Saturday, June 14, 2008


I had a strange dream last night, a small part of which involved a heated argument about xanthulules. Xanthulules, if you didn't know (it was new to me, as well) are objects with all properties not had by chrysanthemums, and only those properties. I don't recall the precise point of contention about them, but Venn diagrams on the relations between the properties of xanthulules and the properties of chrysanthemums were involved.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

W. Norris Clarke

W. Norris Clarke, S.J., died June 10, at age 93. Norris Clarke was a leading exponent of what goes by the name 'Personalist Thomism' or 'Thomistic Personalism'. You can read his own account of his life on his Fordham webpage. Some of his works that are currently online:

A Taste of Existence (transcript from an interview)
A Creative Retrieval of Thomism (transcript from an interview)
Person, Being, and St. Thomas (a sort of symposium at Communio)
Freedom, Equality, Dignity of the Human Person (PDF)

The Holy Spirit in the Trinity

In an insanely long comments thread on this post, Michael Liccione and Photios Jones (of Energetic Procession) have been discussing, among other things, the Filioque, and Photios had an excellent comment that so neatly summarizes what one needs to convey in teaching the Trinity that I just had to record it here. This is the part of the comment that caught my eye:

One must be able to fit together these unique things from the Fathers:

(1) The Father as sole cause and originator of Son and Spirit *as* relation of origin (one by genesis, the other by ekpoureusis). - St. Photios

(2) The taxical order of the Persons coming forth: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, expressing their consubstantiality - Sts. Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, Maximus the Confessor

(3) The Spirit rests in the Son as his object, the Son's existence from the Father is the Sprits aim for Spiration. - St. Gregory of Cyprus II

(4) The Spirit as bond of love between Father and Son, because it is this bond of love as the energy of the Spirit that is common to all. - St. Gregory Palamas, St. Augustine, St. Gregory of Cyprus II. This is how the Gregory's interpret Augustine anyway.

What doesn't fit well here is the Carolingian and Scholastic view of 'relations of opposition' since there is no step of two-ness in the Trinity, and dialectic can only consider two and not three.

The one caveat I would have is with regard to that last sentence. 'Relations of opposition' in Scholastic theology are not such that they "can only consider two and not three"; this is because relatio means not 'relation' in our sense (which is closer to a correlation) but 'relatedness'. So a standard form of relatio in this sense is 'being a father'. The reason for the emphasis on opposition is not dialectic but that, whatever one says of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one must not hold, or hold something that commits you to holding, that being the Son is indistinguishable from being the Spirit,, or that either is indistinguishable from being the Father. So you distinguish being-the-Father from being-the-Son (the Father by being the Principle, which is called paternity, the Son by that form of coming-from-the-Principle that is called filiation), and being-the-Father from being-the-Spirit (the Father by paternity again, and the Spirit by that coming-from-the-Principle that is called procession), and being-the-Son from being-the-Spirit (the Son by filiation again, and the Spirit by spiration). If there is a worry about the Scholastic view, it should be not with the relations of opposition but with what are called the 'notional acts' in light of which they are interpreted.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Blackstone on Pursuit of Happiness

I find that in discussing the Declaration of Independence's "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" people often link it with Locke's trio of life, liberty, and property. But that doesn't really explain the "Pursuit of Happiness" part. If you read Blackstone, however, you find a likely influence:

As therefore the creator is a being, not only of infinite power, and wisdom, but also of infinite goodness, he has been pleased so to contrive the constitution and frame of humanity, that we should want no other prompter to inquire after and pursue the rule of right, but only our own self-love, that universal principle of action. For he has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter. In consequence of which mutual connection of justice and human felicity, he has not perplexed the law of nature with a multitude of abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things, as some have vainly surmised; but has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, "that man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness." This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law. For the several articles into which it is branched in our systems, amount to no more than demonstrating, that this or that action tends to man's real happiness, and therefore very justly concluding that the performance of it is a part of the law of nature; or, on the other hand, that this or that action is destructive of man's real happiness, and therefore that the law of nature forbids it.

This law of nature, being coeval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other-It is binding over all the globe in all countries, and at all times; no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this: and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.

Lead the Way

Generate a Barack Obama Quote!

"These people haven't had Virtue Ethics for fifty years. So you can't be surprised if they get bitter and cling to their academic philosophy and their papers on Vagueness and their Utilitarianism. That's what my campaign is about. Teaching all the little people in this country that they can have Care Bear principles."
Generate your own Obama quote at

Which reminds me -- I've been intending for some time to do a post on Care Bear ethics. The Care Bears, of course, are virtue ethicists; like all good virtue ethicists, they are cute, cuddly, and preachy. Unlike most virtue ethicists, however, they drive cloud cars and shoot rainbows out of their tummy symbols.

