Saturday, March 08, 2014

Links and Things to Note

* Filocracia is a relatively new online journal for philosophy.

An interesting article from the current issue is Guillermo Donisio's Natural Law Tradition and Confucian Culture (PDF). Donisio explores a number of ways in which there are 'resonances', so to speak, between the two traditions. I think one way of looking at the relation is that they are fundamentally consistent with each other; but Confucian thought tends to focus on the issue of authority (broadly speaking), while Western thought tends to think in terms of law.

* NASA has found a black hole emitting the note of B flat, 57 octaves below middle C. It's emitting sound in the sense that it is generating waves in a gaseous medium -- we do it with air, it is doing it with hot interstellar gases.

* Physicist Matt Strassler whips up a poem about black holes. Given that it's intended not to be too serious, it's actually not bad.

* Barbara Bush on dynastic presidencies:

Bush said in a recent interview for C-SPAN’s “First Ladies” series that it’s “silly” to think that America can’t find other people who aren’t named Clinton, Kennedy or Bush to run for public office.

“I refuse to accept that this great country isn’t raising other wonderful people,” she said in the interview.

She always was the most sensible member of the Bush family.

* The African Windmill Blog discusses food security.

* Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, translates Concede mihi, misericors Deus

* Fulton Sheen's cause for canonization is moving forward

* Jutta Schickore discusses scientific discovery at the SEP. The discussion of Whewell is quite good.

* Cecilia Wee discusses the Confucian view of filial obligations in a free article from the journal Dao. (PDF)

* Scripture's heaven and the God of the philosophers at "Just Thomism"

* Catherine Addington on Christina Rosetti's Lenten Life.

Chrysologus for Lent IV

One of my favorites today.

When a prudent captain casts off from the coast, when he enters the deep to journey across the sea, he puts aside his concerns for his home, his country, his wife, his children;and he is so totally consumed in mind, body, and emotion with the tasks of sailing that he is able to overcome the perilous waves and, victorious over danger, enter the quarters of a profitable port. So we too, my brothers, having set out along the route of abstinence, on the sea of fasting, on the journey of Lent, let us cast the ship of our body off from the coast of the world, let us renounce our concerns for our earthly country, let us fully unfurl the sails of our mind on the mast of the cross; let us secure the safe passage of our vessel with the ropes of the virtues, with the oars of wisdom, with the rudders of discipline; and having set forth from the land let us gaze upon the sky so that by the guidance of the signs of heaven along the clear and narrow paths of our hidden journey we might hold our course unobstructed.

And so with Christ as our pilot and the Holy Spirit providing the wind, when the foam of the pleasures has been overcome, the waves of the vices have been conquered, the storms of misdeeds weathered, the rocks of sin evaded, and when we have steered clear of the vessels of all the offenses, then let us enter the port of Easter, life's reward, the joys of the resurrection.

Sermon 8, section 1.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Andre Gombay

I see from NewAPPS that Andre Gombay has died. This is very sad news. Gombay was an excellent Descartes scholar and one of the most genial people I have ever met. One of my favorite memories of Toronto was an occasion when, at a dinner for a job candidate, we (somehow) got on the subject of the surprising paucity of pirates in French literature, and discussed The Count of Monte Cristo (which has bandits and buried treasure, but no pirates) for a while. He also, at my dissertation defense, managed to catch the fact that in three very disparate parts of my thesis I had translated the same passage from Malebranche in slightly different ways. (I had apparently translated it from scratch three different times. But -- and this was big for me -- he would equally have caught any significant translation error, since he knew more about seventeenth century French than I will ever know, and I seem to have passed on that ground, at least.)

I remember once, also, talking to him about the job market, and he remarked that it had been very different in his day. When he had graduated (from Oxford, I think), he had gone off to Africa -- Uganda, I think, although I might be misremembering -- through a program for helping Commonwealth universities, and then come at some point to Toronto. He had never even had to do a formal interview.

There's a good picture of him here from 2011.

His approach to Descartes was always extraordinarily admirable, straightforward yet avoiding all narrowness or parochialism. He did a lot of work looking into possible sources for the image of the evil genie -- or evil genius, as we usually call it -- in Descartes's Meditations. One of his interesting arguments is that you can see a symptom of the beginning of a new approach to creative works in the argument for God's existence in Descartes's Third Meditation; he suggested that our view of plagiarism is shaped by the fact that we essentially accept something like the basic principle of Descartes's argument, and that this isn't an accident. His philosophical interests extended far beyond Descartes, though -- he wrote a number of papers on various analytical issues, especially in Ethics, and was an expert on Nietzsche as well. And everything he did, he did with insight and a light touch. He was irreplaceable.

