Saturday, October 09, 2004

Nuanced Arguments

Recently posting something from Butler has started me thinking on issues of nuance and qualification in philosophical argument, and how difficult a time people have trying to follow it. I ran across this problem this summer when teaching Butler, whose arguments are not categorical arguments for categorical conclusions. There is almost always an implicit (and often partially explicit) set of qualifications attached to any conclusion Butler puts forward, at least at some level: "In general, more or less, all things considered, given what we know, for all practical purposes." This last is the key, because practical purposes are the governing feature of Butlerian nuance: the whole point of Butler's reasoning is to get us to a place where, for practical purposes, we can render a categorical assent (where we can simply presume, for practical purposes, that something is true), even if our best speculative reasoning is tenuous, tricky, inconclusive, or incomplete. This is clear from his discussion of presumptive reasoning (still, despite its brevity, the best discussion of presumptive reasoning) in the Introduction to the Analogy. We find it easier to deal with purely speculative arguments that do not involve all the speculative 'ceteris paribus', 'mutatis mutandis', 'more or less', etc., that practical reasoning, and some forms of speculative reasoning of practical importance, implicitly involve on a grand scale; and we particularly find it difficult to see that one can still move on the basis of conclusions so qualified. But it's an aspect of philosophical reasoning that's immensely important, despite its difficulty, and our difficulty in dealing with it properly. In any case, it's interesting to think about what might be done to improve our understanding of such arguments. We need to develop some of Butler's insights into presumptive probability and analogy; we need to pay more attention to the dynamics of cumulative case arguments; and so forth. There's actually been some useful stuff in AI research and cognitive science, in the work on nonmonotonic logics like circumscriptive or negation-as-failure logics, which parallel certain aspects of this sort of reasoning.

Mojo in Ol' Dusty

I went to see a movie today; it was either Taxi or Friday Night Lights, and given that I was born in Odessa, Texas, and Friday Night Lights is a story about Odessa high school football, Friday Night Lights won out.

Friday Night Lights, starring Billy Bob Thornton, focused almost entirely on the football side of things, despite the fact that what I remember most about the book on which it is based are some rather unfavorable comparisons between Permian High and Odessa High in academics. Bissinger, who wrote the book, canceled book signings in Odessa because of threats on his life; people were, shall we say, unamused by the book. The movie, by focusing so much on football itself, drops all the critical side of the book and becomes a sports story. Odessa, with a population of 70,000 or so, drops out of sight as vague 'small town' background - it barely exists; Ratliff Stadium, Odessa's super-sized high school football stadium and home of the Permian Panthers, occupies virtually the whole of the movie's universe. The Astrodome replaces the University of Texas football field for the final battle. And, weirdly, the Permian Panthers play the Carter Cowboys at the State finals rather than in the semi-finals. And (most annoying of all) the movie fails to capitalize the 'West' in West Texas. It's North Texas, West Texas, etc. If you want your cardinal directions not to be capitalized, go to a smaller state.

Nonetheless, it all comes together very well. Focusing on the football actually makes it one of the best sports movies I've seen in a while (Miracle perhaps was better, but FNL does fairly well even in comparison). People who are less interested in the team and more interested in the lives of the characters might not like it as much. In any case, if you do go see it, you should also read this article online in the Houston Chronicle, about the infamous coin toss.

"Of Scepticism with Regard to Reason"

I was browsing Hume and had an insight that advanced my understanding of Treatise 1.4.1, "Of scepticism with regard to reason," considerably. The section, as one might expect, contains an argument about the fallibility of reasoning; in particular: demonstrative reasoning turns out to have exactly the same evidence or certainty as probabilistic reasoning, and probabilistic reasoning turns out, if it were taken (falsely, as Hume thinks) to be grounded on pure reason, to annihilate itself. This is not, I think, generally understood properly, and, reading the section again last night, I lighted upon what should at least be a partial key to the section. The key, like so many keys to philosophical passages, is right out in the open, in the first paragraph:

In all demonstrative sciences, the rules are certain and infallible; but when we apply them, our fallible and uncertain faculties are very apt to depart from them, and fall into error. We must, therefore, in every reasoning form a new judgment, as a check or controul on our first judgment or belief; and must enlarge our view to comprehend a kind of history of all the instances, wherein our understanding has deceiv'd us, compar'd with those, wherein its testimony was just and true. Our reason must be consider'd as a kind of cause, of which truth is the natural effect; but such-a-one as by the irruption of other causes, and by the inconstancy of our mental powers, may frequently be prevented. By this means all knowledge degenerates
into probability; and this probability is greater or less, according to our experience of the veracity or deceitfulness of our understanding, and according to the simplicity or intricacy of the question.

Did you see it? Here's the same paragraph again, with the key elements highlighted:

In all demonstrative sciences, the rules are certain and infallible; but when we apply them, our fallible and uncertain faculties are very apt to depart from them, and fall into error. We must, therefore, in every reasoning form a new judgment, as a check or controul on our first judgment or belief; and must enlarge our view to comprehend a kind of history of all the instances, wherein our understanding has deceiv'd us, compar'd with those, wherein its testimony was just and true. Our reason must be consider'd as a kind of cause, of which truth is the natural effect; but such-a-one as by the irruption of other causes, and by the inconstancy of our mental powers, may frequently be prevented. By this means all knowledge degenerates into probability; and this probability is greater or less, according to our experience of the veracity or deceitfulness of our understanding, and according to the simplicity or intricacy of the question.

