Saturday, June 16, 2012

Joseph Conrad, Nostromo


Opening Passage:
In the time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of Sulaco—the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity—had never been commercially anything more important than a coasting port with a fairly large local trade in ox-hides and indigo. The clumsy deep-sea galleons of the conquerors that, needing a brisk gale to move at all, would lie becalmed, where your modern ship built on clipper lines forges ahead by the mere flapping of her sails, had been barred out of Sulaco by the prevailing calms of its vast gulf. Some harbours of the earth are made difficult of access by the treachery of sunken rocks and the tempests of their shores. Sulaco had found an inviolable sanctuary from the temptations of a trading world in the solemn hush of the deep Golfo Placido as if within an enormous semi-circular and unroofed temple open to the ocean, with its walls of lofty mountains hung with the mourning draperies of cloud.

Summary: Sulaco is the most resource-rich province of the fictional country of Costaguana, home of the rich San Tomé silver mine. This mine was granted in perpetual concession to a Costaguanan of English extraction, Mr. Gould, who, knowing that it was an albatross around the neck, tried to get out of it, but could not. And, indeed, it dominated him the rest of his life as the corrupt Costaguanan government used it as an excuse to squeeze his fortune dry. The mine is taken over by Charles Gould, his son, and he with his wife, Mrs. Gould (we never learn her first name) set out to do good with it, to bring stability, order, and prosperity with it. In a sense they succeed. But plans never go quite straight in Costaguana, especially when tangled up with the complexities of silver, which, of course, is not just a metal but an idea, and an idea that can tangle everything up.

The book, through a very wide and beautifully drawn cast of characters, traces the course of idealism in its tangled and complicated interaction with material interests. There are many kinds of idealism, each as varied as the characters themselves, and they all become tangled in the complications of Material Interests, and especially in the mine as the consummate representation of those interests. Material interests need idealism to be justified, but they have a way of becoming indistinguishable in men's minds from the ideals themselves. Likewise, idealism needs material interests as its instruments; but material interests at the same time muddle one's mind and begin to enslave it, thus risking the ideal. And each, materialism and idealism, carry their own blind-spots. Thus the Author's Note sums it up well when it says that Sulaco is the background for men and women shortsighted in good and evil. Every significant character in the book suffers from this shortsightedness arising from the suicide pact, so to speak, between the material and the ideal in human life. For a Conrad novel things turn out remarkably well in the end; but no one breaks free from moral shortsightedness.

Favorite Passage: There are several possibilities, but this one doesn't give away much of the story, while nonetheless carrying it in its germ.

The father of Charles Gould, for a long time one of the most wealthy merchants of Costaguana, had already lost a considerable part of his fortune in forced loans to the successive Governments. He was a man of calm judgment, who never dreamed of pressing his claims; and when, suddenly, the perpetual concession of the San Tome mine was offered to him in full settlement, his alarm became extreme. He was versed in the ways of Governments. Indeed, the intention of this affair, though no doubt deeply meditated in the closet, lay open on the surface of the document presented urgently for his signature. The third and most important clause stipulated that the concession-holder should pay at once to the Government five years' royalties on the estimated output of the mine.

Mr. Gould, senior, defended himself from this fatal favour with many arguments and entreaties, but without success. He knew nothing of mining; he had no means to put his concession on the European market; the mine as a working concern did not exist. The buildings had been burnt down, the mining plant had been destroyed, the mining population had disappeared from the neighbourhood years and years ago; the very road had vanished under a flood of tropical vegetation as effectually as if swallowed by the sea; and the main gallery had fallen in within a hundred yards from the entrance. It was no longer an abandoned mine; it was a wild, inaccessible, and rocky gorge of the Sierra, where vestiges of charred timber, some heaps of smashed bricks, and a few shapeless pieces of rusty iron could have been found under the matted mass of thorny creepers covering the ground. Mr. Gould, senior, did not desire the perpetual possession of that desolate locality; in fact, the mere vision of it arising before his mind in the still watches of the night had the power to exasperate him into hours of hot and agitated insomnia.

