Saturday, September 05, 2009


Orac has a post on motivated reasoning, and draws the right conclusion from the studies that have been done on it:

I'm just as human as any of the participants in this study. Indeed, any skeptic who thinks he or she is not just as prone to such errors in thinking is not a skeptic but suffering from self-delusion. The only difference between skeptics and non-skeptics, scientists and nonscientists, in this regard is that skeptics try to make themselves aware of how human thinking can go wrong and then act preemptively to try to keep those normal human cognitive quirks from leading them astray. Indeed, guarding against these normal human failings when it comes to making conclusions about the natural world is the very reason we need science and why we need to base our medicine on science. If we do not and if we further do not at every turn gird ourselves with science, skepticism, and critical thinking against pseudoscience and the need to belief, it won't be long before we are indistinguishable from what we oppose.

It is worth contrasting this self-critical notion of skepticism with the methodological notion found in Massimo Pigliucci's recent post on skepticism:

A skeptic in the modern sense of the term, let’s say from Hume forward, is someone who thinks that belief in X ought to be proportional to the amount of evidence supporting X. Or, in Carl Sagan’s famous popularization of the same principle, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In that sense, then, what I will call positive skeptics do not automatically reject new claims, they weigh them according to the evidence.

One of the fundamental problems with Pigliucci's post, I think, lies in failing to recognize that the reason skeptics are, as Pigliucci saus, 'lonely', is that this guarantees that one's skepticism is based not (as in Orac's version) on what we all share as human beings but on idiosyncratic notions of belief and evidence. In other words, he fails to recognize that the 'loneliness' is an artifact of understanding skepticism in this way. Hume (rightly) did not see his claim as a self-evident truth. He argues for it. His argument is based on his own controversial account of belief and evidence -- and, indeed, is based on the most controversial elements of it. It is this account of belief and evidence that gives it its meaning on the Humean page; remove the argument underlying it, you change the meaning. On every account of belief and evidence you can make sense of the claim that beliefs should have evidential support; on most you can make sense of the claim that beliefs should have the right kind of evidential support (which will vary depending on the type of belief). But accounts where you can make sense of belief being 'proportioned' to evidence, where that just does not boil down to one of these two other claims, are far from being the most common kind of account. And, what is more, if you start talking with skeptics about their underlying reasoning, you find that they don't agree with each other, either -- most skeptics do not have a strictly Humean account of belief and evidence and therefore, whether they recognize it or not, they do not agree with Hume when he makes the claim, but reinterpret the phrases in light of their own accounts of belief and evidence. A Bayesian, for instance, has already changed what counts as proportioning belief to evidence, and therefore changed the very position itself. Very few skeptics, asked what they mean by "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," would spontaneously put it in the odd terms Pigliucci does, in which null hypotheses are states pertaining to belief rather than (as most people would normally interpret them, if they would even think of them at all in this context) hypotheses formulated for the purpose of statistical testing, which are never 'proportioned' to the evidence at all (rather than simply not rejected on the basis of it). What they mean by proportioning belief to evidence will have to be something different from what Pigliucci means. And unlike Orac's notion, in which there can be a genuine commonality among very diverse positions, this way of characterizing skepticism leaves us with a lot of positions that are only verbally similar.

One of the things I find interesting about this is that it's a clear example of how very different a family of logically possible positions can look depending on what you take to distinguish that family from other families of logically possible positions. Given that the positions in question are complex things, there's nothing to prevent them both being true, in the sense that both are picking up on features actually found among forms of (modern) skepticism; but, likewise, there is nothing to prevent them from establishing diverse boundaries, so that there are groups who fall inside on one account but outside on another. This is as it should be, because the human mind is capable of generating that much diversity; but it's something we often overlook, to the detriment of our analyses.

Tell Cockroft and Maud Ray Kent

I have recently been reading up on the early history of atomic research; it's rather fascinating, and it's an area where you keep coming up against unexpected things. For instance, uranium fission kept being rediscovered, but nobody recognized it as uranium fission: they thought they were creating new transuranic elements, and were thoroughly perplexed at the results they were getting, because it took an immense amount of work for them to find a way to make sense of the idea that you could start with uranium, element 92, and get thorium, element 90, by adding to it. Likewise, you'd have thought that pressure to build atomic weapons would have come from governments; but in fact what you find are scientists repeatedly trying to get governments interested in an atomic weapons program and repeatedly failing.

