Thursday, June 21, 2007

Two Brief Thursday Night Notes

* The newest early modern version of Carnivalesque is up at "Blogging the Renaissance"; I haven't read them all by any means, but I notice in particular that Margery Kempe gets a fair and sympathetic appraisal by Natalie Bennett -- she's too often and too easily dismissed, when, despite her obvious foibles, there's much to be said in her favor.

* Several academic blogs are discussing the notion of 'citation plagiarism'. See Bill Poser, Kerim, Tim Burke, and Miriam Burstein. I think it's pretty clear that 'citation plagiarism', while problematic, is not plagiarism at all (except where translations are involved, but that's for unrelated reasons). One of the reasons I think this is so is that it would seem that such 'plagiarism' could in certain cases cease to be plagiarism without any change to the text -- namely, if the author of the paper went back and checked the quotation. But it seems to me to make nonsense of the notion of plagiarism, which, if it is to serve its purpose -- providing a usable concept for guarding the academic reputation and (in some cases) money of those who did the original work -- must be something reasonably discernible from the text itself, which is the only objective evidence available. I think it also starts treating too much of what scholars should have in common as proprietary. Consider the following scenarios:

(a) A finds the quotation in the source on his or her own.
(b) A is introduced to the quotation by B in casual conversation, and uses it without checking it and without crediting B in any way.
(c) A is introduced to the quotation by B in casual conversation, and uses it after checking it, but without crediting B in any way.
(d) A discovers the quotation in a paper by B and uses it without checking it and without crediting B in any way.
(e) A discovers the quotation in a paper by B and uses it after checking it, without crediting B in any way.

Now, if 'citation plagiarism' is genuine plagiarism, (b)-(e) should all be considered plagiarism. After all, the mere fact that I've done my own work doesn't change other plagiarisms; if I plagiarize B but only because I've done all the scholarly work to know that B is quite right, I'm still engaged in plagiarism, because plagiarism has nothing to do with how much or how little scholarly work I have done in the matter, and everything to do with how I am using B's work. But there seems to be a tendency to think that 'citation plagiarism' can cease to be plagiarism, without any change in the actual use of B's work, if only I put in a little more research to check that it's right. And that just doesn't fly in cases of real plagiarism. On the other side, it's clear that (c) can't be plagiarism, because treating it as such would grind scholarly work to a halt (thus defeating the very purpose of using the notion of plagiarism, since it's to preserve reputation and, in some cases, money accruing to original work). Scholars can't be expected to keep detailed track of the source of every idea that comes into their heads. Some cases of (c) will be cases of radical professional discourtesy; but most cases of (c) are harmless, and, I would wager, utterly common. This clearly matters; but it shouldn't if plagiarism is really at stake. There is a further point that in general there is no way to adjudicate the matter: (a)-(e) are textually indistinguishable for all cases where B was accurate, and in many cases where B was not. Not only do we have to allow for converging errors, we have to allow for the possibility of cross-contamination -- where A did the work, but mistakenly revised or transcribed the quotation because he was primed by having also come into contact with B's work. The cases in which the evidence will be clear enough that we can say definitely that there was a genuine instance will be rare and few. And this is a practical reason for not considering it plagiarism, because academic life requires that the notion of plagiarism be reasonably clear and usable, and that it admit of non-arbitrary adjudication where questions arise.

That was a little less brief than I intended.

A Poem Draft

Rather busy at the moment. But here's a poem draft.

Metaphors in Love Poems

A lover is a carrion bird
drinking from the eyes,
those stagnant puddles of purest blue
wherein the lover dies;
and he is overcome and ill
with fever and disease
that makes his hours as golden-sweet
as the vomiting of bees.
The obscenest flowers in the wind
are more modest far than she,
who wafts her scent in every place
to slave those who were free.
And the kiss of those vivid red-rock lips
spreads poison in the veins
that makes the lover feel on fire
with madness in the brain.
O love, it is the whitest thing
that is bleached beneath the sun,
the cleverest germ in an endless war
that no one has ever won;
it turns us all into cannibals,
idolaters, misers, beasts;
it enchants us with a hungry need
on loved one's flesh to feast.
And saying that, you can surely see
how lovely love must be;
how it ensorcels men alive
with wanton witchery!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Language of Virtue in Public Discourse

