Saturday, December 13, 2008

Addison on Malebranche

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The Works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison By Joseph Addison, Richard Hurd

Four points here of special note:

(1) Addison's comment that Malebranche may have had more admirers in England than in France. This is actually quite important, because there is something to be said for it. I may say something on this at some point; Malebranche has a major influence on British philosophy in the period.

(2) The claim that Malebranche, arguably the most widely read Cartesian of his day, didn't know anything about Descartes until relatively late is consistent with what we know from other sources. There is good reason to think that Malebranche first read Descartes (the Treatise on Man) when he was twenty-six.

(3) It's interesting to find Malebranche praising Newton's mathematics; Malebranche was a major figure (organizationally rather than mathematically) in the spread of the calculus in France.

(4) The distaste for Hobbes fits very well with Malebranche's scattered comments about him.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Discretionary Power of Pardon

There is a remarkable thread at Crooked Timber that shows that a number of things get mixed up when talking about the power of pardon.

Blackstone had argued that the power of pardon was one of the advantages of monarchy over other forms of government because it (1) reduced the temptation of courts to strain the interpretation of law in order to take into account all the circumstances; (2) endeared the Crown to the people through acts of compassion; and (3), although this is only suggested in passing and is perhaps not Blackstone's own view, allowed the prince to express in a subtle way its disapproval of a too-strict law.

Blackstone argues that a democracy can't seriously allow the power of pardon because there is no authority higher than the legislature and it would be inappropriate to give judges this power; which is fine as an argument as long as you don't have the tertium quid of an 'energetic magistrate' who is neither legislator nor judge. The colonies had carried over the power of pardon, and when they formed the Office of the President, the one that we know, they had two models to choose from: in most state constitutions the power of pardon was invested in the governor, in a few in the legislature. The power of pardon was given to the President in order to provide a check and a balance against Congress.

It's important to note that the power of pardon was not given in order to facilitate law or judicial justice. Quite the opposite; it was designed, and defended, on the basis that there needs to be a protection even from law and even from judicial justice. It was not made in order to prevent the backfiring of justice; one of the types of cases for which it was explicitly considered was the one where legal justice succeeds: the law was in general a reasonable one, and the judgment in court was a reasonable application of the law. As I think Oliver Wendell Holmes somewhere put it, it was explicitly supposed to include cases where policy required "a remission of a punishment strictly due, for a crime certainly ascertained." The cases where pardon can correct faulty justice were merely considered an additional benefit.

Hamilton explicitly argues that the power of pardon should be open to a very liberal use:

Humanity and good policy conspire to dictate, that the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed. The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.

It is thus entirely different from an acquittal; it does not imply innocence or vindication. Thus when we consider how it might be improved (and it is always possible that any clause of the Constitution might be improved), it does not make much sense to consider it as if it were part of the justice system. It is entirely a different matter: it is a distinct system for protecting people from the legislature and the courts; it is based on the principle that these things may not have a good result even when working quite well. (That there is some wisdom to this is seen in the aftermath of the Civil War, since Lincoln spent an immense amount of time using his pardoning power to protect deserters, especially very young ones, from full punishment.) Pardon is part of our justice system in a kind of incidental way; as it is set up to work, one can argue, it is (so to speak) part of our benevolence system, and works on the principle that mercy can and should sometimes supercede the ordinary operation of justice. James Wilson puts this point nicely:

The most general opinion, as we have already observed, and, we may add, the best opinion, is, that, in every state, there ought to be a power to pardon offences. In the mildest systems, of which human societies are capable, there will still exist a necessity of this discretionary power, the proper exercise of which may arise from the possible circumstances of every conviction. Citizens, even condemned citizens, may be unfortunate in a higher degree, than that, in which they are criminal. When the cry of the nation rises in their favour; when the judges themselves, descending from their seats, and laying aside the formidable sword of justice, come to supplicate in behalf of the person, whom they have been obliged to condemn; in such a situation, clemency is a virtue; it becomes a duty.