The Last Professors

Inside Higher Ed has an interview with Frank Donoghue on his new book The Last Professors. It's a must-read for academics; it makes a number of points worth a bit of rumination. (I think that the problems identified are especially acute in philosophy.) And he makes a point that I've tried to make before to my colleagues and have not been able to get through to them: academia as we know it -- namely, academia focused on departments of tenured faculty -- is for all practical purposes dead. Tenured professors themselves could have prevented this, but they failed to do so; indeed, were heavily complicitous in it. And the system has been collapsing for too long to make reversal likely:

The tenure-track professoriate will never be restored. Two factors seal its fate. First, the hiring of adjuncts continues to outpace the hiring of tenure-track professors by a rate of three to one. It’s silly to think we can reverse the trend toward casualization when, despite a great deal of attention and effort, we can’t even slow it down. Second, the demographics of American higher education don’t help us either. For 40 years, students have been moving away from the humanities toward vocationalism. This trend has been accompanied by an equally pronounced shift in enrollments from four-year schools (with English and History majors) to community colleges, where the humanities have never had a strong presence. Tenure-track professors don’t have a place in this new higher education universe. Much as it pains me to say it, I never considered putting a question mark at the end of my title, The Last Professors.

Nostalgia aside, I think it needs to be pointed out that this need not be a bad thing, or, at least, a wholly bad thing. The form of academia we know is not sacrosanct and writ in stone; it itself is the result of a long series of reforms of, and revolutions in, previous academic systems. It is in principle possible to build an excellent academic system that is grounded in adjunct faculty, one where such faculty have adequate support and resources, adequate pay, adequate benefits, adequate protection, and adequate flexibility to compensate for the lack of tenured faculty. It could be an excellent system. We are, of course, not building it. Instead we are grafting, ad hoc, an adjunct-dependent system on academia as we have known it, leaving us with a hybrid system that manages, with remarkable ingenuity, to combine most of the disadvantages of both. Nonetheless, it could turn out OK in the end. It's what happens between now and then that gives reason to worry.

The following passage touches on an even more essential issue:

For a hundred years, humanists claimed to follow Matthew Arnold’s exhortation to promulgate the best that has been thought and said. As universities have more and more come to function as occupational training centers, places where students come for vocational credentials, this charge has been emptied of any real meaning. It’s no longer relevant to the mission of most universities. And at those institutions where the liberal arts still flourish, prestige has taken the place of the Arnoldian mottoes. That is, the best universities now steer prospective students away from the content of the curriculum (literature, philosophy, history) and toward the signaling power of the institution itself.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Saint-Themed Poem Drafts

Combing through some old poem drafts. These are saint-themed; I noted some myth-themed ones previously.


The cedars grow tall on the Liban hills
with life beyond grasp of human will;
light grows bright around muddy grave
of a hermit-saint who hid his face;
the heart is kissed by burning light
of cedar rising to sun and sky
and, flaming with fire that sears the night,
it burns but is not burned.

Loyola at Llobregar

On the river-bank I sit,
water running past,
mind running past,
a path ever-moving.
It courses over stones,
overflowing matter,
dividing as a unity,
drawn to a natural place,
rushing like a music
to divine consummation.
The mind now prepared
by ten thousand disciplines
flows with the river
to the ocean of God.

Lull upon the Mountain

Like lightning in the storm
where bolts of God rain down
was the conversion of the wheels,
the wheels within the wheels,
the Principles of All
in never-ceasing orbit!

The lights were strangely shining
in the fallen mountain-darkness
when Raymond saw the wheels,
the wheels within the wheels,
the glory of the signs
in ever-turning circles!

Peace pours out like oceans,
tumbling in the darkness;
Ophanim move in glory,
the wheels within the wheels,
the holy presence racing
in a chariot of fire!

The Triumph of St. Catherine

Behold the worldy-wise bent down,
the brilliance of the earthly minds,
the best of all the men who know,
all brought to shame, refuted all,
all answered with the purest truth
and conquered by a woman's word!

The vestige of the Spirit's power,
its print upon the sands of time,
is here, the maid, the queen who knows,
who overcomes the present age,
the darkness in high places!

They seek to break, the rack they bring,
to torture truth to fit their whims;
the rack she breaks. She overcomes!
God bless Queen Catherine, Spirit-wise!

