Saturday, March 09, 2013

Links of Note

* Nathaniel Peters discusses Grotius on religion

* Gilbert Meilaender on Dorothy Sayers's The Man Born to Be King

* Mike Flynn looks at our historical sources for the life of Hypatia of Alexandria

* Gregory Sadler on Cicero's De Natura Deorum

* Online resources for teaching children computer programming

* Barry Mazur on reasoning in mathematics and the sciences

* Lera Borodisky on how language affects our thought by affecting what is salient to us in the world around us

* Joel Brouwer on reading John Donne

* David Graeber on the history of virtual money. The idea that commodity money differs from credit money in that the former can be stolen is surely off, however; it depends, for one thing, on how credit money is recorded, and Graeber seems to me to assume too easily the direction of fit. One could argue that relative independence in preservation is the key factor in commodity money: you can hide your gold when the tax men or looters (historically the two are not in every society sharply distinguished) come, and having it doesn't depend on the cooperation of others. Thus it's unsurprising that commodity money becomes dominant in violent periods: good luck trying to stay afloat with credit money in a period of violent upheaval. The failure to address this is a weakness in the essay; which is nonetheless quite interesting.

* Mark Rowlands on play as a human activity

* The bizarre story of how dating online led to physicist Paul Frampton sitting in a South American jail for cocaine smuggling.

* An interesting article at the SEP on combining logic and probability. What strikes me is that the proposals are all quite similar to the way logical quantity is handled in traditional syllogistic (or the way regularity works in term functor logic, which is equivalent). Probability = 1 works exactly like universal quantity. The main difference is that assigning probabilities gives more information than merely assigning particular quantity.


For the passing and trivial sins of every day, from which no life is free, the everyday prayer of the faithful makes satisfaction. For they can say, "Our Father who art in heaven," who have already been reborn to such a Father "by water and the Spirit." This prayer completely blots out our minor and everyday sins. It also blots out those sins which once made the life of the faithful wicked, but from which, now that they have changed for the better by repentance, they have departed. The condition of this is that just as they truly say, "Forgive us our debts" (since there is no lack of debts to be forgiven), so also they truly say, "As we forgive our debtors"; that is, if what is said is also done. For to forgive a man who seeks forgiveness is indeed to give alms.

Accordingly, what our Lord says--"Give alms and, behold, all things are clean to you" --applies to all useful acts of mercy. Therefore, not only the man who gives food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, hospitality to the wayfarer, refuge to the fugitive; who visits the sick and the prisoner, redeems the captive, bears the burdens of the weak, leads the blind, comforts the sorrowful, heals the sick, shows the errant the right way, gives advice to the perplexed, and does whatever is needful for the needy --not only does this man give alms, but the man who forgives the trespasser also gives alms as well. He is also a giver of alms who, by blows or other discipline, corrects and restrains those under his command, if at the same time he forgives from the heart the sin by which he has been wronged or offended, or prays that it be forgiven the offender. Such a man gives alms, not only in that he forgives and prays, but also in that he rebukes and administers corrective punishment, since in this he shows mercy.

St. Augustine of Hippo, Enchiridion ch XIX (sect. 71 & 72)

Friday, March 08, 2013

Dialectical Success

Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse have a very good post on success in argument. I was a bit struck by their discussion of dialectical success, though, which they summarize with two "rough desiderata":

What is it for an argument to be sufficiently dialectical? Here are two rough desiderata. First, an argument must be composed not merely of reasons that support its conclusion, but of reasons that its target audience can recognize as reasons. Accordingly, a flat-footed appeal to the authority of the Pope in a dispute among Catholics and non-Catholics about the permissibility of stem-cell research is a dialectical failure. Second, an argument must address the most pressing concerns and doubts that prevail among the target audience. That is, in order to attempt resolve a disagreement, we must not only assess the reasons for one of the sides, we must assess the reasons for both sides. So a dialectically proper argument presents not merely a case for one’s preferred view; it must also take into account the going criticisms and objections to one’s conclusion. Those arguments that fail to satisfy these desiderata beg the question.

