Saturday, July 18, 2009

Democracy and Virtue

Hilzoy is leaving "Obsidian Wings," which is sad; if political blogging were more like what she was trying to do, I wouldn't despise political blogging as I do. She puts it nicely in her last past:

A democracy is essentially about determining the course of our nation together. To do that, it helps a lot to have a good citizenry. A good citizenry is informed, serious about things that are worth taking seriously, and not liable to be led off course by demagogues. (Everyone doesn't have to be like this, but you need a critical mass of people who are.) But I've always thought that a good citizenry is also composed of people who assume, until proven wrong, that many of the people who disagree with them are acting in good faith.

This matters for policy: you're unlikely to choose sound policies if you assume that anyone who disagrees with you is a depraved, corrupt imbecile. It's hard to learn anything from people you have completely written off. But it's also corrosive to any kind of community or dialogue to assume the worst about large numbers of people you've never met. It makes you less willing to try to take their problems seriously, and to try to figure out how they might be solved, or to try to understand what's driving them.

Montesquieu taught us (Spirit of the Laws, Book III, section III) that democracy can only survive by the cultivation of virtue: as he put it, virtue is a necessary spring of democratic government. Law and power are not enough: you need character. Without it the whole community falls apart:

When virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community. The objects of their desires are changed; what they were fond of before has become indifferent; they were free while under the restraint of laws, but they would fain now be free to act against law; and as each citizen is like a slave who has run away from his master, that which was a maxim of equity he calls rigour; that which was a rule of action he styles constraint; and to precaution he gives the name of fear.

And without this absolute prerequisite, the people blur into a mob, and mobs call forth demagogues to manipulate them, and demagogues rise to be tyrants and abusers of power. Americans will recognize this idea from Washington's Farewell Address, which uses Montesquieu's claim as the basis for an exhortation to the American people to create institutions for the diffusion of knowledge, to exercise responsibility with regard to public debt, and to show impartial good will to other nations. The Address also warns against the Spirit of Party, and partisan spirit is one of the great enemies of that virtue that is the cornerstone of democratic government.

The virtue underlying such government does not consist of every virtue; it is a civic virtue and therefore is devoted to very particular ends. The basic conclusions Hamilton (who wrote the first draft of the speech) and Washington drew from it are pretty much exactly right, although they focused less on the domestic front than the foreign front: it consists in continual self-education, vigilance with regard to one's civic responsibilities, and a basic respect and good will for one's fellow citizens and fellow human beings simply because they are your fellow citizens and simply because they are fellow human beings. Such respect is no doubt very limited; but, even so, without it government by and for the people ceases to be by and for the people. It is that respect and good will that prevents the government from being an instrument of partisan grasp for power. Parties are perhaps inevitable in any sort of democratic government: people will disagree. But if a democratic republic is to survive, the good of the people must come first and the good of one's side must be firmly subordinated to it. Without an elementary respect and good will for one's fellow citizens, this cannot happen.

Friday, July 17, 2009


There are some things that journalism is not equipped to handle well. Religion, for instance, since most things don't change very quickly and understanding those that do requires considerable background knowledge. So we have the result we get: religious reports whose details can never, ever be trusted and attempts to sensationalize things that are hardly surprising. Scientific discovery is another: science changes too quickly for journalists to keep up, and the understanding the change requires even more background knowledge. So we have the result we get: reports on apparent scientific discoveries whose details can never be trusted and that never really get followed up properly, and the dropping of significant qualifications in the attempt to make it sound interesting or to make it fit into a few words.

But there are also other things that journalism is not equipped to handle well, due to other reasons besides pace of change and necessary background, and these have to do with the fact that journalism rarely, very, very rarely, ever deals in facts. Its standard MO is not dealing in facts but in testimonies to facts. And testimonies are perilous territories. Thus you get useless news items like this. You could, in principle, have a decent account of people who think the moon landing was a hoax; it would require actual discussion of facts, not a series of paragraphs of the "These people say this, those people say that" sort. It would require showing some discrimination and critical thinking skills, noting the problems with the sort of conspiracy thinking underlying the claims of a hoax, and would require reasonable assessment of the actual evidence, not just letting hoaxers give their viewpoint about it. I know that journalists are capable of unreasonable assessments of evidence; I've seen it. So is it too much to ask for reasonable ones?

