Friday, November 11, 2005


Most of the books in the series are a bit absurd, or pretentious, or both, but I highly recomend Wendy Wasserstein's Sloth in Oxford University Press's Seven Deadly Sins series. Not only is it hilariously funny, it has a very real insight into sloth, and manages to poke fun in a clever way at our most peculiar form of sloth: self-help fads, which we use as a way to eliminate the need for that exceptionally good thing, hard thinking. It's a light, quick, enjoyable read with some serious thought behind it. Who could ask for anything more?

Wasserstein, for those who don't know (I didn't), is a major comic playwright.

Petitio Principii

In many ways it would be very desirable if the only concerns relevant to evaluating arguments were purely formal -- it would simplify things considerably. However, there are many problems that suggest that, even when we are considering rigorously constructed arguments, we cannot focus on the formal alone. One of these, and the best known, is equivocation, which is non-formal but has a massive influence on the validity of arguments -- an argument can only be valid on the presupposition that it does not equivocate. Another, and in some ways equally interesting, problem is begging the question, or circular argument.

It's very clear that we need some way of recognizing whether an argument begs the question, since not committing the fallacy is an important condition for application of an argument to reality. What isn't clear is how to pin the fallacy down. Aristotle, for instance, lists five ways in which an argument can beg the point at hand, and his treatment of the fallacy differs somewhat depending on whether he is discussing it in an epistemic context (e.g., when discussing demonstration) or in a dialectical context (e.g., in the Topics). However, I think Aristotle's analysis of the fallacy is extremely interesting, and worth keeping in mind.

According to Aristotle, begging the question is a failure of demonstration. On his view, demonstration has an epistemic requirement: the premises have to be at least as well known as the conclusion. It is this that gives a demonstration its superiority over other deductive arguments, and it is this that makes demonstration so useful: when we demonstrate we advance in knowledge by strengthening the certainty of the conclusion. In a circular argument, we fail to do this (not every violation of the epistemic requirement is a case of circularity, of course).

However, while all arguments that beg the question are circular arguments, not all circular arguments beg the question. There are perfectly legitimate reasons, of course, why one might construct a circular argument, as an exercise, for instance. But Aristotle has something different in mind. When we argue A -> A or A -> B -> A, there is at least one type of case where this is clearly not a problem: the case in which A is self-evident. It is, Aristotle thinks, impossible to beg the question with self-evident conclusions. This leads Aristotle to the interesting, and I think very insightful, point that if we allowed all cases of begging the question, we would effectively be treating all conclusions as self-evident. In such a situation, of course, logical argument becomes otiose.

Things become more complicated in a dialectical context, because we are now involved in a dialogue with more than one person, and the questions of whether a premise is recognizably as well known as its conclusion, and whether an argument recognizably begs the question become more important.

So reflecting on the fallacy of begging the question gets us into interesting epistemic and dialectical issues. Of course, there still is some interest in seeing whether a purely formal account of begging the question is possible. The best known, and most interesting, attempt to sketch such an account is that of De Morgan. J. S. Mill had argued that all deductive arguments are circular in virtue of their form. Of course, under Aristotle's analysis, this objection fails, since it's beaten by the epistemic requirement. De Morgan further pointed out that Mill misunderstood the nature of the minor premise. But he also went and suggested a more formal test for determining whether an argument does not commit the fallacy: No deductive argument begs the question if it has more than one premise and no superfluous premises. It isn't quite clear whether this test is entirely effective; Woods and Walton*, for instance, note that Aristotle still seems to be right that epistemic and dialectical considerations are necessary to identify the fallacy correctly in all cases.

* Douglas Walton and James Woods, "The Petitio: Aristotle's Five Ways," Canadian Journal of Philosophy 12 (1982) 77-100.

The Hilarian Viewpoint

Scott Gilbreath at "Magic Statistics" has a good post on the basics about St. Hilary of Poitiers, sometimes said to be the most Greek of the Latin Fathers. He was a major, and very creative, defender of Nicene orthodoxy against the Arian heresy, whose De Trinitate, although overshadowed by Augustine's, deserves to be better known.