Recommendation: The artistry of the book is, of course superb: the descriptions are vivid, the characterizations excellent, and Conrad's ability to tell the stories of a large number of characters in detail while still maintaining a clear and coherent plot is impressive. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Martyrdom-Day of Guru Arjan Dev Ji

Today there is an interesting Sikh holiday, remembering the martyrdom of Arjan Dev, the fifth Guru and the most notable Sikh martyr. Sikhism is the world's fifth largest religion; it is monotheistic. You can get a rough idea of it if you think of it as a little like Islam and a little like Hinduism; Sikhs themselves tend not to like this way of putting it, but it is nonetheless true that the Sri Guru Granth contains, in addition to many uniquely Sikh compositions, a fair number of songs from the Muslim Sufi and the Hindu Bhakti traditions. The key element of Sikh religion is the Guru. There were ten human Gurus, from Guru Nanak in the late fifteenth century to Guru Gobind Singh in the late seventeenth century. Guru Gobind Singh, however, foreseeing that Sikhs would in future years need a far greater coherence than they had had to that point, instituted a large number of reforms to constitute the Sikhs as a Panth, a community, including imposing the requirement of the five K's (the Sikh uniform), and installing the Sikh holy book, the Adi Granth, as the perpetual Guru of the Sikhs. The Sri Guru Granth, however, is a psalter, a holy song-book, and is not so much read as sung, so in a sense by making the Adi Granth the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the tenth Guru made the Panth itself Guru, and you occasionally find Sikhs talking about Sri Guru Panth. It is important to understand that this is not a second Guru; rather, the point is that, Sri Guru Granth being the perpetual Guru of the Sikhs, the community or Panth itself becomes the Guru insofar as it becomes the voice and thought of the Guru in holy song and prayer.

The deepest roots of Sri Guru Granth are various, but it was Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606) who first began to build a Sikh holy book by collecting and writing a coherent collection of hymns to God. This first consolidation of Sikh prayer and teaching would itself be enough to give the fifth Guru an important place in history; the current Sri Guru Granth, which consists of the core collected by Guru Arjan plus other sacred poetry added by Guru Gobind Singh, is a truly remarkable book. But the fifth Guru also became the first person to be martyred as a Sikh, and this also plays an important role in Sikh life. The Sikhs had to face early on the problem of being a strong religious minority under Muslim rule, and under a Guru like Guru Arjan, who was very popular in his region and who drew quite a few Hindus and Muslims to Sikhism, this became quite a problem. Under the reign of the highly tolerant Emperor Akbar, this mostly played out in terms of social tension. However, after the death of Akbar, who was succeeded by his son Jahangir, things changed. Like his father, Jahangir's official policy was toleration. Jahangir, however, almost immediately had to deal with rebellions, and for reasons that are not wholly clear, Guru Arjan was accused of assisting rebels. In particular, the major rebel leader Khusrau was supposed to have been welcomed hospitably and blessed by the Guru. Guru Arjan was arrested, but Jahangir himself seems to have hoped to obtain Guru Arjan's conversion to Islam (it was a common approach among Muslim rulers to treat troublesome religious leaders fairly generously in the hope of trying to get their conversion and thus dealing with the problem at the source). Jahangir turned over Guru Arjan to the governor, Murtaza Khan. It is unclear what Murtaza Khan's instructions were. It's likely that Jahangir authorized the death penalty, but it's not clear that he demanded it and, again, he may have been hoping to get a conversion instead; likewise, it's possible he authorized torture, but there's no actual evidence that he did. There are other possibilities; the exact historical details are somewhat unclear because we have several different accounts from different sources, any one of which could be true. Whatever the case, Murtaza Khan tortured Guru Arjan by hotseat: the Guru was made to sit on a metal seat underneath which there was a fire that blazed to make the metal grow hotter and hotter. According to Sikh stories, which, allowing for adornment are fairly probable, the Guru, after several sessions of this blistering torture, was granted a respite, and allowed to bathe in the river; he entered the river and never came out, his body never to be recovered. Guru Hargobind Singh took leadership of the Sikh community. Guru Arjan died in May 30, 1606, but the first memorial of his martyrdom was on June 16, 1606, and so it has been ever since.

The death of Guru Arjan Dev is in many ways a reasonable starting point for the process by which the Sikhs became not just a religious movement but a cohesive ethnic identity. The Sikhs were shocked by Guru Arjan's death, and this seems to have led to an increasing tendency by the Sikhs to protect themselves by the sword, which led to their reputation as a fierce and well-organized soldier-community; Guru Gobind Singh would later essentially take this element of Sikh life and channel it more fully into religious devotion, leading to the Sikhs as they exist today.

The following is from the hymns, or banis, of the Sri Guru Granth; it is the beginning portion of what is usually known as the Sukhmani Sahib, beginning on page 262, a linked collection of 192 hymns divided into 24 sections of 8, and one of the most popular Sikh prayers. The Sukhmani Sahib itself is quite long; the full recitation can take a couple of hours. 'Gauri' is the type of tune to which it is sung or chanted. The Shalok is a sort of introductory part to the section. An Ashtapad is one of the eight hymns in each section. This Ashtapad is usually attributed to Guru Arjan Dev himself.

Gauri Sukhmani, Fifth Mehl.

