Saturday, October 31, 2009

Endless Festival and Joy

When on the feasts commemorating the saints we all take a holiday from our trades and businesses, we should occupy our minds with the question of how we can distance ourselves from the sins and defilements into which each of us has fallen, and become free of them. On the other hand, if we amuse ourselves to the detriment of our souls, pay not attention and get drunk, how can we claim to be celebrating the saints, since we have made the day impure? I beg you, brethren, let us not keep the feasts like that, but let us, like the saints, present our bodies and souls as a pleasing offering to God on these days of celebration, that by the prayers of the saints we may come to share in that endless festival and joy.

St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 25: On All Saints. [The Homilies, Veniamin, tr. Mount Thabor Publishing (2009), p. 205.] A useful reminder that the chief question on Halloween has nothing to do with candy or costume, or any other elements of our immediate festival, but with how we may take our place among the Hallows who are celebrated tomorrow, and rejoice with the saints in a festival time cannot end.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Moral Taste

According to Hume (E 246), "Taste, as it gives pleasure or pain, and thereby constitutes happiness or misery, becomes a motive to action, and is the first spring or impulse to desire and volition"; because of this, taste "gives the sentiment of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue". The analogy of morals and aesthetics comes up more than once in Hume. But it's important to understand that even in aesthetics Hume doesn't think beauty is a matter of what we might call 'mere taste': there is such a thing as good and bad taste. Good taste depends on the ability to make consistent fine distinctions so that no element in what is contemplated is missed, considerable familiarity with what is contemplated, broad experience that allows one to make numerous comparisons, and a self-critical good sense that allows one to eliminate or set aside one's own prejudices and biases. As Hume says in the essay "Of the Standard of Taste":

When the critic has no delicacy, he judges without any distinction, and is only affected by the grosser and more palpable qualities of the object: The finer touches pass unnoticed and disregarded. Where he is not aided by practice, his verdict is attended with confusion and hesitation. Where no comparison has been employed, the most frivolous beauties, such as rather merit the name of defects., are the object of his admiration. Where he lies under the influence of prejudice, all his natural sentiments are perverted. Where good sense is wanting, he is not qualified to discern the beauties of design and reasoning, which are the highest and most excellent.

Good taste is not something we all have already; it must be developed. Further, taste covers a spectrum. In some cases a failure to appreciate something as beautiful will be a sign of defect in oneself; in other cases the old maxim of de gustibus non disputandum will apply:

The general principles of taste are uniform in human nature: where men vary in their judgments, some defect or perversion in the faculties may commonly be remarked; proceeding either from prejudice, from want of practice, or want of delicacy; and there is just reason for approving one taste, and condemning another. But where there is such a diversity in the internal frame or external situation as is entirely blameless on both sides, and leaves no room to give one the preference above the other; in that case a certain degree of diversity in judgment is unavoidable, and we seek in vain for a standard, by which we can reconcile the contrary sentiments.

Thus we should expect variations when it comes to questions of (say) which of a number of truly great poets is the greatest. One person may prefer Ovid, another Horace, and argument over who is better may not be resolvable. (As we might put it today, among novelists one person may prefer Austen, another Dickens; and there is room enough in matters of taste for people who are unreasonable enough to prefer Dickens over Austen.) It becomes more acute across very different genres and styles. One person may prefer comic works, another tragic works; one person may like lyrics and another epics; and so on down the line. Breadth of good taste requires a sympathetic participation in very diverse views.

As with beauty, so with goodness, with the exception that moral sentiments are in Hume's view capable of being much stronger and more stable than aesthetic sentiments, and therefore establish stronger and more stable judgments. (It isn't clear that this is universal, and probably is not; there are very stable aesthetic judgments, e.g., that Virgil is an excellent poet, and there are relatively weak moral judgments, e.g., the 'lesser morality' of etiquette and good manners. But Hume, at least, has a very strong view of the consistency of basic moral judgments across human nature.)

