Saturday, September 11, 2004

Um, Yeah, It's the Charm...

You are Rerun!

Which Peanuts Character are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

(Hat-tip: Harrison)

Newton's Alchemy

In looking up online resources for Newton's natural philosophy, I came across The William Newman Project which describes some utterly awesome historical research involving archival work and chemical laboratories in order to determine the precise nature of Newton's alchemical research.

Thoughts on Voting

Since there is a discussion on voting going on at FBC (as well as this brief post at All Day Permanent Red, on a slightly different but related subject) I thought I would post my thoughts on the nature of voting. They are controversial, since I have never met anyone else who had them.

1. Voters do not compete with each other in the act of voting itself. An election is not a competition among voters but among candidates and parties. This, incidentally, has implications for discussions of 'voting power' or the 'worth of a vote', which often make the false assumption that voters are in competition.

2. The self-governance of a people is only possible if it goes with the self-obedience of the people. In elections this means that to vote is to accept that you might be outvoted, and not to vote is to accept that others will decide the outcome.

3. The power of a vote consists entirely in its potential for contributing to a collection of votes such that, if they meet the standards in place, will determine the outcome. So long as the standards are not rigged so as to discount votes on the basis of the voter's intention, there is no way to diminish or augment the power of a vote cast. One's voting power is not diminished by an increase in the likelihood of being outvoted. One's voting power is not augmented by an increase in the likelihood of outvoting others. To think it is -- is to misunderstand the point and nature of voting. The power of a vote is not measured by how near or far away from holding sole authority you are; the power of a vote is either there, or it is not. To put it another way: the power of one vote vote.

4. Votes in different elections are noncommensurable. One practical application of that is that a vote in a different state (in the U.S.) or a different riding (in Canada) cannot be given a common measure according to which they may be compared; this means another common assumption in discussions of 'voting power' is false.

5. In elections there is no such thing as a deciding vote; there can only be a deciding vote if there is a tie-breaking authority capable of voting after the results are in. There is therefore no such thing as "the vote that makes the difference". Every vote makes the same difference: one vote in the election in which it is cast.

6. Voters should be allowed to determine through their own deliberation whether they are competent to vote, and how voting stands in their own priorities. This means that there should not be mandatory voting. And yes, important as voting is, it can be perfectly reasonable to have higher priorities than voting.

7. Sometimes, from a personal perspective, the most important vote is the one in which you will certainly be outvoted. It can be most important in the sense that sometimes just putting down a vote for what you see as the right side is morally a very high priority. A matter of principle, as we say. Sometimes the most important moral consideration in a vote is that this position should not go without anyone voting for it, or this candidate should not go without anyone voting for them.

8. There is no such thing as a clear mandate from the people. Votes are just not that precise. The only thing one gets from the people is votes, and that could be for any number of reasons: your position on x, your position on y, your not having a position on z, the color of your hair, not sounding like a Yankee, not being your opponent. In fact, all of them are probably in play. Not looking like a doofus is not an electoral mandate; but there are probably more than a few politicians who have easily won primarily on that ground alone.

On the lighter side, see this Mallard Fillmore.

Friday, September 10, 2004

More on Degrees of Being

One of the possibilities being considered in the Prosblogion discussion of degrees of being is a parallel with 'being true to degree d'. I'm wary of this sort of approach. Here's why.

'Degree of truth' is a bit ambiguous. We can either mean degree (properly speaking), or grade, or simply be using 'degree' to indicate a percentage. None of these three are exactly the same.

If we mean degree, proper, we are measuring truth value on an arbitrary scale that is continuous. If we mean grade, we are measuring truth value on an arbitrary scale that has discrete gradations. Saying the scale is arbitrary doesn't mean that we aren't accurately identifying something; for instance, temperature scales and the Mohs scale (measuring mineral hardness) are arbitrary. What is arbitrary is the assignment of units (in the case of degree) or levels (in the case of grade); what is non-arbitrary is the relative ranking of the things being measured.

