Saturday, May 23, 2009

Coleridge's "Reason"

As you may well know, Coleridge thought of himself as not merely a poet but as a philosopher-poet, or, perhaps even more accurately, a poet-philosopher. Philosophy was extraordinarily important to him, and he devoted an immense amount of effort to it in its own right. And so, while his most famous pieces are usually not obviously philosophical in character many of his poems are, and some of them are quite beautiful in their own right.

Unfortunately, while time does not wear so terribly on poetry as it does on the human frame, it does wear, and this is very noticeable in one of his better short philosophical poems. The poem itself is extraordinarily well done, unifying the poetic and the philosophical, playing on a wide variety of images and ideas in a few brief lines, every word flawlessly chosen -- at the time. I speak of "Reason," which originally was published as a poetic answer to a philosophical question at the end of his work on the constitution of the church and state. Today you could not read it to undergraduates (and many who are not undergraduates) without much snickering.

Text not available
The complete poetical works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge including poems and versions of poems now published for the first time By Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ernest Hartley Coleridge

'Defecate' was originally an alchemical term: it meant the chemical process of removing detritus and impurities from a substance, eliminating things associated with decay. It was sort of the reverse of (alchemical) fermentation: to ferment was to corrupt or cause to decay and to defecate was to remove the decay so created. It's in the word itself: feces meant the unusuable dregs, de- indicates removal, and so we have defecation, the removal of the unusable dregs. Through a kind of nicety it was applied to our biological process of removing unusable dregs; through long use in this way it came to mean only that; and so a brilliant answer to a question became almost inaccessible to most readers by acquiring scatological associations.

But perhaps the change is fitting in its own weird way. It has often been noted that Coleridge, for whatever reason, uses the terms 'Reason' and 'Understanding' in a backwards way: by 'Reason' he means what almost everyone else has always meant by 'understanding' (intellectus) and by 'Understanding' he means what almost everyone else has always meant by 'reason' (ratio). 'Reason' for Coleridge is our creative imagination, our imitation of the Divine Logos. It is the summit of human life, and also, of course, difficult to attain. To reach it we must get beyond lesser imagination to the point of true insight. And we see this explicitly stated in the quotation from Dante, in which Beatrice rebukes Dante for confusing earth and Heaven: yourself make yourself stupid
with false imagining, so that you do not see
what you would see if you had shaken it off.

The poem, which once answered the question "What is Reason?" and then told us the most serious impediment to attaining it, has now become a demonstration of the problem in its own right. To get to the insight of the poem you cannot stay with the falso immaginar which makes us read the poem stupidly. You must shake it off and see what you can only see if you do shake it off and dispel your mind's irrelevant commotion. The poem has become an example in miniature of what previously it only described. Poems have a life that extends beyond the poet's hand.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Notable Links for Linkable Notes

* The Philosoraptor has an interesting post on relativism.

* A good discussion by Chad Orzel on primary and secondary texts in science and the humanities.

* Heg has a beautiful post on accessibility at academic events. It's worth pointing out, if nothing else, that working on improving accessibility at such events benefits everybody: some of the things that can be done are just better practices in the first place, and others help to improve interaction among a wider group of people. And many of the things that seem a hassle now would cease to be a hassle if we did them regularly. Accessibility issues can be very tricky to handle; but it's definitely one of those things where we should try to make sure that we've at least raised the question of what those issues are. And because it can be difficult for those of us who aren't left out by these impediments to remember to ask ourselves about them, it's always good to put a reminder in memorable form, as here.

* Four women recently won seats in the Kuwait Parliament. One was a philosophy professor at Kuwait University, having received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas. Cheers! (ht)

* Michael Gilleland on Jowett's translation of Plato.

* John Wilkins has a good post discussing one of the philosophical difficulties people struggle with when it comes to evolutionary theory.

* Fred Sanders has finished a brief series on why Protestants should read Thomas Aquinas.
Part I: The Myth of the Dark Ages
Part II: Faith and Reason
Part III: Skill in Reasoning
Part IV: Big Thoughts

* A new study of British Muslims suggests that they regard citizenship in the United Kingdom as a more important part of their identity than most British do, and they are very tolerant of other religions, very traditional in their sexual ethics, and more tolerant of the death penalty than most British. And as Amal Amireh notes, the points on which they most diverge from the general British population are where they have views that, even if not common in Britain, are pretty common in the U.S. It's really more or less what one would expect, although it's interesting that strong affirmation of British identity is so very widespread; but unfortunately I think some non-Muslims have difficulty wrapping their minds around anything that might suggest that Muslims can be great citizens and patriots in a free society. Whatever the evidence, they will always think of Muslims as the Foreign Nation Among Us. Catholic Question, Jewish Question, Muslim Question: how will this one be resolved, and who will it be tomorow?