One Universal Creator God. By The Grace Of The True Guru:
I bow to the Primal Guru. I bow to the Guru of Ages.
I bow to the True Guru. I bow to the Great, Divine Guru. ||1||

Meditate, meditate, meditate in remembrance of Him, and find peace.
Worry and anguish shall be dispelled from your body.
Remember in praise the One who pervades the whole Universe.
His Name is chanted by countless people, in so many ways.
The Vedas, the Puraanas and the Simritees, the purest of utterances,
were created from the One Word of the Name of the Lord.
That one, in whose soul the One Lord dwells -
the praises of his glory cannot be recounted.
Those who yearn only for the blessing of Your Darshan -
Nanak: save me along with them! ||1||

You can hear this sung -- at this point it is a bit more chant-like than the full song of some parts -- here.

Left to Muse

A Night-Piece
by William Wordsworth

------The sky is overcast
With a continuous cloud of texture close,
Heavy and wan, all whitened by the Moon,
Which through that veil is indistinctly seen,
A dull, contracted circle, yielding light
So feebly spread, that not a shadow falls,
Chequering the ground--from rock, plant, tree, or tower.
At length a pleasant instantaneous gleam
Startles the pensive traveller while he treads
His lonesome path, with unobserving eye
Bent earthwards; he looks up--the clouds are split
Asunder,--and above his head he sees
The clear Moon, and the glory of the heavens.
There, in a black-blue vault she sails along,
Followed by multitudes of stars, that, small
And sharp, and bright, along the dark abyss
Drive as she drives: how fast they wheel away,
Yet vanish not!--the wind is in the tree,
But they are silent;--still they roll along
Immeasurably distant; and the vault,
Built round by those white clouds, enormous clouds,
Still deepens its unfathomable depth.
At length the Vision closes; and the mind,
Not undisturbed by the delight it feels,
Which slowly settles into peaceful calm,
Is left to muse upon the solemn scene.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Jottings on Logical Tense

Suppose we take a fairly simple argument of more than single step, e.g.,

p) All black cats are ninjas.
q) Whatever is a ninja is well-trained.
r) Therefore all black cats are well-trained.
s) Some black cats are pets who never get out of bed.
t) Therefore some pets who never get out of bed are well-trained.

This is a series of propositions, but they have a logical order. Some propositions are premises for others, while others are conclusions. If we take a proposition as a reference-point, like (r), we find that (p) and (q) are in the premiseward direction, and that (t) is in the conclusionward direction. (s) is, so to speak, simultaneous with (r). On the basis of this we could build up a modal logic to describe the relations among propositions.

Let us use the following to indicate "p is a premise everywhere for r" (I'll get to the reason for using 'everywhere' in a bit):


and let us use the following to indicate "t is a conclusion somewhere for r".


From these we can develop two new descriptions. The following says "t is a conclusion everywhere for r":


And the following says "p is a premise somewere for r"


The reason for the 'everywhere' and 'somewhere' is that there is an asymmetry, not logically necessary but practically sensible, in how we talk casually about premises and conclusions. When we say something is a premise, we usually mean that it is a premise everywhere; once a premise, always a premise, it can be used whenever you please as a premise. When we call something a conclusion, however, we do not usually mean that it is always a conclusion; many conclusions are path-dependent: you can only get them in the conclusionward direction if other things intervene. To say that a proposition is a conclusion everywhere with respect to p requires that it follow immediately from p. In other words. As I said, there is no particular logical reason why we should talk this way; we could just as easily talk in the reverse way. So it makes sense to allow two ways in which a proposition can be premiseward and two ways in which a proposition can be conclusionward.

We can then talk about conditions on arguments in these terms. For instance, this pair tells us there are no contradictory premises for any given proposition x:

Ppx -> ~H~p,x ("If something is a premise anywhere, its contradictory is not a premise everywhere")
Hpx -> ~P~p,x ("If something is a premise everywhere, its contradictory is not a premise anywhere")

And these are the corresponding formulae for cases where there are no contradictory conclusions:

Fpx -> ~G~p,x ("If something is a conclusion anywhere, its contradictory is not a conclusion everywhere")
Gpx -> ~F~p,x ("If something is a conclusion everywhere, its contradictory is not a conclusion anywhere")

Likewise, we can say "if p is an always available conclusion, it is a conclusion available at some point":

Gpx -> Fpx

And we can say that if (p->q) is a premise then, if p is a premise, q is also a premise:

G(p->q),x -> (Gpx -> Gqx)

Nested operators end up being meta-operators. For instance, FFpx says that Fp is a conclusion at some point with respect to x. Thus for most contexts, this will be true:

FFp,x -> Fpx

But this will not:

Fpx -> FFp,x

This is all a tense logic, of course, although it simply indicates direction rather than time (premises are the past, conclusions are the future), but we've picked out a particular proposition to serve as a reference point rather than just assuming a 'now'. Another difference is that this is not a standard tense logic, that is, it is not based on K or Kt modal systems.

