Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Evening Note for Wednesday, August 21

Thought for the Evening: The Unexamined Life

One of the many famous sayings that Plato attributes to Socrates is "The unexamined life is not worth living". It occurs in the Apology (37e-38):

Perhaps someone might say, “Socrates, can you not go away from us and live quietly, without talking?” Now this is the hardest thing to make some of you believe. For if I say that such conduct would be disobedience to the god and that therefore I cannot keep quiet, you will think I am jesting and will not believe me; and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less. This is as I say, gentlemen, but it is not easy to convince you.

Socrates says four other things here that are important for understanding what he means:

(1) To let life be unexamined would be disobedience to the god. The god, of course, is Apollo, through the Oracle at Delphi; Socrates has argued that through the cryptic saying the Oracle gave his friend Chaerephon -- that there is none in Greece wiser than Socrates -- his philosophical mission of asking questions to determine what people know has divine sanction. Thus the unexamined life is in some sense opposed to philosophy as such. More than that, though, he has particularly associated philosophy as a mission of the god with a refusal to fear death -- to fear death requires believing yourself wiser than you could really be (29a).

(2) The examination that is opposite to the unexamined life is the greatest good for human beings. Earlier, Socrates had characterized himself as trying to give to each Athenian what he regarded as the greatest benefit: "to persuade each of you to care for himself and his own perfection in goodness and wisdom rather than for any of his belongings, and for the state itself rather than for its interests, and to follow the same method in his care for other things" (36c). Thus the examined life is one in which being as good and as wise as possible takes priority over other things. He also had previously characterized this as approaching each citizen like a father or brother to persuade each to care for virtue (31b) and the best state of the soul (30a). While he here focuses on the benefit to each citizen individually, he also at times describe it as a benefit for the city as a whole.

(3) The examination that is opposite to the unexamined life is an "every day" examination. To talk of the unexamined life and examination can make it sound like, having the unexamined life, you go away to do some examination, and then you come back to live the examined life. But the opposite of the unexamined life is not an episode of examination but a continuation in examination, to achieve the greatest good. The opposite of the unexamined life is not so much the examined life as the ever-examining one, because that it is what is involved in treating what is best and wisest as more important than other things.

(4) That the unexamined life is not worth living is hard to believe. The reason it is hard to believe is that no one can truly understand the superiority of the philosophical life over the unexamined life without examination. Those who refuse to examine their lives cannot see that there are higher pursuits than the ones in which they are daily mired. We see this in the Allegory of the Cave: the one who was freed from the Cave and returns cannot make the others understand what he has discovered because they still only think in terms of shadows. He tries to explain to them things that are more real and more fundamental than shadows, but all of his words are understood in terms of shadows. Thus they become more and more incredulous until, as the story goes, if they could catch him they would kill him. I've previously noted that in the Allegory of the Cave Plato is flipping the Homeric view of the underworld. Homer has Achilles say that it would be better to be the slave of a poor master than to be among the dead; Socrates earlier in the Republic had criticized this as teaching cowardice in the face of death. In the middle of the Allegory, though, he quotes the very passage he criticized: it would be better to be the slave of a poor master than to live as people live in the Cave. What has changed is that Achilles is saying it is better to be us alive than Achilles dead in the underworld; but Socrates has said that we are the people in the underworld, playing shadow games.

The unexamined life, then, is one of superficial chatter, of distraction, of confusing shadow and substance. This summer, I took an online seminar on Heidegger hosted by Brian Kemple, and one thing that struck me very strongly was that Heidegger identifies each of these three features in talking about 'inauthentic existence': idle talk (Gerede), in which discourse (Rede) is in some sense just a thing that happens to one, understanding only occurring by way of "groundless floating" as the words run on their own, so to speak; curiosity (Neugier), which is a seeing not in order to understand but simply in order to see, and thus restlessly moves from new thing to new thing; and ambiguity (Zweideutigkeit) which is the failure to distinguish between what everyone assumes and the way things are. Heidegger takes each of these to reveal a certain aspect of our potential, because each of these is just the inauthentic mode of some fundamental aspect of our existence. This, I think, is quite an important insight. But it's all left very undeveloped -- one might say dangerously undeveloped -- in Being and Time. A fundamental aspect is the serious lack here, as elsewhere in Heidegger, of any adequate respect for the ethical; when we look at what corresponds to these things in Plato, we see that the ethical is taken to be absolutely central.

But it is worth reminding ourselves of two things that are easy to miss in Plato but that can certainly be seen in comparing and contrasting the Platonic and the Heideggerean view. First, the unexamined life, the life in the Cave, is not something we ever shed, in this life at least. We are more or less always living the unexamined life. It does not matter how philosophical, how self-examining you are, there is always a chattering side to your discourse, although this may sometimes subside into the background. You are always seeing to see. You are always moving tokens around and drawing on 'what everybody knows'. Everybody is always starting with the shadows in the Cave. But, second, there is another side to this, because the relative worthlessness of the unexamined life is not in the life but in the lack of examination. The unexamined life, left to itself, is potential left to rot; one is not merely not being one's best and wisest self, one is not even treating this as something important. But the things of the unexamined life, the shadows in the Cave, are not detached from a greater reality; they are not pure phantasms or fictions. They are starting points that imply something higher and better. They are the defective version of a potential that can, so to speak, be transformed -- can be constantly being transformed -- into what it is supposed to be: not chatter or idle talk but 'talking every day about virtue', participation in the discourse concerned with wisdom; not curiosity but love of wisdom and virtue; not ambiguity or shadow-games but ascension out of the Cave. What we find in the unexamined life going to waste is in reality the bubbling material for the life of examination, the philosophical life.