It's pretty clear, I think, that this in itself unsettles people; and repeatedly one finds that many of the arguments for restricting the pardoning power boil down simply to the fact that justice was not served. That really implies that there should be no real pardoning power at all; pardon gets its strength precisely from the fact that it is able to do this. The more restricted motivation that provides grounds for restricting the pardoning power (rather than eliminating it) is to discourage corruption. Certainly restrictions of the power to pardon are not unheard of -- the President perhaps has a less restricted power of absolute pardon than the British monarch had in the time of Blackstone. The pardoning power was (as I understand)in a way smuggled through the Constitutional convention, being added at the last minute and not discussed at length, despite being controversial; and it has, moreover, a long history of being used for political expediency. There is room for both motivations, if reasonably unfolded (as well as for reasoned defenses of keeping things as is, if any are on offer).* But I think it is very important to keep the two arguments distinct; otherwise we'll just make a hash of things.
* I'm of the view that the pardoning power is very important, and should be used more systematically than it usually is. I am open to arguments, however, that it could be reworked in ways to reduce any encouragement to corruption that might possibly result from it.

ADDED LATER: The blogosphere is abundant beyond all imagining. It turns out there is a blog devoted to the pardon power, both federal and state, by an expert on the subject.

Darwin on Reason and Imagination

Scientific inquiry requires a clear distinction between the two:

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On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life By Charles Darwin

This important passage occurs not too long after a slightly better known (and very, very often misunderstood) passage on the same subject:

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On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life By Charles Darwin

One can think of any number of scientific discoveries and ideas that are quite literally unimaginable in themselves but that reason can discover.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Falling Cats and Falling Stones

Would it not be preferable to treat all statements and all sciences as coordinated and to abandon for good the traditional hierarchy: physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, and similar types of "scientific pyramidism"? We should not even look at mechanics as a nonbiological science but prefer to say more cautiously that the statements of mechanics deal in the same way with falling cats and falling stones.

Otto Neurath, "Foundations of the Social Sciences," Foundations of the Unity of Science, vol. 2. Despite some places where it gets too logical-positivist-y, it's a good essay that makes a number of excellent points; but it has historically been overshadowed by another, and vastly more famous, essay in the same volume, by someone named Thomas Kuhn.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Otto Neurath was born on December 10, 1882; he has the distinction of being my favorite logical positivist. Part of the reason is that Neurath, unlike most philosophers of science in the twentieth century, actually did some genuinely good and lasting work improving science education.

One of his most influential inventions was Isotype, the International System of TYpographic Picture Education, originally called the 'Vienna Method', which he developed with the artist Gerd Arntz. Isotype became the backbone of all those international picture-language signs that you see everywhere.

* Basic by Isotype, by Otto Neurath. This website just has sample pages; Neurath furthered the potential of Isotype by combining it with Ogden's Basic English.

* International Picture Language, by Otto Neurath

* Visual Education: A New Language, by Otto Neurath

* Speaking Signs: Otto Neurath's Viennese Method of Visual Education, by Frank Hartmann

* "Society and Economy": An Atlas in Otto Neurath's Pictorial Statistics from 1930 (PDF), by Sybilla Nikolow

* Isotype - speaking signs: gives the background to isotype

* Isotype Institute: lots of samples of Isotype; they also have an old source article called, From Hieroglyphics to Isotype

* Gerd Arntz's Isotype symbols

* Otto Neurath's Universal Silhouettes from Cabinet Magazine

* The Simplest Expression of an Object, at "Austin Kleon", is a blog post discussing some of Neurath's underlying principles (focusing on the principle of reduction).

* A blog post at "The Science Project" discussing Isotype-based science books for children.

In addition to Isotype, Neurath did work with museums; it seems that it was actually out of his work with museums (for a short while he was Director of the Museum of War Economy in Leipzig, and created a Museum of Society and Economy that existed for almost a decade) that his work in pictorial communication first began to develop. Managing Museum Work in Austria (PDF), by Hadwig Kraeutler, discusses some of Neurath's work in museum theory.

Links and Notes

Busy time of year! Posting may be light this week and next.

* The newest Philosopher's Carnival is at "The Uncredible Hallq".

* At, Jasper Reid gives an excellent answer to the question of who is the first definite atheist philosopher, a tricky question to answer. Reid suggests Jean Meslier (1664-1729) as the first person who can definitely be tagged as a philosophical atheist.

* The best LOLCat ever.

