Saturday, July 20, 2019

Oscar Wilde, The Plays of Oscar Wilde; De Profundis


Opening Passages: I'll just take one from the tragedies and one from the comedies (ignoring stage directions), and then De Profundis. From Salomé:

THE YOUNG SYRIAN: How beautiful is the Princess Salomé tonight!
THE PAGE OF HERODIAS: Look at the moon! How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. You would fancy she was looking for dead things.

From The Importance of Being Earnest:

ALGERNON: Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?
LANE: I didn't think it polite to listen, sir.
ALGERNON: I'm sorry for that, for your sake. I don't play accurately -- anyone can play accurately -- but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for life.

From De Profundis:

H. M. Prison,

Dear Bosie,--After long and fruitless waiting I have determined to write to you myself, as much for your sake as for mine, as I would not like to think that I had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever having received a single line from you, or any news or message even, except such as gave me pain.

Summary: In Wilde's first play, Vera, or, The Nihilists, Vera (loosely inspired by the Russian revolutionary Vera Ivanovna Zasulich) becomes deeply involved in the plots against the Czar after the death of her brother due to the Czar's men. She becomes involved with another conspirator, Alexis, who turns out to be himself the son of the Czar. When the Czar is in fact killed, Alexis ascends to the throne, thus violating his oath as a nihilist, and Vera, as the nihilists' best assassin has the mission to assassinate him.

The Duchess of Padua is much more melodramatic, but also revolves around an assassination plot. Guido Ferranti is seeking vengeance against Simone Gesso, the Duke of Padua, a rather nasty and malicious man. In attempting to infiltrate the Duke's inner circle, however, he falls in love with Beatrice, the Duchess of Padua. She returns his love, and Guido decides not to kill the Duke, but when Beatrice herself kills him, this will lead to a terrible estrangement that will lead only to death. The play is fast-moving, but suffers from the fact that everybody's motivations change every few pages. The shifts make sense in the abstract, but it's a lot of whiplash in a relatively short space.

In Salomé, the title character has an intense sexual desire for the prophet Iokanaan, who, however, is wholly devoted to his holy mission. Iokanaan is feared and admired by Herod, but hated by Herod's wife Herodias due to Iokanaan's condemnations of their relationship and of Herodias herself. This is only background, however; the focus is on Salomé herself, who will use the skill and beauty of her dance to have Iokanaan's head. The tale, of course, is that of the death of John the Baptist; Wilde's is a rather fanciful take. But it's perhaps the preeminent example of how Wilde approaches his plays; all of his plays are more like paintings or tableaux than like dramas. They are moving pictures, and have something of the structure of a painting. In the case of the tragedies, and this is especially true of Salomé, it is a very lush and textured depiction; in the case of the comedies, it is light in stroke and brush. As Wilde himself somewhere says, he likes his comedies modern and his tragedies robed in purple. Salomé thus works mostly as a dramatic poem depicting twisted desire, desire pitched to the point of a sort of lunatic madness.

Lady Windermere's Fan, A Play About a Good Woman depicts the marriage of Lord and Lady Windermere; but it goes wrong when Lady Windermere discovers that her husband has been spending large sums of money on another woman, Mrs. Erlynne, and this comes to a crisis when Lord Windermere insists that Lady Windermere should invite Mrs. Erlynne to a party, and, after her refusal, invites her himself. Mrs. Erlynne is indeed a coldly mercenary woman of the world, but there is one thing about her that Lady Windermere does not know; it does not make Mrs. Erlynne any less cold and worldly, but it makes her role in all these matters take a very different light.

A Woman of No Importance is something of an ensemble play; while there is a definite storyline, the play lets it build piecemeal through the actions of the characters rather than subordinating their actions to building the storyline. Briefly, Lord Illingworth, something of a lady's man, comes across a woman at a party, Mrs. Arbuthnot, and they discover that they both know each other. Lord Illingworth tries to take on her son, Gerald, as his secretary, but she opposes it; there is a secret in Mrs. Arbuthnot's past, one of those past secrets that by its nature does not stay in the past but always continues on into the present.

In An Ideal Husband, Sir Robert Chilton and his wife, Lady Chilton, are happily married; he is, indeed, an ideal husband, whose unimpeachable integrity Lady Chilton takes to be the cornerstone of their marriage. But he has a secret in his past -- one of those that tends to come back to haunt; when he was very young, he made his fortune by an unethical act violating a position of public trust. Chilton will be blackmailed, and it will strain their marriage to a breaking point, and it will only be by luck and the hard work of a friend that it will survive.

The Importance of Being Earnest, of course, is the most famous of Wilde's comedies; interestingly, it was early on one of those plays that the public liked but the critics thought a mixed bag; it's triviality was seen as being almost too ruthlessly trivial. Jack Worthing is engaged to Gwendolen, who thinks, however, that his name is Ernest -- she has always wanted to marry a man named Ernest. His friend, Algernon Macrieff, discovers his secret: Worthing is known as Jack in the country, where he is in charge of Cecily Cardew, but escapes to the city on occasion on the pretense that he has a rather libertine brother named Ernest there, and in the city, he is Ernest. Macrieff, who does the same to escape into the country, hatches a scheme to visit Worthing's estate and meet his ward, which he does under the name 'Ernest'. He and Cecily hit it off quite well, especially since she likes the name 'Ernest'. The schemes, of course, will be discovered, and there will have to be some quick thinking, and a lot of good fortune, to get out of the problem.

I also had a chance to listen to The Importance of Being Earnest episode from the radio show Favorite Story. Hosted by Ronald Colman, the gimmick of the series was that every week some notable figure in cinema or theater would pick a story to be presented. When they asked Margaret Webster, one of the great theater directors of the twentieth century, especially famous for her Shakespearean work, she picked this play as her favorite story.

The episode is only a bit more than twenty-five minutes long, so it is very heavily abridged, but it holds up to abridgement quite well. There are a few parts that are greatly missed though; in particular, we don't have the best scene in the play, the sweetly venomous showdown between Cecily and Gwendolen over tea and cake. But it is quite well done.

We also have two fragments, La Sainte Courtesaine and A Florentine Tragedy; as they stand, they are less dramatic pieces than poetic pieces with dramatic elements. The former depicts a Christian hermit, Honorius, who is tempted by the pagan Myrrhina; in the course of their interaction, Myrrhina converts to Christian asceticism and Honorius to pagan pursuit of pleasure. In the latter a husband and wife have lost interest in each other, but discovers a new interest when he finds his wife in the arms of another man; there is a duel, which ends up sparking the wife's interest in her husband again.

All of Wilde's comedies have an affectation of frivolousness, but in fact Wilde is able to make them so comic in part because certain moral principles in the background remain constant no matter how foolish, how sinful, or how trivial men and women turn out to be. In particular, they stress that the goodness of all good people is partly social presentation, and the badness partly social recoil, and that all good people have blemishes and all bad people may have an element that makes them at least not intolerable, and on which point they may excel those with a better representation. Our sins find us all out; so we only harm ourselves when we refuse to forgive.

Of the complete plays, the tragedies all have to do with assassinations and the comedies all have to do with marriage in one way or another, which is certainly classical. But despite the sharp stylistic differences, there is perhaps more in common between a marriage and an assassination plot than might at first leap to the eye. Assassination plots are conspiracies of many; engagements and marriages and adulteries are all themselves conspiracies of two. Successful assassination conspiracies aim at freedom from an oppressor, or some such; marriage conspiracies are also aiming at a kind of freedom, one based on love rather than politics. But they both can get twisted quite up, to general disaster. The real link, of course, is that Wilde sees the real interest in human affairs not to be the style and fashion for which he is famous but the relation of person to person, concrete, particular, and sometimes very, very personal.

We find both of these themes, forgiveness and the emphasis on person to person interaction, in his long letter to Douglas from prison, which was published as De Profundis (the title was given to it by his executor, Robbie Ross). If anything, Wilde's career is a narrowing down to these themes, both coming to a bright, sharp point due to his time in prison. In the first part of the letter, Wilde recounts various facets of his relationship with Douglas, and it becomes clear as it goes on that much of the problem in the relationship he sees as summed up in a comment Douglas made to him when he was sick: "When you are not on your pedestal, you are not interesting." The letter can in fact be seen as an argument that this is fundamentally shallow and wrong: off their pedestals, people are more intensely and purely themselves, and only insofar as they are themselves are people interesting. The accusations against Douglas can sometimes seem like nothing more than an anguished rant, but there is more going on here; by recounting Douglas's faults and failings, he is showing the shallowness of Douglas's view. Douglas is a sentimentalist -- he does not see people as people, but only as experiences. But Wilde even at his most superficial was always motivated by something deeper, which is inimical to sentimentalism, namely, Art, and his tribulations have intensified this into something that covers the whole of his life.