In other words, Hume's approach to reason in 1.4.1 is to analyze it according to the causal analysis of 1.3. This causal analysis contains the following elements:

1) There is no connection discoverable a priori between cause and effect.
2) Our idea of causation is that of constant conjunction combined with that of necessary connection.
3) Our idea of necessary connection derives not from anything we find in the objects themselves, but entirely from the determination of the mind to pass from one object to another in inference.
4) By experiencing causal sequences of this sort we begin to develop rules or maxims to assist us in sorting them out.
5) Hume gives eight general rules - the most general maxims of causation - for judging of cause and effect in 1.3.15.

In 1.4.1, Hume is applying this analysis to reasoning. As he says, "Our reason must be consider'd as a kind of cause, of which truth is the natural effect." But we know that reasoning is an imperfect or incomplete cause of true conclusions, since we are often wrong. This is, as Hume rightly says, true even in demonstrative sciences. A sign of this is, as Hume rightly notes, that we check our work. To develop a causal analysis of the relation between reason and truth, then, we need to develop "a history of instances" (I suspect it's not an accident that this phrase sounds like the Baconian account of induction) in which we get the truth and in which we get error. This is, in fact (as Hume also rightly notes), the sort of thing we do in checking our reasoning in the first place. What Hume then notes is that there is no intrinsic stop to checking. I can reason, check my reasoning, check the reasoning involved in checking my reasoning, check the reasoning involved in checking the checking of my reasoning, ad infinitum. If (as Hume thinks the rationalist account of reason requires) the certainty of one's reasoning depends on its being right, the fact that there's no stop to checking shows that there is a compounding uncertainty: we can be wrong in our reasoning; we can be wrong about whether we are correct in our reasoning; we can be wrong about whether we are correct in our judgment of whether we are correct in our reasoning; and so on, infinitely. To take a very simplified case, if there is an 80% chance that there's an 80% chance that there's an 80% chance that there's an 80% chance that there's an 80% chance that there's an 80% chance, etc., etc., that there's an 80% chance we are right, how certain can we really be that we are right (note that the same applies to our certainty about our being wrong; contrary to what is sometimes thought, this only strengthens Hume's argument)? This, Hume argues, means that the rationalist account of reason, the one that tries to justify reasoning in terms of pure reason itself, annihilates reason. In place of this Hume proposes his own account of reason, which is that ultimately reason is grounded on custom and instinct. In his famous words, "Nature, by an absolute and uncontroulable necessity has determin'd us to judge as well as to breathe and feel," and "belief is more properly an act of the sensitive than of the cogitative part of our natures."

His argument is often thought to be wrong; but it is not wrong for the reasons often claimed, nor is the source of its wrongness what is usually identified as the source, nor (for that matter) is it as wrong as it is often thought to be. If we try to characterize reasoning's being a source of truth, Hume is absolutely right that there is no easy analysis; he is entirely right that if we are forced into this infinite regress (for that is what it is) we've mired ourselves in skepticism; he is completely right that there are accounts of justification, warrant, checking, certainty, reasoning, or whatever you want to call them, that force us into this infinite regress; he is entirely right that reasoning must be based on something more peremptory than reasoning itself. His project of trying to find a causal analysis of reasoning's relation to true conclusions is an entirely reasonable and useful one. In my view, his critique is quite right. The flaw is his attempt to make this into an argument for his own (already flawed) account of belief, and thus is found chiefly in his own causal analysis of reasoning. Hume's critique could just as easily be marshalled in favor of an Aristotelian or a Platonic view of reason as it could for his own; presumably he would think these ruled out by his general principle (that ideas are derived from impressions of which they are copies), but this is not, I think, right, even if we held the general principle to be correct (which we needn't).

This understanding of 1.4.1 as a causal analysis of reasoning has ramifications for other aspects of Hume, e.g., for what he is doing in the rest of Part IV (particular in 1.4.2 and 1.4.7), as well as for (possibly) his account of reason's relation to the will and others.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Fourfold Sense

There are a lot of confusions about the medieval doctrine of the four senses of Scripture, particularly as it is found in Aquinas. I will simply point out some aspects of the doctrine that are often misunderstood.

* The distinction between figurative and literal senses on the one hand, and the distinction between spiritual and literal senses on the other, are entirely different. 'Literal sense' does not mean the same thing in these contrasts. This shouldn't have been too difficult to figure out, since in medieval terms the former distinction would usually be called 'improper' and 'proper' rather than 'figurative' and 'literal'; but I have met an astounding number of people who never do figure it out.

