Friday, August 01, 2008

The Fleshly Character of Human Art

Among the arts of which man is the material, that which comes after the art of the body is the art of the mind, poetry. Thought can become the material of art only because it itself has its own body, namely language, the embodiment of the word. It is here that we see how all human art is necessarily carnal. Purely spiritual beings, who could communicate directly without the means of audible words in the form of sounds, would perhaps possess an art of the mind, but we cannot imagine what it would be like. Poetry is a human art like the rest only because it first of all addresses itself to the ear. Words, spoken, heard and understood, constitute its material.

Etienne Gilson, Forms and Substances in the Arts, p. 210.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Notes and Links

* Andrew Cullison has created Sympoze, a social bookmarking site for philosophers:
Social bookmarking is a way for social networks to collectively save, rate, and promote online content. At Sympoze users can submit links to philosophy content that they enjoy - from philosophy blog posts, links to unpublished papers, or links to published journal articles they enjoy or think other philosophers will enjoy.

Anyone can read the site, but active participation (submission and rating of content) is limited to graduate students and Ph.D.'s in philosophy, so if you fit either of those two profiles, think about joining. The site is still in construction-and-testing phase, but is already fairly interesting. One of the things that can be done on the site, and which hasn't had much test-driving yet, is group-building. If anyone joins and wants to form a History of Philosophy group, let me know. (We'll have to see if this ends up being suitable as a general philosophy site; there's always the danger of its becoming an overwhelmingly analytic site, devoted to whatever analytic-minded graduate students happen to be studying at the moment. But the way Andrew has set it up gives it room to grow into something more than that; so cross your fingers.)

* Ross Douthat discusses Chesterton and anti-Semitism (ht). The tricky thing with the common accusation that Chesterton was an anti-Semite is that he was pretty clearly also an anti-anti-Semite, and, as Douthat notes, attacked political anti-Semitism in particularly rather strongly; he was also a pro-Zionist. The culprit that occasionally leads to the anti-Semite charge is that Chesterton has a tendency to talk about groups of people by a sort of stereotype. The stereotypes are not taken uncritically from the culture around him, and are in some cases strikingly original (and also in some cases strikingly favorable to the people involved), but they are still there, and that gets him into trouble on subjects like women's suffrage or the Jewish people. Chesterton's discussions of the Jews are not wholly justifiable, and certain features can legitimately be considered anti-Semitic in some sense; but it's important, if we are to take problems of anti-Semitism seriously, that we not succomb to a stereotype of anti-Semitism, as if it could only take one form, or as if all forms were simply the same thing as Nazi Jew-hating. Anti-Semitism, like racism, sexism, etc., is often subtle, and can easily spring up even in the best of us if vigilance is not taken; sometimes it is clearly culpable, and sometimes it is more a matter of material complicity than culpability; sometimes it is global and sometimes it is sharply limited; sometimes it is rooted in malice and sometimes just in a relatively innocent ignorance; sometimes it is deliberately cultivated, sometimes it arises through negligence, and sometimes someone is just a little too slow to think through the matter, so that the weed lasts longer than it should; sometimes the problem is that the means of vigilance were neglected, and sometimes that they didn't at the time exist; and so forth. There are many distinctions that have to be made if anti-Semitism is to be treated properly, because most such distinct types have to be handled differently if rememdy is to be found.

* The Atheist Game. (ht) A little bit sarcastic, but it's at least worth a chuckle.

* Fr. Dwight Longenecker interviews Anne Rice.

* John Wilkins questions whether Herbert Spencer was really a Social Darwinist.

* Chad Orzel is collecting titles of science fiction stories suitable for teaching ethics.

* The naivete of this opinion piece on religion by Minette Marrin (ht) astounds me:

So-called religious community leaders, or umbrella groups of religious bodies, must of course be free to associate as they like in private, in a free country, but publicly they must be ignored. Publicly they must not teach or promote illegal prejudices. Forced into the private sphere, denied the oxygen of publicity, power and influence, highly politicised religious groups will wither on the vine. Perhaps, in that wonderful phrase of Yeats, they might even wither into truth.

