Saturday, June 19, 2004

I Always Thought So....

"God will not suffer man to have the knowledge of things to come; for if he had prescience
of his prosperity he would be careless; and understanding of his adversity he would be senseless."

You are Augustine!

You love to study tough issues and don't mind it if you lose sleep over them.
Everyone loves you and wants to talk to you and hear your views, you even get things like "nice debating
with you." Yep, you are super smart, even if you are still trying to figure it all out. You're also
very honest, something people admire, even when you do stupid things.

What theologian are you?

A creation of Henderson

Brains in Vats

This is an interesting paper by Micah Sparacio at ISCID on external world skepticism. While Sparacio's response is a good one, I am puzzled by a few things.

First, in what sense do we really have 'intuitions' about the brain-in-a-vat argument for skepticism? As far as we genuinely have any intuitions, i.e., common-sense assumptions and inferences, at all, they seem for the simple rejection of the brain-in-a-vat scenario. We are not brains in vats. Do you need proof? Look in a mirror and see. This is fairly close to Moore's principle. Sparacio claims that Moore's argument begs the question, but he does not show that it does, and I see no reason to think it does. Moore's argument in essence makes the point that our starting-point for talk about the external world is what we ordinarily take to be the external world. Not only does this not beg the question, it is difficult to see on what basis one could reject. This point was made long ago by Berkeley: brain-in-a-vat scenarios, like the sort of material substrate against which Berkeley argued, are based on confusion in what they are explaining. If what you are explaining when you are talking about the external world is the world you actually see and hear and touch, you cannot go behind it and talk about something else (e.g., brains in vats) without changing the subject - you are no longer talking about the external world as such but something else, which (at best) has a relation to the external world. Seen in this way, it seems to me that Moore, the contextualists, and Sparacio are all approximating, but perhaps to a degree waffling around, the basic point: it is pointless to talk about what follows 'given the skeptical scenario'; what we are given is what we actually call 'the external world'. In effect, this skeptical scenario, like others, exhibits an ignoratio elenchi. If this is so, however, Sparacio's conclusion that his proposal only weakens external world skepticism's bite is excessively modest.

Second, we can only talk about what follows from the brain-in-a-vat scenario anyway if we can take it that it is genuinely consistent for me to say that I am a brain in a vat. But this has been called into question (Putnam's arguments on the subject tend in this direction), so it cannot be taken for granted. Further, we have good reason to be suspicious of the whole thing, because the so-called 'intuitions' that undergird the scenario seem to be nothing but the most tenuous sort of analogy: we can think about brains in vats, we know that brains are (somehow) linked with thought, so we can make a story in which we really are nothing but brains in vats. But of course this requires that 1) immaterialism about mind be false; 2) we are not, as we often do in stories, creating the intellectual equivalent of an optical illusion by playing games with reference and sense; 3) the final stage, that we are nothing but brains in vats, is not contradicted by evidence; 4) this actually is relevant to our knowledge of the external world. All four of these assumptions are false. We have no reason to think the brain-in-a-vat scenario a genuine possibility; what is more, we have reason to think it is not; what is more, it is irrelevant to the actual issue of the external world.

In effect, the brain-in-a-vat skeptical scenario can no more deal with Berkeley's anti-skeptical arguments than abstracted-material-substrate skeptical scenarios could. Berkeley is still right in his basic critique, even if one finds problems with his positive proposal; the problem has been solved since the 18th century. It is still interesting to look at other ways in which such scenarios are tripped up (which is why the discussion is still interesting), but Sparacio's claim that external world skepticism has 'intuitive force' is arbitrary and implausible.