If we are talking about degrees of truth in these terms, we are simply ranking truths according to some standard of priority. I think it makes a lot of sense to think of degrees of being in these terms. (Indeed, I think we naturally tend to do so.) In this sense we are ranking ways of being. And, indeed, I think this is the proper way to understand the claim by Jonathan Edwards that started the claim off; it is the standard way to understand traditional claims of degrees of being.

If, however, we are thinking of 'degree' as a percentage, I think we run into problems. A percentage requires that there be an interval from 0 to 1, i.e., an empty point (0%) and a full point (100%). In the case of truth value one can set truth to 1 and false to 0; but this means that the only point that will be in a strict sense true is 1. If we do this with being, and talk about percentages of existence as such, then only 1 will exist in a strict sense. But this will mean that only the very top of the scale will actually exist; everything else will just sort of exist. Or, more strictly: only the top scale will have existence 100%; everything else will have existence to a lesser degree, which is to say, strictly speaking they will not exist.

Contrast this with the former ways of doing it. On these ways every single thing that in any way exists can be considered to exist, simply speaking; but the ways of existing admit of some sort of ranking. Not so on the latter; on the latter, we are talking about things that somehow exist to a lesser degree than existence properly speaking, whatever that would be. And we would need to be able to determine precisely what full existence would be. The problem with this is that existence have to have a determinate quantity, in the strict sense of the term; i.e., there would have to be not merely more or less with regard to existence, not merely that one can use a quantitative scale to clarify that more or less (as we do with mineral hardness) or determine precise relationships between states (as we do with temperature), but an actually determinate, in-principle quantity of an existence-stuff. (The only alternative to this I can see would be for there to be an actually determinate, in-principle quantity of a non-existence stuff, which makes even less sense.) It would take quite an argument, I think, to support this; existence, as such, is not a quantitatively determinate stuff. This problem does not arise at all on the former approach.

One is virtually nonsense; there is, perhaps a way sense can be made of it, but it would take a lot of doing, if it's genuinely possible to do so. The other is very easy, and makes a great deal of sense, since we actually do think this way. However, even in this case, the temptation remains of trying to make the matter wholly one of formal relationships, as if the scale of being were a logical scale like a scale of truth value (which is not the same as a scale of truth; a truth value scale is a purely formal scale logically characterizing a particular set of formal relationships, and only has to do with truth at all by stipulation). If we do this, however, we are talking about something very, very different from any traditional account of degrees of being. It's not even clear what we're talking about.

So, as I said, I'm wary of this sort of approach; it's perhaps usable, but I think it has many potential pitfalls that would have to be avoided.


There is an interesting post at the Little Professor on the issue of blog scholarship (the same post is at Cliopatria here). There the question is asked,

Like academic listservs, academic blogs are conducive to conversation--dialogue about this point or that--but, really, are they good for developing extensive and in-depth arguments on significant topics? A blogger without reasonably frequent posts is a blogger without readers, as a general rule, and "extensive and in-depth arguments" can hardly be posted frequently (or, if frequently, not well).

I'm a little unclear about what exactly is being indicated by the word 'scholarship'. Really, the root idea of scholarship should be actual learning; or, perhaps more accurately, actual learning and setting that in good order according to the standards of the discipline. The difficulty comes in, I think, when people think of scholarship as a finished product, and good scholarship as a finished product that meets certain standards. But I don't see that it is a good idea to confine the notion to this. For one thing, confining the notion in this way potentially leads to a somewhat superficial reviewing of the given discipline; we start accepting 'polished work' that meets the surface standards without looking at the process, sometimes wholly flawed, that went into it. Such, at least, is the danger.

This is not to say that I think blogging as scholarship, rather than blogging supplements or ancillaries to scholarship, is easy or common; one has to tolerate airing one's process, with all its occasional sloppiness, error, and confusion, as one successively draws near to a better, and finished, result. I don't think most academics are willing to do this (at least, not much, and certainly not in print where people all over the world whom they don't know might be reading it). Further, Burstein is right that there is real drudgery in actual scholarship, and blogging is not particularly conducive to it. Nonetheless, the potential is there. The danger with it is the opposite of the above problem: there's the danger that it will become an excuse to accept anything that happens in the process without regard for the standards that have to be met at some point. But as a complement to 'polished work' scholarship, there is potential.

