Saturday, May 18, 2013

Bend Reality and Control Minds

Way back in the early days of the blogosphere people often did silly quizzes, before Facebook came along and all the silly quizzes went to Facebook. So for old time's sake, here is another silly quiz.

This, of course, is closely related to the well-known equivalence between philosophy and sorcery, which is why the American edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

The technical name in philosophy for making one's opponents defeat themselves, by the way, is retorsion.

Aquinas for May XVIII

Intellectus creatus intelligit Deum non per identitatem naturae, sed per unionem ad ipsum, quae est vel per aliquam similitudinem non quidem abstractam, sed effluxam a Deo in intellectum; et hunc modum intelligendi vocat Avicenna, per impressionem, dicens, intelligentias in nobis esse ex hoc quod impressiones earum in nobis sunt: vel per unionem ad ipsam essentiam lucis increatae, sicut erit in patria.

"A created understanding understands God not by identity of nature, but by union with the same, which is either through some likeness (not indeed abstracted, but infused by God into the understanding, and this way of understanding Avicenna calls 'by impression', saying, understanding in us comes be from the impressions of things in us) or through union to the very being of uncreated light, as will be the case when we are Home."

Super Sent., lib. 2 d. 17 q. 1 a. 1 ad 4

('Patria', homeland, is a standard way of talking about heaven in medieval Latin: the saints are 'in patria', at home; we are currently 'viatores', wayfarers.)

Ideas of Primary and Secondary Generality

In each age of the world distinguished by high activity there will be found at its culmination, and among the agencies leading to that culmination, some profound cosmological outlook, implicitly accepted, impressing its own type upon the current springs of action. This ultimate cosmology is only partly expressed, and the details of such expression issue into derivative specialized questions of violent controversy. The intellectual strife of an age is mainly concerned with these latter questions of secondary generality which conceal a general agreement upon first principles almost too obvious to need expression, and almost too general to be capable of expression. In each period there is a general form of the forms of thought; and, like the air we breathe, such a form is so translucent, and so pervading, and so seemingly necessary, that only by extreme effort can we become aware of it.

[Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas. The Free Press (New York: 1967) p. 12.]

Friday, May 17, 2013

Music on My Mind

Little & Ashley, "Telegrams to Mars"

Aquinas for May XVII

Forma et exemplar operationis divinae in nos, est operatio divina in Christo.

"Divine activity in Christ is the form and exemplar of divine activity in us."

Super Eph. cap. 1 lect. 7

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Thursday Vice: Audacity

He is not the first person to speak of the vice of audacity, but there is no one who is more memorable on the subject than Cicero. Cicero had many enemies, and says of almost every one that he is audax. It is, for him, one of the worst things possible. Literally it means 'daring' or 'fearlessness', but it's not just that. Someone who is audax is not just daring; he is dangerously so. Those who have audacity in this sense are subversive of rational and social order; they are opponents of the common good, destroying things we all share simply because they think they can do better, without ever having established that they actually could; they are out for change regardless of the cost; they are not so much daring as brazenly irresponsible.

One of the things that Cicero himself recognizes about audacity is that it is courage-like. The recognition that not all vices are diametrical opposites of virtues goes back to Aristotle. Aristotle, you will remember, held that every virtue is a proportionate mean between two vices, one of excess and one of defect. However, he does not hold that the virtue is in the exact middle of these two vices. Of the two, one vice may well be much closer to the virtue than the other. If the virtue is a restraining virtue, requiring self-control, then a vicious excess of passion will be more opposed to it than a vicious deficiency of passion. On the other hand, if the virtue is one that requires pushing ourselves to continue, a vicious deficiency of passion will be more opposed to it than a vicious excess. So it is here: audacity is much closer to courage than the opposing vice, which goes by different names, but which we can here call timidity. It is nonetheless a vice, and its similarity to courage to some extent makes it even more dangerous than timidity, because the audacious can convince themselves easily that they are virtuously courageous, whereas the timid cannot.

We find exactly this view given by Aquinas (ST 2-2.126): audacity is a vice opposed to fortitude as its vice of excess. He interestingly identifies three sources of audacity as a vice. The first is that there is a close connection between fear and love. Who loves something, like his own life, will naturally fear to lose it, and therefore one cause of audacious behavior is a deficiency of love for whatever is on the line. We don't deliberately risk the things that are truly important, if we can help it. The second source of audacity is pride. One may love one's life and rashly risk it out of a sense of invulnerability. One way, in other words, to cultivate the vice of audacity is not to appreciate the fact that what is good can be lost, on the mistaken view that you can handle whatever might happen. The third source of the vice is culpable stupidity, the simple failure to think through the consequences of what you are doing. All of these are found in Aristotle, but in somewhat scattered way; Aquinas is reorganizing and simplifying Aristotle's approach, as well as generalizing it, since Aristotle tends to talk about audacity in the midst of battle, whereas Aquinas carefully avoids confining his discussion to any particular kind of situation.

