Saturday, June 25, 2011

Attention and Muscular Effort

Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort. If one says to one's pupils: "Now you must pay attention," one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles. If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, they cannot reply. They have been concentrating on nothing. They have not been paying attention. They have been contracting their muscles.

We often expend this kind of muscular effort on our studies. As it ends by making us tired, we have the impression that we have been working. That is an illusion.

Simone Weil, Waiting for God, Craufurd, tr. pp. 109-110.

Colbert's Catholic Throwdown

I've been posting quite a bit of frivolous YouTube lately, but this was fun, too: Jack White (of the band White Stripes) and Stephen Colbert go head to head and try to out-Catholic each other. (There is a fair amount of vulgar language.) They get a few things wrong (the location of St. Stephen's martyrdom, the mother of the Virgin Mary), but since they are trying to trip each other up from whatever Catholic folklore and doctrine they can think of off the top of their heads, they do fairly well.

Friday, June 24, 2011

My Trespasses, Abjured but Not Disowned

Free Will
by Alice Meynell


Dear are some hidden things
My soul has sealed in silence; past delights;
Hope unconfessed; desires with hampered wings,
Remembered in the nights.

But my best treasures are
Ignoble, undelightful, abject, cold;
Yet O! profounder hoards oracular
No reliquaries hold.

There lie my trespasses,
Abjured but not disowned. I’ll not accuse
Determinism, nor, as the Master* says,
Charge even “the poor Deuce.”

Under my hand they lie,
My very own, my proved iniquities;
And though the glory of my life go by
I hold and garner these.

How else, how otherwhere,
How otherwise, shall I discern and grope
For lowliness? How hate, how love, how dare
How weep, how hope?

* George Meredith.

Some Brief Notes and Links

* Marilyn Monroe's library. Quite a diverse selection.

* Lemaitre and Hubble's Law prior to Hubble.

* We may soon have tests for matter/antimatter symmetry, due to a new set of discoveries involving neutrinos.

* The U.S. Bicycle Route System is being expanded for the first time in about three decades. It's not a federal venture, but one sponsored by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and put forward mostly at the state and local level (with some federal consultation) to facilitate interstate bicycle travel, of which there is considerably more than one might imagine; but putting it under the authority of the Federal Highway Administration has occasionally come up in Congress. Currently there are 2 incomplete routes out of a total of an originally planned 95, so it's a project that has moved very slowly. The Europeans already have such a system, the EuroVelo, which is also incomplete, although, as it makes considerable more use of already existing infrastructure, is farther along. The interesting thing about EuroVelo is that large sections of many of its major routes follow old medieval pilgrimage routes.

* First World Problems (ht). This was much funnier than I expected:



* The young man who puts these up has a number of good ones mocking some of the pop songs that are out today. The one parodying Rebecca Black's "Friday" is pretty much exactly the way to capture the impression the original would make on any rational person (even if they don't know how to spell 'preceded').

But it has to be said in all fairness that Black's original pretty much captures the mentality of a typical modern eighth grader, too.

Which says something, I suppose, about eighth graders and rationality.

At the same time, the poor girl, only thirteen years old, has apparently received death threats over the song, which seems to say something rather worse about the state of society at large, however bad the song may be.

On the other hand, the song is so likably bad that Stephen Colbert covered it, which is something. And, on the same note, I've just spent a thoroughly absurd number of sentences talking about this thoroughly absurd song.

Paradoxes of Expressive Music

Andrew Kania's SEP article on The Philosophy of Music suggests some interesting parallels between the paradoxes of fiction and of tragedy and certain philosophical puzzles raised in connection with expressive music:

There are two main questions asked about our emotional responses to pure music. The first is analogous to the ‘paradox of fiction’. It is not clear why we should respond emotionally to expressive music when we know that no one is undergoing the emotions expressed. The second is a variant of the ‘paradox of tragedy’. If some music arouses ‘negative’ emotional responses in us, such as sadness, why do we seek out the experience of such music?

The second question is one I've thought about quite a bit myself, since I in fact have a taste for sad music, and the sadder the more I enjoy it. This sort of song, written by Beth Neilson Chapman after her husband died from cancer, I can listen to over and over again:



(The woman singing, Allison Delgrosso, has a number of really excellent covers on YouTube. [Not all of them are sad songs!]) Music is rarely so exquisite as when it makes you ache. But that sets up the paradox: that anyone can have a taste for negative emotional responses.