Of course, I don't think most scholars view their blogging as scholarship itself; but rather (as I consider some of the stuff on this weblog) as ancillary to it in some way, e.g., a place for gathering resources, airing ideas, refining details of argument, etc.

Of course, again, it depends on what is really meant by 'scholarship'. I do (sometimes) think that even in our 'polished work' it would be a good idea if academics gave far more indication than they currently do of the process by which they reached their conclusions, even with all their missteps and failures and dead ends. But then I wonder if that's really such a good idea.

Update: Amardeep Singh develops his thoughts on academic journalism (see comments) on his blog here.

Jovis Omnia Plena

From Leibniz's Discourse on the Natural Theology of the Chinese:

"21. Father Longobardi relies heavily on the Chinese axiom which says that all things are one. He mentions it expressly (7:41) and returns to it often. Father de Sainte-Marie also speaks of it (p. 72). There is yet another passage recorded by Fatehr de Sainte-Marie (p. 73) which shows that there exists something more than material qualiteis. The Sing Li Philosophy, Book 26, p. 8, says that the directing and procreating virtue is not found int he disposition of things and does not depend on them but is composted of and resides in the Li which has dominion over, governs, and produces all. Parmenides and Melissus spoke in the same way but the sense which Aristotle gives them appears different from the sense given to Parmenides by Plato. Spinoza reduces all to a single substance, of which all things are only modifications. It is not easy to explain how the Chinese understand it but I believe that nothing prevents according them a rational interpretation. With respect to that which is passive in them, all things are composed of the same prime matter, which differes only by the forms which motion gives it. Also, all things are active and possess Entelechies, Spirits and Souls only by virtue of the participation of the Li, i.e., the same originative Spirit (God), which gives them all their perfections. And matter itslef is only a production of this same primary cause. Thus everythign emanates from it as from a central point. But it does nto follow from this that all things are different only by virtue of accidental qualities: as, for example, the Epicureans and other materialists believed, admitting only matter, figure and movement, which would truly lead to the destruction of immaterial substances, or Entelechies, Souls and Spirits.

"22. The say that all is one should be counterposed with another, that the one is all, of which we have spoken above in recounting the attributes of the Li. It means that God is everything by eminence (eminenter), as the perfections ofeffects are in their cause, and not formally, as if God was the mass of all things. In the same way, all things are one, but not formally as if they comprised one, or as if this great One were their matter. Rather all things are one by emanation (emanenter), because they are the immediate effects of Him; that is, He attends to them intimately and fully, and expresses Himself in teh perfections which He communicates to them according to their degree of receptivity. And it is thus that one says Jovis omnia plena; that He fills all, that He is in all things adn that also all things are in Him. He is at the same time the center and the space because He is a circle of which the center is everywhere, as we have said above. Theis sense of the axiom "that all is one" is all the more certain for the Chinese, since they attribute to the Li a perfect unity incapable of division--according to the report of Father Longobardi noted above--and what makes the Li incapable of division is that it can have no parts."

[Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Writings on China, Cook & Rosemont, Jr., eds. Open Court (Chicago, 1994), 94-96).]

This passage provides an interesting example 1) of Leibniz's eclecticism; and 2) of one of the great minds of early modern Europe trying to discern the meaning of Chinese philosophy through the trickling information, often misleading, being received from the East.

By the way, I nominate Leibniz as the philosophical patron of blogging.

QED, I Guess, or Something

From an article by Paul Davies on free will (see here at Ektopos):

All this may seem like common sense, but philosophers and writers have questioned it for centuries—and the attack is gathering speed. “All theory is against the freedom of the will,” wrote British critic Samuel Johnson. In the 1940s, Oxford University philosophy Professor Gilbert Ryle coined the derisory expression “the ghost in the machine” for the widespread assumption that brains are occupied by immaterial selves that somehow control the activities of our neurons. The contemporary American philosopher Daniel Dennett now refers to the “fragile myth” of “spectral puppeteers” inside our heads.