This leads into the second part of the letter, which is primarily concerned with two related themes: Christ as the summation in one person of the whole of romantic art and approach to life, and the relation of the life of art to conduct. Christ, of course, represents the very opposite of Douglas's comment: Jesus was deeply interested in the poor and sick, and he pitied the rich people on their pedestals, and he saw people as people, not as things for the purpose of entertainment or anything else. Wilde conceives this aspect of the life of Christ artistically. It expressed a vividness of imagination that could see the interest of people off their pedestals. An artist brings out the interest of a medium, but Christ's medium as an artist was people themselves, and he brought out the beauty in their lives, even if they were grave sinners. Likewise, the life of art is one that requires learning how to face oneself, one's true self rather than the masked presentation on pedestal. With this Wilde returns to Douglas, forgiving him for his failings, at least as best he can, and asking him to write -- so that they can finally and really begin to know each other.

Favorite Passages: There are obviously quite a few quotable passages; just a selection here. From The Duchess of Padua:

DUCHESS: Oh, I have been
Guilty beyond all women, and indeed,
Beyond all women punished. Do you think --
No, that could not be -- Oh, do you think that love
Can wipe the bloody stain from off my hands,
Pour balm into my wounds, heal up my hurts,
And wash my scarlet sins as white as snow?
For I have sinned.

GUIDO: They do not sin at all
Who sin for love.

DUCHESS: No, I have sinned, and yet
Perchance my sin will be forgiven me.
I have loved much.

From The Importance of Being Earnest:

CECILY (sweetly): Sugar?
GWENDOLEN (superciliously): No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more.

CECILY looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs, and puts four lumps of sugar into the cup.

CECILY (severely): Cake or bread and butter?

GWENDOLEN (in a bored manner): Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.

CECILY (cuts a very large slice of cake and puts it on the tray): Hand that to Miss Fairfax.

From De Profundis:

I bore up against everything with some stubbornness of will and much rebellion of nature, till I had absolutely nothing left in the world but one thing. I had lost my name, my position, my happiness, my freedom, my wealth. I was a prisoner and a pauper. But I still had my children left. Suddenly they were taken away from me by the law. It was a blow so appalling that I did not know what to do, so I flung myself on my knees, and bowed my head, and wept, and said, 'The body of a child is as the body of the Lord: I am not worthy of either.' That moment seemed to save me. I saw then that the only thing for me was to accept everything. Since then -- curious as it will no doubt sound -- I have been happier. It was of course my soul in its ultimate essence that I had reached. In many ways I had been its enemy, but I found it waiting from me as a friend. When one comes in contact with the soul it makes one simple as a child, as Christ said one should be.

It is tragic how few people ever 'possess their souls' before they die. 'Nothing is more rare in any man,' says Emerson, 'than an act of his own.' It is quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation....

Recommendation: The tragedies are Recommended, and the comedies and De Profundis (which I found more profound than I expected under the circumstances) Highly Recommended.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Practical Reasons, Belief, and Suspension of Judgment

Selim Berker, in "A Combinatorial Argument against Practical Reasons for Belief" (Analytic Philosophy [2018] 59: 427–70; a preprint of it is available here), argues (as you would expect from the title) that there are no practical reasons for or against believing. There are reasons to doubt the tenability of such a claim. The most obvious is that pretty much all reasonable people occasionally give as reasons for or against belief things that are most easily characterized as practical reasons (simplicity, fruitfulness for theory, experimental falsifiability or confirmability, usefulness in practice). A much more subtle and controversial one is that it's at least not clear that 'practical reasons' and 'epistemic reasons' are non-overlapping categories; that is, despite the tendency to talk as if they were different kinds of reasons, there is room on the evidence to consider them instead different kinds of functions for reasons. The most obvious example of something that seems to function simultaneously as an epistemic reason and a practical reason is the principle of noncontradiction. But I think Berker is quite right that his argument is founded on things that are widely believed by people studying reasons; I don't think it suffices to establish that there are no practical reasons for or against believing, but that's because I am inclined to go tollens where he goes ponens. That is, the argument is based on things widely believed that I think shouldn't be widely believed. And it's valuable to look at some features of his argument (I can't do full justice to it here) to highlight what those things are, and why they are problematic.

(1) Berker holds that there is nothing corresponding in matters of action to suspension of judgment in matters of belief. This, however, I think is certainly false. Suspension of judgment is committed neutrality on whether p is true or not true; the corresponding state in action is committed neutrality on whether an action is to be done or not done, suspension of decision. It is a common feature in plan-designing and decision-making.

(2) Suspension of judgment is not a thing that just happens; it is a practical action, not an epistemic status. (Committed neutrality requires actually committing, unlike neither believing p nor disbelieving p.) Thus, if practical reasons and epistemic reasons are taken to be distinct kinds of reasons, the reasons that are relevant to suspension of judgment are practical reasons, not epistemic reasons. Significant portions of Berker's argument, however, depend on the assumptions, first, that we have three alternatives, believing, disbelieving, suspending judgment, and, second, that epistemic reasons balance to suspension of judgment. These are both quite common assumptions. But, if anything, it is practical reasons that should balance to suspension; epistemic reasons, if not also practical reasons, should just -- balance. Isosthenia, equal strength of arguments, is not itself suspension of judgment, and nothing about isosthenia on its own strictly requires committed neutrality; we have to decide to suspend judgment, as a practical matter. The old Pyrrhonists, for instance, had very practical reasons for suspending judgment in cases of isosthenia.

(3) This has bearing on a more fundamental point. It is widely held that practical reasons for action exhibit what Berker calls 'permissive balancing': if I have no practical reason to do anything but A or B, which conflict, and I have good reason for A and equally good reason for B, then it is allowable to do either A or B. It is also widely held that epistemic reasons for belief exhibit what Berker calls 'prohibitive balancing': if I have no reason to think that anything is true but A or B, which conflict, and I have goo reason for A and equally good reason for B, then it is not allowable to believe either A or B.

The metaphor of balancing reasons (or arguments, or justifications, etc.) is one that should probably not be taken over-seriously; for one thing, we do not compare reasons (or arguments...) in only one way, which means that it's harder to find a genuine balancing of reasons, rather than balancing-if-we-only-focus-on-this-aspect, than applications of metaphor usually make it sound. (And, in fact, we do not only suspend judgment in matters of isosthenia, which in practice would make it a very rare phenomenon for most people, but for all sorts of close cases, limited contexts, and partial inquiries. Suspending judgment in response to isosthenia itself is not, as it is often presented, the paradigmatic case of suspending judgment. If anything, the paradigmatic case of suspending judgment is doing so on recognition that there is more information coming, as in the case of the committed neutrality of a scientist waiting for the experiment to finish.) But even if we consider cases in which we are only considering one aspect, the norms in question, while perhaps common, do not seem to be universal. There are practical situations in which you should not be acting without a definite preponderance of reason, however that is defined. If, for instance, we have practical reason to use a weapon and practical reason not to use it, it's not generally true that equality means you can make whichever decision you please; one can equally say that you are, stuck in a practical quandary that prevents you from making a decision until something changes (suspension of decision). Similarly, I think one should resist the notion that epistemic reasons always and everywhere exhibit prohibitive balancing; from isosthenia alone no conclusions about one should not believe follow. And there are cases where assuming permissive balancing would seem at least to be coherent -- for instance, if the reasons underdetermine whether A or B is true, tentatively picking a side to assume doesn't make the mind explode or anything. It seems that practical and epistemic reasons could each have either permissive balancing or prohibitive balancing, even if each tends to favor one over the other.

(4) Berker addresses the idea that the norms could be rejected in considering a different position -- the view that all reasons are practical -- and mostly just insists that "we" are very strongly inclined to believe them. But it is worth pointing out that even if there is a sharp distinction between epistemic and practical reasons, the only reasons that could be given for believing that epistemic reasons should exhibit prohibitive balancing are practical reasons. Prohibitive balancing is normative; the reasons for accepting norms are recognizably practical on most accounts of norms.

(5) The usual reason for insisting that we need practical reasons as well as epistemic reasons is that the former sometimes seem to serve as an 'epistemic tie-breaker'. Berker considers this at some length, but his response, I think, makes the serious (although I think common) assumption that if practical reasons aren't breaking the tie independently of the epistemic reasons, they aren't breaking the tie. But this is certainly too strong. Consider a case in which the epistemic reasons balance between two theories, A and B, which can't both be true; a hypothetical scientist, faced with this, accepts A because it allows further experiment and B doesn't, so A is more beneficial in the pursuit of scientific discovery. That is very definitely a practical reason; it's definitely being used to break the tie. But the whole point of the practical reason is that it takes into account the epistemic reasons -- it has to do so in order to take into account their practical implications if accepted. What is relevant, though, is that the epistemic reasons do not yield the result, 'accept A', without the additional practical reason.

(6) This is not to say that I am not sympathetic to some of the features of Berker's argument; I have only touched on points where it is true both (a) that I think Berker is right that he is building on things widely held; and (b) that I think there is positive reason to doubt these things.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Postures of Inquiry vs. Positions (Repost)

There's an interesting ambiguity, at least as it is often used, that I've always find interesting in the English phrase 'questioning (something)': an ambiguity between asking questions of or about something and putting it into question. They are two different things; for instance, you can do the former without ever doubting what you are asking questions about, but the latter precisely means to put something in doubt. This is an ambiguity between a posture of inquiry -- in this case, asking questions -- and a position -- in this case, that whatever is talked about is questionable. People in casual conversation will often conflate the two, despite the fact that they are very different.

