Saturday, July 26, 2008

Clarity in Philosophy

One of the things I like about Turretin on perspicuity is that it's clear enough that the distinctions used are not ad hoc, nor do they arise purely out of polemics (even though polemics is never far away with Protestant scholasticism). You can see this from the fact that several of the distinctions used in the discussion are generalizable to other arenas where clarity or lucidity is important. For instance, I've been fairly critical of the confusions and conflations people tend to make when talking about clarity as a value in philosophy; some of these are highlighted by distinctions Turretin makes.

For instance, when we say that a philosophical text is clear, we may mean either that its content is clear or that the way the content is presented is clear. Indeed, the distinction is crucial, because if you look at some of the things in philosophy that are lauded as 'clear', it's pretty clear that it can't be the content, but only something about how that content is laid out. But sometimes you also find 'clarity' being used as a filter for weeding out not just bad style of presentation but also positions that are themselves thought obscure, regardless of how well they are presented. The term 'clarity' may verbally appear in each discussion, but not with the same sense.

For another, clarity is sometimes attributed to a work only on condition of certain necessary but difficult steps having been taken in interpretation, and sometimes attributed to it on the basis that no difficult steps have to be taken to interpret it. An example of where discussions usually end up being very ambiguous on this point are the common criticisms of Hegel or Heidegger as being unclear: it's often unclear which of these two grounds is met. It's pretty clear that it's difficult to get to the point where Hegel or Heidegger is clear, requiring some discipline, study, and familiarity with particular methods, approaches, and positions. But proponents of Hegel and Heidegger would often say that there is a point where they become clear on key points, however difficult it may be to reach; whereas some of their critics appear to take the fact that you can't just pick up Heidegger and understand right off the bat as a reason for thinking Heidegger is an unclear author; which is a confusion.

And so forth. There are plenty of kinds of clarity that are valuable; but they are not the same, and distinctions need to be maintained. The distinction between formal and effective clarity (the clarity of the work versus the clarity it gives to other things once understood) is one that I confess that I myself have sometimes not made as I should.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Turretin on Perspicuity of Scripture

I've been reading Turretin on perspicuity of Scripture, and found it interesting the extent to which he explicitly qualifies the question. That there were such qualifications I had already known (and have argued here once or twice), but Turretin lays it out very nicely. He identifies the following as what is not meant by 'perspicuity of Scripture':

(1) It does not mean that Scripture is clear and easy to interpret for everyone; interpretation of Scripture requires illumination of the Spirit. So it's not perspicuity on the part of the subject (the reader) but on the part of the object (Scripture).

(2) It does not mean that there are no mysteries in Scripture, i.e., content so sublime that human understanding cannot exhaust it, and could not be known by us at all without divine condescension. So it's not perspicuity on the part of the content but on the part of the way it is presented.

(3) It does not mean that no interpretation or exposition is ever required; not everything in Scripture is equally clear, and some things require profound study. So it's not universal perspicuity, but perspicuity in things necessary to salvation.

(4) It does not mean that matters necessary to salvation are clearly presented wherever they are found.

(5) It does not mean that interpreting Scripture involves no necessary means for interpretation (and among these Turretin includes, at least for all cases not involving special divine intervention, "the voice and ministry of the church, lectures and commentaries, prayers and vigils").

So that's what it is not. What, then, is it? Turretin puts it this way: Scripture is understandable

(1) in matters necessary for salvation
(2) not with regard to the reader but with regard to Scripture itself
(3) in such a way that it can be read and understood salutarily without appeal to external traditions.

And he argues that this is true on the basis of

(1) Scriptural statements of lucidity;
(2) God's being the Father of lights;
(3) Scripture's purpose being to serve as canon and rule of faith and morals;
(4) The actual ease of understanding the basic message;
(5) Its function as a covenant or treaty between God and ourselves.

A very interesting discussion, and recommended for those who occasionally find themselves, willy-nilly, in sola-scriptura wars.

They Will Grow Like a Cedar of Lebanon

Yesterday was the feast of Youssef Antoun Makhlouf, a.k.a. St. Charbel, a.k.a. St. Sharbel, so here's a small something reposted in honor of the great modern hermit.


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.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Yet Another Book Meme

Bold means I've read it through; Italic means I've started it but not finished it. The claim going around with the list (the source is unknown to me) is that the average American has only read six of these. Despite the fact that a number of these are standard high school fare, I actually wouldn't be too surprised if that's true. You can see, incidentally, that two of the places in the Really Classic classics that I'm weak are Dickens and Tolstoy. (ht)

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Jender has an interesting post at "Feminist Philosophers" on a case of a prejudice I'd never heard of, the idea that, because August children take a bit of a hit on testing, at least in English state schools, they will "do less well academically" and that we should "not expect too much" from them.