A Point about Federalism

Marci Hamilton has an interesting essay at FindLaw on why the Supreme Court's recent ruling in Newdow raises Federalism issues:

The Supreme Court Decision on the Pledge of Allegiance Case

Although my position re the Pledge itself differs from Hamilton's, I find the essay quite perceptive on the problems of the opinions rendered by the Court. One point on which I disagree is her over-quick dismissal of Justice Thomas's originalist argument limiting the non-establishment clause to the federal government. Her reason, that it is inconsistent with the historical evidence, is far more dubious and controversial than she makes out. Whatever Madison's original intention may have been, there seems no doubt that the clause was not originally interpreted as applying to the states - in part for the obvious reason that the easiest reading of the First Amendment protections makes them protections from Congress. As I recall at least two states (Mass. and Virg.) continued to have established churches for quite a long time after the ratification of the Constitution. The established churches broke down on their own after a while, without any interference, because people realized that the benefits of establishment were illusory: the only thing churches gained was a steady inflow of tax dollars, while the state gained the power to determine how pastors were chosen. I am far from claiming that Thomas's position covers all the evidence; but Hamilton should be less facile in her handling of the evidence on this point, and recognize, even if she ultimately disagrees, that Thomas's position is not without its own rooting in the historical evidence.

Friday, June 18, 2004

A Super-Quick Commentary on the Book of Job

Here is my two-minute attempt to summarize the philosophical point of this difficult masterpiece:

The book, I think, should be divided in the following way:

Part I: Job and Job's Wife
The point of this story is to give the situation and show the righteousness of Job.

Part II: Job and Job's friends.
This, I think, should be treated as a distinct story. It presupposes Part I, but its point is different It has two parts:
A. The debate
B. Elihu's speech

Part III: Job and the Lord
This isn't quite a distinct story, but it is a distinct part; Elihu's speech links this part of the story with the debate, and it is this part that closes both Part I and Part II and unites them together.

The part that is especially interesting philosophically are Parts II and III.

Job's friends are sophistical reasoners. They take a truth with which everyone in the book agrees (Job 9:2, 12:3, 13:1-2), namely, that God who is just and wise, gives affliction to the wicked as just punishment. They see a fact before their eyes: Job has been afflicted. They fallaciously conclude: Therefore Job is wicked. Job denies this, of course. The three friends, taking this reasoning as solid, they take the original principle, which the book is clear should not be held in doubt, to depend entirely (by modus tollens) on the claim (which we, God, Satan, and Job all know to be false) that Job is wicked. Therefore, to preserve the justice and wisdom of God, they must prove that Job is wicked; Eliphaz goes so far as to list the particular types of sin Job must have committed to be afflicted in the way he has (ch. 22). They cannot, however, prove that Job is wrong in thinking himself righteous, so by their own principles they put God in the wrong (13:4-12, 32:2, 42:7-8). Their fallacy is a plausible one for the author to note: we fall into sophisms like theirs all the time, and all too often talk as if basic principles depended on our (fallible) reasoning, rather than being the basis of that reasoning.

Elihu, I think, calls attention to this reasoning; he is concerned that all the parties in the debate have reached the point where they treat the justice of God as if it were dependent on Job, so he reminds everyone that there is more to this than the debaters are allowing.

The Lord's speech is sometimes portrayed as a display of power to silence Job; but in actual fact, God does not emphasize His power but His wisdom. This is a very different sort of argument, and is much more appopriate to the actual debate. God tells Job: I know what I'm doing; can you really say you have a better idea what's going on than I do? And Job, who has admitted this in theory all along, realizes that he has lost sight of this in practice: he has forgotten how small he is, and how little he knows.

Besides sinning against God by treating His justice and wisdom as though it depended on their (false) conclusions about Job's sins, the three friends also sin against Job (16:2, 19:2-6, 21:3, 21:34, 26:2-4) by letting their sophistical reasoning cloud their compassion and friendship - a trait all too common to the human race, I'm afraid. Thus it is very fitting that God's forgiveness of them is conditional on Job's intercession (42:7-10).