One of the interesting stories begins as Nazi Germany was reaching out to take hold of Denmark. Worried, Niels Bohr sent his children's governess, who was English, back to England and tried to get his affairs in order. The Nazis crossed the border, took the ports; Bohr fired off an urgent telegram to his colleague, Otto Frisch, who was currently in Birmingham. It ended: "Tell Cockroft and Maud Ray Kent." Frisch gave it to John Cockroft, one of Britain's leading atomic researchers, and Cockroft read Bohr's telegram to the Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Warfare. What did Bohr mean with the bit about 'Maud Ray Kent'? Nobody knew anyone of that name. Someone pointed out that the letters could be a slightly modified anagram for 'Radium Taken'; the Germans perhaps were making a concerted effort at advancing in atomic research? That fit with other evidence. But what could the Germans be interested in when it came to atomic research? Radium itself had long ceased to be the central element in the study; but radium is closely associated with uranium, whose potential power when made to disintegrate was just beginning to be guessed at. Someone suggested that the 'Maud' might actually stand for "Military Application: Uranium Disintegration". And by that point everyone knew that there was one obvious military application for uranium disintegration: an atomic bomb. And so the MAUD Committee was born, to push for Britain's own atomic weapons program to counterbalance the one that Bohr had warned the Nazis were creating.

It was after the war that someone discovered that Bohr's English governess was named Maud Ray, and that she lived in Kent.

Not a Button, or Feather, or Mark

Someone reached this blog through Google by asking the question, "What caused the Baker to softly and suddenly vanish away?" I doubt they found the answer on the page they reached; but the answer, of course, is that the Snark was a Boojum.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Sex as Syllogism

An interesting passage:

Moreover, I added that a syllogistic conclusion in the due order of three propositions should be arranged, but that it should be content with an abridgment to two terms, following none of the Aristotelian figures; being of such sort that in every proposition the major extreme should perform the office of the predicate, and the minor should be the subject, and be bound by its laws. In the first proposition the predicate should cling to the subject, not in the manner of true inherence, but simply by the way of external connection, as with a term predicated from a term. In the minor proposition the major term should be joined to the minor more closely by the reciprocal pressure of the kisses of relation. But in the conclusion there should be celebrated, in the truer bond of closest inherence, the fleshly connection of subject and predicate. It was also part of my plan that the terms in the conclusion of love should not, by any pernicious and retrograding conversion, following the laws of predication by analogy, change their places and stations. And to the end that no false consequent, born from terms like and equal, should be able to hinder the work of Venus, I distinguished the terms with special marks, that she might plainly recognize with familiar insight and easy perception what term, from the law of their nature, the more humble step of the subject demands, and what the loftier summit of the predicate; for so, if a conclusion should inconsequently have its terms out of right relation, there should not still arise complete deformity and continual folly.

Alanus ab Insulis (Alain de Lille), The Complaint of Nature. You have to love the idea of a proposition joining the terms together with "the reciprocal pressure of the kisses of relation". Alanus is quite right that this is not like any Aristotelian figure you'd ever see: the terms remain the same (i.e., the minor term is the subject of every proposition and the major term the predicate of every proposition, so that there is no middle term), and merely change their connection:

P is linked to S by external connection [major proposition]
P is linked to S by reciprocal kisses [minor proposition]
P is linked to S by fleshly connection [conclusion]

The end of the passage is a bit on the obscure side, but it's clear enough that the minor term is supposed to be female and the major term is supposed to be male; and that Nature has given the terms distinctive marks (i.e., sexual characteristics) to make sure that there are no propositions with two minor terms or two major terms: Alanus thinks of homosexual sex as a sexual sophism.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Wedding Traditions

Eugene Volokh is apparently having a female friend attend him at his wedding rather than a male friend, and, of course, there have been plenty of people absurdly turning up their nose at this. Wedding "traditions" irritate me to high heaven, in part because they are almost never traditions, as opposed to things that were made up to suit some particular, highly public, wedding that people have copied as if essential to the ceremony. Royal weddings, soap opera weddings, and movie weddings are abundant sources for these often ridiculous and utterly arbitrary faux traditions. Brides virtually never worse white wedding dresses prior to Queen Victoria's wedding in 1840, after which the white dress suddenly became the absolute must-have; instead they, like the grooms, wore their Sunday clothes. And as for "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in her shoe," also inflicted on us by all-devouring Victorian wedding-imperialism, if people were really serious about that we'd have people rushing around every June trying to find a sixpence rather than quietly dropping it from the verse.