Various Links of Interest

* Sabrina Imbler discusses the vast fossil collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

* Cody Delistraty, Fra Angelico's Divine Emotion

* A manuscript by John Locke has recently been discovered. Some background to the discovery here.

* Matias Slavov has a good discussion on exactly how Hume may have influenced Einstein (as Einstein always said he had) in the discovery of the theory of relativity.

* Daniel Everett discusses C. S. Peirce.

* If you like public domain ebooks, Standard Ebooks looks like a good source -- their explicit goal is to guarantee that the books are properly formatted.

* People sometimes ask me how I have the time to read all the books I do. I usually say that I mostly do it by opening them and reading through the words. I should just send them to this Pearls Before Swine comic.

* Jeremy Holmes, What a metaphor really means

Currently Reading

Louis Hémon, Maria Chapdelaine
Isidore of Seville, Etymologies
Peter Damian, Peter Damian: Letters 31-60
C. S. Lewis, Poems

A Poem Draft and Two Poem Re-Drafts

The Last Dragon

My kind was born in ancient day;
the world yet young, with stars we'd play
and joy we knew beyond desire,
of flight, of thought, of burning fire,
and graceful mothers taught to sing
the little ones who took to wing
beneath the careful, watchful eyes
of fathers older than the skies.
Our dreams were scarcely less than real,
with force to rule and truth reveal,
and we learned secrets from the night
that never since have seen the light.
Our words were echoes of that Word
which first the turning chaos heard,
and like their sire they brought to form
the shapeless mass of primal storm:
to make a thing we did but speak,
and lo! whatever we might seek
was made to be. Those days are gone,
as vanished as our native dawn.
And we who were the world's first pride
in caverns deep must crawl to hide
from vermin clad with hide and steel,
ashamed of fears our hearts now feel.
O First of all, O highest Light,
cast down his hubris, slay this knight,
for through his bright but wicked blade
I fear I soon will be but shade
and I who breathe the flaming breath
now face the bitter chill of death.

Days Already Past

My heart is fanned open,
a peacock's tail, as I lie in bed.
Sleep, dearest; dream well!
Listen to my breath, a love melody.
The half-sun of this late afternoon
shines upon the garden,
honey-suckle sweet;
the clouds like vineyard leaves
doubly thick, drifting,
gather sad tales into piled masses
as I rest, the breeze fanning me.
The shadows lengthen on the trees
like painful months,
recurrent and endless.
On my arm rest your head;
let me listen to your sigh,
the melancholy as it falls,
rolling down the pillow.


Star, dark night's companion,
whose face rises, brilliant,
from the sunset-clouds,
whose majestic steps press down
on the firmament so blue,
what do you see below?
The stormwinds of the day are still,
the evening gnats, on light wings,
fill the heaven-silence with their whir.
Brilliant star, smiling with light,
what do you see below?
But already do I see you, silent,
settling on horizon's edge.

you dwell on hero-covered land.
Sing the glory of the dead;
their shades rejoice around you.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Voyages Extraordinaires #36: Mistress Branican

There are two chances of never again seeing the friends we part with when starting on a long voyage; those we leave may not be here on our return, and those who go may never come back. But little heed of these eventualities was taken by the sailors who were preparing for departure on board the Franklin in the morning of the 15th of March, 1875.

On that day the Franklin, Captain John Branican, was about to quit the port of San Diego, in California, on a voyage across the Northern Pacific.

A fine vessel of nine hundred tons was this Franklin — a barquentine fully canvased with gaff sails, jibs and stay-sails, and with topmast and top-gallant-mast on the fore.

1875 ends up being a hard year for the Captain John Branican and his wife Dolly Branican; while John is at sea, a tragic accident leads to the death of their son, Wat, and Dolly is thrown into such a state of shock at the lost that she loses her reason. She eventually recovers, several years later, but discovers when she comes out of her madness that John never came home -- the Franklin simply vanished without a trace. During her illness, however, Dolly had inherited a significant sum of money from an uncle, and so she puts it toward finding John, sending out a ship, the Dolly Hope, in order to find out what happened to the ship. The discovery of a lone survivor, who lets Dolly know that John was still alive when he last saw him, will send Mrs. Branican in an expedition across the dangerous country of Australia in order to rescue him before it is too late.

Mistress Branican (its title in both French and English), also occasionally known in English as the The Mystery of the Franklin, is pretty clearly a framework for Verne to engage in his taste for geographical fiction, in this case the geography of Australia. The framework story is interesting enough, but Verne doesn't do much with it beyond using it to get the characters moving on their Australian expedition. There is, however, an odd subplot about a man named Josh Merritt and his Chinese manservant who are engaged in a quixotic quest through extraordinary dangers to find a particular unique hat. This seems to be a case where this story grew up independently and Verne integrated it into a different story, not entirely successfully. A somewhat different version of Merritt's obsessive search for the hat, taking place in a different geographical context, seems to have been independently published in several newspapers. (Alternatively, it is possible that Verne himself was not satisfied with the handling in the novel and decided to rework it as an independent tale. I don't know enough about the background to say.)