But more than that, although in principle you could have a decent article about hoax theories of the moon landing, do I really need one in order to learn more about the NASA LRO? Are you not just wasting my time by talking about people who believe the landing is a hoax, and then spending exactly six sentences in three short paragraphs on the LRO, which is the only actually newsworthy point in the whole article? I already know there are people who think the landing was a hoax. I'm already bored, just writing that sentence. If you're going to claim to give the news, let's get to the news.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bolingbroke on Berkeley

From a letter from Lord Bolingbroke to Jonathan Swift, dated 24 July 1725; George Berkeley was Dean of Derry at the time:

Ford brought the dean of Derry to see me. Unfortunately for me, I was then out of town; and the journey of the former into Ireland will perhaps defer for some time my making acquaintance with the other; which I am sorry for. I would not by any means lose the opportunity of knowing a man, who can espouse in good earnest the system of father Mallebranche, and who is fond of going a missionary into the West-Indies. My zeal for the propagation of the Gospel will hardly carry me so far; but my spleen against Europe has, more than once, made me think of buying the dominion of Bermudas, and spending the remainder of my days as far as possible from those people, with whom I have past the first and greatest part of my life. Health and every other natural comfort of life is to be had there. As to imaginary and artificial pleasures, we are philosophers enough to despise them. What say you? Will you leave your Hibernian flock to some other shepherd, and transplant yourself with me into the middle of the Atlantic ocean? We will form a society more reasonable, and more useful, than that of doctor Berkley's college: and I promise you solemnly, as supreme magistrate, not to suffer the currency of Wood's halfpence: nay, the coiner of them shall be hanged, if he presumes to set his foot on our island.

One thing this shows is why Berkeley took so much trouble in the Three Dialogues to distinguish his view from that of Malebranche: people who only knew his ideas in summary would have assumed it was just a variant of Malebranche's claim that we see all things in God. Throughout all this period of Berkeley's life he is as well known for his plan to form a college in Bermuda as he is for his philosophy; in letters by a number of people during these years his name often comes up in a half-joking way whenever Bermuda is mentioned.

You Cannot Miss That Inn

by Christina Rossetti

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On Carroll on NOMA Again

Sean Carroll again fails to be quite careful enough:

When I use words like “God” or “religion,” I try to use them in senses that are consistent with how they have been understood (at least in the Western world) through history, by the large majority of contemporary believers, and according to definitions as you would encounter them in a dictionary. It seems clear to me that, by those standards, religious belief typically involves various claims about things that happen in the world — for example, the virgin birth or ultimate resurrection of Jesus. Those claims can be judged by science, and are found wanting.

A few problems with this:

(1) Religious belief also often involves claims that "entail nothing whatsoever about what happens in the world" (as Carroll goes on to say); this is also consistent with how they have been understood in the Western world among religious believers (and part of the evidence for this is that Carroll himself has to keep dealing with people who try to point out such claims). And really, it makes quite a bit of sense, if you think about it: the label 'religion' is used in actual fact to cover a great many things. Simply arbitrarily confining the term to one of these things, as Carroll keeps trying to do, is as utterly an unreasonable thing as redefining the term to mean something it usually doesn't, which he keeps trying to claim his opponents are doing. As far as I can see he has never bothered to present any sort of evidence for the claim that they are doing this, rather than simply focusing on different claims that also are consistent with the way people have used the term (as shown by certain eighteenth century freethinkers, and Kantians and Feuerbachians and Edwin Abbott Abbott and the Modernists &c. &c.)

(2) While one might be able to identify, at a very abstract level, one meaning of the term 'God' through Western history, there is certainly no such stable meaning through history for the term 'religion'. This is a demonstrable fact. When the ancients and medievals talked about religio, they were talking about something that in itself involved no claims at all. It was a virtue, a practical disposition, closely related to justice in that it was the attempt to render to others what it was due, in which the 'others' were not (as with ordinary justice) human beings but higher powers. It inevitably began to include the sorts of practices that typically follow from this disposition; in the early modern period, it finally began to include claims, namely, the very basic claims presupposed by these practices -- that God exists, that virtue and vice are demanded of us and rewarded and punished, etc. This sense of the term 'religion' is still sharply contrasted with other things that Carroll would not doubt call 'religious'. For example, two such contrasting notions that became very popular were supersition and enthusiasm. However, because both of these mimicked what fell under the label 'religion', they inevitably were called 'false religion', as being things that were not religion but looked like it if you weren't careful. And because they were religious in the sense of being religion-like, they eventually began falling under the term, and 'religion' came to be used in an extra-ethical sense, but not only in an extra-ethical sense. And it only gets more complicated from there: first anthropology then sociology rework the term for their own particular uses and these reworked senses recycle back to become part of the colloquial sense of the term, without the older senses falling out of use. What is more, I've only picked a few of the lines of complication by which baggage was added to this one term; the actual history is vastly more complicated. Carroll's sense of the term is not consistent with all of these (and I can provide more exact references if anyone needs them, although they aren't all that difficult to find on one's own). No sense of the term could be. It's not as if this is the sort of thing about which we have no evidence but dictionaries; there is actual historical evidence about the use of terms like 'religion' against which Carroll's claim can be measured. And it doesn't measure up well against the actual evidence. Nor is this evidence all that difficult to find, although admittedly it would take some reading; has Carroll even bothered to look? Or is he just assuming it must be right because that's the way it seems on first impression? I have to say, at present I see no reason to think otherwise. I've studied the term, at least parts of its history; if there's a unified meaning, it eludes me. Perhaps Carroll can teach me something by actually presenting his evidence.