* The distinction between spiritual and literal senses is an entirely different distinction from that between univocal and equivocal senses. Again, this shouldn't be too difficult to figure out (the two are never discussed in the same context, the latter has to do with predication while the former does not, the latter requires comparison of at least two instances while the former does not, Aquinas explicitly denies that the two distinctions are the same, etc.) but one can't be too sure about these things: I have met people, bright people, who have made this mistake, besides the fact that there is absolutely no good reason why the two distinctions would be conflated (one can understand in the above case, but this one makes less sense).

* In Thomistic terms, the spiritual senses of Scripture are, in a sense, not textual senses at all. All purely textual meaning, whether figurative or nonfigurative, falls within the literal sense of Scripture. The spiritual senses of Scripture are the meaning of that to which the text refers: in the case of historical description, the spiritual sense is the symbolic character, established through divine providence, of the actual historical events.

* A single text can have many different but equally valid literal senses. Part of this in Aquinas is due to Augustine, from whom he learned not to reject interpretations of the text put forward by holy people that cannot be shown to be false or absurd. There is another element operating, however, namely, the Second Council of Constantinople, which (albeit vaguely) insists that some Psalms are about Christ. Thus, a messianic Psalm can have a literal meaning related to the particular situation in which it was written and a literal Messianic meaning that directly describes, prophetically, the person of Christ.

* The four senses are not modes of reading. This is where the most reasonable errors are made; because the same words (e.g., 'spiritual', 'allegorical', 'literal', etc.) are often also used for ways of reading the text (this, I think, is what most people are thinking about when talking about 'allegorical interpretations'). The four senses, however, are ways in which God reveals truth: He does so through word (literal) and through fact (spiritual).

Keeping these in mind, go and read ST 1.1.10, which is the basic summary of the doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture.

This approach to understanding Scripture essentially follows the lead of Scripture itself. Consider, for instance, the discussion of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4. Here we have a textual meaning (the story of Hagar and Sarah), but Paul treats the events narrated as having a spiritual meaning as well (the two covenants). Similar things might be said of the use of Scripture in Hebrews. The fourfold sense is the recognition that not only does the text of Scripture have a literal meaning, but also that the things described by that text have a spiritual meaning, through God's divine authorship. The whole point of the doctrine of the fourfold sense is that we must learn how to read Scripture from Scripture itself.

Wisdom from Butler

Upon the whole, then, besides the good and bad effects of virtue and vice upon men's own minds, the course of the world does in some measure turn upon the approbation and disapprobation of them as such, in others. The sense of well and ill doing, the presages of conscience, the love of good characters and dislike of bad ones, honour, shame, resentment, gratitude; all these considered in themselves, and in their effects, do afford manifest real instances of virtue as such naturally favoured, and of vice as such discountenanced, more or less, in the daily course of human life, in every age, in every relation, in every general circumstance of it.

(Joseph Butler's Analogy, Part I, Chapter III: Of the Moral Government of God. This passage is part of a much larger and more complicated argument that we have good reason to believe that virtue is rewarded and vice punished, for the most part and all things considered.)

Thursday, October 07, 2004

In Case You Had Any Doubts....

This site is certified 70% GOOD by the Gematriculator

So, you see, this weblog is only 30% evil, not the bigger numbers you were thinking....

Worth Reading: Summary of Newman on Development

Ad Limina Apostolorum has begun a series of posts summarizing Newman's highly influential theological work, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. So far the summary has reached:

Part I: Doctrinal Developments Viewed in Themselves


Part 1: The Development of Ideas

Part 2: The Antecedent Argument in Behalf of Developments in Christian Doctrine

Part 3: On the Historical Argument in Behalf of the Existing Developments

Part 4: Instances Cursorily Noted

Part II: Doctrinal Developments Viewed Relatively to Doctrinal Corruptions

Part 5: Genuine Developments Contrasted with Corruptions

Part 6: Application of the First Note of a True Development: Preservation of Type

Part 7: Application of the Second Note of a True Development: Continuity of Its Principles

Part 8: Application of the Third Note of a True Development: Assimilative Power

Part 9: Application of the Fourth Note of a True Development: Logical Sequence

Part 10: Application of the Fifth Note of a True Development: Anticipation of its Future

Part 11: Application of the Sixth Note of a True Development: Conservative Action on Its Past

Part 12: Application of the Seventh Note of a True Development: Chronic Vigour

I'll put up the others as they are put up. (All of them are now finished.)


Agh! The light rock station I wake up to played ABBA's "Fernando" this morning, and now I can't get the stupid song out of my head!

Non-Naturalism, Or: We may be cheap, but at least we're not extravagant

Today the Ethics Group had a guest speaker, Rob Shaver from the University of Manitoba, discussing the non-naturalist position in early twentieth century analytic ethics, so I dropped in to listen. It was a very good paper; although it took a historical approach to the subject, so I might be biased. Essentially the argument was that two common objections against non-naturalism, the extravagance objection and the cheapness objection, aren't really much for a non-naturalist to worry about.