We can also quantify if we please, e.g.,

∀x Hpx ("p is an everywhere-available premise for every proposition")
∃x Hpx ("p is an everywhere-available premise for some proposition")
∀x ~Fpx ("p is the conclusion of no proposition")
∃x ~Fpx ("there is a proposition for which p is not a conclusion")

Of course, one would also want to indicate sections of argument, using multiple reference points, so one would ideally have equivalents for Since and Until. And if one added truth-values as modal operators, one could discuss things like validity of arguments.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Henneberger on FoF and Tax Exemption

Melinda Henneberger:

The upcoming “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign to push back against this administration’s contraceptive health care mandate, however, sounds so much like a “Fortnight to Defeat Barack Obama” that I’ve gotten to wondering what our prelates would have to do to cost the church its tax-exempt status. (IRS rules are pretty clear that churches have to give up their exemption if they campaign for or against a political candidate.)

That is not going to happen, and I’m not suggesting it should. But as a thought exercise, what would it take to provoke such a thing?

This is not quite stated correctly. It's simply impossible for "the church" to lose tax-exempt status because (1) the Catholic Church as such is not a single taxable institution, but a very, very large number of affiliated institutions, each of which would have to be looked at individually; and (2) the most the IRS could seriously do is say that the income used for political campaigning is taxable. It's not illegal for churches to campaign for political candidates, by the way; it's just that if they do, their income can be treated as taxable if the IRS so determines. According to IRS rules, churches don't have any special tax exemption per se, since they just fall under educational or cultural institutions, but they do have one peculiarity in comparison with other institutions in this category, which is that churches and similar institutions get their exemption automatically as long as they meet other requirements. Since a lot of other tax-related benefits (affecting the charitable status of donations, audit procedures, etc.) are linked to tax-exempt status, this could be a pretty big matter, but the institution would qualify again the next year as long as they met the requirements for that year.

Moreover, not all activities that are political count: most of the prohibited activities can be avoided by simply framing everything in nonpartisan terms encouraging people of all parties to take an issue seriously, especially if the message of the institution in question is closely connected to things the church says even in non-election years. It doesn't actually matter how politically controversial an issue is: the IRS is quite clear that churches can still speak out on controversial topics in election years, even when they divide the candidates. It's favoritism for candidates and parties that has to be avoided -- whatever the action is, it can't be equivalent to telling people they can't vote for one candidate or must vote for another (whether or not it actually uses those words). Anything short of that is at most grey-area, and probably safe. So the basic point is:

(1) The Catholic Church, as such, has no tax exempt status because it is not for tax purposes a single institution but a very, very large group of affiliated institutions, each of which would have to be considered separately.

(2) The only institutions whose tax-exempt status could possibly be affected are those directly intervening in the problematic activity. That would in this context largely limit the matter to the diocesan level, although here and there it might reach further.

(3) The activity would have to be directly prejudicial to a candidate or party as such, would have to be clearly associated with the person's official work for that institution. Jenky's actions, as given in Henneberger's post, could potentially get Peoria diocese in trouble, because it is effectively equivalent to telling people not to vote for Obama. Dolan's, on the other hand, are much more grey-area. Many of the tweets, press releases, etc., that Henneberger mentions are certainly not even in the vicinity: merely coming down on an issue is not enough.

(4) While it would be a pretty serious matter for the institution for this fiscal year, it wouldn't be a serious long-term problem; institutions of this sort can't be permanently stripped of the status -- tax-exempt status is handled year-by-year.

Of course, Henneberger is right that this is unlikely to happen, for two reasons: (1) even very small, low-publicity cases where the IRS decides that a church fails to meet the tax exemption requirement are immensely difficult matters for the IRS -- it is highly unpopular, it is always bad press, and it can drag on and on because there are always people who will go to the wall to fight it; and (2) if the IRS tried to press the matter in this context, it would reflect very badly on the White House. Very politically sensitive territory. Actually doing it would just strengthen the arguments and worry more people.

My own view is that the campaigning restriction should be removed completely for all 501c3 institutions -- it is a technically-acceptable qualification that is at heart entirely out of step with the spirit of the American way of life. But this is unlikely -- the restriction actually has considerable bipartisan support, and whenever Congress has considered the matter it has always ended up strengthening the restriction. The reason's not hard to find: it's very convenient for both major parties to muzzle major cultural institutions in the context of election campaigns. That very fact should make us worry about it. But it would take an immense push to change it, and that's unlikely to happen.