(3) Notice the breathtaking lack of qualification in Carroll's last two sentences:

It seems clear to me that, by those standards, religious belief typically involves various claims about things that happen in the world — for example, the virgin birth or ultimate resurrection of Jesus. Those claims can be judged by science, and are found wanting.

Notice how many factual religious claims this would leave open yet, which Carroll completely ignores. A number of people have held as part of their religious beliefs the view that blacks as well as whites must be human in the same fundamental way -- not just should be treated as human, but actually were human. Is Carroll going to claim that science has judged this view, that blacks are as human as whites, and found it wanting? I hope not. We see here exactly the same sloppiness we saw in the previous post on the subject: a claim about some kinds of religious beliefs glides into an unqualified claim about religious beliefs. Setting aside the means and procedures whereby science would decide such matters, the mere fact that some claims that are in some perfectly ordinary sense religious are "found wanting" tells us nothing about the matter in general. Some common sense claims have been "found wanting" by scientific inquiry; that is not an argument for any general incompatibility between science and common sense. Some political claims (some very, very common ones, in fact) have been "found wanting" by scientific inquiry; that is not an argument for an incompatibility between politics and science on anything other than those very particular points. For that matter, some perfectly scientific claims have, in the self-correcting course of scientific inquiry, been "found wanting"; it would be absurd to argue that this shows that science inherently contradicts itself. In the real world everyone occasionally makes claims that are "found wanting" by science, or mathematics, or history. This tells us nothing more than that people have to do a bit more work to shake out the bugs in their view of the world. It's clear enough from where Carroll will take this in the rest of the post that he is making a confusion similar to the confusion about NOMA I pointed out before: he will take a claim consistent with NOMA and inflate it where convenient so that it contradicts NOMA, then deflate it back down to the weaker, more reasonable claim where that's more convenient.

And that's not even getting into the really controversial claims of the post, or for that matter anything beyond the first paragraph, despite the fact that there are a few problems with where his argument goes later. As far as I can see, all we have in this first paragraph is an attempt to create a refutation of NOMA by fiat; the only part of it that he even attempts to explain or defend elsewhere is the "found wanting" clause.

I have to say, I am extremely disappointed. Carroll is usually more thoughtful and careful than others who talk about this subject, but this is just extraordinarily sloppy. If this is really the best Carroll can do, then the fact that Carroll is so much better on this subject than most of the other people in the disucssion shows you just how many badly thought-out things have been flying around in this discussion under the name of reasoning. In a sense I have no dog in the race; I honestly don't care whether science organizations are accommodationist or non-accommodationist, and I don't really care, either, whether there are people who think "science" in some sense of the term conflicts with "religion" in some sense of the term, or not. For that matter, in ultimate terms I don't care whether our entire educational system becomes actively atheistic. Christians have survived being educated in pagan educational systems, we can survive being educated in atheistic ones, and in both cases the same principle remains stable, that as Christians all truth anywhere is our birthright, and that it matters not the least whether the truth is from the mouth of our Lord or from the mouth of Balaam's ass or from any other mouth. And, as I've said, I think NOMA false, although not for most of the arguments thrown at it recently, which have varied from incoherent to question-begging. But, having watched this discussion for some time, I find it extraordinarily depressing that so few people in this discussion hold themselves to any serious rational standards. Lewis once warned of the dangers of educating Men without Chests; sometimes exasperation makes me think we have one-upped his nightmare scenario with Men without Heads, and reading the arguments on this subject has been one of those times. Unlike a lot of people, I think Carroll can do better than he does here; but he will actually have to exert some effort.

Seraphic Good Fortune

Happy Bonaventure Day!

