Saturday, October 02, 2010


I must not, however, omit to remind you that this term in modern phraseology has fallen very far below its primary meaning, and is often so taken as to designate nothing more than a mere playful mockery. In its original Socratic sense, however, such as it is found in the whole series of the thought and the internal structure of Plato's dialogues, where it is developed to its fullest measure and proportion, irony signifies nothing else than this amazement of the thinking spirit at itself, which so often dissolves in a light, gentle laugh. And this light laugh again oftentimes beneath its cheerful surface conceals and involves a deeper and profounder sense, another and a higher significance, even the most exalted seriousness.

Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophy of Life and Philosophy of Language, Morrison, tr. p. 390.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Eternal Today

My Song for Today
by Therese of Lisieux
translated by Donald Kenney, OCD

My life is but an instant, a passing hour.
My life is but a day that escapes and flies away.
O my God! You know that to love you on earth
I only have today!...

Oh, I love you, Jesus! My soul yearns for you.
For just one day remain my sweet support.
Come reign in my heart, give me your smile
Just for today!

Lord, what does it matter if the future is gloomy?
To pray for tomorrow, oh no, I cannot!...
Keep my heart pure, cover me with your shadow
Just for today.

If I think about tomorrow, I fear my fickleness.
I feel sadness and worry rising up in my heart.
But I'm willing, my God, to accept trial and suffering
Just for today.

O Divine Pilot! whose hand guides me.
I'm soon to see you on the eternal shore.
Guide my little boat over the stormy waves in peace
Just for today.

Ah! Lord, let me hide in your Face.
There I'll no longer hear the world's vain noise.
Give me your love, keep me in your grace
Just for today.

Near your divine Heart, I forget all passing things.
I no longer dread the fears of the night.
Ah! Jesus, give me a place in your Heart
Just for today.

Deign to unite me to you, Holy and sacred Vine,
And my weak branch will give you its fruit,
And I'll be able to offer you a cluster of golden grapes
Lord, from today on.

I've just this fleeting day to form
This cluster of love, whose seeds are souls.
Ah! give me, Jesus, the fire of an Apostle
Just for today.

O Immaculate Virgin! You ware my Sweet Star
Giving Jesus to me and uniting me to Him.
O Mother! Let me rest under your veil
Just for today.

My Holy Guardian Angel, cover me with your wing.
With your fire light the road that I'm taking.
Come direct my steps... help me, I call upon you
Just for today.

Lord, I want to see you without veils, without clouds,
But still exiled, far from you, I languish.
May your lovable face not be hidden from me
Just for today.

Soon I'll fly away to speak your praises
When the day without sunset will dawn on my soul.
Then I'll sing on the Angels' lyre
The Eternal Today!...


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hume, Curiosity, and the Justification of Scientific Endeavor

A considerable portion of the philosophy of David Hume can be interpreted as an attempt to formulate a proper philosophical account of the scientific endeavor itself. This certainly is a major concern for Hume; much of his discussion of causation, for instance, seems to be an attempt to give an adequate empiricist accounts of the causal reasoning underlying the Newtonian physics of his day. Another important area of Hume's philosophy that shows this concern is his account of curiosity. Considerably less work has been done on this than has been done on Hume's account of causation; but, as Fred Wilson has shown, Hume's account of curiosity plays an extraordinary role both in his understanding of the scientific endeavor and in his understanding of his own philosophical work.

It's generally accepted that we have a natural curiosity or love of truth; and it is also often accepted that this natural curiosity justifies the pursuit of truth in the sense that it establishes truth as something valuable (and therefore to be pursued). How should we go about understanding this?

Probably the most natural first attempt would be to say that curiosity is love of truth as such. That is, it's a sort of direct thirst for truth, or at least apparent truth. It's clear, however, that this is not an adequate account of curiosity. If this were an adequate account of truth, any truth would contribute to satisfying our curiosity. But it's obvious that there are lots of truths we don't care about at all. We don't generally care, for instance, whether it's true a dust particle is 2 inches from another dust particle. So we should avoid assuming that when we say that curiosity is love for truth that we have said all that need be said about curiosity's connection to truth.

