Saturday, September 08, 2012

Timeless Woman with Something to Teach

Today is the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. To mark the day, here's Kareem Salama's "Lady Mary":

The song is interesting in part because Salama is Muslim. Due to certain ahadith (stories from oral tradition about the Prophet Mohammad) and to the mentions of her in the Qur'an, Muslims have a very high regard for the Virgin Mary -- Muslim tradition about her is very similar to Catholic and Orthodox tradition. One very notable difference, however, is that the Qur'an does not mention Joseph, nor does any respected hadith. Because of this, it is a very common Muslim view that Mary lived her entire life without marrying. This view is not completely universal, and there are Muslims who accept the Christian tradition that there was a Joseph, but even then almost none of them believe that Joseph was actually husband to Mary (it's far more common to regard him as an older cousin who took care of her), and he has no real importance -- after all, if God did not see fit to reveal to the Prophet, how could he be important for understanding anything about Mary or Jesus or submission to God? So Mary is often thought of as an unwed mother, bearing all the burdens and opprobrium that an unwed mother might, but bearing it nonetheless out of submission to, and love for, God, making her an example for all Muslims. And this comes out indirectly in the song here.

Hermann Cohen

The problem of philosophy arises as soon as one begins to think of a relation to the world. Religion is not philosophy. However, the religion of reason, by virtue of its share in reason, has at least some kinship with philosophy. It is therefore not surprising that this share in reason, akin to that of philosophy, begins to stir within religion, starting, it would seem, with its concept of God.

Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, Simon Kaplan, tr. Scholars Press (Atlanta, GA: 1995) p. 36. I am only just now getting the chance to read through Cohen's classic of Jewish philosophy from cover to cover; very interesting so far. Cohen, despite not being read much in the English-speaking world today, was a major German Neo-Kantian, one of the most important philosophers in the world in the lead-up to World War I, and certainly the most important Jewish philosopher between Mendelssohn and our day. Religion of Reason presents a Kantian interpretation of Judaism, in which Judaism provides a relatively pure vocabulary for talking about ethical monotheism and its implications. One of Cohen's most important arguments is that ethical monotheism requires a form of messianism, in terms of postulating the possibility of a Messianic Age, a future ethical community of humanity united by a moral ideal.

Poem a Day VIII


No promise are we given
of a gentler time to come;
already in the highlands
can be heard the beating drum.
It calls to war and heartache,
and it calls to beating heart
to rise up, sword uncovered,
to defend the better part.
The smoke on the horizon
with malice darkly grows:
the flames of homes on fire
and of townships that we know
trampled by marauders,
the youths and maidens slain,
the massing of an enemy
across an endless plain.
The world is set against us
but we must rise to the fight
with no hope of any winning
to save our claim and right,
and I must journey with them
to march this path of gloom,
our children with our swords
to save from coming doom.
So may I save another
if myself I cannot save!
And when I die with honor,
lay a rose upon my grave.

Friday, September 07, 2012


I have been following with some interest the recent Jonah Lehrer events. Lehrer, a bright young man who was doing much too much, much too fast, for much too long, originally got into trouble blogging at The New Yorker when it was discovered that material from his posts there was recycled fairly directly from previously material he had previously published, leading him to resign; further inquiry unveiled that this was quite common throughout Lehrer's oeuvre, leading publishers to pull his most recent book and begin investigating others; and more recently had a full-scale inquiry about Lehrer's work with them, concluding that he had engaged in multiple accounts of journalistic misconduct, including recycling, plagiarism, and repeated sloppiness with quotation, ending with firing him. The investigator recently published a summary of the results of his investigation, which is one of the more interesting pieces in the saga to read, since unlike most of the hue and cry it's published by someone who at least has some idea why plagiarism and recycling are problems in a journalistic context.

Plagiarism was not on the stone tablets at Sinai, and it is not a sufficiently well-defined offense to be anything intrinsically wrong. Indeed, contrary to the way it is often presented, there is nothing morally wrong with plagiarism as such; rather, it's a social role violation. It gets its moral wrongness because in a particular context it is a failure to fulfill our responsibilities to others. The 'in a particular context' qualification is quite important: if you look at issues of plagiarism across a wide variety of fields, it becomes clear that the standards are not stable, and that things that would be counted as plagiarism in one field are often not in another, and for good reason. Plagiarism becomes an issue when money or reputation are on the line. Nobody cares if lawyers, hired to write a contract, recycle parts of old contracts, whether their own or another's, because people don't pay lawyers for writing new kinds of contracts, even when a contract does happen to be of a new kind, but for writing contracts that do what they're supposed to do; and legal reputations are built not on finding new contract language, even when lawyers do, but on finding contract language that works in a given situation. Likewise, oral storytelling and much folksinging is an area in which using other people's material is not a big thing: it's the performance that matters. (Contrast that with stand-up comedy, in which distinguishable material is extremely important, and in which using someone else's material is regarded as a very bad thing.) In academia, on the other hand, reputation depends on having a body of work distinguishable from anyone else's, and there is a great deal of pressure on reputation as a way of sorting out who gets the nicer things -- academia is a reputation market, and the reputations are built on standing out from other people in one's contributions. Contrary to the way this is often presented, this does not mean that academia puts a premium on originality in any robust sense; but it does mean that academia puts a premium on doing something distinguishable. Plagiarism is a threat to this, and whether you view academic life as a pursuit of truth or as a political interaction, the result is the same: if it were to spread, it would make this particular kind of pursuit or interaction impossible. (There is variation, of course, across the disciplines: witness the differences between the sciences and the humanities on authorship of papers. In the sciences, everyone who makes a notable contribution to the substance of the paper is usually listed as an author; but in the humanities, most of these people would usually be given credit in a footnote, at best, and even that involves judgment calls about just how important they were in the development of the paper. This, as with everything else, is due to differences in how reputations are built up in the different fields.)