Non-naturalism, which in the twentieth century is associated with the names Moore, Broad, and Ewing, is the position that ethical or moral discourse cannot be reduced to purely descriptive discourse; and a great deal of Shaver's argument was concerned with emphasizing that this doesn't require non-naturalists to believe that there are any 'moral properties' in objects themselves - all it requires them to say is that there are two ways of describing objects, a non-naturalist way (involving moral imperatives, values, what have you) and a naturalist way, and the former can't be reduced to the latter. This eliminates the extravagance objection, which holds that non-naturalists are committed to a weird moral ontology (moral objects, moral properties) in addition to the ordinary ontology (the sort of objects described by science and common sense), because non-naturalists actually aren't committed to such a thing. Some of them (Moore) perhaps flirted with it, but in Moore's case the appearance of it may just be that he didn't properly distinguish concepts and properties, and other non-naturalists pretty much deny it. Likewise, the cheapness objection, which holds that non-naturalism doesn't really contribute much, doesn't really hinge on anything particularly non-naturalistic (indeed, the same objection can be, and has been, leveled against most meta-ethical positions, including the naturalistic ones).

As I said, a good paper.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

On Frankfurt Examples and Illusions - I Mean, Intuitions

Suppose you have a man (he's usually called 'Jones') who is deliberating whether to vote Democrat or Republican. He chooses to vote Democrat. Meanwhile, however, a neurosurgeon (usually called 'Black') has implanted a device in Jones's brain that has this effect: if Jones is going to choose to vote Democrat, it leaves him alone; but if he is going to choose to vote Republican, the device kicks in and makes him choose to vote Democrat.

Now, what can be said of this? It is commonly held that examples like these show that moral responsibility, and at least some sort of freedom, does not require that we could have done otherwise. Jones, after all, can't do otherwise than vote Democrat, but he is responsible for choosing to vote Democrat anyway, and freely did so. Such is the intuition, anyway. However, we need to ask ourselves two questions:

1) What is the origin of this intuition (in the example)?
2) What is the status of this intuition?

My view is that examples like the above, which are often called Frankfurt examples, are, in fact, a sort of philosophical sleight of hand. Essentially they are trying to find a middle ground between a scenario in which Jones has moral responsibility and could have done otherwise, and one in which Jones has neither. I would suggest that it does not, in fact give us such a middle ground; rather, it gives the illusion of such a middle by superimposing the two extremes. In particular, I suggest that the origin of the appearance of moral responsibility and freedom is the original characterization of the choice as being drawn from two genuine possibilities (to vote Democrat or to vote Republican), strengthened by the fact that 'choice' as normally used in English involves choice from among possibilities; and this is combined with a situation in which there are no genuine alternative possibilities (Black's intervention) in order to give the appearance that we have here a situation in which there is moral responsibility and freedom but no alternative possibilities. If this is so, it is an illusion.

This is not entirely different from other criticisms that have been made, and it has sometimes been claimed that we can build an example where there are no robust alternatives and yet there is moral responsibility; I tend to interpret PAP in a rather weak way in the first place, so if there are any alternative possibilities, that is enough to satisfy me. I take, for instance, the view that consent to action can involve a sort of derivative freedom and moral responsibility through some sorts of close derivation from prior choices involving alternative possibilities; in such a case the consent can itself be without alternative possibilities, but there are alternative possibilities deriving from the prior choice in virtue of which we are morally responsible for certain sorts of things that follow, including things set in motion that we can divert into alternative possibilities. (Incidentally, this is a weakness in all Frankfurt examples I have seen; they assume a choice that is artificially simplified. But in reality, such narrowings only occur through other choices that are not so simplistic. In real life, Jones, after all, doesn't have to vote; he doesn't have to choose to vote; he can choose instead to deliberate more about how to vote; he can choose to deliberate more about whether to vote; he can choose to think about other things for a moment; and so forth. Frankfurt-style situations are usually set up as very artificial scenarios. I'm not sure this is endemic to the style; but it seems very common. The reason this is potentially an issue is that if I were convinced that Frankfurt examples did not commit the sleight-of-hand above, I would still need more to accept the conclusions: I would need to have an example in which there were no derivative moral responsibility and freedom involved to mess with the intuitions. In other words, contrary to common philosophical opinion, Frankfurt examples do not, on their own, show that alternative possibilities are not a necessary condition for moral responsibility and freedom, even on the most optimistic assessment. They are just too simple to do so.)

So I am not convinced Frankfurt examples are coherent even in a very basic sense. I have other concerns with them, but this is my primary one at the moment.

(The paper by Frankfurt that started the discussion of Frankfurt examples can be found here.)

Christian Carnival XXXVIII

Part One of the newest Christian Carnival is up at Belief Seeking Understanding. I didn't submit anything this time around. Some notables:

* The Good Heretic at "Effortless Grace" : a retelling of the Good Samaritan.

* I'm smarter than you at "hungry4God" : on apologetics

* The Word Was God at "La Shawn Barber's Corner"

I'll note posts I found striking from Part II here in an update when Part II gets put up.

UPDATE: Now for Part Two:

* One Nation, Indivisible at "AnotherThink"

* On Belief in Miracles at "viewpoint"

* Are Christians Called to a Higher Life? at "21st Century Reformation"

* Scandala at "Ales Rarus"

* The Good News at "CoffeeSwirls"

And, of course, others that are also good!