ADDED LATER: The Star obituary for him.

Vietnamese Pronouns

I'm currently studying Finnish and Vietnamese (very different languages!); both will probably take me a few years to get the hang of even at a basic level, since I'm not hugely graced with a talent for languages. But there are lots of interesting facets even dipping one's toes into the water.

Vietnamese has a beautifully simple grammar. It's a tonal language, which means pronunciation is difficult for a native English speaker, but the tonal system itself is in reality not very complicated -- there are only five or six tones depending on the dialect, and they are fairly different. The (very) hard part is being consistent. One aspect of Vietnamese that is very difficult, though, is how it handles pronouns. How you address or refer to someone depends on their age and status relative to yours. And most of the 'pronouns' are familial. So, for instance, if you greet someone, with chào, which is more or less 'Hello', it matters whether the person is old enough to be your brother, your parents' age, or your grandparents' age.

Chào em, for instance, is for people definitely younger than you are. Chào anh is for men old enough that they could be roughly your age, maybe a little older; chào chi is for women who are the same. Chào chú is for men who are old enough to be a much older brother; chào cô is for women who are the same. Chào bác is for men or women who are your parents' age or slightly older. Chao ông is for men old enough to be your grandparents' age, and chào bà for women. It's built into the 'pronouns', really; anh actually means 'older brother' and ông means 'grandfather', for instance, so what you're doing is extending the same courtesy you extend your family members, with the caveat that the greater the age, the more respected the title, so when there's ever a question you should always err on the side of taking them to be older than they are.

It's a social system in a language. But it's quite complicated, especially when it intersects with status or real family relationship. Just from what I've seen, even native Vietnamese have some difficulty figuring out what to do if you have a son who is a priest, for instance: sons should be addressed as younger people, but priests should be addressed in the same way as fathers. Technically, titles should overrule ordinary age considerations, but that's a very formal convention, which is awkward in a real family situation. It's equally difficult for the priest, whose title makes him a father with respect even to his mother; but speaking in that way to one's mother would usually sound extremely disrespectful, and I doubt that there are many priests who would dare do it. In our age of mass media, another challenge has arisen: you are often addressing people whose age and status and sex you do not know. So in advertisements you often get addressed as bạn, which means 'friend'.

A Poem Draft and a Poem Re-Draft


The way of love a circle runs
from heart to heart to bind them both,
unending flame, eternal ring,
that like the bush unburned yet burns,
undying. With a lightning blaze,
like blood it circles on the road.
Who loves will fight again to gain
new hope, will rise again to fight
until the loved can know the good,
again, again, with strength of faith
that trusts that love will never fail,
that holds to love to reach its goal.
Though war may weary, soldiers bear
their burdens, crawling if they must;
so lovers, though their hearts may bleed,
endure against a world gone mad,
and do the good, and good things make,
and save; no steel makes stronger bonds.
Though cycles never end, yet love will work;
again it will remake the world.

Dragon Psalm

Earth shakes, mountains tremble;
they reel at the flaring of wrath,
like water boiling on fire.
Smoke rises from his nostrils,
fire pours from his mouth;
kindled stones like coals pour forth.

Before him is devouring fire;
it whirls about him, mighty tempest.
He touches mountains and they smoke.
Hills and stones melt like wax;
his foes are all consumed.
Drowning fire precedes; it storms around him.
He comes! He is not silent.
The bed of the sea is uncovered,
the world's foundations laid bare,
at the Lord's roar, the storm of his breath.

The heavens are shaken, rent,
darkness is under his feet.
He is borne on wings of wind.
The eternal mountains are shattered;
fragments of hills pave his way.
The tempest-winds are his angels;
fire and flame are his servants.
Before him goes lightning and splendor;
the earth sees and quakes.
He rains down flame and coals of fire,
sends the wicked a scorching wind. Selah.

A fire consumes before him;
clouds and thick darkness surround him,
they sweep on with hail of fire.
Mountains that see him quiver;
raging waters cower in fear;
the deep gives forth a groaning voice;
stars stand still on high.
He crushes the head of the wicked;
his arrows of light shoot forth,
his lightning a glittering spear.

I was drowning in deep waters.
He drew me out and saved me;
he destroyed the demons of the sea.
His wings are wings of morning;
the heavens glow with his breath, aflame.
The mountains bow down before him
that they may declare his justice:
the Lord of hosts is his name. Hallelujah!