The restoration of Job's life, far from being tacked on as some commentators make it, is key to the story; if it is ignored, we are left in something like despair. It reminds us that the Lord loves His servants, and that the basic principle that has been agreed upon by all the members of the debate (and is thought, incorrectly, by many to be the conclusion against which the book is arguing), that God punishes the wicked and rewards the just, is completely correct. What the book shows, however, is that both clauses of the principle are more complicated than they look. God can be merciful to those who sin (as he is to Job and his friends), and he can let the just be tried; the wicked still are subject to punishment and the just to reward, but we cannot say that at every moment the wicked are punished and the just rewarded, because God is doing far more than that in his interaction with the world; we cannot conclude from someone's being in affliction that they are wicked, nor from their being prosperous that they are just; and, most important of all, we are taught the importance of compassion. The two interlinked themes of the book are justice and compassion. They cannot be conflated or separated in a simplistic fashion, for they are definitely distinct, but they are unified in wisdom, so they cannot be treated apart. God is just, and God is compassionate; we must be just, but we must also be compassionate; in both cases it is wisdom that make possible the unification of the two. This seems to me the ultimate moral of the book.

The Beauty of the Electoral College

This is a very long post; sorry about that, but the subject seemed important enough to warrant it.

This past weekend, when I was travelling from Chicago, I read two articles in two different sources (Business Week and USA Today) attacking the Electoral College. Journalists seem to have a grudge against the Electoral College; but it is a grudge without good reason. So here is my defense of that marvellous, and horribly misunderstand, institution.

1. First, and foremost: The Electoral College was not responsible for the 2000 fiasco. The culprit is not hard to find at all: The Great State of Florida had difficulty figuring out how to interpret its own laws. (This was the second time in history Florida has confused itself enough to force us all to wait during an election. One wonders what other things Florida might be confused about.) So, my first and fiercest insistence to journalists on this subject is that they should stop blaming reasonable institutions and start blaming the unreasonable ones. The Electoral College depends on state governments actually knowing what their own laws mean. Perhaps it is a flaw to assume governments know what they are talking about - but let's lay the blame where it's due. In fact, the actual Constitutional electoral process went on without a hitch in 2000. The whole dispute was a dispute over how to understand Florida's election process, which is why some members of the U. S. Supreme Court (at this level, reasonably) had doubts about whether the matter fell under their jurisdiction.

2. Both the articles I read made the error of blaming the fact that political candidates target some voters and not others on the Electoral College. Do they know anything about politics? Any look at a parliamentary system - and parliamentary systems are the only democratic systems currently existing that work as well as our Electoral College system - shows voter targeting at work. Take Canada, which is having an election now. All the parties (except for the Bloc Quebecois, which is the exception that proves the rule) are focusing disproportionately on Ontario. Why? Ontario 1) has been a Liberal Party bastion and 2) being (relatively) heavily populated carries a lot of votes and 3) currently in a phase of discontent with the Liberal Party, is a chance for the opposition parties (especially the Conservative Party) to break the Liberal Party's once-solid majority government. Canada has no Electoral College system, but there is voter targeting all over the place. The Conservative Party, which largely has the West locked, has even moved all of its Western campaign buses into Ontario. Voter targeting is an inevitable result of the combination of partisan democracy, the tendency of like-minded people to gather together, and the impossibility of a candidate meeting every single group of potential voters. If these three conditions are met, politicians will target swing regions, even if we abolished the Electoral College.

Further, the criticism seems to be based on the view that voter targeting is necessarily a bad thing, which is false. The idea seems to be that if you aren't being specifically targeted, your vote does not matter or is wasted. Let's take a basic example. Suppose you are a Democrat in Texas. The chances of Texas's Electoral College votes going to the Democratic candidate at this point in time are astronomical. Are you 'wasting' your vote? The first thing to keep in mind is that a vote can't be wasted. You can be outvoted, of course; but if you can't handle being outvoted, perhaps you shouldn't be in a democracy. In a genuine democracy it will in the long run tend to be the case that everyone will be outvoted on many things. So what? Deal with it. The second thing to note is that if you don't vote, you have not 'saved' your vote; since you didn't vote, you had no vote to save. If you don't vote what you have done is waived your right to vote; we should worry not about 'wasting your vote' by being outvoted but rather about wasting your right to vote by not voting at all.