* A fascinating discussion at "A Ku Indeed!" of Nussbaum's argument against Nivison on the 'Confucian Golden Rule'. I'm inclined to think the 'luck or circumstance' clause of Nussbaum's Missing Thought is problematic. Certainly 'there but for the grace of God go I'-style reasoning is the sort of thing conducive to actual reciprocity, but it doesn't seem constitutive of it; one, knowing that it would hurt if someone slapped you on the nose, can avoid slapping a dog on the nose for that very reason, without imagining that you could have been a dog because the analogy is sufficient. That's not a moral example; but the moral examples just require a slightly more analogies considered at a more abstract level of thought. And this abstract level of thinking seems to me to cause problems for Nussbaum's 'contingent hierarchy' clause, too. The rich man may not be able to imagine himself a poor man; but if he reflects at a higher level he can extrapolate how to behave toward a poor man on the basis of how he thinks a much, much richer man should behave toward him. A father may moderate his behavior toward his children on the basis of reflecting how a good king acts toward subjects like himself. And so forth: the hierarchies don't necessarily impede application of the rule, but can in fact be used by it. The advantage of Nussbaum's Missing Thought is not that it's required for applying Golden Rules, or for seeing a common humanity, or for recognizing that others are like myself, but that it takes things that are otherwise higher-level things that require abstract thinking and makes them more straightforward and lower-level, requiring no elaborate thinking about one's place in the network of society. Indeed, I actually wonder (wandering far from fields in which I know anything) whether we can in fact see a great deal of Chinese moral philosophy as nothing other than working out how to handle this abstract level of thinking needed in order to have both genuine reciprocity and genuine hierarchy.


* I haven't had a chance to look at it yet, but the SEP has a new article on Novalis. Novalis was a wunderkind in the Romantic movement, being a major contributor on both its philosophical and literary sided, with a brilliant but very short life; he died at age 28.

Hymnic Meter

In classes devoted to poetry we often are exposed to poetic or proper meters -- iambs, trochees, and the like. But it seems to rare for people to discuss syllabic meter, which is unfortunate, because most of the poetry to which we are actually exposed in English, like songs, have no consistent proper meter, building instead on syllabic meter. "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" quite literally shifts proper meter from line to line, but has a very consistent syllabic meter. It is this contrast that makes it so catchy, in fact: the syllables for each line are unchanging, so they all sound very similar, but the lines vary in poetic meter so they each sound subtly different. Hymns work on the same principle, and one sign that our ability to appreciate hymns properly has failed is our inability to recognize how modular they are.

While there are exceptions, most hymns have a stable hymn-meter. For instance, "Amazing Grace" has the hymn-meter of (sometimes written 86.86). That is, it has eight syllables in the first line, six syllables in the second, eight in the third, six in the fourth. This is what is known as ballad meter or Common Meter, CM for short. As the names suggest, it is also extraordinarily common meter. Another common hymn-meter is the Long Meter (LM),; "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow" is an example, as is "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel". Also common is the Short Meter (SM),; "And Am I Born to Die" is an example. There are hymns that have a stable hymn-meter of a more uncommon kind; "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" has the meter

A small minority of hymns, like "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and "Silent Night," have irregular hymn-meter. A notable difference between these irregular hymns and the regular ones is that they are heavily tune-dependent: the syllables have to be stretched and shortened to fit the tune, and thus trying to sing "Silent Night" in a different tune is a very tricky thing. This is not so with regular hymn-meters: any lyrics with a given hymn-meter can be sung to any tune that goes with any other lyrics of the same meter. For instance, "Amazing Grace" and the theme song to Gilligan's Island have the same syllabic meter; so you can sing the words of "Amazing Grace" to the tune of the TV theme song, and the words of the theme song to the tune we usually use for "Amazing Grace". "The House of the Rising Sun" is another well-known popular song in CM. And so it goes. Any song with the meter can be sung to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". Any hymnal of genuinely good quality will tell you the hymn-meter for the hymns, and have a metrical index linking hymn-meters with tunes that go well with them.

Once upon a time hymns did not come prepackaged the way they do now; lyrics and tunes were detachable. The tune for "Amazing Grace" originally was called "New Britain"; it was a separate thing, and many different songs were sung to it. Then the two began to be locked together, and now people have difficulty thinking of them apart. Thus instead of singing being a handful of tunes to which an endless variety of lyrics could be sung, we have a different tune for every lyric. This makes public singing much, much more difficult. With the old way, you can sing anything together: everyone knows the tunes, and all you have to know from there is the hymn-meter. People who have practice doing this can take a metrical psalms book and, right from the get-go, without any sheet music, sing almost any psalm. Without it, singing becomes less public: those who can, do, and those who can't, stand around and try to look like they are singing, and we start getting the idea that songs are things that people sing at you. Sometimes they are. But song is a standard mode of human life, an expression of human reason; it's something for every voice, not for just the pretty and powerful ones. It's something we can all share in, something that is capable of being part of our shared culture; and we have for a very long time been losing that important idea, which was once so common and powerful that much of the 'soundtrack' of people's lives was built on it, whether they sang hymns, or ballads, or anything else.