[T]he intellect can be said truly to comprehend the meaning of propositions when it knows with certainty that they are true; and to know in this way is really to know, for it cannot be deceived in such comprehension. Since it knows that this truth cannot be otherwise, it knows also that this truth is changeless. But since our mind itself is changeable, it could not see this truth shining in so changeless a manner were it not for some other light absolutely and unchangeably resplendent; nor can this light possibly be a created light subject to change. The intellect, therefore, knows in the light that enlightens every man who comes into the world, which is the true light, and the Word in the beginning with God.

Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, Franciscan Institute (Saint Bonaventure, NY: 1956) p. 67 (chapter 3, section 3).

Giovanni di Fidanza was born in 1221; he is almost universally known as Buonaventura, or Bonaventura. The legend goes that when he was young he became sick and so his parents took him to St. Francis of Assisi so that Francis could pray for him. St. Francis took the little boy in his arms and said, "O buona ventura!" And so, the story goes, the boy was known as Lucky ever after. It seems to be only a legend; but it does underline the close connection between Bonaventure and Francis; Bonaventure is sometimes called the second Founder of the Franciscan Order, due to his leadership in the crisis over the Spiritual Franciscans and to the influence of his work. Because of his charity and his meditations on Francis's visions of the Crucified Seraph, he is often known as the Seraphic Doctor.

A prayer from Bonaventure's The Tree of Life:

We pray to the most kind Father, through you His only-begotten Son, who for us became man, was crucified and was glorified, that he send us out of his treasury the Spirit of sevenfold grace that rested on lyou in all fullness: the Spirit of wisdom, that we may taste the life-giving savor of the fruit of the tree of life, which truly you are; and the gift of understanding, by which the intentions of our mind are illuminated; the gift of counsel, by which we may follow on the right paths, in your footsteps; the gift of fortitude, by which we may be able to blunt the violence of the attacks of the enemy; the gift of knowledge, by which we may be filled with the brilliant light of your sacred doctrine, so as to distinguish good and evil; the gift of piety, by which we may receive a compassionate heart; the gift of fear, by which we may withdraw from every evil and be set at peace through awed submission to your eternal majesty. For you have desired us to ask for these in that sacred prayer you have taught us; and now we ask to obtain them through your cross, for the praise of your most holy name. To you, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honro and glory, thankgsgiving and beauty and power, forever and ever. Amen

Dashed Off

Various notes from my notebook, about things I've been reading, ideas for poems, etc. As always, take with a grain of salt.

direct & indirect objectivity

Prudence is analogous to understanding (nous, intelligentia); it is to basic particulars as understanding is to universal principles.

Pleasures differ in kind.

The act of the intellect is like sight because of the richness of its object, like touch because of the firm reality of its object, and like taste because of the intimacy of its union with its object.

Where the Furies do not rule, law's sanction can only be weak; it is the Eumenides who give punishment its proper sting.

ethical Grand Rounds

If Hume were right, there would be no episteme, only empeiria -- no scientia, only experientia -- no knowledge, only familiarity. But although there is scientia, Hume is still often right about empeiria.

Setting aside special cases like direct divine inspiration, all acts of the human intellect are in some way abstractive, although most are not merely abstractive. Likewise (and by the same token!) every ordinary act of the human intellect is in some way conversive, involving a use of phantasms.

The materiality of a cognitive power is compatible with its nonsingularity, where it is indifferent to singularizing features; but indifference and universality are not the same, and even indifference is a sort of cognition of singulars, merely in those singular features that the cognitive power does not distinguish according as it belongs to this or that. Thus the imagination is a material power of cognition that is capable of such indifference, but it still treats of singulars in this indifferent way, because despite the fact that this indifference is possible because of the universal, the imagination cannot sort out the features of sensation so as to grasp the universal itself.

We usually sort out 'obviousness' by the difficulty of telling a plausible story on the contrary assumption.

dialectical likelihood: what actually happens for the most part.
rhetorical likelihood: what happens for the most part or is commonly thought to happen for the most part
poetic likelihood: what is not inconsistent with what happens for the most part, or is commonly thought to do so, and admits of some reason for happening in this or that case that is not inconsistent with what happens for the most part, or is commonly thought to do so

feudally structured capitalism

Lk 2:46 & Christian Socratism

There is no good reason to think that every truth is enunciable.

argument qua inference vs argument qua proof

One can imagine a culture in which reasoning was primarily assessed not logically but indirectly by way of a well-developed ethics of inquiry and persuasion.

Logic shares its generality with metaphysics.

the strictly predictable vs the loosely predictable

With certainty, people reason; with uncertainty, people try not to be left out of what everyone else is getting.

craft goods vs herd goods in philosophy

Liturgy must speak in all three of Vico's languages: the language of the gods, a mute language of signs and physical objects with natural relations to the ideas they wished to express; the language of the heroes, with emblems, similitudes, comparisons, images, metaphors, and natural descriptions; and the language of men, purely conventional discourse ruled by the will of the people.

precision of language, order of matters, truth of conclusions

end intended, object chosen

Sinc can never be approved; but it can often be sympathetically understood, & compassion builds on this.