Setting aside the question of how such an approach can even be made consistent with liberal democracy, this seems to me not a recipe for eliminating religious extremism, but for intensifying it. To deny "publicity, power and influence" to religious groups is effectively to deny them to some people in matters that they regard as most important; what would wither on the vine are the moderate religious groups that perform the social function of pulling people who would otherwise be extremist into the mainstream; and marginalizing the rest in matters they consider important puts pressure on them to politicize further and engage in even more extreme tactics.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hume's So-Called 'In'Principle Argument' Against Miracles

Everyone who studies a given philosopher, or, I suppose, just about anything, has their own mental laundry list of clean-up points, by which I mean the set of common misunderstandings that, come what may, you are going to eliminate. Of course, this is optimistic thinking, since the laundry list gets longer and longer as time goes on, but something about those misunderstandings puts you on a mission to eliminate them.

One of the entries on my laundry list is the so-called 'in-principle argument' in Part I of Hume's essay on Miracles. This argument has haunted interpretation of Hume like the Flying Dutchman has haunted the Seven Seas; it is a ghost argument. In the history of philosophy you run across such ghost arguments from time to time: people begin seeing arguments in texts that are not there, but to someone reading them with certain presuppositions (not least of which is the mere expectation of finding the argument there), it looks like it is there. In the case of long-term hauntings this is often due to some quirk of the text that makes the real argument difficult to understand, and, as the ghost argument usually makes sense (even if it is rejected), it becomes easy to see things in the text that look like the ghost, and to ignore things in the text that are inconsistent with it, sometimes even explicitly so. This is precisely the case with the 'in-principle argument'.

The essay on Miracles falls into two parts. Much of Part II is fairly easy to follow; it consists of a number of a posteriori arguments against testimony for miracles, empirical evidences for regarding it as unreliable. Part I, however, is not so obvious. Its explicit conclusion is a rather puzzling play on words: "no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior." It appeals to a complicated psychological mechanism, talks of proofs balancing proofs, and has many more puzzling characteristics. But Hume does say that there is "a uniform experience against every miraculous event" and that "as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle." That sounds pretty critical of miracles, and we know in any case from Part II that Hume is not impressed by testimony for miracles, and so people have naturally taken Part I to be an argument against miracles. Moreover, since there is a uniform experience against every miracle, and such uniform experience is a "direct and full proof" against the existence of any miracle, what can be more natural than reading Part I as an argument that testimony of miracles should be rejected in principle. It has the advantage of giving the essay a pleasing symmetry: Part I is the in-principle argument, Part II is, so to speak, the in-practice argument. It's a two-pronged attack against testimony for miracles, and looks quite clever. It's not surprising that it keeps appearing when people read the text.

But the text clearly cannot bear this interpretation. Part I has no in-principle argument against miracles. In fact, it has no argument against miracles at all. It's the set-up for the real argument, which is found in Part II. When Hume tells us that uniform experience is a "direct and full proof" against the existence of any miracle, he does not leave it at that. He immediately goes on to say, "nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior." And in the paragraph prior to this one, he tells us what he is doing:

But in order to encrease the probability against the testimony of witnesses, let us suppose, that the fact, which they affirm, instead of being only marvellous, is really miraculous; and suppose also, that the testimony considered apart and in itself, amounts to an entire proof; in that case, there is proof against proof, of which the strongest must prevail, but still with a diminution of its force, in proportion to that of its antagonist.

Proof against proof! Hume has set us up in a situation in which we have a "direct and full proof" that miracles don't happen, and an "entire proof" that at least one has. So, he says, we are to take subtract the force of the weaker proof from the force of the stronger proof, and accept the conclusion of the stronger proof with whatever force it has left after the subtraction. We don't think of proofs as capable of having opposites; but Hume does. We don't think of "entire proofs" or "full proofs" as coming in degrees; but Hume does. If you have any doubts about this, I give you Hume's own words, in his response to Campbell's attack on him on this point:

Text not available
A Dissertation on Miracles Containing an Examination of the Principles Advanced by David Hume, in an Essay on Miracles, with a Correspondence on the Subject by Mr. Hume, Dr. Campbell, and Dr. Blair, to which are Added Sermons and Tracts By George Campbell

Deciding not to explain this point in future editions was perhaps a mistake, because it has often been overlooked. In Part I Hume explicitly supposes that we have a full proof for the miracle; and the conclusion he draws is not that testimony for a miracle should be rejected in principle, but that it should be rejected unless it is a sufficiently strong proof to override the proof of the laws of nature. Recognizing this we understand what Hume is really doing in Part II: he is arguing that, in fact, no testimony for religious miracles ever attains to this standard. And this is what he explicitly says he is doing, right at the beginning of Part II:

In the foregoing reasoning we have supposed, that the testimony, upon which a miracle is founded, may possibly amount to an entire proof, and that the falsehood of that testimony would be a real prodigy: But it is easy to shew, that we have been a great deal too liberal in our concession, and that there never was a miraculous event established on so full an evidence.