I understand that these are supposed to be rough, but I find this a somewhat peculiar characterization of 'dialectical success', at least for philosophers to make. It's hard to get more brilliantly successful at argument, in dialectical terms, than Plato's Socrates in the best parts of the Platonic dialogues, but Plato regularly shows Socrates failing to meet the first desideratum, and in some dialogues this is clearly done deliberately. This is because there are other kinds of dialectical success than persuading the target audience -- and one could very well argue that this is precisely the point Plato is making: that dialectical success is not resolution of disagreement but actually engaging in the dialogue itself as lovers of truth. It's true that "flat-footed appeal" to things your target audience won't recognize as reasons is dialectical failure, but I find the "flat-footed" interesting, since it's a qualification that directs attention to itself and suggests a contrast, leaving the question, 'What of non-flat-footed appeals?' hanging in the air. Socrates, not flat-footed at all, more than once appeals to reasons that his target audience can't recognize as reasons because his whole point is to get them to recognize them as reasons even though they don't yet. Perhaps we should speak not of arguments composed of reasons that its target audience can recognize as reasons, but of arguments that are themselves recognizable by the target audience as reasons, when taken as a whole? (It's certainly the case that an argument can be recognized as a reason without being composed of reasons recognized as reasons; sometimes people aren't recognizing reasons as reasons merely because they aren't seeing the forest for the trees. I always think of the third part of Bk. 1 of Hume's Treatise, which is very difficult to follow if you just look at it point by point -- it looks repeatedly like he is overlooking things -- but is suddenly massively more impressive if you look at how the whole thing is structured. This might not quite count, but it's still important to keep in mind that recognizing something as a reason is sometimes a form of recognizing its role in a whole structure of thought, not always on a case-by-case basis. Whether simplicity is a reason for accepting a scientific theory, for instance, depends on what kinds of other reasons there are for accepting it.) I'm not sure.

I'm also somewhat skeptical about the second desiderata; there's something to be said for small successes on secondary matters, since these can sometimes bloom into a common foundation for more significant reasoning. Indeed, I think political argument in modern democracies largely tends to succeed by such a mechanism. Resolution of disagreement is like problem-solving, and while sometimes it's a good idea to go directly to the heart of the problem, sometimes you'll be more successful handling the easy things first -- and sometimes doing so will uncover a more fundamental problem.

In practice what count as the most pressing concerns and doubts are not stable, but constantly shifting, and is actually very difficult to figure out. A possible example of this is the fact that one often finds pro-choice advocates who take the pressing concerns of pro-life advocates to include the moral status of the embryo; whereas pro-life advocates almost never talk about moral status at all unless they are responding in some way to pro-choice advocates using the phrase. We are all a bit like housecats, really. Cats don't really meow when they grow up in the wild, except as a random noise they sometimes make. The reason they meow when raised by us is that we listen to them when they do. Pro-life advocates who only deal with pro-life advocates talk about things like respect, sympathy, innocence, the sorts of things people ordinarily talk about when they talk about how to treat children (or animals, for that matter); they talk about moral status when dealing with pro-choice advocates chiefly, it would seem, because they think the pressing concern of pro-choice advocates is moral status. At least in historical terms, the topic spread to pro-life advocates from pro-choice advocates, not the reverse; pro-choice advocates were talking about moral status long before it became common for pro-life advocates to do so. At the same time, given the state of the argument, it's obvious that this could become a pressing concern for pro-life advocates in trying to give their arguments, and, indeed, it seems to be in the process of slowly becoming so.

The fact of the matter seems to be that we have no real way of knowing what the pressing concerns of people are unless we can count on them honestly giving the arguments that they think we should accept -- those are their actual pressing concerns. This seems to be what Aikin and Talisse have in mind with their comment about considering both sides, but this seems to cut against the first desideratum: I have no way of actually knowing what the other side's pressing concerns are unless they are trying to get me to see them regardless of whether I actually accept them as reasons. If someone is actually going through the trouble of trying to get you to see the importance of his flat-footed appeal to the Pope, you at least know that his Catholic conscience in light of Church teaching is one of his pressing concerns; if he avoids such appeals altogether in the attempt only to present reasons that you would recognize as reasons, how would you ever know that this was a thread informing the disagreement? But if the point of the given argument is to resolve a disagreement, you need to be actively talking about all the things that are actually contributing to the disagreement, regardless of whether one side regards them as real reasons (perhaps especially then).