A more sophisticated version of this often occurs with philosophical skepticism. Many common arguments for skepticism quite clearly collapse the distinction between a posture of inquiry and a position. If you look at Pyrrhonism, for instance, as we find in the Ten Modes and the Five Modes, they are consistingly cases of a specific posture of inquiry -- finding balancing appearances or arguments -- and treating it as if it were in contrast to Dogmatism. But insofar as they are things you can do in investigation, they are all things a Dogmatist can do, without any suspension of judgment, while still being a Dogmatist. To be sure, they are all things that you can do suspending judgment, and it is entirely reasonable to argue that suspending judgment is more appropriate; but it has to be argued, not assumed, because the posture of inquiry in which we collect various kinds of equipollent appearances or arguments is not the position we take in suspending judgment because of them. A Dogmatist can perfectly well collect the appearance of a tower being round and a tower being square while believing it to be square in floorplan; he can look into exactly the same appearances as a Pyrrhonist without ceasing to be a Dogmatist about it. Nor does moving to arguments change anything. The Dogmatist can perfectly well collect the arguments 'The tower seems round [at a distance], so it is round' and the 'The tower seems square [up close], so it is square'. He can't accept them both simultaneously and in the same way in the same context, to be sure, but the Pyrrhonist doesn't accept either of the arguments at all. As a posture of inquiry, you can entertain both arguments regardless of whether you have a definite belief or are suspending judgment. But some of the plausibility of Pyrrhonism comes from a convenient failure to recognize that the Dogmatist can handle appearances and arguments in the way a Pyrrhonist does while not going on to the further step of suspending judgment.

Ironically, it is the Pyrrhonists who have come closest to recognizing this distinction between a posture of inquiry and a position, because they have at least since Sextus Empiricus used something like such a distinction as part of a defensive maneuver. (Arne Naess has perhaps some of the clearest discussion of this.) Thinking of themselves as 'skeptics' or 'zetetics' -- i.e., examiners or seekers -- is precisely taking up a posture of inquiry. Thus you can deny that you are just another Dogmatist by saying that you are really an Inquirer -- you'd be interested in finding the truth, if you could, but you are still in the process of looking for it, and have not, it seems to you, found it. But nothing about this in itself is inconsistent with Dogmatism; Dogmatists too may be Inquirers -- they can be interested in finding the truth, if they can, and can still be in the process of looking for it, but have, it seems to them, found part of it. The Skeptics are right that you can take this as a posture of inquiry rather than as a position; but qua posture of inquiry it is not inconsistent with any Dogmatist position at all. I mean, we can take a posture of inquiry, entirely from curiosity, about something we regard as a per impossibile hypothetical. Merely inquiring a certain way does not, itself and on its own, rule out any position whatsoever.

To be sure, Pyrrhonists, ever cautious, have tended to treat the suspension of judgment as coming on one when dealing with equipollence of arguments, etc., and so they can perfectly well say that there is no rigorous link, but only something that seems at times to be natural. But if they answered in this way, they seem only to be describing the history of their minds engaged in the error of conflating distinct things. And the Dogmatist in the face of this is free to accept all the arguments of the Skeptic as pertaining to inquiry, without making the assumption that this automatically requires accepting the result of suspending judgment.

There are other cases in which posture of inquiry is confused with position. What I've previously called the -ism mistake seems to be a particular version of the same confusion -- people thinking that the posture of inquiry of examining consequences is the position that is consequentialism, or people thinking that the posture of inquiry of trying to explain natural effects by natural causes is the position that is naturalism. As with the above, you could possibly get from one to the other by arguing with the help of additional assumptions, but you can't in fact directly get from one to the other, however much people may reason as if you could.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019


I was looking at Isidore's Etymologiae today and had an insight into the medieval practice of etymologia. I've noted before that it's a mistake to overhistoricize what the medievals were doing with their etymologies. For us, etymology is a historical reconstruction, but while the medievals thought there was some kind of rough historical connection, the medievals aren't trying to reconstruct the history. For them, etymologia is not a historical origin, per se, but an imperfect definition -- it is a definition-like thing, not a history-like thing, that falls short of the full conditions for a good definition. In particular, if you are giving the etymologia of a word, you are defining it in terms of similar words.

Now, this is to us an odd thing to take seriously; why would there be any particular importance in using similar words? If we were doing it in English, it would usually be a game. Nonetheless, you still can find cases here and there where it's obviously relevant. I've noted before it's actually essential to understanding 'parameter' that people in colloquial English take parameters to establish perimeters, even though the only reason for this is that 'parameter' and 'perimeter' are similar words. English is blocky language, so it's even easier to see in common phrases than in particular words: the common misuse of the original technical term 'begging the question' is inevitable, and even people who insist on keeping the technical meaning will often, if you ask what the phrase means, try to fit the 'begging' in somehow, even though it's only there due to an oddly strong and overliteral translation of the Latin petitio.

But, of course, the medievals were not thinking in terms of English but in terms of Latin and sometimes Greek. And, structurally, what is Latin like? It consists of roots, prefixes, suffixes, case endings, and the like, and shortened forms are actually fairly common. So what St. Isidore is doing is just rationally extrapolating this to the limit, and proceeding on the assumption that every non-basic Latin word consists of further roots. All Latin words break up into little bits anyway; lots of those little bits obviously contribute to the meaning; it at least raises the question what the other little bits might be doing.

So, for instance, Isidore's etymology for gladius, sword, is gulam dividere, splitting the throat. What is his reasoning? He's not merely playing a word game. As he sees it, gladius breaks up into smaller elements:


The component g(*)la is shared with gula; the component di is shared with dividere -- and, indeed, it is found in lots of Latin words that have something to do with dividing. So we get gulam dividere; and since it makes sense to think of a sword as a throat-splitter, he takes that we have here come up with a plausible candidate for more basic words using the same components that capture the meaning of gladius at least roughly. (And Isidore is never really dogmatic about his etymologies, often willing to propose alternatives, although some of his proposals are so catchy that once he proposes them they become how people think of the original words anyway.)

A bigger stretch is spes, which he explains as pes progrediendi. Spes and pes obviously share a component; so to make sense of how this component in 'foot' can apply to 'hope' as well, we need to ask, "What hope-like things does a foot do?" And Isidore's answer is the obvious one: it moves forward.

Apollo in Real Time

This is a neat website celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission:

It follows the mission second-by-second, so you can check in on what the astronauts would be doing if the exact same mission were going on today.

Also worth noting, CBS's original broadcast of the Apollo 11 launch:

Seven Slight or Minor Sins

In his Letter 17 to a nobleman of Ravenna, St. Peter Damian has an argument that everyone should pray the seven hours of the Divine Office every day (although he later makes a few qualifications, e.g., the illiterate can substitute the Lord's Prayer for each hour). In the course of the argument he has the following interesting passage:

As we know, there are seven principal vices from which all other infectious forms of vice derive, namely: pride, avarice, vainglory, anger, envy, lust, spiritual torpor. These, moreover, since they are the cause and origin of all evils, are known to have the same number of effects, namely, the seven mortal sins, that is, adultery, murder, theft, perjury, false witness, plunder, and blasphemy. in each of these the death of the soul is so clear and certain that if anyone should die guilty of any of them, he could not possibly avoid the sentence of eternal damnation. There are also seven slight or minor sins into which not only the sinner but also every upright man falls daily, even though he might appear to stand at the very peak of perfection. These, accordingly, are sins of thought, ignorance, inconstancy, necessity, infirmity, forgetfulness, surprise. Because of these, surely we always fail our everyday living, and so against the wounds of sin we need some daily remedy for their cure.
[Peter Damian, The Letters of Peter Damian, 1-30, Blum, tr., The Fathers of the Church: Medieval Continuation, Catholic University Press (Washington, DC: 1989) p. 146.]

The seven principal vices, of course, are as the capital vices usually are. The 'seven mortal sins' are (I take it) a condensation of the Ten Commandments. I don't think I've come across the list of 'seven slight or minor sins', but from the list, this could be just because this is an unusual way of expressing the subject -- what the list is really describing are circumstances that can often make a grave sin a venial one, so they aren't really specific sins, but seven ways any sin could become 'slight or minor', and thus a form of wrongdoing that we find even in just persons.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Two Poem Drafts

The Catullus is not a great translation, but one with a particular purpose; Catullus is doing a number of interesting things with idea-rhyme in the poem (the repeated self-exhortation to endure, the repeated ending of a line on a negative, etc.), and I wanted a version that took that seriously, even if it sacrificed other things.

Sky and Sea

Freedom is a joy
like a sky blue and clear,
nothing to restrain,
no boundaries to fear,

but in the sky none can drown.
At times we tumble down

to where freedom is a sorrow
like a sea on every side,
no land to the horizon,
no place to flee or hide,

water, water, wave upon wave,
no boat to help, no hand to save.