Nonetheless, one might say that because one can predict Texas's Electoral College votes with such certainty - because Texas is already locked in as a Republican state - there's an inevitability that indicates that, if you are voting Democrat, your vote counts less, and likewise if you are a Republican in a state locked-in as Democrat. But this is to talk as if votes had no importance except for the immediate election. This is perhaps a common view; it is also a false one. Republicans in Democratic states and Democrats in Republican states, if they are genuinely serious about being Republicans and Democrats, are immensely important. One could argue that there is even a sense in which they need to get out and vote even more than their counterparts; that is, while their vote is not any more or less important in the greater scheme of things, it is far more urgent for their party. If a Republican does not vote in Texas, other Republicans have his back; but Democrats need to push their voting numbers up to put Texas back into play. The same can be said about the alternative situation of a Republican in a Democratic state. Further, states change. It wasn't too long ago that Texas was locked in as a Democratic state. The Republicans didn't magically take it over; they slowly and steadily took it over. When you vote, your vote is not merely important for the immediate election; it gives politicians something to consider for the next election. It gives your party something to point to as it tries to take back the state. Your vote is not any more or less important depending on whether you are in a state that largely agrees with you.

3. In (1) I looked at the most absurd slander against the Electoral College; (2) seems to be the fashionable slander this year. There is another slander, however, which is my pet peeve. It is not so obviously absurd, and it is not so fashionable, but it is the one that really annoys me. It is the claim, which has many variations, that the Electoral College was something the Founding Fathers thought up in order to limit the power of ordinary people and strengthen the power of the landed class. This is the sort of claim that is always given without any support or argument whatsoever. It is hard to find any good evidence for it. When Alexander Hamilton argued for the Electoral College in The Federalist no. 68, he gave the following reasons for accepting it:

3.1) "It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any pre-established body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture."

3.2) "It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation."

3.3) "It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder....The choice of several, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of one who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes."

3.4) Foreign powers need to be prevented from exercising their desire to wield excessive power over our affairs. "How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union? But the convention have guarded against all danger of this sort, with the most provident and judicious attention. They have not made the appointment of the President to depend on preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes....And they have excluded from eligibility to this trust, all those who from situation migth be suspected of too great devotion to the President in office."

3.5) "Another and no less important desideratum was, that the Executive should be independent for his continuance in the office on all but the people themselves."

Reasons (3.4) and (3.5) bring up the key point. Hamilton is arguing for the ratification of the Constitution; in effect, all his reasons here are reasons why the Articles of Confederation should be modified by the Constitution. Under the Articles of Confederation, there was no President in our sense; the whole authority of the federal government was vested in the Congress. One of the innovations of the Constitution was the proposal of a powerful chief magistrate, independent of but checked and balanced by the legislature, and it puts the election of this President not in the hands of Congress, nor in the hands of the state legislatures, but in the hands of the people. YES: The Electoral College was created to increase the power of the people by giving them an orderly, simple way to guide and control who was chosen to preside over the Union.

4) The Electoral College represents the United States better than any other institution of our government. Why? Because we are a sovereign Nation constituted by a Union of sovereign States. The original idea of the Founding Fathers was to have both Congress and President exemplify this fact. For Congress this was changed by the Seventeenth Amendment, which made Senators to be elected by direct election rather than by States; some people attribute to the passing amendment the increase in the power of special interest groups over our national legislature. Whether or not this is so, the President, being elected by state-level representatives of the people, i.e., by the Electoral College, is the only one of our three branches of government that symbolizes this fundamental truth. The President of the United States is chosen by the people, via their representatives, to preside over the Union of States. Our current system captures this beautifully. So keep the Electoral College!