I think this suggests a way in which the rough desiderata are as yet perhaps too rough to be as useful as they might seem: they both assume that everyone on both sides can have access to the arguments of the other side. But this requires that we already have aired our arguments in the attempt to resolve the disagreement, and found that they weren't adequate; then we can sort out which arguments each side could recognize as reasons, and take into account the actual pressing concerns of the other side, rather than just our own image, perhaps fictional, of what their pressing concerns are. But all this requires a state of argument in which people don't fit either desideratum; and it suggests that part of dialectical success, prior to anything to do with resolution of disagreement, is simply discovering that we do disagree in a way worth further argument, and discovering the real reasons why the disagreement is there. And that, of course, brings us back to Plato: our argument still has a form of dialectical success if we all come away with a better understanding of the issues. By the end of the Gorgias, or the Republic, the actual disagreement has not been resolved at all; but Socrates's arguments have been a success in that now everybody knows what the disagreement really is.

Lent XXI

All the children of Israel went forth from the land of Egypt, but not all went forth heartily, and so, when wandering in the desert, some of them sighed after the leeks and onions,—the fleshpots of Egypt. Even so there are penitents who forsake sin, yet without forsaking their sinful affections; that is to say, they intend to sin no more, but it goes sorely against them to abstain from the pleasures of sin;—they formally renounce and forsake sinful acts, but they turn back many a fond lingering look to what they have left, like Lot’s wife as she fled from Sodom. They are like a sick man who abstains from eating melon when the doctor says it would kill him, but who all the while longs for it, talks about it, bargains when he may have it, would at least like just to sniff the perfume, and thinks those who are free to eat of it very fortunate. And so these weak cowardly penitents abstain awhile from sin, but reluctantly;—they would fain be able to sin without incurring damnation;—they talk with a lingering taste of their sinful deeds, and envy those who are yet indulging in the like....

Be sure, my daughter, that if you seek to lead a devout life, you must not merely forsake sin; but you must further cleanse your heart from all affections pertaining to sin; for, to say nothing of the danger of a relapse, these wretched affections will perpetually enfeeble your mind, and clog it, so that you will be unable to be diligent, ready and frequent in good works, wherein nevertheless lies the very essence of all true devotion.

St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part I, Chapter VII

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Lent XX

The disgusted sick man has no appetite for eating, yet has he an appetite to have an appetite; he desires no meat, but he desires to desire it. Theotimus, to know whether we love God above all things is not in our power, unless God himself reveal it unto us: yet we may easily know whether we desire to love him; and perceiving the desire of holy love in us, we know that we begin to love. It is our sensual and animal part which covets to eat, but it is our reasonable part which desires this appetite; and because the sensual part does not always obey the reasonable part, it frequently happens that we desire appetite and cannot have it. But the desire of loving and love depend upon the same will: wherefore as soon as we have framed the true desire of loving, we begin to have some love; and ever as this desire grows, love also increases. He who desires love ardently shall shortly love with ardour. Ah! who will give us the grace, Theotimus, that we may burn with this desire, which is the desire of the poor, and the preparation of their heart, which God willingly hears. He who has no assurance of loving God is a poor man, and if he desire to love him he is a beggar, but a beggar with the blessed beggary of which Our Saviour has said: Blessed are the beggars of spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. XII, ch. 2

Wednesday, March 06, 2013


Bruno Latour recently delivered a course of the 2013 Gifford Lectures for the University of Edinburgh; the six lectures are available in PDF format online.

It has some typical Latourian dry humor/seriousness-but-with-a-light-touch. In the first lecture, for instance, he suggests that instead of using the word 'nature' or 'the natural world' when examining naturalistic accounts, practices, and beliefs, we just substitute Owwaab (Out-of-Which-We-Are-All-Born), which is taken to be in its fundamental character external, unified, nonteleological, and inexorable; he then goes on to lay out some outlines for an anthropological study of the people of Owwaab, who, of course, attribute everything to the laws of Owwaab, and insist that everything can be explained in terms of Owwaab.

In the second lecture he has a discussion of Hume's Dialogues that I'll have to look at more closely. Lecture 3 is about Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, and looks at some of its further implications in Lecture 4; Lecture 5 is about war and lecture 6 ties things up. I should say, though, that I've only had time so far to glance over the last three lectures.

In any case, all quite interesting and worth reading, although you have to be in the mood for Latour's style and agency-based sociology.

Lent XIX

So, then, it is fitting for us to believe both that sinners must repent and that forgiveness is to be given on repentance, yet still as hoping for forgiveness as granted upon faith, not as a debt, for it is one thing to earn, and another presumptuously to claim a right. Faith asks for forgiveness, as it were, by covenant, but presumption is more akin to demand than to request. Pay first that which you owe, that you may be in a position to ask for what you have hoped. Come with the disposition of an honest debtor, that you may not contract a fresh liability, but may pay that which is due of the existing debt with the possessions of your faith.