They seek to burn, to turn to ash,
to make as nothing Gospel truth;
they set the virgin on the wood
and light the flame - she does not burn.
The flames can only purify,
but in God's love she is most pure.
God bless Maid Catherine, Spirit-wise!

Behold the godless Caesar's host
of answer-men and scholars wise,
all wordly men who serve the gods
of lucre, politics, and death,
bent down and puzzled by this truth:
The maiden, Church-like in her faith,
cannot be broken, cannot burn!

They bring the sword to pierce her soul,
it enters in her tender side
and blood flows out as with Christ -
she is a witness in her death,
she mimics Him in sacrifice,
a martyr true attesting truth.
The blood by which she lives flows out,
and she is born amid the pangs
of Christ who births us on the Cross
into His everlasting life!

All are silent, overcome,
uncertain what they saw that day:
the truth could not be made to break,
the truth could not be made to burn,
and blood itself, from stigma pierced,
seemed to witness to God's truth.

The vestige of the Spirit's power,
its print upon these changing sands,
is here, the maid, the queen who knows,
who overcomes the present age,
the darkness in the highest places!
She has the martyr's palm in hand -
God bless Saint Catherine, Spirit-wise!

And here is a myth-themed poem that I seem to have missed:

As Zeus upon Danae

as Zeus upon Danae
the light in my eyes
breaks down upon me
fire on fire

gold floods of glory
envisioning truth
mind overflowing
I walk in a daze
breathed out by a God

Enlightened Shadows

Would that the memory of the fathers would exhale from the tombs;
Who were very simple as being wise;
And reverend as believing.
They without cavilling searched for, and came to the right path.
He gave the law;
The mountains melted away;
Fools broke through it.
By unclean ravens He fed Elijah at the desert stream;
And moreover gave from the skeleton honey unto Samson.
They judged not, nor inquired why it was unclean,
Why clean.

And when He made void the sabbaths,
The feeble Gentiles were clothed with health.
Samson took the daughter of the aliens,
And there was no disputing among the righteous;
The prophet also took a harlot,
And the just held their peace.
He blamed the righteous,
And He held up and lifted up their delinquencies:
He pitied sinners,
And restored them without cost:
And made low the mountains of their sins:
He proved God is not to be arraigned by men,
And, as Lord of Truth,
That His servants were His shadow;
And whatsoever way His will looked,
They directed also their own wills;
And because Light was in Him,
Their shadows were enlightened.

St. Ephraem the Syrian, Pearl VI.2-3

Monday, June 09, 2008

On Devil's Advocacy

Eliezer Yudkowsky has an odd post arguing against devil's advocacy, i.e., against playing the devil's advocate in argument. At least, that's what the post is supposed to be about; I'm not sure that it proves anything but that Yudkowsky himself would be an extraordinarily bad devil's advocate in any argument. Devil's advocacy doesn't involve finding and putting forward any argument, however absurd, for an opposing position. It's worthwhile to remember for a second the origin of the phrase. The Devil's Advocate was an informal name for the Promotor Fidei in a process of canonization. Canonizations are processes that can't be entirely isolated from human passions and enthusiasms, so it became clear early on that there need to be safeguards to prevent rash decisions motivated more by personal taste and interest than by concern for the Faith. Some of these safeguards are purely procedural, and from them we get the standard process Rome uses. The Promotor Fidei, however, is a special kind of safeguard: it is his job to guarantee, to the extent reasonably possible, that the Faith be protected from human rashness. This he does by raising any doubts and difficulties that a reasonable person might raise against the cause of a saint: he tries to find natural explanations for purported miracles, he tries to uncover selfish motives behind deeds of apparently great virtue, and so forth.

In argument someone playing devil's advocate takes on an analogous role. As the advocatus diaboli promotes the interests of the Faith in a field full of human passion and politics, so devil's advocates promote the interest of reason in a field full of human bias and oversight. Their role is not to rationalize opposing positions, any more than the role of the advocatus diaboli is to do the devil's work. Rather, the role they've taken on is to identify, clearly and straightforwardly, the attractions and strengths of the opposing arguments; and to identify, equally clearly and straightforwardly, the unattractive and apparently weak features of one's own argument. They are there to guarantee, to the extent possible, that bad arguments for correct positions do not slip through simply because they get the right answer (or what is thought to be so), and that good arguments for incorrect positions are not facilely dismissed simply because they get the wrong answer (or what is thought to be so). Yudkowsky is right that people who play games by thinking up arguments, however absurd, for a position, are simply being irrational; but this is to no point whatsoever: everyone knows that the devil's advocate is supposed to come up not with any old argument but with good or at least reasonably plausible arguments, arguments with at least some genuine strengths. People play devil's advocate for a reason, not simply in order to start making things up without any rational restraint. There are less elaborate and roundabout ways to play-pretend.