This little essay by Linda Hirshman, although sketchy, was interesting. I think it suffers from trying to do two different things in space too small to do both: namely, (1) to identify and encourage the use of virtue ethics in particular (and classical philosophy in general) to enrich our moral discourse about politics; and (2) to contrast classical philosophy as a source of moral language with religion as a source of moral language. Trying to do both makes it seem a little jumbled; so, for instance, we find Christopher Hitchens quoted (to make a point about (2)) even though he's a very poor fit to most of the argument, and some clumsy uncritical comments about faith that manage to insult everyone's intelligence by apparently assuming that none of us know enough about theological versions of virtue ethics to see that she is simply making things up. It makes no sense to advocate the use of virtue ethics as a form of public moral discourse and then to assign arbitrary meanings to things like 'virtue of faith' without regard for the ways faith can be, and has been, regarded in serious discourse about virtue.

With regard to (1), I think that, when we disentangle it from (2), we can state the argument for it a bit more cleanly than we find it in Hirshman's essay. Namely:

(A) There is a pressing need for an adequate moral language in discourse about our government.
(B) Virtue theory in particular, and classical philosophy in general, is a rich source of moral language well-adapted for this end, in that (a) it is public; and it is more robust than formalistic alternatives.
(C) There are indications that it is (if only partwise and partially) being applied in this way to good effect.

Thus there is good reason for us to tap into this source more thoroughly. And this is certainly quite right.

A Bit of Tapestry-Work

This is a peek at a small part of an early draft of a much larger poetic project (currently in fragmentary and not-quite-orderly condition) which I'm calling for the present 'Tapestry-Work'.

Primal light, who are the Creator of light,
residing in unapproachable splendor,
dwelling upon those who are adorned by light,
who praise your light and your everlasting dawn,
make the rays of your wisdom's brightness burst forth,
that, sealed by light, we may in your light see light,
the smile of your sunrise
bright upon our faces.

I wait for the morning of my Lord's kingdom;
there the sun never sets, its wings hold healing.
This is our mission in this world of darkness:
to be a breath of morning, a glimpse of dawn,
to one person, then another, and then all,
that all may feel the sun's smile on their faces.
They who watch for morning
know well that light is sweet.

The sun is fixed in the skies, it dwells above,
but its rays go out to every land and sea;
it enters all places through windows and doors,
and wherever the light falls, there is the sun,
pure and unsullied, though it be but a patch,
though it land in a brothel, there the sun is.
Light falls on every place,
the sun is in the skies.

He baffles the mind, but to love he is near;
minds cannot search him out, but love finds his face.
Lit by truth we love truth; this truth is His light;
in his light we see light; he is the bright star,
the sun of justice that shines bright on the world.
In his warm rays we walk with smiling faces.
All things speak of his grace,
whisper of his glory.

With light more resplendent than light the Word shines,
more sweet than purest air the Spirit breathes forth.
We who are harps endowed with life and language
speak forth the praises of the eternal light.
All the world is a harp with strings moved by wind;
the Spirit broods upon it and its song soars.
A small stream of God's truth
makes a flood of symbols.

I dreamed and saw a woman clothed with the sun,
a virgin queen with the moon beneath her feet.
On her head a diadem of twelve stars sat,
and she labored to give birth to the high king,
the sun of justice destined to rule nations.
She fled into the desert prepared by God;
she flew with two great wings,
a second dawning sky.

Over the heads of the evangelic beasts
a firmament holds a throne like fair sapphire.
On the throne is one like to the son of man,
great splendor like a rainbow-burst around him:
behold the likeness of the glory of God!
On the chariot the divine word is winged.
The Church bears his glory,
the chariot of God.

In his vitalities we participate;
his divine energies make our hearts divine;
in his operations we perform great deeds
as technicians under the master craftsman
do things beyond their skill through the master's skill.
Looking to him we taste and see his goodness,
are charged with his grandeur,
made splendid in his name.

