Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Over the River and Through the Wood

Thanksgiving Day
by Lydia Maria Child

Over the river, and through the wood,
To grandfather’s house we go;
The horse knows the way
To carry the sleigh
Through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood—
Oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes
And bites the nose
As over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood,
To have a first-rate play.
Hear the bells ring
Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day!

Over the river, and through the wood
Trot fast, my dapple-gray!
Spring over the ground,
Like a hunting-hound!
For this is Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood,
And straight through the barn-yard gate.
We seem to go
Extremely slow,—
It is so hard to wait!

Over the river and through the wood—
Now grandmother’s cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun!
Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin-pie!

Lydia Maria Francis Child (1802-1880) was a rights activist. She fought against slavery, worked for the protection of women, and defended the rights of Native Americans. She wrote tracts, novels, how-to books, and poems. But this is the work most people remember.

One of her books that is interesting to look through is The Girl's Own Book, which was published in 1833, and which is filled with crafts, games, activities, and puzzles for girls in that day. The games are particularly interesting; some of them would make good party games even today. One of the riddles: Why is Ireland likely to become very rich? Because its capital is always Dublin.

On an Epistemological Objection to Divine Command Theory

John Danaher has a very interesting post at "Philosophical Disquisitions" on the epistemological objection to divine command theory. It gives good material for looking at a number of weaknesses in how analytic philosophers have tended to approach the subject. He presents the argument as follows:

(1) According to DCT, for any given moral agent (S), an obligation to X (or to refrain from X) exists if and only if God commands S to X (or refrain from X).

(2) A theological stateist theory of moral obligations fails to account for the existence of obligations unless the moral agents to whom the obligation applies have knowledge of the relevant theological state.

(3) DCT is a theological stateist theory of moral obligations.

(4) Therefore, DCT fails to account for the existence of an obligation to X (or to refrain from X) unless S has knowledge of God’s commands (from 1, 2 and 3)

(5) If there are reasonable non-believers (i.e. people who don’t believe in God and who do not violate any epistemic duties), then they cannot have knowledge of God’s commands.

(6) There are reasonable non-believers.

(7) Therefore, on DCT, moral obligations fail to exist for reasonable non-believers (from 4, 5 and 6)

(8) DCT cannot be a satisfactory theory of moral obligations if it entails that moral obligations do not exist for reasonable non-believers.

(9) Therefore, DCT cannot be a satisfactory theory of moral obligations.

There are a number of problems with this kind of objection. As long-time readers may know, although not a divine command theorist myself, whenever I face what is supposed to be a general objection against divine command theory (as opposed to an objection against this or that particular form of it), I always ask, "How do the assumptions about divine command theory in this objection compare with the divine command theory laid out in one of the classic texts on divine command theory as a philosophical account, William Warburton's Divine Legation of Moses?" And as long-time readers may also know, the answer that usually comes up is that they don't align -- Warburton in the eighteenth century had often already formulated his divine command theory in a way that is immune to the objection.

So let's start with (1) itself. Warburton would regard (1) as false, at least as stated. Obligations on his account do not require that God command S to X (or refrain from X). Any genuine authority with good and informed power of sanction can obligate. The obligations that require divine command on his account are only the obligations that require a universal authority. That is, Warburton's account calls on God for moral obligations in a strict and proper sense, as applying to all rational beings whatsoever. This is actually quite important for divine command theory generally, because one of the often overlooked strengths of a divine command theory is that if you are (unlike me, but like a lot of people) inclined toward a positivist theory of law, then it offers you a unified theory of obligation, moral as well as legal. The divine command theorist simply holds that we should take a positivist approach to law as correct for all obligations, including the most universal. (Legal positivists in general tend to want to have a sharp separation between moral obligation and legal validity that would block this. But the divine command theorist, of course, will simply argue that we talk about law in moral terms and morality in legal terms, and we do tend to talk about legal obligations created by legislators, and we can still make a perfectly reasonable distinction between your legal obligations and moral obligations by simply taking the latter to be more universal.) Thus (1) as stated is too broad.