Yudkowsky does recognize that devil's advocacy can shake one out of a rut, but, oddly, his argument for the limitations of this seems to assume that people are only shaken out of a rut when they play devil's advocate for themselves. But this surely overlooks the fact that devil's advocacy is a social thing: one usually plays devil's advocate for another, to aid them in refining their argument, or to help them to fill in gaps that they might not be in a position to see; and when we do it for ourselves we are simply trying to imagine ourselves in the place of such a person. Nobody has exactly the same perspective on every argument, and it will often be the case that one person, while agreeing with the gist of the argument, sees a potential weakness or lacuna that another does not. Devil's advocacy is one way (only one of a great many, and not the most important, but certainly one way) that reason takes on a social aspect, breaking free of the confines of a single brain. Human beings are rational, and therefore social, animals, and devil's advocacy is an expression of the sociality of reason.

UPDATE: Yudkowsky has added a note indicating that he just hadn't considered the social aspect; that's certainly fair enough.

Mill on the Golden Rule

I must again repeat, what the assailants of utilitarianism seldom have the justice to acknowledge, that the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one's neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Links and Notes

* A bleg for all early modernists: one of the things I'm doing for Houyhnhnm Land is building a 'Houyhnhnm Land Bookshelf' (sample here, with individual entry sample here) -- in effect, a bibliography of important worthwhile scholarly work on early modern thought (of all kinds, albeit with special enthusiasm for the philosophical). If you have any recommendations, let me know!

* Tor Books, as part of a promotion, is giving free access to an online version of John C. Wright's Orphans of Chaos. If you haven't read it, I recommend it. (ht)

* Observing Evolution in a Laboratory and Zimmer's answers to some questions on it. Very, very cool.

* Vox Day has what is actually a decent examination (continued here) of the tired cliché "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." It's not precisely the argument I would make, but in the basic points he's certainly right, and I have not always managed to be as temperate about the slogan as he has; I have little patience for those particular sorts of uncritical clichés, which people put forward in order to pretend rational superiority, but nonetheless on closer examination turn out to be gibberish. There is no general quality of 'extraordinariness' that attaches to certain kinds of claims, or indeed, any univocal measure of ordinariness and extraordinariness adequate for all claims; claims are extraordinary relative to the baselines set by context and description. There is no general quality of 'extraordinariness' that attaches to evidence, nor any univocal measure of it adequate for including all evidence, and for similar reasons. Even if we assume otherwise, there is not, and never has been, good reason to think that the two are commensurable. Even if we assume that they were, there is not, and never has been, good reason to think that they are proportional; indeed, there is excellent reason to think otherwise. What 'extraordinary' claims require is what 'ordinary' claims require: evidence of a kind relevant to the relevant kind of inference. When you look at the uses of the cliché, you find that it just serves intellectual laziness: instead of doing the serious critical work required to dismiss some claims and support others, people try to define themselves into rightness by throwing slogans. And to that extent it doesn't matter if the claim they are rejecting is wrong: the response to the claim is even worse, because it is mumbo-jumbo of the most insidious sort, the most insidious sort being the kind that passes as sagacity among people who, when confronted with the claim, can't be bothered even to raise the simplest and most basic kinds of questions suggested by perfectly ordinary habits of critical thought. Questions like: "How do we non-arbitrarily determine extraordinariness? Is there a link between extraordinary claim and extraordinary evidence that is more than the purely verbal fact that we can use 'extraordinary' of both? What substantive evidential basis is there for thinking that the resulting principle applies to all kinds of claims and all kinds of evidence?" The failure to think through this sort of response does a disservice to everyone; instead of rejecting claims for solid evidential reasons we are expected to reject them for slippery sloganish ones.

* An interesting post at "denialism blog" on humility and confidence in the practice of medicine.

* Maureen O'Brien adapts a portion of the Ditié de Jehanne d'Arc into a draft of a hymn for St. Joan. By coincidence I have just been reading up on la Pucelle, one of my favorite saints. For those interested in reading the original work by Christine de Pisan (also a favorite of mine), there is an excellent website for it.

* Kenny Pearce discusses Representative Realism, Phenomenalism, and "Physical Talk". I'm sure he'd be interested in any comments on the subject.