Indispensable Requirements of Logic

It may seem strange that I should put forward three sentiments, namely, interest in an indefinite community, recognition of the possibility of this interest being made supreme, and hope in the unlimited continuance of intellectual activity, as indispensable requirements of logic. Yet, when we consider that logic depends on a mere struggle to escape doubt, which, as it terminates in action, must begin in emotion, and that, furthermore, the only cause of our planting ourselves on reason is that other methods of escaping doubt fail on account of the social impulse, why should we wonder to find social sentiment presupposed in reasoning? As for the other two sentiments which I find necessary, they are so only as supports and accessories of that. It interests me to notice that these three sentiments seem to be pretty much the same as that famous trio of Charity, Faith, and Hope, which, in the estimation of St. Paul, are the finest and greatest of spiritual gifts. Neither Old nor New Testament is a textbook of the logic of science, but the latter is certainly the highest existing authority in regard to the dispositions of heart which a man ought to have.

Charles S. Peirce, "On the Doctrine of Chances, with Later Reflections." Part of the point here is that logic requires treating reasoning as having a sort of universal character, going beyond any particularities of any individual point of view; this universality the self-absorbed cannot grasp. The community of the rational is an unlimited community, and its interest is the interest of the long-run and includes all possible reasoners. To be genuinely logical you must reason with this community, in imitation of the kind of person who could devote a life to this kind of community.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Trees are Loud

The Rainy Summer
by Alice Meynell

There’s much afoot in heaven and earth this year;
The winds hunt up the sun, hunt up the moon,
Trouble the dubious dawn, hasten the drear
Height of a threatening noon.

No breath of boughs, no breath of leaves, of fronds,
May linger or grow warm; the trees are loud;
The forest, rooted, tosses in her bonds,
And strains against the cloud.

No scents may pause within the garden-fold;
The rifled flowers are cold as ocean-shells;
Bees, humming in the storm, carry their cold
Wild honey to cold cells.

I wish it were a rainy summer around here. It's looking much less bad than last year, but it still seems to be shaping up to a terribly dry summer. We might get some rain this week, though.

Beattie on Truth IV: Inquiry

Beattie is arguing for the following basic conclusion in his Essay on Truth:

In a word, the dictates of common sense are, in respect to human knowledge in general, what the axioms of geometry are in respect to mathematics: on the supposition that those axioms are false or dubious, all mathematical reasoning falls to the ground; and on the supposition that the dictates of common sense are erroneous and deceitful, all science, truth, and virtue, are vain. (p. 122)

To the end of Part I he has argued mostly for the first part, that the dictates of common sense provide the first principles for human knowledge. Part II will be mostly concerned with the second: that a proper view of common sense, and the first principles it provides, is absolutely essential for "science, truth, and virtue" and that serious consideration of common sense itself shows where the skeptics go wrong. Again, it is always worth keeping in mind that Beattie's aims throughout the Essay are pro-science and pro-ethics: he opposes skeptics like Hume because he thinks they are a disaster on both points.

In Part I he argued generally that each field of inquiry had its own first principles, recognized by common sense. He begins Part II by arguing that when we look at the work of actual mathematicians and scientists, we find that they too recognize in some way the distinction between common sense and reason, giving the priority to common sense, and that this in fact structures their investigations; and that skepticism would lead to the destruction of all such healthy inquiry. For instance, geometry was able to advance by taking certain things as axiomatic and obvious. At this point he engages in an elaborate parody of Hume, pulling sentences from several different parts of Hume's Treatise, in which he has the skeptic argue that anything obvious is just prejudice, that philosophers must always be doubting, even about their doubts, that practice is irrelevant to the question, that believing anything with certainty is foolish, that he is certain that human beings are not certain of anything. (This provides the occasion for one of Beattie's incomparable insults of Hume. In a footnote he concedes that it is not entirely fair to build a parody using sentences from such widely dispersed passages, and says that he would gladly attribute Hume's expressions to inadvertence. But, he says, "then I must impute the whole system to the same cause" (p. 146). The point is that the skeptic is out to guarantee that the actual operation of mathematical inquiry, in which one traces things back to things that seem obvious and build on them, never gets started, by taking out anything that's obvious. And while not every science has the certainty of mathematics, it is unreasonable in any science to reject out of hand whatever is obvious, or to treat obviousness as a mere prejudice. We inquire by taking as certain those things that seem intrinsically obvious and whose apparent obviousness cannot be affected by reasoning.