No one seems to know exactly when and where the custom of having attendants originated, which is why the usual folk histories (fooling evil spirits! preventing kidnapping!) are so vague and obviously worked up to make it seem like it's an ancient custom; it may be an accidental offshoot of the tradition of having witnesses. Unlike most wedding 'traditions' it has some years on it, it originally made sense in general, and it has pleasant features (honoring one's friends). It has also radically changed many times through the years; it seems to have once been the case, for instance, that in the actual wedding the groomsmen attended the bride for the groom, as in the eighteenth century rhyme, "The Collier's Wedding":

Two lusty lads, well drest and strong,
Stepped out to lead the bride along;
And two young maids of equal size
As soon the bridegroom's hand surprise.

Which is to some extent is the opposite of what they do today. There's no reason why it has to be men on one side and women on the other. Weightier traditions, that make sense and are really traditions, continually fall by the wayside; but people will stick at the most inessential details.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Sun-Awakened Avalanche!

Beneath is a wide plain of billowy mist,
As a lake, paving in the morning sky,
With azure waves which burst in silver light,
Some Indian vale. Behold it, rolling on
Under the curdling winds, and islanding
The peak whereon we stand, midway, around,
Encinctured by the dark and blooming forests,
Dim twilight-lawns, and stream-illumined caves,
And wind-enchanted shapes of wandering mist;
And far on high the keen sky-cleaving mountains
From icy spires of sun-like radiance fling
The dawn, as lifted Ocean's dazzling spray,
From some Atlantic islet scattered up,
Spangles the wind with lamp-like water-drops.
The vale is girdled with their walls, a howl
Of cataracts from their thaw-cloven ravines,
Satiates the listening wind, continuous, vast,
Awful as silence. Hark! the rushing snow!
The sun-awakened avalanche! whose mass,
Thrice sifted by the storm, had gathered there
Flake after flake, in heaven-defying minds
As thought by thought is piled, till some great truth
Is loosened, and the nations echo round,
Shaken to their roots, as do the mountains now.

Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, Act 2, Scene 2.3, lines 19-42. The lines starting "Hark! the rushing snow!" are fairly famous as a description of enlightenment and revolution. Thought can thunder through the nations, shaking them to their roots. But, as good poetic images often do, I think the image goes beyond Shelley's intent; the avalanche is awakened by the Sun.

A Common Error about Natural Law

Thomas Aquinas says that the precepts of natural law are ordered according to the order of our natural inclinations. In the famous passage:

Because in man there is first of all an inclination to good in accordance with the nature which he has in common with all substances: inasmuch as every substance seeks the preservation of its own being, according to its nature: and by reason of this inclination, whatever is a means of preserving human life, and of warding off its obstacles, belongs to the natural law. Secondly, there is in man an inclination to things that pertain to him more specially, according to that nature which he has in common with other animals: and in virtue of this inclination, those things are said to belong to the natural law, "which nature has taught to all animals" [Pandect. Just. I, tit. i], such as sexual intercourse, education of offspring and so forth. Thirdly, there is in man an inclination to good, according to the nature of his reason, which nature is proper to him: thus man has a natural inclination to know the truth about God, and to live in society: and in this respect, whatever pertains to this inclination belongs to the natural law; for instance, to shun ignorance, to avoid offending those among whom one has to live, and other such things regarding the above inclination.

Because of this some people come away with the view that the way you determine a precept of natural law is to start by identifying a natural inclination, and somehow get the precept from the character of the inclination. This, however, is wrong. St. Thomas does not say that we discover the precepts by looking at the natural inclinations. On his view, we discover them by either (1) deriving them from the first precept of natural law (which follows from the first principle of practical reason), "Seek good and avoid evil," or (2) by resolution, i.e., by seeing how various candidates fit with the already established precepts. What Aquinas tells us is that the precepts of natural law are ordered according to the order of the natural inclinations, and this is something different again. The reason why the precepts of natural law are ordered according to the order of the natural inclinations is that natural inclinations are the way we recognize, so to speak, various things as good. Practical reason tells us how these goods relate to each other, and the pursuit of these various kinds of goods is made to be orderly by natural law. If we start with the actual things we do on the basis of natural inclinations, we are faced with two possibilities:

(1) The natural inclinations are, in the action, properly ordered to each other, in which case we are already looking at the natural inclinations recognized as being set in order by natural law.