Likewise, it meant that anyone could make their own hymn (or, indeed, any song), just as Julia Ward Howe made up her own lyrics to the popular song "John Brown's Body", which became the "Battle Hymn of the Republic". When you can detach hymn-meter and tune, you don't worry so much about things like rhyme: all you need to do is to get the syllables right. It might not be at the level of Julia Ward Howe or Fanny Crosby, but it need not be. So not only did it give a shared culture, something everyone could have in common, it gave a shared culture that was extraordinarily customizable, so each could use that common culture in their own particular, quirky way. There are very few things like that, and in drifting away from the old mix-and-match system we've lost a great deal.

All the Kind Affections Taken Together

Among the former [i.e., particulars of natural temper interfering with the bonds of society], we may justly esteem our selfishness to be the most considerable. I am sensible, that, generally speaking, the representations of this quality have been carry'd much too far; and that the descriptions, which certain philosophers delight so much to form of mankind in this particular, are as wide of nature as any accounts of monsters, which we meet with in fables and romances. So far from thinking, that men have no affection for any thing beyond themselves, I am of opinion, that tho' it be rare to meet with one, who loves any single person better than himself; yet 'tis as rare to meet with one, in whom all the kind affections, taken together, do not over-ballance the all the selfish.

Hume, Treatise

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Philosophical Interestingness

Harry at Crooked Timber discusses differences between philosophy and other humanities disciplines:

In my experience graduate students are not trained, or given much experience, in explaining and motivating what they do to other humanists, and each discipline can survive without much contact with other disciplines, so we can pretty much go our own way. For a discipline that places so much value on rigour, explicitness, and clarity, it is striking that most of us cannot articulate to nonphilosophers (or even to our students) definitive criteria for “philosophical interestingness”, which is one of the key values in the discipline.

I think that's pretty obviously because there is no such thing as a definitive criterion for philosophical interestingness, there never was even a plausible candidate for it that would have had widespread acceptance, and of it is one of the key values in the discipline (the words are certainly used a lot) it is a bad sign for the discipline. Philosophers use 'interesting' like they use 'clarity': in particular cases its meaning may be fleshed out by its context, but there is no generally applicable concept used when it is talked about in general.

And surely we can see why? 'Interesting' makes implicit appeal to means-end reasoning; to say that something is interesting means saying that it has (probable) importance, even if only indirect, for something. But philosophy as a field is so vast in scope that pretty much everything in it is interesting for something. Thus talking about whether a philosophical problem is interesting is really just throwing the whole question back one step; interesting for what? But if we really accept that things are interesting for reasons that relate them in important ways to other things, then it seems clear enough that most of the usage of the term by academic philosophers is uncritical and poorly thought-out in the first place. We can't explain interestingness because there is nothing sufficiently thought-out enough that it can be the sort of thing that can be explained. We have our interests, and things that fit those we regard as interesting; but 'philosophically interesting' is a phrase used with very little critical thought.

Incidentally, I have beaten this drum before, but I think it is false that we put much emphasis on rigor, explicitness, and clarity; or rather, while we put a lot of emphasis on the words, it seems clear to me that we do not use them in any consistent way or with any general meaning. I've argued this before on the topic of clarity (and here), but I think it is true of rigor and explicitness, as well. Perhaps it's working in an area of philosophy that depends very heavily on evidence that leads me to think this, but I think philosophers tend to be extraordinarily sloppy, not rigorous, when it comes to using evidence; and I likewise think that philosophers very often tend to leave essential assumptions unstated -- for that matter, it is in some cases difficult to get people to recognize the essential assumptions of their own arguments unless you sit down and walk them through proof that they are assuming it, point by point. (Granted, these things are difficult for everyone; but lapses aren't exactly uncommon.) Philosophy as currently practiced uses these words primarily for rhetorical purposes; while they sometimes have solid meaning in particular cases, they don't with any reliability identify anything objective or definite, nor even anything accepted by consensus, but are used to try to persuade. In her memoirs Mary Midgley sums up the problem very well:

Philosophers are always complaining that other people's remarks are not clear when what they mean is that they are unwelcome. So they often cultivate the art of not understanding things -- something which British analytic philosophers are particularly good at.

There are exceptions, of course. But they are, in fact, exceptions.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The 'Potamus

The following is one of my favorite T. S. Eliot poems; it's a scathing satire of modern-day Christians. I've discussed it a bit in criticizing Donald Davidson's interpretation of it. The Laodicea reference is crucial to understanding the bite of the poem; the church of Laodicea, of course, was rebuked in the book of Revelation for being lukewarm, for thinking that what it had was good enough and that it did not need anything else, for believing that its prosperity was a warrant for not having to repent of anything. It was the one of the seven churches that thought it had everything and in reality had none of the important things. And if we are the church of Laodicea, the hippopotamus has a better chance at heaven than we do.