Journalists, on the other hand, are required always to be doing something new; it's what they're paid for. The New Yorker, no doubt, was shocked that it was paying Lehrer not to write new and distinctive material that would be exclusive to The New Yorker but to say again what he had already said in several other places. Popular young authors being paid well to write new things is a good deal for a periodic publication; popular young authors being paid well to repeat themselves, not so much. Newspapers, magazines, and other outlets are themselves competing in a reputation market; they need to stand out as a constant source of accurate new information, and this is as much true on the opinion side as on the reporting side. Journalists working for them are hired precisely in order to contribute to this, and they are certainly not doing this if they are recycling old material and plagiarizing other people, actions that could reflect very badly on the reputation of the people they work for (and with). This is, incidentally, one reason why the author of the article is right about one journalistic gray area, repeating press release material. As Seife notes, when journalists simply repeat material in a press release, they aren't harming the people they are copying at all (quite the opposite); but they are still violating the same professional responsibilities to other people in the profession of journalism, in exactly the same way they are when they engage in any other plagiarism. The same social role expectations are violated, and for the same reason. As with academia, robust originality is not really what journalists are after here: it's distinguishability. The conventions are radically different. An academic who sourced things the way journalists source things would soon be in hot water, since by most academic publishing standards sourcing in journalistic publishing even at its best is extremely haphazard and defective, while there are probably things many academics will happily do that would horrify a journalist; but this is precisely because the two professions face different reputational issues, and therefore what counts as bad copying is not going to be the same.

Poem a Day VII

Le Petit Potager

A row of pots upon the sill:
a little thyme, a touch of dill,
a peppermint, Saint Joseph's wort
or basil, if our names are short,
and anthos fair, called rosmarine,
like misty sea with dewy sheen,
which grows wherever lady rules,
and marjoram both dry and cool
with country kin, oregano,
and sage, and savory, here will grow;
all Lamiaceae, each in place,
with whorls of five like all their race,
or lemon beebrush spiking high
and other cousins growing nigh --
all souvenirs from paradise,
an Eden rich beyond all price.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Poem a Day VI

I Will Not Fall in Love Today

Bright-eyed angel, pure of heart,
Somehow Cupid's burning dart
has missed me; though it's sad to say,
I will not fall in love today.

Precious girl with skin of cream
and eyes like something out of dream,
it will not work; though you may stay,
I will not fall in love today.

Fish are leaping in the stream,
sun pours on the lake a gleam
that tells me I should stop and play;
I will not fall in love today.

Green are trees with happy leaf,
flowers cast aside all grief,
the rainbows burst from morning rays;
I will not fall in love today.

The world is turning with a whirl,
and though you are a pretty girl
with smile to take one's breath away,
I will not fall in love today.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Plato and Context

For my Intro philosophy class this term, I've been somewhat reorganizing the way we approach the Gorgias (which we start out with), so as to try to emphasize the importance of context. Reading out of context is a common problem, but I think Plato especially suffers from a failure of people to read him with sufficient regard to context. No argument in any Platonic dialogue is freestanding, for instance; every single one is addressed to a person or group of people, and this sometimes affects how we should take them. In the Gorgias, for instance, people often say that Socrates has not actually caught Gorgias in the contradiction he claims to have caught him, but if you look closely at all their middle positions, it quickly becomes clear that none of them are things Gorgias himself (who does not have citizenship rights in Athens, and is trying to sell his services as a teacher of rhetoric, the art of persuading people to do what you want them to do) can say. This is actually important for the structure of the dialogue: most of the dialogue is Socrates talking with people who are not Gorgias -- people who are either willing or capable of committing themselves to things to which Gorgias himself is too clever or too cautious to commit himself. Sometimes the context is not a who but a goal. For instance, some people make a great deal about Socrates in the Republic banishing poets from the City, but this overlooks the fact that Socrates actually makes an exception for two kinds of poetry (eulogies of virtuous people and hymns to the gods, neither of which, incidentally, are rare kinds of poetry), and that the City itself is being proposed as a solution to a very specific problem: what kind of society can you have in which people are allowed to pursue luxuries but justice is impossible, or at least as impossible as you can make it? And given the importance of poetry to Greek education, the banishing of the poets is really a banishing of educators whose educational discourses could conflict with the need of such a City for education always to teach that justice is always and above all other things necessary and valuable. To make justice impossible, you must make injustice seem utterly foreign and repulsive, and you can't do that if people are also taught that injustice is sometimes acceptable or admirable. It's not about poetry as such but about education, and to the extent it is about poetry it is not about some inconsistency between poetry and philosophy, or between poetry and justice, but about the fact that not all kinds of poetry are equally good at contributing to the life of wisdom and justice. (The connection between the way one teaches and injustice is a big issue in the Gorgias, as well.) Likewise, I think Socrates' interest in definitions is exaggerated; he actually shows little sign of caring about definitions as such. Perhaps this is not so surprising given that he rejects virtually every definition that anyone proposes to him, and the fact that Xenophon has Socrates tell Hippias that he declares what justice is by doing it, not by talking about it. Talking about definitions is a means to an end, and Socrates is often quite clear that the real lesson to be taken away is not what the definition of (say) justice is, but what you should do upon realizing that your definition of justice doesn't do it justice.

I don't talk about all of this; but I do try to emphasize the importance of context. When you find an argument in one of the Socratic dialogues, you should always ask, "Why is Socrates making this argument to this person?" and "Why is Socrates raising this argument at this point in the discussion?" Sometimes it's not very easy to tell, and sometimes the real key lies in some other question entirely, but sometimes figuring out the answers to these questions illuminates the meaning of whole sections of the dialogue.