In all of these audacity opposes the good life; as Aquinas says, commenting on Aristotle (In Nic. Eth. III, lect. 14, sect 533):

The brave man is praised because he does not fear. But there are certain things which we ought to fear in order to live a good life. It is good to fear these things inasmuch as fear is not only necessary for the preservation of respectability, but even fear itself is something honorable. There is a kind of disgrace attached to the person who does not fear evils of this sort.

The insistence on audacity being a vice, in other words, is tied up with an insistence that some fear, caution, hesitation, is honorable. Fear is not different from any other passion in this respect: it has its honorable forms and its dishonorable forms. The fact that some fear is dishonorable, however, does not mean that all fear should be avoided.

Aquinas for May XVI

Secundum quod accipitur veritas ex parte rei, homo de se non habet veritatem, quia natura sua vertibilis est in nihilum; sed solum natura divina, quae nec est ex nihilo, nec vertibilis in nihilum, de se veritatem habet.

"According to what is called 'truth' on the part of the thing, man does not have truth of himself, because his nature can become nothing; but only divine nature, which neither is from nothing nor can become nothing, has truth of itself."

Super Rom. cap. 3 lect. 1

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Links for Noting

* Paul Raymont has Kierkegaard links. William Doino also discusses Kierkegaard at "First Things".

* vril

* Caroline Chen discusses the social nature of proof in the mathematics community. Catarina Dutilh Novaes discusses it at NewAPPS and M-Phi.

* Juan Gomez on probable knowledge in Butler's Analogy

* Thony Christie on Galileo's theory of tides

* Dan Fincke hosts the 151st Philosophers' Carnival at "Camels with Hammers".

* A handy guide to phases of the moon.

* A rather funny Dan Brown parody -- one that manages to be accurately parodic without being malicious:

I’ll call my agent, pondered the prosperous scribe. He reached for the telephone using one of his two hands. “Hello, this is renowned author Dan Brown,” spoke renowned author Dan Brown. “I want to talk to literary agent John Unconvincingname.”

The "renowned deity God" line would itself be worth the reading.

* Adam Kotsko considers whether the U.S. should be considered a party state that is merely ceremonially structured as a constitutional republic. The major weakness of the argument is a certain naivete about how civil service actually works in the U.S. Any extensive acquaintance with civil service makes clear that the U.S. has as extensive and effective a bureaucracy as any, particularly given our sheer size, demographically, economically, and geographically; it just doesn't have the same place or role that civil service has elsewhere. (It is also consistently given a to-do list by Congress that is so extensive that actually finishing it is impossible, both in terms of time and labor and in terms of money actually budgeted -- the sheer number of projects that Congress has mandated to be done but never provided for is in itself an astounding thing.) I think the argument also underestimates the extent to which ceremonial constraints are effective constraints in politics. The state is a ceremonial structure, in every society: that's its whole point.

* The original proposal for Doctor Who

Aquinas for May XV

Manifestum est quod dux exercitus strenuis militibus non parcit a periculis aut laboribus, sed secundum quod militiae ratio exigit interdum eos et maioribus laboribus et maioribus periculis exponit, sed post victoriam adeptam magis strenuos plus honorat; sic et paterfamilias melioribus mercennariis maiores labores committit, sed in tempore mercedis eis maiora munera largitur; unde nec divina providentia hoc habet ut bonos magis ab adversitatibus et vitae praesentis laboribus eximat, sed quod in fine eos magis remuneret.

"It is clear that the general does not spare the strong soldiers from labor and danger, but the notion of an army requires that he sometimes expose them both to great labors and great dangers, but after victory is achieved the strong are honored more; so also the head of household commits the great labors to the better hired hands, but on payday gives them a greater reward; wherefore neither does divine providence have it so that those who are more good are freed from the adversity and labor of the present life, but rather that in the end they are better rewarded."