Everything in this world speaks of you, O Lord;
your whispers are everywhere and your light shines
by participation in every creature.
All nations speak of you despite their failings;
in their ignorant sleep you send them true dreams.
All things subserve you whether they will or not,
drawn into your deep plans
through your wise providence.

In the abundance of your mercy and truth
your economy graces even pagans;
even the babbling barbarians feel it.
Each soul bears in it a sense of right and wrong,
a flicker fit for faith, for trust, for sweet love;
each nation bears traditions that speak of Truth.
Even in confusion
your coherence is found.

Lost in darkness the Gentiles have roamed the earth;
God sent them sparks in His ineffable love.
Their understandings unformed, they yet caught life;
their attentions arrested by some glimmer,
a will-o'-the'wisp for good, that they might wait,
that they might prepare the evangel of grace,
that the nations might dream,
though the dreamt they knew not.

They twist the altars to speak of others, Lord,
they shape their prayers as if others were God;
by twisted light and logic their life is formed.
By you, Lord, are light and life and only Word;
the little words of creation echo you;
the words-in-letters of human thought are signs
bringing you to the minds
of those blessed with your light.

Everything in the universe is for God;
every man serves the glory in his way,
some as friends, for he himself has called them friends;
some as servants good and faithful in his house;
yet others as servants, will they or nill they;
yes, even the atheists serve his purpose.
His providence is all,
all things cohere in Him.

Even heretics by their clash bear witness;
refuting each other they show the true way.
By permitting their lies God wakes up the mind,
stimulating the Church in its sense of truth.
By the victory of saints through the ages
he shows the aptness of his truth to endure.
For truth, always the same,
from age to age remains.

Light does not hide itself in bushels; it shines,
but it shines through things and binds them all as one.
Everything brings a bit of light to the mind;
although the mind, dulled, takes many bits to see.
The world reflects and refracts the light of God;
as clouds show rainbows, the world shows promises,
set by God in heaven,
a pledge that he is near.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Moral Intuition

Consider a position that holds that there are real moral objects grasped by a form of moral perception or intuition. A widespread fear about such a position is that it demands of us something "spooky". That's a rather silly fear in itself, but it is in any case unfounded. This is true even where the perception of moral objects is seen as fairly closely analogous to the perception of sensible objects.

We can think of perception of sensible objects, roughly, but for our purposes adequately, in quasi-Kantian terms. I can think about the external world as an external world because I seem to perceive certain things, and I have a notion of physical object in light of which I can interpret my perceptions as presenting something objectively to me. To get knowledge about these objective physical somethings, then, I simply need to be able to fill out this general notion of physical object with a more specific concept that makes clear how I can come to know them; namely, a concept of body capable of being investigated scientifically. This in hand, I have the external world, understood as an external world; it is objective and I can, due to scientific investigation, come to have knowledge of it through my perceptions. Sensible intuition in this light becomes a means of knowledge, a way of grasping truths, about objective things.

A more controversial example may clarify what this could indicate about a certain view of moral intuition. It is tempting, and has always been tempting, to hold that we have some sort of special direct, particularly mathematical intuition by means of which we come to mathematical knowledge. This intelligible intuition might seem at first an odd thing. But it's entirely possible to give a decent account of what such an intelligible intuition would be, one that follows fairly closely the analogy of sensible intuition: Just as there is a notion of physical object making possible the interpretation of some phenomena involved in (as it were) our being forced to recognize some things as true, so there is a notion of mathematical object making possible the interpretation of some phenomena involved in (as it were) our being forced to recognize some things as true. We can call this a broadly Gödelian account of mathematical intuition. There are several different ways we might think of filling out this notion of mathematical object; an account in which it is filled out with the concept of the iterative set can be called a properly Gödelian account of mathematical intuition, because it is, in fact, one way of stating Gödel's own view of the matter.