Weights and Measures Do Us Both a Wrong

I loved you first: but afterwards your love
by Christina Rossetti

Poca favilla gran fiamma seconda. – Dante
Ogni altra cosa, ogni pensier va fore,
E sol ivi con voi rimansi amore. – Petrarca

I loved you first: but afterwards your love
Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song
As drowned the friendly cooings of my dove.
Which owes the other most? my love was long,
And yours one moment seemed to wax more strong;
I loved and guessed at you, you construed me
And loved me for what might or might not be –
Nay, weights and measures do us both a wrong.
For verily love knows not ‘mine’ or ‘thine;’
With separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’ free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:
Rich love knows nought of ‘thine that is not mine;’
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one.

Poem a Day V

Winter, Please God, Winter

The heat, best friend to sleep, is on my head,
and down and down my eyelids fall like lead,
and who shall say
that bright-crowned day
is not a better time than night to be abed?

Let the breezes try to cool me. They shall fail
to 'bate the Texas heat; for damned souls wail
when Texas air
increases care
by chasing out the cooler winds of hell.

Facetious souls may think me like them here.
I will not know until my thinking clears
from heatful winds
that, hateful, send
these curses, flames that boil, broil, roast, and sear.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

New Commenting System

They don't make them like they used to. This blog is old enough for me to remember the fine days of Haloscan. Haloscan, for those who don't remember, or who are too young in blogging terms to know, was once the third-party commenting system for bloggers. When I started Blogger's commenting system was really extraordinarily meh (it still is, in many ways, although there have been minor improvements). Haloscan was what most people used, because it was far more flexible than anything Blogger had, it was easy to use, and it worked very well. The system did on occasion go completely down, although that became more rare as time went on. But it offered trackbacks! Do you remember trackbacks? They were an easy way to let people know you had posted in response to their post. They were the coolest thing. Technically they are still around, I suppose; at least, most modern commenting systems have a checkbox option to allow trackbacks (see below, for instance), but the last time I actually had a genuine trackback must have been years ago. In any case, Haloscan, despite its occasional blackouts, was beautiful, functional, simple. It did exactly what you wanted a commenting system to do, and while it didn't do it with many frills, the very few and very limited frills it did have were of exactly the right kind: they made commenting, or moderation, easier.

Alas, all good things come to an end. Haloscan was bought out by JS-Kit, which rebranded itself as Echo. We were all 'upgraded' to Echo. It wasn't actually much of an upgrade; I distinctly remembering that it was step down in simple, usable moderation functions. Echo was a 'fast comment system'; the neat idea behind it was that it worked well with social media -- Twitter and Facebook, in particular. That certainly was an advance, or, at least, it was an advance to the extent they managed to make it usable. But it was buggy. The threading on the comments also showed itself to be utterly baffling for long comment discussions; there is such a thing as comments that are too 'fast'. And looking back, I see clearly that the whole idea of Echo was based on the idea that comments are for a moment, passing pleasantries, and not, as they had been under Haloscan, real discussions. The other major competitor on this front was Disqus, but it offered no obvious improvement on the time, and took absurdly long to load (and still does), so it seemed that Echo would do. Haloscan was gone forever; Blogger was still meh, despite minor improvements; we were stuck with commenting systems that had a lot of bells and whistles but not so many functioning gears, and Echo would do. Unfortunately, the lovely people at Echo had no intention of providing a good commenting system; the commenting system became steadily harder to use, the bells and whistles began to be unreliable at best, the support was never very good and became worse and worse over time, the synching with Blogger comments became more and more egregiously awful, and then, just over six months ago, Echo announced that it was transitioning to a more social-media focused approach and getting out of the commenting business forever. Honestly, if they haven't fired all the people who were handling the commenting system, I don't expect the company to survive more than a year or two more. Their "real-time platform that enables the rapid implementation and scale of applications for social TV, social music, social news, social sports and social commerce" (honestly, are they trying to communicate the idea that they are all buzzword and no substance?) was, however, apparently more in line with what they were trying to do in the first place. They were really not very good at the commenting platform business. I remember when Google did its domain splitting across different countries, and I contacted them about what to do with domains, since the commenting platform only provided very limited functionality for all other countries, and the answer that they gave showed that they had no clue what I was talking about. That was Echo.

In any case, this is a long-winded way to say that I have changed the commenting system. I'm trying Disqus out; it still is ridiculously slow to load, so when you click the comments link you'll have to wait a few seconds, but by all accounts it has better support and is supposed to be easier to log into, and the functionality seems a bit more straightforward. We'll see how it goes. And we'll see how long it takes for them to ruin the whole thing; I can already see the writing on the wall with their newer version, which "upgrades your communities, with enhanced realtime, deeper community features, and more!". I don't want deeper community features; I want a commenting system that's flexible to use but actually works, and keeps working. (That was another nice thing about Haloscan; it stayed consistently useful for years and years.) There will be a transition period during which I'll be importing comments from Echo; we'll see how that goes. Even if it doesn't go well, I can import from Blogger comments, although Echo messed that up pretty badly, since practically every comment for the past two months posted by anyone at all was sent by Echo to Blogger under my name, so that if I have to go that way, I'll look like I've been having endless conversations with myself, answering my own questions, heatedly responding to my own objections. But we can work with that; it will just take a bit of patience. It could take as much as a day, though; so sorry if your comments go missing in the meantime, and given the vagaries of Echo, it's probably the case that some will go missing entirely.