* Orac argues that some Nazi science was good science. It is a sign of how radically the image of science has changed since the nineteenth century; most of the major scientists of the middle of the nineteenth century would have denied that anything clearly morally wrong could be 'good science' rather than merely a perverse mockery of it, being among those who, in Whewell's words "love to contemplate the union of intellectual and moral excellence". Science, at least ideally, was not a method for understanding nature; it was a whole approach to nature, consistent with many methods, undertaken to benefit everyone. (One can only imagine what Faraday, who went into science because there was too much room in business for being immoral, would think of a conception of 'good science' that put his work in the same category as some of that of Josef Mengele.) This romantic conception of science seems to have vanished entirely; but sometimes, I think, one can reasonably have a bit of nostalgia for the innocence of the days when Victorian scientists were seriously distressed over the possibility that Newton might have blemished his moral character simply by being unfair to Flamsteed, and were so distressed because the authority of the scientist derived, as they saw it, from trying to improve humanity's stock of knowledge in a virtuous way, since they regarded true science as the work of the "whole man". (It's an interesting question why they held this view, just as it's an interesting question why we don't. One reason contributing to their view was that many of them held that science was ultimately consistent with itself and were holding out a hope for a science of morals. Indeed, Mill and Whewell both did their work in philosophy of science partly in an attempt to contribute toward the science of morals. But if some science can yield moral conclusions, and every science is consistent and linked with every other, no science be genuinely amoral. But there were other reasons as well.)

In any case, the claim that science is amoral in the strict sense isn't a claim that endures close scrutiny; there are moral values which, by whether they are involved in the work, affect whether something is good science: honesty in reporting results, for instance, or responsibility in organizing one's inquiry, or patience in drawing conclusions. The list massively expands if we consider not merely ways a particular individual may do particular things in science but ways of doing science so that science is a sustainable social activity among a community of scientists. And when we recognize this we are left with two options: either we can consider morality disjoint, so that the weak morality involved in basic good science is simply an isolated morality from morality in the more robust sense, or we can say that things that don't meet rather robust moral standards are not good science but defective imitations of it (even if good scientists are still able to do something with the defective mess of bad science).

* By coincidence I'm reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, and just after reading Orac's post came across that famous and chilling passage in Chapter V (emphasis in the original):

The moment, one of the few great ones in the whole trial, occurred during the short oral plaidoyer of the defense, after which the court withdrew for four months to write its judgment. Servatius declared the accused innocent of charges bearing on his responsibility for "the collection of skeletons, sterilizations, killings by gas, and similar medical matters," whereupon Judge Halevi interrupted him: "Dr. Servatius, I assume you made a slip of the tongue when you said that killing by gas was a medical matter." To which Servatius replied: "It was indeed a medical matter, since it was prepared by physicians; it was a matter of killing, and killing too is a medical matter."

* A recent study seems to indicate that for Muslims performing the Hajj increases belief in the equality of all human beings, more favorable attitudes toward women, more tolerant attitudes toward adherents of other religions, and a greater sense of harmony with other Muslims. (The study was done on Pakistani pilgrims.) The authors suggest that the primary reason is that the Hajj brings together Muslims from all over the world, allowing them to be exposed to and interact with Muslims of different cultures and views. (ht)

* Things I will be reading more closely:

Volker Peckhaus, Algebra of Logic, Quantification Theory, and Opposition Theory (PDF)

Seth Lloyd, Ultimate Physical Limits to Computation (PDF)

David Ellerman, Concrete Universals in Category Theory (PDF)

* J. D. Williams, The Compleat Strategyst (PDF), the classic popular introduction to game theory, is free online through the RAND Corporation. You can also purchase a hardcopy through their website. Also free online from RAND:

Jonathan Cave, Introduction to Game Theory
J. C. C. McKinsey, Introduction to the Theory of Games
Melvin Dresher, Games of Strategy
Martin Shubik, On Gaming and Game Theory
Thomas Schelling, Prospectus for a Reorientation of Game Theory
Kahn and Mann, Game Theory
Lloyd Shapley, n-Person Game Theory
Lloyd Shapley, Utility Comparison and the Theory of Games
Berkovitz and Dresher, A Game Theory Analysis of Tactical Air War
Bohnenblust, Shapley, and Sherman, Reconnaissance in Game Theory
Hamilton and Mesic, Using Game Theory to Analyze Operations against Time-Critical Targets
G. Haywood, Military Doctrine of Decision and the von Neumann Theory of Games
Samuel Karlin, The Theory of Infinite Games

And, of course, many more.