He who owes a debt to God has more help towards payment than he who is indebted to man. Man requires money for money, and this is not always at the debtor's command. God demands the affection of the heart, which is in our own power. No one who owes a debt to God is poor, except one who has made himself poor. And even if he have nothing to sell, yet has he wherewith to pay. Prayer, fasting, and tears are the resources of an honest debtor, and much more abundant than if one from the price of his estate offered money without faith.

St. Ambrose of Milan, On Repentance, Book II, Chapter 9

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Bright Languid Segments Green

Sonnet To Mrs. Reynolds's Cat
by John Keats

Cat! who hast pass'd thy grand climacteric,
How many mice and rats hast in thy days
Destroy'd? How many tit bits stolen? Gaze
With those bright languid segments green, and prick
Those velvet ears -- but pr'ythee do not stick
Thy latent talons in me -- and upraise
Thy gentle mew -- and tell me all thy frays,
Of fish and mice, and rats and tender chick.
Nay, look not down, nor lick thy dainty wrists--
For all thy wheezy asthma -- and for all
Thy tail's tip is nick'd off -- and though the fists
Of many a maid have given thee many a maul,
Still is that fur as soft, as when the lists
In youth thou enter'dest on glass bottled wall.

Keats is one of those poets who suffers from being taught solemnly.

On Hart Again

I was commenting on the Hart piece on natural law elsewhere, and thought I'd put part of the comment here, because it says in another way what I previously noted, namely, that the argument is baffling because (1) it appears to demand that any account of morality meet inconsistent demands, which not even his own alternative can meet, and thus seems to be incoherent; and (2) it so blatantly seems to be assuming at the beginning the falsehood of everything natural law theorists say, and thus seems to be question-begging. I've corrected a few typos.

[N]atural law theory by its very nature purports to provide the general principles of the practical logic of human ends and means that among other things serves as the foundation of moral reasoning. This is why Hart is right that the two serious rivals to it are Kantianism and some version or other of the Nietzschean Will to Power: Kantianism is a position that in a sense also purports to give the practical logic serving as the foundation of moral reasoning, but it denies that any such logic can be a logic of human ends and means; and (the relevant sort of) Nietzscheanism holds that the foundation of moral reasoning is human ends and means, but these themselves have no practical logic. Hart's argument boils down to an attempt to force a choice between these two, but he appears to do so by begging the question: on the intellect side, he appeals to Kantian principles, and on the will side, he appeals to some kind of will-to-power approach. But this is just to assume that natural law theory is false in its account of practical reason (which is intellect insofar as it decides for will).

The whole issue of persuasion or convincing people is utterly irrelevant to the question unless one assumes will-to-power as the underlying basis of ethics. This point does not depend on anything to do with natural law theory; it's the whole point of the argument in Plato's Gorgias, and is part of the argument in the Republic, that if practical matters are to be tested by persuasion, this is equivalent to accepting that might makes right. (They both also argue that there is no logically coherent way to develop this view -- that any attempt to do it ends up contradicting itself.) Whether one accepts the Platonic argument or not, we need to be quite clear that the very coherence of any attempt to judge these matters by whether they will persuade nihilists or the masses or anything of the sort has often been called into question, and thus it should not be proposed as if it were an obviously unexceptionable neutral test. There are longstanding arguments that as a test it is quite exceptionable and entirely question-begging.

This also abstracts from more technical issues, like the question of whether Hart has quite characterized the Nietzschean correctly (he's vague enough that you could say maybe, but it's unclear how fair the result is to Nietzsche) or whether he has really appreciated how much Kant has to put into getting the categorical/hypothetical distinction in the first place. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on such matters, just as I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that I just don't understand the argument rather than attribute to him such a blatantly incoherent and question-begging one. But it was a very perplexing piece.