Schemes of Rational Persuasion

We tend to think and talk about persuasion in several different ways, what might be called schemes of rational persuasion. They are distinct, although they are often in practice jumbled together. Arguably all forms of persuasion could be talked about directly or indirectly in terms of each scheme, but some things are easier to talk about in one scheme than another, and you do find people panning an entire scheme as defective (although this often doesn't prevent them from implicitly appealing to it elsewhere). I'm not sure how many different schemes there are, or even in every case the best way to individuate them, but here are my suggestions for some obvious candidates.

(1) Evidential Weight

Often we think of rational persuasion in terms of fair assessment of evidence, so that the person who is rationally persuaded has been led to a conclusion by proper weighing of evidence. The implicit assumptions of this scheme seem to be that there are things identifiable as evidence, that these evidences are commensurable, that there is a form of assessment that can handle these evidences in a non-misleading way, and that in the long run evidence converges on truth.

(2) Consequential Tendency

An alternative scheme of rational persuasion takes a person to be rationally persuaded if things they come to accept have certain markers indicating that they will have, or are likely to have, or are of the right sort to have, good consequences. Probably the most generally respectable version of this scheme talks in terms of the promise or fruitfulness of this or that view (does it further inquiry by making other truths easier to find, does it give testable predictions, is it replicable), but there are quite a few different versions. It is important to recognize that this is a completely different scheme from evidential assessment; for all evidential assessment as such implies, the evidence could lead us to completely fruitless dead ends beyond which inquiry cannot go at all -- nothing more to test, nothing more to do -- and for all consequential assessment as such implies, following the most promising consequential lines might take you in a very different direction from the evidence. The implicit assumptions of this scheme seem to be that the relevant possible consequences are identifiable with some reliability, that these possible lines of consequence are commensurable in a way that can be assessed, and that in the long run the most promising positions will be found to be true.

(3) Participation in Rational Community

An alternative way people think about rational persuasion is in terms of what places you in a rational community of inquirers, whether actual or idealized, or allows you to continue participating in such a community. In this way of talking there are things rational people do, and things rational people do not do, and whether you are being reasonable in coming to believe something depends on whether you came to believe it by doing what rational people do and avoiding what rational people don't do. The implicit assumptions of this scheme seem to me to be nicely summarized by C. S. Peirce's famous listing of the "logical sentiments" that are "indispensable requirements of logic": interest in an indefinite community of inquirers, recognition of the possibility of this interest being made supreme, and hope in the unlimited continuation of this community. The idea, in other words, is that rationality of a person is commensurable and assessible (so membership in the community can be determined), that it is possible to give this a sort of primacy over other interests, and that, abstracting from impediments like lack of time, the rational community of inquirers converges on the truth.

(4) Authoritative Source

There's a scheme that's different from any of these that is based on authority; but it is a bit tricky to distinguish from the others, in part, I think, because the vocabulary with which one might express this scheme is less developed than the vocabularies for the others. However, I think it can be distinguished. The basic idea is that coming to believe something in a reasonable or rational way involves depending on the right kind of source of information or guidance. In this it is like evidential assessment, but unlike evidential assessment it emphasizes not the weighing or balancing of evidences but the quality of the source; the sources are assessed, not the evidences. From the perspective of evidential assessment, on its own, there is no particular reason why great evidence can't come from a usually bad source; and from the perspective of authority assessment, considered alone, a good authoritative source may well get you farther than balancing the evidence (e.g., the evidence might be easier for someone else to assess). The emphasis on quality makes it like consequential assessment, but consequential assessment looks at the quality of the position or belief in question, whereas authority assessment looks at the quality of sources or authorities. And while a rational community might have its special authoritative sources of information, community assessment analyzes them in terms of their role in the community, whereas authority assessment analyzes them in terms of features they have in their own right. This scheme implicitly assumes that we can identify authorities and assess them in terms of quality, that following authorities who rate highly in terms of these qualities converges on truth, etc.

(5) Internal Coherence

Very different from all of these is the idea that one comes to believe something rationally or reasonably if it makes your overall view more coherent. We often put this in terms of consistency, but, of course, it admits of degree: it could be that you can get a greater amount of coherence by upgrading to a completely different set of beliefs rather than merely tweaking the positions you already have until they are consistent. Likewise, you can become more rationally coherent by turning merely consistent beliefs into mutually supporting beliefs. The implicit assumptions here are what you would expect: that we can get a good assessment of coherence, that coherence converges on truth, etc.

People appeal to all of these in the process of persuasion, and they also appeal to them in defending the rationality of their own changes in belief. They are all definitely different -- (1) weighs evidence, (2) weighs inquiry-relevant tendencies of positions, (3) weighs whether reaching the belief is consistent with having a role in a community of rational inquiry, (4) weighs the quality of sources, and (5) weighs the structural features of webs of belief and practice. They could all five be integrated, but doing so requires a rather robust and developed account of inquiry, and in practice people tend to use them piecemeal. People also tend to shift around among them depending on what is convenient for them at a given time; I suspect that this is sometimes a serious problem, in fact, since it seems to be common without an integrating account this is not really much different from using completely different standards in ad hoc and arbitrary ways.

Poem a Day IV


  Not suspense but dwelling makes for peace;
to live at home upon a little plot
alone can quiet give that will not cease,
alone can bring to rest one's restless thought.
Not doubt nor balanced judgment makes for calm
but cottage made of reason's little joys,
with splendid view and garden full of balm,
will give shalom that nothing can annoy,
in Sabbath-rest and Sunday with the rose
that flowers by the house in vivid hue,
made music by a stream that softly flows
amid the grassy hills in morning dew,
when morning breeze blows scented, soft, and cool,
and you, in pleasant chair, drink tea and sigh
that all around is yours, though small it be,
and full of joy beneath an endless sky
that somewhere wraps around an endless sea.
  Not suspense but dwelling makes for peace,
not judgment balanced by some skeptic's ploy,
but lovely place to count your own small piece,
in which you spend your days in quiet joy.