Catullus 8

Wretched Catullus, cease being a fool;
what you see as lost, as lost take.
Once there shone for you white suns,
as you went where the girl took,
one loved so that loved more will be none,
where those many foolings were done
that you willed and she did not nill,
truly there shone for you white suns.
Now she wills not, you, powerless, want not;
follow not she who flees, nor wretchedly live,
but carry on with resolute mind, hold out.
Farewell, girl, now Catullus holds out!
He needs you not, nor asks you out unwilling,
but you will grieve -- who asks you out? Nobody.
Villainous girl, woe to you, what life is left you?
Who will visit you now? Who will see you as pretty?
Whom will you love now? With whom will you be?
Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you press?
But you, Catullus, firmly hold out.

With Many a Break and Flaw

Vita Nuova
by Oscar Wilde

I stood by the unvintageable sea
Till the wet waves drenched face and hair with spray,
The long red fires of the dying day
Burned in the west; the wind piped drearily
And to the land the clamorous gulls did flee:
'Alas!' I cried,'my life is full of pain,
And who can garner fruit or golden grain
From these waste fields which travail ceaselessly!'
My nets gaped wide with many a break and flaw,
Nathless I threw them as my final cast
Into the sea, and waited for the end.
When lo! a sudden glory! and I saw
From the black waters of my tortured past
The argent splendour of white limbs ascend!

Monday, July 15, 2019

Even *You* Can't Be Caught Unawares!

I don't particularly plan on seeing the new version of The Lion King, but all of the advertisement has left me humming the best villain song in the entire Disney franchise -- not a minor achievement given that it competes with the likes of "Poor, Unfortunate Souls" and "Hellfire". So, "Be Prepared":

One of the things I like is that it actually shows some real insight into the underworkings of political manipulation, and it doesn't hurt that Jeremy Irons and Jim Cummings (who share Scar's vocals, since the former's voice started giving out during recording) get just about everything right in the delivery.

O buona ventura!

Today is the feast of St. Bonaventura of Bagnoregio. His name was Giovanni di Fidanza; we don't know for sure why he was instead always called 'Lucky', but the usual story is that when his parents took him to St. Francis of Assisi when he was sick as a boy (which he himself tells us happened), St. Francis took him in his arms, and said, "O buona ventura!"

From the Breviloquium:

Not only is Wisdom capable of knowing [all things]: it is the very principle of knowing. Therefore, it is called 'light,' as being the principle of knowing all that is known; 'mirror,' as being the principle of knowing all that is seen and approved; 'exemplar,' as being the principle of knowing all that is foreseen and disposed; 'book of life,' as being the principle of knowing all that is predestined and reprobated. For divine Wisdom is the 'book of life', considering things insofar as they return to God; the 'exemplar,' considering things as they proceed from God'; 'the mirror,' considering things as they follow their course; and the 'light,' from all these perspectives simultaneously. Now under teh concept of 'exemplar,' we also sue other terms, such as 'idea,' 'word,' 'art,' and 'reason.' 'Idea' refers to the act of foreseeing; 'word,' to the act of proposing; 'art,' to the act of accomplishing; and 'reason,' to the act of perfecting, for it adds the idea of a goal. Since all of these acts are in God, one is often taken for another.
[Bonaventure, Breviloquium, Monti, ed., The Franciscan Institute (Saint Bonaventure, NY: 2005), p. 50.]

Here's a joke by St. Bonaventure:

The King of Anglia asked a certain bishop what the two horns on his mitre signified. He responded, and well, that they signified the Two Testaments, which bishops ought to know. "And what do those two hanging things (pendicula), which hang behind the back, signify?" He responded that they signified ignorance of both, 'because we know neither one nor the other, but throw both behind the back.'" And in this he spoke badly.
[Bonaventure, Collationes de Septem Donis Spiritus Sancti, Collatio IV de dono scientiae, 17.]

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Evening Note for Sunday, July 14

Thought for the Evening: Hayes on Liquids

One of the most interesting works in what could be called analytic philosophy in the twentieth century was not a work in analytic philosophy but in computer science. Pat Hayes in 1979 wrote a work called "The Naive Physics Manifesto", which criticized a great deal of artificial intelligence research for playing around with toy models built simply to be toy models. He proposed that researchers instead should be focused on the formal representation of actual common-sense knowledge. No more theories made for artificial models made for theories; rather, deal with the real world, the everyday world. Hayes himself gave a demonstration of how this might work, using common-sense knowledge about liquids, "Naive Physics I: Ontology for Liquids", and the result is, I think, far superior to most work in analytic philosophy. How can you represent, in a formal, logical way (Hayes prefers to use just ordinary first-order logic with an occasional bell or whistle), the way we reason about liquids?

Standard first-order logic works as well as it does because it tracks relations between individuals. Liquids obviously pose something of an initial puzzle for this, because liquid, as we find it in everyday life, does not come in obvious discrete units. It's difficult to pin down what a piece of liquid would be (although Hayes eventually does so). But liquids can have a spatiotemporal continuity, a unified history, and we can and do make sense of this in terms of contained quantities of liquid: water in a lake, tea in a cup, and even a raindrop is contained by its own surface cohesion. So we can think of containers (it doesn't matter what kind), which we can call c, and then talking about the inside of them, inside(c), and this contained space can harbor an amount of a liquid, amount(l,s). Even with just this much we can represent quite a few things. Amounts are partially ordered; there is a zero amount, which we can call none. For instance, we only need this much and 'greater than' to say that there is tea in the cup:

amount(tea,inside(cup)) > none

There are plenty of other things that we might want to add: a way to compare the capacities of different containers, metric units, definitions for things like 'full' or 'channel'. Some of this can potentially be complicated, and requires hard thinking about things like measurement or surfaces, as well as the kinds of activities or processes liquids undergo.

One of the things he makes in order to try to make the work easier is a taxonomy, an 'ontology', of liquids. In everyday reasoning there are features of liquids that have a particularly important role to play in distinguishing different kinds of liquid situations. Some liquid is bulk, some finely divided into drops. Some is lazy (normal behavior of water on its own), some is energetic (requires some activity to maintain). Some is supported, either inside a space or on a surface, some is unsupported. Some is moving, some is still. These have various relations that can be traced out; for instance, while not all lazy water is still (for instance, falling water is lazy and moving), all still water is lazy. And, Hayes says, "Of the 32 logical possibilities, only 15 are physically possible, even allowing souch outrè possibilities as mist being blown along a tube" (p. 86). These 15 can be put in a table that looks something like this, with examples:

wet surface liquid flowing down a sloping surface waves on a shore? SUPPORTED ON SURFACE BULK
liquid in a container river flowing along a channel liquid pumped through pipe SUPPORTED IN SPACE
falling column, as in a waterfall rising column, as in a waterspout UNSUPPORTED
mist in valley? mist rolling down valley? mist blown through tube? SUPPORTED IN SPACE
cloud of mist falling rain splashing spray UNSUPPORTED

I have sometimes wondered how Hayes came to his conclusion that there were only fifteen possible cases here. Hayes recognizes that there are other states for water -- he mentions liquid soaked up by something, liquid, suspended across a mesh, and free-floating bubbles -- but I take it that he thinks that the fifteen capture all the physical possible cases that we get if we only look at these possible features of liquid. Presumably it's right to rule out LAZY STILL UNSUPPORTED BULK, which we might perhaps get with blobs of liquid on a space station but not in any everyday circumstance. (I have somewhere a children's book from the space shuttle days in which liquid blobs floating in space are highlighted as a weird and new thing that astronauts deal with, which can be taken as evidence that there seems something fantastic rather than everyday about it.) Are there really no ordinary cases of LAZY MOVING SURFACE-SUPPORTED DIVIDED and ENERGETIC MOVING SURFACE-SUPPORTED DIVIDED? If drops on a surface are LAZY STILL, there seems an obvious possibility for ENERGETIC MOVING -- drops skittering on a hot surface. And if that would count, then LAZY MOVING would obviously be single drops rolling off a sloped surface. A single falling tear is LAZY MOVING, and it is DIVIDED, and it seems to be SURFACE-SUPPORTED.

In any case, the idea is that for each of these you can formalize some basic principles that govern common-sense reasoning about them; Hayes himself only looks at LAZY BULK, suggesting that at least a lot of the principles would carry over to the other cases. To do this he has to work through questions like, "How should you characterize a liquid's wetting something?" (obviously this requires looking at how surfaces work) and "How should you characterize change in the liquid?" (for which Hayes suggests we should consider not just the liquid at a time but the kinds of histories a liquid can have). It takes some work to come up with the principles, but it turns out that you can describe a lot of situations involving liquids with relatively few of them.

One of the important things that Hayes notes -- I think it is probably the single most important idea in an article full of important ideas -- is that the taxonomies are not a secondary matter. They do significant work in the reasoning. In many cases they are what make the axioms or formal principles even usable to begin with, and they also serve a function in ruling out possibilities, which lets you draw more conclusions from your formal principles than you otherwise would be able to draw. Classification is a central part of reasoning itself.