Hume recognizes this quite clearly; there is a whole section of Book II of the Treatise of Human Nature devoted to discussion of what it means to talk about curiosity or love of truth. This section is the concluding section of Book II and appears to have some sort of connection with the concluding section of Book I. As Fred Wilson has noted in a number of articles and books, Hume regularly appeals to curiosity to justify intellectual pursuits. So curiosity appears to be a very important concept for Hume, and he does have an interesting account of it. The account seems to be influenced by Cicero's discussion of it in Book One, section 13 of the De Officiis:

Above all, the search after truth and its eager pursuit are peculiar to man. And so, when we have leisure from the demands of business cares, we are eager to see, to hear, to learn something new, and we esteem a desire to know the secrets or wonders of creation as indispensable to a happy life. Thus we come to understand that what is true, simple, and genuine appeals most strongly to a man's nature.

Of course, this Ciceronian comment doesn't tell us much. But Hume expands it considerably, and what seems to have struck him most is the emphasis on leisure and the role of curiosity in the happy life. He starts by dividing truths into two kinds, those that have to do with the proportions of ideas, and those that have to do with the conformity of ideas to really existing objects. (Obviously this is a straightforward version of his well-known distinction between relations of ideas and matters of fact.) He notes that our interest in the first sort of truth is clearly not an interest in the truth as such -- such truths are not desired merely as truths. Simple arithmetical discoveries -- like the product of the numbers 3432412 and 89786234 -- don't strike us as particularly pleasant, and may even be painful! "Which is an evident proof," Hume says, "that the satisfaction, which we sometimes receive from the discovery of truth, proceeds not from it, merely as such, but only as endow'd with certain qualities" (T 2.3.10).

We naturally want to ask, then, what these qualities are that render truth so agreeable to us. The first one Hume considers, which he takes to be the "principal source" of our satisfaction in discovery of truth, is the employment of our wits. We aren't impressed by simple arithmetical discoveries because even when they are genuine discoveries, they are in some sense easy and obvious. As Hume notes, this extends rather broadly. Even what is difficult in itself may be treated as uninteresting if our way of learning it was easy and obvious. Many mathematical demonstrations are of this sort -- hitting on the solution originally may have been immensely difficult; but when we are guided through it, it rarely seems so hard or so interesting. What we want are things that work our minds a bit, that fix our attentions and exert our genius, as Hume puts it.

While Hume puts a lot of emphasis on this condition, it is not the only one, and he suspects that it alone is not sufficient for explaining much about our enjoyment of truth. It's not enough for the discovery to exercise our minds in a clever way; the truth also needs to be of some importance. Problems in algebra are infinite; but mathematicians have never treated them all equally. Instead they focus on problems that seem to be useful or important, and so do we all in most of our serious intellectual pursuits. But Hume notes that this immediately raises the question of how this evaluation of utility and importance works in the case of curiosity. On the one hand, it seems that it has something to do with beneficial consequences. On the other hand, people who are actually in the grip of serious curiosity seem to be indifferent to these consequences. What's the resolution of this paradox?

Hume argues that human beings are set up in such a way that, in addiction to real passions, we have what might be called faint images or shadows of passions. These shadow-passions are residual results of imagination and sympathy. An engineer may have a certain satisfaction in the fact that his bomb design makes it effective for its use, without having much liking for people who would benefit from its use; there's a sort of shadow-pleasure arising from sympathy with bomb users (Hume calls this sort of sympathy a 'remote sympathy') that doesn't extend outside the bare imagination, and may even be entirely contrary to the real attitude the engineer has toward bomb-users. This remote sympathy and these shadow-passions may seem a slight foundation for something as powerful as curiosity can be, but Hume argues again that the sort of satisfaction curiosity requires consists chiefly in exertion of the mind. The importance of remote sympathy and shadow-passions is not that they directly give us much pleasure in our discoveries, but that they fix our attention on the pursuit, and this fixation of attention is essential for satisfaction of curiosity.

It is not the only thing essential, however. After all, we may fix our attentions and exert our minds and never satisfy our curiosity at all -- for instance, all our efforts may be frustrated. We need some sort of success. So Hume holds that, although our satisfaction of curiosity is due less to the discovery of truth than to its pursuit, if something makes the pursuit seem futile, we are "uneasy".