Chrysologus for Lent III

Brothers, let us send our treasure chests ahead of us to heaven. The poor are the transports who in their lap can carry to the heavens what is ours. Let no one have any hesitations about the qualifications of these porters. Safe this is, safe this transportation through which our goods are carried to God with God as the guarantor.

Sermon 7, section 6

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Precedents and Modal Diamonds

I've been thinking about precedents recently and haven't been able to find anything on them that deal with the kinds or issues I think interesting, so these are some jottings as I work my way through some ideas. My basic idea is that the best way to characterize reasoning using precedent is in terms of modal logic.

A modal logic is one where there are operators that identify the way things are. A typical modal logic will have two kinds of operators: a strong modal operator, which we can call Box, and a weak modal operator, which we can call Diamond. Examples of Box would be: necessarily, always, everywhere, obligatorily. Examples of Diamond would be: possibly, sometimes, somewhere, permissibly. There can sometimes also be a neutral modality, which we could call Null, which is weak compared to Box but strong compared to Diamond. The most obvious example of Null is: actually or truly, which is between necessarily and possibly.

How Box, Null, and Diamond relate to each other varies considerably depending on the modality. It's fairly common, though, to allow one to infer Null from Box and Diamond from Box or Null. So, for instance, if something is necessarily true (Box), it is true (Null) and possible (Diamond); while if something is true (Null), it is also possible (Diamond). My basic idea for reasoning with precedents is that it uses Null to establish Diamond.

How do you establish that something is possible? For instance, if you are asked whether it is possible for there to exist a black swan, what would you do? There are a number of things that you could do, but the easiest thing would be to look around and see if you can find an actual black swan. What you are doing is finding a Null (actual black swan) from which you can conclude the corresponding Diamond (possible black swan). When we reason using precedents, we are doing exactly this, but the modality is not possibility but permissibility. Or, in other words, precedented is a Null modality implying permissible as a Diamond modality, and in reasoning based on precedents we are starting with Null and concluding Diamond.

Not just any kind of thing can serve as a precedent in this way. But it shows directly why precedents would be somewhat important in fields like law, which deal with what is permissible. And I think we can go beyond even this. Why is precedent so important in law, so that it is very difficult to find any area of law in which precedent doesn't have at least some weight? It's because law is a system in which the permissible cannot always be safely assumed as a default. In many cases with Diamond modalities, we take Diamond modalities to be quite cheap -- just assume that things are possible, for instance, until you have a good argument otherwise. But permissibility is harder, and there are always parts of a legal system where this is simply not acceptable to assume that things are permissible unless you can show they are. You can't assume, for instance, that it's permissible for the government to do anything until it is shown that it can't; that would be tyranny. So the government's actions have to be established as permissible. But, again, the easiest way to establish something as permissible is to establish it as permitted; or, in other words, to show that some proper authority operating in apparently the right way permitted it. Precedents can mislead, of course, but this is no different from the fact that truth claims can mislead; and they can be wrong, of course, but this is no different from the fact that truth claims can be wrong. They still function in much the same way.

One way to put this might be to say that precedent becomes important in matters where liberty cannot be assumed and moral safety (in the casuistic senses) is important. The casuists held that some things, whether permissible or not, were more or less safe than others. For instance, when we say that something is reckless, we are saying that, even if it was not wrong, it increased the danger of doing something wrong to a very high degree: it was relatively unsafe. One of the biggest disputes in moral philosophy in the modern period was the argument over whether it was ever OK to do something morally less safe if doing something more safe was an option. (The position that you can't is called rigorism or tutiorism; its contrary is laxism, which held that it was always OK to do the less safe thing as long as you had some kind of reason for it. There are a number of positions in between.)

There are lots of situations where safety is not that big an issue -- eating ice cream one way might give you an ice cream headache, but nobody's going to make a fuss if you do it. There are other situations in which any kind of recklessness could cause terrible damage. In those cases liberty can't be assumed, and safety is a major issue. Lots of areas in law have this sort of effect, so it's unsurprising that if something isn't precedented it might be reasonable to regard it with suspicion; and if a new situation comes up, one might have to use acceptable kinds of inferences to show that the precedent's Null modality also establishes a Diamond for the new kind of situation.

There are a number of complications I haven't worked out, but that's more or less where I am at this point.