Poor Europe

An interesting (but long) report by Timbro (a Swedish thinktank) comparing the wealth of U.S. and Europe. The conclusion of the report:

If the European Union were a state in the USA it would belong to the poorest group of states. France, Italy, Great Britain and Germany have lower GDP per capita than all but four of the states in the United States. In fact, GDP per capita is lower in the vast majority of the EU-countries (EU 15) than in most of the individual American states. This puts Europeans at a level of prosperity on par with states such as Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia. Only the miniscule country of Luxembourg has higher per capita GDP than the average state in the USA. The results of the new study represent a grave critique of European economic policy.

One result is that the average American has almost $10,000 more to spend than the average European, and thus a much greater economic standard of living. Residents of New Mexico are wealthier on average than the citizens of any European nation except Luxembourg. Connecticut is twice as wealthy as France or Britain. A resident of the poorest U.S. state (Mississippi) is wealthier on average than a citizen of the wealthiest region of Greece. I don't really have any comments on any of this, but I thought interesting.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

SuperQuibble to the Rescue

I have finally found a (tiny) flaw in Schmaltz's interpretation of Malebranche in his excellent Malebranche's Theory of the Soul. The topic is freedom. Schmaltz notes that Malebranche holds that interior sentiment suffices to demonstrate our freedom. He then cites Leibniz's magnetic needle passage in the Theodicy and a little later says,

It msut be said, however, that it is difficult in light of Leibniz's critical remarks to accept the introspectionist proof of freedom common to Descartes and Malebranche. Leibniz's example of the magnetic needle effectively brings home the point that our actions coudl appear to us to be free and independent and yet still be determined by causes of which we are ignorant. Even if it is not intelligible to suppose that we do not have a certain sensation when there is the appearance of this sensation in us, certainly it is intelligible to suppose that we are not free when there is the appearance of freedom in us. Malebranche's claim to Arnauld that our inner sentiment of freedom yields certain knowledge of the existence of our freedom in just the same way that our inner sentiment of pain yields a certain knowledge of the existence of pain simply lacks persuasive force.

I'm inclined to think that Malebranche is on much stronger ground, on this point at least, than Schmaltz suggests. First, Malebranche's occasionalism gets in the way of the objection. The whole point of occasionalism is that there is no possible determining cause except God. This means that the only potential threat to Malebranche's {occasionalism + interior sentiment of freedom} position is theological determinism. However:

1. (As Schmaltz goes on to note) Malebranche has a subsidiary argument that blocks theological determinism, based on the impossibility of God being the author of our sin.

2. Further, (here I am being more speculative) Malebranche does attribute more to interior sentiment than the bare passing of what goes on in the soul; e.g., it is by interior sentiment that we know the guidance of Reason, and it is by interior sentiment that we know that God wills Order, and it plays a role in Adam's understanding of occasional causation. So it isn't implausible to interpret Malebranche as thinking interior sentiment can handle any deterministic threat on its own. How, of course, would be a trickier question (although not necessarily unanswerable); but, given what Malebranche ascribes to interior sentiment elsewhere, a bit more is needed on this point.

Two Types of False Reasoning

I have recently been reading an excellent work, Scott Schreiber's Aristotle on False Reasoning, which is a study (the first book-length study in English, if the blurb is to be believed) of Aristotle's Sophistical Refutations. The subtitle is "Language and the Word in the Sophistical Refutations." At one point in the work, he discusses the difference between Aristotle's 'form of the expression' fallacy and his 'secundum quid' fallacy, concluding that Aristotle has no good reason for classifying the first as a fallacy due to language and the latter not as a fallacy due to language. They should both be fallacies due to language, or both should be fallacies outside of language.

I keep feeling, though, that there is something quite intuitive about Aristotle's division. Consider the following sophism:

God knows temporal things, therefore God knows things temporally.

This may be a language-based fallacy, i.e., someone may make the inference primarily due to confusion about language. But it may also be a reality-based fallacy, i.e., someone may make the inference primarily due to confusion about the nature of time (or knowledge). These are two very different fallacies, similar as they may be. They both involve confusion about language, and they both involve confusion about reality; but one can have a linguistic resolution, while the other cannot. I'm not sure if this entirely carries over to Schreiber's issue; but it seems, just prima facie, that something similar may be operative here. It still might not save Aristotle's position (Schreiber gives several different arguments for his position), but it might explain it.