In other words, people who haven't really taken the trouble to research what the problem of free will originally was have been resorting to more and more straw men in order to dismiss it.

<sarcasm>Well, I'm scared.</sarcasm>

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Hanging Around Graveyards Lately?

Claire's got the low-down on how to use gravestones in historical research here and here. Morbid, but cool. Like a lot of historical work, I suppose!

Unexpected Hits

1. Apparently this site comes up on the second page of Yahoo! searches for "philosophy of lesbianism". I'm afraid I know nothing of the subject; the reason I rank so high is 1) Yahoo! likes weblogs; 2) this is a weblog devoted largely to philosophy; 3) I wrote a post about lesbianism in Coleridge's Christabel (arguing that, while interpreting the poem in terms of lesbianism is valid, it is not the only possible interpretation). Incidentally, that would probably not be the best search to find out about the philosophy of lesbianism. I would recommend "gender criticism, lesbian".

2. I have been astonished, since I moved Houyhnhnm Land, at how popular a search term "houyhnhnm" is. I suppose more people read the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels than I thought. It currently accounts for 42% of H.L.'s referring search strings.

3. I was surprised to get so many hits for Margaret Cavendish (not a huge number, but then, I don't get a huge number of hits from search engines). She says some interesting things, but I would have said that of all the philosophers I've listed at H.L. she would be the least interesting. But she's the most requested. I suppose it's for the same reason it was so easy to find links for her; she's at the intersection of several different studies, and their combined trickles make for a little more than any of the other women get. Plus, H.L. is currently #9 for Yahoo! (again, it's because Yahoo! likes weblogs; on MSN it's near the top of the second page; on Google it doesn't come up until page 16.)

4. I received a search engine hit here at Siris for "superata tellus". This is part of Boethius's famous line in the Consolation of Philosophy: Superata tellus sidera donat (4M7.34). I used it (or a modification of it, I don't remember) as a title for a post; if they were looking for a translation, they didn't find it. It's actually rather difficult to translate; at least, it's difficult to translate and keep the same effect. Literally, it's just along the lines of "The earth overcome gives the stars", which isn't all that impressive. My best suggestion would be: The earth transcended, the stars are given. I don't have any verse translations by scholars on hand to compare, since the library is closed and my own Riverside edition is in a box in Texas, and all the translations online are prose. (Someone also needs to put Chaucer's Boece on-line. I was very annoyed not to find it.)

Two Older Drafts

Two older poem drafts I came across when I was going through some papers.

Love's Madness

The kiss of love is three in part:
the lips that press, the mixing breath,
the union of the souls that love
with bond as grave and strong as death
(for love is death; it frees the soul
by wounding it with ecstasy
so that it, languid, sick, aflame,
rejoices in its fever free).
The lover and beloved, two,
are one in gift of beating heart;
each to each gives person whole,
becomes for each a living part.
Insuperable impulse, blessed wound,
immutable act of ardent will,
that burns away all lesser things
and with bright blaze the spirit fills!
O peace more mighty than still death!
O wound from but a lovely look
that pierces every shield I make;
O blow from single hair drawn down
that snares me and my heart then takes!
O, multiply your sacred glance,
destroy the link 'twixt flesh and soul:
O love that separates like death
the closest binding of the whole!
O peace destructive! Severing bond!
O leap into the darkness bright!
I see your power becoming blind
in infinite radiance from your light.
Propriety protests; I cannot heed;
headlong I rush for good or ill,
bewitched in reason's moving thought,
captive in my most free will!
The heat of love has made me mad
with reasons beyond reason's reach,
and in my madness I understand
those things that reason cannot teach.
This love is pure and stretches out
from soul to soul, descending Dove
upon the waters of my heart,
and then love I that I may love!

The Battle

God came to me, rebuked me for my life of sin
and showed to me a way in which we both could win;
I heard out His offer, and in the summit of my pride
I chose to win alone; God I crucified.

I hanged Him on the tree, and on the tree He died.