It is important to understand what is, and what is not, given to us by any sort of broadly Gödelian account of mathematical intuition, including Gödel's own. Such mathematical inuition does not give us direct access to mathematical truths. Mathematical intuition cannot give us truth, only objectivity, and the two are not the same. Think of sensible intuition again. When we perceive a sensible object, we are not thereby given direct access to truth about the object itself; sensible intuition does not give us direct insight into the nature of the object. Rather, it gives us an object, something objective into which we can gain insight. We don't get knowledge directly from it; we get something we can come to have knowledge about through it. And the analogy holds here. Just as we don't think sensible intuition gives us direct access to physical truths without inquiry, so we don't have direct access to mathematical truths without inquiry. This is why Gödel always regards the analogy to imply that, just as we gain knowledge of the physical world by testing hypotheses about physical objects, so we must gain knowledge of the mathematical world by testing hypotheses about mathematical objects. He is right to think that the properly Gödelian account of mathematical intuition implies this, because all that mathematical intuition can directly give us on that account is an object for inquiry.

Now, to say that is slightly misleading, because mathematical intuition can on this account give us something more; but what it gives is derivative of objectivity, and certainly falls short of truth. This is a standard of plausibility. When I perceive a physical object, I don't merely get an object qua object presented to me; I also get a way it seems to be. This allows me to make plausible presumptions, guesses, and hypotheses about it, and to say that other presumptions, guesses, and hypotheses are implausible. This plausibility is not truth; our recognizing a claim as plausible is not knowledge. To get to truth we need the claim not merely to be something that can be plausibly made about the object; it has to be genuinely adequate to the object. But it is through inquiry and investigation that the plausible becomes the adequate. Indeed, one could argue that this plausibility is necessary for any knowledge of the objects themselves; without it, our testing would be merely a testing of whether a claim is consistent with the objects. It is because the appearances of the objects constrain what's plausible to say about them that we can say that our tested conclusions are not merely consistent with the objects, abstractly considered, but linked to them through the way the objects seem to be. In other words, we don't merely find accounts consistent with the phenomena, we find accounts consistent with the phenomena in more natural and less natural ways. Further inquiry can winnow them further. Thus sensory perception does not merely give us objectivity; it gives us a guide to inquiry by making more or less plausible claims that can be further tested. Principles discovered scientifically begin to force themselves on us as something we have to recognize as true, at least to a degree of approximation through the combination of (on the one hand) the objectivity and constraint on plausibility we find in sensible intuition and (on the other) the discoveries we make while testing out in various ways what's plausible in light of intuition. So it is, one could say, with mathematical intuition.

This is perfectly generalizable, I believe, to other cases in which appeals to intuition are made as if they somehow adjudicate among claims. (I don't commit to the quasi-Kantian way of stating the claim as being the best way to state it; I think, in fact that there are ways that allow us to do it more precisely. The quasi-Kantian way, however, is convenient in a number of ways, and, as I said, seems sufficient for our purpose here, which is just to sketch out why one can hold the original claim in a perfectly reasonable way.) To do so what such intuition gives us would have to be objective and make some things plausible and others not; and if it can be argued about, it would appear there is a way of testing them. And that's all the pieces required. So it would appear that any appeal to moral intuitions as somehow providing evidence or guidelines in philosophical disputes about moral matters would have to exhibit all the elements needed for the claim made at the beginning of this post. Moreover, I think it's clear that this is a very needful thing. When it comes down to argument, a great deal depends on what concept one uses to cash out the notion of the particular type of object in question. Someone with a properly Gödelian account will not be engaging in the same type of inquiry as someone with some other concept of mathematical object than the iterative set, even if that other person also holds a broadly Gödelian account. Moreover, some concepts will be better than others, as being more fruitful in their consequences (again, through testing). It may be that all appeals to moral intuition take a fairly unified object; or (as I think is the case) we will find that appeals to moral intuition actually break down into several different things. And we would have to see whether in so breaking down they break down into anything with an object well-defined enough to allow a close analogy to the above cases. Again, I think this would prove to be so; but any appeal to moral intuition needs to give some sort of account establishing the features previously noted. If it does, it's entirely reasonable; the only question will be whether there is a better account. And only on some such account can appeal to moral intuitions carry any genuine force. (As I said, this is perfectly generalizable to any appeal to intuitions.)