Hume, possibly borrowing from Pascal, explains this by comparing philosophy with hunting. In fact, he regards the analogy as very strong, going so far as to say that "there cannot be two passions more nearly resembling each other than those of hunting and philosophy" (T, which is a rather stronger connection than most people would expect. But if this resemblance is understood in terms of the structure of the enjoyment, the claim makes considerable sense. The pleasure of hunting consists in the action of mind and body (as Hume summarizes it, "the motion, the attention, the difficulty, and the uncertainty"). It's this that really makes for an enjoyable hunt. However, both the importance of the prey and the possibility of success play a serious role. Hunting for deer in a place known to have no deer, or hunting for magpies rather than pheasant, can't have the appeal of more conventional forms of hunting. Hume makes another analogy to gambling. What makes gambling enjoyable is the actual gaming. But it's difficult to enjoy gambling unless you think there is at least some minute chance that you might actually win; and few people will enjoy gambling for literally nothing (although they might gamble for something other than money, of course, like distinction). It's possible, of course, that there are particular exceptional cases, but as a general rule this seems to be so. And philosophy -- pursuit of knowledge, of whatever kind -- is in Hume's view exactly like hunting and gambling; when the author of the old Irish poem about Pangur Ban makes a parallel between the scholar at his books and the cat at the mousehole, he was drawing an analogy Hume would likely applaud. In both cases it's the pursuit that really satisfies, but that satisfaction depends on the pursued being (1) important or useful and (2) attainable.

So on the Humean view curiosity is not satisfied by truth as such, or even directly by truth at all. Rather, it is satisfied by the work done in finding acceptable solutions to important problems, where the acceptableness of the solution is not that it is true, but that it is a sign of success in the pursuit of truth (e.g., it's clearly closer to true even if we think that it's properly speaking false). It's not so much that truth is interesting as that certain topics are.

What makes this all especially important is that curiosity is not merely a passion we happen to have; it has a justificatory role. This is clear in context, where the way in which it justifies mathematical pursuits is consistently used as an example. The very fact that mathematics is capable of being an object of curiosity makes it a worthwhile pursuit. The prospect that really enlivens our interest and justifies mathematical endeavors, is, according to Hume: the discovery of possibly viable solutions to puzzles that are, from the perspective of the community, important, and that are, from the perspective of the individual mind, stimulating. To the extent that a field like mathematics provides this, Hume thinks, it justifies the pursuit of truth in that field.

But it's not merely mathematics, of course, that satisfies curiosity; Hume's accont of curiosity is really a general account of intellectual inquiry. We see this in particular clear terms when we look at an interesting passage in Hume's History of England that discusses the progress of science in England under James II:

Boyle improved the pneumatic engine invented by Otto Guericke, and was thereby enabled to make several new and curious experiments on the air, as well as on other bodies: His chemistry is much admired by those who are acquainted with that art: His hydrostatics contain a greater mixture of reasoning and invention with experiment than any other of his works; but his reasoning is still remote from that boldness and temerity which had led astray so many philosophers. Boyle was a great partisan of the mechanical philosophy; a theory which, by discovering some of the secrets of nature, and allowing us to imagine the rest, is so agreeable to the natural vanity and curiosity of man.

This pairing of vanity (or ambition) and curiosity as justifying an intellectual pursuit is something we find elsewhere; when Hume, asking himself what justifies his philosophical pursuits given the skepticism that has devoured everything in Part IV of Book I of the Treatise, answers the question in precisely these terms: it satisfies curiosity and gives an opportunity for making a name for oneself.

A full account of Hume's justification of scientific endeavor would require looking at how ambition and curiosity interact; ambition, of course, strengthens some of the social aspects of the drive for intellectual inquiry. But how ambition works in this context is rather a tricky question; perhaps even less work has been done on this particular point than has been done on curiosity. But curiosity itself is interesting; Hume seems to emphasize it because it is in some sense immune to skeptical doubt. We do need to have reason to think that an answer might be attainable; but when combined with a skeptical attitude (as Hume certainly thinks it must be combined) the result is not an elimination of all inquiry, but simply a moderating of our goals: the love of truth does not drive us to find The Truth but instead to find good answers to important and interesting puzzles -- truth enough for moderate skeptics like Hume.