Chrysologus for Lent II

A face downcast in sadness professes a hunger against one's will, not a voluntary fast. If a person is willing, why the sadness? If unwilling, why the fast? One deserves to live in such pain who creates for himself a vice out of virtue, a lie out of truth, a loss out of gain, a sin out of forgiveness. If the farmer does not push the plow, if he does not dig a furrow, if he does not cut down the briars, if he does not root out the grass, if he does not place seeds in the earth, he deceives himself, not the earth; he does no harm to the earth, but he produces no harvest for himself. And if the one who deceives the earth with his fraudulent and empty hand so deprives, so cheats, and so attacks himself, what will one do, what will he have, what will he find who lies to God with his flesh starving but brimming over with hypocrisy?

Sermon 7, section 5

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Chrysologus for Lent I

Brothers, the disease must be avoided, the pestilence evaded which creates sickness out of remedies, which causes illness to result from medicine, which turns holiness into sin, which changes atonement into guilt, and which generates division out of reconciliation. Whoever flees hypocrisy conquers; whoever runs into it does not escape. Let us flee hypocrisy, let us flee it, my brothers. May ours be the fast of simplicity; may it be holy from our innocence, pure from our purity, sincere from our sincerity. May it be hidden from people, unknown to the devil, but known to God. Whoever does not hide his treasure flaunts it; virtues that are flaunted will not remain. Just as virtues desert those who flaunt them, so they work hard at shielding those who shield them. Therefore, fasting, which is the first virtue against vices, should be placed in the fortress of our heart, since so long as it presides within us, vices will not be able to disturb us from without.

Sermon 7, section 3.

[St. Peter Chrysologus, Selected Sermons, Volume 2, William Palardy, tr. Catholic University of America (Washington, DC: 2004).]

A Poem Draft

Ash Wednesday

Time is burning us, leaving only ash,
black residue of deeds repented,
and yet, somehow, the ashes suit us,
repentance being the source of our growth:
not dirty but pure is the ash of the fire,
wisdom, nobler than rubies, that crowns,
emblem of hope and sign of our greatness,
not mark of Cain but anointing flame.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Music on My Mind

Ethel Waters, "Miss Otis Regrets".

I've mentioned before that I like murder ballads. Murder ballads often have an ambiguous edge to them. They depend crucially on there being a sharp distinction between justice and injustice, since they crucially depend on the idea of 'comeuppance', but this distinction, and the idea of comeuppance, can be put forward in various moods. A lot of murder ballads easily allow you a great deal of freedom as to the mood. This one, which was written by Cole Parter in the 1930s, is somewhat distinctive in that it works best with a particular mood, which Ethel Waters hits perfectly -- the song has been recorded by many others, but I think even Ella Fitzgerald, who usually finds the best mood for a song, was not able to top the perfect take here. Trying to characterize it in words one comes up against the fact that our language for moods just isn't sufficiently rich. I suppose we could call it ironically sweet politeness.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Some Things to Do for Lent

Lent starts up this week, since Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, so here are some things to keep in mind for it.

(1) The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch has asked for prayers this Lent for Christians in Iraq. From 2003 to 2013, more than a million Christians have been forced to flee the country, as their religious leaders have been kidnapped and murdered, their churches have been bombed, and their people have been attacked or threatened with death.

(2) If you are considering where to donate for Lent, you might consider the Africa Windmill Project, which works with farmers in Malawi to help them achieve greater sustainability and food security. They do work helping with irrigation, teaching farming practices, and collaborating with local communities on farming-related projects. Farmers in Malawi are especially vulnerable to drought, and have had to deal with the difficult work of trying to build stable and sustainable sources of food in times when it's difficult to catch any break at all. It's a situation in which little incremental improvements can go a long, long way; just being able to guarantee a moderate harvest can often mean not only that your family doesn't go hungry this year, but also that you can reduce the chances that they will go hungry the next.

(3) I liked putting up quotations last Lent, so I will be doing the same this Lent. This Lent, though, will be devoted specifically to St. Peter Chrysologus, Doctor of the Church. Peter was Archbishop of Ravenna in the fifth century. He was famous for his homilies, many of which have survived. Chrysologos, of course, means 'golden word', and it is his homilies that have given him the name. He was named Doctor of the Church in 1729 and is often called the Doctor of Homilies for the same reason. There recently came into my hands two volumes of a three volume translation of Chrysologus's sermons into English, and there are lots of things relevant to Lent in them, since fasting, repentance, and almsgiving are common themes with him. (This may have been a major reason why Benedict XIII marked him out for the honor; that pope, who was a very poor administrator and an incompetent statesman, prone to naive trust in all the wrong people, nonetheless excelled as a pious ascetic, and the primary benefit of his papacy was his constant push to eliminate worldliness from the clergy. But Chrysologus meets all the other criteria in spades; he was an excellent choice, and deserves broader recognition.) So I'll put up a bit from Chrysologus each day of Lent, not counting Sundays.