(2) The actions following from these natural inclinations are not already recognized to be ordered by natural law, in which case we can learn nothing about natural law from them, because we cannot rule out that the actions resulting from them are defective, excessive, or twisted in some way.

Thus either we already know what's in accordance with the precepts of natural law or we can't derive the precepts from the natural inclinations. In the former case we could still learn something (e.g., better ways to formulate or express what we already know), but this is not something new about natural law itself. The natural inclinations themselves do not tell us how they should be ordered to each other (you can't just look at the inclination to self-preservation and formulate a precept, because you have to take into account all the other natural inclinations and how they are related to self-preservation -- but the inclination to self-preservation itself tells us nothing about this); but we cannot accurately formulate the precepts of natural law except by determining how the inclinations should be ordered to each other.

But the properly ordered natural inclinations are the natural inclinations as ordered by natural law; so it makes sense to think of the order of the precepts of natural law in terms of the order of the natural inclinations. They both follow from how different kinds of goods are ordered to each other. The inclinations are the seeds of pursuing the goods in this order and the precepts identify how these goods may pursued without violating that order.

Three Reasons Why You Should Read Feminist Philosophy

I'm a fairly big fan of feminist philosophy; I've read pretty widely in it since undergrad. And I always try to make sure that I have short units on feminist philosophy in both my courses, Intro and Ethics, despite the fact that they are lower-level surveys and the number of things I should be covering in them, and would be covering in a rational universe that gave teachers what they needed, is far larger than I could possibly cover in a term. I think everyone should take at least a bit of interest in the field, and here are three reasons you should, too.

(1) There's the obvious one that the basic goal in feminist philosophy is a good and reasonable one: justice for women (and, indeed, everyone).

(2) I find the most common misconception about feminist philosophy is that people think it is a relatively homogeneous field. In fact, it is extraordinarily diverse. As I think I mentioned somewhere before when talking about Hypatia, the major feminist philosophy journal, feminist philosophy is not a narrow-topic field. Just as history of philosophy in some sense covers everything in philosophy, considered historically, so feminist philosophy in some sense covers everything in philosophy, considered in light of justice for women. And on most of the major topics feminist philosophers have a wide variety of views, and there are enough people doing it (despite the various ways in which it is marginalized) that there is well-developed discussion and argument on many fronts. This is actually one of the exciting things about feminist philosophy at present, I think; lots of intelligent minds with diverse backgrounds arguing things out is exactly the sort of infrastructure on which excellent philosophical work gets built.

(3) There's chaff among the wheat of feminist philosophy, of course, but my own assessment is that there's actually much less than in more 'mainstream' fields of philosophy, and the reason for this is that there is less room for taking things for granted. I mean, while everyone takes things for granted, feminist philosophy is an area in which there is a greater likelihood of someone pointing it out. And whatever your answers, part of your reading really should be something that raises questions about things you usually take for granted.

Here are some works in feminist philosophy, or relevant to it, that I would recommend.

* Lorraine Code, What Can She Know?
* Lorraine Code, Epistemic Responsibility

The second of these I would place as one of the better works on epistemology that has been written in the past twenty-five years. The first is quite good, too. She has another book, Ecological Thinking, that has some good points, but that I think gets too bogged down in vague generalities at too many points to be very successful.

* Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice

This is one of those books that I'm going to have to go back to and give a much closer reading; there are too many interesting ideas and too much excellent thought here to do justice to in a single quick reading.

* Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland

Not a work of feminist philosophy, per se, being an early feminist utopia novel. But it's readable, fun, and raises interesting questions.

* Susanne DeCrane, Aquinas, Feminism, and the Common Good

This is in many ways an exemplary work of feminist history of philosophy. A number of things I disagree with, but always worth thinking about.

* Annette Baier, The Commons of the Mind

A bit broader than what people usually think of as feminist philosophy, but relevant to it, through and through.

* Nell Noddings, Caring

Ethics; I think Noddings often skips too many steps in her arguments, but the core ideas are really worthy of reflection.

* Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?

Harding is very widely misunderstood. One can get a good entrance into her work if you start with the question: What role do we give to scientific investigation and practice in the ethical character of our society?

* Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
* John Stuart Mill, The Subjugation of Women

Classics that you should have read anyway.

* Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies
* Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II
* Damaris Masham, Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life

Should be classics that you should have read anyway.

* Catherine Beecher, A Treatise on Domestic Economy
* Sarah Grimke, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women

A superficial reading could lead one to take Beecher's work as a very conservative women-in-the-home sort of work, and Beecher was, in fact, very conservative and very critical of a number of strands of nineteenth century feminist thought. But closer look at the work shows hundreds of ways in which Beecher takes a strand of the common view of the 'domesticity' thought to be appropriate to women and shows that if people actually allowed women to follow through on it, rather than hampering them in it, it would inexorably lead to women playing a larger and more powerful role in society. The elder Grimke sister's work forms a useful balance to Beecher's work, since they were in many ways representatives of opposing sides in the drive for equality and votes for women in the nineteenth century (they had opposing views about the best way to go about obtaining such things).

* Marjorie Suchoki, The End of Evil

Lots I disagreed with here; but this is a very interesting attempt at a feminist process theology.

* Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity

Better, I think, than her more famous work, The Second Sex (and better also than much of Sartre's work).

The list could possibly be expanded; but it's enough to start you on your way, assuming you haven't already started. And if you have already started, do you have any recommendations of your own?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Murdoch and Everyday Life

Simon Blackburn, in Truth (p. 88):

There is a philosophical temperament that sometimes surfaces here, that indeed thinks that anything less than the whole truth must be not only partial, but just because of that somehow false....It derives from Plato's idea that the lover of wisdom, when he gets out of the cave into which the rest of humanity is confined, not only learns more but also learns that what the others take for truth is in fact illusion. The Platonist Iris Murdoch was an artful exponent of this implausible line, constantly denigrating everyday life in the name of something higher.

The only evidence for this last sentence is a footnote to Murdoch's Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. This last sentence pulled me up short when I read it; it sounded so utterly implausible a claim about Murdoch that I went back and re-read the whole of MGM to see if I had missed something. I hadn't; there is no trace of what Blackburn says she was "constantly" doing. In fact, you get passages like this, in Chapter One:

However, if it is to enlighten us, Plato's attack on art must be seen in the context of his whole moral philosophy. Life is a spritiual pilgrimage inspired by the disturbing magnetism of truth, involving ipso facto a purification of energy and desire in the light of a vision of what is good. The good and just life is thus a process of clarification, a movement toward selfless lucidity, guided by ideas of perfection which are objects of love. Platonic morality is not coldly intellectual, it involves the whole man and attaches value to the most 'concrete' of everday preoccupations and acts. It concerns the continuous detail of human activity, wherein we discriminate between appearance and reality, good and bad, true and false, and check or strengthen our desires.

Which is exactly the opposite of what Blackburn attributes to her. Murdoch's view is that consideration of the true, the good, and other 'ideas of perfection', far from leading us to denigrate everyday life, leads us to find more of value in it. Far from making us dismiss the partial, it gives us a richer sense of the detail of the parts, because it puts them in a context. And what is more, Murdoch insists on more than one occasion that 'something higher' is part of our everday life -- our everyday lives are partially structured by the magnetism of the good and the true. Indeed, this very point is a major part of the argument of the book.

I'm rather mystified as to how Blackburn could have come to attribute to Murdoch the exact opposite of the view Murdoch actually insists upon. It's almost as if he had in mind a caricature of Platonism, decided he needed an actual Platonist for an example (the other example he uses is British Idealism), thought, "Who is a notable modern defender of Platonism?", and said, "Oh, yes, Iris Murdoch, I'll put her down as an example," without any regard for how Murdoch herself fit the caricature. Or conceivably he confused Murdoch's view with fragments of other philosophers whom she discusses. But it's a serious misreading.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Four Poem Drafts

The Lily of the Year

The lily of the year, O Lord,
your holy rising from the dead,
gives fragrance through the ages, Lord,
like the scent of new-baked bread,
or the scent of summer rain
that promises to parched lands
that new life is in the air
to pour on thirsty sands,
or bouquet of wine that hovers
to fill your house with love
and give people cheer and gladness
to praise their God above.


