Friday, September 02, 2011

Links with Notability

* Currently Reading:
Ben Burgis, Paracompleteness and Revenge (PDF)
Haiwen Zhou, Confucianism and Legalism: A Model of the National Strategy of Governance in Ancient China (PDF)

* A BBC program on the Medieval University.

* Paul Needham has done a fair amount of work busting up the myth of direct descent from atomism to modern chemistry (certainly there was an influence, but you can, for instance, trace at least as many connections to Aristotelian anti-atomist arguments as to atomist arguments). It turns out that he has a number of good papers on the subject online (all PDF):
When did atoms begin to do any explanatory work in chemistry?
Aristotle's Theory of Chemical Reaction and Chemical Substances
Substance and Modality

* now has a philosophy page. For a long time to find anything of significance about philosophy at meant seeing what Austin Cline was writing, but, of course, that was necessarily from a rather narrow sliver of philosophical thought and from one particular perspective.

* Lindsay Beyerstein has an interesting account of what guilty pleasures are.

* John Farrell has started off a discussion of monogenism in the blogosphere. Here are some of the notable posts.

Can Theology Evolve?
(John Farrell, "Progressive Download")
Venter and the Vatican (John Farrell, "Progressive Download" -- while this is not directly on the subject, I think it lays out more clearly why John raised the issue in the first place)
Evolutionary theology (Mike Liccione, "Sacramentum Vitae")
Modern Genetics and the Fall (Bill Vallicella, "The Maverick Philosopher")
Original Sin and Eastern Orthodoxy (Bill Vallicella, "The Maverick Philosopher")
Adam and Eve and Ted and Alice (Mike Flynn, "The TOF Spot")
What sort of revision does scientific research call for on the Catholic doctrine of the Fall? (James Chastek, "Just Thomism")


* Judith Butler discusses Hannah Arendt on Eichmann.

* Mendelsohn on Rimbaud.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Concrete and Particular Thickness of This World

In order for this world to have any importance, in order for our undertaking to have a meaning and to be worthy of sacrifices, we must affirm the concrete and particular thickness of this world and the individual reality of our projects and ourselves. This is what democratic societies understand; they strive to confirm citizens in the feeling of their individual value; the whole ceremonious apparatus of baptism, marriage, and burial is the collectivity's homage to the individual; and the rites of justice seek to manifest society's respect for each of its members considered in his particularity.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, Citadel (NY: 1976), pp. 106-107.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Heathendom Came Again

Cliché Came Out of its Cage
by C. S. Lewis


You said 'The world is going back to Paganism'.
Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
And Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers, heralded with flutes,
Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
Hestia's fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
Tended it. By the hearth the white-armd venerable mother
Domum servabat, lanam faciebat. Duly at the hour
Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
Arose (it is the mark of freemen's children) as they trooped,
Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears ...
You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.


Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond wil1 break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the Last defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event,
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).

One has to admit, the sight of Bertrand Russell crowned in flowers and sacrificing to the Muses would have been worth seeing.

Hume on Geometrical Equality

Robert Paul Wolff is continuing his interesting introduction to Hume's Treatise. In Part IV he gives some brief comments on Book I, Part II, which is Hume's discussion of space and time. As he says it's quirky; and there are certainly more successful sections of Hume by any number of criteria. Nonetheless, I think it deserves a bit more attention than it usually gets. It deals with a serious issue for any real empiricist. Among the things rationalism can handle more easily than empiricism are infinity and perfect precision. This means that an empiricist needs a good theory of mathematics, which is really what we get in Book I, Part II. All the empiricists struggled with the implications of empiricism for mathematics; Berkeley in the Notebooks, for instance, toys with the idea of saying that the Pythagorean theorem is not true, merely useful for calculation. Hume's answer is more elaborate, but is, in fact, a variation of the same. If you only allow our ideas to be (directly or indirectly) copies of impressions, you definitely have some explaining to do when it comes to what geometers talk about, which seems to deal with things beyond what anyone could possible sense. In any case, we need a good account of an important term like 'equality', and Hume's is one of the first modern attempts to give one.

So I thought I'd repost this old discussion of Hume on geometrical equality (from 6 years ago!).

One of the more interesting and overlooked passages in Hume's Treatise is the discussion of equality in geometry (1.2.4). In context, Hume is arguing against geometrical arguments for infinite divisibility; he takes a very strong stance against them:

But I go farther, and maintain, that none of these demonstrations can have sufficient weight to establish such a principle, as this of infinite divisibility; and that because with regard to such minute objects, they are not properly demonstrations, being built on ideas, which are not exact, and maxims, which are not precisely true. When geometry decides antyhing concerning the proportions of quantity, we ought not to look for the utmost precision and exactness. None of its proofs extend so far. It takes the dimensions and proportions of figures justly; but roughly, and with some liberty. Its errors are never considerable; nor wou'd it err at all, did it not aspire to such an absolute perfection. (

Despite the qualification in the last sentence, this is a strong position to take: that geometry is inexact, imprecise, and merely approximate in its conclusions is not a claim that is usually made. Part of Hume's argument for this interesting conclusion is an argument about the standard of equality in geometry.