Super Iob cap. 7

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Ari Kohen on entertainment and education:

Wales asks, “why wouldn’t you have the most entertaining professor, the one with the proven track record of getting knowledge into people’s heads?” Is there evidence that the most entertaining lecture is the one that gets “knowledge into people’s heads”? Again, I’m not suggesting that a boring lecture is going to do the trick, but I’m arguing that entertaining students doesn’t necessarily equate with teaching them something. When I lecture on Kant, I don’t think I’m really entertaining my students. In my opinion, Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals doesn’t lend itself to entertainment; it’s a dense text that needs some serious explication. Now, I don’t speak in a monotone and I try to find relevant examples to help them make sense of the material, but I’m not standing in front of the class hoping that they’ll all have a great time; I’m standing there with the express purpose of teaching them about Kant.

I think part of the issue is this idea (quite common) that education is "getting knowledge into people's heads". This suggests that students are passive receivers of education, when in fact they are self-educators drawing on teachers as resources. As the Platonists were saying all along, it is students who 'get knowledge into their heads'; teachers are midwives, assistants. There's no evidence that entertaining professors are effective (students tend to think so, but all evidence so far suggests that students tend to overestimate how much they learn from entertaining professors and underestimate how much they learn from boring ones); and this is precisely because any attempt to make education a matter of putting knowledge into people's heads by entertaining them will fail on the very first step, because education is not putting knowledge into people's heads at all. Knowledge is not a substance inserted into the brain; it is an act of the person learning, one that's not easy to achieve.

This doesn't mean, of course, that there is no serious question at the entertainment/education juncture. Anyone who teaches extensively knows that one of the severe problems faced in modern education is that education is being outcompeted by entertainment. That is to say, education is a time- and effort-intensive endeavor, and students have only finite time and effort to expend. Now, it's not at all surprising that everyone prefers to have fun than to sit down and try to understand an obscure text or learn a tricky new technique for algebra. Nor is it at all reasonable to expect people to devote themselves wholly to the latter; arguably, intensive education in general requires plenty of downtime. But something that educators have to face is that the entertainment options these days are so extensive that it's harder and harder for students not to skimp on the actual work. This is clearly a major issue, and it seems to be trending worse. What the solution is, I don't know. But it's something we're going to have to face at some point.

Aquinas for May XIV

In rebus naturalibus videmus contingere quod omne malum sub ordine alicuius boni concluditur; sicut corruptio aeris est ignis generatio, et occisio ovis est pastus lupi.

"In natural things we see it happen that all evil is included under the ordering of some good; as corruption of air is generation of fire, and the slaughter of a sheep is the feeding of a wolf."

Summa contra gentiles 3.140 n. 5

Monday, May 13, 2013

Music on My Mind

First Aid Kit, "Wolf". Finishing up grading, so it's grading music! The video's a bit trippy, so forewarning.

Aquinas for May XIII

Opus divinae iustitiae semper praesupponit opus misericordiae, et in eo fundatur.

"The work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy, and is founded on it."

Summa Theologiae 1.21.4

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Thomistic Account of Rationality

This is the first of a series of (very loosely connected) posts on Christian and Catholic philosophy.

The Thomistic account of rationality -- I'm not talking about its philosophical psychological, but its account of rational thought -- is an interestingly nuanced one. It is famously summarized in Aquinas's preface to his unfinished commentary on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics (although there are other places in which it comes up). In this preface, he is talking about logic, of which the Posterior Analytics considers the summit or peak (namely, demonstrative reasoning, the kind that gives real knowledge). And he notes that logic is structured according to the various acts of reason, and on the basis of this gives a very famous account of the books of the Organon, the foundation of most medieval logic. We start with a general division:

There are three acts of reason, of which the first two belong to reason insofar as it is some kind of understanding (intellectus).

(1) One act of intellect is the understanding (intelligentia) of indivisibles or simples, according to which it conceives what the thing is. And this action is called information of the understanding or intellectual imagination. And to this action of reason is ordered the teaching that Aristotle hands down in the book of Predicaments (= Categories).

(2) The second action of understanding is intellectual composition or division, in which the true or the false is found. And this act of reason is served in the teaching that Aristotle hands down in the book of Perihermeneias (= De Interpretatione).

(3) The third act of reason concerns that which is proper to reason, to wit, discursively going from one thing to another (discurrere ab uno in aliud), such that from what is known one comes to cognition of what is unknown. And this act is considered in the remaining books of logic.

So here we have the basic structure of logic as a rational science: reason starts from basic objects of understanding, organizes these into things that can be true or false, and uses these to discover even more. The first part of logic, then, concerns what we might call concepts or terms; the second, what we might call propositions; and the third what we might call inferences or deductions.