But God does not just die; He rose to live again,
and came to me, rebuked me for my life of sin,
and said that if I chose Him new wonders would begin.
Frustrated with His returning, that He remained, tho' He had died,
Instead I chose myself, and Him I crucified.

I hanged Him on the tree, and on the tree He died.

He returns and comes again, each time so vital, bold,
that I can only crucify Him if each time I grow more cold.
Where we all end up is where we did begin;
we either taste of glory or crucify with sin,
and we crucify forever unless we soon give in.

Christian Carnival (September 8)

The newest Christian Carnival is up at "Fringe". I didn't contribute anything this time around, but (of course) there were some great submissions.

* A humorous look at "God's property" at ""

* An excellent post at "From the Anchor Hold" on the importance of our recognizing our own hypocrisies

* A post on God's Image and Personhood at "Parableman"

* Another post on the image of God at "The Dawn Treader"

Because of the evil imps that infest the world of Blogger, Rebecca at "Rebecca Writes" missed the deadline for the Carnival; which is unfortunate, since it's another good one. Here it is:

* God's Righteousness

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Coleridge's most famous phrase, "willing suspension of disbelief for the moment" or "poetic faith" describes the voluntary non-disbelief we exercise in the enjoyment of poetry and drama. (There is reason to put more emphasis on the 'willing' and 'voluntary' than we normally do; in enjoying, say, Sophocles' Ajax, we are not merely not disbelieving, but willingly giving some sort of assent that involves the suspension of disbelief.) More than this, however, I think it indicates a necessary (and sometimes neglected) first step to the proper understanding of great historical philosophical texts. There is always the temptation, of course, to get immediately down to criticism; and some arguments, given our background, will inevitably come across as so bizarre that the temptation to begin with the scoffing is almost irresistible. But there is a fundamental value in starting with a poetic faith in the text. Not a belief, mind you; but the sort of assent to the text that allows suspension of disbelief, the same sort we find in literary reading. There's a value in starting by simply getting into the world presented by the text and looking around a bit, just to get a feel for the flow and structure of thought.

Apropos of Nothing

What is the content of the idea of nothing? Or, to put it in more indirect terms: how can we think of (say things about, post about) nothing at all?

One view (that of Malebranche) is that what we call 'nothing' is actually the general idea of being. Paradoxical, of course, but the idea is this: when we talk about 'nothing' what we are actually talking about is just the fuzzy notion of being in general in contrast to a clearer perception of something in particular. 'Nothing' on this view is, in a sense, a relatively vague something.

Another view is that nothing is not an object of thought; rather, it is a word that indicates, indirectly, a mental action, one of removal or negation: I have an idea of something and I remove it, and this general sort of thing (the combination of having an idea and eliminating it) involves something being missing. 'Nothing' on this view simply indicates the elimination or removal of something (from something).

Both of these views require one to hold that it is inconceivable for there to be nothing whatsoever. In other words, on both these views "Something exists" is necessary (in the sense that we cannot possibly make genuine sense of its being false). I wonder if there is any account of 'nothing' such that 1) we are able to think of it; and 2) it allows for "Something exists" to be conceivably false? It would have to be an account that a) makes 'nothing' a non-relative term; and b) makes it thinkable. This is a tall order; and I suspect it is impossible, although I have no clear argument for that impossibility.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Good Taste after a Crisis

Now that the Beslan crisis has reached its heart-rending end, people are trying (as human beings always do) to assess the matter and see where everything stands. It occurs to me (as it occurred to me after 9/11) that some people do not understand how to put an event in context without excusing it, whether they intend to do so or not; and this is a rather serious failure of taste. We do need to put events in context to understand them properly; what we must never do is go about excusing inexcusable actions. In the Beslan case, for instance, it is important to know at least something about Russian abuses in the Chechen conflict; but taking schoolchildren hostages is not acceptable whatever motivations or history might be behind it, and one thing discussion of cases like this must do is avoid the transitivity of responsibility over occasions: in this case, any hint that because of those abuses it is 'really' the Russians who are responsible for the hostage-taking.

