Saturday, December 15, 2012

Peek and Peer

Solitaire
by Amy Lowell


When night drifts along the streets of the city,
And sifts down between the uneven roofs,
My mind begins to peek and peer.
It plays at ball in old, blue Chinese gardens,
And shakes wrought dice-cups in Pagan temples,
Amid the broken flutings of white pillars.
It dances with purple and yellow crocuses in its hair,
And its feet shine as they flutter over drenched grasses.
How light and laughing my mind is,
When all the good folk have put out their bed-room candles,
And the city is still!

Like most of Lowell's poetry, and most of Imagist poetry generally, it overstrains, but this one does what Imagist poems often do best: precisely marking out a mood with striking images.

Mereotopology and Lists

Here's a list:

Dog
Cat
Cow

And another list:

Wolf
Dog
Fox

One way we could compare these is by taking 'Dog' as a shared part. The lists overlap at dog. We could call this a mereological approach to lists.

A different way is that we could say, "No, 'Dog' is not a shared part, because they are different lists, not some kind of branching list with 'Dog' at the crossways. But the lists are connected at 'Dog'." We could call this a topological approach to lists.

This bifurcation occurs in lists of all kinds. Two similar pictures, for instance, could be compared in mereological terms (they share features) or in topological terms (their features are corresponding, whether you wish to regard them as actually shared or not). (If it sounds odd to call pictures 'lists', think of a computer screen, which consists of rows of pixels. A picture of this sort would be a list of pixel-patterns according to row.) In practical terms the mereological and the topological approaches are equivalent: when similarity is involved, you can always treat it mereologically as a sort of overlap or part-sharing or topologically as a sort of connection or correspondence. Connection is usually treated as weaker than overlap, which it is logically, since overlapping things always connect, but not vice versa. But in the context of lists, they are closely connected to the same thing, the fact that different lists can have the same items, and therefore are (nonsynonomous) ways of talking about the same thing. The mereological approach just (as a matter of structure) emphasizes the sameness, while the topological approach (again as a matter of structure) de-emphasizes it, and these lists are simple enough that it doesn't matter much which you do.

But there are kinds of lists in which one would want to be able to do both. Take this list.

  • Dog
    1. Collie
    2. Great Dane
  • Cat
    1. Egyptian Mao
    2. Ragdoll
  • Pets Jack Owns
    1. Collie
    2. Goldfish
    3. Egyptian Mao

We have lists within lists, and we want to be able to talk mereologically (the [Collie, Great Dane] list is part of the [Dog, Cat, Pets Jack Owns] list) and topologically (the [Collie, Great Dane] list is connected to the [Collie, Goldfish, Egyptian Mao] list).

The mereotopology of lists has broader implications than just lists in our ordinary sense, because modal logics can all be treated as the logics governing different kinds of relations among different kinds of lists. We can distinguish source lists and target lists (not necessarily mutually exclusive); and modal logic would be an account of what you can determine about target lists from source lists. Suppose that [p] is Box-p (It is necessary that p, It is required that p, It is always true that p, etc.) and <p> is Diamond-p (It is possible that p, It is is permissible that p, It is sometimes true that p, etc.). Then our source list says [p], we can conclude that if there are any target lists, they have p as an item. Likewise, if our source list says <p>, then we can conclude that there is some target list that has p as an item. Given this, however, we can say that, for any source list, [p] indicates that any list connected to the source list (in the relevant way) overlaps with the source list at p, and <p> indicates that some list overlaps with the source list at p and therefore is connected to the source list (in the relevant way).

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Grading, Grading, Grading, Grading

It's the end of term, which means I have Ethics exams to grade, as well as both history of philosophy and cumulative quizzes to grade for my Intro course, and, as if that were not enough, extra credit logic modules and feminist philosophy assignments, and late major projects on top of that, so for obvious reasons things will be slow the next few days, although there will probably be a few things already in the pipeline coming out here and there.

Tower

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, and in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man's distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: 'This tower is most interesting.' But they also said (after pushing it over): 'What a muddle it is in!' And even the man's own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: 'He is such an odd fellow! Imagine using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? he had no sense of proportion.' But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.

J. R. R. Tolkien, "Beowulf and the Critics" (PDF). Tolkien was speaking of Beowulf, but it could serve as an allegory for the history of philosophy, as well. Of course, in the history of philosophy, one would also find people criticizing the old house for not being a tower, and criticizing the tower for not having been instead something more modern and useful, like a parking lot.

Smiling Conscience in a Sleeping Breast

A Good-Night
by Francis Quarles


Close now thine eyes and rest secure;
Thy soul is safe enough, thy body sure;
He that loves thee, he that keeps
And guards thee, never slumbers, never sleeps.
The smiling conscience in a sleeping breast
Has only peace, has only rest;
The music and the mirth of kings
Are all but very discords, when she sings;
Then close thine eyes and rest secure ;
No sleep so sweet as thine, no rest so sure.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lavish Bills

On the World
by Francis Quarles


The world's an Inn; and I her guest.
I eat; I drink; I take my rest.
My hostess, nature, does deny me
Nothing, wherewith she can supply me;
Where, having stayed a while, I pay
Her lavish bills, and go my way.