The end, the goal, of the state is justice rooted in civic friendship.

The study of Torah is an act of rest.

marriage as institution
as contract
as friendship
as union
as sacrament

A lector, more than any other reader of Scripture, must attend to the sentiments and moods of the tex, for by simple and subtle suggestion of mood a lector may aid the one who hears to sense the meaning of the text more vividly.

(1) formalization
(2) regimentation
(3) annotation

Loans have a structure more like gifts than sales.

Aquinas : divine light qua that by or in which we can see :: Palamas : divine light qua that which we can see
In Thy Light we see Light.

the infinity of universal good

Petition to man
(1) to lay bare the desire & need of the petitioner
(2) to incline the mind of the one petitioned to the need
(3) presupposes intimacy as opportunity
Petition to God
(1) to reflect on shortcomings of the petitioner
(2) to incline the mind of the petitioner to good
(3) involves intimacy in itself

"Human nature inclines us to have recourse to petition for the purpose of obtaining from another, especially from a person of higher rank, what we hope to receive from him." Aquinas CT 2.2

No aggregation of common circumstances can identify a singular per se, although it may do so per accidens.

Phantasms are cognitions of singulars in prospectu nostro, from our point of view.

manual Thomism : St. Thomas :: literary study : work of literature

A description is an indication of what a thing is in terms of its accidents or of effects, things posterior to it, when those things are prior and better known to us than things that are simply prior. One use of descriptions is as a substitute for definitions when the latter are unavailable or practically unhelpful; another use is to prove that definitions actually apply to what they are supposed to define (although proving why they apply requires a different approach).

A nominal definition is an interpretation of a word convertible with the word itself.

reasonable qua within rational tolerances
qua able to be plausibly reasoned out
qua reasonworthy

Hebrew parallelism is not merely repetitive; it identifes on truth with two different constructions, as if I said 4-2 = 1+1 so that by two constructions you could know one number.

To give the Scriptures as He wished, God chose the Jews to be a peculiar people and built up Holy Writ through and in this people. For the Jewish people were the pen and ink by which divine revelation was written.

"Dare to be wise" is pointless without "Well begun is half done."

"The words of Japeth shall be in the tents of Shem." Gemara 9b

Erubin 13b: Jewish dispute progresses by respect for the other, in the form of respect for their position; it is kindly modest that fixes the ruling.
-- it is kind modesty that learns form others & takes their views into account even when disagreeing.

We are rational animals and therefore social animals; we are rational animals and therefore animals with rights, responsibilities, and duties.

dual right to property:
(1) individually
(2) for provision of family (familially)

significare est constituere intellectum

opsis adelon ta phainomena

gratitude as grateful feeling vs gratitude as recognized debt

We allow imperatives, questions & exclamantions to serve as conclusions but not as reasons (in themselves, at least). This is significant.

Divine revelation does not merely say, "This is true, this is to be done"; it initiates a process of pedagogy and application.

neutral analogy for antecedent credibility

mathematical models of experimentally identifiable classes of change

Only with hope can we fully taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

intrinsic titles to respect
extrinsic titles to respect

Suppositions tested are the seeds of solutions.

Our mereology needs more than just parts and wholes in order to distinguish aggregations from integrations.

The virtue of patience is often greater in its effects than any miracle.

continence, love, psalmody, & prayer

generation in creatures
(1) mutatio (term is form)
(2) productio (term is composite)

the idea of being, indeterminately considered, as a non-divine effect of a divine cause

Joy, by a kind of overflow, shines forth in the body as a kind of comeliness.

to catch life in poetry as in crystal

the heirlooms of picture-thinking handed down by tradition

the Lethe of the underworld (death)
the Lethe of the overworld (absolution)

Beliefs don't just sit there; they have roles to play in one's overall thought; they play parts in reasoning and inquiry and action.

Matrimony is in a sense a way of furthering motherhood and establishing the responsibilities of both sexes with regard to motherhood.

Theories cannot give account one way or another about the effects of causes they do not consider.

the pleasures of the body as medicinal in function (refreshment & removal of weariness)

The conversion to the phantasms is by its very nature also a conversion to the passions, albeit somewhat more indirectly.

the courteous homeliness of love

Shame deals with things that impede the recognition of the value of persons.

In order to do what it is supposed to do, Rosmini's 'idea of being' can be neither species nor concept.