I'll look at premise (2) in a moment, which brings us to (3). 'Theological stateism' here means: "The view that particular moral statuses (such as good, bad, right, wrong, permissible, obligatory etc) depend for their existence on one or more of God’s states (e.g. His beliefs, desires, intentions, commands etc)." It is in fact unclear that commands in general are 'states' in the sense that beliefs, desires, and intentions are. They certainly don't have to be states of mind. If Congress passes a law, we don't need to know the states of mind of Congress; we need to know what the command is, which is not a state of mind, but an actually promulgated standard. Now, it does seem to be true that commands depend on something we might call a 'state', somewhere in the chain, in the sense that a full explanation of a command will appeal to the agent commanding it. But it is quite clearly an indirect matter, and it is not clearly that the state itself is all that significant a factor in determining what is in fact commanded. Thus, while we can grant (3), we will have to be very careful about what kind of dependence is being assumed, throughout the rest of the argument, whenever 'theological stateism' is mentioned.

Premise (2) is too strong. The basic rationale for (2) is derived from an argument by Robert Adams, based on contracts. However, it is stronger than Adams' argument actually requires. (At least the one actually given -- I don't have Adams' work with me at the moment, but nothing Danaher says on his view strikes me as implausible based on what I recall.) If you have a contract, your actual knowledge of the terms of the contract is not generally relevant to the question of your obligation. If you sign a contract without looking at it, then, assuming there was no fraud, you are still obligated. The reason is that the contract was available in such a way that there is no particular excuse for not knowing. But we can even intensify this. Consider a different, and more analogous kind of obligation-making: legislation. No one regards your legal obligations as dependent on whether you have knowledge of it; all that matters is whether it was properly promulgated. Given this, it doesn't matter whether you know; it doesn't matter whether it was easy for you to come to know; it might even have been impossible for you, in particular, in your practical circumstances, to know. What does matter for promulgation is whether people who need to obey the law could generally come to know it through some standard channel. Thus (2) at least needs qualification -- it holds a 'theological stateist' account of obligation to a standard no one in practice regards as necessary to any theory of obligation.

Thus we are already running into problems getting (4). The fact that (1) is stated too broadly ends up not being a problem, because (2) and (3) both narrow things down to moral obligations. But (4) quite clearly requires that we have the full strength of (2), and (2) is much too strong for most obligations -- we can be obligated without knowing exactly what we are obligated to do, e.g., through our own negligence, when the obligation could generally have been known, or was commonly known by typical citizens. We only require that laws be broadcast, not that they be narrowcast to every person subject to them; and yet we take laws to obligate even people who missed out. At the same time, no one takes obligations to require knowing the states of the legislator; if no one were obligated by laws of Congress unless they knew the states of minds of the legislators, it would be very difficult determine what purported laws we should obey. In reality, no one ever cares about the state of Congress, except sometimes courts for interpreting difficult cases; all they usually want to know is what, in fact, was promulgated.

As Danaher notes, (5) and (6) are also controversial; I won't discuss them here.

We can sum up all of the problems above by looking at the argument in a different way. One of the big questions that always needs to be asked when assessing any argument against divine command theory is this: Does the argument make any sense if we lower the authority in question from universal to particular? Divine command theory is a form of moral positivism in which the acts of an authority with universal scope of sanction are taken to be the only thing that establishes fully moral obligations. But divine command theorists have historically tended to see obligations on a scale, as noted above in discussing (1), with fully moral obligations as just the obligations of most general authority. So let's consider the argument for a lower authority: a human legislature and the legal obligations it creates.

(1) At this level, for any given citizen (S), an obligation to X (or to refrain from X) exists if and only if the legislature passes a law for S to X (or refrain from X).

(2) A legal stateist theory of moral obligations fails to account for the existence of obligations unless the citizens to whom the obligation applies have knowledge of the relevant legal state.

(3) This theory is a legal stateist theory of legal obligations.

(4) Therefore, it fails to account for the existence of an obligation to X (or to refrain from X) unless S has knowledge of the laws passed by the legislature (from 1, 2 and 3)

(5) If there are reasonable noncompliants (i.e. people who are citizens, but don't know about the legislature and who do not violate any epistemic duties), then they cannot have knowledge of the laws passed by the legislature.

(6) There are reasonable noncompliants.

(7) Therefore, on this account, legal obligations fail to exist for reasonable noncompliants (from 4, 5 and 6)

(8) This account cannot be a satisfactory theory of legal obligations if it entails that legal obligations do not exist for reasonable noncompliants.