Hayes' work touched off an interest in 'ontologies' in computer science, some of which has been very worthwhile and interesting, and some of which has not been so, but it's an admirable bit of work. One could wish that more 'naive' work of the sort had been done in more fields.

[Patrick J. Hayes, "Naive Physics I: Ontology for Liquids", Formal Theories of the Commonsense World, Hobbs & Moore, eds., Ablex Publishing Corporation (Norwood, NJ: 1988) 71-107.]

Various Links of Interest

* Natalja Deng, What is temporal ontology? (PDF)

* Daniel A. Kaufman, Feeling Like a Man

* Richard Marshall interviews Christopher Shields on Aristotle and metaphysics at "3:16".

* Lisa Shapiro on the history of philosophy

* The Beast of Gévaudan

* Matthew Wills looks at Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, at the JSTOR blog.

* Ofra Magidor, Category Mistakes, at the SEP

* Brett T. Feger, The Importance of Good Posture, looks at what Aquinas says about the subject.

* Rob Alspaugh, Biblical Weaponry and Josiah's Failure

* Arend Smilde, Horrid Red Herrings: C. S. Lewis and the "Argument from Desire"

* Amy Olberding on the problem of incivility

* Eduard Habsburg on the dissolution of Austrian monasteries in the early modern period

* If you are an American wondering how to contribute to constructive handling of current immigration problems, I have heard very good things about both Annunciation House and CLINIC.

* Willis Renuart, In Praise of Religion's Dark Side

* Chateaubriand on the “Dangers Facing the United States” (1846)

* Bl. John Henry Newman is due to be canonized on October 13.

* Mark Spencer, Beauty, First and Last of All Transcendentals

* Merlin looks like an interesting approach to public philosophy

* Undergrads learn about humanity first-hand by studying philosophy with incarcerated individuals

* I have been spending way too much time watching the videos at the Townsends YouTube channel (there's an auto-play video). Here's one on how to make barley water:

Currently Reading

Oscar Wilde, The Complete Plays
Oscar Wilde, De Profundis (Unabridged)
St. Peter Damian, The Letters of Peter Damian, 1-30
St. Augustine, On the Trinity
Hegel, Philosophy of Right

Saturday, July 13, 2019

On Mizrahi on Ad Hominem

Moti Mizrahi has an argument on the value of ad hominem up on While interesting, I think it fails to be clear enough about what is going on, and due to that draws an incorrect conclusion, and ultimately one that I think is complete toxic to moral education.

(1) I've noted before that with ad hominem, ad verecundiam, and the like that it is important to distinguish two things, for both historical and practical reasons. First, there is what could be called the tactic or approach to argument. This is the original kind of idea that went with these labels. The original point, which we find most clearly in the Logic of Isaac Watts, is that these are argument-building approaches; they designate a field within which you can draw the middle terms that allow you to draw conclusions. This has to be distinguished from the error, the way in which this approach to argument goes wrong so as to create a fallacy. In general with these "ad" fallacies, the actual error is ignoratio elenchi, or at least something close to it; they are generally recognized as fallacies of irrelevance. The tactic in such cases is not producing something that actually addresses the supposed point of argument.

Mizrahi's argument, to the extent that it is right, can be translated into these terms by saying that not every instance of the tactic involves an error. This is very definitely true, and some of the reasons Mizrahi gives are certainly right for the right reason: you can identify cases that are tactically ad hominem that are not ad hominem fallacies because they are provably relevant. Arguing against appeal to authority is a good example, fairly straightforward.

(2) However, Mizrahi's failure to be entirely clear about the distinction between tactic and error leads him to make a mistake. He says,

When an appeal to authority is made, it’s reasonable to respond by pointing out that the authority appealed to is acting in a manner that is inconsistent with her advice. Such practical inconsistency provides a good reason to think that refusing to follow the authority’s advice wouldn’t be imprudent. It’s important to note that this sort of ad hominem argumentation is legitimate only as a rebuttal to appeals to authority.

This is certainly not true, however, because we can run arguments analogous to those touching on the appeal to authority with other cases. For instance, it is reasonable to argue against someone who denies that we can communicate truths, or know what's right or wrong, or know about the world, by noting ways in which their own life and practice fails to bear out their claim. This is indeed the most respectable form of ad hominem tactic; it is a staple of philosophy literally since ancient days. It is never so useful as it is when it is used against sloppy debunkers or skeptics, people who debunk or object so badly that their debunking or objection would redound on them as well as the object.

His mistake in restricting ad hominem, even of the structure he is considering, to appeal to authority, leads him to characterize ad hominem argument as "defeasible". Ad hominem as a tactic is not a specific argument, so it is not the sort of thing that can itself be defeasible; there is good reason to deny that ad hominem arguments are defeasible generally, if constructed properly -- it's just that, as with other approaches, an error can insinuate itself, and the ad hominem argument can fail to be relevant to the particular point at issue, even despite appearances.

(3) On the basis of his argument, Mizrahi continues:

If I’m right, rebellious children are on firm ground argumentatively when they challenge their parents’ advice on smoking with ‘You use tobacco, so why shouldn’t I?’ By being smokers themselves, and thus failing to set a positive example, the parents have undermined their status as authorities whose advice should be followed.

Mizrahi correctly notes that this is not the end of the story, because there are other reasons not to smoke. However, I think he is simply wrong on this conclusion for two reasons: (1) it does not follow from his actual argument; and (2) it does not follow from the correct analysis of ad hominem.

First, it does not follow from his own account because he has not actually established that the inconsistency is specifically of the kind that undermines the authority of the parent. All that the child has noted is that the parent fails to follow their own advice. But this on its own does not undermine authority. Imagine a stronger case, a parent who is a drug addict, counseling her child to stay far away from the drug to which she is addict. Is her authority in any way undermined by her addiction? Not in the least; indeed, if anything, it's obvious that you should take their advice very seriously. It's not the relevant kind of practical inconsistency. It is not enough to catch people out in failing to follow their own advice -- everyone fails to follow their own advice on all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. What you need for the authority-undermining is exactly that: something that suggests that their status as an authority on the question is not to be taken seriously, either because they are clearly not the authorities they claim to be or because there is reason to think they are being dishonest in their advice or because there is reason to think the kind of principle they are denying is the kind that is necessary for them to have any authority at all. The only one that could be relevant here is if the parent is being dishonest; but this is not something that can be known from the facts that Mizrahi has given, and is not generally true of smoker parents who advise their children not to smoke.

Second, by not properly distinguishing the tactic and error, Mizrahi has also apparently assumed that, because the error does not always arise in using the tactic against appeals to authority, that it therefore always does not arise in using the tactic against appeals to authority. Mizrahi has not established that ad hominem is good (even if defeasible) in the context of appeals to authority, but only that appeals to authority provide some cases in which the ad hominem tactic can be seen not to involve the error of irrelevance that would make them a fallacy. In reality, the child is apparently guilty of irrelevance here -- the failure of the parents to comply with their own advice is not due to anything inconsistent with their authority in being able to assess whether smoking is a good thing, nor with anything that gives the child a reason to defer to parental authority on this matter.

As I noted, Mizrahi's conclusion would be a disaster for moral education, and this is for the reason that I noted earlier: everyone fails to follow their own advice quite a bit, for all sorts of reasons. The advice, however, should not be regarded as in any way contaminated by these things, unless it can actually be established that the practice is inconsistent specifically for reasons that would call into question the advice itself. And since advice is a major part of the foundation of moral education, not recognizing this is the kind of thing that can poison moral education.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Dashed Off XIV

Hume on juries: "an institution, admirable in itself, and the best calculated for the preservation of liberty and the administration of justice, that ever was devised by the wit of man" (History, on Alfred)

Burke on bail: "the most certain fence against the abuses of power"

the Australian 'Dreamtime' in reality means somehting like 'god-seeing' or 'seeing of the timeless'
- a 'dreaming' is an inherited story/symbol system; it is quasi-property, or perhaps more analogous to a title deed to a tribal status. (how far could this be regarded as quasi-heraldic? Much of the property interpretation, while no doubt founded, raises suspicions that it is actually an assimiliation to English-Australian concepts of property)
- songline/dreaming track is a path included in traditional songs and stories about the divine makings; by following the creation story one can navigate the land

The thing that makes Renaissance art better than much else is a sort of transfiguration-quality: their paintings look real, their marble sculptures look alive, their buildings look like something the world itself copies rather than vice versa; and yet everything has the double meaningfulness of *symbolic* realism. Their techniques need not be the only way to achieve something like this; but Renaissance artists achieved it on a scale few others can match.

Intemperate minds cannot be free.

(1) No tax should be laid without notifying the person taxed of the amount. (i.e., no hidden taxes)
(2) No tax should be laid in cases in which it cannot be justified by risk, loss, or service relevant to common good.

Civil rights are specified by institutions used to protect them.

childhood as mimesis of adulthood

"Where there is passion, there is confusion of ideas." Rosmini

Data collection presupposes some abstract notion under which the data is collected. You can't coherently collect data at random.

Baptists come close to having a religion of pure word: church service centered wholly on word; rites as ordinances, i.e., words acted on; grace that works first by imputation, that is, like words; proselytization by word.