On a dark and stormy night when a gale was rising high,
I was walking on the way and I thought I heard a cry;
muffled by the distance to a sound like mournful sigh,
it rose above the wind, then wavered, faltered, died,
so light upon the ear that I almost could have thought
it was a subtle trick of sound by storm and gale-wind wrought.
What could it be? Sense and query fiercely fought,
but worry over-balanced, so sense I heeded not:
I rushed into the darkness of the wind and rain and cold.
The lightning flashed and glamored on a castle ruined of old
and there, like sheep who strayed from the devil's fallen fold,
there walked in night and shadow the terrors, bale and bold,
who turned the rain to sleet with the malice of their breath --
and in that bitter malice I met my freezing death.

Psalm 150

Praise the Lord!
Praise him in his temple,
in the heights, praise,
for all his works, praise,
praise his greatness!
Praise him with trumpet shout,
with lutes, praise,
with the clear lyre, praise,
with the drums, praise,
with the fleet, swift dance,
with pipes, with cymbals,
loud, clashed cymbals, praise!
All that breathes, praise,
praise the Lord!


I went walking today to feel the thrill of green upon my eyes.
There there are no worries, there are no lies,
no misunderstandings made by false disguise,
only, for those who take the time to look,
lightward-growing life beside a spring-fed brook
with richer colors far than are ever found in books.

Can One Write Haiku in English?

It's commonly said among English writers that a haiku is a syllabic poem with lines of five, seven, and five syllables respectively. This is not, in fact, true, and thinking through why it is not raises some interesting questions about language and poem forms.

English syllabic poetry typically uses a straight count: you count the syllables. This is not because this is the most natural way to do syllables, but because number of syllables is, along with stress, about the only thing about syllables that's reasonably stable in English. Even then there are plenty of puzzles, like the 'ire' family of syllables: briar, buyer, choir, dire, fire, gyre, hire, higher, ire, lyre, liar, mire, pyre, sire, tire, wire, and so forth. In some dialects there are differences among some of these, but in some dialects (my own, for instance) these are all exact rhymes, and they are all capable of functioning as one or two syllables. The reason is that with a strongly accented vowel sound followed by a weakly accented vowel sound, with no consonant or semi-consonant to distinguish, the strong vowel can dominate the weak vowel to varying degrees, ranging from completely dominance (so that you only hear the strong vowel) to carefully enunciated nondominance. And the weakly accented vowel sound remains pronunciable because of the 'r' at the end, which, so to speak, gives it something to hold onto. This allowance for fuzzy syllable distinctions is only one of many ways in which English is sloppy with its syllables. Syllables can vary in length from dialect to dialect; there is no standard set of syllables, since English borrows syllables from all over; and so forth.

Some languages, however, are much more careful with their syllables. In such languages straight-count syllabic poetry is usually not very interesting, and is not all that distinguishable from prose; it would be like writing poetry in English in which every line has the same number of words:

The rabbit sat
on the carpet
with the dog
and the parakeet
while Jane called
John at home.

But with a relatively orderly syllabic language, there's more to work with, and the most important of these is the mora. A mora is a unit of sound indicating the extension of the syllable or, as it is usually called, the syllable weight; the word literally means 'delay'. To determine the moras you have to analyze the syllable into its parts. Every syllable has a nucleus, which is the sound (usually a vowel, although there are consonants in many languages, like m, n, and r, that can do so as well) that carries the syllable; many syllables also have a coda, which is the final consonant sound and an onset, which is an initial consonantal sound. Wikipedia actually has a nice article on the subject, and gives a typical set of rules for determining moras:

1. A syllable onset (the first consonant or consonants of the syllable) does not represent any mora.
2. The syllable nucleus represents one mora in the case of a short vowel, and two moras in the case of a long vowel or diphthong. Consonants serving as syllable nuclei also represent one mora if short and two if long. (Slovak is an example of a language that has both long and short consonantal nuclei.)
3. In some languages (for example, Japanese), the coda represents one mora, and in others (for example, Irish) it does not. In English, the codas of stressed syllables represent a mora (thus, the word cat is bimoraic), but for unstressed syllables it is not clear whether the codas do (the second syllable of the word rabbit might be monomoraic).
4. In some languages, a syllable with a long vowel or diphthong in the nucleus and one or more consonants in the coda is said to be trimoraic (see pluti).

In haiku what you are counting are not the syllables but the moras of the syllables: five moras, seven moras, and five moras. From what I understand, in Japanese light syllables (monomoraic) are fairly common, so there will often be a one-to-one correspondence. But there often will not, and Wikipedia notes that Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagasaki all have a different number of syllables but the same number of moras.