A Reason I Dislike Single People

chuffly pointed to this recent article, and I notice that Mike Flynn also gives some brief discussion of it. And it is connected with something that is really a pet peeve of mine, namely, people who never stop whining about being single.

I am single myself. The number of ways in which I am a stereotypical bachelor cannot be counted on only two hands. And yet there is almost nothing I hate more than people whining about being single: the Church doesn't do enough, society doesn't do enough, why do married people have all the perks, blah, blah, blah. Look, while anyone in any state of life may do important things, marriages are treated as more important than single life because married people are doing something important simply by being married and single people are not doing something important simply by being single. Singleness in itself is not an achievement. Singleness is the default of human life; it's what everyone is when they are not being something more important. Everyone can do it, and by definition everyone can do it on his or her own. Married life is not the default of human life. It is one of the things that people do that is more important and can only be done in cooperation with someone else. Every marriage is an achievement. Single life, as such, contributes nothing of importance to human society, although single people may in their various capacities contribute important things. Married life, however, contributes the human race itself: in marriages we have the standard contexts for the having and raising of children, and all families and educations in one way or another, directly or indirectly, form only because marriages are the seed-crystals around which they develop.

What irritates me about the whining is that I did not sign up to be in the Kiddy League of Life. We do not all get consolation prizes whenever things do not go our way, and we do not all get trophies whether we win or not. The world does not exist to validate us. Moreover, we are all perfectly capable of handling this fact. And even to suggest that single people need to be treated in such infantile ways, spoon-fed through a state of life that by definition can be handled by anyone and which, considered in itself, has no standards of excellence that have to be met, is an insult to all single people everywhere. I don't care how lonely you feel. Get over yourself and do something important, and then maybe you'll get a pat on the back.

The article, however, is amusing in its conception of what a wedding is: "a time when people travel from afar to bring you gifts and toast your life decisions", or in Sex and the City words (the source itself should make our ears prick up for signs of infantilization), an "occasion when people celebrate you". Let me tell you what, if I ever marry and any of you attend, if any of you ever suggest that the point of the wedding is simply to bring me gifts and toast my "life decisions" and "celebrate me", I will have no problem beating you up in front of all the other wedding guests for the insult. The point of a wedding is to solemnize a marriage, not to have a party. No gifts are necessary. No toasts are necessary. No 'celebrating me' is necessary. These things, when not simply made up by wedding planners trying to scam clients or greengrocers trying to imitate royalty, are just things people throw in to make attending a little more fun for everyone and the commitment a bit less scary for the bride and groom. None of us exist to give you gifts and toast your decisions.

Now, if you, as a single person, want to do something really important, like say, commit to helping someone else raise children well for as long as you live, should you ever have any children, then feel free to send out invitations. And we'll come if we can, and we'll gladly call it a wedding, for, of course, that is what it will be.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Philosophical Vindication of Judaism in IV Maccabees (Re-post)

Since we are in the midst of Hanukkah, I thought I would re-post this old post, with some minor revisions, discussing IV Maccabees. It's one of the classic works of virtue ethics, Jewish philosophy, and martyrology. And, of course, being Maccabean in theme, it is in keeping with the season.

To someone raised with a notion of philosophy that is Greek, along the lines of Plato and Aristotle, there is something a bit odd about traditional Judaism, with its insistence on a large number of little restrictions on things like diet. One might be tempted to argue that there is nothing philosophical or rational about only eating animals that are cloven-footed and cud-chewing, particularly given that there is no overarching reason given for it. One might think: It's just there in the book, so Jews do it; utterly irrational. What value could such a life hold for those who value reason?

Perhaps one of the more interesting Jewish responses to this general type of argument is found in the book usually known as IV Maccabees. We know nothing certain about its author or its date; the author was probably an Alexandrian Jew, probably drawing from II Maccabees, which he develops in a way that was common in the ancient world, namely, by composing speeches, put in the mouths of participants, to make a point. The discourse may also have originated in a Hanukkah homily, although its current form is not very homiletic. But this is all speculation. What we do know, from the work itself, is that the author fell squarely within both the Greek and the Jewish traditions and explicitly poses for himself and his readers the question just mentioned. We find the explicit statement of this in the context of the martyrdom of Eleazar. Eleazar has been brought before Antiochus IV, who is trying to erase Judaism from his domain, and is therefore giving Jews the choice of either breaking the law, by eating forbidden food, or being tortured and put to death. Eleazar, an old man, is brought before Antiochus. Antiochus says to him (5:6-12),

I would counsel thee, old man, before thy tortures begin, to tasted the swine's flesh, and save your life; for I feel respect for your age and hoary head, which since you have had so long, you appear to me to be no philosopher in retaining the superstition of the Jews. For wherefore, since nature has conferred upon you the most excellent flesh of this animal, do you loathe it? It seems senseless not to enjoy what is pleasant, yet not disgraceful; and from notions of sinfulness, to reject the boons of nature.