So far, so good. But the third part of logic ends up being more complex than one might have originally assumed, because the act of reason it considers can be necessary, or probable, or fundamentally flawed. If we consider the necessary kind, we have what Aquinas calls logica judicativa, which is also called analytics because it analyzes or resolves things into their principles. This has two parts:
(3a1) The certitude of the judgment, which is had by resolution, is either from the form of the deduction as such, and to this is ordered the book of Prior Analytics, which is about deduction simply speaking;

(3a2) or it is also from the matter, because the propositions posited are are self-evident and necessary (per se et necessariae), and to this is ordered the book of Posterior Analytics, which is about demonstrative deduction.

Prior Analytics is the logical discipline concerned with what it means to say that one claim definitely follows from another; whereas Posterior Analytics concerns what it means to say that we come to know, in the most proper sense, conclusions on the basis of their premises. Thus both of these have to do with knowledge: conditional knowledge in the case of the former and knowledge simply speaking in the latter.

If we consider the kind of reasoning that can be called, in a broad sense, probable, Aquinas calls this logica inventiva -- while 'inventiva' can mean 'inventive' under certain circumstances, it primarily means 'having to do with discovery'. The word is usually translated in this context as 'investigative', but this doesn't quite capture it: this part of logic doesn't merely look into things -- it actually discovers them. Discovery is not all about necessities and certainties; we are at a level less than knowledge here. We are often here not in the realm of knowledge but of belief (fides) or opinion:
(3b1) ...and to this is ordered topics or dialectics. For the dialectical deduction that Aristotle considers in the book of the Topics comes from the probable.

But sometimes calling it belief or opinion is a little strong: what we get is not a definite, albeit imperfect, acceptance of one side of the question, but rather a leaning or inclination to one side. This act of reason Aquinas calls 'suspicion'; as in 'I suspect that the answer is such-and-such'. This gives us a second part of logica inventiva:

(3b2) Sometimes, however, belief or opinion is not completely formed, but a kind of suspicion, because it is not wholly inclined to one part of a contradiction, but more inclined to that one than this one. And to this is ordered Rhetoric.

We can have an even more tenuous result of our inquiry, though:

(3b3) Sometimes a mere estimation according to some representation inclines toward some part of a contradiction, in the way that food is made to be abhorred by a man if it is represented under the likeness of something abhorrent. And to this is ordered Poetics, for the poet is drawing to some virtue by some wholesome representation.

It is not customary with us to consider rhetoric and poetics as part of the rational sciences, or as concerned with deduction, but it was commonplace in the Middle Ages. In rhetoric and poetics, as in analytics or dialectics, we move from one thing to another in such a way as to discover the unknown on the basis of the known. This is a process subject to some uncertainty, and thus in itself only deals with probabilities, in a large sense of the term. Dialectics deals with the probable in the strict sense: the things that happen for the most part, the conclusions where we have almost eliminated all the possible alternatives, etc. But we can also have reasoning that deals with the probable in a looser sense. In rhetorical deduction we are in essence determining whether things fit with general opinion, whether they seem like they might be likely, and so forth. And in poetic deduction we are concerned with imaginative representation -- what is imaginatively plausible, what is attractive and repulsive, and so forth. Both rhetoric and poetics have an especially practical aspect, and the very fact that the reasoning they consider are the weakest kinds of reasoning is the source of their practical strength. They don't strictly have to consider truth or falsehood in the usual sense. Rhetoric is realm of reasoning where we are concerned with 'good enough for our purposes'; poetic is the realm of reasoning where we are concerned with 'good enough for representation'.

Aquinas doesn't develop the idea of poetic deduction or inference at length, but he is almost certainly thinking of Avicenna here. In Avicenna's account, we are all very familiar with poetic deductions or syllogisms: that is what metaphors are. Metaphors are the enthymemes of poetics. And Avicenna argues at some length that you can expand every metaphor to a syllogistic deduction. Now, the premises of these syllogisms may well be false in the strict sense, but Avicenna also holds that this is not an impediment here: what poetic syllogism requires is imaginative assent, what we might call acceptability of the representation; and this is true of the conclusion, as well. For whatever reason, Avicenna always uses a particular Sufi example, which certainly livens up his discussion of poetic syllogisms: "A rose is a mule's anus with dung in the middle." The point of this is not that this is some scientific account of a rose. The point rather is that this is a representation of the rose as worthless, and it is the kind of representation that will be acceptable if, for instance, you are a Sufi discussing the value of transient and earthly things in comparison to the value of eternal and divine things.