* While its point is reasonable, I found this post by Alexander Pruss unintentionally funny, in a bittersweet way; in essence it reads: if you are commenting pseudonymously you should consider why you are unable to stand behind your views in public; but if you are untenured or a graduate student, you have good reasons not to stand behind your views in public. And, unfortunately, he's right in general -- and isn't that a half-funny, half-sad commentary on the shambles of our current academic system? It's set up so that freedom of thought and expression and intellectual courage are luxuries for the tenured. The rest of us, after all, have to kowtow to get a job. I suppose, though, it's not a new problem, but one that constantly crops up in some form or other; one is reminded of Hume's remark about castrating the Treatise in the hopes of impressing Butler.

* Eric Scerri, one of the big names in contemporary philosophy of chemistry, has a collection of papers on the subject coming out this next week. It doesn't really fall within my price range for academic works so far outside my own specialty, so I'll be looking for it to show up in a library, but when it does it will be nice to sit down and read it through all together. I haven't read all of his work, but what I have read has been great. With regard to the blogospheric discussion on philosophy of chemistry that I had recently mentioned, Scerri has a good paper online called The Case for the Philosophy of Chemistry (PDF).


* By the way, First Things seems to have failed to renew its domain name. Does anybody know if they've relocated?

* Interesting discussions of burden of proof here (with Part II here) and here.

Whatever Happened to Sublimity?

In the early modern period we see the beginnings of a major philosophical interest in the notion of the sublime, which increases for a while but eventually dies out. Certainly today you find very few people interested in it; and the few who have any interest in it at all seem to think that it was a purely aesthetic concept. This is unfortunate, because although it does have aesthetic application, this was not the sole reason for interest in it. A further reason was recognized at least as early as Burke, who mentions it in passing:

But let it be considered that hardly any thing can strike the mind with its greatness which does not make some sort of approach toward infinity; which nothing can do while we are able to perceive its bounds; but to see an object distinctly, and to perceive its bounds, are one and the same thing. A clear idea is, therefore, another name for a little idea.

(Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Part II, Section V.) Inquiry into the sublime, then, is inquiry into ideas that cannot be made clear and distinct, not from any defect in the idea, but from inadequacy in the human mind: sublime ideas are ideas that cannot be made wholly clear because they are inexhaustible, infinite in at least a loose sense, and there is too much to them. To use the Cartesian metaphor, they are mountains, and while your mind can touch them it cannot encircle them. And the subject is in part interesting because neither the 'rationalists' nor the 'empiricists' in the early modern period had tools that were obviously adequate for an account of such ideas. When Kant looks into the question of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment, he is not merely taking an idle interest in a question that people were interested in at that time, any more than his discussion of teleology is just the expression of an idle interest in design arguments. It's a matter of considerable epistemological moment; a failure to include the sublime would be a serious deficiency in the account, an open invitation for all sorts of errors. When the Romantics occasionally put great emphasis on the sublime, it is also not a mere expression of their interest in aesthetics; it is simultaneously a critique of alternative philosophical movements and at the heart of a movement for re-thinking our entire approach to philosophical questions. It even pops up in places you might not expect: Darwin, for instance, rightly recognizes that evolution is a sublime idea in the technical sense, and (in the notebooks especially) this fact occasionally is found as part of a criticism of some of his opponents: contrary to what they themselves would think, their world is small, a world without grandeur that has a God without sublime power and dignity, a world and a God that can be parsed entirely by little ideas. Evolution, on the other hand, as in the evolution of the eye, is something that reason can recognize in its general sweep but whose infinities -- countless little variations in countless steps over mind-bogglingly long ages -- exceed all imagination.

But what often strikes me when I look around at the philosophical scene today is how foreign this has all become. There are a few exceptions, but sublimity has vanished as a serious concern. We too live in a world of little ideas, or presumed to consist of nothing but little ideas. The danger of that, of course, is that it is a breeding ground for intellectual hubris at precisely the points where all our interests are most parochial.

C. S. Lewis on the Christian Society

If there were such a society in existence and you or I visited it, I think we should come away with a curious impression. We should feel that its economic life was very socialistic and, in that sense, 'advanced,' but that its family life and its code of manners were rather old fashioned--perhaps even ceremonious and aristocratic. Each of us would like some bits of it, but I am afraid very few of us would like the whole thing. That is just what one would expect if Christianity is the total plan for the human machine. We have all departed from that total plan in different ways, and each of us wants to make out that his own modification of the original plan is the plan itself. You will find this again and again about anything that is really Christian: every one is attracted by bits of it and wants to pick out those bits and leave the rest. That is why we do not get much further: and that is why people who are fighting for quite opposite things can both say they are fighting for Christianity.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, chapter 13