The good bishop had a reasonable perspective on heresy, too. Concerned with the question of why God would allow heresies to rise up in His Church, he reasoned that it must be that when a heresy begins to run rampant, the Church had failed in some way to grow and learn in a way it should have, and that God therefore allows the heresy to run wild in order to stimulate the Church into action. Effectively this view sees heresy as primarily an opportunity for the Church to pray, to learn, and to teach; as an approach to heresy, it keeps the focus where it should be: on truth.

Approximation to Brandon

Taking a break. Feel free to join in, with answers or your own questions, in the comments or on your own weblog.

1) Jane Austen or Charles Dickens? Jane Austen
2) Who is your favorite George Eliot character? Savonarola
3) What is your favorite play by Sophocles? Antigone, followed closely by Oedipus at Colonnus
4) What is your favorite play by Euripides? The Bacchae
5) What is your favorite play by Shakespeare? Henry V
6) Plato or Aristotle? Aristotle
7) Name two movies that most people have probably never seen that you would highly recommend. Patrice Leconte's Ridicule (a delightfully fun movie for anyone who likes the early modern period; in French, but the English subtitles are well done -- important for non- or weak- Francophones since much of the movie is a long string of jokes and word plays). Don MacBrearty's Riddler's Moon (unusually good for a movie made for TV).
8) Foucault's Pendulum or The Name of the Rose? The Name of the Rose.
9) Tea or Coffee? Tea.
10) In your opinion, the least appreciated great thinker in history is: William Whewell, followed closely by Lady Mary Shepherd and Nicholas Steno.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


* I've already linked to some of it, but for those who are interested in forgeries and hoaxes, conceptual analysis of concepts like 'forgery' and 'hoax', and distinctions among various cases of deception and misattribution, the discussion of literary fakes (and what they should be called) among bibliobloggers is worth reading. Stephen Carlson is keeping track of some of the discussion in his original response to Loren Rosson, III's originating post. The discussion of McHale's taxonomy at The Busybody is particularly of interest.

* Also worth reading is Elizabeth Cady Stanton's 1848 Declaration of Sentiments, given at the Seneca Falls Convention. (HT: Bitch, PhD)

* Theodore Dalrymple discusses Holmes and His Commentators at "The New Criterion". I'm glad to see that Sayers's speculation about the H got a mention. I must leap to the defense of my namesake, however, and insist that Watson's description of Holmes's background knowledge is a bit of deliberate, but fact-based, hyperbole to make a point.

* A good discussion by Gyula Klima on whether Aquinas is a direct realist or a representationalist (PDF).

* Michelle Arnold reviews Anne Rice's Christ the Lord at ""; she gives it a moderate thumbs-up, particularly given that it was a hard place to start. The comments are interesting in that many of the commenters are not properly distinguishing human and divine abilities (they should go back and re-read the Tome of Leo). I think there's also something of a misunderstanding about what is involved in beatific vision. In the beatific vision God is known directly and temporal things are known in God. As Aquinas says, it does not follow that all temporal things are known in God; and, as Aquinas also notes, it certainly does not follow that Christ had no acquired knowledge. (Incidentally, the second Aquinas link is one of the small handful of passages where Aquinas explicitly reverses something he had already written.) Christ has two abilities to know, one being the divine essence and the other being his human intellect; the rules for each are different. The former is omniscient, the latter is not; to use a crude analogy, the one exceeds the other as much as our ability to think of things exceeds our ability to imagine them visually. The latter runs up against sharp natural limits, and has more need to be trained (in one way or another) to know whatever it knows. Moreover, the latter has closer connections with our physical existence, in the sense that it is more closely related to our bodily actions. And all these things are independent of what we can know by the former ability. So it is (mutatis mutandis) with the God-Man.

UPDATE: Pseudo-Polymath is reading Augustine's City of God, and has started a series of posts on it: Book 1, Essay 1; and Book 1 and Suicide are the posts currently up. (HT: Parableman, who discusses Augustine on rape)

* The second edition of the God or Not Carnival, with the theme of proof and its role in theism and atheism, is up at Eternal Revolution. It looks like this will be a thriving carnival; they had plenty of submissions, they have an abundance of hosts, and there's a widespread interest in it.

Fatal Beauty?