Examples and Counterexamples

One of the most famous counterexamples in the history of philosophy is Hume's proposed counterexample to his own general principle: the missing shade of blue. The general principle at stake is the thesis, essential to Hume's project, that ideas are derived from impressions of which they are copies. Hume suggests a 'contradictory phenomenon':

Suppose therefore a person to have enjoyed his sight for thirty years, and to have become perfectly well acquainted with colours of all kinds, excepting one particular shade of blue, for instance, which it never has been his fortune to meet with. Let all the different shades of that colour, except that single one, be plac'd before him, descending gradually from the deepest to the lightest; 'tis plain, that he will perceive a blank, where that shade is wanting, said will be sensible, that there is a greater distance in that place betwixt the contiguous colours, than in any other. Now I ask, whether 'tis possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, tho' it had never been conveyed to him by his senses? (T

Hume's conclusion: "I believe there are few but will be of opinion that he can; and this may serve as a proof, that the simple ideas are not always derived from the correspondent impressions; tho' the instance is so particular and singular, that 'tis scarce worth our observing, and does not merit that for it alone we should alter our general maxim."

This has surprised Hume commentators considerably, and they have gone to great lengths to try to figure out how in the world Hume thinks his general principle can stand given that he himself admits a counterexample to it. My own view, however, is that Hume has a better understanding of the way counterexamples work than many of his commentators, and he is, in particular, quite right to regard the missing shade of blue in the light he does.

To see this, it will be helpful to recognize the actual function of examples and counterexamples in philosophy. It was long ago recognized in medieval philosophy that examples of all sorts serve as arguments. In particular, the idea was that we can run a sort of analogy with enthymemes:

example : induction :: enthymeme : deduction

This analogy is, I think, exactly right; examples are a sort of inductive enthymeme, as the medievals understood 'induction'. Another analogy will be helpful:

induction : division :: deduction : definition

The basic core of the medieval theory of induction is that inductions are based on divisions of the possible field of solutions. If we have three different possible kinds, and we are able to establish that some conclusion C follows from the properties of each of these kinds, we have established C for the universe of discourse. If the three kinds are all possible kinds (relevant to the discussion), it follows that we have established C. In principle the division can be as sweeping or focused as it needs to be for the discussion. There are, however, limits to this; one of the problems with induction by simple enumeration is that it tries to divide down to individuals, which works if you already have a fixed, well-defined population, but not so well if (for instance) you are trying to establish something as true for all possible individuals of a kind simply by going through the individuals.

Now, in an example, used as argument (as examples often are in philosophy) what we find is a particular part of the possible field of discourse on which an analysis is performed; and this is accompanied by an implicit or explicit 'and so on'. That is, we are given one part of the analysis, on the assumption that we can take what we learn from analyzing this particular case and use it for any other case that might come our way.

Seen in this light, we can begin to see some of the limits of examples as arguments:

First, it is not always clear to what division they should be related. Or, to put it in other terms: how far over the possible field do our conclusions from this example actually reach?

Second, we need to be able to do the analysis. That is, we need to understand what is going on in the example sufficiently to be able to trace out the conclusion that's being put forward.

Third, we need to be able to allow the 'and so on'. That is, we need to be able to apply what we learn in this case to other cases.

Fourth, we often need to be able to link the example with other cases relevant to the discussion at hand, not just with any other cases.

The four are actually closely bound together. In practical terms, they mean that we should be very cautious about strange, bizarre, complicated, or highly artificial examples put forward as arguments. In Hume's terms, some proposed examples or counterexamples are "so particular and singular" that they don't really contribute anything to the discussion. This is certainly true of the missing shade of blue:

- Hume is analyzing how the mind naturally works, the example is highly artificial.

- Hume wants a principle that will cover all ordinary cases, whereas it isn't at all clear that we could ever be sure the counterexample had actually occurred in real life.

- Hume is looking for a general principle that will move our understanding of the mind forward, the example presupposes that general principle for most cases beside itself.

- Nothing in the counterexample gives us any indication that we would be able to find more counterexamples beyond a handful of almost precisely similar scenarios, with precisely similar limitations.

- Hume is looking for a good empirical generalization; the counterexample is only worrisome if you want to prove that it is "absolutely impossible" for Hume's thesis to be false.

The missing shade of blue doesn't hurt Hume's case in the slightest. And, indeed, if this is the best sort of counterexample that could be provided for the generalization, it would be a sign that the generalization was a very, very good one. If no better counterexample can be proposed, the counterexample itself can serve as an argument for the thesis!

These sorts of issues are worth keeping in mind when we consider some of the examples and counterexamples that are proposed in analytic philosophy. I once attended a lecture on philosophy of causation in which one of the counterexamples began with something like the words, "Suppose there is a law of magic that when such-and-such is done something else happens at midnight." Red flags should go up immediately:
1) what do we actually know about a world in which this would be the case?
2) do we even know the scenario is actually possible rather than only apparently so?
3) how does this really help move forward the discussion of actual causation?
4) do we have the means to generalize from this case to other cases with any certainty?
And so forth. I'm not saying that complicated or strange examples and counterexamples are never helpful; but if they are helpful, we should be able to handle questions like this, which are concerned with their relevance, the force of conclusions drawn from them, the scope of those conclusions, and other such things that are key to an example's being a good argument.

