 5; Acts 9), though the definition given in the Unabridged only lists the former text. In that account a man so named and his wife Sapphira contributed to the communal experiment in early Christianity by making a donation from the sale of land. But, they held something back from the sale for themselves. Peter, with his lazer-like psychological/spiritual vision, discerned what was happening and accused them of holding back from giving to God. Ananias was struck dead on the spot. Sapphira was then brought in, and she too dropped dead. Thus, an ananias is a liar. It is interesting to me that there is no comparable term sapphira in English. She was as guilty as he, though he bequeathed his name to the language. Though, come to think of it, maybe she did too--who knows if she was "drop dead gorgeous?"
With that edifying thought, I think I need to return to the list of 25.