Bernardus Claraevallensis

Today is the feast of St. Bernard of Claivaux, Doctor of the Church. From a letter to Thomas of Beverley:

Let none, therefore, doubt that he is loved who already loves. The love of God freely follows our love which it preceded. For how can He grow weary of returning their love to those whom He loved even while they yet loved Him not? He loved them, I say; yes, He loved. For as a pledge of His love thou hast the Spirit; thou hast also Jesus, the faithful witness, and Him crucified. Oh! double proof, and that most sure, of God's love towards us. Christ dies, and deserved to be loved by us. The Spirit works, and makes Him to be loved. The One shows the reason why He is love: the Other how He is to be loved. The One commends His own great love to us; the Other makes it ours. In the One we see the Object of love; from the Other we draw the power to love. With the One, therefore, is the cause; with the Other the gift of charity.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Joyful Meadows and Sad Skies

Contour theory is a particular account of what it means for music to be expressive. The idea, usually associated with the earlier work of Peter Kivy and with the work of Stephen Davies, is that music (or at least some basic kind of music) is expressive not because it symbolically represents emotion, but because it in some way presents it, that music can have a structure that we recognize as having the same 'contour' as our own physical expressions of emotion. For instance, music can have a tempo much like our heartbeat, or our gait, when we are excited; it can have a directionality that's like the direction our body takes when it slumps or rises; and so forth. Roger Scruton argues in The Aesthetics of Music that contour theory cannot account for the importance of musical expression, and also that it seems to confuse means and end. I think there's something to both criticisms; they are a good reason to think that contour theory, simply on its own, does not adequately characterize the full richness of what we experience music as expressing. But this is very far from saying that there is nothing to the theory; even if we must add something to sort out important or interesting expressions from unimportant or uninteresting ones, and even if we take the contour or shape of the music only to be something that disposes sound to be expressive, rather than the expression itself, there still does seem to be a way in which contour plays a role. I mean, listen to Prokofiev's Op. 67 (narrated here by Basil Rathbone) and tell me that the music in "Peter and the Wolf" is not expressive by resemblance at all; obviously there is some purely conventional element to it, but we can recognize the appropriateness of Prokofiev's choices for it. And when we look at pure music, as opposed to music like this in which we are aided in our interpretation by words, we still find the same kinds of appropriateness. In any case, for the purposes of this post, we don't need to consider contour to be the only or even the primary account of expressiveness, as long as we can recognize it as a major means of expression.

One of the interesting things about contour theory is that if it's true, it is plausible to extend it beyond music to other things. I think Davies uses the example of the weeping willow being 'sad'. It's not purely a matter of arbitrary convention; the willow has the same demeanor, one might say, as someone who is sad. Of course, the willow is not itself expressing any emotion, but we can say it is in some sense expressive of it, or suitable to express it, or some such thing. (We want to be able to say in general that something can be expressive of an emotion without anyone expressing that actual emotion, because of acting and the like.)

Marta Benenti and Cristina Meini had a paper a little while back in Philosophia ("The Recognition of Emotions in Music and Landscapes: Extending Contour Theory") in which they extend contour theory specifically to landscape painting. (They differ from some standard contour theories, so they distinguish their view from those, but it can be considered a contour theory in a broad sense.) They note that contour theory doesn't require that we ourselves perceive the similarity itself, as long as we perceive a particular manifestation or characteristic that is similar; we don't have to perceive the similarity of smiles to perceive smiles as smiles, and neither do we have to put our finger on exactly what makes the music and the emotional behavior have the same shape. We just perceive the shape and react to it in the same way in both cases. We could in a sense just as easily say that the emotional behavior expresses the same thing as a bunch of music; indeed, people do occasionally talk as if music sometimes sheds light on the emotional behavior rather than vice versa. But this will also be true of depicted landscapes. They give the example of Caspar Friedrich's Der Nachmittag:

Caspar David Friedrich - Tageszeitenzyklus, Der Nachmittag (1821-22)

You can see this landscape as calm, perhaps even somber (Benenti and Meini suggest sad and melancholy, these are perhaps a little strong for the quiet expressiveness we find here, but you could suggest, perhaps, that there is a something of a tendency toward these things): there's a lot of gray and dark earth colors, not much indication of energetic action. If you, seeing this painting, were then asked what kind of painting would express joyful excitement, you could give a clear and coherent answer: brighter colors, more suggestion of motion, perhaps something about the painting's lines drawing you up and forward, and so forth.

It's clear that the expressiveness can't be quite the same, because painting doesn't allow for the actual movement that music does, the acceleration and deceleration, the vibrational characeristics (church organs don't just play, a good church organ in some sense plays you, by sending its sound through you), and so forth. But Benenti and Meini note that facial expressions and the like can be expressive even when static. But even setting that aside, paintings and drawings can, of course, be suggestive of motion.

If we take this to be true of depicted landscapes, though, it is surely true of the landscapes themselves. The depiction can add or mute features, of course, but many of the perceptible features that make the painting expressive will be shared by the actual scene itself (and the scene, of course, can be in actual motion that is only suggested by the painting). And this fits our experience. The world is expressive to us. The sky may be lowering, the flowers may be joyous, the mountains may be dignified, having that very shape.

Davies, if I recall correctly, actually suggests that saying that a willow is sad is not metaphorical but literal, although in a kind of secondary way; I think this perhaps draws the line between literal and figurative in the wrong place. But I do think it shows that emotive metaphors, like saying that a meadow is joyful or a sky is sad, can be argued to be non-arbitrary and to be describing something that is genuinely in the thing itself. And, of course, these emotive metaphors are the basis for others again, which are building directly on them, like the metaphor of a smiling meadow. Regarding the world around us as expressive is a part of our rational interaction with it.

There is a tendency to think that we get dryads by taking nondryadical trees and dryadizing them, personifying them. But the evidence really suggests that it works the other way. It would generally be closer to the truth to say that we start with the dryad and then reduce her to a bare tree. But for all that, the tree has a sort of recognizable expressiveness and will always seem a little like a dryad.