(9) Therefore, This account cannot be a satisfactory theory of legal obligations.

I don't think the account in question would make a satisfactory theory of legal obligations; but none of this argument makes any sense as a reason for saying that. There's no obvious reason to think that the account's 'stateist' in the sense required; and (2) would be an unreasonable standard even if it were, because it seems to require assuming that the dependency of the command, qua command, on the state is much closer than it actually is. It is true that the explanation of the laws passed by the legislature requires consideration of the state of the legislature; but knowledge of that state is not required for knowing the laws themselves. And that's even assuming that one strictly needs to know the laws in order to be obligated by them, which is not how we generally handle laws -- we hold that laws need to be promulgated, but as long as certain basic conditions of promulgation are met, we can still be obligated by them. If our failure to comply really is due to innocent and honest ignorance, we may well take that into account when determining sanction (or whether to suspend sanction in this case), by taking it as exculpatory, but we don't in fact hold that the obligations do not exist at all -- and it is at least not obvious that they don't.

It's also worth noting that the reverse is true, as well: one can be in compliance with one's obligations without knowing what they are. This is blatantly obvious in the legal case. If we return a moment to Warburton, Warburton argues that we are in fact set up so that, all other things being equal, we will tend to comply with our obligations, because God has given us two things that do not constitute our obligations but tend to converge on them -- a moral sense of appropriate and inappropriate that can be cultivated into good moral taste, and a rational ability to identify better and worse in the abstract. But we are also set up in such a way that thinking in terms of obligations is relatively easy for us, so it's not surprising that even atheists tend toward thinking of moral life in these terms -- particularly, since, as Warburton also insists, atheists tend in general to get at least significant portions of their morality, directly or indirectly, from a broader culture that usually includes a great many theists. He just doesn't think they can do this coherently, since he argues that all obligation requires an obligating authority with adequate scope of sanction, and the scope of sanction for moral obligations would have to be universal. And it's worth noting, perhaps, that Warburton doesn't hugely care whether atheists themselves are obligated; what that ultimately means is just that atheists have no coherent theory of moral obligation, so all their actual moral life is really just moral feelings and calculation, so any time they say 'murder is wrong' they are saying, at most, 'murder is bad taste and poor sense'. This is entirely true, Warburton holds, but neither the 'bad taste' nor the 'poor sense', nor any combination of the two together, gets us an obligation of universal scope.

There are issues with promulgation when it comes to divine command theory; but to try to understand these issues in epistemic terms, as this argument does, just seems to get everything all wrong.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Great Martyr

Icon of Saint Catherine

Today is the feast of Queen St. Catherine of Alexandria, Great Martyr and Virgin, patron saint of philosophers, orators, teachers, jurists, theologians, librarians, scribes, schoolgirls, milliners, lacemakers, potters, wheelwrights, and virgins. Patronage always conveys a history of signs. She's the patron of so many intellectual professions because according to legend she argued with philosophers and rhetoricians, and refuted them all. As a result she became closely associated with university life in the Middle Ages. She's the patron of potters, because she was tortured on a wheel and has the wheel as one of her iconic symbols; wheelwrights make wheels and potters use wheels, so potters and wheelwrights share symbolism with her. And she is the patron of milliners and lacemakers because of an old custom in which unmarried women on St. Catherine's Day would have their own celebration, complete with finery, so those groups became closely associated with her festivities.

Oil of Whelps

There's an interesting guest post by Katherine Aske at "Early Modern Medicine" on the use of puppies in early modern cosmetics. (ht) She even gives a standard recipe for oil of whelps, from Nicholas Culpeper:

Takes Sallet Oil four pound, two Puppy-dogs newly whelped, Earthworms washed in white Wine one pound; boil the Whelps til they fall in pieces then put in the worms a while after strain it, then with three ounces of Cypress Turpentine, and one ounce of Spirits of Wine, perfect the Oil according to Art.

The oil could be used for treating bruises. Boiling puppies for oleum catellorum was not the only cosmetic use of puppy; they also made puppy water, which consisted of putting dead puppy, cut as if for a roast, into a still, then adding wine, unsalted butter, snail-shells, lemon, the distillation of which was to be mixed with sugar and gold leaf. Moisturizes the skin!