The analogue to the paradox of fiction seems a bit looser, but we do respond emotionally to music as sad, or as triumphant, or the like, even when we know that there is no one actually expressing sorrow and triumph in performing it. We can respond to it even when we know it is wholly cynical in motivation; one of the good parts of the movie Wag the Dog played on precisely this point. Everyone watching the movie knows that the whole point of the song is to manipulate people; but it's easy to lose sight of that in the middle of the song precisely because it is done so expressively:



All the responses to the paradox of fiction and paradox of tragedy have at least rough analogues here, so the analogies seem fairly good. These analogies strongly suggest that these paradoxes are actually just particular cases of a more general set of paradoxes about human emotional response under artificial conditions.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Philosophy and Psychical Research

Arsen has a post that discusses worries about the implications of precognition, if one assumes it to be possible, on free will, and this started me thinking on the published discussion between C. D. Broad and H. H. Price on the implications of precognition, which in turn started me thinking about the role of twentieth century philosophers in parapsychology research. Let's take the most respectable organization devoted to issues in parapsychology, the Society of Psychical Research, and list the presidents of the Society who were philosophers. The years of their presidency is in parentheses.) For those who don't have a philosophy background, I've starred the ones who were Big Names in the sense that any philosophy student properly trained in an Anglo-American philosophy department would at least recognize the name, and put a plus by those who were founding members of the Society:

Henry Sidgwick (1882-1884 and 1888-1892)*+
Arthur Balfour (1893)
William James (1894-1895)*
Frederic William Henry Myers (1900)+
Henri Bergson (1913)*
Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller (1914)
L. P. Jacks (1917-1918)
Charlie Dunbar Broad (1935-1936 and 1958-1960)*
Henry Habberley Price (1939-1941 and 1960-1961)*
Clement William Kennedy Mundle (1971-1974)

Analytic philosophers today would, as a rule, not be caught dead associated with parapsychology, but things weren't always so. At the first founding of SPR, the idea attracted skeptics as well as critics. What is more, psychology being relatively new, there was no sharp distinction between parapsychology and psychology at large. A number of phenomena whose early study would have been classified as psychical research early on have since become respectable topics of research in the discipline at large -- of the two big topics that have done this, hallucinatory states, because of its relations to chemistry, did this fairly early, while hypnotism did so much more slowly. Now hallucinations are pretty much never thought of as parapsychology despite its early associations, and studies of hypnotism rarely so. Psychical research was always controversial; but at its beginning it was as reputable as anything else in psychology, and much more popular than most of the rest of the field. (Despite the decline in its reputation, there are still a fair number of respected psychological researchers, especially in Britain, who have involved themselves with it or been members of the SPR at one point or another. It's possible, of course, to do these things as a skeptic of paranormal phenomena, and this has become more common over time. But it's still research into the same topics.)

A second reason for the involvement of philosophers was created by the carelessness of early critics of psychical research. The philosophers involved early on ranged from largely skeptical to largely accepting of parapsychological ideas, and they came at it from radically different philosophical perspectives, but one thing that united them all in the early days was the belief that the arguments of the critics of psychical research were very, very bad. William James has a number of works in which he is very coldly acidic (for James) about the scientific sloppiness of certain criticisms of psychical research. James's criticisms of the critics are some of the harshest things he ever wrote, and often make good points. One way to get the sympathy of philosophers is to have critics who repeatedly and vehemently give obviously bad arguments; it really doesn't matter what the position is.

Perhaps more important than this was the origin of philosophy as a professional field, which was beginning to happen precisely during an era of interest in psychical research. Philosophy departments in the Anglo-American world were usually founded in opposition to the rise of psychology departments. While it would vary from place to place, early philosophy departments were largely peopled by academics interested in research into the mind but vehemently opposed to the dominant fashions in the field of psychology at the time; this is why, out of apparently nowhere, the philosophy of mind became the dominant topic of so much of the philosophical discussions of the twentieth century.