While I don't think Hume is right that all of morality boils down to moral taste, I do think he is right that moral taste is an important part of our moral lives, which is what I'll focus on here. Consider a moment all the possible good things you might do in the world. You might work to shelter the homeless, or to further medical research, or to tutor children, or to keep the parks clean, or any number of other things. There are so many you can't do them all; there is no universal duty to help at pet shelters, for instance. But these things are admirable, excellent, and honorable, each important in their own way. However, no one is going to feel with exactly the same force the importance of each of these things; some people will be more powerfully moved by the plight of the homeless, some by the plight of stray animals. This is a sort of moral taste, and it is a powerful motivator. Indeed, when people talk about finding their 'calling' or 'vocation', they are usually not talking about a calling or vocation at all; they are talking about finding something to their moral taste. But there is also good and bad moral taste, since the quality of moral taste can also be affected by lack of prudent discernment, poor sense of priorities, and distorting prejudices. What is universal is the responsibility to cultivate good moral taste. And just as people help cultivate their good aesthetic taste by developing communities, as wine-tasters band together, or Austen lovers form societies, so an important part of our moral life is forming communities based on moral taste, through which we can cultivate and improve our own moral taste: people doing things that are not obligatory but nonetheless good, because they love to do them. There is an art to the good life, and we are capable of making our lives morally beautiful as well as morally right.

Aquinas and 'Quickening'

Recently I came across the odd claim that Aquinas held that the fetus was "quickened" at 17 weeks. This is not an area at which I've looked too closely, but it's pretty clearly a garbling -- Aquinas always seems to get garbled on this subject. The seventeen weeks had nothing to do with Aquinas; it was established by a decree by Gregory XIV in 1591, and even then it was solely a matter of legal cut-off for penalties. That is, abortions prior to the 116 day mark, although still considered wrong, were not general grounds for excommunication. I'm not quite sure what the reasoning behind the number was. This 116-day line was removed by Pius IX, on the grounds (I think) that, biologically speaking, the cut-off was purely arbitrary in every way.

Aquinas in a very early text (in the Commentary on the Sentences lib. 3, dist. 3, art. 2) on whether Christ's conception was instantaneous mentions that Aristotle held that the process of conception took up to forty days for men and ninety days for women, briefly and without any comment except to note that Augustine thought the process was 46 days for the conception of men. As far as I'm aware, it's the only mention ever in Aquinas, and it's unclear how it relates to anything else; it's possible to read it as just the claim that the male body is visibly articulated as male at forty days and the female body at ninety (which is what Aristotle says miscarriages show). Quickening becomes a focus much later than Aquinas, so it's also unclear what he would think of it; since it only has to do with the spontaneous physical motion of the fetus, it has no intrinsic connection to whether the fetus has a rational soul (which Aquinas does think happens after an extended process of development during which the embryo is first sub-animal and then nonrational animal, but for which he gives, as far as I am aware, no timelines, unless the single 40/90 passage is counted). And, indeed, outside of common law, quickening completely lacks the importance often attributed to it until (as far as I can tell) the late nineteenth century; as far as I am aware, it was never before that time an element in moral discussions, nor in discussions about the origination of personhood.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Closing the Eyes of the Mind

It is as easy to close the eyes of the mind as those of the body: and the former is more frequently done with wilfulness, and yet not attended to, than tile latter; the actions of the mind being more quick and transient than those of the senses. This may be further illustrated by another thing observable in ordinary life. It is not uncommon for persons, who run out their fortunes, entirely to neglect looking into the state of their affairs, and this from a general knowledge that the condition of them is bad. These extravagant people are perpetually ruined before they themselves expected it: and they tell you for an excuse, and tell you truly, that they did not think they were so much in debt, or that their expenses so far exceeded their income. And yet no one will take this for an excuse, who is sensible that their ignorance of their particular circumstances was owing to their general knowledge of them; that is, their general knowledge that matters were not well with them, prevented their looking into particulars. There is somewhat of the like kind with this in respect to morals, virtue, and religion. Men find that the survey of themselves, their own heart and temper, their own life and behaviour, doth not afford them satisfaction; things are not as they should be, therefore they turn away, will not go over particulars, or look deeper, lest they should find more amiss. For who would choose to be put out of humor with himself? No one, surely, if it were not in order to amend, and to be more thoroughly and better pleased with himself for the future.