None Are from the Rule Released

Keep a Pluggin' Away
by Paul Laurence Dunbar

I’ve a humble little motto
That is homely, though it's true,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.
It’s a thing when I’ve an object
That I always try to do,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.
When you’ve rising storms to quell,
When opposing waters swell,
It will never fail to tell,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.

If the hills are high before
And the paths are hard to climb,
Keep a pluggin’ away.
And remember that success
Comes to him who bides his time,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.
From the greatest to the least,
None are from the rule released.
Be thou toiler, poet, priest,
Keep a pluggin’ away.

Delve away beneath the surface,
There is treasure farther down,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.
Let the rain come down in torrents,
Let the threat’ning heavens frown,
Keep a pluggin’ away.
When the clouds have rolled away,
There will come a brighter day
All your labor to repay,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.

There’ll be lots of sneers to swallow,
There’ll be lots of pain to bear,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.
If you’ve got your eye on heaven,
Some bright day you’ll wake up there,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.
Perseverance still is king;
Time its sure reward will bring;
Work and wait unwearying,—
Keep a pluggin’ away.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Two Poem Drafts


My art conjures you, subtle sprite:

In wooden house no longer dwell
but step from tree to vision's light,
your pith made human heart by spell.
Your cooling leaves that spread a shade,
your limbs that rise, your subtle sway,
are graceful form and humor made
by force of will through words I say,

for I have seen in midnight dreams,
where all is blended as in mist,
your face in images that seem
but hint that they might yet exist,

and I have longed with eye to see
a dryad waking from her tree.

An Ecosystem of Angels

Silent drops of light that trickle,
higher to lower,
reflecting back an image of the whole,
the greater in the lesser,
catch reflections of themselves again,
the lesser in the greater;
in every gem are endless gems,
lower and higher.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Dashed Off XVII

One must treat oneself in such a way as to cultivate habits facilitating the good treatment of others.

Latitude of action is proportional to latitude of cognition.

Bare succession cannot be the imaginative schema for causation, only succession composing a whole.

Human rights are refracted through humanitarian traditions and thereby receive their effective form.

society as a system of sharing-acts

argument as
(1) logical structure
(2) microsystem of plausible associations
(3) dialogical act
(4) symbolic representation of mind
music as
(1) mathematical system
(2) interweaving of sound
(3) social act
(4) symbolic expression of mind

(1) multiplying of possibilities
(2) fitting to purpose
(3) structural consolidation
(4) live commitment

The dignity of each person is reflected in all, and all in each.

Nothing is part of our actual experience except by commonalities and invariances.

The Church has no preferential option for the stupid, and particularly not for the theologically stupid.

patriotism as a school of honor

the intercession of Mary as a secondary exemplar cause of the communion of saints

environmental conditions : material cause :: exemplar cause : formal cause

devout as taking-it-seriously vs. devout as ardent

The experience of one's body and of this being one's body are distinct. (cp. Falque)

plans reasonable in themselves and beneficial to all parties

Evidence of psychic powers on a large scale would be evidence of idealism, because in such a scenario, the world would work very much like the mind.

A possibility to think about: Prediction, properly speaking, is primarily something we do socially.

Supplementation principles are based on the assumption that the only difference between part and whole could be another part, i.e., that wholes do not require anything but their parts.
Think of proposition w/ terms as parts, or arguments with propositions as parts; in both cases, one needs something different from the parts to make the whole. One could imagine thinking, if one held that boundaries were not proper parts, that some wholes were proper parts (maximal proper part) + boundary. And so forth.

contiguity as resemblance of relations

elections as a way of organizing advice

legislation as problem-solving vs legislation as coercion

Much philosophical work consists of building flexible layers of approximation.

Hobbes's account & alliance-building in prison populations

The 'success' of an argument depends on three things: structure, mental habits, external support.

structural forms of theistic arguments
(1) God as First (Most, Best): first four ways, traditionary, kalam, Anselmian, Ideological
(2) God as condition for scope: Divine command, special miracle, Fifth way under some interpretations, design, anti-skepticism
(3) God as Communicator: visual language, revelatory experience

Human rights are operationalized by institutions and practices used to uphold them, which are generated and cultivated by and within humanitarian traditions.

Every scientific theory is a structuring of approximations.

A constitution is a maze built to block worst outcomes.

awkwardness as an aesthetic concept

A science of pure possibilities can only arise by abstraction from a science concerned with actualities.
actual experience -> indefinite possibility -> analysis of variations -> rigorously defined possibility

Never take seriously claims that such-and-such is something that benefits or harms "the economy" -- "the economy" can only mean specific people in such a claim; you need to know which people and how.

Justification of belief depends on objective features of what is believed, and not on what seems to me, which is a feature of me.

Given that 'seemings' can conflict, we often judge on something other than just how things seem to us.

basing something on its seeming to be P vs basing something on P, which seems to be

It is entirely consistent with our experience that whether two things compose a whole is sometimes vague.

What counts as being a part seems to be defined relative to a whole.

A problem with Husserl's Ideas 1.1.12 is that 'meaning in general' as a highest genus (in the realm of meanings) has problems analogous to 'being' as a highest genus (simpliciter).

Guilt, having a life of its own, must be trained.

Most of the time when we receive an apology, we want something other than apology itself.