The difference is between occasional causality and exercise of agency. If, for instance, an abusive husband beats his wife for serving dinner late, we all recognize the hollowness of the excuse, "Look what you're making me do!" This is an attempt to pass off responsibility to the wife. In understanding what happened, we need to recognize that the wife's serving the dinner late was the occasion for the abuse; but this is not actually relevant to assessing the responsibility for the act. Responsibility is not transitive over occasions; you cannot blame something that was only the occasion for the blameworthy activity. What is relevant is exercise of agency; the wife did not in any way force the abuser to abuse her. The responsibility is his alone. Likewise, it is merely a false tact (and bad taste, and considerable stupidity) to suggest that she really did make him do it, but his action was wrong anyway. The fact is, she did not make him do it in any relevant sense at all.

It's easy to recognize the need for such a distinction in an obvious case like this, but in large-scale and complicated cases people sometimes fail to do so. To say in any way of the Beslan case, "Look what the Russians made these terrorists (freedom fighters, or whatever) do!" is to violate the distinction: it is to treat as an exercise of agency, even if one treats it only as a very attenuated exercise of agency, what is really an occasional cause. The Russians do appear to have a lot to answer for; their actions have certainly, and unsurprisingly, become occasions for responses; but the kinds of responses made are entirely under the control of those who make them. Keeping the distinction clear is one of the essential marks of good sense and reason in terrible times.

Degrees of Being

There's an interesting discussion at "Prosblogion" on the issue of whether there are degrees of being. Being myself a big fan of the degrees of being thesis, I'd say, yes, there are degrees of being. But my primary interest in this post is simply to clarify a few things that tend to obscure the discussion.

1. Yes, yes, things either are or are not. Despite the fact that this almost always arises whenever degrees of being are discussed, it is irrelevant. The question is not whether there is a middle state between being and not-being, but whether there is a gradation of being among the things that are. Just as being less good doesn't make it any less a fact that you are good, so having less being wouldn't make it any less a fact that you are.

2. While it might sound odd or irregular to talk about "degrees of existence," this seems to be a matter of linguistic accident; it sounds less odd or irregular to talk about "degrees of being" and even less odd or irregular to talk about "degrees of reality", despite the fact that these phrases appear to mean the same thing. In fact, it makes considerable sense even in ordinary discourse to say that 1) some things (e.g., rocks and dream-rocks) exist in different ways; and that 2) there is some sort of real gradation or hierarchy among these things according to these modalities of existence (e.g., rocks are more real than dream-rocks). So talk about the oddness of the language will not, I think, move the discussion anywhere; it's the sort of odd language we actually do occasionally use, although we're more comfortable using it when it's said one way than when it's said another (and naturally, it doesn't usually come up much). One can, of course, make all sorts of abstruse distinctions between "reality" and "existence"; and that's fine (and there are, in fact, reasons to do so as a matter of technical jargon) but if you are willing to do so, you have no business complaining about the oddness of the language. Despite this, it is a bit surprising how often the prejudice against degrees of being comes down simply to discomfort with the language. If there is a problem with the degrees of being thesis, language does not reflect it.

3. As far as I've ever been able to determine, and contrary to popular (i.e., popular philosophical) opinion, there has never been a non-question-begging argument against the thesis that there are degrees of being. (Gesturing vaguely at the existential quantifier, however heated the gesturing, is not an argument.)

(For a brief introduction of this general area of discussion, see this article in the SEP. It's a fairly good article, although the author, Barry Miller, engages in one of my pet peeves almost off the bat, by saying that the use of "is" for "exists" in English is archaic. It is not archaic (nor obsolete), but simply rare. It occasionally even comes up spontaneously in casual, informal discussion (particularly casual, informal discussion about certain philosophical issues). We may not often go around saying things like Alexander Pope's "Whatever Is, is Right," or Carlyle's "So much that was not is beginning to be," or the common tagline for Descartes, "I think therefore I am," but this is a far cry from saying it is an archaic usage. A usage that surfaces spontaneously in ordinary discussion can be considered neither archaic nor obsolete, however rare it may be.)

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Too True....