Joseph Butler, Upon Self-Deceit. My Ethics class had a good discussion of this sermon (and self-deception and hypocrisy in general) today, the first time I've done it. It worked very well -- self-deception and hypocrisy are moral themes to which everyone can relate. I had to retell the story of David and Uriah, though, since almost no one knew it and it is the centerpiece of Butler's discussion; one student, who had been in Iraq, said that she had seen things similar, albeit on a smaller scale, even in today's military. One thing I found interesting was that the case of smoking (i.e., smokers telling their children not to smoke), which was brought up by a student, turned out to be very helpful for clarifying various issues with respect to hypocrisy; I'll have to remember it for future versions of the class.

Vincent Price Online

Halloween is approaching, and one of the things I like to do around Halloween is watch Vincent Price. As it happens, has some Vincent Price movies available online for free, and there are three you should see if you haven't.

(1) The Last Man on Earth. This movie stands up remarkably well, due in part to Price's excellent acting and to the understated and quiet way in which it goes about its business. It shows just how far you can get on a shoestring budget, since it manages to hold its own against the remakes -- The Omega Man (with Charlton Heston) and I Am Legend (with Will Smith). Price was an odd pick to cast as the hero of this story (Matheson, who wrote the novel on which all three movies were based, and also the screenplay for this one, thought Price a disappointing choice); but having him as a hero makes the story more human. It becomes less a horror story and more a sorrow story: the emotion is carried not by the monsters, nor by the action hero, but by inevitable defeat.

(2) House on Haunted Hill. Movies with Price are usually not horror movies of the scare-you-silly type (and never of the gross-you-out type), but rather of the fun-with-chills-and-thrills type, which is one reason why they are more enduring than most horror stories: our fears shift all the time, but our humor is relatively constant. One of the best lines in this movie (which has some great lines) is "Remember the fun we had when you poisoned me?" A skeleton plays an important role in the movie (and was a big part of the original theater promotions); so important that they give him is own character listing in the credits, and list him as played by "Himself". That gives you the idea of what's in store for this movie. And Price does one of the things he always does very well: he plays a slightly ghoulish, but very charming, villain. Without him the story would plod, but with him it's great fun.

(3) Tales of Terror. A sequence of three shorts based on stories by Edgar Allen Poe, this movie has not just Price but also Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone; all three give performances worth watching. The best of the three shorts, however, is the second one, "The Black Cat," which everyone should watch even if they don't see either of the others. It's a humorous melding of Poe's stories, "The Black Cat" and "The Cask of Amontillado", in which a hilariously self-enamored Fortunato Luchresi, played by Price, is faced down by a bland, drunken Montresor Herringbone, played by Lorre. The other two are interesting enough, but that second short is a classic in its own right.

Hulu has other Price movies online; but these are always worth watching if around Halloween you find yourself with a bit of time on your hands.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Poem Re-Draft and Two New Poem Drafts

I have to say that I like how the re-draft, the first one, has shaped up. It's a translation, with some poetic license, of a famous sonnet by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Sor Juana is extraordinarily difficult to translate well, because her poetry has a virtuouso complexity. But this has turned out fairly well. You can read the Spanish and my very first draft of it here. The other two are quite new and need work.

In which she rebukes a rose, and in it those like it

Divine rose, you are grown in grace,
with all your fragrant subtleness,
teacher with scarlet beauty blessed,
winter lesson in lovely face,

twin of human frame and doom,
example of a graciousness vain,
in whom are unified these twain:
happy cradle, grieving tomb.

Such haughtiness in pomp, such pride,
such presumption! Disdaining mortal fate,
later you are dismayed and hide

when you show in illness a withered state
of which, by learnéd death and foolish life,
alive you lied, but dying demonstrate!

The Hunt

The sad moon shines on the fields below with a soft and lunatic light, but the dark and cold themselves are chilled by the sound of the darkest knight. The clip of hoof of the herald-horse, the call of the ram-theft horn, bring terror to hearts of every folk who on the earth are born. Like famine, conquest, slaughter, the hunter leads endless hell, and the pallid steed leads pallid hounds in a hunt beyond all pale.