Mereology requires a distinction between essential & accidental parts.

Intellect and imagination differ as much as demonstration and association do.

Two very pernicious errors
(1) that soul and body are united only per accidens
(2) that sense and intellect differ only per accidens
With these two errors put to rest one can proceed very far.

Aquinas on Joachim of Fiore (Supp 77.2ad3)

Love freely creates new responsibilities as new goods to serve other goods already in view.

The same rays of the same sun make forests grow and deserts spread.

the visceral activity of writing
-- touch and sight mingled like nature and grace

that our last end is not attainable in this life: changeableness of fortune, weakness of the human body, imperfection & instability of human knowledge and virtue

Evidence itself requries that some things be simply evident; such things can, of course, be indicated by evidence, but nothing can be evidence unless something is evident, in light of which evidence can be identified in the first place.

Talk about evidence is always an indirect way of talking about causal inferences: either a direct causal link or an indirect causal link or an analogy of direct or indirect causal links.

Moral character engenders a certain degree of immunity from and durability in suffering, although the force of even the finest character we encounter is limited in how far it can go.

All philosophical thought must undergo the spiritual process of purification, illumination, and perfection.

opus operans & opus operatum in art & poetry

Excellence in mundane life
(1) in regard to one's own person
(1a) through oneself (per se)
(1a1) generation
(1a2) growth
(1a3) nourishment
(1b) per acciens, by removal of impediment
(1b1) healing
(1b2) recovery of vigor (diet & exercise)
(2) in regard to the whole community
(2a) government
(2b) natural propagation

Everyone wishes to be Yen Yuan, but do we not all tend to be Tsai Wo?

Benevolence sympathizes with benevolence.

the Jews as the Hind of the Morning

Philosophy not done from love, or joy, or peace, or mercy, or zeal for justice, which is to say, philosophy not born of the disposition of love, tends to be barren, and, being lukewarm, spoils easily into sophistry.

signs: suggestion, expression, substitution

definition as naming well and with adequate understanding

One task of the academic is to undo the mischief of the goddess Rumor, to hunt down and eliminate the whispers of falsehood.

A theory of explanation is an account of reason in light of its final cause.

to reason with a song in one's heart

It befits a rational nature, capable of conceiving endlessly many things, to live in the physical world with endlessly many instruments.

As Albert the Great notes, the philosopher should not neglect or ignore the mechanical arts, because artisans and artists are driven to consider reasons behind the production of the works they take: the philosopher can learn from the architect, the farmer, the soldier, the surgeon, &c., when they have developed a feel or taste for what they do, and so have begun to be wise in their art.

God paints intelligible things with sensible things, that we might not overlook them.

Hope is (so to speak) holy ambition.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Number of Poem Drafts

Waters of Pleasure

Waters of pleasure
poured out over deserts
uncover treasures
in caverns of stone,
with sacred charisms
unbar every prison
like light through the prisms
of fountains a-glow,
and wash away sorrow
or else make it hallowed
with dreams of tomorrow
felt in our bones.

No, You May Not Kiss Me

No, you may not kiss me;
that never could be wise.
There is purring in my throat
and on my lips are lies;
my fangs are now so bared,
the howl in me would rise.
No, you may not kiss me;
death is in my eyes.

How Fair Is Paper White

How fair is paper white,
unwrit by stroke of ink;
it begs the mind to think
and turn to words its light.
It yearns with hope and waits
for thought to sally forth
like blizzards from the north
sent out through icy gates,
or sunlight's burst at dawn,
or rain upon the lawn.

Holger Danske

In caverns old and dark and deep
the angels Holger Danske keep
against the time when men are weak,
forgetting heart-wise courage meek,
and know no more of fortitude
and sword and shield alike refuse;
then Ogier with his Viking beard
will rise to strike the foe with fear,
with sword and axe to lead the fight
against defeat and fall of night.

Cicadas in the Oak Trees

Cicadas in the oak trees
trade in memories;
they gather and sell each one,
just as you and I
trade clouds that walk the sky
in languid summer sun.


The freedom sweet that pours like glory down through beams of sun--the taste of swelt'ring air, the feel of blanket-warmth--the scent of light that wafts--the sound of sun like bees that buzz--if I forget these things, let floods pour forth to wash my heart to sea, for it has died and lost its living fires.

