Saturday, April 26, 2008

Wisdom from Chang Ch'ao

Without wine and poetry, hills and water exist for no purpose; without the company of beautiful ladies, flowers and the moon would be wasted.

From the book of Sweet Dream Shadows (quoted in Lin Yutang, The Art of Living, p. 319). Perhaps a bit exaggerated; but now you know why we should at least sometimes have parties with wine and poetry and beautiful ladies: so that the hills and waters, the flowers and the moon, not be wasted.

The Pelosi Isaiah

It has been noted quite a bit recently that Nancy Pelosi keeps misquoting the Old Testament, attributing to it a statement that does not occur in it. The most recent example was her Earth Day press release:

“The Bible tells us in the Old Testament, ‘To minister to the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship. To ignore those needs is to dishonor the God who made us.’ On this Earth Day, and every day, let us honor the earth and our future generations with a commitment to fight climate change.”

She has used it before. In an interview with Tavis Smiley she attributes it to the Prophet Isaiah:

Well, I do, and I'm raised in a family in Baltimore, Maryland, my father was the mayor. He was in Congress when I was born. And we were devoutly Catholic, very patriotic. We love America. Devoutly Catholic, deeply patriotic, proud of our Italian American heritage, and in our case, staunchly Democratic.

And that faith was related to our Democratic values. That is to say the gospel of Matthew. "When I was hungry, you gave me to eat." You know, the least of our brethren. So that's an inspiration in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, Isaiah says, "To minister to the needs of God's creation is an act of worship. To ignore those needs is to dishonor the god who made us."

Joel of "House of Leoj" has hunted down other instances in which she has used this quotation.

In any case, the running thought in the blogosphere at present seems to be that she came across the passage in a context associated with the book of Isaiah and misunderstood, thinking that it was actually a quotation from Isaiah. If anyone knows the source, let people know; it's a running puzzle, since no one can pin it down.

Friday, April 25, 2008

To the Fool-King Belongs the World

The most famous quotation attributed to Friedrich Schiller, I think, is "Against stupidity even the gods contend in vain." It's put in the mouth of Talbot in his play, The Maid of Orleans (III.6):

Folly, thou conquerest, and I must yield!
Against stupidity the very gods
Themselves contend in vain. Exalted reason,
Resplendent daughter of the head divine,
Wise foundress of the system of the world,
Guide of the stars, who art thou then if thou,
Bound to the tail of folly's uncurbed steed,
Must, vainly shrieking with the drunken crowd,
Eyes open, plunge down headlong in the abyss.
Accursed, who striveth after noble ends,
And with deliberate wisdom forms his plans!
To the fool-king belongs the world.

Isaac Asimov did a great deal to popularize the line, in his novel, The Gods Themselves, which is in great measure about scientific stupidity -- and its scientific cure.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Women, Caring, and God

It seems to me quite natural that men, many of whom are separated from the intimacy of caring, should create gods and seek security and love in worship. But what ethical need have women for God? I do not mean to suggest that women can brush aside an actually existing God but, if there is such a God, the human role in Its maintenance must be trivial. We can only contemplate the universe in awe and wonder, study it conscientiously, and live in it conservatively. Women, it seems to me, can accept the God of Spinoza and Einstein. What I mean to suggest is that women have no need of a conceptualized God, one wrought in the image of man. All the love and goodness commanded by such a God can be generated from the love and goodness found in the warmest and best human relations.

Nel Noddings, Caring, University of California Press (Berkeley: 1984) p. 97.

This argument, however, doesn't appear to work even on Noddings's own account of caring. First, a caring relationship involves two people: the one-caring and the cared-for; and even if a caring relationship required "maintenance" of the one cared-for, this argument presents no reason why women have to be the one-caring, rather than the cared-for, in that relationship. All that is required for that is receptivity or responsiveness to the caring of another; and there is nothing about Noddings's account that suggests that this cannot also be a fulfillment of a need. In any case, such responsiveness and receptivity is a common feature of the spiritual life of women, as, indeed, the spiritual life of men.