(UPDATE: It should be said that the second analogy above is not as close as the the first. For one thing, it's complicated by the relations between division and definition. But the analogy does capture something, I think.)

Two Marian Drafts

The first, a rather simple affair, is (of course) based on Luke 1:46-56.

Mary's Magnificat

The Lord my spirit magnifies,
My soul takes joy in Savior God,
Who has not this maid despised;
From now on all call me blessed
For the greatness He has done,
And Holy is His name confessed:
He pities those who seek His name,
He shows the power of His arm
By slaying proud folk in their game,
And casting down the highest thrones
To raise on high the lowly heart.
He fills the starving with His bread
And sends the rich to beg their part.
He helped, in sacred memory,
The children of His servant free,
As He promised, failing never,
To Abraham and us forever.

The second, somewhat farther along, is due to my interest in medieval hymns. This one, Stabat Mater Dolorosa, is roughed out from the Latin.

Stabat Mater Dolorosa

The mother, sorrowing, was standing here,
Beside the cross with falling tears
Where the Son was hanging,
Whose soul with sighing and lamenting,
Made afflicted, sorrow venting,
By the sword was piercéd through.

O how sad, with heart cast down,
Must have been that blessing-crowned
Mother of the Sole-begotten
Who was sorrowed with great grieving,
And was fearing, always seeing,
The pangs of the one she bore.

Who is the man who will not weep
If Christ's mother he does see
In such torture and such pain?
Whose heart is not eviscerated
When pious mother is contemplated
Sorrowing for her Son?

For the sins of Gentiles, Jews,
In torments Jesus she must view,
Submissive to the lash.
She sees her sweetest Only-born,
Desolate, and dying, torn,
As he gives His spirit forth.

Pious mother, Love's great source,
Make me feel the sorrow's force
As with you I cry and mourn,
As my heart is set alight
In the love of Godly Christ
And is made to please Him well.

Holy mother, if you will,
Fix me to the cross that still
My heart may feel the painful blows
That strike your bowed and wounded Son,
Who died for me that I be one
With Him in all His pains.

Make me cry and weep with you,
The Crucified to sorrow with you,
For as long as I shall live,
Near the cross to stand with you,
For I desire to share with you
The society of your tears.

Splendid maiden of all maidens,
With bitter thought be never laden,
But make me to bewail with you,
Make me bear the death of God,
Make me sharer of His rod,
And mindful of their blows.

Make me wounded with his blows,
With His cross to overflow,
and with the blood of Mary's Son;
Kindled, burning, set aflame,
May you defend me with your name
When comes the doom of judgment-day.

Make me safe beneath His cross,
Fortified against all loss,
By death and grace held tight;
When my flesh is no longer living,
Grant me grace of my soul's giving
To glory bright of Paradise.

The standard and excellent Caswall translation, found here, is much less rough, in part because it gives the full rhyme scheme of the original, unlike mine. However, by relaxing the original rhyme scheme, I was able to be stay somewhat closer to the Latin, including capturing some of the repetition. It's the standard trade-off in poetry, I suppose. I think my version is rather less soft and sentimental than Caswall's, although, I confess, I have nothing like:

Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
Lest in flames I burn and die,
In His awful judgment day.

Which is not soft and sentimental at all, and, indeed, much more stern than the original, which keeps the focus on the Mother weeping at the foot of the Cross. (Some of the differences between Caswall's translation and mine are due to variants in the Latin. For these variants, and how Caswall's translation has occasionally been modified to accommodate them, see here.)

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Ectype and Archetype

Interesting reading:

Epistle to the Americans by Adam Kotsko at "The Weblog."

To be compared with Romans 1:18-3:20.

The Sorrow of the Shepherd Boy

Here is my first rough attempt to work a translation of a lyric by Matteo Ricci into poetry in English (a time-honored activity, and excellent poetic practice):

A shepherd boy in sorrow stood,
Halting on a high, green hill,
And, seeing in a vision far
A fair and distant hill of flowers,
He thought to go there, to wipe away
The weeping of his saddened soul.
As he traveled he drew more near,
But to his gaze it seemed less good.
O shepherd boy, what journey's toil
Can transform what is in your thought?
Can travel leave yourself behind,
And bring to bear what only sprouts
Within the heart, sweet joy and sorrow?
Peace of heart is in every place,
Turmoil turns all work to toil;
And if a mote, minute, brings pain,
Such deep discomfort and dis-ease,
Can anyone avoid the driving awl
That makes his heart to ache?
In yearning for things outside yourself,
The sought slips by the seeker,
But an ordered heart holds well within
The peace of every hillside.
Sundry sages, old and new, have said
It is vain, so restless to roam;
Hold your heart within and rest;
This, alone, gives glorious gain.