So there is no in-principle argument against miracles in Part I of the essay, indeed, no argument against miracles at all; he is simply setting up the argument in Part II. It's easy to see why the ghost haunts interpretations of the text, but it is a ghost. It is time that we finally salted that grave.

Cross-posted at Houyhnhnm Land.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Social Justice Hospitaller

I'm not really a liberal, I guess, but I hope that if neo-Confederate conservative troglodytes were to invade in order to roll back civil rights gains, I would be preventing them with just indignation, and dispatching them quickly to their demon-god Laogzed. (ht)

How to Win a Fight With a Conservative is the ultimate survival guide for political arguments

My Liberal Identity:

You are a Social Justice Crusader, also known as a rights activist. You believe in equality, fairness, and preventing neo-Confederate conservative troglodytes from rolling back fifty years of civil rights gains.

Imputation and Adoption in Calvin

Rebecca has a post on the theological term, imputation. It put me in mind of a passage from Calvin that I've always found very striking because of the close link Calvin sees between imputation and adoption. I find that Reformed theologians tend to divide on the question; everyone agrees that there is some link, but how close the link is appears to be a matter of considerable disagreement: some take adoption to be imputation seen in light of another metaphor, others as a subordinate element of imputation, others as the effect of imputation, others as distinct and independent but closely associated. Calvin, at least in the following passage, appears to hold them related as means to end: God imputes Christ's righteousness to us as the means of adoption in Christ.

First, we maintain, that of what description soever any man's works may be, he is regarded as righteous before God simply on the footing of gratuitous mercy; because God, without any respect to works, freely adopts him in Christ, by imputing the righteousness of Christ to him, as if it were his own. This we call the righteousness of faith: that is, when a man, made void and empty of all confidence in works, feels convinced that the only ground of his acceptance with God is a righteousness which is wanting to himself, and is borrowed from Christ.

The point on which the world always goes astray (for this error has prevailed in almost every age) is in imagining that man, however partially defective he may be, still in some degree merits the favor of God by works. But scripture declares, "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them" [Gal. 3:10]. Under this curse must necessarily lie all who are judged by works ­ none being exempted save those who entirely renounce all confidence in works, and put on Christ, that they may be justified in him, by the gratuitous acceptance of God.

The ground of our justification, therefore, is that God reconciles us to himself, from regard not to our works, but to Christ alone, and, by gratuitous adoption, makes us, instead of children of wrath, to be his own children. So long as God looks to our works, he perceives no reason why he ought to love us. Wherefore, it is necessary to bury our sins, and impute to us the obedience of Christ (because [his is] the only obedience which can stand his scrutiny), and adopt us as righteous through his merits.

John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1453), Part II ("The Remedies Employed for the Correction of the Evils")

When Doctors Agree

One of my favorite short stories by Chesterton is When Doctors Agree, in The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond. I've often thought that it would be interesting to discuss in an Ethics course; in any case, it's well worth reading. A passage from the story, which sets up the basic point one finds in the title:

"There was no difference," said Pond, "between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. You will remember that it is distinctly recorded that they agreed. But remember what they agreed about."

Wotton looked a little baffled and finally grunted: "Well, if these fellows have agreed, I suppose there will be a little peace."

"Funny things, agreements," said Pond. "Fortunately people generally go on disagreeing, till they die peacefully in their beds. Men very seldom do fully and finally agree. I did know two men who came to agree so completely that one of them naturally murdered the other; but as a rule . . ."

"'Agreed so completely,'" said Wotton thoughtfully. "Don't you--are you quite sure you don't mean: 'Disagreed so completely'?"

Gahagan uttered a sort of low whoop of laughter. "Oh, no," he said, "he doesn't mean that. I don't know what the devil he does mean; but he doesn't mean anything so sensible as that."

I'm reminded of the story every time someone says we should 'hold nothing sacred'; I often wonder if they would really prefer to live in a world where nobody held (e.g.) human rights sacred, or truth sacred, or human lives sacred. No way to tell for sure, I suppose; but it certainly is true that the sort of people who go around saying that we should 'hold nothing sacred' haven't usually thought through what they are saying, nor considered the possibility that it is a sort of aid and comfort to kook and killer alike.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Abba Poimen on Casting Out Malice

"You cannot cast out malice with malice," Saint Poimen says. "Thus, if your brother does you some wrong, try to repay him with good. Only goodness can conquer malice."

Sayings of the Desert Fathers