If we were to think of geometric lines as composed of points, we could (in principle) simply identify geometric and arithmetic equality: Line A would be equal to Line B iff the number of points on Line A is equal to the number of points on Line B. Even setting aside the qualms we might have with treating points in this way, Hume notes that this would be "entirely useless"; no one actually identifies two lines as equal by counting their indivisible points.

Another argument, which Hume found in the mathematician Isaac Barrows, was to define geometric equality by appeal to congruity: Figure A is equal to Figure B iff, by placing the one on the other, every part in Figure A contacts every part in Figure B. Hume argues, however, that this is just an elaborate way of conflating arithmetic with geometric equality: ultimately, the congruity position reduces to the claim that for every point on Figure A there must be a corresponding point on Figure B.

Hume's own view is that "the only useful notion of deriv'd from the whole united appearance and the comparison of particular objects" ( In effect, the only standard of equality in geometry is the one you use when you eyeball it.

In effect. When we look at the details, it ends up being more complicated. The general appearance can be put into doubt. When it is, "we frequently correct our first opinion by a review and reflection"; this correction may be corrected with another correction, and so forth. We use instruments of measurement that are of varying degrees of precision. At different times we exercise more or less care in the determination. Our idea of equality, therefore, is not exact. On the contrary: we form "a mix'd notion of equality deriv'd both from the looser and stricter methods of comparison" (

However, we don't stick with this. Having become accustomed to making these judgments and corrections, we get into the habit of doing so, and led on by a sort of mental momentum, we suppose an exact standard of equality. Knowing that there are bodies more minute than those that appear to the senses, we falsely suppose that there are things infinitely more minute than those that appear to the senses; and in light of that we recognize that we don't have any instrument or means of measurement that will secure us from error and uncertainty in such a context: the difference of a single mathematical point could be crucial. Because of this we suppose the corrections in our "mix'd notion" of equality to converge on the existence of a perfect but "plainly imaginary" standard of equality. What makes this "plainly imaginary," Hume thinks, is that our idea of equality is just the "mix'd notion," i.e., the appearance plus the corrections used by applying a common measure, juxtaposition, or instrument. The supposition that there is a standard of equality far beyond what we can actually measure is "a mere fiction of the mind." It's a natural fiction, since it is a result of this mental impulse or momentum whereby the mind keeps going even when it has ceased to be in touch with the facts. It is, however, a fiction.

Hume notes that this point, if true, is perfectly general: it applies not only to geometrical equality, but to equality in any sort of measurement: whether in time, or physics, or music, or art (e.g., hue). In all such cases we are led by the impulse of the mind to something far beyond the judgments of the senses. Our real notion of equality is "loose and uncertain": the exact standard of equality is more than we could possible know to be the case.

The problem this poses for the geometer is this. Either (a) equality in geometry is imprecise; or (b) it is precise. If (b), then geometrical equality is useless in practice (we can never know that a case exists) and depends on the controversial notion that lines are really and actually composed of infinitely divisible points, which Hume (and most of the geometers he would have known) thinks simply absurd. The standard they actually use, Hume thinks, is the imprecise one; but if we accept this view, many of the inferences made by geometers are ill-founded, since they assume a precision far beyond what the imagination and senses can yield. Thus, says, Hume, this shows that a geometrical demonstration of the infinite divisibility of a line is impossible.

One of the reasons I find this an interesting discussion is that in 1.4.2 he appeals to the same mechanism by which he explains how we come up with an exact standard of equality to explain how we come up with an idea of body continuing independently of our perceiving it. I presented a paper before the Hume Society a few years ago on this topic; my views have changed a bit, but I still think it's a key issue in understanding what Hume's theory of the external world really is.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Two Poem Re-Drafts

All-Father's Knowledge

Weird is the wyrd of man, and wild,
writ on stars with sacred stile,
carved on ash of ages blessed,
'graved on leaves; those leaves confess
the truth to those who hang for nine --
nine days, nine nights, by hanging line.

Now eye will open, source of awe,
and wise becomes the Hanging God,
wise with lore of ancient runes,
wise in ways of birth and doom.

A draught fresh-drawn from prophet's well
from which the poets drink their fill,
the scops who with their eddas dream
of things to come and things unseen,
will wake from slumber sleeping thoughts;
then wise becomes the prophet-God,
who in his passion to be wise
will tear his flesh and give an eye.

Ravens beyond the rainbow-bridge
with peircing eye for all things hid
go back and forth through every land --
of death, of elf, of god, of man,
through all ages, restless, roam
from root to crown to Father's throne:
Memory, thought, turned to wing,
seeking out all things unseen.

But one-eyed Father, endless, wise,
who sees each wyrd beneath the skies,
knows, regards, with wisdom mild
no stranger fate than a human child's.

