Saturday, August 23, 2008


I was doing something or other and it struck me, with a kind of fascination, that there is a fair chance that the Hospitallers will reach their 1000-year mark in my lifetime -- an excellent chance, actually, if I'm not taken out by accident or serious disease. The usual date for the birth of the Hospitallers is 1048; there's some uncertainty about that, but it would be about that time that the Blessed Gerard founded the monastic community that began running a hospital for pilgrims. This was solidified into a formal religious order in 1113; after which the Order began to take on its military duties -- i.e., protection of the sick, of pilgrims, and of the Crusader territories. In 1530, the Hospital was granted the island of Malta, whence they take their modern name, the Knights of Malta. (The full name of the Order is the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. That's a name!) Unlike the Templars, the other famous military order, they were never dissolved. They no longer control Malta, having been driven off by Napoleon, but they still exist, and in the past century have begun massively expanding their original Hospitaller mission. According to the Order's website,

The Order relies on the involvement of its 12,500 members, as well as approximately 80,000 trained volunteers and 15,000 employees, the majority of whom are medical personnel. The Order's organisations worldwide (Grand Priories, National Associations, relief organisations and foundations) are responsible for carrying out its activities, both in its the permanent institutions - such as hospitals, outpatient medical centres and old peoples' homes - and with its socio-medical and humanitarian programmes.

It runs a number of hospitals in Germany, France, England, and Italy, including one in Rome that specializes in neurology; it also has 11 medical centers in Lebanon, leprosy hospitals in Senegal and Cambodia, and the only hospital in northern Haiti. It has a maternity hospital in Bethlehem (the Bethlehem), which has delivered more than 40,000 babies. Its relief service, Malteser International, operates throughout the world. (One of the advantages the Order of Malta has over most other humanitarian agencies is that it is a distinct diplomatic and international entity. It has its own government, issues its own internationally recognized stamps and coins, and is a Permanent Observer in the United Nations; it operates a diplomatic corps and has official diplomatic relations with over half the nations of the world. In this day and age it is also rigorously neutral. The combination of the two means that the Order can often operate its relief services where where others would have difficulty doing so.) And all of this only scratches the surface.

Those who want to do so can support Malteser International through its online donation page.

David Hume and the Existential Quantifier

As I've said before, one advantage of doing History of Philosophy is that it yields real evidence. For instance, instead of pretending that you know offhand what 'The Mind-Body Problem' is, you look at what people have said through the years and decades and centuries about mind and body and the problems association with the union of the two; and you start exploring the ways in which an Aristotelian approach (for instance) is different from a Cartesian one; and you start realizing that this version of the problem requires that assumption and that one requires this assumption; and then when you actually talk about 'The Mind-Body Problem' you actually know what you are talking about. (This is what I've blogged about before under the name, 'The Problem of the Philosophical Problem', which sounds a bit like a Sherlock Holmes mystery.) But another advantage is that it also frees you up for more purely imaginative things, like asking dead philosophers questions they could not possibly have been asked when alive and figuring out, within a degree of plausibility, what answers they could have given.

Suppose, for instance, we asked David Hume about existential quantifiers and their relation to particular quantifiers. Does "There is at least one x" imply that at least one x exists? And it's interesting that there really is only one answer that could be given by him. On Hume's account, existence only has to do with matters of fact, not relations of ideas. We can quantify over relations of ideas using a particular quantifier, e.g., "There is at least one type of triangle that does not have right angles." On a Humean view this can have nothing to do with existence; it merely shows how two ideas, triangles and right angles, are related to each other, i.e., they do not exclude each other, but the former does not require the latter. Existence is not even remotely in view. So David Hume would have to say that some cases of particular quantification are not existential.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Links for Thinking

* Graham Priest's "The Closing of the Mind: How the Particular Quantifier Became Existentially Loaded Behind Our Backs" is currently available online from The Review of Symbolic Logic. (ht) There are a few places where one can question the history (particularly in the medieval period, which is very tricky on this point), but the basic point of the paper is one that I've made here more than once: particular quantifiers needn't be existential, and existential quantifiers needn't be particular. Perhaps now that Priest has said it people will start paying attention.

* John Wilkins notes some problems with much of the 'worldviews'-based thinking in recent evangelical apologetics. He also has an interesting post on agriculture and the rise of religion.