The history of cosmetics is a history of doing weird things. We are not, in fact, any different. It may seem odd to put snail-shells in a moisturizer; but in fact it is not an uncommon practice even today to use snails in cosmetics -- snail slime, for instance, is a natural source of elastin, and you can buy snail slime at high-end cosmetic stores. You can also get high-end hair conditioners using bull semen. If a cosmetic says it uses guanine, the standard source for that is fish scales. You can buy hair products that use placenta and skin products that use embryonic stem cells -- although the latter, being controversial,tend to be quite expensive. Some anti-wrinkle creams use human foreskin. All of it has had some study that says it works; and some of it actually works. You can have no doubt that, if a scientific study of any kind somewhere tied puppy oil to a cosmetic benefit, within a year you could find make-up with oil of whelps.

Behold the Wrecks of Ages

The True Basis of Power
by Sir Aubrey De Vere

Power's footstool is Opinion, and his throne
The Human Heart: thus only Kings maintain
Prerogatives God-sanctioned. The coarse chain
Tyrants would bind around us may be blown
Aside, like foam, that with a breath is gone:
For there's a tide within the popular vein
That despots in their pride may not restrain;
Swoln with a vigour that is all its own.
Ye who would steer along these donbtful seas,
Lifting your proud sails to high heaven, beware!
Rocks throng the waves, and tempests load the breeze:
Go, search the shores of History—mark there
The Oppressor's lot, the Tyrant's destinies:
Behold the Wrecks of Ages; and despair!

Aubrey De Vere's son, Aubrey Thomas De Vere, is the more famous poet of the two.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fortnightly Book, November 23

Sir Henry Maximilian Beerbohm, best known simply as Max Beerbohm, gives us the next fortnightly book, Zuleika Dobson. He was known as a humorist and a dandy, and also as the Incomparable Max, a nickname he got from George Bernard Shaw.

Zuleika Dobson is his most famous work and only full novel; it has had its fans since it was published in 1911. It is subtitled, An Oxford Love Story, and is the story of Zuleika Dobson, a beautiful woman who manages to get admitted to an all-male college. She has a very unusual problem: all men fall in love with her at first sight. The result is, inevitably, bedlam. Humorous works that I've done for the Fortnightly Book have not generally thrilled me, but we'll see how this one goes.

I'll be reading the Heritage Press edition (from the New York era), with a preface by Douglas Cleverdon and illustrations by George Him, a pioneer of graphic design. The full-page illustrations are quite gorgeous. It is unusual in shape -- the cover is 6 1/4 by 11 1/8inches. The typeface is Bulmer and the paper is an unusual gray-toned vellum-finish laid -- at least, that's what The Sandglass calls it.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Marjorie McIntyre, The River Witch


Opening Passage:

Travelers going west in the 1850's were a serious people, acutely conscious of the importance of an extra ration, or of the tragedy that an ailing horse or a broken wheel could bring. Yet the life of the emigrant was not barren; he took along a sense of humor and a hoard of songs and tales.

On the California trail, a ballad or a sad tale was better than a rocking chair or a rosewood chest. You could sing the ballad around the campfire of an evening or tell the tale to each new person you met -- adding a bit yourself if you had a mind to.

It was along the Missouri River, the hub of westward activity, where travelers would surely have heard the strange ballad of "The River Witch." Intrigued, they listened and wondered about her. Who was she?

Summary: In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the steamboats move up and down the navigable but treacherous Missouri River, the steamboat trade dominated by the powerful Knapp family. Along its banks a diverse population of both abolitionists and slave-owners. tries to live in peace with each other and with the constant influx of travelers east and west, but it is beginning to get very difficult, and tensions are rising. Cordelia Riley, daughter of a steamboat owner, and a Knapp on her mother's side, grows up loving the river, even stowing away at one point on her father's boat. There she meets two people who will play an especially important role in her story: Red Maude, the prostitute, who she discovers in her father's room, and Josiah Callahan, the handsome young adventurer who saves her when she gets lost. And as the story unfolds, with her hatred of Red Maude and her love of Josiah Callahan, we come to learn why the River Witch ballad is sung about her.