The Hippopotamus
T. S. Eliot

Similiter et omnes revereantur Diaconos, ut
mandatum Jesu Christi; et Episcopum, ut Jesum Christum, existentem filium Patris; Presbyteros autem, ut concilium Dei et conjunctionem Apostolorum. Sine his Ecclesia non vocatur; de quibus suadeo vos sic habeo.
S. Ignatii Ad Trallianos.

And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans.

The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

The hippo’s feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.

The ‘potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over sea.

At mating time the hippo’s voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church, at being one with God.

The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way—
The Church can sleep and feed at once.

I saw the ‘potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.

He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr’d virgins kissed,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

Lemonade Days

Last week Will Duquette of "The View from the Foothills" gave me a Lemonade Award. Thanks, Will!

It's one of those award memes; the rules are:

1) Put the Lemonade Award logo on your blog or post.
2) Nominate at least 10 blogs that show great attitude or gratitude.
3) Link to your nominees within your post.
4) Let the nominees know that they have received this award by commenting on their blog.
5) Share the love and link to the person from whom you received your award.

I'm going to pretty much disregard the rules entirely, but I thought I would take the time to point out some blogs that I think are especially great, and especially recommend for blog reading this summer.

(1) Rebecca Writes: Rebecca Stark's blog has been one of the longest-lasting blogs on my blogroll, and probably the one that has been most consistently good. There's a unique and excellent blend of things that has remained steady throughout the years: Calvinist theology, hymnology, life in the Yukon.

(2) The Little Professor: Miriam Burstein discusses things Victorian and academic. You will learn things you never expected about novels you've never heard of, new insights into novels you have heard of, and droll commentary about miniseries about novels everyone has heard of. And Miriam has always been good at mixing the erudite and snarky.

(3) Gypsy Scholar: Horace Jeffery Hodges seems to do a little of just about everything: literature, history, religion, politics, life in the Ozarks, life in South Korea. There's always something worth reading in this abundance of riches.

(4) Ghulf Genes: Arsen Darnay reflects on the world, drawing on an extraordinarily diverse experience. This is one of the newer blogs on my blogroll, but so far I've enjoyed it considerably.

Others could be added; but these I think are ones I would recommend fairly generally: you're almost bound to like at least one of them.

Two New Poem Drafts

A bit of insomnia tonight. It led to the first poem here.

bad cat

some cat has got
into the poetry books
jumbling all the words
cutting lines and verses
into pieces
shredding sonnets

the rhymes are all displaced
the meters
tissue paper shreds
are all the metaphors

and when i catch
the crazy feline
who stole the capitals
and punctuation marks
i will say
bad cat

Little spiders little cobwebs

Little spiders little cobwebs
make and spin and weave;
little spiders, crushed to death,
little cobwebs leave.
Do the webs then last forever?
I cannot here deceive.
Little cobwebs blow away
and leave the world bereaved.

Monday, May 18, 2009

On Allen's Op-Ed

Charlotte Allen has a rather absurd op-ed in the LA Times; it's the sort of thing that should never have been published in the form in which it is published:

First off, there's atheist victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we don't believe in God. Although a recent Pew Forum survey on religion found that 16% of Americans describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, only 1.6% call themselves atheists, with another 2.4% weighing in as agnostics (a group despised as wishy-washy by atheists). You or I might attribute the low numbers to atheists' failure to win converts to their unbelief, but atheists say the problem is persecution so relentless that it drives tens of millions of God-deniers into a closet of feigned faith, like gays before Stonewall.

Mike Dunford's response to this is quite right; one test of such a statement is whether it can survive a process of minimal analogy. Take the first sentence and substitute other things for it: Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, etc., changing it as little as possible. See whether the analogue is bad. That's not a test for truth, but it's a good practical way to establish one's ethical obligation to show that there is a fundamentally significant difference involved here, to show that, in fact, this rhetoric is appropriate to atheists in ways it's not appropriate to the analogue cases. This has to be shown for the claim to have any feet; and because of this, at the very least, we have to show some recognition that it needs to be shown. We don't find this here.

A second issue, and Mike Dunford rightly brings this up as well, is that we should be careful not to paint all atheists with the same brush. In fact, atheists are an extraordinarily diverse group. Some atheists no doubt fit Allen's description, but others certainly do not. And Allen would have been wiser to pick a single issue, and a single set of atheists, and actually give reasons. Without this, she is merely arguing on her own presumptions and vague impressions. In casual speech, or in other kinds of informal forum, we can sometimes allow a bit of looseness on something like this; but this is the sort of thing that could easily have been made more precise before it ever came to publication.