Establish churches have a tendency toward religion of pure ceremony.

Research contributes to inquiry in two ways: in incomplete research, suggestion to the imagination; and clarification in complete research.

Rosmini's first principle of human rights: Do harm to no one.
- This, given the way what belongs to a person is united to the person, to take what belongs to them can harm them, so their right to it must be respected.
- It would follow from this that there is a kind of sliding scale.

The right to another's obedience is founded not on force nor on the past but on reason. (cp. Rosmini's right to impose respect for natural law)

"The rational law is divine light indeed, like the form of truth itself, but human beings need something more to conceive an infinite, supreme, real being -- he who sees the light does not always see the sun." Rosmini
"When the human race presumptuously exalted itself, it did two things: it put itself in place of 1. the rational law, and 2. God. Both kinds of self-exaltation resulted in undue, illegitimate subjection."

The preciousness of freedom arises from its link with truth.

the potential, virtual, and actual existence of arguments as parts in reasoning

When you start a study of a new thinker or system, you are merely moving X's and Y's around based on their apparent contextual use -- you have no internal understanding of the terms, so you are guesstimating based on what you've seen, so far, about how this term 'works'. As you progress further, you integrate further evidence and develop an understanding of the function of those terms in the larger context -- why these terms are used here, and not merely that they are, and why ultimately they are *needed* for what is being attempted. And as this functional understanding with functional understandings of other things, you get a sense of how these terms are expressive of the whole system or approach. This, however, is a very difficult point to reach.

Rosmini's peaceful means for the governed to defend their rights
(1) the moral goodness of the governed
(2) formation of uniformity of thought about rights
(3) religious influence where faith is shared
(4) persuasive influence on governing power
(5) passive resistance
(6) speaking the truth
(7) remonstrance and petition
(8) forma pact with the governing power
(9) emigration

sophistry as a usury of authority

Prisons are too often schools of vice.

motives of credibility
that suggest suitability to human belief as human
that suggest authority
that suggest general truth
that suggest specific truth

Rosmini's account of the soul seems to tie it too much to consciousness. (There is a strongly dualist tinge to his entire discussion.)

What is written in water requires no erasure.

positive interpersonal contact encouragement as a key element in the development of a coherent and just society (in particular, one needs self-sustaining institutions regularly serving this function)

the people as militia and independence of survival, defense, and emergency response

"The human mind, impatient and desirous of reaching immediate conclusions, always prefers to guess about nature rather than observe it." Rosmini

A great deal of guessing is jumping to the general principle most similar to that to which one attends. Good guessing involves attending well and using the most appropriate similarity.

self-preservation instincts -> habit of living -> vested interest in living
(suicidal tendency involves the breakdown of this process: loss of vested interest makes erosion of habit of living possible, the difficulty of living arising therefrom in spurts can sometimes overpower tendency to self-preservation)

The Stone of Destiny was originally not just a focus of coronation but of affirmation of the rights of the Church.

Extension is a measure of activity.

Rosmini on visual language (OT 918-920)

OS Curry's seven universal moral rules: love your family, help your group, return favors, be brave, defer to authority, be fair, respect the property of others

It is hard to read Condorcet's Sketch, written while in hiding and with a warrount out for his arrest as a traitor, and not see it as wishful thinking.

Factional politics is an endless tale of people missing the big picture.

"In the order of discoveries, man can look for only three things: a fact, a cause, or an essence. Are the waters of all seas salty? This is a fact. Why is sea water salty? This is a cause. What is salt? This is an essence." Maistre

"the syllogism is the man" Maistre

Human beings only achieve fullness of self in the context of the divine, both as such (God) and as veiled (truth, goodness, beauty).

the dangers of the pedagogical state

nominal Catholics as a kind of integument or membrane for the Church -- Despite their nominality, there is something to be said for their serving a real role in the Church, as a buffer zone between the Church and the world. This is not to say that they do this with the highest efficiency, or that they are the only possible buffers, but the Catholic-but-only-in-name nonetheless does play a role as buffer matter for the Body. (And, of course, they are not merely a protective layer but a sort of field of evangelization which can often be more easily drawn in than anything beyond it.)

the life of the Church as unceasing production of spiritual acts originating from within

In preaching as in nutrition or medicine, the immediate effect is not that at which one primarily aims.

hypercompetent (technical) genius vs eustochic (inspired) genius

methods of genius imitation
(1) hypercombinatorial with filter
(2) hyperanalogical with filter
(3) hyperdialogical
- really the difference is in where the teleology is found. (1) and (2) give explosion of possibilities, then narrow accord to ends; (3) gives the possibilities according to ends and narrows according to fit-to-end.

"The body expresses existence at every moment." Merleau Ponty

"One of the neglected laws of sound, philosophical method states: 'Take care not to deny to your opponent what you yourself need in order to prove your supposition." Rosmini

affective, appreciative, and evaluative regard

All of Anselm's theology is rooted in Benedictine vocabulary and reflection.

institutions for creating interest alignments

Human rights do not ordinarily impose onerous or elaborate obligations, but easy and simple ones. Only in extraordinary circumstances do the obligations become onerous or elaborate; they get the burden or the complexity from the circumstances, not the rights themselves.

For a social and rational animal, the end of reproduction can never be bare procreation.

One of the major intellectual difficulties in religion is taking a universal point of view without losing everything in a pile of abstractions.

distinction between just & unjust punishment requires natural merit or demerit, which requires natural law

the Church as permeant

We often seek not only the pleasant but the easy even distinct from its pleasantness.

religious material culture as quasi-sensorium for the Church

A great many things called 'rights' in the modern world should in fact be called 'claims' in something like the sense that people claim a throne, because they are claims of a position of authority.

conceptual anti-skepticism arguments
(1) You have the concept X.
(2) No thinker in this skeptical scenario could have the concept X.
(3) Therefore you are not a thinker in this skeptical scenario.
- for (2), causal-constraint defenses vs thinker-inadequacy defenses

arguments that a skeptical argument is linguistically self-defeating: if the conclusion were true, the argument could not be formulated/communicated/expressed.

a possibility: ontological arguments should be seen as different kinds of blockers for different kinds of skeptical arguments in theistic contexts

- note Rosmini on the phrase 'external world' AAMS 497

noncommensurability of values -> freedom of choice

Freedom of indifference primarily concerns possible goods; choice between good and evil requires something added to freedom of indifference, namely, temptation.

By concupiscence we carry temptation around with us.

abstract ideas in intellect // habits in will (Rosmini)

honesty as mind's chastity (Augustine)

to treat gift as gift: gratitude
to treat communicative reason as communicative reason: truthfulness
to treat divine gift as divine gift: religion

creation as that title than which no greater title can be thought
-other titles reflect it either directly or (where the title is remedial) in result. Accession, long possession, etc. are each in their own way like creation.

genius & Peirce's Musement

humility as chastity of will

the poison metaphor for lying (lying poisons speech/communication/social relations)

honesty as a precondition for peace

All evidence, even statistical, is anecdotal until it reaches a certain level of abstraction.

anecdotal reasoning // precedential reasoning

Half of security is discretion.


This is a really nice representation of discoveries of the exoplanets, which maps them on the sky and assigns each a note. It celebrates the fact that this June the tally passed 4000. Each note and color represents some fact about the exoplanet represented; Phil Plait explains them at "Bad Astronomy". (He also explains why such a large number are clustered in one area of the sky.)

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Terror of Dereva

Today is the memorial of St. Olga of Kiev, particularly celebrated in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Olga was a Varangian, which means she was of Scandinavian descent (she is known in Scandinavian countries as St. Helga), and she married Prince Igor of Kiev. Kievan Rus was a pretty wild place at the time, and there were a number of loosely allied tribes around it who paid some kind of tribute or other for one reason or another. The Drevlians, called so because they dwelt in the land of Dereva, were one of these. They stopped paying it, and Igor went to make them continue the payment; he got the payment, but then decided that perhaps they should be paying more. In response, they killed him. The son of Olga and Igor, Svyatoslav, was only three years old, so Olga took the throne as queen regent. And the Drevlians had the chutzpah to send a delegation to inform her that they had killed her husband and to propose that she should marry their prince, Prince Mal. Olga convinced them that it would be necessary to do things with more ceremony, so she told them to return to their boat, and the next day, they would be sent for; they should refuse to come by horse or by foot, and she would have the people carry their entire boat to her as an honor. This they did, and Olga had the people carry the boat to a trench she had ordered dug overnight; they dropped the boat in, and buried the Drevlians alive. Remember, she was of Viking stock, it was a Viking custom for people to be honored by burial in a boat.

She sent messengers the Drevlians, agreeing to their proposal, but said that she would only come if they sent their noblemen to escort her. This they did. After their long journey, she had them taken to a bathhouse, with instructions for them to appear before her when she was done. While they were bathing, she had the bathhouse set on fire, starting with the doors so that they could not escape.