Black Lilies

The lilies that bloom in depths of hell
(black their petals, with twilight stripes),
miswrought scions of Asphodel
whose seeds, born by the winds of fire,
spread out through the realms of night,
send forth a scent of death and mire
and rotting corpses on the plain
where rusted blood is washed by rain.
Beware! That scent which cloys the air
of realms that know no life or light
will catch the mind and hold it there,
in shade and endless sleep to lie.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Some time ago, D. G. Myers had an interesting post on influence (and a follow-up here). I had distinguished between two kinds of importance, extensiveness of influence and comparative excellence in kind, and given, as an example, John Norris's criticisms of the scholastic thesis of the agent intellect. Norris's arguments are far and away some of the best early modern criticisms of scholasticism, but they had almost no significant influence, everyone else relying purely on clichés (with some very patchwork and limited exceptions here and there, e.g., among the Cartesians). To this Myers responded:

If historical importance is judged by “extensiveness of influence”—what might be called the Citation Index standard—then the repetition of the “clichés Norris rises above” is more important than Norris. Watson names no one who repeats the clichés, however, because they are not important to the history of philosophy. And why? Philosophy is not just anything that is written on philosophical questions or in philosophical language, but the best (“best attack,” “best informed”) and most (“most careful,” “most extensive”).

Isn’t Norris’s historical importance precisely his greatness as a philosopher despite his contemporary neglect? If his excellence as a philosopher is compared to the extensiveness of his influence, wouldn’t Norris be correctly described as an underrated philosopher?

It isn't difficult, however, to name the people who repeat the clichés, precisely because they are all names that are, in fact, important to the history of philosophy: Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and so forth. The clichés had more extensive influence than the serious criticism. Thus a historian of philosophy is faced with two distinct kinds of importance, which can and sometimes do diverge: actual influence and comparative excellence. I would say that Norris is, in fact, an underrated philosopher, and I'm not quite so critical of evaluations like 'underrated' and 'overrated' as Miriam, but this sort of judgment is something that can only be made relative to particular features along one of these lines: Norris had some (minor) influence on others and/or came up with (some) reasonably good arguments.

Nor does philosophy simply consist in 'the best and the most'. If we allow ourselves a probably too-crude schematism, we can say that the historian of philosophy examines ideas, positions, and arguments in three aspects: they have their own structure, they are held for various reasons and under various motives, and they can be and are communicated to others. Each of these aspects can be dealt with in a more specific and a more general form. Structure we deal with by analysis (if we examine them on their own) or by placing them in their dialectical context (if we examine them in relation to other ideas, positions, and arguments); the motivations we examine individually (as in philosophical biography) and abstractly (by relying on a moral psychology of philosophy, which ideally would include the tools of a cognitive science of philosophy, but is more usually done in a more rule-of-thumb way); and the communication we look at in terms of the particulars of the case (which is history of philosophy at its most historical) and in terms of the principles governing the abstract relationships in the social networks (which is, effectively, sociology of philosophy). All of these are essential, and it is noteworthy that of the two kinds of importance, comparative excellence in kind has only to do with structure, whereas extent of influence has only to do with communication. And it actually doesn't matter much whether Norris is a great philosopher in either of these ways: what is important is that he does have some good arguments and that he did have some influence. British Malebrancheanism was an extraordinarily minor strand of philosophy; Norris's arguments against the agent intellect are of almost no historical significance, if by that we mean to indicate influence on other philosophers. They did not change the way people thought about the subject, because no one paid attention to them -- neither the major philosophers of the period nor the lingering remnants of early modern scholasticism. They fell between the cracks.

Thus if I call Norris an underrated philosopher, it's important to understand that there is no single standard of what counts as underrated. This does not mean that we can't evaluate anyone as underrated or overrated, but only that when we are doing so we can't assume that there is a single standard of importance governing the evaluation. Values are not the problem: rather, we need to be taking care that the limits of our evaluations are taken into account. The neglect of Norris makes complete sense when we look at his influence: he had some, but it was limited and did not last. It makes complete sense as well given the interests and projects of the time. Only when we take interest in quality of argument against (for example) scholastic views of intellect and reason do we see him stand out: in a field of rationalists and empiricists only a few rationalists bother to address the third major view of intellect and reason still in existence, and except for Norris these are not especially high-quality. There is a very straightforward way in which the clichés Norris rises above are more important than any of his interesting arguments: if you want to understand the historical course of philosophy, it is the clichés that matter, not the high-quality arguments. And in history of philosophy this is indeed a form of importance: one wants to understand the history, after all. And philosophy is not just 'the best and the most'; missteps and failures can be philosophical, too, and interesting to the historian of philosophy precisely because of their contrast with things that are more excellent.