There are bits and pieces of things that could be shaped into arguments in Allen's piece; she doesn't bother, and thus wastes an opportunity for reasoning on jumbled rhetoric.

Justice-Based Critique

One of the things that issues like Hume's racism bring up is the proper way of doing what I call justice-based critique. I think that justice-based critique is an important part of the discipline of history of philosophy (which I'll call HoP to distinguish it from the actual historical course of philosophy through the ages), even, as I've said in passing on this weblog for quite some time, a crucial part. But it's also a very difficult part. There are lots of potential missteps (misleading translations, nuances of context, common misconceptions, etc.) and in many ways the serious work in this area has been scattered and difficult to produce.

I haven't really ever clarified what I mean by it, in part because my thoughts on it are only partially formed, a kind of skeleton that needs filling in. The idea behind justice-based critique is to examine the history of philosophy in light of justice. This works in a number of ways.

(1) Looking fairly at people who were unfairly overlooked. This is one of the reasons I initially began to have an interest in women philosophers in the early modern period: I felt that they deserved a more serious regard than they are usually given, and in several cases, the reason they were not given more serious regard does seem to have a lot to do with their being women. Some of them I have not found impressive, but quite a few of them -- Catharine Trotter Cockburn, Mary Astell, Lady Masham, Lady Mary Shepherd -- really repay close attention. Cockburn's arguments against divine command theory are far and away better than what people usually bandy about today, Astell and Masham have seriously valuable insights into the relation between rationality and education, and Shepherd has what I think are some stunningly good arguments against Hume and Humean views of causation generally. This is probably the easiest sort of thing to do; it's a matter of looking to see if people were overlooked for no good reason and then paying serious attention to it. It can also be an interesting exercise in its own right, since it gives you a sense of just how much richer HoP could be.

There is a common view, I think, on which people worry that this sort of thing leads to stirring up all sorts of mediocre thinkers. Certainly one does stir up mediocre thinkers, but (1) even mediocre thinkers can make solid points on particular issues; and (2) the worry implicitly assumes that there is no serious issue with philosophers being overlooked or dismissed for bad reasons, an assumption that can quickly be shown to be wrong when you get into some of the excellent philosophers who are found in this way. And it has to be admitted, I think, that we already recognize from cases of philosophers going in and out of fashion that the reasons for neglect and study aren't wholly independent of the interests and biases of those who are doing the neglecting and studying. This should be something we take into account.

(2) A second issue is precisely locating prejudices in the philosophical work of philosophers in the past. This is surely essential to evaluating them in a reasonable way; but it is also extraordinarily difficult, and sometimes in surprising ways. It's clear enough that Thomas Aquinas takes up some sexist themes from his cultural milieu, but pinning down (1) the way he does it and (2) the role of those themes in his overall philosophical view is very, very difficult, and there have been plenty of false claims made about the subject of Thomas Aquinas's sexism based on bad translations of the original Latin. And how does some sexist strain in St. Thomas's account of women affect how we evaluate his account of, say, virtue? And, equally, how does St. Thomas's account of (again, to use just an example) virtue affect how we evaluate his account of women? Is the sexism an inconsistency or something following from some defective or defectively formulated principle elsewhere in the system? And so forth and so on. And you can ask similar questions about things like Aristotle's defense of slavery or Hume's racist comments about blacks.

So we have a multiple-stage issue here: we must try be just to the philosopher in question understanding them in light of the actual evidence, we must examine the philosopher's reasoning in light of the principles of justice with a certain sort of impartiality that does not compromise on these matters, and we must be careful in selecting what lessons can be drawn from this, both for philosophy in general and for our own lives. We have to be careful about conflating different kinds of prejudice because this ends up gumming up our proper response to prejudices we find: not all sexisms are best handled in the same way, and conflating them all together leads us to overlook just how intricate, durable, and subtle sexisms can be. I think a great many people worry about talking about Hume's racism in the first place because we often tend to think that if someone is accused of being racist on a particular point it is like accusing them of putting burning crosses in someone's yard. If all racism were that blatant, it would be an easier problem to handle, but it's not that easy. And by recognizing the shades of prejudice we do more to deal with the absurd situation of everyone going out of their way to try to pretend they have no prejudice as if admission to a prejudice were a shameful admission of absolute and diabolical corruption. ("I do possibly have one prejudice," we know some people would say with mock sadness on being asked the question; "I am too easily angered by prejudiced people." How lovely; meanwhile in reality, the rest of us are trying to hold ourselves to some level of reason and justice rather than merely assigning ourselves to it by fiat. But it's easy to see why people do this.) And likewise it's important to recognize both potential sources for distorting biases (before the fact) and actual biases in oneself (after the fact), whether religious, political, personal, and to try to consider the question fairly and impartially if we are faced with the objection that our own analysis shows such a distorting bias. Each one of these is difficult, none of them are ever done perfectly, and even done well they may still leave us with serious errors. To some extent this would be dealt with if there were more people interacting on the issue, polishing away each other's biases, but as I said, there's some hesitancy to get into the work in the first place.