Francesca and Paolo

I asked them for their tale.
Sulking Paolo only wept,
but Francesca said with sorrow,
"It was the book's fault,
in which we read of Lance and Gwen,
for what the book said, we did,
and when they touched and kissed,
then Paolo, and this was his fault,
leaned in with touch and kiss,
and I could not but give return,
for Love overpowers all.
Because of what was Love's fault
we read no more that day."
So said Francesca sadly;
sulking Paolo only wept.

Supported by Facts

ME: So, what's the difference between a good argument and a bad argument?

STUDENTS: Good arguments are supported by facts.

ME: So here's an argument. There's an invisible unicorn in this room. What's my reason for saying this? That you can't see it.

STUDENTS: They have to be relevant facts.

ME: But if the claim is about invisible unicorns, whether you can see them is definitely a relevant fact. So I've supported my conclusion with facts. Does that make it a good argument?

[All this as a preamble to discussing logic.]

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hume's Writing

Robert Paul Wolff has started an interesting introduction to Hume. I was struck, however, by this, in the second post:

A warning -- Hume wrote so beautifully, with such concision, clarity, precision, and elegance, that the temptation is overwhelming simply to incorporate large chunks of the Treatise into this tutorial. Any student of philosophy who imagines that it is necessary, or even desirable, to write turgidly and obscurely when engaging with deep questions would do well to spend a long time reading Hume and striving to emulate him.

Students striving to emulate Hume's writing style is exactly what one doesn't want. Hume has many virtues, and it is certainly often said that he writes with clarity and precision, but all the actual evidence is that he is not, in fact, very precise, and that his clarity is largely superficial. As I've noted before, Hume was effectively writing in a very different dialect than he spoke; Scots English in the eighteenth century was much farther from the English of England than the two are now. Hume, being an intense Anglophile, put considerable effort into it, and thus became one of the best Scottish writers of English English. But he was still some distance from the summit, as can be seen if one compares him to his critic James Beattie, who really does write beautifully, clearly, concisely, precisely, and elegantly (even if not always so insightfully) and is hands down the best Scottish writer of English English in Hume's day.

Don't get me wrong: Hume has many virtues as a writer -- his figures of speech are often very striking, his sense of vocabulary (into which he put an immense effort, due to the dialect differences just mentioned) is excellent, and his powers of large-scale organization of his text are much better than usually recognized. But his prose is notoriously ambiguous (sentence after sentence can be read in different ways, to such an extent that the history of Hume scholarship sees Hume being interpreted in radically, and I mean radically, different ways), his discussions sprawling enough to make his (often quite good) organization difficult to see, and when some of his contemporaries ridiculed him for putting things oddly (his occasionally French-sounding syntax, his rampant egoisms, etc.), they did have something of a point.

Hume's virtues as a philosopher include perceptiveness, not elegance; acuteness of observation, not precision of reasoning; striking presentation, not beauty of language; organization of inquiry, not conciseness of argument; restraint in description, not clarity. To be sure, there are passages in Hume that are beautiful, or concise, or elegant, or precise, or clear; he improves greatly in his later works; and he has been helped out by the increasing distaste for rhetorical flowers and balanced clauses, as well as by the slow homogenization of English. But if beauty, concision, elegance, precision, or clarity are what are important to you, Butler and Berkeley are better role models on every single point. Hume's strengths, though lying elsewhere, are really and truly strengths; they have their place, and are not to be dismissed lightly. But the claim that Hume is somehow a particularly elegant and clear writer is mostly a myth of the twentieth century.

When You Really Need to Be Catholic

From an old review (of John Carpenter's Vampires) by Roger Ebert:

When it comes to fighting vampires and performing exorcisms, the Roman Catholic Church has the heavy artillery. Your other religions are good for everyday theological tasks, like steering their members into heaven, but when the undead lunge up out of their graves, you want a priest on the case. As a product of Catholic schools, I take a certain pride in this pre-eminence.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


Arsen Darnay has a post in which he discusses the history of the word 'visionary'. As he notes, there was a period in which it was something of an insult, much like 'enthusiast' was; indeed, calling people enthusiastic visionaries in the eighteenth century would have been an extraordinary insult, equivalent to saying that they were irrational fanatics incapable of distinguishing their own thoughts from divine inspirations. This phase is not insignificant for the history of ideas: very notably, philosophers who were regularly criticized for being 'visionary' tended to fall out of cognizance in the nineteenth century. One of these was Nicolas Malebranche, who constantly had to deal with the criticism. In Elucidation Ten to The Search after Truth he gave a brief but biting response to it:

I prefer to be called a visionary, or one of the Illuminati, or any of the lovely things with which the imagination (always sarcastic in insignificant minds) usually answers arguments it does not understand and against which it is defenseless, than to agree that bodies can enlighten me, that I am my own master, reason, and light, and that in order to be well-versed in anything I need only consult myself or other men who can perhaps fill my ears with noise, but who certainly cannot fill my mind with light. (LO 613)

The "I am my own master, reason, and light" part (a better translation: 'I am my own teacher, reason, and light') is an allusion to Augustine, whose basic epistemology Malebranche adapts. Which makes it a fitting topic for today, I suppose, since today is the Feast of St. Augustine, although it is superceded by Sunday for liturgical purposes.