As I said, rough. Here, for those of you who are interested, is Spence's translation (Memory Palace, pp. 198-199):

A shepherd boy fell sad one day,
Hating the hillside on which he stood;
He thought a distant hill he saw
More beautiful by far,
And that going there would wipe away his sorrows.

So he set off to that distant hill,
But as he drew near to it
It looked less good than it had from afar.

O shepherd boy, shepherd boy,
How can you expect to transform yourself
By changing your dwelling place?

If you move away can you leave yourself behind?
Sorrow and joy sprout in the heart.
If the heart is peaceful, you'll be happy everywhere,
If the heart is in turmoil, every place brings sorrow.
A grain of dust in your eye
Brings discomfort speedily;
How can you then ignore this sharp awl
That pierces your heart?

If you yearn for things outside yourself
You will never obtain what you are seeking.
Why not put your own heart in order
And find peace on your own hillside?

Old and new writers alike give this advice:
There's no advantage to roaming outside,
Keep the heart inside, for
That brings the profit.

This was the second song of his eight-song cycle, which was played by the Emperor's eunuchs for the Emperor himself. My reworking needs to allow a little more poetic license than I have so far, in order to do better at the meter and alliteration than it currently does. One tricky thing is that the original song has several plays on words, so a good reworking, I think, should try to do the same, even if the figures were different. Spence notes (pp. 199-200) that the last two lines could also be translated:

Living inside the court, there's Li

'Li' means profit; it is also Ricci's name in Chinese: Li Madou. Ricci, of course, was not allowed to come before the Emperor himself in the inner court where his songs would be sung. Spence suggests, though, that knowing this line was sung in the inner court may have given Ricci a certain satisfaction.

I already recommended Spence's book, whose full title is The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci; but it won't hurt to plug it again, because I really enjoyed it. In a sense it's only an introduction to the field it discusses, but it's profoundly informative, and, what is more, informative in a delightful and imaginative way. This relates to a post at Cliopatria now, by Oscar Chamberlain, asking about historians with a poet's touch. Jonathan Dresner mentions Spence as an example in the comments, and just judging from this one book, I'd wholeheartedly agree. Spence has several other works on late Imperial China, and they certainly going on my reading list.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Soft Facts and Presidential Debates

No, by 'soft fact' I do not mean the sort of excuse for a fact that often passes in politics. I mean instead a technical term in philosophy of time: a 'soft fact' is a fact some of whose truth conditions occur only after the fact itself. If we think of evaluations of good and bad as being factual evaluations, we can see some rough examples of the sort of thing that's meant. For instance, if something happens that radically changes your life, it can often be uncertain until other things happen whether it was a bad happening or a good happening. Indeed, it might sometimes be the case that what seems bad at the time turns out to be one of the best things that has ever happened to you, or vice versa, because of what comes after.

I think it's important to recognize that in a certain sense, who wins or loses a presidential debate is a soft fact; we cannot, strictly speaking, determine the matter until well after the debate because the fact of the matter is, as it were, still pending. When we think of who 'won' the debate these days, we usually have in mind who appeared better to those who watched the full debate. However, the television appearance at the time is not everything that needs to be kept in mind when judging whether the debate was won or lost, because it is not the only medium in which the debate reaches people. There is, of course, the radio version at the time, and that can give different impressions; there is also the transcript on the internet, and reading can potentially give yet another impression of the debate; and there are radio and television clips, and newspaper summaries, afterward. All of these, even the things that are reaching people well after the debate itself is actually over, are as it were the debate itself, still propagating through society. In addition, memories of the debate fade and change as other things happen (e.g., something that might not seem annoying in one debate might become annoying if it occurs in all the debates, thus adversely affecting judgment of the first debate). There are a lot of factors that need to be kept in mind. Who wins or loses the presidential debate actually depends on the sum effect of all this. Things can get surprising. It is how the debate affects the whole race that determines who won and who lost; victory and defeat in a presidential debate is a soft fact. This is not primarily 'spin' (although certainly there's always that) but is due to the simple fact that presidential debates have effects that are much more extensive than just the first impressions of television viewers (or radio listeners).

I suspect there are lots of soft facts in politics, even of the technical philosophical kind....

Philosophers' Carnival III

The third Philosophers' Carnival is up at Philosophical Poetry. My contribution is here. Some other interesting ones:

* Observing Morality at "Philosophy, et cetera." I find Richard's argument interesting; but I wonder if it might be too strong and swift - in particular, it seems to me his argument against observation of moral facts could easily be turned against observation of other facts, as well, in the service of cognitive skepticism. He says:

Moral properties would be just another bit of data (alongside photons and soundwaves) for us to work with and interpret for evolutionary ends. Again, there's no reason at all to think that we would learn to distinguish which properties were intended to mean 'good' and which 'bad'. If intrinsically 'bad' things increased our evolutionary fitness, then we would come to (mistakenly) interpret them as 'good'.

So unless one wants to conflate 'good for my genes' with 'morally good' (not a good idea!), we must deny that objective moral properties exist independently, 'out there' in the world, waiting to be perceived by humans.