Monday, September 03, 2012


This summer I've done some series on how particular philosophers deal with important concepts in ways that I think are interesting and worth knowing, and I thought I would put up a listing of them. It is, incidentally, entirely unintentional that they were all five-post series. I have some ideas for future series -- Bramhall on free will, Whewell on Newtonian physics, Boethius on happiness, Gerard on taste, and so forth; I don't know if I'll actually do them all, or even any of the ones I currently have in mind as possibilities, and others, like the Gilpin series, might be done completely on the spur of the moment; but I hope to do at least a few more series of this general sort here and there in the future.

James Beattie on Common Sense
I: Introduction
II: Common Sense
III: First Principles
IV: Inquiry
V: Human Equality

Lady Mary Shepherd on the External World
I: Continuity
II: Externality
III: Independence
IV: Dreaming and Waking
V: Ramifications

Soren Kierkegaard on Confession
I: The Individual
II: The Good
III: Double-Mindedness
IV: Commitment
V: Rendering Account

William Gilpin on the Picturesque
I: Picturesque Beauty
II: Picturesque Travel
III: Sketches and Descriptions
IV: Austen's Engagement with Picturesque Theory (I)
V: Austen's Engagement with Picturesque Theory (II)

Gilpin on the Picturesque V: Austen's Engagement with Picturesque Theory (II)

In order to get some understanding of how Austen's engagement with picturesque theory contributes to Mansfield Park, it's useful to grasp some of the basic ideas in what became known as the Picturesque Debate.

During the eighteenth century, there came to be a shift in the gardening tastes of the upper classes in England; previously, gardens had been laid out in a very French way, but the eighteenth century sees the development of a distinctively English approach to gardening and making grounds beautiful. The most eminent eighteenth-century gardener in this style was Lancelot Brown, usually known as Capability; Capability Brown specialized in developing gardens that were less formally laid out than French gardens. This style originally arose in part by blending French and Chinese approaches to gardening; French gardens in the seventeenth century were very geometrical and orderly, whereas Chinese gardens tended to be much more irregular in order to suggest that natural world. Brown's designs which were hugely popular and influential, were more structured than Chinese gardens, but like Chinese gardens they were designed to look like they were naturally occurring -- gently rolling hills rather than all flat lawns, lakes rather than regular-shaped ponds, groves rather than rows of trees, and so forth. It was all made to look a bit like the English countryside, but gentler, more orderly, and without defects. It was inevitable that this increased taste for, and new style of gardening, should interact with the theory of picturesque beauty put forward by Gilpin, since even long before Gilpin the association between the views of painting and the views made possible by gardeners had been recognized; and we find the culmination of this in three people: Repton, Price, and Knight.

Capability Brown saw himself as an architect; others tended to regard him as just a gardener. It is to Humphry Repton that we owe the notion of a landscape design as a field to itself; in trying to characterize accurately what he did, he hit upon the professional title of 'landscape gardener', which would distinguish him from ordinary gardeners. The word 'landscape' in this context is certainly due to picturesque theory; while Repton was not a slavish follower of Gilpin's ideas, he had read Gilpin quite closely. Unlike Brown, who basically designed everything himself, Repton put himself forward as a consultant, and so mostly did things piecemeal. Most of his designs were never fully put into effect. However, he was hugely important in making landscape gardening recognizable and distinctly reputable, not merely as an appendage of architecture or as a high sort of gardening, but as a luxury art in its own right. Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, who were neighbors and friends, were more passionate amateurs in landscape gardening rather than professionals like Repton. Price, however, wrote a book, published in 1794, An Essay on the Picturesque, As Compared With The Sublime and The Beautiful, in which he attempts to extend and develop Gilpin's ideas. Knight also wrote an essay on the subject, An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste, published in 1805, in which he takes Gilpin and Price and attempts to correct them and give an underlying a better underlying aesthetic psychology -- as we might call it -- than he thought either of them had given. Of the three Price is probably the most consistently Gilpinesque, while Knight's aesthetic theory shows clear indications of Romanticism, with a much greater interest in the sheer wildness of nature, and Repton's is heavily affected by his practical experience as a consultant.

The point of contention in the Picturesque Dispute, which occurred throughout the 1790s, was over Brown's style of landscaping, and over the question of just how much the field of landscape gardening needed to conform to the basic principles of picturesque theory. Price and Knight saw Brown's landscape as too 'smooth', not 'rough' enough. In a sense, Repton did, too, but unlike Price and Knight, he saw himself as following in Brown's footsteps, improving on his approach, but not absolutely rejecting it. Thus Repton tended to defend Brown from attack. One of Repton's most controversial claims was that the art of lanscape gardening and the art of painting were radically different (in part because a painter gives only one view, whereas a landscape gardener must give many, and in part because a landscape gardener, unlike a painter, must also keep utility in mind). Thus picturesque theory, however important as a source of ideas, could not serve as a complete template for landscape gardening; at the very least, the landscape gardener must make practical concessions to the fact that gardens are not just to be seen but also used. Price and Knight saw this as as Repton taking sides with Brown and against Gilpin and argued against it, although not on exactly the same principles, since Price's approach is a more sophisticated version of picturesque theory, and Knight's a deliberately simplified and reorganized version. They saw Repton's claim as oxymoronic; the 'landscape' in 'landscape gardening' is a painter's term applied to gardening only given a theory of the picturesque. However, given how beholden Repton is himself to Gilpin, and given that none of the figures involved in the Picturesque Debate were entirely clear about what was wrong with the positions put forward by the others, it is not so clear, and, in fact, even at the time it was often thought that none of the people involved in the Debate had much of an idea of what the disagreement was. Nonetheless, the dispute helped to popularize and develop ideas about landscape gardening. Aesthetics is often treated as an impractical area of philosophy, but in fact history repeatedly shows that it is one of the areas of philosophy that interacts extensively with practical and social concerns, and the course of picturesque theory, from Gilpin to the landscape gardeners he influenced, is merely one very striking example of this.