The basic kind of story is one that I tend not to like -- the beautiful young woman who irresistibly attracts two handsome young men (Josiah and the pilot Pierre de Vries) and marries one while loving the other, in this case for a reason so unreasonable that it isn't clear it should be considered a reason at all. There's nothing wrong with this plot on its own, but there are so many ways it can be done badly that one usually sees it done badly. And, indeed, Cordelia is mostly insufferable. To be sure, she is very young, but it is difficult to sympathize with the self-centered. Yet there is a sort of realism to it. Cordelia hardly knows Josiah, but she loves the idea of Josiah, and because of that she cannot see the good things she has for what they are. At one point Pierre gets very angry at her when she says she does not deserve him; it's certainly true that she doesn't deserve him, but the statement in some sense simply expresses the problem, that she has already sabotaged the relationship, limiting it by nothing other than her ideas of it. And, indeed, this is a steady theme with her: she interacts with her own ideas, and not the real world, until it is almost too late.

In addition to the romance, there is plenty of color from the steamboat industry, which is somewhat interesting, and about the hardships of the day. There is also a strong focus on the relation between blacks and whites, as perhaps there could hardly avoid being in a story set in this region in this period. Stories written in the 1950s on race relations are always very hit-and-miss. There are some awkward aspects to the story here, but there are some things done well. Button, the free black roustabout, is far and away the most vivid character in the book; and Button's somewhat sardonic comment that while he is forced to see things as they are, "white folks butts they head on the wall," summarizes pretty well why he often seems to be the only sensible person in the vicinity. And Jean Austin's role in the book is interesting in its own right, as well.

There is a great deal that's interesting in the story, and it is told very well, but one of the clear difficulties is that while the tale is filled with interesting characters, the one person we know most about is the person whose primary interest is that she meets interesting characters. To be sure, there are threads of the tapestry in which she rises above this, as in the basic story of how she became the River Witch; but the romance has a tendency to put itself forward, and her actions in that are almost entirely irrational. Characterization is not the focus of the work, though; this is a plot-driven story, an etiology of a haunting legend, and as such it manages to pull together a number of good elements in a way that is certainly readable. And even with the characterization, most of the characters are quite interesting for the short bits in which we see them; we get lots of fragments of interesting stories -- it is too bad that they remain fragments.

Favorite Passage:

Reverend Bird turned his deep-set eyes on her. "I read of the tragedy of The Blue Teal and I said a prayer for your parents. I presume, my child, that you are saved?"

Cordelia looked down at her plate. "I took the Catholic faith when I married Pierre. He is a devout Catholic."

"Most unfortunate." Reverend Bird shook his head. "Catholics mean well, but they take the easy way out."

There was an awkward silence. Finally Cordelia asked, "How are you doing with your preaching, Reverend Bird?"

"Not too well," he said. "Iniquity abounds along the Missouri River."

Recommendation: As light reading, it's worth your time if you happen to come across it.

Whewell on the Principle of Purity

In the recent series on temperance (Part I), I noted a fundmental divide between older discussions of temperance and the (deliberately) diametrically opposed discussions initiated by Bentham. As it turns out, I was not the first person to recognize exactly this division. It occurred to me that William Whewell's discussion of the Moral Idea of Purity would be at least relevant to the question, and there we have the opposition clearly laid out.

A few things about Whewell's general moral approach first, which (because he, like most of the thinkers of his day, thinks of ethics as a moral science) is part of his general approach to the sciences. Whewell takes all human thought to have two aspects, which he usually calls Fact and Conception. (Talking about two aspects, though, can be potentially misleading, because Whewell thinks there can be levels: Facts + Conception can become a new Fact to be linked with other Facts by a new Conception. However, he thinks that at every level these two aspects can be distinguished.) When our Conceptions are so general that they are highly stable and unify a vast number of Facts, he calls them Ideas; some examples of Ideas are Resemblance, Cause, Number, and Space. We can formulate Fundamental Principles to capture how these Ideas unify Facts into an intelligible whole; these principles can be refined over time to take into account more and more Facts. The physical sciences as Whewell sees them proceed by observing the world around us in light of these Fundamental Principles, and by uniting Facts through the Principle to discover specific Laws of Nature. Moral sciences have the same structure, with Moral Ideas, Fundamental Principles, and Laws of Human Action, but the way we get Laws of Human Action is different from the way we get Laws of Nature. To get Laws of Nature we start with Facts and find Conceptions under which we can use the Fundamental Principles to organize them; to get Laws of Human Action we start with the Fundamental Principles and find the Laws, then reorganize the Facts to fit the Laws. In other words, physical sciences fit Laws to Facts; moral sciences fit Facts to Laws.