And, perhaps less important, but certainly of some influence, is the fact that psychical research posed some interesting questions about the mind and the world in which it finds itself -- questions like free will, like what distinguishes one mind from another, like mental causation, and so forth. Broad himself discussed this aspect of it in his article Henry Sidgwick and Psychical Research. H. H. Price has an article, I forget the name of it, in which he proposes that psychical research's problematizing of the sharp separation we tend to assume to exist between minds as one of the great philosophical revolutions of the day. And while I've no doubt that there are analytic philosophers who would look down on this as a motive, it's worth pointing out that some of the paradigmatic methods of analytic philosophy almost certainly derive from precisely this strain of early twentieth-century philosophy. 'Thought experiments' in philosophy of mind are, over and over again, parapsychological; there are only two related differences between then and now. The first is that the experiments of moderns are taken as hypothetical and often unimplementable, whereas their predecessors were interested in experiments that could at least in principle (and sometimes that were actually in practice) tried, although they, too, sometimes considered them purely hypothetically; the second is that the earlier philosophers thought evidence was essential to drawing conclusions, whereas their successors just make things up. (It is astounding, truly astounding, that despite the contempt with which most analytic philosophers would regard parapsychology today, so much of what they discuss is not just parapsychology but explicitly science-fictional parapsychology, parapsychology not based - as in the earlier case - on what scientific evidence was thought to show directly - however wrong they sometimes were - but having only the most tenuous connection to any identifiable evidence at all.)

In any case, the discussion between Price and Broad on the implications of precognition (neither actually committed to its existence, but simply asked about its philosophical implications) does not seem to be available anywhere online. I do find, however, that C. D. Broad's The Relevance of Psychical Research to Philosophy is online. Since very few people read or remember it today, it would be inaccurate to call it a classic, but it's actually a very nice representative of the method and approach of analytic philosophy in the 1940s; Broad was arguably at the height of his powers. Of the papers that Broad and Price published on philosophy and psychical research, however, the most famous, and the one that is most likely to be read by philosophers today (since it is sometimes anthologized for philosophy of religion) is Price's "Survival and the Idea of 'Another World'." Unfortunately, it too doesn't seem to be available online, although if you can access it at Google Books, you can read parts of it. (Broad's less-known article Human Personality and the Possibility of Its Survival, however, is.)

Berkeley's Descriptions

Michael Gilleland recently quoted a passage from George Berkeley's Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. The passage goes on at some length after the section Gilleland quotes, in something of the same vein. Berkeley is always a test case for me when it comes to distinguishing philosophers who read well and philosophers who don't, precisely because of his lush descriptions, of which he has several more in the Three Dialogues. There are philosophers who largely either skip them or treat them as merely pretty ornaments; such philosophers are not reading well. They are also not doing much justice to Berkeley, who is both an economical writer and a strategic arguer -- he does not in general do anything otiose. Lush descriptions in Berkeley always, always have a philosophical point and contribute to the argument. In the Three Dialogues, at least, every single lush description is an argument in its own right. The one quoted in the above post, for instance, is an argument against a misinterpretation Hylas makes against Philonous's position, and one that is still commonly made today. Berkeley's famously an idealistic immaterialist: he thinks that there is nothing more to sensible objects than our sensations (sensible ideas) of them -- the sensible world has no existence outside of the mind. People often read this as saying that sensible bodies don't 'really' exist; but the whole thrust of Berkeley's position is in the opposite direction: to say that something really exists is nothing other than to say either that it is a mind or that it exists in one. Berkeley keeps bringing the reader of the Three Dialogues back to the beauty of the garden in which the discussion is happening in order to drive home the point that every rational person takes this, the splendors you actually see, to be the real world. What you see does not merely represent the real world; this, and nothing else, is the world in which you live, and this is world enough for anyone. People who think nothing is an argument unless it is easily put into a form with numbered premises and a single conclusion easily miss an argument whose whole point is that the evidence is so overwhelming, so immense, so much a thing of every moment of every day, that you could spend the rest of your life cataloging it and never reach the end of it, and whose ramifications are endless. Berkeley is, after all, an empiricist: in the end all argument comes down one way or another to "Look and see."

The Three Dialogues is not the only work by Berkeley with lush descriptions. Alciphron, the dialogue Berkeley wrote while in Rhode Island, trying to finalize the plans for his proposed College of Bermuda, is filled with them as well. Just one example, from the first of the seven dialogues:

After Dinner we took our Walk to Crito's, which lay through half a dozen pleasant Fields planted round with Plane-trees, that are very common in this part of the Country. We walked under the delicious Shade of these Trees for about an Hour before we came to Crito's, House, which stands in the middle of a small Park, beautify'd with two fine Groves of Oak and Walnut, and a winding Stream of sweet and clear Water. We met a Servant at the Door with a small Basket of Fruit which he was carrying into a Grove, where he said his Master was with the two Strangers. We found them all three sitting under a Shade. And after the usual Forms at first meeting, Euphranor and I sate down by them. Our Conversation began upon the Beauty of this rural Scene, the fine Season of the Year, and some late Improvements which had been made in the adjacent Country by new Methods of Agriculture.