The details of the dispute aren't particularly essential for our purposes here; but for those who are interested there is a good summary of the issues in a Master's thesis by Dorothy Dyck, which is available online. Suffice it to say that Austen was familiar with the dispute; she had certainly read Repton and Price as well as Gilpin, and it has been argued variously that she is satirizing some of Price's views in Northanger Abbey and that she suggests greater sympathy with Price than Repton in Mansfield Park. Which of these, if either (or both), is true, I cannot say; I think both need more study. Nonetheless there are clear indications of references to the dispute throughout Mansfield Park. The novel is heavily concerned with the issue of improvement -- the word occurs in one form or another quite often throughout the book -- both aesthetic and ethical. We see, in other words, a wide variety of approaches to improvement, a wide variety of objects of improvement, and, indeed, a wide variety of different passions for improvement. In the day, however, a passion for 'improving' would have been associated with the growing craze for landscape gardening: the landscape gardener would 'improve' the landscape. This is brought up explicitly in Chapter VI, where Repton (who was still alive) is mentioned by name:

"I wish you could see Compton," said he; "it is the most complete thing! I never saw a place so altered in my life. I told Smith I did not know where I was. The approach now, is one of the finest things in the country: you see the house in the most surprising manner. I declare, when I got back to Sotherton yesterday, it looked like a prison—quite a dismal old prison."

"Oh, for shame!" cried Mrs. Norris. "A prison indeed? Sotherton Court is the noblest old place in the world."

"It wants improvement, ma'am, beyond anything. I never saw a place that wanted so much improvement in my life; and it is so forlorn that I do not know what can be done with it."

"No wonder that Mr. Rushworth should think so at present," said Mrs. Grant to Mrs. Norris, with a smile; "but depend upon it, Sotherton will have every improvement in time which his heart can desire."

"I must try to do something with it," said Mr. Rushworth, "but I do not know what. I hope I shall have some good friend to help me."

"Your best friend upon such an occasion," said Miss Bertram calmly, "would be Mr. Repton, I imagine."

"That is what I was thinking of. As he has done so well by Smith, I think I had better have him at once. His terms are five guineas a day."

The passage continues, of course; this is only a sample. One of the things we find in the novel is that of all the characters it is Fanny Price who has the best sense of the picturesque; while people like the Henry Crawford and Mr. Rushworth are interested in developing picturesque landscapes for gardens, they have no interest in the picturesque as such. For them it is either a symbol of social status or else just something to do. It is only Fanny who genuinely appreciates a picturesque scene. Others regularly show that despite their nominal interest in the subject they actually do not appreciate it for itself, but for something else that they get out of it. And this, of course, tells us a great deal aobut their sort of 'improvement', and throughout Mansfield Park differences in aesthetic improvement are linked to differences in moral improvement.

Much more could be said on the subject, but I want to move on to Pride and Prejudice, which in structural terms depends crucially on Gilpin's accounts of the picturesque. It has long been known that there are references to Gilpin in Pride and Prejudice; the most famous of these is this passage:

"I did not know that you intended to walk," said Miss Bingley, in some confusion, lest they had been overheard.

"You used us abominably ill," answered Mrs. Hurst, "running away without telling us that you were coming out."

Then, taking the disengaged arm of Mr. Darcy, she left Elizabeth to walk by herself. The path just admitted three. Mr. Darcy felt their rudeness and immediately said, –

"This walk is not wide enough for our party. We had better go into the avenue."

But Elizabeth, who had not the least inclination to remain with them, laughingly answered, –

"No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good-bye."

This is a more stinging put-down than it might seem; the reference is to Gilpin's rule for sketching cattle into your scene. He insists that three make the best grouping; two are usually not enough, and if there are more than three, you have to detach it from the others or it will throw off the composition of the scene.

This reference to the picturesque is not at random. Much later in the book, Elizabeth goes on a trip with her aunt and uncle. Austen gives us their itinerary:

It is not the object of this work to give a description of Derbyshire, nor of any of the remarkable places through which their route thither lay: Oxford, Blenheim, Warwick, Kenelworth, Birmingham, etc., are sufficiently known.

We also know that they were intending to go to the Lakes, because Elizabeth is disappointed when the plan gets changed and they have to stop at Derbyshire. Elizabeth has certainly been reading Gilpin's Observations on Several Parts of England, Particularly the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty. It is in this very book that we find Gilpin's reflections on the picturesque value of cattle; it is in this book that we find mention of Derbyshire spar, to which Elizabeth also at one point alludes; we also find the very itinerary given above. Elizabeth and the Gardiners are on a picturesque tour. This brings them to Darcy's estate, Pemberley, precisely because it is famous for its grounds, and thus is the sort of thing you would visit on a picturesque tour. And Elizabeth's initial reaction is precisely in such terms:

The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered it in one of its lowest points, and drove for some time through a beautiful wood stretching over a wide extent.