Noontime Traffic

The windmill grass lies by widow's tears,
the day-flower dripping sorrows shorn;
the canyon cool with sundry earths
holds senna blooming in the morn.
Yet here I sit in concrete places,
shaded from siesta sun;
the air is stiff and bound, unpleasant:
noontime traffic has begun.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Novels and Aristotelian Philosophy

In light of the previous post on learning from literature, it seemed good to take Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge off the shelf for a bit of reading. Here is Nussbaum making one of the points I made toward the end of my last post, from a different angle and in different terms (Maggie Verver is a character in Henry James's The Golden Bowl):

And we now see another way in which novels can play an important role in the articulation of an Aristotelian morality. For novels, as a genre, direct us to attend to the concrete; they display before us a wealth of richly realized detail, presented as relevant for choice. And yet they speak to us: they ask us to imagine possible relations between our own situations and those of the protagonists, to identify with the characters and/or the situation, thereby perceiving those similarities and differences. In this way their structure suggests, as well, that much of moral relevance is universalizable: learning about Maggie Verver's situation helps us understand our own.

[Martha Nussbaum, Love's Knowledge, Oxford UP (New York: 1990) p. 95.]

Learning from Literature

Stephen Law has a post on whether you can learn much about the human condition from literature. (Law seems to consider literature only to involve stories; this is certainly not the case, as we see when we get to, say, Lucretius's De Rerum Natura.

One of the things that strikes me is that parallel claims to Law's claims about literature can be made against the sorts of regimented arguments considered by philosophers (and are made fairly often, if my students are any indication). Arguments can be used to tell lies about the human condition; they can present things in ways that make us feel sympathy for causes we should revile, or make what is wrong seem right and normal. This is just a function of the fact that being an argument doesn't guarantee any particular content, just as being a story doesn't guarantee any particular content.

Likewise, when analytic philosophers discuss arguments, they discuss them in terms of clear-cut premises and conclusions; but real reasoning is almost never this simple, and it can, in fact, be difficult to tell whether something is supposed to be an additional premise, a conclusion, an enthymematic supporting argument, a clarification, etc. So when analytic philosophers deal with arguments, what they are dealing with can seem like it has no connection to real reasoning -- it's just paper-logic, simplified, idealized, and detached from the complexities of real reasoning, sometimes, in straw men cases, purely fictional. Philosophers regularly look at cleaned-up arguments rather than the original arguments; and sometimes in the cleaning essential features drop out. This is just a function of the fact that when philosophers regiment or formalize arguments, they are working with artifacts created for a particular purpose, just as storytellers are.

And, of course, the fact that philosophers deal with the same patterns of argument again and again is even more obvious than in the literary case. And this is just a function of the fact is that one of the things you want to know is what the patterns are and how they work in certain sorts of conjunctions with other patterns.

None of the claims tell us much about what we can learn, whether we are considering arguments or stories: the first just tells us that we can be deceived, and doesn't tell us about cases where we are not; the second just tells us that to understand something we go to a cleaner case to see how things work there; and the third just tells us that there are patterns, not what they are or how they are used. And so on. Literature, of course, only deals with plausibilities and implausibilities, and rarely anything more rigorous than that; but within the limits imposed by that constraint there still seems plenty of room to find worthwhile lessons.

But the question asked is an interesting question. What non-trivial truths can be learned from literature? Here are some thoughts.

(1) Sometimes stories are a good way of laying out a position in such a way that it looks plausible. An example is Eliot's atheistic view of religion, adapted from Feuerbach, in which it involves a failure to reconcile moral activity with the fictional projection of morality onto reality. This is very neatly laid out in her characterization of Savonarola in Romola. Likewise, Ibn Tufayl's Hayy ibn Yaqzan can be seen as in part an argument that philosophical reasoning needs for social purposes to be clothed in religious images. Ibn Tufayl's story is laid out in such a way as to make this plausible, by telling a story of a pure philosopher trying to teach his philosophy to a common mass of people to whom his manner of argument is foreign. And in the course of making it seem plausible, he can't help but touch on reasons why someone might consider it plausible: political resistance, psychological causes, the expenditure of resources (in time and effort) required to do philosophy, etc. That literature has this ability to display positions reached philosophically in ways showing their strengths is argued at greater length by Santayana in his Three Philosophical Poets.

(2) Sometimes stories are an excellent source of distinctions between phenomena that might otherwise be missed. Eliot provides another example of this, which I take from Miriam Burstein, the distinction between hypocrisy and what can be called 'Bulstrodism'.

(3) Sometimes stories are good ways to lay out why certain positions are implausible. It has been noted since Ryle at least that Jane Austen's novels do this fairly regularly, so that, for instance, the Crawfords in Mansfield Park are described in terms that make them come out very favorably (especially in comparison with crying, quiet Fanny), and that the characterization closely fits what would be expected by certain forms of eighteenth-century virtue theory. But, of course, what Austen shows in doing this is that those philosophical positions lead us to sympathize with the wrong people in the story, because they overemphasize social traits and underemphasize constancy.