She then set out, but sent messengers beforehand saying that before she could marry Prince Mal, she needed to grieve at the grave of her husband, who had been buried in the city where he had been killed, Iskorosten. She asked them to gather all the mead they could for the funeral feast. This was done, and the funeral feast held. When the Drevlians were drunk from the mead, she had them slaughtered. Then she went home. But she was not done.

The preliminaries having been accomplished, having paid her respects to her husband in that inimitable, old-fashioned, high Varangian style, events had now passed to the inevitable next phase: the actual vengeance. You didn't think that she had even started on her revenge yet? Everything up to this point was just part of the funeral honors for her husband. Now she could begin the revenge war. The Kievans, of course, were much better organized and trained as an army, and also had greater numbers, so the revenge war went quite well for them. The Drevlians were driven back.

And again Olga returned to Iskorosten, and laid siege to the city. It was difficult to get a tight seal on the city, though, and the siege lasted a whole year without success. So Olga tried a different tack. She sent a message to the people of Iskorosten, pointing out that other Drevlian cities had submitted and, when they had paid tribute, she had left them alone. They responded that they were willing to pay the tribute, but, given the involvement of their city with the killing of her husband, did not trust her to leave them alone afterward. She replied that enough people had died for her husband's death, but acknowledged that their fear was a reasonable and legitimate one, so she proposed that instead of ordinary tribute, they should just send her three pigeons and three sparrows for each house in the city. This they did, a very large number of pigeons and sparrows. Then Olga had her soldiers tie oily strips of cloth to the legs of the birds, light the ends of the strips on fire, and release the birds. The birds, of course, returned to their nests in the city. The city became a blazing inferno. Many were burned alive. The citizens who could, fled, but as they did so, Olga had them caught and divided into three groups: one group was killed, the second enslaved, and the third -- she left behind to pay tribute.

So the story goes.

Olga, it turned out, had an extraordinary mind for organizing and planning, whether it was organizing and planning a war of vengeance or organizing and planning a kingdom. She established laws, built trading posts and towns, and reorganized the government, making Kievan Rus one of the best-run kingdoms of the day. Having received a barbarian kingdom with warlord status among a number of other tribes, she turned over to her son an incipient empire.

In 950 or so, however, she went on a visit to Constantinople and was baptized into the Church. We don't know why she went, and we don't know what led her to become Christian. There has long been a story that the Emperor Constantine VII was pestering her to marry him, and she took baptism, designating him to be her sponsor, because she realized that it would then make the marriage impossible. Since the Emperor would have already been married, it's probably not true. It is even possible that she may have converted to Christianity in Kiev and thus journeyed to Constantinople as a pilgrimage. She returned to Kiev, and tried to convince her son to convert, as well, but he refused, saying that his men would no longer respect him, a common problem of Christian nobles throughout the realms dominated by the Scandinavians. But because his mother was now a Christian, Svyatoslav became a protector of Christians, and Olga built a number of churches throughout the land. The old-style Varangians grumbled -- but grumble is all they did.

When she died, her pagan son made sure she had a Christian funeral. And Olga's foundation would be the basis by means of which her grandson, St. Vladimir, would Christianize Kievan Rus.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

One World Was Not Enough for Two

Her Voice
by Oscar Wilde

The wild bee reels from bough to bough
With his furry coat and his gauzy wing.
Now in a lily-cup, and now
Setting a jacinth bell a-swing,
In his wandering;
Sit closer love: it was here I trow
I made that vow,

Swore that two lives should be like one
As long as the sea-gull loved the sea,
As long as the sunflower sought the sun,--
It shall be, I said, for eternity
'Twixt you and me!
Dear friend, those times are over and done,
Love's web is spun.

Look upward where the poplar trees
Sway and sway in the summer air,
Here in the valley never a breeze
Scatters the thistledown, but there
Great winds blow fair
From the mighty murmuring mystical seas,
And the wave-lashed leas.

Look upward where the white gull screams,
What does it see that we do not see?
Is that a star? or the lamp that gleams
On some outward voyaging argosy,--
Ah! can it be
We have lived our lives in a land of dreams!
How sad it seems.

Sweet, there is nothing left to say
But this, that love is never lost,
Keen winter stabs the breasts of May
Whose crimson roses burst his frost,
Ships tempest-tossed
Will find a harbour in some bay,
And so we may.

And there is nothing left to do
But to kiss once again, and part,
Nay, there is nothing we should rue,
I have my beauty,--you your Art,
Nay, do not start,
One world was not enough for two
Like me and you.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

On Academic Titles Again

There has been yet another flare-up in various social media quarters about academic titles. There's not really any point in summarizing the details, because it's always the same moronic issue. But I will simply restate what should be obvious to any decent human being, but apparently has not registered with some of the prima donnas who have come out of graduate school:

Having earned an academic title does not give you the right to demand that other people refer to you by that title; it gives you the right to refer to yourself by that title.

For everyone else, referring to you by any title at all is entirely a matter of their choosing to extend the courtesy to you, on the basis that you have done, or could be expected to do, good to them. If it really matters to you -- and it sometimes can, for legitimate reasons, such as if you worked your way up from a one-room shack -- just ask them and tell them why it matters to you, and people usually will. Anything else is (1) rude and self-important jackassery and (2) self-sabotaging, because it makes you look desperate for recognition.

I have previously talked about academic titles in:

Evening Note for Saturday, April 6 (on norms of etiquette), which focuses on the courtesy aspect;

The Authority of a Title, which focuses on the self-sabotaging aspect.

Not Profit, No: Nor Pleasure

To R. R.
On Rereading the "De Profundis" of Oscar Wilde
by Florence Earle Coates

He stood alone, despairing and forsaken:
⁠Alone he stood, in desolation bare;
From him avenging powers e'en hope had taken:
⁠He looked,—and thou wast there!

Why hadst thou come? Not profit, no: nor pleasure,
⁠Nor any faint desire of selfish gain,
Had moved thee, giving of thy heart's pure treasure,
To share a culprit's pain.

In that drear place, as thou hadst lonely waited
⁠To greet with noble friendship one who came
Handcuffed from prison, pointed at, and hated,
⁠Bowed low in mortal shame,

No thought hadst thou of any special merit,
⁠So simple, natural, seemed that action fine
Which kept alive, in a despairing spirit,
⁠The spark of the divine,

And taught a dying soul that love is deathless,
⁠Even as when its holiest accents fell
Upon a woman's heart who listened, breathless,
⁠By a Samarian well.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Turn Poison into Medicine

There's a line of thought that's often called 'aesthetic theodicy'; it's usually associated with St. Augustine, although he is far from the only person to use the idea, and although he doesn't actually treat it as anything stand-alone. But we get something of the idea from the Confessions (Book VII, Chapter XIII), but perhaps most clearly in The City of God (Book XI, Chapter XVIII):

For God would never have created any, I do not say angel, but even man, whose future wickedness He foreknew, unless He had equally known to what uses in behalf of the good He could turn him, thus embellishing, the course of the ages, as it were an exquisite poem set off with antitheses. For what are called antitheses are among the most elegant of the ornaments of speech. They might be called in Latin "oppositions," or, to speak more accurately, "contrapositions;" but this word is not in common use among us, though the Latin, and indeed the languages of all nations, avail themselves of the same ornaments of style.... As, then, these oppositions of contraries lend beauty to the language, so the beauty of the course of this world is achieved by the opposition of contraries, arranged, as it were, by an eloquence not of words, but of things. This is quite plainly stated in the Book of Ecclesiasticus, in this way: "Good is set against evil, and life against death: so is the sinner against the godly. So look upon all the works of the Most High, and these are two and two, one against another."

We find a similar idea in Berkeley's Principles (sect. 152), using painting rather than poetry as the analogue. Today music is probably the most common analogue used. For most of the past sixty years, if you would find a book or article that would discuss it, you would usually find it disparaged, due in part to John Hick's discussion in Evil and the God of Love. (Philip Tallon's The Poetics of Evil seems to be the primary exception.) But rejecting it outright requires drawing a much sharper line between the aesthetic and the ethical than can usually be maintained, and the actual concepts involved, like overall harmony (pankalia), are definitely not solely aesthetic, anyway. Further, we ourselves regularly use broadly the same sort of 'aesthetic criteria' in order to decide how we will handle bad things, what we will tolerate, what we will support, what we will actively punish, and what we will merely discourage. In addition, while it's generally not restricted to such, it's almost always primarily deployed in discussing what has usually been called 'natural evil'; other concerns always take the forefront when talking about moral evil in particular.