"...I think it may be allowed as a maxim, that as is the God, so are his worshippers, if they serve him in earnest." Witherspoon
"Love is the most powerful means of begetting love."
"It is impossible that we can love purity, if we ourselves are impure; nay, it is even impossible that we can understand it."
"Despair of success cuts the sinews of diligence in every enterprize."
"Public instruction is, in a great measure, useless to those who are not prepared for it by more familiar teaching at home."
"Liberty is the nurse of riches, literature, and heroism."
"If there are natural rights of men, there are natural rights of nations."
"He who makes a people *virtuous*, makes them *invincible*."

strange the stars at night
in intermingled light

a traditionary argument from sacrifice; cp. Witherspoon: "Neither is it possible to account for the universal prevalence of sacrifices in any tolerable manner, but by supposing, that they were the remains of what had been taught in the ages immediately after the fall, by divine appointment."

We recognize the way things seem to be only by contrast with the way they seem not to be.

Since we cannot actually imagine a whole world, the subtraction argument ultimately boils down to 'Given an integer number n, one can have n-1, down to zero.' 'Contingent beings' or 'beings' is just posited as the unit, but otherwise does no work. I suppose one could take contingency to justify the assumption of subtractibility, but the contingent beings we know are not subtractible in this way: take one away, you get other beings that were being impeded by it, you lose a number of others, etc. Because contingent beings are by nature related to other things, it's impossible to say what removal would do without know what the being is and how it is related to other things.

LAw does not deal directly with attempt, consent, sound mind, etc., but with signs thereof.

Law by its nature must posit a normal user -- reasonable person, gentleman, common citizen, or what have you.

Morality doesn't eliminate thinking in terms of what is advantageous; it posits a higher advantage.

normative properties usually treated as factual properties: dangerous, safe, healthy, sick, healthy (used for other than an organism), toxic, rational, irrational, viable, nonviable, feasible, nonfeasible, broken, valid, invalid, sound, unsound, cheap, expensive, efficient, inefficient

familiar profile approaches to plausibility vs causal narrative approaches

There are none so censorious as the damned.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

On the Much-Misunderstood Heresy of Americanism

Americanism, like Modernism, is a heresy with a misleading name, since the names have very little to do with the content. As I've noted, the reason for the name 'Modernism' is that one influential group of people who held the heresy called themselves 'Modernists'; the content of the heresy has nothing to do with modernity as such, although there are strands of modern culture with which it fits very well (in particular, any strand where self-identification is treated as equivalent to identity). Americanism is somewhat different; the reason for the name of the heresy is that the heresy was associated with a particular diagnosis for why the Catholic Church in the United States was doing so unusually well in the late nineteenth century compared to the Church in more traditionally Catholic countries. People not surprisingly take the content of the heresy to have something to do with America, and have done so from the beginning, but what has changed recently is that I used to only find this kind of misinterpretation among liberal theologians and readers thereof; now I keep coming across it in much more conservative and traditionalist sources. Since the misunderstanding seems to be spreading, I thought I'd put up a few comments on it, although it's not as complicated a matter as Modernism is. If the Modernist heresy can be put roughly into the slogan form, "In religion, the absolute priority of the internal over the external", the Americanist heresy could likewise be put somewhat more roughly into the slogan form, "For evangelization, the universal superiority of the pragmatic over the prayerful."

As noted, in the late nineteenth century, the Catholic Church in the United States was doing quite well, despite existing in a mostly Protestant country in which Protestants were largely suspicious of Catholics. It was expanding, it was doing exciting new things, it seemed remarkably unified, and both laity and clergy were very active in works of charity. This contrasted with the way things were at the time in many European countries, where the Catholic Church, despite being more entrenched, was often struggling, and perhaps most of all in France. So what made the difference?

One possible interpretation you could have, which has some initial plausibility, is this: the big difference between the two cases is that in Europe, the Church was integrated into the government, while in America there was separation of Church and state, so that much of what the American Church could accomplish was entirely by popular support, and the laity had considerably more influence on the course of things in the United States than they had elsewhere. In addition, the separation guaranteed that the Church never became identified with one particular regime, the way that the Church in France had become associated with the monarchists and therefore ran into problems when France -- yet again -- became a republic. In 1892, Pope Leo XIII encouraged Catholics to participate in the life of the French republic, and it became inevitable that French Catholic intellectuals would look to the American example for ideas about how to do this.

One of the more successful examples of the generally successful American Church was the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle, usually know as the Paulist Fathers. The Paulists had been founded by Isaac Thomas Hecker and a few others with the purpose of engaging in Catholic evangelizing in the United States, and they had experimented, often successfully, with all sorts of ways for reaching their fellow Americans. This is not particularly surprising, and probably has more to do with American culture than separation of church and state, because Americans at the time were experimenting with all sorts of different things -- new ways to use print media, new kinds of communities, new kinds of voluntary associations, new fads pertaining to health, society, religion, you name it. Very likely none of it could be replicated with the same success elsewhere, regardless of the hopes of certain European progressive Catholics. But there was no doubt that the Paulists were very successful in the American context.

The result of this was that a biography of Hecker was translated into French within a few years, and read avidly by French progressives interested in the question of being Catholic in a republic; Europeans more generally were eager to hear about Paulist ideas and projects and constantly put forward their own projects for change as inspired by the American model; and more conservative Catholics began to be very wary of this reformist project that seemed to be spouting new and untried ideas on a regular basis and advocated a major overhaul of how the Church related to the society around it. It was inevitable that people would start complaining to Pope Leo XIII, and they did.

Leo XIII was one of those people who have conservative principles but progressive sympathies. He had engaged in a number of reform projects himself, and had actually been quite impressed with many of the things being accomplished by the Church in America. But he was also convinced that there was a genuine problem here; what was being called the American approach to things was in some places radically upending entirely healthy Catholic culture, and the principles did seem to be found in the French translation of that biography of Hecker. So out of this came Testem benevolentiae nostrae, the condemnation of Americanism.