Toni Vogel Carey discusses Anselm's argument at Philosophy now. The response is interesting but misguided. Carey argues:

What a fool can understand, anyone can understand, fools being, by definition, deficient in candle power and wisdom. Why should we suppose, then, that a being than which none greater can be conceived by the fool is as great as a being than which none greater can be conceived, say, by a smart Philosophy Now reader? And by the same reasoning, why should we suppose that a being than which none greater can be conceived by you, with all due respect, is as great as a being than which none greater can be conceived by a genius like Einstein or a saint like Anselm? Finally, why should we suppose that a being than which none greater can be conceived by Einstein or Anselm is as great as a being than which none greater can logically possibly be conceived – than which none greater could be conceived even by God? For plainly this, and not merely the greatest concept of which the fool is capable, is what Anselm’s argument requires.

To see why this clearly misconceives the argument, notice that the phrase "a being than which none greater can be conceived by the fool" is an ambiguous expression. It can mean either:

a being than which a fool cannot conceive a greater


a being than which none greater can be conceived, as understood by a fool.

The latter poses no problem for Anselm. Anselm is quite willing to admit that we can have degrees of understanding of "that than which nothing greater can be conceived"; in fact, as he himself notes, this possibility follows directly from the description, since that than which nothing greater can be conceived is conceived to be greater than anything that can explicitly be thought by us. Contrary to Carey's claim, it is Anselm, not Gaunilo, who is closer to the apophatic tradition. While I don't agree with everything he says, Jean-Luc Marion has done some interesting work in showing just how apophatic one's interpretation of the argument can get before one breaks it. The former, however, is the way in which Carey takes it, and it clearly will not do: it is not equivalent to "that than which nothing greater can be conceived."

Carey also misinterprets Aquinas's objection. Aquinas makes a distinction between what is self-evident in itself and what is self-evident to us. God's existence is self-evident in itself (God can recognize its self-evidence) but not self-evident to us. Carey seems not to have grasped the reason for saying the former, however. On Aquinas's view we can prove that God's essence includes his existence. This means that in principle it is possible to recognize that God exists simply from direct knowledge of what God is. Now this sort of knowledge would be available to God. It is not available to us, however, because our knowledge of the divine essence is indirect, consisting largely of what it is not and how it is related to other things. Therefore we can't recognize its self-evidence directly, although we can prove that it would be self-evident to someone under particular conditions. There is nothing puzzling or mysterious about this.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


If you read a lot of weblogs and haven't come upon the name of Paul Deignan yet, you will. At Dr. B's there was a discussion of Samuel Alito; Deignan, a graduate student in Engineering at Purdue, commented on it, and, because of the nature of his comments, his comments were removed and he was banned from commenting. One of the other commenters sent a letter to Deignan's advisors (although the commenter claims that it was only after Deignan had sent him an email, so the occasion wasn't actually Deignan's comments; and, it is to be noted, this was not done by Dr. B nor approved by her, and she explicitly noted later that she did not approve of it after the fact), and Deignan has threatened a lawsuit against the commenter, and also threatened to find out Dr. B's real name to use in the lawsuit. This is clearly getting a bit out of hand. PZ Myers has largely expressed my view on the lawsuit threat itself (and he's right on the point that Deignan's response to all this will damage him more than anything else); for Dr. B's response (understandably angry, I think), see her weblog. Dr. B made a judgment call about whether Deignan was contributing or hindering discussion, and whether one agrees with her decision or not, it was her decision to make. As she points out in a later comment, she gives quite a bit of leeway to regular commentators, but regularly deletes comments she considers obnoxious. And now it's very unfortunate that she's been pulled so gratuitously into such a nasty situation, and here's crossing my fingers that it ends up amounting to nothing.

This is a serious issue for bloggers, I think, particularly for those of us who think that allowing pseudonymity is a strength of the blogosphere.

All Hail the Holy Inquisitor....

You are a cardinal! You love to try & get others into trouble, even if you have to make up lies...NO ONE expects the Spanish Inquisition!
You are a cardinal! You love to try & get others
into trouble, even if you have to make up
lies...NO ONE expects the Spanish Inquisition!