Just as improvements can be made to the beauties of nature by proper cultivation and new methods of agriculture, so improvements can be made to the beauties of the mind by proper cultivation and new ways of thinking; and this point will be traced throughout Alciphron, which is on whether a particular new way of thinking really brings any improvements at all. And each of the descriptions Berkeley gives has either some symbolic import, or provides some in to the argument, by presenting ideas in picture form. (Perhaps the most impressive and fun of these is the description of the mount of easy ascent and the fox hunters at the beginning of the fifth dialogue.) They also repeatedly emphasize the theme of expansiveness and real, natural freedom, which is what Berkeley intends to contrast to the minuteness and affected freedom of the so-called freethinkers. To jump over the descriptions is risky: they underscore the themes that bind the work as a whole together, and without attending to them one might take the work to be much less unified as an argument than it is.

These things, in other words, matter, and the quality of one's philosophical reading skills is in some degree measured by nothing other than one's ability to see how they do.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Three Poem Drafts

Life

How lost I am!
These city streets
with falsehood speak
to weary feet
and never I
can extricate
my ways from lie
nor straighten fate,
for all must wind
through crooked ways!
But I will find
some pleasant place
where roses grow
and trees uprise
and cool my toes
in fountain-sighs;
perhaps then you,
still lost as well,
will meet with me
and stories tell
as I sing songs
and on we pass
from hostile stone
to heaven's grass.

Wave-Like Threads

Our God, who governs galaxies
by subtle wave-like threads
and gives all parts direction,
can He have set His tread
on such dry earthen lands
as this old world, and cared
for sparrow and for lily small,
unstarlike and so spare?
But wave-like threads still bind
the pinion-wings in flight
and rippled spaced and time,
with chance but without fault,
builds up the gilded bloom;
no prejudice constrains
the Highest to contempt
of endless details strewn
throughout an endless space.
Then shall the little plant
bemoan its lonely fate?
No ground will gird complaint.
For God who makes the stars
from myriad subtle things
makes us, and it, and all,
and so we give Him thanks.

Indian Blankets

Indian blankets
burst with color
if I will or nill.
I only will to see
or else not to see,
take joy in flame and gold
or fret for nothing.

Firewheel or Indian Blanket with a Spider at the back
 Indian blanket photo, Wing-Chi Poon, @ McKinney Falls State Park, Austin TX

She Runneth Loose and Turneth Where She List

To Them Who Seek Fortune
by Sir Thomas More


Whoso delighteth to proven and assay
Of wavering Fortune the uncertain lot,
If that the answer please you not alway
Blame you not me, for I command you not
Fortune to trust; and eke full well you wot
I have of her no bridle in my fist,
She runneth loose and turneth where she list.

The rolling dice in which your luck doth stand,
With whose unhappy chance you be so wroth,
You know yourself came never in my hand.
Lo in this pond be fish and frogs they both,
Cast in your net, but be you lief or loath,
Hold you content as Fortune list assign
For it is your own fishing and not mine.

And though in one chance Fortune you offend,
Grudge not thereat but bear a merry face,
In many another she shall it amend.
There is no man so far out of her grace
But he sometime hath comfort and solace;
Nor none again so farforth in her favour
That is full satisfied with her behaviour.

Fortune is stately, solemn, proud, and high,
And riches giv'th to have service therefore.
The needy beggar catch'th an halfpenny,
Some man a thousand pounds, some less, some more.
But for all that she keepeth ever in store,
From ev'ry man some parcel of his will,
That he may pray therefore and serve her still.

Some man hath good but children hath he none,
Some man hath both but he can get none health,
Some hath all three, but up to honour's throne
Can he not creep by no manner of stealth.
To some she sendeth children, riches, wealth,
Honour, worship, and rev'rence all his life,
But yet she pincheth him with a shrew'd wife.

Then forasmuch as it is Fortune's guise
To grant no man all things that he will aks,
But, as herself list order and devise,
Doth ev'ry man his part divide and tax;
I counsel ye, each one truss-up your packs
And take nothing at all, or be content
With such reward as Fortune hath you sent.

All things which in this book that you shall read,
Do as you list, there shall no man you bind
Them to believe as surely as your creed,
But notwithstanding certes in my mind
I durst well swear, 's true you shall them find
In every point each answer by and by
As are the judgments of astronomy.

Today is the feast day of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, so it seems appropriate to put up some poetry from the former. I like the fishing imagery in the second stanza, but the fifth stanza is, I think, the strongest in the poem.

Paradox of Comedy?