Written to James Cardinal Gibbons, who was bishop of Baltimore, the chief American see, and notably walks a very careful line to avoid accusing anyone in particular (including Fr. Hecker himself) of actually affirming the heresy. The essential idea underlying the heresy, Leo XIII wrote, "is that, in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age", and the spirit of the age was interpreted as especially exemplified in a focus on action and practice over doctrine and prayer. To tone down or omit parts of Catholic doctrine simply in order to make the whole seem more palatable to non-Catholics was absolutely unacceptable. Likewise, the approach led to downplaying the value of spiritual direction and of consecrated life in a misguided belief that this empowers individuals. For the same reason it would often deprecate virtues and practices associated specifically with prayer in comparison with civic and social virtues.

Given the history, it's sometimes said that Americanism was, despite the name, more a European heresy than an American one -- that is essentially how the American bishops responded to the Pope's letter. And there's certainly something to that. There probably was, however, an Americanist strain in some corners of the Catholic Church in America; the Europeans weren't manufacturing it out of thin air, although they attributed many things to the American approach that were probably more wishful thinking than genuinely American. But Leo is very careful in the letter to forestall any temptation to suggest that being American was in any way the problem, so the heresy needs to be distinguished from other things that you might call 'Americanism':

From the foregoing it is manifest, beloved son, that we are not able to give approval to those views which, in their collective sense, are called by some “Americanism.” But if by this name are to be understood certain endowments of mind which belong to the American people, just as other characteristics belong to various other nations, and if, moreover, by it is designated your political condition and the laws and customs by which you are governed, there is no reason to take exception to the name. But if this is to be so understood that the doctrines which have been adverted to above are not only indicated, but exalted, there can be no manner of doubt that our venerable brethren, the bishops of America, would be the first to repudiate and condemn it as being most injurious to themselves and to their country.

One of the things I have long noted is a tendency to try to use the name to stuff anything one doesn't like about American life under the label of the heresy; but this must be fully avoided.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Music on My Mind

Peter Hollens (with the Oregon State Chamber Choir), "Sogno di Volare (Theme from Civilization VI)".


Aikin and Talisse have an interesting discussion of politicization of tragedies at "3 Quarks Daily". Unfortunately, it has some of the serious flaws of Couto and Kahane's "Disaster and Debate": a strange flattening of all discussion into the same category, an odd failure to consider worries that are often explicitly raised in the same contexts as the one they are considering, that weird selectivity that sometimes suggests very strongly that they are in fact trying to gerrymander boundaries so that their preferred political responses get an advantage over others. A few points on their particular version of the argument.

(1) Aikin and Talisse suggest that the three reasons why you might think politicization of a tragedy is wrong are reasons concerned with etiquette, deliberation, and personality. I take it that this is a typology rather than an essential classification, which has an advantage of flexibility over Couto and Kahane, but which also makes it more difficult to see what they are talking about. For instance, their brief comment on etiquette-based reasons for thinking politicization of tragedy wrong is that they amount "to the claim that one has shown insufficient regard for others’ feelings." The idea is that you should avoid exacerbating grief and anger when people are vulnerable. Their example of this, however, which is the argument that after a tragedy is a time for unity rather than debate, has no obvious connection with feelings at all (it is a claim that could be made even setting aside all consideration of grief and anger), nor does the label 'etiquette' help much here, since most of etiquette in the proper sense has nothing directly to do with "regard for others' feelings". Some forms of etiquette are quite clearly a form of self-protection, for instance, others are designed to make social interactions easier for most people, others are designed to attenuate argument into potentially more constructive channels for social interactions, others are designed to make it clear that the people involved are involved in a shared project, and so forth. 'Etiquette' may just be a loose label, although it would fit their example; they seem to have the idea that the basic reason here is that making the tragedy political could take an already hot pot and make it boil over. But if that were the case, their response to it would be inadequate, because we do not in fact allow just any and every kind of expression of grief and anger, regardless of tragedy. It would generally be regarded as unacceptable for people to work out their grief and anger by shooting up a market, or by assaulting people physically in the streets, or by at least some verbal harassment behaviors. The only question is to what else this should extend. So it's not really a response to the hot-pot kind of worry "that it dictates how those criticized should grieve." Well, yes, that's one way you could put it; all that says is that the reason, whatever precisely it is, says that people should not act a certain way when grieving, which is just the topic of discussion itself.

(2) This objection to the etiquette group of reasons, whatever precisely they may be, does bear further examination. Aikin and Talisse say:

In point of fact, outrage and grief may be best expressed and worked through by having discussions about how future instances may be averted. If the tragedy in question has political causes, then politics is a perfectly appropriate component of grieving.

The key is that the charge of politicizing that tragedy, then, has its purchase only if one thinks that the political considerations brought out in the grief are misguided or irrelevant.

This is much, much too fast. Note how quickly things are collapsed into each other: outrage and grief may be "best expressed" (where did the 'best' come from -- it's obvious it's a way they may be expressed, because that's the general topic of discussion, but doesn't jsut throwing in the 'best' here look like Aikin and Talisse rigging the description to make their conclusion easier?) by "having discussions about how future instances may be averted". OK, so this takes the politicization charge to be equivalent to a denial that we should ever respond to tragedies by having discussions about how to avoid them. Is this really what people generally mean by 'politicization'? They give an example from Sanders, who perhaps is where they get the word 'discussions' from, but Sanders explicitly is talking about policy discussions that go after individuals and organizations. (Where Aikin and Talisse get the claim that she is saying that "the blame is only on the shooter in that instance", I don't know, since she explicitly leaves open the possibility of further discussions later; what she says is that only the shooter has "blood on their hands". It's particularly odd since the briefing they quote is literally the day after the Las Vegas shooting, a shooting about which we still know very little, and about which we knew nothing for sure at that time, and the part they quote is linked to a very specific kind of question about what policies should be taken in response, to which her primary response is that before you can talk about policies prevention you need to know the facts about what happened.) So the sense of 'discussions' here is hazy; their example is talking about a very specific kind of discussion, but the claim made by Aikin and Talisse is most plausible (and only non-question-begging) if we are talking about a very extensive variety of discussions. But consider two possible responses to a shooting tragedy:

"I wonder if this could have been prevented by making silencers illegal. What do you think? Do you think we should do that?"