Whewell proposes that there are five main Moral Ideas: Benevolence, Justice, Truth, Purity, and Order. From these spring Conceptions that give us our entire vocabulary of virtue. Each Moral Idea has its Fundamental Principle, which serves as an axiom for ethics in the same way that Fundamental Principles of Space and Time serve as axioms for physics.

BenevolenceMan is to be loved as man.
JusticeEach man is to have his own.
TruthWe must conform to the universal understanding among men implied by language.
PurityThe lower parts of our nature are to be governed by, and subservient to, the higher parts.
OrderWe must obey positive laws as the necessary conditions of morality.

There are, in addition to these a number of Fundamental Principles for especially important Conceptions that assist in applying these to human action.

The Moral Idea that concerns us is that of Purity, along with its Fundamental Principle. It takes very little perusal of Book III, Chapter X of The Elements of Morality, which discusses the duties of Purity, to recognize that this subordination of the lower to the higher is exactly what is meant when older authors speak of temperance regulating pleasures according to what is necessary for human life. (And that Whewell knows this is confirmed by the virtues and vices he associated with it.) Indulgence in the desire for food and drink, for instance, is to be regulated so as to support "life, strength, and cheerfulness, and the cultivation of the social affections". Desires in general are to be subordinated to genuine affection, and blind affection is to be subordinated to moral sentiments.

Whewell notes, however, that some modern moralists reject any distinction of higher and lower in human nature (section 320):

The distinction of the Lower and Higher Parts of our Nature, by means of which we express the Principle of Purity, has been rejected by some moralists, and has been termed Declamation. Such moralists contend that pleasure is universally and necessarily the object of human action; and that human pleasures do not differ in kind, but only in intensity and duration: so that, according to these teachers, there is no difference of superior and inferior, between the pleasures of appetite, the pleasures of affection, and the pleasure of doing good. Hence, say they, the only difference in the character of actions, is their being better or worse means of obtaining pleasure.

This is exactly Bentham's view, and even if we could not recognize it from the description, the use of the word 'Declamation' would be enough to establish it: it's one of Bentham's most withering insults to call things mere declamation. Thus Whewell recognizes the opposition between Benthamism and the doctrine of temperance. He argues that we should follow Butler rather than Bentham on this point; there is a systematic order in human nature requiring that one thing govern another. If we follow Bentham rather than Butler, we end up destroying any distinction between man and beast and making it impossible to draw a coherent distinction between crime and error (fault and mistake), since they both just end up being miscalculations in the pursuit of pleasure. What is more, we make morality itself incoherent:

According to this doctrine, we can have no Supreme Rule of Action; for if pleasure be the highest object of action, it is also the lowest. With such opinions, we deprive the words right and wrong of their common meaning; for to men in general, they do not mean right and wrong roads to enjoyment, which this view makes them mean.

Whewell notes, for instance, that the pursuit of moral progress itself suggests that there is a higher end than pleasure, and that we know by experience that, while people primarily pursuing moral progress can have pleasure, people primarily pursuing pleasure tend simply to give up on pursuing moral progress. Whewell goes farther than this in his criticism, though. In discussing the kind of love that leads to marriage, he says (section 327):

The Love which looks forwards to the conjugal union, includes a reverence for the conjugal condition, and all its circumstances. Such a love produces in the mind a kind of moral illumination, which shows the lover how foul a thing mere lust is; and makes him see, as a self-evident truth, that affection is requisite to purify desire, and virtue necessary to purify affection.

Thus certain kinds of love inherently involve subordinating the lower to the higher, and those who love in this way are positioned to see that the Principle of Purity is a necessary feature of a good life.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Nassar on Jena Romanticism

I know a few people have found my occasional excerpts from the later works of Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel to be somewhat interesting; those who have might be interested in this interview with Dalia Nassar on Jena Romanticism. The works I've been quoting have been from a much later period in Schlegel's life, indeed, the last period of Schlegel's life, when he was very conservative, devoutly Catholic, and an enthusiastic advocate of the importance of Sanskrit and Indian literature; but in his early days, Schlegel was a freethinking Young Turk of Jena. Indeed, as noted in the interview, he was one of the Big Three of Jena Romantic philosophy, the other two being Novalis and Schelling.