Of Aristotle's works on poetics, only the first part of the Poetics itself, his work on tragedy, survived. Actually, the work on tragedy itself barely survived; through most of the Middle Ages it was only known in an Arabic translation of a Syriac translation of a Greek manuscript that may have itself been faulty. Currently all we have besides this one are a handful of Renaissance manuscripts and the primary Greek manuscript, Paris MS 1741, which dates back to the twelfth century or so. Pretty much all of Aristotle's extant works survived at one point or another by a hair, but the Poetics more than most.

We know, however, that there was a second part to the Poetics, on the subject of comedy (we also have good reason to believe he wrote a dialogue called On Poets, and he may have also had some additional treatises on various subjects like style and dramatic performance). So all we know of Aristotle's view of comedy are (1) scattered comments in the extant part of the Poetics; and (2) what we can guess at from clues elsewhere (like later ancient discussions of comedy). You'll remember, of course, that Umberto Eco's excellent novel, The Name of the Rose (which you should have read if you have not), deals with this missing extant work on comedy and attempts a rough reconstruction. We can only speculate about how the history of aesthetics would have changed if the work on comedy had survived. What is certainly true is that comedy has always taken a very distant second seat to tragedy.

So here's a question. I've already talked briefly about the paradox of tragedy (and that was indeed a very brief discussion of one of the most celebrated and complicated topics in aesthetics). Mightn't there be a comedic analogue, a paradox of comedy? In the brief comment on Comedy in the Poetics, Aristotle tells us that comedy differs from tragedy in that it is (1) depiction of people worse than average; (2) but that their faults are not just of any kind, but of one particular kind, the ridiculous, which, he says, is a species of the ugly, and is in particular that kind of ugliness that involves a mistake or deformity that is not painful or harmful to others. So perhaps a paradox of comedy would build on this feature: more precisely, it would be a paradox of the ridiculous: a kind of ugliness (namely, the ridiculous) that we treat as if it were beautiful (certainly it pleases on being seen). It bears some thought.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Paradox of Tragedy

Related to the paradox of fiction, but much older and widely discussed as a philosophical problem, is the paradox of tragedy. The paradox of fiction is roughly a puzzle over how we can feel for things we know don't exist; the paradox of tragedy is roughly a puzzle over how we can delight in fictional bad happenings given that we don't when they are real.

In tragedies, of course, bad things happen, and, what is more, they happen to good people, even if those good people are flawed. If everybody got what they deserved, it wouldn't be a tragedy; what makes a tragedy is that little cracks in character, or situation, or the like, end up ruining or destroying people who don't deserve it. Thus tragedies naturally evoke sympathetic suffering (pity) or fear, or at least something like these things. Thus we have the puzzle: the exquisite delight of tragedy comes from suffering and fear due to vivid imagination of destructive or painful evil. Hence the paradox. To some extent, of course, an analogue of this paradox is found with all kinds of fictions: people delight in reading, or watching, bad things happen to people in all sorts of stories. But in tragedy it finds its baldest form. Great tragedies are readable and watchable because they make our hearts ache and our consciences tremble. They are just short of more than we can bear.

Perhaps because it has had so much attention over so many centuries, the available responses to the paradox are much more complicated and permeable than we find with the paradox of fiction. Rather than think of positions one might take with respect to the paradox, it's perhaps best to divide the field by two criteria: first, by whether a position denies any part of the paradox; and second, for those who accept all the parts of the paradox, what means they might use to explain it.

Relatively few people reject any element of the paradox. At first glance, it seems quite obvious that people at least often delight in tragedies, that this delight is at least often tied to sympathetic feelings of suffering and fear, and that sympathetic feelings of suffering and fear are often very un-delightful outside of the context of tragedy. But one could take a deflationary position to this, and argue that either we don't feel anything in response to tragic literature and drama or that we don't actually have any particular aversion to the feelings of pity and fear. The only way to make much sense of the first is if we don't, in fact, feel anything in response to literature and drama generally; and, indeed, almost the only arguments I have ever seen for this option assume a pretend theory of fiction, like Walton's theory of quasi-emotions. It still leaves the puzzle of why we enjoy pretending to suffer and fear sympathetically, but if we don't actually pity or fear in response to Oedipus, it does take some bite out of the paradox. As for the second, it is more interesting, and has in its favor the fact that, as spectators, at least, human beings often do seem to take an active interest in bad happenings, to which they arguably are not necessarily averse: people gawking at a car crash, for instance. This approach is arguably a little disturbing, but there may be something to it.