This is a reworking of some prior posts on the same subject

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

American Aristocracy

I had an epiphany today while reading Aristotle's Politics, and it is that Aristotle would probably not classify the United States as a republic but as an aristocracy. He does think that the two have a great many similarities, because they are both fusions of democratic and oligarchic tendencies. What distinguishes the two is that aristocracies tend more oligarchic and republics tend more democratic. We have democratic elements, of course, but we have way too many features that Aristotle would clearly consider oligarchic to be counted as a republic. And many of the features that we think of as intrinsically democratic, especially favorable to the rule of the many, Aristotle would consider obviously oligarchic, favorable to the rule of the few. (Elections are an obvious one. We think of them as democratic, but Aristotle is extraordinarily firm in placing them in the oligarchic box. And he's not wrong: the whole point of an election is to choose a few to govern the many, and elections encourage the dominance of the field by those who are either wealthy themselves or supported by the wealthy. When Aristotle thinks of a paradigmatic democratic method of choosing leaders, he thinks of choosing by lot: a system in which, at least more or less (depending on precisely what the requirements and rules are), every citizen is equally a candidate. Elections by their nature are systems of inequality; the lottery, on the other hand, treats everyone equally. The very fact that we think of elections as democratic at all he would regard as an obvious sign of our oligarchic tendencies.)

And indeed, it is remarkable, when Aristotle describes the basic features of, say, Sparta that make it at its best an aristocracy, how American it sometimes sounds -- and where they differ is that Sparta had more features that Aristotle classifies as democratic (e.g., inequality between the rich and the poor was sharply restricted in Sparta, and people were required to share certain things in common). And recognizing that we count as an Aristotelian aristocracy puts things in an interesting light. And it does raise the question of just exactly why we are surprised, when we go around insisting that everyone have elections, that it so often happens that the government in a few generations becomes a junta; if elections are oligarchical by nature, then they will create oligarchies unless something is already in place to compensate for that tendency. It's not, of course, that elections are a bad idea; it's that unless there is something to counterbalance them, they encourage the rise of ruling class: the Eligibles. We do, of course, have counterbalancing institutions in place. But something must there, and it must keep on performing its role of counterbalancing.

Modern Sense of an Old-Fashioned Word

The Unknown Citizen
by W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Of course the Common Man must be happy and free;
he's never gone on a shooting spree
but merely paced on, hour on hour,
and done the expected, never reaching for power;
what more could the Uncommon want the Common to be?
Of course the Common Man must be happy and free.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Sky Like Lead

The Shield of Achilles
by W. H. Auden

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

She looked over his shoulder
For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.

You can hear Auden himself reading the poem.

Shooting at Perry-Castaneda Library

This morning a man entered the Perry-Castaneda Library at the University of Texas with an AK-47 and shot up the sixth floor. (The sixth floor, if I recall correctly, is mostly texts in history and political science and the library's collection of children's books.) No one was hurt but the gunman was killed -- I don't know yet if it was self-inflicted. [ADDED LATER: the gunman seems to have gone through the floors shooting and to have shot himself on the sixth floor.] However, police think there was an accomplice [ADDED LATER: more accurately, because of variations in witness testimony, they aren't sure yet if there is one], probably unarmed, and the University is on lockdown. There are rumors that the gunman was screaming about layoffs at the library.

I'll put up any informative links about the lockdown, etc., as they come up.

The UT Emergency Page

UPDATE: The campus is still closed but no longer on lockdown. Although there had been back and forth about whether there was a second suspect, this has now been ruled out.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Some Total Gain or Loss

Friday's Child
by W. H. Auden

He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought---
"Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort

On those too bumptious to repent."
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what He said.

Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.

What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?

It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?

The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alariming or unkind
But utterly banal.

Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,

And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.

Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgement Day.

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

Friday's child, of course, is loving and giving; for he participates in Good Friday. It is true enough, though we often kid ourselves otherwise, that divine compassion is at least as hard a thing to understand as divine wrath.