* Shen Yi-Liao has an interesting discussion of the role and reliability of intuitions at "Go Grue". There are things I would say differently, but I agree very strongly with the basic point of the argument.

* An interesting discussion of wars of humanitarian interventionby Adam Kirsch, discussing Gary Bass's Freedom's Battle. (ht) The editor's headline for the article is a bit misleading; humanitarian intervention is a different issue from just war theory (the latter of which may or may not allow humanitarian intervention, and the former of which may or may not be consistent with just war theory).

* Some criticisms by Brian Scholl on survey methods in 'experimental philosophy'. Scholl makes more precise the common biting criticism of the X-phi movement that it's really just thought experiments with polls.

* How to Study a Quaestio; this was pointed out to me by Phil in a discussion at "Blogging Aquinas"

* An MSNBC article about the Vatican Observatory; it is discussed at Insight Scoop. It's a bit amusing that Dawkins misunderstood Fr. Coyne's claim that reasons aren't enough for believing in God as "there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe in God."

* Jimmy Akin finished that review of Card's Ender series that I had mentioned a while back. The posts:
Ender's Game
Speaker for the Dead
Children of the Mind

* Greg Baus brought my attention to this blog, which is a study-guide-in-progress to Dooyeweerd's In the Twilight of Western Thought.

* The tacky overuse of the word 'Yahweh', that purely speculative reconstruction of the Ineffable Name, has been one of my pet peeves since college; so I thought this was good liturgical news.

* Masab Yousef, the son of a major Hamas leader, is a convert to Christianity. While he was never especially involved in the organization himself, he did assist his father in a number of ways. In this interview he discusses his change of heart:
It began about eight years ago. I was in Jerusalem and I received an invitation to come and hear about Christianity. Out of curiosity I went. I was very enthusiastic about what I heard. I began to read the Bible every day and I continued with religion lessons. I did it in secret, of course. I used to travel to the Ramallah hills, to places like the Al Tira neighborhood, and to sit there quietly with the amazing landscape and read the Bible. A verse like "Love thine enemy" had a great influence on me.

* An interesting Moyers interview with Andrew Bacevich

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Waltzing and Algebra

This is the best description of Lady Mary Shepherd I have come across. It's from Elizabeth Barrett Barett, who would later be known as Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Barett had known Lady Mary Shepherd briefly, but was better acquainted with her daughter, Miss Mary Shepherd. The emphases are her own.

Lady Mary IS a singular woman. I think gratefully of her from some passages of kindness which passed from her to me, when I wanted kindness most, & the saddest of domestic losses was nearer than I thought or would think. I believe her to be a kind woman--a better if not a higher name than a great metaphysician. Have you seen her books upon the External Universe & Cause & effect? She has high talents--but has not perhaps been operative enough to have done much undone before, altho' quite enough to raise her own name above the multitude. Metaphysicians, & I suspect, poets, shd. live in a cave,--or at least live so, as to form habits of concentration & abstraction. Lady Mary (so her daughter told me) used to waltz until she was tire, & then sit down to write about algebra. Her daughter at once admired & feared her--feared her very much--& nobody else in the world. She seeemed to love--in the clear meaning of love...her father--with no fear in that love. There was love too in abundance, I am sure, between the metaphysician & the dramatist--& Lady Mary used to say jestingly--"We are very much in love with each other". Notwithstanding which, he used by her own account to take up his hat & walk out whenever she began to dissert (she does dissert you know) upon primary & secondary qualities in matter--and she on the other hand was the authority in all domestic matters & would'nt suffer any interference--"What can he know about children? Why he was only a boy when I married him". Just those words! I am certain this time about the syllables. They are unforgettable.

Letter 59 in The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford 1836-1854, Volume I, Meredith B. Raymond and Mary Rose Sullivan, eds. Wedgestone Press (Winfield, KS: 1983) pp. 154-155. The "domestic loss" is likely the death of her mother in October 1828.