As with mathematics, so with natural philosophy, i.e., the natural sciences, which draw on two sources, the evident principles of mathematics and the evident principles of sense. All natural philosophy traces itself back either to the evidence of mathematical principles or to the evidence of sensation; at some fundamental level these must be trusted or we cannot say that natural philosophy in its investigations is really uncovering anything at all. This is true, even given the fact that we recognize our senses to be sometimes misleading; for most of these cases boil down either to jumping to conclusions in our interpretation of sense, which can be discovered by closer analysis, or to effects of particular conditions, which are discovered by sense. The last is rather important, since optical illusions and the like are regularly brought forward as reasons why we can't trust our senses. But how do we know that they are illusions at all? Because we judge our senses under tricky conditions by the standard of our senses under more certain conditions, and because we trust our senses at a more basic level. This is the way inquiry works. In inquiry there will always be tricky cases, unusual circumstances, etc., but we get through these by trusting more fundamental issues. We recognize downstream sensory illusions as illusions by trusting our senses to give us information upstream from those illusions, by having the confidence that the sensory context in which they are recognized to be illusions is itself trustworthy. What we are often really pointing to is simply the fact that our senses don't cover everything with equal certainty; we are showing that our senses aren't complete and perfect, not that they are fundamentally deceptive, or that they cannot be trusted. And it is important to note that Beattie includes internal senses as well as external senses. There may be situations where introspection can be fooled, but it's only possible to recognize this by trusting some kinds of introspection as certain and obvious (just as one very obvious example, our introspection-based certainty that we are capable of introspection). Likewise, there may be situations where our sense of beauty or moral sense has difficulty finding purchase, but this does not show that there are no circumstances in which they provide full certainty. The thing of it is, too, that in all these fields, taking some things as obvious and certain is not detrimental to the inquiry in any way: you can still investigate whatever you please. It's just that you can't get anywhere in an investigation without taking some things as obvious, so no matter what kind of investigation you may have, it will presuppose some evident first principles somewhere.

One of the things Beattie is angling at in all of this is that if this is true of mathematics and natural philosophy, it will also be true in the philosophy of human nature and the moral sciences: if you want progress on the subject of human nature, you can't go about it in the way Hume does, by taking a skeptical approach, but must take some things as evident first principles, so that those principles can serve as the template for your inquiries and investigations, and so that the certainty of those first principles can be communicated, so to speak, to your conclusions, to make your conclusions knowledge. All inquiry, of whatever kind, is grounded, guided, and evaluated by the standard of common sense. If it turns out that you have some doubt about whether something really is a dictate of common sense, you test it out by (1) thinking it through very carefully and determining whether it seems certain, in such a way that you are naturally forced to trust it; (2) investigating whether it is consistent under different conditions; (3) acting on it to see whether you get good results; (4)
determining whether it is consistent with other dictates of common sense; and (5) seeing whether others seem determined by their nature to accept it. If it meets all these criteria, it is the product of a well-informed sense, and can be taken as such; and, while such dictates can be divided into different kinds of certainty (mathematical, moral, sufficient for most practical purposes) according to the universality of their scope and their force as principles, there's a sense in which evident is evident and certain is certain. That you can't get mathematical certainty from the senses doesn't mean that the senses aren't able to give you anything evidently and obviously true.

Skepticism, of course, is opposed to this whole approach. I will not here go into Beattie's account of the history of modern skepticism; it's a pretty standard kind of history, starting with Descartes and ending with Hume, and he is largely drawing it from Reid. There are some interesting aspects to it, though, such as his comparison of modern skeptics to ancient sophists; one notable feature of which is that he gives the preference to Xenophon's account of Socrates rather than Plato's. After giving this historical run-down he looks at two philosophical topics in particular: skeptical arguments that matter does not exist, which he uses to exhibit the skeptical approach to the external senses, and skeptical arguments that there is no free will, which he uses to exhibit the skeptical approach to the internal senses. In truth, we believe that there is an external world independent of us, regardless of the arguments of Berkeley or anyone else; and why? Because it is a dictate of common sense. A similar course of reasoning arises when discussing free will, although the latter discussion is more interesting in part because Beattie makes two interesting detours (which, however, ultimately contribute to his argument), one to argue that Hume's account of causation is arbitrary and inconsistent with common sense, and another brief one to argue that free will is found implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, in a wide variety of contexts, such as in the works of Homer and Virgil. Beattie's arguments are rather long, but we can simply summarize them here as saying that they are applications of the kinds of arguments we have already seen.

In none of this is he entirely fair to some of the people involved -- Malebranche and Berkeley in particular have more sophisticated and less absurd views than are attributed to them. However, in none of this is Beattie being malicious, either, since he is simply building on standard interpretations of the figures involved. (Indeed, the interpretation of Berkeley, although not quite fair to Berkeley, is still the standard interpretation.) And, it must be pointed out, that Beattie is chiefly concerned with influence: whatever they may have meant (he complains regularly about how skeptics never say something clearly if they can say it obscurely), they are still being used to argue for these skeptical positions that are destruction of "science, truth, and virtue."