So I agree entirely with Myers that we should not be squeamish about value terms; but I think it is still true that our evaluations will often be relative to a particular set of factors. Importance, whether considered in terms of quality or extent of influence or some mixture of both, will always be importance with respect to this or that point.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Miss Marple on Intuition

"You're laughing, my dear," said Miss Marple, "but after all, that is a very sound way of arriving at the truth. It's really what people call intuition and make such a fuss about. Intuition is like reading a word without having to spell it out. A child can't do that because it has had so little experience. A grown-up person knows the word because they've seen it often before. You catch my meaning, vicar?"

"Yes," I said slowly, "I think I do. You mean that if a thing reminds you of something else--well, it's probably the same kind of thing."


Agatha Christie, The Murder at the Vicarage. Collins (Glasgow, 1977) p. 65.

The Bag Behind

Michael Gilleland recently mentioned the fable of Phaedrus about the two bags, so I did what I always do when the fables of Phaedrus come up, and looked to see how Christopher Smart rendered it. And so here's Kit Smart's version:

The Two Bags

Great Jove, in his paternal care,
Has giv'n a man two Bags to bear,
That which his own default contains,
Behind his back unseen remains;
But that which others' vice attests,
Swags full in view before our breasts.

Hence we're inevitably blind,
Relating to the Bag behind;
But when our neighbours mis-demean,
Our censures are exceeding keen.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

On Romano on Heidegger

Carlin Romano attacks Heidegger:

How many scholarly stakes in the heart will we need before Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), still regarded by some as Germany's greatest 20th-century philosopher, reaches his final resting place as a prolific, provincial Nazi hack? Overrated in his prime, bizarrely venerated by acolytes even now, the pretentious old Black Forest babbler makes one wonder whether there's a university-press equivalent of wolfsbane, guaranteed to keep philosophical frauds at a distance.

The whole essay is itself something of a hatchet job. There are two extremes with regard to Heidegger; one is the camp Romano attacks, and one is the camp Romano is in. It is, on the one hand, absurd to suggest that the fact that Heidegger was a Nazi, and himself connected his interest in Nazism to his philosophical work, is something that can just be ignored. I have myself sharply criticized people who try to play down this feature of Heidegger: it is dishonest, a transgression against truth. It is equally absurd, however, to think that Heidegger can be dismissed as a "provincial Nazi hack," a "pretentious old Black Forest babbler," or a "philosophical fraud"; to do that, you have to distort and twist the truth, and that's the one surefire way to make onself into a philosophical fraud, and is almost as much a transgression against truth as the former. Both trivialize the question of Nazism, the one by treating it as if it were easily ignored, the other by treating it as if it were not parasitic. But it is a matter of serious concern, and it was indeed parasitic: detaching the parasite from what it tried to use is precisely the sort of thing that calls for serious thought. Part of the evil of Nazism was that it insinuated itself into all sorts of areas it had no right to be in the first place, twisting otherwise good things in perverse directions.

I think Hunt has more-or-less the right approach in his comments on Romano's essay.

Notes and Links

* The South Central was quite fun -- relaxed, as it usually is. All the papers were good. Miren Boehm's was the one I found most exciting -- if her argument is even partly right (and at least on first hearing much of it was plausible), I think it would change in important ways how we read Part 3 of Book I of Hume's Treatise.

* Ronald Burt, Structural Holes and Good Ideas (PDF)

* The Swedes are burning rabbits to help power central Sweden.

* Feser recently had two posts summarizing the Thomistic tradition: Part I, Part II.

* Chu-Carroll on predictable unpredictability in chaotic systems

* A new ring around Saturn was recently discovered, one that clarifies some mysteries. John Baez has links and discussion.

* There was an interesting discussion recently at The Prosblogion on Pascal, Kant, and Puddleglum.

* The Scottish Journal of Theology has made some of its classic papers available online.(ht)

* Michael Gilleland recently mentioned Paul Reid, a contemporary Scottish figurative painter; I hadn't heard of him before, but he seems quite interesting. 108 Fine Art has a good brief introduction to him.