Delicacies spent on pleasures become a dangerous shipwreck to men; for this voluptuous and ignoble life of the many is alien to true love for the beautiful and to refined pleasures. For man is by nature an erect and majestic being, aspiring after the good as becomes the creature of the One. But the life which crawls on its belly is destitute of dignity, is scandalous, hateful, ridiculous. And to the divine nature voluptuousness is a thing most alien; for this is for a man to be like sparrows in feeding, and swine and goats in lechery. For to regard pleasure as a good thing, is the sign of utter ignorance of what is excellent. Love of wealth displaces a man from the right mode of life, and induces him to cease from feeling shame at what is shameful; if only, like a beast, he has power to eat all sorts of things, and to drink in like manner, and to satiate in every way his lewd desires. And so very rarely does he inherit the kingdom of God. For what end, then, are such dainty dishes prepared, but to fill one belly? The filthiness of gluttony is proved by the sewers into which our bellies discharge the refuse of our food. For what end do they collect so many cupbearers, when they might satisfy themselves with one cup? For what the chests of clothes? and the gold ornaments for what? Those things are prepared for clothes-stealers, and scoundrels, and for greedy eyes. “But let alms and faith not fail thee,” says the Scripture.

St. Clement of Alexandria, Pedagogus Bk III, ch. vii

Monday, March 04, 2013

Gerard on Taste and Genius IV: The Nature of Genius

Gerard's Essay on Genius was published much later (1774) than the Essay on Taste, although he seems to have begun writing it at about the same time, but like its predecessor it had a considerable influence. Indeed, while the Essay on Taste probably was more influential in the English-speaking world, one can argue that the Essay on Genius had a much more extensive and important influence in the German-speaking world: Gerard's work on taste became an important reference point for the British, but his work on genius revolutionized Geramn philosophy when it was translated into German in 1776. It was read by practically all the major German philosophers of the period, including Immanuel Kant, who would later call Gerard's book the best work on the subject. Gerard is thus a major influence on Kant's discussion of genius in the Critique of Judgment, for all that Kant here as elsewhere goes his own way; he also was a major influence on the Romantic philosophy that was beginning to take shape at this time, especially by way of Schelling. The importance of Gerard's work on taste and genius is remarkable, and all the more so considering the fact that he is hardly studied today.

Gerard notes (EG 3) that despite the fact that it is "the leading faculty of the mind", genius had been hardly discussed in any systematic way. The main difficulty behind this is that genius seems to be governed by no general laws: genius invents, and thus it is the source of things that were not known before. How can there be general rules for deriving the unexpected? Gerard thinks, however, that we can get farther in the study of genius than this might suggest. We can make our conception of genius much more precise and also explore its relations with other faculties of mind. He starts with a basic description (EG 8-9):

GENIUS is properly the faculty of invention; by means of which a man is qualified, for making new discoveries in science, or for producing original works of art. We may ascribe taste, judgment, or knowledge, to a man who is incapable of invention; but we cannot reckon him a man of genius. In order to determine, how far he merits this character, we must enquire, whether he has discovered any new principle in science, or invented any new art, or carried those arts which are already practiced, to a higher degree of perfection, than former masters? Or, whether, at least, he has, in matters of science, improved on the discoveries of his predecessors, and reduced principles formerly known, to a greater degree of simplicity and consistence, or traced them through a train of consequences hitherto unknown? Or, in the arts, designed some new work, different from those of his predecessors, though not perhaps excelling them? Whatever falls short of this, is servile imitation, or a dull effort of plodding industry, which, as not implying invention, can be deemed no proof of genius, whatever capacity, skill, or diligence it may evidence.

Gerard gives a number of examples of this: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Homer. (One difference between the Essay on Taste and the Essay on Genius is that the latter is seeded much more thickly with examples, perhaps because Gerard thinks that one of the most important tasks in the study of Gerard is to clarify the topic.) He argues that Homer is superior to Virgil in genius, despite Virgil's many excellences, because the latter is more imitative; and that Milton, too, shows more genius than Virgil, while Shakespeare shows more genius than Milton, despite his technical faults. Likewise Chaucer is regarded as the first great English poet because of his power of invention. He also gives examples on the science side: Socrates, Aristotle, Sir Francis Bacon (who was still at the height of being esteemed in the period when Gerard wrote). The reason for all these examples here is to emphasize the point that, however interwoven it may be with other faculties, genius has a distinctive characteristic, and that characteristic is invention. (Gerard is clearly getting the term from manuals of rhetoric, in which invention is discovery of what to say; he later will say it is interwoven with disposition, another of the five canons of rhetoric, concerned with the arrangements of parts.) Those with first-rank genius are those who came up with something utterly new, while those of second-rank genius are those who follow up on the discoveries of others and improve them, although sometimes a follow-up is so important that we regard it as a sign of first-rank genius. His particular argument for this latter qualification reads somewhat oddly today, since he argues that Sir Francis Bacon was one of the originators and that Sir Isaac Newton merely followed up on some hints, but did so in such a way that it is simply unclear which of the two had the greater genius.