You have to love the description of Lady Mary waltzing until she was tired then sitting down to write about algebra. That sums her up so well. Elizabeth emphasizes the kindness of Lady Mary in a number of places, as well as her rather intimidating character. As she puts it more than once, Shepherd was simultaneously kind and terrible:

Lady Mary Shepherd is a kind & cordial woman--& I admire her talents & conversational eloquence. But she is 'terrible' notwithstanding, without the intent to be so--& whenever I used to like to hear her talk, it was always under the proviso, that she did'nt talk to me. And I have know gentlemen shrink away from her, from a mor definite fear than mine--for fear of being examined in metaphysics!!--Yet, I admire & like her--& the strongest remembrance I have of the short & distant period of our acquaintance is a grateful one. She once gave me sympathy when I needed it.

Letter 36 (p. 83). This all accords with what we know from other sources.

Bellarminian Apocrypha

Apocryphal stories have considerable tenacity, and so it is often interesting to see the course of apocryphal stories about figures that interest you. I have some interest in Bellarmine, and so I was interested in this instance (ht) of Bellarminian apocrypha in the wild:
Or they suppose that science speaks with one voice, and the only dissenters must be Luddites such as the notorious Cardinal Bellarmine, who allegedly refused to look through Galileo's telescope, whereas the truth is that many of Galileo's assertions, including those about the pendulum, were contested by careful observers, including Descartes and Mersenne, probably the leading physicists of the time.

I'm glad the 'allegedly' is there, even if its force seems partly impeded by the 'notorious'. I've seen this apocryphal story, about Bellarmine refusing to look through the telescope, in a number of places recently. Apocryphal tales generally divide into those we know to be false and those that, despite being doubtful, can't be ruled out; this is very definitely in the former class. We know it is false because (for instance) a few days after Galileo's demonstration, Bellarmine wrote to the mathematics faculty at the Collegio Romano asking for their opinion of the phenomena; in the letter he says explicitly that he himself has seen very marvellous things concerning the moon and Venus through the telescope. (He wanted to know their opinion on whether these and other features of Galilean astronomy were real or artifacts of the telescope itself, which was a very reasonable question to ask.) This apocryphal story, like many others, appears to be a mutation of a prior story, in which Cremonini is the person refusing to look through the telescope: Cremonini, even though he was one of the major Italian intellectuals of the time, is virtually unknown today, but the association of the name of Bellarmine with that of Galileo is relatively well-known, so it is unsurprising that people start substituting his name. Cremonini was very much an Aristotelian, and he and Galileo clashed on the subject a number of times; there is reason to believe that Cremonini is the model for Galileo's character Simplicio. However, Cremonini also seems to have looked through the telescope; we seem to have a quotation from him by a third party in which he said he didn't see anything and looking through the telescope gave him a headache. So it's an apocryphal story about Cremonini, too; one that probably splices together a number of different events into a fiction that makes the point. I don't know of anyone who has traced the actual history of this particular apocryphal tale (which is very tricky to do).

This has very little to do with most of Blackburn's review, of course; it's a quite good review of Sokal's Beyond the Hoax.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A History of Philosophy PSA

While I criticize particular academic approaches and features of academia pretty often, I only very rarely rant against my fellow academics, because they are, like planet Earth, mostly harmless; even the most prima-donna-like of us (and there are always a few candidates for that position in the academic yearbook) are in the vast majority of cases just engaging in arrogant silliness, or unacceptably discourteous behavior, because, believe it or not, they really and truly don't know any better. Because they were bright, and in some cases prodigiously so, nobody ever bothered to sit them down and teach them how to be intellectual adults, so they go through life still trying to remain tantrum-ridden prodigy-children. And when others, much more well-behaved, say things that sound dimwitted, you can often find, if you are patient, that one of three things has happened:

(1) They know what they are talking about but expressed themselves badly;
(2) They know what they are talking about, and expressed themselves just fine, but you misunderstood;
(3) They don't know what they are talking about, but their misstep was due to an honest mistake such as any of us might have made for any number of reasons and therefore, for reciprocity's sake, should be at most gently corrected and nothing more.

But there are absurdities that try one's patience in the extreme, and I recently came across one that put me in a state where for a moment I felt that I either wanted to find and strangle the other person in exasperation or strangle myself in despair, or both simultaneously. I will not name names, or anything like that, but the type of event it exemplifies is one I've run across more than once before, and it is a type of event that just has to stop, so here's a purely hypothetical, purely fictionalized scenario that blends features from a number of cases I've come across.