But, of course, what you mostly gain from literature, as from life, is not a set of general truths, but a collection of analogues. In fact, all three of the points listed above contribute to this exquisitely valuable feature of story. Eliot's Tito Melema, with his easy amiability that in its very nature is the beginning of moral corruption, has real-world cousins; once you've read Romola you begin to recognize that there are many Tito-like things done in the world. And so it is with her Bulstrode, her Dorothea, etc. Reading George Eliot gives you a new and substantive vocabulary for talking about ethics precisely because you can use her characters, her situations, and the like, as a way of talking about the moral matters raised in the course of her story. And so it is with Austen, with Dickens, with Dante, with Homer.

Of course, none of this is the primary reason for reading literature, which is that it, like most contemplation of art, is an enjoyment excellently suited to rational animals, whether you take away much from it or not. But insofar as literature is used, or insofar as in reading it you happen to come away with things that you can use, there seems to be plenty that can be learned from literature.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thing Said and Thing Made

When we take literature in the narrower sense the question is more complicated. A work of literary art can be considered in two lights. It both means and is. It is both Logos (something said) and Poiema (something made). As Logos it tells a story, or expresses an emotion, or exhorts or pleads or describes or rebukes or excites laughter. As Poiema, by its aural beauties and also by the balance and contrast and the unified multiplicity of its successive parts, it is an objet d'art, a thing shaped so as to give great satisfaction. From this point of view, and perhaps from this only, the old parallel between painting and poetry is helpful.

These two characters in the work of literary art are separated by an abstraction, and the better the work is the more violent the abstraction is felt to be.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, Cambridge UP (Cambridge: 1961) p. 132. The "parallel between painting and poetry" is an allusion to a very influential passage by Horace.

On Brown & Nagasawa on Divine Command Theory

Campbell Brown and Yujin Nagasawa have a paper on Divine Command Theory accounts of ethics (PDF) that argues that DCT implies that it is not morally obligatory to worship God. They take DCT to include two principles, which they call the Obligation Principle and the Compliance Principle, which they gloss in the following ways:

The Obligation Principle. For any act φ, we have a moral obligation to do φ (or refrain from doing φ) if and only if God commands us to do φ (or refrain from doing φ).

The Compliance Principle. For any act φ, if God commands us to do φ (or refrain from doing φ), then we have a moral obligation to comply with Her command to do φ (or refrain form doing φ).

So if God commands one to honor the sabbath, by Obligation we have a moral obligation to honor the sabbath; and equally, by Compliance, we have a moral obligation to comply with God's command to honor the sabbath. Brown and Nagasawa argue that these are distinct moral requirements; it is very unclear, however, how these two principles relate to DCT, at least as Brown and Nagasaw understand them. The nut of their argument is that Obligation only requires honoring the sabbath, for whatever reason, whereas Compliance, given their definition of 'comply', requires that we honor the sabbath because God commanded it. The first of these inferences does not seem correct. Nothing about Obligation tells us at all what it is to fulfill an obligation; it just tells us obligations obtain when God commands, and vice versa. And it is not clear that the Divine Command theorist is really committed to Compliance in Brown & Nagasawa's sense. Indeed, unless I'm mistaken, the most famous Divine Command theorist historically, William Warburton, is not committed to it. Warburton holds that morality is sustained by a 'threefold cord': rational perception of what is appropriate to what, sentiments cultivated according to good moral taste, and the authority of a superior to command. Any of these three is an adequate reason for acting morally, and you can act morally while acting for any of these three reasons. But because Warburton holds that morality is, strictly speaking, established only by obligation, which depends on the authority of a superior to command, and fundamentally on the ultimate authority of God, it is the divine command that obliges actions (or nonactions) and makes them moral rather than just reasonable or tasteful. This means that the act of obligation does not itself have to be the motivating reason for acting that way: it's just what establishes the standard by which you can say, yes, that was a genuinely moral thing to do, rather than just a very reasonable or a very tasteful thing to do. Indeed, Warburton is very clear that one of the reasons God gives us the ability to perceive the rational relations between things, and also the rudiments of good sentiments and the ability to cultivate them, is precisely to give us internal motivating reasons for acting morally; each strand of the threefold cord can provide a good moral motivation. It's just that only one of these actually makes the act itself moral or immoral.

Thus DCT as such is only committed to Obligation, not to Compliance, as Brown and Nagasawa understand it -- although, of course, there may be individual Divine Command theorists who commit themselves to Compliance.