"You see, this is why we need to make silencers illegal; people who sell silencers have blood on their hands."

Both of these are moves you could make in "discussions about how future instances may be averted". They both raise exactly the same question: Should silencers be illegal? But are they equally examples of politicizing a situation? If you asked most people, I am fairly sure that most people would not consider the first to be politicizing the situation at all. The second is very definitely an example of what most people mean by politicizing it.

There is a fundamental equivocation running throughout the discussion. The topic at hand is politicized discussion. But what Aikin and Talisse defend is discussion on topics that could be considered political. This makes their job easy since most public discussions on serious matters deal with matters that could be considered political in one way or another, so they can treat the 'politicization' claim as equivalent to trying to shut down all discussion. But this is not the way people generally talk about politicization, and it does not seem that their modification improves the argument, because it seems it prevents them from actually addressing the kinds of worries people might really have.

(3) One of the weird features of the argument by Aikin and Talisse is the lack of recognition that one of the things people explicitly are worrying about in the context of raising worries about politicization is the use of an event to smear one's political opponents with a broad and very negative brush. This is a very weird gap, since it's not as if smearing people is an unheard-of practice in partisan politics, and it is not as if it cannot have very bad effects if it interacts with a lot of anger and grief. After the 2017 Congressional baseball shootings, a number of Democrats raised the worry about politicization, and for a very obvious reason: the shooter was attempting to assassinate Republican legislators, was a Bernie Sanders supporter, and was concluded after investigation to be engaged in a deliberate act of anti-Republican terrorism. What was being attempted by Democrats who insisted that we not politicize the situation was to head off any attempt to have all Democrats tarred with that brush. One of the "discussions about how future instances may be averted" that we could very well have had after that shooting was what to do about Democrats. (Because, of course, Aikin and Talisse would have to say, political causes require discussions about politics and "in point of fact" discussions about how to prevent the assassination of Republicans by Democrats may be the "best" way for Republicans to work through anger and grief.) Those kinds of discussions come up. They are not discussions any reasonable person with a concern for civil society ever wants to become widespread, because they always end very, very badly for everyone. People have good reasons not to want tragedies to be used as the foundations of smear campaigns, prior even to entering discussion. And it is generally considered reasonable to arrange one's etiquette of discussion so that this is not a danger.

(4) The second family of reasons that they consider is based on deliberation. "In these instances," they say, "the charge of politicizing a tragedy amounts to the claim that the politicizer is taking advantage of the outrage and other strong emotions prompted by a tragedy to subvert the slower but more reliable deliberative processes of critical discussion." Their discussion shares all the problems found in Couto and Kahane, and another one as well. They say, commenting on an example from McConnell:

And, as we saw with the etiquette version of the politicization charge, the deliberative version also has its critical edge only against the backdrop of some particular assessment of the facts and values about the event in question. That is, McConnell’s charge of politicizing the tragedy sticks only if one agrees that the existing policies are the products of reasonable deliberative processes, and that proposed deviations are likely to be ill-considered. But, of course, the reasonableness of existing policies is precisely what’s at issue.

But this quite clearly elides two different things. Suppose our current laws are very unreasonable and not at all the products of reasonable deliberative processes. What would this change about the argument being used? Nothing at all. If you are going to change them, the argument is still going to be that it needs to be done with respect for reasonable deliberative processes. After all, you wouldn't be making things more rational and deliberative if you didn't; you'd just be exchanging one unreasonably chosen policy for another. The reasonableness of existing policies is not precisely what's at issue; what's at issue is the reasonable way of changing them. These are two completely distinct evaluations. And while maybe, maybe, you could argue that unreasonable laws are more acceptable to change without regard for reasonable deliberative process, the very existence of deliberation-based politicization charges, and the common existence at that, indicates that this is not widely held and needs to be argued. Really, what seems to have happened is that Aikin and Talisse have gotten their wires crossed: they are supposed to be arguing (I imagine) that reasonable deliberative processes don't exclude strong emotions in cases where the existing policies are unreasonable, but instead they end up arguing that reasonable deliberative processes are not something to which one can appeal if existing policies are unreasonable.

(5) The third family discussed by Aikin and Talisse "focuses on the motive of the target of the charge". This corresponds more or less to the 'cynical reading' of Couto and Kahane. As with Couto and Kahane, they completely fail to do justice to worries about bad faith and manipulation, and, contrary to their clearly stated assumption, these worries don't magically vanish depending on your political views, although it is no doubt true that you are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt with regard to good faith to people whose political views you already consider reasonable.

(6) Their overall diagnosis is very, very odd, although it explains many of the more bizarre moves they make:

We have seen that the charge of politicization is a political version of the allegation that one is taking advantage of the emotions of a vulnerable audience to press for a favored conclusion whose support does not depend on emotions. It is hence the allegation that one is reasoning from irrelevant premises. The problem, as we’ve argued, is that despite our agreement that we should not argue from irrelevant considerations, in the cases where the charge of politicization are most prevalent, we disagree about what the relevant considerations are.