* Matthew Milliner, When The Eagles Don't Fit in Capistrano discusses the most probable option for a restauratio of Christian art. (I think I may have linked it before, but it's still worth thinking about.)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Liberal Arts

To a great degree we have lost the traditional notion of a 'liberal art'. When we talk about liberal arts, we mean certain fields of study; liberal arts are fields of general knowledge and 'general intellectual capacities'. But this is not at all the original idea behind the 'liberal arts'. The liberal arts were arts, different from mechanical or manual arts in the sense that they were not geared toward physical production of effects, but arts nonetheless. A liberal art was a skill for making something, and, in particular, for making those kinds of things that are most useful for intellectual activities. Thus the liberal arts were not themselves 'general' at all, although, of course, a single liberal art could be useful in a wide variety of fields. They were specific ways of doing the work that was instrumental for intellectual discovery and understanding.

We find this understanding very nicely stated by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century:

Even in speculative matters there is something by way of work: e.g. the making of a syllogism or of a fitting speech, or the work of counting or measuring. Hence whatever habits are ordained to such like works of the speculative reason, are, by a kind of comparison, called arts indeed, but "liberal" arts, in order to distinguish them from those arts that are ordained to works done by the body, which arts are, in a fashion, servile, inasmuch as the body is in servile subjection to the soul, and man, as regards his soul, is free [liber]. On the other hand, those sciences which are not ordained to any such like work, are called sciences simply, and not arts.

I've actually come to think of this as rather important. Consider reading, which is as basic a liberal art as any. We tend to think of reading as in a sense transparent: you read what's on the page and that's that. But, really, anyone who does a lot of work with texts knows that it's not quite so simple, and you can have someone perfectly literate, in the sense of being able to read, who can look at a text and not make heads or tails of it, or, alternatively, who makes a complete hash of interpretation. This is because reading a text is not like just looking out a window; it involves work. Reading is doing things with texts, even if it's as simple as comparing this passage with that passage, or vividly imagining a scene, or making speculations as to what a character is thinking in light of what the author tells us. Good readers are people who have picked this up and practiced it enough that many of these things are second nature to them. This has made me realize that I need to change certain aspects of the way I deal with reading in my courses. Instead of just assigning reading, I should ask myself, "What can I have my students do with the text, given that I can take for granted that some students will have not picked up some of these habits? How can I modify my reading assignments so that instead of justing saying, 'Read,' I've made reasonably sure that they've had a chance to do something with the text -- and that will be a way to read it?" This is a very difficult set of questions, but I think we need to recover enough of the older notion of liberal arts as specific skills ancillary to intellectual life in order to ask them.

Similar things may be said of writing. I've long been dissatisfied with the role of writing at the college level, and in particular the pervasive reliance on the essay. There's nothing wrong with essays as such, but I think professors have difficulty remembering that essays are not natural means of expression. They are very difficult to do well; it's enough not enough to be able to write, you have to have at hand a rather sophisticated panoply of liberal arts, because essays don't just flow out of the pen, they are built, constructed using a wide variety of artistic tricks. In old-style rhetoric you would often practice something like essay-writing or speech-making by the method of emulation: you would build essays or speeches or whatever by copying great essays or speeches or whatever, extensively, so that you would pick up at least some of the art of it. And the essay is such an amorphous genre -- it was literally invented as a means of rambling, a form of 'miscellaneous writing', as an alternative to an actual treatise -- that if you just say 'Write an essay on such-and-such', there's no telling what you'll get. What we need to do is give assignments that clearly tell the students to do things with what they are writing about. Some teachers already do that; but I don't think most of us do, because we are usually the sort of people who easily took to writing essays, and so we forget that an essay is something that takes very specific skills of wordcraft.

The list could go on and on. The older notion of a liberal art as a skill of craft and work pinned down something very important about intellectual life, one that I think we have lost, although I think much of what we think of as 'good teaching' is based on at least a rough sense of this missing feature. It is also the only way, I think, to save the category of 'liberal arts' from being the miscellaneous flotsam and jetsam of the College of Arts and Sciences.