Elizabeth's mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half-a-mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

This last thought is sometimes read as being a bit mercenary, and certainly Austen is not squeamish about noting the importance of material wealth for a young woman. However, I think this is a misreading, and we see this when we put it into its proper context: Elizabeth's reaction here is not mercenary but aesthetic. It is the picturesqueness, not the wealth, of Pemberley that draws her. And to the extent that it reflects on Darcy himself, what Elizabeth comes to appreciate from her tour of Pemberley is not his wealth -- she already had known his extraordinary wealth -- but his good taste. It is this that is repeatedly emphasized.

The ending of the tour in Derbyshire, with, in effect, Pemberley and Darcy himself, is somewhat ironic. When the plan had originally been proposed to her, Elizabeth had seized on it as a way to get away from men:

No scheme could have been more agreeable to Elizabeth, and her acceptance of the invitation was most ready and grateful. "Oh, my dear, dear aunt," she rapturously cried, "what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers."

And, of course, what she fines is that young men can be picturesque, too. But it's a different kind of picturesque, not a merely aesthetic one, such as one might use for cattle, but also moral, and it is the human picturesque that she discovers at the end of her picturesque tour.

This suggests something, I think, about the way in which Austen interacts with picturesque theory in her works. It is put rather nicely by A. Walton Litz in a nice talk discussing the subject:

I would contend that Elizabeth Bennet’s education in Pride and Prejudice involves a movement from the "surface-picturesque" to the "moral picturesque." Her early prejudiced behavior is marked by a witty arrangement of people and ideas, a playing with emotional effects for aesthetic ends. She misunderstands Darcy’s inner nature because she is so delighted with surfaces, and enjoys seeing the world in artistic terms. She journeys to Derbyshire and the peak expecting to find Gilpin’s picturesque delights, but finds instead a house and grounds that embody what can only be called moral values. It has often been remarked that the description of Pemberley which opens Book Three is covertly a description of Darcy: the landscape foreshadows the startling discoveries of the next few pages....The difference between this landscape, filtered through the consciousness of Elizabeth Bennet, and the surface-picturesque of Gilpin tells us how far Elizabeth and her creator have come in their journeys toward maturity. The "picturesque moment" of Jane Austen’s youth has not been discarded; rather, it has been absorbed into a more complex and responsible view of life and art.

This sort of interplay between picturesque as a purely aesthetic concept and picturesque as also ethical is virtually inevitable in the context of literature; the phrase "moral picturesque," for instance, comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was alluding to picturesque theory in an attempt to characterize his own literary works, and he and Austen are far from being the only ones to recognize that there are definite -- even if not always straightforward -- connections between the picturesque and the task of a novelist or poet in depicting the inner lives and characters of people.

It is, of course, worth bearing in mind that I am in none of this suggesting that Austen's works are somehow complete treatises on the picturesque; they are, of course, novels, and in the context of a novel, the standard is plausibility, not demonstration or even probability. But plausibility is the appropriate standard for exploring concepts, their limits, and their possible extensions, and this is precisely what Austen does with the picturesque throughout her novels.

And that, I think, is enough for now on Gilpin's theory of the picturesque. Obviously there is much more that could be discussed -- our discussion of the theory was mostly at the general level, without looking at a lot of Gilpin's particular claims about particular matters, and we did not, for instance, do more than scratch the surface of the Picturesque Debate. But I think what we have done is seen how significant the theory was.

Poem a Day III


This stony heart, O Lord, to flesh return
and let the blood again through clear veins flow,
that I may beat with pulse of life and breathe
Your Spirit deep, like wind through brittle bones
thus made to live, as ancient prophet saw.
For I am stubborn in my foolish ways,
recalcitrant and petrified in ice,
and do not feel the warmth that kindles hearts
and undoes all the harm of Gorgon's curse
with grace demulcent and a mighty flame
that liquefies the heart turned granitoid.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Cartesian Postulates and Axioms

In the Replies to the Second Objections to the Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes gives a synthetic rendering of the argument of the Meditations (which proceeds analytically). It's done in a right geometrical style, with definitions, postulates, and axioms. The definitions are the obvious things you would expect (the first three definitions are for thought, idea, and objective reality of an idea). The postulates and axioms are somewhat more interesting, I think.

In a footnote to the CSM edition, the editors say about Descartes's use of the term postulate, "Descartes is here playing on words, since what follows is not a set of postulates in the Euclidian sense, but a number of informal requests" (CSM 114). Likewise, Bennett in his paraphrase of the Second Replies (PDF) has an explanatory note in which he gives this purported difference in sense as a reason for thinking that Descartes is not taking the geometrical exposition very seriously. However, I think Descartes is being a bit more deliberate than either of these comments suggest, and is not being as equivocal as they require. Euclid's postulates are put in request format, too; they are things you are asked to do in order to draw your constructions correctly. What is more, looking at the postulates we see that they lay out quite clearly Descartes's entire method. The only postulates that are explicitly used in the proofs that follow are Postulate 2 (reflecting on one's own mind until one can recognize that its existence is certain and, indeed, more certain than the existence of one's body) and Postulate 5 (reflecting on the nature of supremely perfect being as including necessary existence). Most of the postulates are things you are asked to do in order to recognize the axioms as self-evident or things you are asked to do in order to understand what clear and distinct perception are. And, of course, self-evidence and clear and distinct perception are closely linked for Descartes. It's reasonable, I think, to regard Descartes's postulates as guidelines for philosophical meditation, the end result of which is grasping things as clearly and distinctly true, or, as we might also say, as self-evident. This intellectual grasp of the evident is to Descartes's metaphysics what straightedge-and-compass construction is to Euclid's geometry. Metaphysics is more distant from sensible matters than geometry is, so the thing in metaphysics that corresponds to construction in geometry is proportionately more purely abstract and intellectual. It's interesting to compare Descartes's exposition in this respect with the other famous Cartesian synthetic discussion, Spinoza's Ethics. Spinoza gives eight postulates, and they are very different from anything we find in Descartes. All of them have to do with the human body, for instance; in a sense we can say that for Spinoza the human body is to metaphysics what the diagram is to geometry. It is impossible to imagine Descartes thinking in this way; all of his postulates are mental, laying out particular activities of reflection that one must engage in if one is to understand Descartes's arguments. [Added Later: Of course, Spinoza really uses the postulates for ethics, or applying metaphysics to questions of human happiness, rather than metaphysics as such, so this has to be factored into how we understand the difference.]