And this, of course, is what concerns Beattie here. Beattie acknowledges that his argument is quite roundabout, but he wants to drive home the fact that skeptics like Hume are not benign investigators but advocating arbitrary principles that are destructive of all serious investigation. He then goes on in Part III to wrap up some miscellaneous issues, like freedom of inquiry and the nature of metaphysics. We won't discuss most of these, but one of this miscellaneous issues, arising from his discussion of the degeneration of the moral sciences, is famous in its own right, namely, Beattie's defense of egalitarianism and attack on Hume's racism. So we'll look at that in the next post.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Links and Notes

* An interesting rabbinical sicha on the service of Aaron

* New Books in Philosophy podcast

* The Danes have passed a law on same-sex marriage; the Telegraph claims it is requiring all churches to perform same-sex marriages, but from what I've seen this is actually just applicable to the Church of Denmark. This is not as big a matter as some people are making. To put it in other words, the government agency that goes by the name 'Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark' or 'The Danish People's Church' is now being required to perform same-sex marriages; although individual officials in that government agency can refuse as a matter of conscience, their supervisors, called 'bishops', have to find a replacement. Quite sensible, in some ways; the Danes were obviously heading this way, anyway, and legalizing same-sex marriage doesn't make sense if you don't require the government's primary marriage agency to comply (Danes are only somewhat more religious than other Scandinavians, in terms of regular church-going -- I've seen the number at about 5% -- but even very un-religious Danes tend to marry and bury using church services -- I think that number is well over 70%). And they've even taken the trouble to guarantee conscience protections under the law, which is both more than anyone usually gets in Europe in these matters and rather generous given that they could almost certainly have rammed it through without the concession (although it would have been a high-attrition political battle, since the opposition, while undeniably outnumbered, was still sizeable). It's not really as surprising as Brits and Americans commenting on it have made it sound.

* How to Fake Your Way Through Hegel

* David Congdon has an excellent series on functional subordination and the Trinity at "The Fire and the Rose".

* D. G. Myers on satire. The linking of satire to reductio seems right, and explains why, for instance, Boethius chose the satire conventions of his day when writing the Consolation of Philosophy.

* Megan Garber on the historical connection between the drive-in theater and the megachurch.

* The newest Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress is the Natasha Trethewey. Like pretty much all 'U.S. Poet Laureates', Trethewey is in the Prose School of poetry; you can usually take her poems and just write them as paragraphs that meditate or reflect on something or other. But it is genuinely good work, and certainly much better work than much of the work of some of the U.S. Poet Laureates of recent years -- probably the best since Billie Collins. The test of quality in the Prose School, of course, is to put the poem in paragraph form and determine whether the paragraph is very well written or else sounds like something out of a very bad, very scribbled, bit of fan fiction or a disaster of a self-published romance novel. Threthewey's paragraphs in general read beautifully, in part because she avoids bombast and maintains a reflective attitude. And she usually avoids the insidious danger of the Prose School: with the Prose School, you are generally writing short paragraphs in some kind of pseudo-verse form, and trying to capture some kind of mood. The problem is that the kinds of moods that you can adequately capture in paragraphs with no context make up a very limited selection. Of these, nostalgia and regret are the easiest, and so whenever one reads poetry of this kind you always end up drowning in a mind-numbing succession of episodes of nostalgia and regret, with occasional weak jokes, until one is completely bored. Trethewey usually avoids this, by hinting at a story, and letting the story do the work; even merely hinted-at stories, or rather, merely hinted-at stories especially, allow for more varied moods than plain descriptions. (Trethewey and Collins aren't in other ways much alike at all, but that was also a strength of Collins, and why a wider variety of people found his poems interesting than usually makes up the audience for this kind of poetry.)

Denham's Dentifrice

Tim Kreider on Ray Bradbury:

I think of Ray Bradbury’s work often these days. I remember “The Murderer” whenever I ask for directions or make a joke to someone who can’t hear me because of her ear buds, when I see two friends standing back-to-back in a crowd yelling “Where are you?” into their phones, or I’m forced to eavesdrop on somebody prattling on Bluetooth in that sanctum sanctorum, the library. I think of “Fahrenheit 451” every time I see a TV screen in an elevator or a taxi or a gas pump or over a urinal. When the entire hellish engine of the media seemed geared toward the concerted goal of forcing me to know, against my will, about a product called “Lady Gaga,” I thought: Denham’s Dentifrice.