This diagnosis is, of course, what is tripping them up and why, for instance, they don't notice the illicit shift in their argument that's discussed under (4), which in light of this diagnosis can be seen as reinterpreting a point about process as if it were a point about premises. They think that claiming that someone is politicizing something is a charge that they are operating from irrelevant premises. And, having read their essay several times, I have no idea why they think this is true; it seems to me so very strange to regard 'politicization' as a label for a particular kind of fallacy of irrelevance. Claiming that someone is politicizing something is quite obviously an ethical criticism rather than a logical one. If you really insisted on considering it in terms of informal logic, it would be less like ignoratio elenchi and more like poisoning the well, which is an ethical criticism that your ends in arguing are malicious. The really weird thing is that they at one point come close to recognizing something like such a view: "although the concept of 'politicization' looks like a norm of discussion that we should abide for the sake of conducting proper argument about, say, gun regulation, the concept functions differently in the vernacular". Norms of discussion for the sake of conducting proper argument are why, for instance, poisoning the well is something to avoid. But they have never at any point shown that it functions differently in the vernacular; they don't consider worries about smearing at all, and they dismiss worries about bad faith without argument, although both of these are clearly connected to norms of discussion, and they both explicitly come up "in the vernacular" in these contexts. Literally all three of the kinds of examples that they give of the charge "in the vernacular", etiquette, deliberation, and personality, are most naturally treated as having a connection with norms of discussion, even on their own characterizations -- norms about regard for the feelings of others, norms about giving priority to reasonable deliberative processes, norms about not letting the loudest voices be determinative. The standard form of argument that they use -- arguing that where you draw the line depends on your politics, which is, if their argument works, going to be true for absolutely everyone -- doesn't in fact address the reason for drawing the line at all, which even "in the vernacular" seems to be associated in people's mind with the suggestion that other people are arguing unreasonably; thus it doesn't seem that it's even the right kind of argument for what they are trying to argue.

(7) The most obvious argument against Aikin and Talisse on this point is that their line of reasoning leads directly to absurd results. Consider this situation, a real-life situation, although I've stripped out specific details because I'm only interested in the general kind of case. A man murders a child; this man had entered the country illegally and was still undocumented. The case gets taken up by groups who want a large-scale crackdown on illegal immigration, expressed in very harsh terms due to the anger and grief over the murder of the innocent child, and proposing very strict policies in handling all such cases. According to Aikin and Talisse, they can't at all be accused of politicizing a tragedy because this would be "nothing more than a tactic for dismissing their position" on illegal immigration; outrage and grief over the death of a child can perfectly well be worked out by vehement argument for harsh policies and you can't argue that it fails to show appropriate respect for the death of the child without begging the question; there is no way actually to argue with them that we should wait to consider these policies more coolly because according to Aikin and Talisse any attempt to do so assumes beforehand that they are wrong; you can't raise the worry that the loudest voices are just using the case to stampede people in the way they want them to go; there is no concern in Aikin and Talisse for the possibility that the outrage could overflow so that legal immigrants could be smeared as well; Aikin and Talisse have in fact hermetically sealed them from all criticism, treating all criticism of their behavior as if it begs the question against them by assuming that not just their premises but their behavior is wrong. So much protection for people deliberately using emotional events to ramp up the rhetoric only gives political incentive to intensify the rhetoric whenever you think you can get something out of it.

Aikin and Talisse would disagree (I hope) with any policy to investigate the Democratic party as an organization potentially serving as a ground for terrorism; but if, after the Hodgkinson attempt to assassinate a significant number of Republican legislators, Republicans had started advocating policies to engage in a large-scale anti-terrorist investigation against Democrats, what would Aikin and Talisse be able to say? It's a case with political causes that are directly connected with Democratic views; investigating certain kinds of organizations as a potential breeding-ground for terrorism is something we already do in cases with political causes; terrorism is rare enough that, except for a few cases, these investigations are often done on the basis of a single instance. It's something people could demand. (And I know people personally who have tried to insist that the NRA should be treated in such a way after a mass shooting, without there being even the justification of any personal link between the shooter and the organization, so there are people who will certainly try to push this line as far as they can.) Any such proposal would obviously (and almost certainly rightly) be seen by Democrats as an attempt to use the tragedy to stampede people in a particular direction in order to break Democratic political power; Aikin and Talisse have ruled such worries just dependent on personal political views. Democrats would certainly disagree with such a policy, but Aikin and Talisse have shut down all attempt to protest it as maliciously motivated, as an attempt to short-circuit deliberative discussion, or as a violation of respect in the face of tragedy. In reality, Democrats are politically powerful enough to be able to block anything that the Republicans might do in this direction, thus giving the Republicans an incentive to accept that the situation should not be politicized in this way (Republicans would likely not gain anything from it, and could lose a great deal), but what could Aikin and Talisse protest if they decided to charge ahead anyway? They've turned it into a disagreement with no process of adjudication. And what of groups that don't have the clout of the Democratic party and thus can't force their opponents to recognize that their attempt to use a situation for partisan ends won't get anywhere? There seems no way to maintain the stability of civil discussion given the arguments Aikin and Talissue have proposed: it seems one should draw the conclusion from their arguments that you can argue against premises, but not against ways of arguing. But some ways of arguing are quite corrosive, and bad news for everybody. And to be sure, charges of politicization, whatever else they may be, are a tactic; there are at least some cases where they are very plausibly a self-protective tactic against precisely such corrosiveness. It seems ill-advised to remove such a protection without something to put in its place. And I see no indication of any such thing anywhere in the discussion.