As I said this is very difficult; I think it's the most difficult part of justice-based critique, and often the most thankless, and the one that, by its nature, proceeds most slowly and haltingly. It's an area of thought in which everyone plays the fool sometimes. But good HoP really is much the same way all around, even if this portion of it has more pitfalls than some other portions. In HoP you are rewarded in a way proportionate to the work you put in. The highest rewards are always the result of the most painstaking labor.

(3) The third sort of element in justice-based critique is also difficult, but it involves building on what is good in our heritage, developing and nurturing it so that it may continue to do good. This is utterly essential, not only for a better understanding of justice and injustice, but also probably for our own morale, since both of the others can sometimes get very depressing. HoP is usually thought of as an entirely past-facing discipline, but it has a future-facing side too, and through this side it has been contributing rich new ideas, and excellent developments of old ideas, since Aristotle. Like the others this is something that has only been explored here and there, but there are some truly excellent models scattered through things like the Re-Reading the Canon series.

Am I missing any other elements of justice-based critique? Do you think there are any serious problems or major benefits that this summary overlooks?

Hume on China and Kames on Blacks

Still gathering information together relevant to the question of Hume's racism. In the comments to the infamous footnote post I noted that one puzzle with regard to the original version of the footnote was the status of the Chinese. Hume certainly knew about Chinese civilization; here's a remark in the essay on the rise and progress of arts and sciences:

Text not available
Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary By David Hume, Thomas Hill Green, Thomas Hodge Grose

If this is in the original 1742 essay, it predates the footnote; as far as I have been able to tell from the sources I have on hand, it was in the original essay (I don't have the actual 1742 essay on hand, though; I'd have to go downtown to the library to check this). If Hume knew that the Chinese had a "pretty considerable stock of politeness and science" that means (when combined with the original footnote) that either (1) he thought the Chinese were a different branch of the same "species of man" as the Europeans; or (2) he was inconsistent. I don't know enough about early modern polygenism to say whether (1) was a position that was very likely at the time; I'll have to look up more on that. Does anyone have any suggestions for reading?

Incidentally, Kames, Hume's cousin, while he argues that blacks are a "different species from the Whites," and while he had originally thought that the "inferiority of understanding of the former" was rooted in black nature, eventually moderated his view on this second point, and came to wonder whether "inferiority may not be occasioned by their condition." The full passage:

Text not available
Sketches of the History of Man In Four Volumes By Henry Home, Henry Home Kames

Sketches of the History of Man was published in 1774, which means it predates the last revision to Hume's Essays. Kames doesn't say why he turned around on part of his view; his reasoning is similar to one of Beattie's arguments. But Beattie would not be satisfied by the lingering idea that blacks are inferior in understanding: he had also taken the trouble to note the fact that black slaves, despite their condition, had nonetheless shown "symptoms of ingenuity" and "become excellent handcraftsmen, and practical musicians" and that they were quite capable of learning anything they were taught; Beattie's point is that they have understanding quite as good as anyone else's, even if they were seriously impeded by whites in using it to learn things. So there's reason to think that Kames's change wasn't from Beattie.

Beattie on Hume on Civilization

Here's one sample of Beattie's criticism of Hume's footnote, which I mentioned previously.

Text not available
An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth In Opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism. By James Beattie, ... By James Beattie

This is assuming that Hume's claims are true; Beattie will go on to deny that Hume's claims are, in fact, true. You can get the rest of the criticism through the link.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Some Links and Things

* Daniel Mitsui is hosting a sale on his drawings and paintings in order to raise money for medical bills following the birth of his son. I don't have the budget for artwork, but some of his work is quite good; so if you have a taste for such things, go and see whether there's anything that interests you.

* An interesting little short story at "Common Sense Atheism"; it's called 'The Last of the Christians' and written as if it were a journalistic piece from 2371. I like how the journalist garbles belief in the Incarnation in exactly the same way that our reports usually end up garbling the beliefs of exotic religions -- it gives a good sense of distance. It's actually based on a Times piece on the Zoroastrians, which is one reason for the odd bit in the post about Christian debates about intermarriage -- Christians, unlike Zoroastrians, have a long history of being rather promiscuous intermarriers, so we would have to be quite literally talking about a small sect that had only survived because of its isolation; and Christianity, unlike Zoroastrianism, is very much a proselytizing religion: the fatalism of the Israstinians would be an unlikely outcome.