Or then again, maybe not; I certainly am no expert on Aristotle's text.

Journey from the City of Destruction

It occurred to me this morning that someone needs to study the influence of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress on literature. Three obvious examples come to mind, right off the top of one's head: the running Pilgrim's Progress theme in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Celestial Railroad," and the chapter in George Eliot's Middlemarch where she contrasts a character (Mr. Bulstrode, I think) with Christian on trial at Vanity Fair. And, of course, there's C. S. Lewis's Pilgrim's Regress, and other Bunyan-influenced allegories.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Speaking of Chesterton....

The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust in evolution; he will do the work that lies nearest; he will devote himself to deeds, not words. Thus struck down by blow after blow of blind stupidity and random fate, he will stagger on to a miserable death with no comfort but a series of catchwords; such as those which I have catalogued above. Those things are simply substitutes for thoughts. In some cases they are the tags and tail-ends of somebody else's thinking. That means that a man who refuses to have his own philosophy will not even have the advantages of a brute beast, and be left to his own instincts. He will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else's philosophy; which the beasts do not have to inherit; hence their happiness. Men have always one of two things: either a complete and conscious philosophy or the unconscious acceptance of the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy.

(From Chesterton, The Common Man)

Il Trionfo

I had a great idea for a philosophical essay on Thomas Aquinas last night. There is a whole series of paintings from various artists (largely Italian Renaissance) on the theme of 'The Triumph of St. Thomas'. The idea of such paintings is to portray symbolically Aquinas's impressive achievement in synthesizing Christian thought while correcting non-Christian thought. The usual way of doing it is to set Aquinas on a magisterial throne in the center of the painting, holding a book with some significant quotation (either from him or from Scripture), angels singing above his head, saints around him (usually Evangelists and Church Fathers) as signs of his Christian influences, and at his feet, either in a pose of defeated abjection or in one of learning, the non-Christian thinkers (Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Maimonides, etc.) he makes use of and adapts.

It occurred to me that one could write an excellent introductory essay along the same thematic lines--the literary counterpart to painting's 'Triumph of St. Thomas'. In fact, I think one reason that Chesterton's biography of Aquinas is so impressive is that it at times approaches this sort of richly detailed and symbolic portrayal. (See also this short essay.)

Rejoicing in the Ideal World

John Norris has a number of poems that are hard to find. Here are two (source: Richard Acworth, The Philosophy of John Norris of Bemerton, Georg Olms Verlag Hildesheim, New York: 1979).

From An Essay towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World, Part I.

Lay down, proud heart, they rebel arms,
And own thy Conqueror divine,
In vain thou dost resist such charms,
In vain the arrows of his love decline.

There is no dealing with this potent fair,
I must, my God, I must love thee.
Thy charms but too victorious are,
They leave me not my native liberty.

A holy force spreads through my soul,
And ravishes my heart away.
The world its motion does control
In vain, the happy captive will not stay.

No more does she her wonted freedom boast,
More proud of thy celestial chain,
Free-will itself were better lost
Than ever to revolt from thee again.

Sun of my soul, what shall I do
They beauties to resist or bear?
They bless, and yet they pain me too,
I feel thy heat too strong, thy light too clear.

I faint, I languish, I almost expire,
My panting heart dissolving lies,
Thou must shine less, or I retire,
Shade thou they light, I cannot turn my eyes.

From the same, Part II.

Sing then ye blest attendants on his throne,
Humns as immortal as your joys above;
The fountain of your bliss and knowledge own,
And as you shine with light, so burn with love.

Praise the great Author of your brighter day,
To us below a star, to you a sun:
With never silent harps this tribute pay,
And Halleluyas that are still begun.