So if genius is marked out by inventiveness, what features of the mind qualify us for invention? In Gerard's conception, invention is chiefly a matter of recombination of ideas: it "can be accomplished only by assembling ideas in various positions and arrangements, that we may obtain uncommon views of them" (EG 27). So if we divide human mental capacities into Sense, Memory, Imagination, and Judgment, we can pick out the one that most obviously allows for this kind of recombination. Sense is too narrow; while the inner sense tradition in which Gerard operates is much more expansive with what counts as a sense than we usually are, all of these senses are nonetheless concerned only with presentation. Memory only reviews; far from being inventive, remembering is the opposite of inventing. This leaves Imagination and Judgment. Imagination is clearly a source of invention, because it is constantly producing new things from our ideas. There is likewise some reason to think of Judgment as inventive; however, on Gerard's account it only discovers new relations, and many forms of invention are not concerned with these kinds of relations. Thus even if Judgment is inventive, it is not the inventive power in us; it is at best a supplement. Gerard, however, ultimately thinks that Judgment is not inventive, even if it sometimes seems as if it might be. Reason, for instance, is a kind of judgment that often seems like it is coming up with new things, but if you look more closely you can see that reason is not the real originator of the novelty. Only Imagination is truly innovative. To be sure, not every kind of novelty produced in the imagination has a real claim to being considered genius; but genius, whatever more it requires, is entirely in the province of the Imagination.

Here we see one reason why Gerard was so insistent on the distinction between genius and taste: taste is a combination of both internal sense and judgment, it is a "derived power" (EG 36n), which is why it is so difficult to pin down. We also see here one of the important differences between Gerard's account of genius and Kant's more famous account, despite the influence of the former on the latter. Kant's genius, like Gerard's taste, arises from the interplay between imagination and reason or judgment, and in the case of Kant's account of genius, judgment has the more important role to play. (It's not an accident that Kant discusses genius in a work called the Critique of Judgment.) I think this is also at the root of another, and even more obvious, difference between Gerard and Kant. Gerard holds that art and science alike have a genius appropriate to them. Kant, on the other hand, restricts the role of genius to art (and only beautiful art, at that), explicitly denying that science has any room for it. (Given the time at which they are writing, of course, both of them include mathematics and philosophy whenever they talk about science -- and, indeed, are usually thinking primarily of these things.) Given Gerard's account of invention, genius is primarily a facility for combining ideas in different ways, and obviously mathematicians and philosophers (experimental or not) do this. Kant, however, sees genius itself as being something rather different from mere recombination; it is a talent for originating rules and standards, itself producing things according to no rule, but doing so in such a way that its products are capable of being exemplars, rules, or standards for other things. On Kant's account of genius, no matter how brilliant Newton was, the physics he produced was itself according to a rule, and the whole point of something like the Principia is to lay out in a clean way the kind of rule that produces it. You can have rules for producing the Principia, and the Principia itself lays them out. There are no rules for producing an Iliad, though, and you certainly can't find anything like them in the Iliad itself; the Iliad can only be imitated. It is fundamental to the way physics works that the lowliest physicist can do exactly the same thing Newton did; but this is not true of poets, because what Homer did was in some sense incomparable to what the lowliest poets do. Kant does not think this is an advantage of art over science; science works this way because it is progressive and useful for everyone, whereas beautiful art is not, since it is constantly reaching points beyond which no progress is possible. This is a typical Kantian flip: it's precisely the fact that science does not involve genius that gives it greater value. But it derives, in any case, from the fact that Kant thinks that in at least one important way genius has to do more with a particular kind of judgment than with recombination in the imagination, despite the need for both. Gerard, on the other hand, attributes invention, and thus genius, to something that clearly would be found both in science and in arts other than those concerned with the beautiful.

Nonetheless, Gerard thinks that genius does need judgment. The source of genius is in the imagination, but judgment is needed not so that we can be inventive but so that its products can be developed. As Gerard puts it, "Without judgment, imagination would be extravagant; but without imagination, judgment could do nothing" (EG 38).

Because he locates genius in the imagination, Gerard sees its operation as primarily associative, and therefore as following regular rules and laws. All of our imaginations operate according to the same principles of association (resemblance, contiguity, contrariety, etc.), and where genius is involved, the association is combined with a special degree of comprehensiveness, regularity, and activity.