Of course, some people worry not about the objects but about what's involved in this intuiting, worrying that this is to propose some sort of "spiritual intuition," to use Hume's phrase. That's an interesting question, but it's putting the cart before the horse to take it as a problem for the claim rather than a question for further research. It's pointless to worry about what would be involved in such intuiting until we've established something about it. Then we can see what the evidence tells us about it, in that light. Before then, we don't really have an objection, just a prejudice.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Still the Serpent Whispering

They shook hands gingerly, but Dom Paulo knew that it was no token of any truce, but only of mutual respect between foes. Perhaps it would never be more.

But why must it all be acted again?

The answer was near at hand; there was still the serpent whispering: For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods. The old father of lies was clever at telling half-truths: How shall you "know" good and evil, until you shall have sampled a little? Taste and be as Gods. But neither infinite power nor infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men. For that there would have to be infinite love as well.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz. Bantam (New York: 1988) 220-221.

Notes and Links

* Mocedades sings Thomas Aquinas's Pange Lingua (ht: The Dawn Patrol), circa 1969. Although you may not recall it at once, you certainly have heard of them before; Mocedades was a Spanish Basque singing group most famous in the English-speaking world for their song, Eres Tu (with Amaya Uranga singing the main part in such a way as to make it hers for all time). For Pange Lingua, this later one is, I think, a slightly better rendition by Mocedades.

* One of my favorite songs in French. Cerena did a French/Italian duet with Nek that was decent as well, although I actually prefer the lyrics of this song in Spanish, which seem to me (for reasons I can't quite put my finger on) to have a slightly sadder tone to them.

* Eugene Volokh has a nice paper on the meaning of 'free state' in the eighteenth century (PDF), in order to clarify what the second amendment to the U.S. constitution means when it starts out, "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state".

* Presbyterian poet Ruth Bell Graham died recently at age 87. If you want to sum her up, I think Frederica Mathewes-Green did the best job of it. Noel Piper gives a sample of her poetry. Lisa at "Of all the liars in the world..." gives another specimen. My suspicion is that as a talented, underappreciated poet her name will outlast her husband's; and perhaps that is as it should be, given that she was so often eclipsed by him in the public eye while she was alive. God bless her; and may He through her work bless many generations to come.

* Sometimes a photograph is taken that will mark the memory of a generation. There was a photograph in The Tennessean of Christian Golczynski receiving the American flag from his father's coffin that is likely to mark ours.

* Ever wondered what the world's largest island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island is? Now you know.

* Rebecca talks about Sacred Harp singing.

* BK addresses a common misunderstanding of a claim made by Francis Schaeffer about Thomas Aquinas (whom that misunderstanding also misunderstands).

* Still listening to John Farrell's Doctor Janeway's Plague.

* Chaim Saiman has an interesting paper discussing the diverging legal theories of Jesus and the Rabbis as representative of more general differences in jurisprudence.

Alice Gardner on Butler

Butler's "plain, honest man " has formed the theme of much ethical controversy. His very existence has been questioned by some, though not improbably many of us may have known him personally or met with him in books. But I am inclined to think that the great bishop, being an eminently reasonable man himself, hardly realised how unreasonable were most of his fellow-mortals.

Alice Gardner, The Conflict of Duties, and Other Essays (1903), p. 5.

Butler on Desert

Our sense or discernment of actions as morally good or evil, implies in it a sense or discernment of them as of good or ill desert. It may be difficult to explain this perception, so as to answer all the questions which may be asked concerning it : but every one speaks of such and such actions as deserving punishment ; and it is not, I suppose, pretended that they have absolutely no meaning at all to the expression. Now the meaning plainly is not, that we conceive it for the good of society, that the doer of such actions should be made to suffer. For if unhappily it were resolved, that a man, who, by some innocent action, was infected with the plague, should be left to perish, lest, by other people's coming near him, the infection should spread ; no one would say he deserved this treatment. Innocence and ill desert are inconsistent ideas. Ill desert always supposes guilt : and if one be no part of the other, yet they are evidently and naturally connected in our mind.

From A Dissertation on the Nature of Virtue. I like this argument quite a bit; I think it shows in a straightforward way that not all moral considerations are reducible to utilitarian considerations, even if utilitarian considerations are relevant.