I imagine you could write genuine haiku in Cherokee and get a nice result; English not so much. For that matter, since moraics underlie length of vowels, you might be able to do so in Latin and Greek, although given the way the two form words I imagine that it would take a certain amount of epigrammatic genius. Latin and Greek metric poetry is a distant cousin of haiku -- and, contrary to common belief, we don't typically write genuine metric poetry in English, either, since one of the ways English is not careful about syllables is in the length of vowels. Instead we write rhythmic stress poetry whose patterns of stress are somewhat analogous to metric patterns.

But all this, of course, still leaves the question: despite the obstacles, can one write poetry in English that consists of three lines of five moras, seven moras, and five moras, that makes sense, and that sounds interesting? Is this a poem form that really requires a different sort of language from English? Or can it be done? One can write terza rima in both Italian and English, even though Italian is massively better suited for it due to its greater regularity of word-endings; can one write haiku in English as well, despite the extraordinary chaos and disorder of the English language? I have no clue.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Productive Labor and the Mind

The poem by Morris in the previous post led me to think that it's been too long since I quoted from his always interesting essays. Here's an interesting quotation:

Yes, we do sorely need a system of production which will give us beautiful surroundings and pleasant occupation, and which will tend to make us good human animals, able to do something for ourselves, so that we may be generally intelligent instead of dividing ourselves into dull drudges or duller pleasure-seekers according to our class, on the one hand, or hapless pessimistic intellectual personages, and pretenders to that dignity, on the other. We do most certainly need happiness in our daily work, content in our daily rest; and all this cannot be if we hand over the whole responsibility of the details of our daily life to machines and their drivers. We are right to long for intelligent handicraft to come back to the world which it once made tolerable amidst war and turmoil and uncertainty of life, and which it should, one would think, make happy now we have grown so peaceful, so considerate of each other's temporal welfare.

[William Morris, The Revival of Handicraft]

The important thing to carry away from this, I think, is that productive manual labor -- in the broad sense of working with one's hands to produce something -- is, contrary to the way it is often portrayed, an intellectual occupation. It's not intellectual in the sense that, say, reading in a library is, but that it is an intellectual occupation can be seen very clearly when we contrast it to two the two things to which it is most opposed: mere drudgery or unproductive toil, and frivolous pleasure-seeking. What serious hand-work has that both of these lack, whether the handwork be construction, or machining, or quilting, or any number of other very different things, is that the hand-work is an active use of the intellect and will. It takes the hand and other instruments and makes them instruments of the mind. Unproductive drudgery and frivolous pleasure-seeking are senseless: productive manual labor makes sense and always gets its point from something in the work itself. Drudgery dulls the mind by giving it nothing to do; frivolity dulls the mind by distracting it from better things; but real work with one's hands, even very simple work with one's hands, sharpens the mind by focusing it on a good. There is no need to romanticize it; it doesn't provide everything the mind needs and it is not in every case the best available form of life. But productive manual labor, with its practical and creative planning, problem-solving, and inspiration, is the beginning of a truly human way of life, and as such is an intelligent and in its own way thoroughly intellectual way of life. If you ever talk with genuine craftsmen and artisans, people for whom handicraft is not just a hobby but a life, you'll quickly come to see what I mean -- it's not the stereotyped image of intellectual life most of us have in our heads, but it's a life devoted to understanding, with its own research and study, with its own passionate pursuit of basic principles and fundamental causes.

And even for the bulk of us, who could never even at our best make it more than a hobby, we are better off having it than we are having what's most likely to be filling our lives if we don't have it. It's worth remembering that in this world we will rarely be faced with a stark choice between handicraft and superior intellectual pursuits. We are usually faced instead with a choice between real handiwork, however simple and basic, in which, as Morris says, we are "able to do something for ourselves," and pursuits that are not an especially good fit for creatures with minds who want to do or make something good. And when people denigrate those who do practical, productive work, it's not in the service of genuine intellectual life, of which it's actually a version, despite being the simplest version. Instead it's in the service of a sham intellectualism, that practiced by "hapless pessimistic intellectual personages, and pretenders to that dignity," who, by attacking productive labor, are shutting themselves off from the possibility of being, as Morris says, generally intelligent, intelligent in more than tiny enclaved areas of life.

ADDED LATER: Serendipitously, Alexander Pruss had already posted something on a related topic the same day.