The postulates also emphasize, I think, that the synthetic approach is not a substitute for the analytic approach: in both cases exactly the same meditation is necessary. This fits with what Descartes himself says about it; he gives the synthetic format not as an alternative but as an "exposition" for those who will have difficulty with keeping track of the overall structure of the Meditations even when they concentrate properly so as to understand its parts; and, says Descartes, "I am convinced that it is the Meditations which will yield by far the greater benefit" (CSM 113). The main point of the synthetic exposition, I take it, is simply to show that all the parts flow in a fairly straightforward way from the act of philosophical meditation, and that, therefore, the whole Meditations hangs together coherently despite its conversational tone and apparent digressions. For Descartes, however, the postulates are the real pith of his entire approach; and that is because postulates by their nature define a method, and Descartes's whole focus is on presenting a method. In discussing the difference between analysis and synthesis, Descartes insists that only analysis is really suitable to discovery, and that it is "the best and truest method of instruction" (CSM 111). He also says that synthesis is harder in metaphysics because "there is nothing which causes so much effort as making our perception of the primary notions clear an ddistinct" (CSM 111), thus showing that the key issue is clear and distinct perception -- which is found entirely in the postulates.

Following the postulates very carefully, we are supposed to be able to grasp the self-evidence of the axioms. Descartes gives ten. Taking out the explanations to leave the bare axiom, and doing some occasional minor re-writing for clarity, those ten axioms of metaphysics are (CSM 116-117):

(1) For every existing thing, it is possible to ask what is the cause of its existence.
(2) No less a cause is required to preserve something than is required to create it in the first place.
(3) What does not exist cannot be the cause of the existence of anything, nor can it be the cause of the existence of any actual perfection of anything.
(4) Whatever reality or perfection there is in a thing is found either formally or eminently in its first and adequate cause.
(5) The objective reality of our ideas needs a cause which contains this reality not merely objectively but formally or eminently.
(6) A substance has more reality than an accident or a mode, and an infinite substance has more reality than a finite substance.
(7) The will of a thinking thing is drawn voluntarily and freely, "but nevertheless inevitably," towards a clearly known good.
(8) Whatever can bring about a greater or more difficult thing can also bring about a lesser thing.
(9) It is a greater thing to create or preserve a substance than to create or preserve the attributes or properties of that substance.
(10)Existence is contained in the idea or concept of every single thing.

Descartes is quite clear that not all of these axioms are strictly necessary; he is giving an exposition, and therefore is listing some things that "should have been introduced as theorems rather than as axioms, had I wished to be more precise" (CSM 116). Axiom 5 is explicitly presented as following from Axiom 4. Given things that Descartes says in the Meditations, I suspect that Axiom 4 in turn is supposed to follow from Axiom 3, and that Axioms 8 and 9 probably also have the same root source. In other words, I suspect that 4, 5, 8, and 9 are all things that Descartes thinks would, in a more detailed exposition, be derived from the combination of Axiom 3 with various definitions.

These axioms are combined with various definitions in order to get four propositions, which I put here along with the axioms (explicitly) used in the proofs provided for them.

I. The existence of God can be known merely by considering his nature: 10.
II. The existence of God can be demonstrated a posteriori merely from the fact that we have an idea of God within us: 3, 5, 6.
III. The existence of God can be demonstrated from the fact that we who possess the idea of God exist: 1, 2, 4, 7, 8, 9.
IV. There is a real distinction between the mind and the body: no axioms explicitly used (the proposition is derived by combining definitions with a corollary of III and Postulate 2).

The upshot of this, I think, is again that the postulates are where the action is: the axioms themselves do relatively little work, and, indeed, seem mostly to just contribute to Descartes's goal of explaining the overall structure of the Meditations. The axioms really are things that you'll inevitably accept if you follow the postulates closely and carefully, and thus show how the conclusions Descartes reaches follow almost directly from his method, properly practiced. This fits with the claims by Descartes that we noted above, and is another notable contrast to Spinoza.

Fortnightly Book, September 2

For this iteration, I've decided to read Edna Ferber's Cimarron, which I've never actually read. It's a famous book, though; it had two major movies based on it (the first of which, in 1931, was extraordinarily popular in its day, but has not been treated very well by time, and the second of which you occasionally find shown on TV). The novel's setting is the Oklahoma Land Rush. It was this land run that gave us the word 'sooner', associated with everything Oklahoma -- sooners were originally people who cheated in the race to stake a claim, but the word has since been romanticized, largely because of its association with college football. It's hard to avoid the joke that this tells you half of everything most people will ever need to know about Oklahoma.

Ferber herself was a very popular author in her day, and her books were regularly made into plays and movies. She was for some time a member of the Algonquin Round Table, but had an ongoing feud with Alexander Woollcott, one of the regular members. She was originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, but lived all sorts of places before her death of stomach cancer in 1968.

Poem a Day II


Bright is truth and fair its flame to see,
Brilliant with a solar splendor, light on light,
Borrowed from no other force or star:
Blessed are those who find its holy rays.