More often, however, people have accepted the basic elements of the paradox, and thus are committed to saying that it is paradoxical but true. And then, of course, the task is to determine why this combination of elements that seems puzzling actually makes sense in some way. A number of different tools in the toolbox have been proposed for this.

(1) We have what could be called the classical or (perhaps less misleadingly in most cases) neo-classical instruments for explaining the paradox. These are usually traced back to Aristotle, but receive their full development as answers to the paradox of tragedy in particular during early modern classicism. They basically come down to mimesis, catharsis, and wonder (with catharsis being most appealed to and wonder being least appealed to). (a) As rational animals we have a natural delight in good representations or imitations (which is what 'mimesis' means); good tragedies are good representations. (b) It's difficult to pin down what catharsis is supposed to be (Aristotle uses the word only once), but we do have some basic outlines, and different theories of catharsis have tended to build on them. Aristotle tells us that tragedy arouses pity and fear in order to cleanse them. By this we could mean that tragic drama makes us less susceptible to pity and fear by removing (purging) them. Or we could mean that tragic drama purifies pity and fear so that they are more noble and no longer tainted by baser desires. The word could be intended to suggest either, and both of these have been assumed at various times. (c) Despite its importance for neo-classical approaches to tragedy, catharsis does not play a major role in Aristotle's account of tragedy. The real work in Aristotle's account, and what he perhaps proposes catharsis as preparatory for, is rhaumaston, which is wonder in something like both senses of the English word: wondering about and wondering at. When we compliment a literary work or movie or play by saying, after having experienced it, 'That is astounding; it really makes you think', that's along the general lines of what Aristotle is getting at. Wonder is on Aristotle's account the aim of poetic art in general, of which tragic art is one species; in which case it would make sense to think of tragic art as art that produces wonder by way of pity and fear. Aristotle certainly thinks that there is a connection among pity, fear, and wonder: the things that most cause wonder are often things that could also easily cause pity and fear. Wonder itself, however, is something very suitable to us as rational animals and out of which we draw many benefits. And later discussions of the sublime will tend to build on similar connections between pity and fear on the one hand and the sublime on the other, so that accounts on which catharsis is a sort of sublimation into something higher are perhaps variants of this appeal to wonder.

(2) The influence of neo-classical discussions of tragedy cannot be underestimated. But other means of making sense of the paradoxical nature of tragedy have been proposed. Far and away the most important of these is conversion, and the most influential account of conversion is found in Hume's important discussion of the paradox of tragedy in Of Tragedy. The basic idea behind conversionary theories is the recognition that identifying the psychological regularities in play in tragic spectatorship holds some promise for making sense of the paradox by giving an explanation of how the normally unpleasant could be converted into something pleasant. Hume denies that we enjoy the pity and fear induced by tragic drama; he builds on Fontenelle's suggestion "that the movement of pleasure, pushed a little too far, becomes pain; and that the movement of pain, a little moderated, becomes pleasure." Hume attempts to undergird his account by showing that this sort of process is actually quite common. Plenty of passions give force to opposing passions: novelty is pleasant, but it can add its force to the shock of unpleasant passions; curiosity, jealousy, and our response to challenges and trials provide additional examples. What is most distinctively Humean, however, is the notion that in tragedy this conversion is affected by eloquence:

The genius required to paint objects in a lively manner, the art employed in collecting all the pathetic circumstances, the judgment displayed in disposing them: the exercise, I say, of these noble talents, together with the force of expression and beauty of oratorial numbers, diffuse the highest satisfaction on the audience, and excite the most delightful movements. By this means, the uneasiness of the melancholy passions is not only overpowered and effaced by something stronger of an opposite kind, but the whole impulse of those passions is converted into pleasure, and swells the delight which the eloquence raises in us.

That is, our feelings of pity and fear in watching a good tragedy have a context. This context is one of great poetry and narrative art, which is itself pleasing. In this context, we not only barely feel the pain of sorrow, indignation, and the like, but their very force and impulse is itself transferred to the pleasure we take in the eloquent context. To this Hume adds the neo-classical point that imitation is itself agreeable. And with these three elements: conversion, eloquence, and mimesis, we have the full Humean account. Hume does insist, however, that our passions are not infinitely malleable: some things are so awful that even the best eloquence cannot do much to soften them.

And this is perhaps a weakness in Hume's own account. Hume notes that the popular fashion on the English stage of his time was very violent and bloody tragedy -- shock drama. And as we know in our day, some people have an astounding appetite for torture films. As Hume would have it, these things should not be pleasant -- but this seems difficult to square with their popularity. What is more, given the role played by eloquence, it is difficult to see how one could take pleasure in badly written tragedies. But some people apparently seem to do so.