It is thanks to Ray Bradbury that I understand this world I grew into for what it is: a dystopian future. And it is thanks to him that we know how to conduct ourselves in such a world: arm yourself with books. Assassinate your television. Go for walks, and talk with your neighbors. Cherish beauty; defend it with your life. Become a Martian.

Book a Week, June 10

Reading a review or something like a review about the recent movie Prometheus, I came across the name of the ship, which is Nostromo, and it sounded very familiar. And indeed it was familiar; it is the name of a book by Joseph Conrad. I have a nice Heritage Press edition (New York era) sitting on my shelf that I've never had the chance to crack open, so meet the next book of the week.

Joseph Conrad was, of course, Polish; he was born with the name Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. English was not his first language -- in fact, it wasn't even his second language, since he spoke French fluently and with a decent French accent by the time he was sixteen, but didn't speak English fluently until well into his twenties, and never managed to get the accent quite right. He left Poland at sixteen and went to England, but very soon signed up for the merchant navy and sailed all over the world. This would end up being important to his career as a novelist; most of Conrad's works are based on episodes in his very eventful life. He eventually had to give up the sea due to health problems, at which point he settled down in England and devoted himself to writing.

Nostromo, subtitled 'A Tale of the Seaboard', was written during a very difficult period of Conrad's life. He was deep in debt with an uncertain income, his wife became crippled, and he seems to have suffered from depression. He desperately needed the book to be written and sent off to the publisher, but it grew and grew -- telling the story he intended kept requiring a little more and a little more until the book was more than twice the length he originally had expected it to be.

According to the Author's Note, the basic idea for the story was first seeded when he was in the Gulf of Mexico and heard about a major theft of silver. He forgot it about it, until many years later he was reading a "shabby volume picked up outside a second-hand-book shop" and came across what seemed to be the same story; the writer of the book had actually been on the ship of the man who stole the silver. Out of this rose the fictional Latin American country of Costaguana, with its province of Sulaco, set against a background of mounts that looked down on "the passions of men short-sighted in good and evil." There is actually some dispute about whether this account of the origin of the story is true; some have argued that it may well be part of the fiction.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Music on My Mind

Tallari, "O Kriste, Kunnian Kuningas". The title means, "O Christ, King of Glory."

Body and Blood

The feast of Corpus Christi, celebrated today on the Ordinary Calendar in the U.S., was established in 1264. The major holy day associated with the Eucharist is Thursday in Holy Week, the day of the Last Supper, but there's a lot that goes in Holy Week, of course, and on Holy Thursday itself, and so this feast was established so that there would be a holy day devoted entirely to the Eucharist. The Pope at the time Urban IV, is said to have asked Thomas Aquinas to write the Mass, and this is very likely the case. It is entirely for this reason that we have several hymns written by Aquinas. Most people wouldn't not have associated poetry with the scholastic saint, but there's general agreement that the hymns for the Corpus Christi mass are extraordinarily good, and they have become some of the most popular Catholic hymns. The hymns in question are "Pange lingua gloriosi," the last part of which, the "Tantum Ergo," is sometimes also used as a stand-alone hymn; "Verbum supernum prodiens," the last part of which is also sometimes used as a stand-alone hymn, "O Salutaris Hostia"; "Sacris solemniis"; and "Lauda Sion Salvatorem". Of these, the "Pange lingua" is most famous; only in the separate "Adoro te devote" does he surpass its quality.

The translation (my own and very rough):

Sing, my tongue, of the glorious
mystery of the Body
and of the precious Blood,
in which the price of the world,
the fruit of generous womb,
the King of Nations, flowed forth.

For us given, for us born
from the untouched Virgin,
He dwelt in the world
after the seed of the Word was sown;
his enclosure ended the wait
with marvelous order.

On the night of the Last Supper,
reclining with His brothers,
having fully observed the Law
with the lawful meal,
He as food to the crowd of the Twelve
gave Himself with His own hands.

Word made flesh the true bread
into flesh makes by His word
and wine becomes the Blood of Christ.
Even if the senses fail,
to establish sincere heart
faith alone suffices.

Such sacrament we therefore
reverence, bowing down,
and the ancient covenant
gives way to a new rite:
Faith stands as a supplement
to the failure of the senses.

To Begetter and Begotten
praise and jubilation be,
strength and honor, might as well,
and also blessing be;
and to the one who proceeds from both
equally be the praise.

The following is a somewhat pop-ish version of "Pange lingua", albeit famous in its own right, by the Spanish group Mocedades. It has the first three stanzas and part of the last stanza. The first guy accidentally slides off into the wrong lines, but they recover, as professionals do; the crowd, if they noticed any difference in the Latin at all, probably thought they were just doing a variation.

You can hear Mocedades' original version here.