But suppose someone were to substitute 'perceived properties' for 'moral properties' and modify everything else accordingly? The conclusion would be that, while there are real facts of the matter, and while our cognitive functions are such as to promote evolutionary success, we have no reason to think our cognitive abilities map the world.

* Reduplication and Two Minds at "Prosblogion," which has occasioned a number of my own posts.

(I'm having a bit of trouble with Blogger, so bear with me today!)

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Reflecting on Siris

I've been blogging four months so far (June, July, August, September), and enjoying it immensely. One of my worries was that it would provide too much distraction from work that needs to be done. It has occasionally done that, particularly when a post ended up being more complicated than I expected, but in general it has had the opposite effect. If you haven't figured it out yet, I have an unruly mind, one that jumps all over the place. Having this weblog has made it possible for me to siphon off some of that unruliness onto it, leaving me more focused for other things. An overview of some of what's happened:

* Topic I Didn't Expect to Talk about as Much as I Have: Political Taste. I expected to say a few things about aesthetic taste; but the parallel with politics just took over on its own, and in the very political blogosphere it grew and grew. You can expect to see it again.

* Post Whose Popularity Most Surprised Me: Marginalia (June 26). This was the first of my posts to bring in a great many hits (at least, for this weblog, especially in June). I think a German library-focused weblog linked to it, because I was getting hits from all over Europe.

* Post that Stirred Up the Most Surprising Controversy: Monogamy and Nonmonogamy (September 30). I don't quite recall what occasioned it (even though it was only a few days ago), but I was caught a bit off guard when people actually started arguing with it; it was something just thrown out there. But I've learned quite a bit from it; and learning from an unexpected quarter is a good thing.

* Post that Most Consistently Gets Hits from Search Engines: On Lesbianism in Coleridge's Christabel

* Some of the Posts You Might Find Worth Re-reading:

On Natural Law
More Misconceptions about Natural Law (July 1) - a bit harsh, but still right
Perhaps I Promise to do Evil Things (July 2)

On Nussbaum's Views on Disgust
Ashamed of Shame, Disgusted with Disgust (July 22)
More on Nussbaum on Disgust (August 10)

On Lakoff's Views on Framing
They're Politicians. It's What They Do.
Framing, the Silver Rule, and Political Taste (September 22)
On the Framing of Framing (September 23)
The Dangers of Poorly Chosen Metaphor (September 25)
Not Quite Right, I Think (September 26)

On Brain in the Vat Arguments
Brains in Vats (June 19)
On People Who Are Not So Sure They Are Not Brains in Vats (June 26)
Oh, yeah, the other external world; I forgot about that one (August 2)

* My Portrait. After a fashion, at least.

Monogamy Again

Majikthise has a post in response to my post on the word 'monogamy'. There seems, however, to have been some confusion; I don't hold that legal recognition is essential to marriage, for instance, and I wasn't really thinking about length of commitment (e.g., whether it is lifelong or not) but rather the type of commitment see themselves as being in. My thought was that it really doesn't make much sense to consider single-spouse open marriage nonmonogamous, or people who are explicitly not interested in marriage monogamous.

(Looking at the post again, I see that Lindsay has clarified the issue in a comment; she's right in her reinterpretation, and puts forward a few arguments as to why she thinks we should still stick with the common usage.)

It occurs to me, looking at some of the comments, that people might often be treating 'monogamy' as an evaluative term, or at least a term with evaluative tones. This would explain both the tendency to extend it all over the place and the tendency, occasionally found, to denigrate 'monogamy' as not so spectacular (or not so possible) any way. I tend to be irritated when people apply 'monogamy' to dating relationships, for instance, because it seems to me to be a bit insulting; but it seems that most people see it the other way: it is an insult not to call exclusive dating 'monogamy'. So there's perhaps more going on than meets the eye. I still think it doesn't make any sense to use 'monogamy' in such a way that single-spouse open marriage wouldn't be monogamous.

When I was thinking about this Friday, I actually started writing down the sorts of relationships there are (proof, is suppose, that I'm an academic, or a geek, or both). Here's my list:

Classical Marriage
(both instituted or common-law)

exclusive monogamy

open monogamy

celibate monogamy
(Yes, it does exist, and has existed!)

(Both nontiered and tiered: by tiered I mean cases where it is possible to have two different types of spouse, e.g., primary and secondary, or wife and concubine, or what have you. Polygamous marriages can, in principle, be exclusive, open, or celibate, as well.)

Classical Quasi-Marriage


pre-marital cohabitation


exclusive dating (going steady)

nonexclusive dating

Alternatives to Marriage
(i.e., marriage-like in some way, but explicitly as an alternative)

exclusive cohabitation

open cohabitation

ritual nonmarital mating

ritual nonmarital nonmating 'marriages'
(Although perhaps these shouldn't count, since all the ones I can think of, like self-marriage, are purely symbolic. But they are marriage-like alternatives to marriage.)


(This admits of both informal and formal possibilities. It's usually informal, but there's a movement to try to eliminate marriage from law and replace it with polyamorous obligations, which would be formal polyamory.)

Have I missed any? (I didn't, of course, count any non-relationships.)