One advantage of conversion is that it does seem to have many analogues. Consider the paradox of chili peppers: chili peppers irritate the mouth; people don't like things that irritate the mouth (irritation in the mouth is unpleasant); people really like chili peppers. (We could run a similar line with allergen addictions.) Why? Well, the conversion theorist could have a fairly plausible answer: the irritation is giving force to the pleasure that arises from the body's attempt to respond to the irritation. And thus people who really like chili peppers, like them the hotter (i.e., the more irritating) they are. Really intense tragedies are, so to speak, the habenero or bhut jolokia or naga viper chilis of art: the pain gives force to the pleasure.

(3) More recently people have proposed the use of additional tools for making sense of the paradox. There are several of these, but four are perhaps especially notable.

(a) control: Control theorists hold that the key difference between bad happenings in tragedy and bad happenings in real-life is that we have complete control over the former: you can walk out of the theater, you can put the book down. In this sense, the pleasure of tragedy is analogous to what some people see as the explanation for the pleasure some tkae in rape fantasies, or indeed in a lot of other fantasies, sexual and otherwise. It's not that they like the object of fantasy but that they like the intense stir of the emotion to the extent that they themselves are in control of the stirring. Of course, on its own it seems to leave something of the paradox untouched: yes, control can affect one's pleasure in things, but why would one find tragic events, or fantasies of being raped, or any such thing at all, with or without control?

A variant of control theory appeals to power, arguing that what we like about tragedy is that it offers an occasion to express our power over ourselves by giving us either a reminder of our own ability to endure or by giving us an opportunity to overcome fear and pity.

(b) compensation: One could hold that we enjoy tragic unpleasantness as a means to an end: that is, we get some good out of it that, while not making the unpleasantness any less unpleasant, makes the overall experience good. There are lots of things in a tragedy we can take pleasure in: its craft and eloquence, its intricacy, its plausibility, its moral tone. The compensation theorist holds that we are attracted to tragedy despite the unpleasantness because so many other features are pleasant.

(c) meta-response: Meta-response theorists like Susan Feagin try to go up one level, as you migth expect from the 'meta' part. We do not find tragic events, tragic sorrow, or tragic fear pleasant; rather, what we find pleasant is our response to our tragic sorrow and tragic fear. We like tragedy not because pity and fear are pleasant but because by feeling pity and fear we are the sort of people we like -- in particular, that we are the sort of people who have the kind of sympathy that lets us experience negative feelings when bad things happen to others. In addition, we can take pleasure in being united in sympathy with other good people in disliking bad things. Feagin suggests that one advantage of this approach is that it shows why tragedy depends to be regarded as far more important and valuable than comedy: tragedy deals directly with matters of high moral concern. And, indeed, this was an original point of ancient Greek and Roman accounts of tragedy that sometimes has been lost in later discussions.

(d) rich experience: Rich experience theorists (Aaron Smuts has a number of good discussions of the theory) are interesting in that they tend to buck the major feature of most modern approaches to the paradox of tragedy. Most modern approaches, going back to the early modern period, see the paradox as one in which we need to explain how the unpleasant seems so pleasant. Rich experience theorists tend to see this as a red herring. We are not attracted to tragedy because it is pleasant. To be sure, the rich experience theorist is not going to deny that many things about a good tragedy will give you pleasure, nor that you might experience pleasure as a result of watching or reading something tragic. What they will say is that this is not the attractive thing about tragedy, which at root always deals with the unpleasant -- tragedy, horror, and the like are 'painful arts'. Rather, what is attractive about tragedy is that it is enriching: sitting through a tragedy, your experience of life is enriched. Faced with Oedipus Rex, or Antigone, or The Bacchae, or, indeed, even just a half-way decent horror flick, you in some sense grow as a person, have had a life of richer experience, and at relatively little cost to you. Cowper once referred to reading as armchair travelling: he, suffering from crippling depressions, could not go out into the world, but he could fight off sharks and discover new lands by reading. And, while there very different ways a rich experience theorist can go, the rich experience is building on something analogous in the discussion of 'painful art'. In effect, rich experience theorists deny that we are motivated only by pleasure: we also value a richness of life, and are willing to risk some pleasures (within limits) and experience some pains (within limits) to have it. It's a tricky point to grasp, because we tend to slide easily back into the modern assumptions that if we pursue something we find it pleasant and that it is puzzling for us to pursue something painful. But it's a very interesting suggestion.