Moreover, Noddings's account of caring doesn't involve a maintenance requirement. All that is required is (1) engrossment, i.e., focused, perceptive attention to the other; and (2) motivational displacement, i.e., taking on the motivations of the other as part of your own motivations. These are entirely possible where there need be no maintenance; as with two close but independent friends. And does it really need be said that there are plenty of cases, from the Virgin Mary, to Mothers of the Church like Monica (Augustine's mother) or Macrina (the sister of Basil and Gregory of Nyssa), to later women like Julian of Norwich, or Catherine of Siena, or Teresa of Avila, where you can find women whose relationship with God fits this rather basic account of caring.

So, again, it seems that on Noddings's own account of caring her argument doesn't work.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Revising the Philosophical Profession

There has been an excellent set of posts at "Feminist Philosophers" on philosophy-as-bloodsport. That phrase comes from an essay, Philosophy as a Blood Sport. The posts in question, all worth reading, with many good comments, are:

1. "Philosophy as a Blood Sport"

2. Rats!

3. Rats! II: So How Should We Do Philosophy?

The last of these notes that, important as arguments are in philosophy, ideas are important, too, and sharply adversarial approaches are not conducive to healthy creativity with regard to ideas. And the thing of it is, and the thing that seems difficult to get through people's heads, is that there is nothing sacrosanct about these approaches. They certainly are a ways away from ideals like the Republic of Letters or symphilosophie.

A Toast for St. George and England

On this St. George's Day.

Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Y cladd in mightie armes and siluer shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruell markes of many' a bloudy fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he neuer wield:
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full iolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.

But on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore,
The deare remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore,
And dead as liuing euer him ador'd:
Vpon his shield the like was also scor'd,
For soueraine hope, which in his helpe he had:
Right faithfull true he was in deede and word,
But of his cheere did seeme too solemne sad;
Yet nothing did he dread, but euer was ydrad.

Vpon a great aduenture he was bond,
That greatest Gloriana to him gaue,
That greatest Glorious Queene of Faerie lond,
To winne him worship, and her grace to haue,
Which of all earthly things he most did craue;
And euer as he rode, his hart did earne
To proue his puissance in battell braue
Vpon his foe, and his new force to learne;
Vpon his foe, a Dragon horrible and stearne.

A louely Ladie rode him faire beside,
Vpon a lowly Asse more white then snow,
Yet she much whiter, but the same did hide
Vnder a vele, that wimpled was full low,
And ouer all a blacke stole she did throw,
As one that inly mournd: so was she sad,
And heauie sat vpon her palfrey slow:
Seemed in heart some hidden care she had,
And by her in a line a milke white lambe she lad.

So pure and innocent, as that same lambe,
She was in life and euery vertuous lore,
And by descent from Royall lynage came
Of ancient Kings and Queenes, that had of yore
Their scepters stretcht from East to Westerne shore,
And all the world in their subiection held;
Till that infernall feend with foule vprore
Forwasted all their land, and them expeld:
Whom to auenge, she had this Knight from far co[m]peld.

Spencer, The Faerie Queene, Book I, Canto I.

Monday, April 21, 2008

David Hume and Aridity

I was re-reading David Hume's 1734 letter to the physician, Dr. John Arbuthnot, and was more struck by this passage than I had been before. I really don't have anything to say, but it's interesting to think about, since it shows that Hume had taken special notice of the doctrine of spiritual aridity. Emphasis is mine.

I found that I was not able to follow out any train of thought, by one continued stretch of view, but by repeated interruptions, and by refreshing my eye from time to time upon other objects. Yet with this inconvenience I have collected the rude materials for many volumes; but in reducing these to words, when one must bring the idea he comprehended in gross, nearer to him, so as to contemplate its minutest parts, and keep it steadily in his eye, so as to copy these parts in order ,-- this I found impracticable for me, nor were my spirits equal to so severe an employment. Here lay my greatest calamity. I had no hopes of delivering my opinions with such elegance and neatness, as to draw to me the attention of the world, and I would rather live and die in obscurity than produce them maimed and imperfect.

Such a miserable disappointment I scarce ever remember to have heard of. The small distance betwixt me and perfect health makes me the more uneasy in my present situation. It is a weakness rather than a lowness of spirits which troubles me, and there seems to be as great a difference betwixt my distemper and common vapours, as betwixt vapours and madness. I have noticed in the writings of the French mystics, and in those of our fanatics here, that when they give a history of the situation of their souls, they mention a coldness and desertion of the spirit, which frequently returns and some of them, at the beginning, have been tormented with it many years. As this kind of devotion depends entirely on the force of passion, and consequently of the animal spirits, I have often thought that their case and mine were pretty parallel, and that their rapturous admirations might discompose the fabric of the nerves and brain, as much as profound reflections, and that warmth or enthusiasm which is inseparable from them.