(1) Comprehensiveness. The reason why the man of genius can be so innovative is that he doesn't have to follow memory as closely as the rest of us. The strongly associative imagination can reach from its starting point to almost any other idea, whereas the more weakly associative imagination must go step by step through what has worked previously. Genius arises when someone can swiftly and easily overview a vast number of possibilities and make a selection from them. Someone like Homer is obviously at every moment able to draw images and ideas from almost every part of nature; someone like Newton seems at every point to be able to pull in almost any experiment or mathematical idea with which he has ever been acquainted.

(2) Regularity. Merely coming up with ideas is not enough; they have to be placed in an order, scheme, or design, as well. The person of genius is not merely taking everything into account; he is identifying what is appropriate to the whole. Those who have genius, then, are able (as we say) to stick to the point: looking over the whole compass of the imagination, they nonetheless at the same time are able to keep the purpose of their inquiry unwaveringly in view. This imparts a greater order on the final product than could otherwise be the case. If we look at the work of the great scientists or artists, we find that (whether they seem orderly in their proceeding or not) their work gives a much greater sense of everything being in its proper place. No matter how far they roam across the landscape of the imagination, they are rarely lost. Homer's ability to unify everything in a narrative is so remarkable that Aristotle's comments on it gave rise to the idea of the poetic unities; Newton stands out as rarely if ever appealing to anything superfluous, so that everything contributes to the reasoning in an important way. Without regularity, comprehensiveness of imagination merely gives a sort of profligacy of imagination, full of the superfluous and distracting: lots of material, no adequate form. People have difficulty with Ariosto, or Spencer, or Locke, because they seem sometimes to pour out ideas in a way that sometimes loses the point; when people criticize this, they are saying that there is more comprehensiveness than regularity involved in their invention. Gerard connects this to the problem of the essay. In Montaigne everything is connected almost by accident; the novelty and humor of it made the original striking, thus leading to imitation. But essay-writing by its nature is irregular composition, unsuitable for genius: even very good essays are marked out by the excellences of this or that part, not the excellence of the whole, which is often a merely artificial or superficial unity.

In some sense regularity explains why people of genius are apparently able to overview the entire field of possibilities so easily: their ability to keep their intent or aim in view means that they are able to set aside immediately anything that is not appropriate to what they are doing.

(3) Activity. In works of genius we see evidence that people are not merely uniting comprehensiveness with regularity, but doing so vigorously, constantly, often swiftly. Mere activity does not do much but cause distraction; however, activity combined with regularity and comprehensiveness accomplishes extraordinary things. Likewise, you can have some kind of genius without much activity, but genius that is idle or dormant is genius that is not accomplishing anything.

The combination of activity and strength of association explains why genius is often associated with enthusiasm or inspiration, that is, with a kind of visionary madness; in genius the mind is (one might say) working like crazy, seeing things vividly, warming up to its task: "the fire of genius, like a divine impulse, raises the mind above itself, and by the natural influence of the imagination actuates it as if were supernaturally inspired" (EG 68). Likewise, a certain kind of enthusiasm may fuel the work of genius by raising the mind to a high degree of activity. (Gerard's discussion of this is somewhat remarkable in that it is the only discussion of enthusiasm in the Scottish Enlightenment that says unambiguously positive things about enthusiasm, at least that I know of.)

It is important to note, however, that none of this means that genius produces works that cannot be improved. This is precisely why judgment is still necessary to genius. This is as true in art as it is in science. You can have genius without good judgment, but the greatest genius requires the cultivation good judgment provides (EG 75-76):

In a man of genius, imagination can scarce take a single step, but judgment should attend it. The most luxuriant fancy stands most in need of being checked by judgment. As a rich soil produces not only the largest quantity of grain, but also the greatest profusion of such weeds as tend to choak it; so a fertile imagination, along with just and useful ideas, produces many trifling, false, and improper thoughts, which, if they be not immediately examined by reason, and speedily rejected, will over-run and obstruct the truth or the beauty which others might have produced.