Suppose you were reading a journal article by an analytic philosopher, who we'll call, picking two names from books currently on my desk that have nothing to do with this, Norman Anton. And Dr. Anton does analytic philosophy of consciousness, let's say, and what is more, as a rule it's work that is respected. Dr. Anton is no fool. In this article, Dr. Anton considers an argument by Leibniz (let's say) that's relevant to his overall argument, but is, if sound, a problem for that argument. And Dr. Anton zeroes in on one of the premises of the argument, and in particular, on a particular expression in those premises that is obscure (and that most people would regard as obscure).

All well and good. If you're a reasonable person, though, and you were in this state, here's what you would do. You would start by looking to see if Leibniz uses this obscure expression elsewhere, and in particular whether he actually explains it elsewhere. And if he does, you'd start there and examine the different parts of his explanation. If he doesn't explain it in itself, but he does still use it in several other arguments, you would examine those arguments to see how Leibniz uses the obscure expression in other contexts, and see what data that gives you. If it's something of a hapax legoumena as far as Leibniz is concerned, you would look into the question of whether Leibniz might be responding to, or building on, someone else, and that the root of the obscure expression (and therefore any explanation) is found in them. And if none of this turned up anything, you would check to see if it was used by contemporaries, even if Leibniz probably did not know them, in order to see if it might have been a common, or at least widely known, phrase in Leibniz's time. Depending on particulars, this might be a pretty involved investigation, but it also might be a very short and easy one.

But does Dr. Anton do any of this? Not in the least. He sits there and makes several guesses as to what the meaning would be, using (if he uses any evidence at all) only a shred or two of the evidence provided by the immediate context, and then rejects the premise if it is interpreted in any of these purely speculative ways. On the basis of these interpretations, which are clearly not well-researched and sound suspiciously like they may be just off the top of his head, Dr. Anton rejects the argument as unsound.- This clearly is not a case of making a speculative start on further research, which everyone does; Leibniz is held to be somehow refuted in the course of this procedure. Take that, Leibniz! Serves you right for not making your premise clearer, even if you did write a treatise elsewhere in your corpus explaining what it meant!

Dr. Anton is fictional. If this were a dentist's office, he would be the Goofus character in the waiting room magazines. But he is based on several cases where, after careful consideration, I ruled out (1), (2), and (3) above, and one or two where it was in any case pretty clear from the very beginning that the 'Dr. Anton' in question had not researched the argument because his speculations were provably anachronistic. But as I recently came across another example of it, here is a public service announcement for all analytic philosophers, from your friendly neighborhood Historian of Philosophy.


Dear Colleagues,

I am well aware that many of you are not usually guilty of this fault, but in order to eliminate it entirely I ask that in the future you take under consideration your colleagues, those of us who do History of Philosophy. Most of us spend long hours and sometimes months and years attempting to build a proper evidential case for or against this or that thesis on even relatively minor aspects of the philosophical work we study. Please, please, please do not treat our work as trivial by acting as if you can deal with problems that take us a long time to research by simply guessing off the top of your head. Please try to take seriously the fact that, whatever might be the case in what you do, in this sort of work we really do try to use a thing called 'evidence'. Please try to remember that this evidence does not just fall from the sky into your brain. And please try to remember that your guesses and speculations, however much they might at times be a good stimulus for further research, simply do not count as evidence.

As long as you keep these things in mind, feel free to join with us in the exploration of our shared philosophy legacy. Clear violations of these conditions, however, may result in circumstances conducive to a strike.

Thank you for your time and patience,

The Global Union of Exasperated Historians of Philosophy (GLUEHOP), Local 307

Maritain on 'Sovereignty of the State'

And we must realize that the State is not and has never been sovereign, because sovereignty means a natural right (which does not belong to the State but to the body politic as perfect society) to a supreme power and independence which are supreme separately from and above the whole that the sovereign rules (and of which enither the State nor the body politic is possessed). If the State were sovereign, in the genuine sense of this word, it could never surrender its sovereignty, nor even have it restricted. Whereas the body politic, which is not sovereign, but has a right to full autonomy, can freely surrender this right if it recognizes that it is no longer a perfect society, and decides to enter a larger, truly perfect political society.

Jacques Maritain, Man and State, Catholic University of America Press (Washington, D.c., 1998), p. 195. 'Perfect' here is not used axiologically but descriptively, i.e., to indicate a complete whole.