Linus on Learning What Sells

A Suggestion on the Good Samaritan

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is harder to interpret than it looks at first glance. Essentially, the story is this. Jesus is asked by an expert in the law, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" He replies with the two commandments, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' and 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'. Then the expert in the law asks (Luke says it was "because he wanted to justify himself"), "Who is my neighbor?" The parable of the Good Samaritan is an answer to this question.

A man is going from Jerusalem to Jericho, a dangerous journey, when he is waylaid by robbers who strip him and beat him, leaving him near-dead by the side of the road. A priest comes by and, seeing the man, passes over to the other side (presumably in order not to be contaminated by a carcass). A Levite comes by and does the same. But a Samaritan, when he comes by, takes pity on the man when he sees him, bandaging his wound, taking him to an inn, paying for his stay, and promising to reimburse the innkeeper for any extra expenses that might arise.

Then Jesus asks the question, "Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" The expert in the law replies, "The one who had mercy on him," and Jesus replies, "Go and do likewise."

In interpreting the story, commentators have often made a big deal of Jewish-Samaritan hatred, and I think this is clearly part of the background of the story. But I wonder if we tend to emphasize only one part of this feud? We tend to emphasize that the Samaritans were hated by the Jews; but surely part of the point is that the Jews were hated by the Samaritans. A Samaritan would have been one of the last people on the face of the earth from whom any Jew would expect such a degree of mercy. But it is the Samaritan in the story who is merciful. So perhaps the point of the story is this. Loving one's neighbor means loving even the last person in the world anyone would expect you to love.

Chesterton once said that we are probably commanded both to love our neighbors and to love our enemies because they are usually the same people. And I think perhaps that is the whole point of the parable. Being a good Samaritan means showing mercy even to the people to whom no one would ever expect you to show mercy. Or to put it another way: It means doing good even to 'those people' that 'your people' like least of all. Jesus never says the Samaritan in any way liked Jews; no one in his audience, I suspect, would ever think that the Samaritan might be some sort of tolerant religious pluralist, who really at heart just wanted Samaritans and Jews to live together in peace and harmony. Quite the contrary, perhaps; it is the fact that even a Samaritan could take pity even on a Jew that makes this a powerful story. It's the double 'even' that really gives the moral its full emphasis. Flannery O'Connor could, I think, have made a good story of it by setting it in a racially tense South. And I think that, understood this way, it fundamentally shames and de-fangs hatred in a way some other interpretations could not.

Anyway, it's just a suggestion.

Taste and Circumstance

As regular and semi-regular readers of this weblog might have guessed, one reason I posted about the circumstantial topics is that I think this analysis has something to contribute to a theory of political taste. As I've noted before, political taste is not so much about what conclusions are drawn as it is about how they are derived, justified, and communicated: taste is a sort of mental sagacity in the recognition or appreciation of excellence and fault. As I noted here, the three marks of bad political taste are:

1) prejudice, which biases their perception of the actual thing being evaluated;

2) narrowness of acquaintance with the various sorts of things that might be experienced;

3) inconsistency in the application of the general evaluative rules practical reasoning generates.

Given the importance of circumstances to political oratory (particularly in descriptions of praise or blame), it seems likely that a more conscious (and conscientious) recognition of the role circumstantial reasoning plays in political thought would contribute to reducing all three, and especially, perhaps, the first, by contributing to Beattie's fifth characteristic of taste, Good Judgment. In effect, when we evaluate whether someone is a good or bad political leader, or when we evaluate actions like going to war or signing a treaty, a considerable part of our evaluation is taken up with properly labeling the circumstances of the person or action under consideration. Because of this, development of a circumstantial topics could contribute to good political taste.

Update on Philosophers' Carnival

Just an update on the Philosophers' Carnival. We've moved the date from September 6 to September 13, to give people more time to contribute (it's a distracting time of year). If you have a submission, you can send it to me at:


with, of course '@' for {AT} and '.' Be sure to put "Philosophers' Carnival" in the subject line so I don't accidentally delete it in the daily spam deletion.

For further information see the Carnival webpage at:


Brandon Watson