I found this quote from that article interesting:

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of Schools and College Leaders, said: "You don't do your children any favours by having them in July or August."

Which is an odd way of putting it, since it suggests something like, "Parents, due to entirely arbitrary features of our school system, summer children are put at a completely unnecessary disadvantages; you should stop having summer children." I doubt that was precisely what Dunford meant, and possibly he was simply misunderstood by the reporter; but that's what the words suggests.

In any case, I found it an interesting case (as Jender suggests it is) of accumulating penalties on fairly trivial grounds due to biases; particularly as I'm an August boy myself.

The Second Failure of Academia

There has been some discussion recently of whether senior philosophers have an obligation to retire, given the difficulties of the job market (here, here, and here, in various tones of voice). I think it's pretty clear that they don't (the question survives in another, weaker form, namely, whether senior philosophers should generally regard it as good for the profession and act accordingly; which I'll let senior philosophers decide), although I must say it has been extraordinarily amusing how quickly senior philosophers have jumped in to deny it. What has struck me about the whole conversation, though, is that everyone assumes that retirement is and must be the end of the road: that the only reason you'd retire is because you've become dead wood. And no one has recognized that this is a symptom of a profound failure on our part, one almost as profound as the failure to prevent 'adjunctification'. It is utterly absurd that we have no standard options after retirement for senior philosophers who still want to be actively involved in philosophy. If anything, retirement should standardly be the next stage after tenure, not an exit from the field but another kind of removal of constraints. Perhaps we get something vaguely like this in how some departments treat emeritus professors; but only vaguely, and only like. We are failing people at the end as we are at the beginning. But what gets me is that everyone takes it for granted: suggest retirement and it is assumed you are suggesting uselessness -- and, given the way the system's set up, that's a not unreasonable assumption. But it needs to be brought to consciousness that this is a failure that needs to be overcome, not a reasonable feature of the landscape.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Henry Crawford

Henry Crawford had too much sense not to feel the worth of good principles in a wife, though he was too little accustomed to serious reflection to know them by their proper name; but when he talked of her having such a steadiness and regularity of conduct, such a high notion of honour, and such an observance of decorum as might warrant any man in the fullest dependence on her faith and integrity, he expressed what was inspired by the knowledge of her being well principled and religious.

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Chapter 30. I trust everyone has had the experience of talking with someone who was "too little accustomed to serious reflection" to know virtues and principles by their proper name, and thus talk vaguely of some valuable thing under the name of some other valuable thing.

I trust also that everyone has had the experience on occasion of doing this very thing themselves. I do not trust, however, that everyone recognizes that they have had the experience.

Love in the Right Key

Text not available
Letters Concerning the Love of God, Between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris Wherein His Late Discourse, Showing that it Ought to be Intire and Exclusive of All Other Loves, is Further Cleared and Justified By John Norris, Mary Astell

This is in a letter from Astell to Norris.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Three Poem Drafts

A Gazelle on Saydnaya

What more graceful
sign of grace,
an icon for She
who kissed God's face?

What better end
to the flight-stretching bow
than heaven's bright glory
shot forth from the throne?

Cain slew Abel here;
man slew man.
But the gazelle leaps still
on Saydnaya's hills.

Laid Low

Every life ends in lonely grief;
all lovers rise and, rising, softly leave;
the lights upon the high and canvas sky
glimmer off and fade, afraid to die
but dying nonethless into endless void;
and I am left to live with loss and lie.

The wind on stormy wave moves the sea
but on the sand-scored stone there will not be
the slightest tremor; Heaven let it be
the stone, not sea, that settles inside me.

Every sun will set to gnawing night;
all faith to fear, and reverence to flight;
all love to loss, as sweetness turns to sigh;
all life to death, for love itself can die
and fall in shallow grave, mourned beside the road;
my mind alone is left, and shattered heart, to cry.

The sailor in the storm swallowed by the sea
struggles in his pain, but then is free;
first fear from love of life, but from life then freed.
Swiftly come the last; the first -- short may it be.

People always leave; that's what people do.
We have new friends to lose our friends anew;
not knowledge, might, or wealth will surcease buy,
for all will cease, all will fall, all will die,
all will fail, all deeds and works of man,
all laid low that once, but once, was high.

Can Even Death

All this world's minions
before death come to flatter;
but if I love you,
can even death matter?
The world's many waters
in tide and in flood
pour down upon us;
bt see -- all is good.
If you love me,
what does death matter?
By force and by arrow,
by bullet to brain,
by harm to the soul,
by tortures of pain,
if love bonds us both,
what death can then matter?
The stars in their courses
circle above;
God in His grace
descends like a dove;
though all this world's minions
before death come to flatter,
if our God is Love,
can even death matter?