The Zoroastrians, by the way, are (at the present rate of decrease) likely to vanish in the next century. The sacred flame of Yazd will vanish, the once great religion of the powerful Persians will have finally fallen, and no longer will any living voice represent the doctrine of the great moral genius Zoroaster, who three millenia ago taught the people of Bactria to love God, to shun the Lie, to do good work to improve the world, and to treat their cattle well and tend their herds in peace. And so will end a thread in the tapestry of human civilization that has endured for 3000 years. On the other hand, they may surprise us and continue on for centuries more; the voice of Zoroaster, whisper though it may have become, has always been a durable one.

* Sherry at Semicolon is doing a hymn poll to build a list of 100 major recommendations for hymns; if you have some favorites and are interested in contributing, go to the linked post and follow the direction.

* As it says on the sidebar, I at least try to follow principles of amiability on this weblog. I do not always succeed; in a recent argument with Ophelia Benson in the comments thread to this post, when her response seemed to me to be a set of equivocations and red herrings of a pernicious kind that should not be tolerated on such an important subject as people's lives, I became impatient and lost my temper; whatever the reason, however, the lapse of amiability was simply inexcusable. When a severe case like that happens, I have a rule that, whatever the topic, I apologize for my conduct, let the other person have the last major word, and if they have responded elsewhere, link to it. I apologized in the comments thread. Ophelia Benson has her response to the altercation here.

Hume's Infamous Footnote

Someone asked me some time ago about the general question of Hume's racism. It does seem difficult for many people to sort out the issues, so I have been working for a bit on gathering my thoughts together about it, toward the end of eventually putting something up at Houyhnhnm Land about it. I'm very interested in any comments.

While it is not the only passage that comes up, the big point of contention seems to be the footnote that Hume added -- for reasons unknown to us -- to the 1753 edition of the essay "Of National Characters". in its original form it went as follows:

I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptom of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ’tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

The Jamaican man in question was Francis Williams, who, sponsored by the Duke of Montagu, went off to Cambridge; as far as I am aware we don't have actual record of his graduation, but we don't have positive reason to think he didn't graduate. He returned to Jamaica and wrote some poetry. He may or may not have taught Latin; certainly there are stories he did, but Williams was actually fairly well off, being the son of a relatively successful merchant, and we don't have much direct evidence of his life. But Hume isn't the only person to refer to him in this context. The talk of 'species' is possibly significant; it may signal that Hume accepts the polygenist thesis that different races are in fact not related (as, for instance, Lord Kames had suggested at the time).

Over the next several editions there are some revisions, although they are pretty clearly in line with Hume's ordinary revision practice, since they are purely verbal. But the final revision by Hume, published posthumously, makes some notable changes in the first two sentences:

I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

Notice that the claim has been confined to blacks rather than "all other species of men" beside the white; note also the "scarcely ever" rather than "never". So why the change?

We have no clue. The usual answer for a long time was that it was in response to the major criticism of Hume's argument in the original footnote, by James Beattie, who devotes pages and pages of his Essay on Truth to ripping it to utter shreds, in what is one of the most thorough attacks on the position that blacks are naturally inferior to whites that the eighteenth century has to offer. There are plenty of problems with this suggestion, however. Aaron Garrett, in a 2000 article on the subject, noted the two key issues: (1) We have no reason to think Hume ever read Beattie that closely, because Hume seems to have regarded Beattie as merely trying to attack each and every single thing Hume said, regardless of what it was; and (2) The revision makes little sense as a response to Beattie. For instance, Beattie has very good objections against the dispersed slaves argument, but that part of the footnote budges not in the least. Hume qualifies the original claim, but not in a way that would be effective against any of Beattie's major arguments (which essentially argue that the comparison is rigged from the beginning). While we can't rule it out, it seems unlikely that the change is a response to Beattie. And if it's not Beattie, we have no clear idea why the revision would have been made; perhaps Hume read something, perhaps he talked to someone, perhaps he just thought about it more. We seem to have no way of knowing.

So there are a lot of things we don't know about the footnote -- why it was added, why it was revised, why it was revised so slightly. It's always possible that some new evidence or insight will come up, but at present we're faced with this footnote appearing suddenly, for reasons we can't precisely determine, and lasting through revisions, the most important of which were made for reasons we do not know, to the very end.

So that raises the question of how this fits into Hume's philosophy, and it is a tangled one. One thing we can't do is dismiss it as a mere inadvertence; Hume has a passage in which he suggests very strongly that women are mentally inferior to men, but it's not a parallel case, occurring in an essay that was withdrawn almost immediately after publication, and thus not enduring revision after revision in the way the notorious footnote does. There's also no point in trying to argue that the qualifications, either in the original or in the revision, should somehow moderate our judgment of it; they are fairly slight, do little to change the argument, and do nothing to change the injustice of it. Putting much emphasis on little verbal qualifications is mere slipperiness unless we have a solid argument that the verbal qualifications make for significant differences. Cautious expression does not make racism less culpable.