However this may be, I have not come out of the cloud so well as they commonly tell us they have done, or rather began to despair of ever recovering.

You can find a fairly decent copy of the whole letter here.

Anselm's Day

Today is Anselm's feast day, so here's something to celebrate:

For in ordinary usage we recognize that we can speak of a single object in three ways. For we speak of objects either (1) by perceptibly employing perceptible signs (i.e., [signs] which can be perceived by the bodily senses) or (2) by imperceptibly thinking to ourselves these same signs, which are perceptible outside us, or (3) neither by perceptibly nor by imperceptibly employing these signs, but by inwardly and mentally speaking of the objects themselves—in accordance with their variety—either through the imagination of mataerial things or through rational discernment. For example, in one way I speak of a man when I signify him by the name "man." In another way [I speak of him] when I think this name silently. In a third way [I speak of a man] when my mind beholds him either by means of an image of a material thing or by means of reason—by means of an image of a material thing, for instance, when [my mind] imagines his perceptible shape; but by means of reason, for instance, when [my mind] thinks of his universal being, viz., rational, mortal animal.

From Monologion 10, Hopkins translation.

Analytic, Continental, and the History of Philosophy

Alexander Pruss stirred up quite a bit of discussion recently in a post in which he suggested the following:

Occasionally, I find myself party to conversations about analytic and continental philosophy. It seems to me that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sextus, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, ibn-Rushd, al-Ghazali, Maimonedes, Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant and Frege all practiced analytic philosophy for a significant part of their philosophical lives—some of these, indeed, for just about all of their philosophical lives.

Here's the discussion; there are interesting things in some of the comments.

1. History of philosophy at "Alexander Pruss's Blog" (the originating post)

2. We're All Analytic Philosophers Now at "Dissoi Blogoi"

3. Aristotle and Spinoza Were Primarily Analytic Philosophers, Haven't You Heard at "The Ends of Thought"

4. Continental Ignorance at "The Chasm"


5. Philosophy Is Analytic at ""]

I think part of the problem is that the opposition between 'analytic philosophy' and 'continental philosophy' is an ill-formed one. It really should be split into two oppositions, the regional (Anglo-American vs. Continental) and the methodological (linguistic analysis vs. phenomenology, or linguistic analysis vs. deconstruction, or logical analysis vs. hermeneutics, or whatever is in view at the moment), without any pretence that they are the same opposition, or that the former is at all a clear one.

One of the reasons this sort of thing tends to touch a nerve, I would imagine, is that people who self-identify as analytic philosophers have a very bad habit of flattering themselves in the mirror: they are clear, they are rational, they are substantive, etc., etc. It is not exclusive to them, of course; but it does tend to increase the exasperation of others. I am sympathetic to this; I get exasperated by it myself. I also am inclined to think that it is all a sign, one of many, that "analytic philosophy" as a philosophical tradition is in the process of dissolving. None of the former views of analysis that allowed some sort of agreement in philosophical approach have panned out; none of the compromises for weak alliances between such views that have been attempted have particularly satisfied anybody; nothing now unites 'analytic philosophers' in a philosophical 'project' except some commonalities in how they were educated and a slowly shifting collection of texts that act more-or-less as common sources of vocabulary and rhetorical formats.

It has always been an analytic conceit that good philosophy has always been analytic; but when, for instance, A. J. Ayer said it, he meant something that could be pinned down precisely, subjected to rigorous examination, and seriously evaluated. Now you find defenses of the idea becoming more and more amorphous and subjective in nature. Such syncretistic moves usually are suggestive either of pressures to form alliances and increase general appeal (a sign of increasing weakness and incohesion), or an increasing disinterest in the original core projects that ground the family resemblances of participants (people try to get more and more of their pet interests characterized as legitimate or 'philosophically interesting' or 'substantive' by loosening the requirements and extending terms until there ceases to be a real unity under the verbal one), or both. My own guess is the second of these. We have, in the past forty years, seen an immense expansion in the topics considered by people considering themselves analytic philosophers; throughout a great deal of this time there has been a great pressure on people trying to publish on more marginal topics or figures to argue that their subject of discussion is 'philosophically relevant' or has some special link to some hot topic of the day. When a fad becomes hot, everyone tries to cash in on the craze, whatever their favored topic or approach; it's a matter of academic survival. And thus we have concept inflation: the unifying key words (analysis, simplicity, clarity, etc.) have to expand to cover so many different things that they no longer have clear meaning. From here there are really only two likely paths: either the whole thing will simply collapse, everyone leaping from the sinking ship in disgust, or there will be a reformation, a new rallying, or a series of rallyings, under a banner or two or three. It's possible that some thriving segment of the 'analytic' world today is already the beginnings of the formation of such a rallying point. There are other possibilities, of course.