In any case, this post is not so much about that; I was just reminded of it by the following fascinating clip from an interview with Herbie Hancock, discussing a time when he hit the wrong notes while playing with Miles Davis:

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Real and Unreal

There is a recurring pattern of possible positions considered with the range of possible accounts you could give of something's apparent existence. You could, first of all, take it to exist really, or not to exist really. If you take it to exist really, positions seem naturally to break into two groups: it really exists as a natural thing or as an artificial thing. Positions on natural real existence tend to break into two groups: either it really exists in its own right (like a body), or it really exists because it shares existence with something else (like the color of a body). If it's artificial, it could exist due to individual artifice (like a chair) or due to social convention (like a language). On the other side, if it does not have real existence, its apparent existence could be either by fiction or by illusion. If it is fictional, it is put forward as if real, despite not being so; it could either be a theoretical posit that sums up or approximates things that really exist (like a center of gravity), or it could be something put forward for some other purpose as if it were real (like a character in a story). If it is illusion, the illusion could either be defeasible (like a stump mistaken for a dog) or indefeasible (like a hallucination or an optical illusion); 'defeasible' and 'indefeasible' here mean the illusion itself. A hallucination is an indefeasible illusion in this sense, but of course one can know that it is an illusion; indeed, that's a sign that it might be indefeasible, it's consistently still as if there even if you have good reason to think it's not really so. We can roughly see these as going from 'most real' to 'least real', with the border between reality and unreality fuzzily lying somewhere between artificial and fictional:

      in itself (strong)
      in another (weak)
      due to artifice
      due to convention
      loosely connected to what is real
      purely a matter of story or imagination

For anything that seems to exist, you can divide up possible positions to the an sit roughly according to this taxonomy, although, of course, depending on the evidence and the like available, some will be more or less plausible. We can call the first 'naturalism', the second 'constructionism', the third 'fictionalism', and the fourth 'illusionism'. So a few examples, gone through roughly and loosely just to make the point and sketch out better what these options mean in practice. Let's start with an obvious one.

A. Santa Claus. Little kids are strong naturalists about Santa Claus; Santa Claus exists like you or me, in his own right. A 'Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus' position is an alliance-building position -- it is deliberately ambiguous between weak naturalism and constructionism: Santa Claus exists, but not in his own right; he exists in our hearts or as part of our social good-will. The ambiguity makes it possible for weak naturalists and constructionists to conspire to keep the little kids strong naturalists. Fictionalists treat Santa as a fictional character, useful for a certain purpose, but that is all -- it's only sometimes as if there were a Santa; illusionists are the obnoxious kid insisting that Santa is not real, he's just a made-up deception by your parents.

B. The Self. Most people in the West are strong naturalists, taking their selves to exist in their own right as subsisting substances. If you hold that your self exists, but is only part of a greater thing, like a world-soul or God, you are a weak naturalist about the self. Constructionists take the self to be something we make as we go along; it is not a substance but something made by bundling things together (which can be done either on the fly, a la Hume, or by society). Fictionalists hold that there is no self, either natural or artificial, but it's handy to act as if there were one for certain practical purposes, just like it's handy to treat a center of gravity as if it were a real thing. Illusionists hold there is no self, of course, it's a provably bad or incoherent idea; they either think we can overcome this (eliminativists) or that we're stuck with this appearance of having a self we know we can't have (error theorists).

C. The External World. Most people take the external world, as we experience it, to exist naturally in its own right; idealists are weak naturalists, holding that it really exists in nature, but only in minds and perhaps ultimately the mind of God. Some people, like logical empiricists, have argued that it is constructed by the mind out of sensations. That's only a step or two away from fictionalism, which holds that there is no external world, we're making it up, but not arbitrarily. And illusionists, of course, hold that there is no external world at all, it's just an illusion, not even a useful fiction; as it would be difficult to hold such a position without being a solipsist, it is not a popular view.

D. Other Minds. Other minds is a sort of complement to positions about the self; most of us are strong naturalists about other minds, but you can find people here and there who think that other minds only exist in something else, as parts of a world-soul or something. Anything weaker than that starts looking like a kind of solipsism, although you might not even be a solipsist if you think all minds are illusions -- it's hard to make sense of the notion of an illusion when there are no minds for whom there can be illusory appearances, so it's not a common view.

E. Abstract Objects. Strong naturalism about abstract objects is usually called platonism, and sometimes, more tendentiously, exaggerated realism; weak naturalism about abstract objects is usually called aristotelianism or moderate realism. Conceptualists about abstract objects are constructionists. Illusionists about abstract objects are sometimes called concretists or particularists; they hold that only concrete, non-abstract things exist.

F. Funniness. There are lots of moral and aesthetic notions that will tend to conform fairly closely to the patterns for abstract objects. I know of no strong naturalists for funniness -- nobody who believes that there is a real thing, the Funny, that exists in its own right -- but a surprising number of people are 'comic realists' and think that real natural things can be really and naturally funny in themselves. Most people, however, are probably social constructionists about funniness; things are really funny, but only insofar as they are made so within a social framework. Denying that anything is really funny at all is a hard sell. I know of no fictionalists about funniness, who hold that nothing is funny but it's convenient to act as if some things were, nor of any illusionists about funniness, who hold that, despite appearances, nothing is funny, period, but in this world I would not rule out people that humorless.

G. The State. Strong naturalism about the state is not popular position, but Hegel, for instance, sometimes talks as if it's true. If you hold that the state is a sort of natural outgrowth of people getting together in certain ways, you are a weak naturalist about the state. Social contract theorists are the preeminent examples of social constructionists about the state. I don't know of anyone who is an illusionist about the state, but perhaps there are anarchists somewhere who have such a view.

H. The Resurrection of Christ. By its nature it would have to be 'in' Christ, i.e., something He does or endures, so there isn't much room for a strong naturalism. Christian orthodoxy is weak naturalist about Christ's Resurrection: Christ's Resurrection is something that really happened to Christ. Modernism about the Resurrection is the heresy that is either constructionist or fictionalist about it: the constructionist holds that Christ really rose, but in the Church community, and the ficitonalist holds that Christ did not really rise, but it is a powerful and valuable story we tell. Illusionists, of course, deny it altogether.

I. God. People we call 'theists' are generally strong naturalists, and this is the most common position on the subject. People who try to treat God as a sort of aspect of the universe or ourselves are weak naturalists. Everyone else usually gets called an atheist. Although we usually are thinking of illusionists when we talk about atheism, I find in practice that there are a surprising number of both constructionists and fictionalists about God. They tend to be hard to pick out; they will often say exactly the same things about God, but just mean it figuratively, and I suspect you can find at least one or two of each in almost every church in the world, and I would guess that there are probably more of both than there are of illusionists. Most people that we think of as atheists obviously take God to be a defeasible illusion -- you may think that it looks like there's a God, but that's because you aren't looking at it the right way. The other kind of illusionism, the position that all indications of God are illusory but are an inevitable illusion was once not common at all; but it seems to be getting more traction -- the usual view is that God definitely does not exist, but we are hardwired to think socially, so our interaction with the world is social, and thus even the most rigorous atheist will naturally sometimes respond to the world as if it were a Person or had a Person behind it.

J. Atheism. Since atheism, as a position, is something attributed to persons, there is no strong naturalism associated with it (the idea that Atheism is a really existing being would be a weird position); some (we have to say 'purported') atheists try to argue that we should be weak naturalists about atheism, that atheism is a real natural position, but most people in fact are constructionists about atheism, for the same reasons that they are constructionists about most philosophical positions on most things: you can really be an atheist, but you make yourself one -- or are made one by society. A remarkable number of theists, however, are fictionalists about atheism -- they deny that anyone is really an atheist, it's just sometimes convenient to treat them as if they were. Illusionists about atheism are rare, but you do find here and there someone who speaks as if they were one: there is no atheism at all in the world, and (perhaps) we should stop coddling 'atheists' who are treating themselves as atheists, in the same way we tend not to coddle people who think they are Napoleon.

All of these, of course, are only examples, roughly and not precisely sketched, and a few of them, of course, are simply to make the point that you can apply the template quite widely. There are a great many things that tend to have a default position associated with them, a 'common sense view' as we would usually say. Almost everyone is fictionalist about Superman; almost everyone is constructionist about DC Comics; almost everyone is naturalist about comic books. People are overwhelmingly naturalists about landmasses, constructionists about national borders, and fictionalists about the equator. You do get cultural differences; people in Iceland are much more likely to be naturalists about elves than people outside Iceland, and people outside Iceland are much more likely to be illusionists about elves than people inside Iceland. 'Common sense view' should not be confused with 'respectable view'; sometimes it's treated as the vulgar or uneducated view, and even when it's not, there might be perfectly respectable views other than the common sense one (as you find if you are ever in a crowd of philosophers, for whom there is a always a wider range of respectable views than just the common sense view). There are probably also things about which there is no 'common sense view'; people just can't agree about what they are.

And you do get ambiguities; I think most people in practice waver a lot on things like ghosts or clairvoyant dreams, for instance, and it's only very die-hard folks who stay within the lines. The line between constructionism (X is a really existing, but artificial, thing) and fictionalism (X does not really exist, but is artificially treated as if it did) is sometimes subtle, and I think people are often not precise about which of the two they actually hold. Even philosophers get confused on that line; 'legal fiction' was a phrase coined to indicate things that were real but constructed by law ('fiction' originally indicating 'made' rather than 'false'), but most philosophers of law have tended to be fictionalists about legal fictions because of the name, leading to some really complicated theories due to the fact that in law some of them are, in fact, usually treated as if they were real artificial things and not as if they were unreal fictional things, and yet some things that are clearly fictional (like the posit of the 'reasonable person', which is just a fictional summary of reasonable people in general) have also come to be counted as legal fictions.