And you will be acting, I think, still more senselessly, if you follow vain conceits about the truth. And you will, moreover, be despising me to your own punishment. Will you not awake from your trifling philosophy? and give up the folly of your notions; and, regaining understanding worthy of your age, search into the truth of an expedient course? and, reverencing my kindly admonition, have pity upon your own years?

An opposition is set up here between philosophy in the proper Greek sense, which involves true understanding, and the "trifling philosophy" and "folly" of the "superstition of the Jews." Eleazar responds by rejecting the line Antiochus is trying to draw between trifling and untrifling philosophy: Antiochus wants to focus on particulars, like not eating animals that walk on paws, and say, 'Isn't that an odd and frivolous detail?' But Eleazar points out that this is to miss the point; the particular is valued not in itself but because of what it is a part of, namely, divine law. The question before Eleazar is not, as Antiochus wishes to suggest, whether to choose to eat unclean food or to die; the question is whether to live a Jewish life, a life according to Jewish law, or to die. And it is in this context, the context of a whole Jewish life, that the particular detail turns out not to be so trifling at all. The point has no significance in itself, perhaps; but if this is the point at which Antiochus has chosen to test commitment to God and His law, then it is not so minor.

Therefore we cannot pick out particular details and label them 'rational' or 'irrational' without regard for context; rationality and irrationality are really forms of evaluation that apply to ways of living. It is only in this context that particular practices can be considered rational and irrational; one might roughly put the point by saying that they are rational or irrational depending on the sort of person they make you. And on this basis Eleazar argues that life according to Jewish law is a rational life according to the standards of the Greeks themselves (5:22-26):

But thou deridest our philosophy, as though we lived irrationally in it. Yet it instructs us in temperance, so that we are superior to all pleasures and lusts; and it exercises us in fortitude, so that we cheerfully undergo every grievance. And it instructs us in justice, so that in all our dealings we render what is due; and it teaches us piety, so that we worship the one only God becomingly. Wherefore it is that we eat not the unclean; for believing that the law was established by God, we are convinced that the Creator of the world, in giving his laws, sympathises with our nature. Those things which are convenient to our souls, he has directed us to eat; but those which are repugnant to them, he has interdicted.

Jewish life is, because of the Torah, a training in what the Greeks would have recognized as the four cardinal virtues. (The author's adaptation of the occasional Greek practice of putting piety, eusebia, in the place of practical wisdom or prudence makes excellent sense when one considers the ancient Jewish trope that reverence for God is the beginning of wisdom.) Antiochus wishes to say that Jews are irrational for following kosher laws; but Eleazar argues instead that following kosher laws is an instruction in temperance, fortitude, justice, and piety. On the basis of it, Jews train their reason to control their passions, to hold steady in misfortune, to consider others, and to worship God in an appropriate way. (A similar apologetic for the law, in a different context, is found in another Hellenistic Jewish work, the Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 8.) Such a life is eminently rational, however much Jews may need simply to trust that God knows what He is doing in giving this or that particular commandment.

Of course, merely saying that Judaism is a life of instruction in virtue is easy. What we really need to know is whether Jewish life is really a life of right reason in the way Eleazar suggests. And the author of IV Maccabees argues that this is clearly shown in the deaths of the Maccabean martyrs, which provide a "narrative demonstration of temperate reason" (3:19). By his death Eleazar "made credible the words of philosophy" (7:9); so much so that his death is in some sense a victory over death (7:1-3). The reason for this is put in the mouth of the sixth of the seven brothers:

And he, while tormented, said, O period good and holy, in which, for the sake of religion, we brethren have been called to the contest of pain, and have not been conquered. For religious understanding, O tyrant, is unconquered. Armed with upright virtue, I also shall depart with my brethren. I, too, bearing with me a great avenger, O deviser of tortures, and enemy of the truly pious. We six youths have destroyed thy tyranny. For is not your inability to overrule our reasoning, and to compel us to eat the unclean, thy destruction? Your fire is cold to us, your catapelts are painless, and your violence harmless. For the guards not of a tyrant but of a divine law are our defenders: through this we keep our reasoning unconquered.

In other words, Jewish life is a life of right reason, one that is shown by the fact that it trains people to a life of temperance, justice, courage, and piety, preparing them for wisdom; and on the basis of this they are able to display the excellence of law in both life and death. Fortified by God-given law, the reason of the martyrs is unconquered by tyrant, torture, and death; it emerges victorious in the contest of pain, and shows that it, and not the trifling philosophy of the tyrant, is a true path of wisdom. Their courage, moderation, and piety in the face of the death is a simultaneous victory for Judaism and philosophy; by the way in which they refuse to forsake the Jewish of life, they have the ultimate philosophical crown: they live and die with unconquered right reason.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Historic Ditch

I've been visiting family, so I'm behind on things like responding to comments and finishing Njal's Saga. But, as always happens when visiting cousins, we drove by that key landmark of Central Texas, Menard's Historic Ditch Walk.

There's a reason for having a Historic Ditch, believe it or not, since it's actually a still-used irrigation canal that was made in 1756 when Texas was under Spanish rule, but laughing about the Historic Ditch is something that never gets old.