Eric Morton in his article, Race and Racism in the Works of David Hume, argued that the case was "an example of how Hume’s theory of knowledge is driven by Hume’s racism and the built-in racism in his philosophical and conceptual worldview." And Harry M. Bracken famously used it as part of his case that empiricism, while not guaranteeing racism, faced severe difficulties in ruling it out. (The contrast case being rationalism, which, while not guaranteeing the absence of racism, has shown itself historically to be more resistant to many forms of it.) Part of the basic idea in approaches that link the racism to Hume's empiricism is that, while they can avoid it by being careful, it is easy for empiricists to connive on this subject. A fairly standard sort of defense used by racists and bigots of all kinds is to protest that they don't really have anything against the people; they just are sincerely trying to analyze the facts with an open mind that doesn't prejudge the issue, courageously and thoughtfully asking questions that others shirk and following the trail of evidence to its ultimate conclusion. It's very easy for an empiricist to accept such an argument as viable in principle, because prejudging the issue is a serious failing on virtually any empiricist viewpoint. And where one hasn't adequately analyzed things it can be easy enough to take inadequate empirical evidence as if it were adequate. Prejudicial analysis can often parade around as objective analysis -- indeed we find cases of this over and over again in history. And since empiricism can't make a distinction between the prejudicial and the objective except after the fact, it can easily mistake one for the other.And even if it doesn't actually make the mistake, one might argue, and some people have argued, that the conniving is still a problem: the empiricist approach shelters the bigot by putting an extraordinary burden of proof on people who find themselves faced with bigotry -- each and every point has to be analyzed as if it were in principle a purely empirical issue suitable for serious inquirers rather than something that only prejudice could lead one to regard as a serious matter of inquiry, and while perhaps not impossible it becomes difficult to make the Beattie-like point that inquiry, the questions asked, the evidence used, the very air of the discussion, is sometimes very clearly prejudiced in its own right. The racist attacks or insinuates and calls it empirical analysis; empirical analysis can't be dismissed out of hand because there are no overarching ideas with the function of sorting out what kinds of empirical analysis are genuinely rational. This can be a serious issue: In societies where racism is common history has shown it to be common enough for the racists to try to tar the anti-racists as themselves bigots who won't listen to reason and consider actual evidence. Thus empiricism is vulnerable, in a way that other positions may not be, to racist equivocation between prejudgment and conclusion; such equivocations, after all, are not advertised in neon lights and those relatively unprotected from them are more likely to fall victim to them either when others make them or in their own reasoning. There are other arguments that have been made on this score; they are not all mutually consistent, but they all agree that Hume's racism is actually closely related to his main philosophical positions, even if not logically entailed.

Such is one view. The other view is that Hume's footnote is actually an inconsistency, a failure to think things through in his own terms. Some have argued, for instance, that it is inconsistent with his skepticism; others that Hume should have focused on the importance of the common sharing (and consequent power) of sympathy; and so forth. It is difficult to find extended developments of these arguments, however; they are usually presented in passing. If anyone has come across a more developed account along these lines, let me know.

One thing we have to be careful about, post-abolition, is too easily conflating the issues of inferiority with slavery. Hume is on record as considering slavery cruel and corrupting (of the slavers); there are some ambiguities in his claim, but they are the sort of ambiguities one occasionally finds even in the staunchest abolitionists. It is possible to oppose slavery and be a racist, and likewise possible to oppose racism but accept some kinds of slavery; and thus pro-slavery bias is not really at issue in any of this.

I have a few more things, but this is the skeleton, and I'm not sure how much of the rest of what I have fits into a summary of the state of the problem; and even some of what I have here may be cut or reworked. Is there any significant issue missing here? Are there any major resources that need to be added?

I've discussed the issue of the infamous footnote before on Siris, here and here and here and a bit more abstractly here.

In Smoothest Numbers Pour the Notes Along

An Hymn to the Morning

by Phyllis Wheatley

Attend my lays, ye ever honour’d nine,
Assist my labours, and my strains refine;
In smoothest numbers pour the notes along,
For bright Aurora now demands my song.

Aurora hail, and all the thousand dies,
Which deck thy progress through the vaulted skies:
The morn awakes, and wide extends her rays,
On ev’ry leaf the gentle zephyr plays;
Harmonious lays the feather’d race resume,
Dart the bright eye, and shake the painted plume.

Ye shady groves, your verdant gloom display
To shield your poet from the burning day:
Calliope awake the sacred lyre,
While thy fair sisters fan the pleasing fire:
The bow’rs, the gales, the variegated skies
In all their pleasures in my bosom rise.

See in the east th’ illustrious king of day!
His rising radiance drives the shades away–
But Oh! I feel his fervid beams too strong,
And scarce begun, concludes th’ abortive song.