Between the young Schlegel and the old Schlegel there is a vast gap, one that began to grow as soon as he left Jena and became extraordinary during his period in Cologne; but our oldest reflections always carry something of our youngest enthusiasms, however distant the two may be from each other, and many of Schlegel's basic themes remained constant his entire life.

A Basic Timeline of Schlegel's Life

1772 -- Birth (March 10)

1796 -- Moves to Jena and begins collaborating with his brother August, Novalis, Fichte, and others.

1797 -- Moves to Berlin.

1798 -- August and Friedrich found the Athenaeum literary magazine, one of the key events creating the German Romantic movement.

1799 -- Marries Dorothea Veit, the daughter of Moses Mendelssohn, and moves back to Jena.

1801 -- Death of Novalis. Schlegel moves to Berlin. This year is usually regarded as the end of the Jena Romantic movement in the strict sense.

1803 -- Arrives in Paris and founds the review, Europa.

1804 -- Moves to Cologne and begins studying Gothic architecture and Sanskrit.

1808 -- Publishes On the Language and Wisdom of India. Friedrich and Dorothea convert to Catholicism.

1809 -- Goes to Vienna and is appointed Imperial court secretary for Archduke Charles of Teschen; accompanies the archduke in the War of the Fifth Coalition against Napoleon.

1814 -- Knighted in the Supreme Order of Christ

1820 -- Founds the conservative Catholic review, Concordia.

1828 -- Begins publishing some of his recent lectures as Philosophy of Life and Philosophy of History. The lecture series on Philosophy of Language was never fully completed.

1829 -- Death (January 12)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Promesse de Bonheur

Talking of a beautiful girl, a beautiful landscape, a beautiful picture, I certainly have very different things in mind. What is common to all of them -- "beauty" -- is neither a mysterious entity, nor a mysterious word. On the contrary, nothing is perhaps more directly and clearly experienced than the appearance of "beauty" in various beautiful objects. The boy friend and the philosopher, the artist and the mortician, may "define" it in very different ways, but they all define the same specific state and condition -- some quality or qualities which make the beautiful contrast with other objects. In this vagueness and directness, beauty is experienced in the beautiful -- that is, it is seen, heard, smelled, touched, felt, comprehended. It is experienced almost as a shock, perhaps due to the contrast-character of beauty, which breaks the circle of everyday experience and opens (for a short moment) another reality (of which fright may be an integral element).

This description is of precisely that metaphysical character which positivistic analysis wishes to eliminate by translation, but the translation eliminates that which was to be defined. There are many more or less satisfactory "technical" definitions of beauty in aesthetics, but there seems to be only one which preserves the experiential content of beauty and which is therefore the least exact definition -- beauty as a "promesse de bonheur." It captures the reference to a condition of men and things, and to a relation between men and things which occur momentarily while vanishing, which appear in as many different forms as there are individuals and which, in vanishing, manifest what can be.
[Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, 2nd edition. Beacon Press (Boston: 1991) pp. 210-211.]

The claim that beauty is a "promesse de bonheur" (promise of happiness) comes from Stendhal's Rome, Naples, and Florence, but was made more widely known first by Baudelaire in The Painter and Modern Life and then by Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Music on My Mind

Peter Hollens and Avi Kaplan, "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair". This is a traditional folk song, with lots of versions. It was first recorded in Appalachia in the early twentieth century, but there are vocabulary indications in early versions that suggest it was brought over much earlier from Scotland. The most famous version is probably that of Nina Simone, although it has become standard fare in Celtic music circles, as in Lisa Lambe's version for Celtic Woman, which is fairly good.

The Hemlock Shakes in the Rafter

Misgivings (1860)
by Herman Melville

When ocean-clouds over inland hills
Sweep storming in late autumn brown,
And horror the sodden valley fills,
And the spire falls crashing in the town,
I muse upon my country's ills—
The tempest bursting from the waste of Time
On the world's fairest hope linked with man's foulest crime.

Nature's dark side is heeded now—
(Ah! optimist-cheer disheartened flown)—
A child may read the moody brow
Of yon black mountain lone.
With shouts the torrents down the gorges go,
And storms are formed behind the storm we feel:
The hemlock shakes in the rafter, the oak in the driving keel.

Ted Widmer has a good discussion of the background of this poem.