Rosmini's Four Principles

The principle of contradiction depends on the principle of cognition (cf. 565), which is a necessary fact expressed as follows: 'The object of thought is being'. It is the principle of all principles, the law of intelligent nature, and the essence of intelligence.

The second principle is that of contradiction, derived directly from the first: 'Being and not-being cannot be thought at one and the same time'.

The third is the principle of substance: 'Accidents cannot be thought without substance'.

The fourth principle is cause: 'A new entity cannot be thought without a cause'.

Antonio Rosmini, Origin of Thought, Part III, Chapter 2, section 567.

Shepherd on Association of Ideas

Although an increased attention has been given to the doctrine of the association of ideas as being sufficient to account for most of the operations of mind, yet its nature has been looked upon as too simple and philosophical to require much scrutiny; whereas, that very power of association appears to me the most difficult of comprehension in nature; for how shall any given idea be supposed as associated with some other idea, which idea is not yet supposed to be in existence; one idea only present in the mind, a single simple perception, merely, cannot suggest an after perception, for the suggestion is the perception of the suggested idea itself.

Lady Mary Shepherd, Essays on the Perception of an External Universe, Essay XIII.

This brief comment seems to me to be of extraordinary importance, far more than it might seem at first glance. It raises a problem that early modern empiricism never answered satisfactorily and early modern rationalism only answered (as in Malebranche) with claims that did not take hold and are often considered quite extreme; it is one of the key problems of semiotics; at least a modified form of it is a significant problem for naturalistic epistemologies, since it is closely related to the question of the limits of human cognition. You do not have to be rigorously associationist to be faced with the problem or some variant of it. It is, in short, one of the major problems of modern times and, I would say, far more important than many of the problems in epistemology that get greater attention. Shepherd's own suggestion is that association is already the union of different things under one concept, and thus necessarily presupposes more fundamental acts of mind; this is part of her ongoing assault against the empiricisms of Berkeley and Hume.

Two Poem Re-Drafts


The eyes of my lady,
sweet pools of Narcissus,
reflect back ideas
I see in my mind,

entrap and enchant me
with love of myself,
whom I see in-shimmering
the eyes of my lady.

Half Asleep in a Thunderstorm

I lie in bed at night,
a fan above my head;
my mind whirls round and round.
I dream that I am dead.

Darkness all around me
is a blanket on the brain,
my heartbeat in my ears
is the pounding of the rain,
and I watch the world go by,
mere leaves upon the gale,
visions of lost time
untallied by a tale.

Darkness thunders softly
as I drift here in my bed,
half in the world and of it,
half out of it and dead.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Fortnightly Book, March 2

The fortnightly book this time around is one that I've been meaning to get to for a while: Solomon and the Queen of Sheba by an author with the very striking name of Czenzi Ormonde.

There is remarkably little on Ormonde herself; all sources I've been able to find, like this notice of her death ten years ago at age 98, indicate that she mostly kept to herself. She wrote another novel, Laughter from Downstairs, but most of her writing was screenwriting. Her most famous work in that area seems to have been to re-work the script for Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, which came out in 1951. Hitchcock had a falling out with the original writer, Raymond Chandler, so he wanted Ben Hecht, the famous script doctor, to re-work it. Hecht, however, was busy, so he sent one of his assistants, who happened to be Ormonde. I have seen different sources saying both that the final script is essentially Chandler's, with just some polish by Ormonde, and that the final script owes a few ideas to Chandler's original, but is essentially Ormonde's. She seems also to have been stuck with the job of ferrying Hitchcock around occasionally, as the director did not drive.

In addition to screenwriting, Ormonde did quite a bit of research for movie scripts, and that research seems to have led to this book, published in 1954. Recall that this was the late 1940s and early 1950s: Samson and Delilah completely rocked the box office in 1949, touching off a flurry of biblical epic blockbusters that we associate with Golden Age Hollywood, of which the most famous were The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959). I've never read Ormonde's book, but given her background and the circumstances under which she wrote it, it's hard not to anticipate some taste of the same in her book: lots of color filling in the outlines, not shying away from sex and violence without dwelling on them, big, sweeping story that takes ideas seriously but is mostly interested in character interaction, and so forth. But we'll see.

The epigraph for the book is from Proverbs 29:18: Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.