Philosophers and scientists without good judgment may produce many good ideas, but they will also produce many wild hypotheses. Artists and poets without good judgment may produce many beauties, but they will also produce many bizarre improbabilities. Gerard points to a very common phenomenon: someone in the grip of invention is fired up by his own ideas, which take on a sort of brilliance, but if he sets it aside for a while and comes back to it, he finds things that were not in the best judgment, even if the work in general is still sound. Genius is not a magic faculty for attaining to truth and beauty; it just discovers the means and materials for reaching these things. Gerard points to Shakespeare's famous exuberance for an example: without being any less a result of genius, some of Shakespeare's speeches (Gerard gives as his example Midsummer Night's Dream Act III, Scene 8) are such a flood of ideas, association after association, that by the end of them you are nowhere near where you started. The first part of the speech was making a point, but the last part just gets carried away by imagination. Gerard is very critical of some Renaissance painting for the same reason: they are constantly putting things into the painting just for the sake of putting them into it. Undeniable genius, yes, but not always good judgment about what would make sense in the context of the whole painting. These examples show that where judgment is most necessary is in maintaining regularity of imagination, keeping to the point no matter how far you travel. All of this is why sketches and revisions are necessary even for geniuses: "The first sketch of every work of genius, is always very different from the finished piece" (EG 82). Even artists and scientists of extraordinary genius have to try things out and then go back and correct them. They may make it look much easiers than others can, but in the last analysis they are as much in new territory as anyone else. Their imaginations sometimes run away with them, their sense of the whole sometimes wavers, and sometimes they just don't follow through as they should. When they have good judgment, however, they can identify and correct these problems.

Judgment also does something else for genius: it discovers relations that can provide material to genius. When judgment surveys what genius has produced, it can often find relationships that were not in view before. They are already there, at least in part, but they weren't being taken into account in the first production. Once judgment steps in, these relations can be recognized and in revision genius can now take them into account as well, leading to a new coherence and richness in the work. A scientist needs genius to come up with excellent experiments, but this will often depend on being able first to recognize the patterns in experiments that have already been done. Given this new information by judgment, genius can fill the gaps, or come up with experiments that don't rely on some potentially questionable assumption. An author needs to recognize patterns in beginning and middle in order to come up with an appropriate end. Having come up with a wide variety of images in a first draft, a poet needs good judgment to see which ones need modification in order to improve the poem.

This gives us some sense of how genius works in general, at least as Gerard argues it, but genius also exhibits an extraordinary amount of diversity, and we will discuss this in the next post in the series.


But we have received by tradition that God does not need the material offerings which men can give, seeing, indeed, that He Himself is the provider of all things. And we have been taught, and are convinced, and do believe, that He accepts those only who imitate the excellences which reside in Him, temperance, and justice, and philanthropy, and as many virtues as are peculiar to a God who is called by no proper name. And we have been taught that He in the beginning did of His goodness, for man’s sake, create all things out of unformed matter; and if men by their works show themselves worthy of this His design, they are deemed worthy, and so we have received—of reigning in company with Him, being delivered from corruption and suffering. For as in the beginning He created us when we were not, so do we consider that, in like manner, those who choose what is pleasing to Him are, on account of their choice, deemed worthy of incorruption and of fellowship with Him. For the coming into being at first was not in our own power; and in order that we may follow those things which please Him, choosing them by means of the rational faculties He has Himself endowed us with, He both persuades us and leads us to faith. And we think it for the advantage of all men that they are not restrained from learning these things, but are even urged thereto.

St. Justin Martyr, First Apology X

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Three Poem Re-Drafts


Walking in this twilight wood
I the stars had seen and stood,
wonder-struck; I could not roam.
Here was found the holy grail
shining light on sand and loam,
blessing all; thus all was well.

Sit beneath the starlit dome,
speak the words of ancient tales:
make the skies your rightful home,
distant-seen through gloaming veils.
Starry steeds will never fail,
steady through this endless space
fair, divine, and swift of pace,
rushing like a burning gale.


The golden crown upon my head I give,
or would if golden crown I had to give,
and with it all the life I have to live,
if life were something such as I could give;
for when and where you dwell true good shall live,
and there I too must wish to love and live,
and though it cost me dear, I dearly love
to love your life and give to you my love.

I love you! Would you could return the same.
Yet how I see you love me not the same,
and that your love is mostly love in name!
From day to day your look is not the same;
the tone will change with which you say my name.
Indifference can love not man nor name:
it wreathes your look; it stifles every love,
and proves, perhaps, that you will never love.

And yet I still somehow in hope can live.
Without a victor's crown a man will live
through other joys, and joy may give.
Though not the greatest way a man may live,
a man unloved may still his own love give
until new fortunes new loves to him give.
Undaunted I to you will give my love
until the day I too am crowned with love.


Forest bright in morning
Busy as a town,
Rich in dewy freshness,
Farm with fertile ground,
Undecayed, untouched,
Pristine and virgin-grown.