One of the difficulties raised by the paradox of tragedy is the very diversity of possible responses. Every single one of the above suggestions is a plausible contributing factor to our pleasure in tragedy. This is why, in fact, the neo-classical and Humean approaches appeal to more than one: they are not merely interested in explaining the bare fact of enjoyment of tragedy, but in explaining the full character of our enjoyment. But, of course, accepting one, or even accepting them all, doesn't deal with the paradox. For it is entirely possible for something to increase our enjoyment of a tragedy without thereby explaining why we enjoy tragedy at all. It's this latter that needs to be addressed to make sense of the paradox; and giving a solid argument that a given contributing factor is foundational in this way is the hard part.

For my own part, I think it's fairly clear that all of the non-deflationary suggestions above have some effect on our enjoyment of tragedy. Of the deflationary approaches, I think the suggestion that we actually like (some kinds of) unpleasant things turns out to be surprisingly plausible in comparison with the suggestion that we don't have emotional responses to tragic fiction, and, indeed, it is very likely that some enjoyment of tragedy is affected to some degree by this sort of perversity. For the paradox itself, I tend to think that the neo-classical approach was on the right track, that the rich experience and meta-response approaches are recovering something important that was lost, and that the others are all merely supplementary. But what do you think?

He Laid Aside Virtue That Night

A Night-Piece
or
Modern Philosophy
Ode XIV
by Christopher Smart


Dicetur merita nox quoque nœnia. Hor.

'Twas when bright Cynthia with her silver car,
Soft stealing from Endymion's bed,
Had call'd forth ev'ry glitt'ting star,
And up th' ascent of heav'n her brilliant host had led.

Night with all her negro train,
Took possession of the plain;
In an hearse she rode reclin'd,
Drawn by screech-owls slow and blind:
Close to her, with printless feet,
Crept Stillness in a winding sheet.
Next to her deaf Silence was seen,
Treading on tip-toes over the green;
Softly, lightly, gently she trips,
Still holding her fingers seal'd to her lips„

You could not see a sight,
You could not hear a found,
But what confess'd the night,
And horror deepen'd round.

Beneath a myrtle's melancholy shade,
Sophron the wise was laid:
And to the answ'ring wood these sounds convey'd:

While others toil within the town,
And to fortune smile or frown,
Fond of trifles, fond of toys,
And married to that woman, Noise;
Sacred Wisdom be my care,
And fairest Virtue, Wisdom's heir.

His speculations thus the sage begun,
When, lo! the neighbouring bell
In solemn sound struck one :—
He starts—and recollects—he was engag'd to Nell.
Then up he sprang nimble and light,
And rapp'd at fair Ele'nor's door;
He laid aside virtue that night,
And next morn por'd in Plato for more.

Of course, Kit Smart's eighteenth century; today no one would bother poring over Plato afterward.

The line from Horace is the last line of Ode III:28.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Ah, Students

I once had a student in an introductory survey course who on the final exam referred to Platonic solids as Caesar salads. She was otherwise rather nondescript, and I was never certain whether her remark was intentional humor or a manifestation of "math anxiety."

John Allen Paulos, Beyond Numeracy. Vintage [New York: 1992] p. 180. It reminds me of the logic test I've mentioned before, in which, asked to name two logicians who had been discussed in class, gave as one of her answers, "Barbara Syllogism," or the young man on the same test who, asked to distinguish a categorical proposition from a noncategorical one, replied that noncategorical propositions come from hookers.

Paulos's book, which I just picked off the shelf of the local branch of the public library because I wanted something light to read at the time and it looked somewhat interesting, is indeed somewhat interesting, although two flaws with it are (1) that it passes off a lot of very dubious philosophy of mathematics under the guise of mathematical pedagogy, and (2) that the title is absurd: since it covered only ground I knew or needed no more than a light refresher in, I would have to be classified as 'beyond (barely) numerate', which is a manifest slander against truly numerate people everywhere, like the hubris of someone saying he was beyond being barely literate because he could understand the gossip column of the newspaper; such people do not understand how far up things go.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Grace, Love, and Fellowship

This is also Paul’s teaching in his second letter to the Corinthians: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. For grace and the gift of the Trinity are given by the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Just as grace is given from the Father through the Son, so there could be no communication of the gift to us except in the Holy Spirit. But when we share in the Spirit, we possess the love of the Father, the grace of the Son and the fellowship of the Spirit himself.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria, First Letter to Serapion 28-30, as found in the Office of Readings.