I think, incidentally, that much the same thing is happening to 'continental philosophy'; but I lack sufficient acquaintance to determine whether it is more or less advanced in its decay than 'analytic philosophy'. And, of course, it's possible that my acquaintance is misleading in either case. But I don't think so.


* Kenny Pearce is hosting the 67th Philosophers' Carnival, on the subject of Idealism. Some excellent selections there. Kenny's post on the universal language issue in Berkeley, and possible extensions thereof, is worth mentioning in particular.

* Queen Rania of Jordan starts off her YouTube campaign against negative Arab stereotypes.

* The Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation gives financial assistance grants to early-career female science researchers who are mothers. Nüsslein-Volhard, a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, became tired of watching promising young female scientists struggle because they had families. This was a splendid idea.

* CBS has placed the episodes of the original series Star Trek online. They also have The Twilight Zone.

* David of "He Lives" uses a case where Newton's Third Law is violated to discuss the relation of the Third Law to the conservation of momentum.

* The Most Unwanted Song (mp3). Strictly speaking, it is a song built entirely out of things that people most dislike to find in music; which means that almost everyone will find some feature that they hate. (ht)

* PZ Myers has an excellent post on pseudonymity in blogging, as does Janet Stemwedel.

* A post and discussion on the narcissism of philosophy as blood sport at "Feminist Philosophers".

Descartes Not a Cartesian Foundationalist

'Cartesian Foundationalism' is sometimes defined more or less along these lines:

(CF) A subject, S, is epistemically justified in believing a belief p if and only if either p is indubitable or p is entailed by beliefs that are such that S is epistemically justified in believing them.

It is easy as pie to show that Descartes himself is not a 'Cartesian Foundationalist' in this sense -- indeed, I think it is fairly clear that none of the major Cartesians are. (However much they may be in other senses.) It's not a Cartesian position, suggestive thought it may be of Descartes's method of doubt. For one thing, putting Descartes's epistemology in terms of justification of beliefs distorts his real interest -- the elimination of error in our beliefs and opinions -- in a number of different ways. But more seriously than this, in Descartes's epistemology you can believe things that are neither indubitable nor implied by things that are indubitable. One such category of beliefs consists of those relating to the external world. Descartes does not completely salvage the external world from the method of doubt. He manages to find a general reliability principle -- 'God is not a deceiver' -- but this does not give us certainty in any of our beliefs about bodies, except the beliefs that bodies exist and that they are subject to the principles of geometry.* There is plenty that does not fall under these but about which we can reasonably free ourselves from doubt. As Descartes says in Meditation VI:

As far as the remaining matters are concerned, which are either merely particular (for example, that the sun is of such and such a size or shape, and so on) or less clearly understood (for example, light, sound, pain, and the like), evne though these matters are very doubtful and uncertain, nevertheless the fact that God is no deceiver (and thus no falsity can be found in my opinions, unless there is also in me a faculty given by God for the purpose of rectifying this falsity) offers me a definite hope of reaching the truth even in these matters.

Thus, Descartes says, we shouldn't doubt that we each have bodies that need to be fed, to which we are intimately joined, that operate in an environment of other bodies that have differences in some way corresponding to my sensations, and so forth. On Descartes's view, none of these are indubitable; none are entailed by indubitable beliefs; they are fallible beliefs. But they are legitimate beliefs that we should not doubt (as long as we recognize our inability to prove them rigorously). Thus Descartes holds that there are beliefs that meet neither of the criteria in the above definition of 'Cartesian Foundationalism'.

* It should be said that the exact scope of what falls under certainty with regard to the external world is a matter of some contention in Descartes scholarship; Descartes himself is not very precise about where the limits of such certainty fall.