Aquinas never commits to anything as elaborate as Avicenna, and one suspects that if he had ever commented on the Poetics he would have made some modifications. But it does seem that the general idea is operative here, and it's almost inevitable that it would be: both Avicenna and Averroes treat Aristotle's Poetics as a logical book. Borges has a famous little short story in which he depicts Averroes trying to figure out the Poetics without any knowledge of what drama is. It's not a very accurate depiction of the Averroist approach to the Poetics, but it is certainly true that the approach of the commentators is very different from what we would think the obvious one. We approach Aristotle's Poetics as about creating and performing dramatic situations. But the Islamic commentators thought that this was a secondary feature of the work; for them, what the Poetics primarily describes is the way in which a mind manifests ideas, to itself or another mind, through imaginative representation. Avicenna might conceivably take liberties, but Averroes is a very literal commentator. If he reads it as a text on reasoning, it's because the work really can be read as a text on reasoning. It certainly is the case that this reading require some generalization of Aristotle; but this easily done, since all it requires is that we read Aristotle as discussing general truths through the specific examples provided by Greek culture. Arabic culture is in many ways radically different, but you can see that some of what Aristotle says about tragedy would obviously carry over to Arabic poetry. Further, we have scattered comments from Aristotle himself that encourage this kind of reading, such as his discussion of metaphor, or the famous claim that poetry is more philosophical than history because it is more universal.

In any case, we need rhetoric and poetics both for the full Thomistic account of rationality. We are still missing one part, though. That is, full accounting of rationality requires us to diagnose fundamentally flawed reasoning.

(3c) The third process of reasoning is served by that part of logic that is called sophistics, which Aristotle considers in the book of Elenchuses (= Sophistical Refutations).

And this gives us our complete set, which is, to recap:

  1. Logic as concerned with understanding: Predicaments or Categories
  2. Logic as concerned with judgment or propositions: Interpretation
  3. Logic as concerned with discursive reasoning
    • Necessary / Judging
      1. Formal knowledge: Prior Analytics
      2. Formal and material knowledge: Posterior Analytics
    • Probable / Discovering
      1. Belief or opinion: Topics or Dialectic
      2. Suspicion: Rhetoric
      3. Imaginative representation: Poetics
    • Defective: Sophistical Refutations
These aren't found hermetically sealed off from each other in actual reasoning. To achieve demonstration (analytics) requires extensive dialectical reasoning (dialectics), which itself may have originally grown out of imaginative representations (poetics) filtered according to social commonplaces and common opinions (rhetoric), and may require extensive diagnosis of flawed reasoning (sophistics). In fact, putting it this way shows something of the power of reading Aristotle's surviving works this way, because this is precisely how Aristotle operates: he takes ideas whose origin in Greek culture is the theological poets (as Aristotle himself recognizes), who influenced common opinion (which Aristotle considers), which was manipulated by the Sophists (whose arguments and persuasive speeches thus have to be addressed) and which serves as part of Aristotle's dialectical method of considering the major opinions on a subject before working to sort them out, all to the end of achieving knowledge. And one has only to look at Aquinas's discussion of Aristotle's historical accounts in the Metaphysics to see that he is almost certainly aware of this.

The Thomistic account of rationality is thus:

(a) pluralistic: It does not reduce rational thought to one kind of thinking, but recognizes that one may be rational in very diverse ways.

(b) systematic: The pluralism does not lead to a hodge-podge, but is highly structured, both as to its principles, which are the kinds of rational activity themselves, and as to its intrinsic end, which is demonstrative knowledge.

(c) practical as well as theoretical: The rational sciences cover both practical reason and speculative reason; there is no sharp division here, and practice can be as logical as pure reason. This is most obvious in cases like rhetoric or poetics, where the practical is always important, but there are practical and speculative forms of all of them.

(d) an account of inquiry itself: All parts of inquiry have some place in the logical scheme; none are left out. This is a result of the inclusion of constructive and corrective, as well as probative, parts.

Aquinas for May XII

Si non proficit homo profectu mentis cum aetate corporis, quatuor sequuntur ex hoc inconvenientia: quia hoc est monstruosum, damnosum, grave, sive laboriosum, et periculosum.

"If a man does not progress in the mind as with the age of the body, four inappropriate things follow from this: because it is monstrous, ruinous, burdensome or laborious, and dangerous."

Puer Jesus pars 2