What Monty Python Sketch Character are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

I'm actually an undercover Spanish Inquisitor, so I guess this just blows my cover. But you still won't expect me, because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

(HT: Magic Statistics)

From the Spanish Inquisition Skit:

Ximinez: NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise...surprise and fear...fear and surprise.... Our two weapons are fear and surprise...and ruthless efficiency.... Our *three* weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.... Our *four* *Amongst* our weapons.... Amongst our weaponry...are such elements as fear, surprise.... I'll come in again.

A little later:

Ximinez: Now, old woman -- you are accused of heresy on three counts -- heresy by thought, heresy by word, heresy by deed, and heresy by action -- *four* counts. Do you confess?
Wilde: I don't understand what I'm accused of.
Ximinez: Ha! Then we'll make you understand! Biggles! Fetch...THE CUSHIONS!

And a little later:

Ximinez: Confess! Confess! Confess!
Biggles: It doesn't seem to be hurting her, lord.
Ximinez: Have you got all the stuffing up one end?
Biggles: Yes, lord.
Ximinez [angrily hurling away the cushions]: Hm! She is made of harder stuff! Cardinal Fang! Fetch...THE COMFY CHAIR!

Ethics and Nature

At the World Peace Herald, Lloyd Eby asks, Can ethics be derived from nature? (HT: Ektopos) His answer:

I think that both sides - left and right - in this debate rest on faulty arguments and reasoning because the fact that something occurs in nature does not thereby make it ethically right for humans, and the fact that something does not occur in nature does not necessarily make it wrong for humans.

But no informed person, natural law theorist or otherwise, says it does. It is not 'occurring in nature' that is the standard; it is 'conformity with our nature as rational animals' that is the standard, for the very simple and straightforward reason that it must be taken as a fundamental part of our practical reason. Thus both sorts of arguments Eby notes, that of Catholics and that of homosexual rights activists, are entirely legitimate arguments. Of course, one can debate whether either is getting the basic principles of practical reason quite right. But the homosexual rights activist (for instance) is not saying that it is the mere fact of biology that decides the issue; it is the role he or she thinks that fact must play in our practical reasoning that is the real heart of the argument. And Eby's argument doesn't do anything against this line of thought. The same must be said of the Catholic arguments, which Eby's argument doesn't touch, either. Eby concludes:

Some might want to claim that humans, as thinking and ethical beings, can and should make judgments about which of nature's activities - which of nature's "is" statements, so to speak - we should accept as norms, or "oughts," and which we should not accept. I agree fully with that claim. But note that this claim cannot be itself derived from nature. It is extra-natural and a priori to our investigation of nature. This means that our human ethics does not and cannot rest just on nature, but must be from some source "above" or other than nature.

But this can only be the case if we cordon off human beings themselves from nature. If we are seriously interested in understanding the nature of things, however, we must understand our own nature. And it is by no means obvious that when we begin considering our own natures that we find the is/ought divide to be so clear as Eby thinks. [Whoops, tangled myself up in that sentence and ended up saying the opposite of what I wanted to say. Fixed it.--ed.] For a human being is an 'is' that clearly has some relation to 'ought'. In other words, if we take human nature seriously, it's not so clear that ethical norms "must be from some source 'above' or other than nature". It's only by gerrymandering nature to exclude our own nature that we get this claim, or so it seems.

Significant Comedy Films

From Whatever
via The Little Professor. The ones I've seen are bolded.

All About Eve
Annie Hall
The Apartment
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
Blazing Saddles
Bringing Up Baby
Broadcast News
Le diner de con
Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
Duck Soup
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Four Weddings and a Funeral
The General
The Gold Rush
Good Morning Vietnam
The Graduate
Groundhog Day
A Hard Day's Night
His Girl Friday
Kind Hearts and Coronets
The Lady Killers
Local Hero
Monty Python's Life of Brian
National Lampoon's Animal House
The Odd Couple
The Producers
Raising Arizona
Shaun of the Dead
A Shot in the Dark
Some Like it Hot
Strictly Ballroom
Sullivan's Travels
There's Something About Mary
This is Spinal Tap
To Be or Not to Be
Toy Story
Les vacances de M. Hulot
When Harry Met Sally...
Withnail and I

Only 14 out of 50. Hmmm. Is this a sign that I have no sense of humor, or that I have too much class?


Carnivalesque X is up at "Early Modern Notes." Enjoy!