You see the rising springs of life and light,
Which with a double tide your brests o'erflow,
Oh praise the beatific object of your sight,
Whose good's your life, and by whose light you know.

You need not fear the exhausting of your lays,
While you in song exalt your heavenly King;
He has a boundless theme to employ your praise,
As you a whole eternity to sing.

Well, Almost Everything

I just finished giving a guest lecture for Julie's half of the PHL 210 course, on Malebranche. I managed to cover everything in Malebranche in 2 1/2 hours. If anyone can do better, nominate them for the Nobel Prize.

I wasn't able to do as much Astell and Norris as I hoped. I faced something of a complicated dilemma: my position on Malebranche is that, before you take on particular arguments, you have to look at him in a holistic light, and this means that if you want to avoid misleading students, you have either to do him all at once or not at all; and you can't really do either. So what I did was focus on one important point, namely, his view that Reason is not a part of our minds but is an independent rational agent (i.e., a person), and used that to touch briefly on all the major points in his ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. The best that could be done, I think. But it didn't leave me quite as much time to handle the 'English Malebrancheans' as I would have liked. My hope, though, is that by bringing Astell up some students might be interested enough to pursue the matter on one's own. It's in Reason's hands now, I suppose.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

All Imagination

The best criticism of Malebranche I have run across:

Malebranche was one of the finest minds of the last century: but unfortunately his imagination had too much sway over him. He saw only by its means, and believed he was hearing the responses of uncreated wisdom, of universal reason, of the Word. Granted, when he gets hold of the truth, no one can be compared to him. What sagacity in disentangling the errors of the senses, the imagination, the intellect and the heart! What touches when he paints the different characters of those who go astray in the search for truth! Did he go wrong? It is in a manner so seductive that he appears clear even in those passages where he was unintelligible.

This is from Condillac's Traité des Systèmes (1749), as quoted in Pyle's Malebranche, p. 259. It needs far more development than this to stick, but I think anyone who has done any extensive work with Malebranche will recognize that, yes, one can see how this might be a sustainable criticism. It's also an extremely clever and subtle ad hominem, since Malebranche devotes a considerable section of the Search after Truth to the errors of the imaginative people (he discusses Tertullian, Seneca, and Montaigne as examples), and it would be a delicious irony, even for those who, like myself, have an affection for the Oratorian, if he were to exhibit the same symptoms.

What Can I Say? I Had Time on My Hands!

A bit of bad poetry (off the top of my head as I waited in the airport yesterday)....

On Being Stuck in an Airport

I am standing in this airport, waiting for my plane to come,
But the planes are all delayed by the hiding of the sun.
It seems my life is just a standing-in-between:
I am always going somewhere, but that somewhere's never seen.
I am stuck-in-between, in the middle of my life,
Until Heaven's planes come down on their wings of wind and light.

Very Proud of Her

This past weekend (from Friday to Monday) I was out of town, attending my sister's graduation ceremony in Chicago (she attended De Paul). It was great fun. The journey down went without a hitch. Saturday we didn't have much to do, so we went and saw the latest Harry Potter movie just for fun. It's quite good. I've never found the books themselves particularly interesting; but they transfer exceptionally well to the screen. The ceremony was on Sunday and, except for a commencement address that was too long and gloomy for the occasion, that was excellent. We then went out with (Great) Uncle Don and (Great) Aunt Jody to eat at Rosewood's (excellent food). Monday turned out to be something of a trial for patience. Originally, my flight was supposed to be at 10:35, with a transfer at Detroit. This flight was delayed an hour, then cancelled. I then had to get another flight, this one for 12:15 through Minneapolis. It was delayed forty minutes. I managed to make my transfer without too much trouble; but on that flight we sat in the runway for an hour before we took off. Then, when we came into Toronto, we waited half an hour for the pilot to get the all-clear to come into the gate (Lightning Warning). Originally, I should have been in Toronto at 3:00 or so; as it was, I didn't come in until 7:30.

It wasn't really so bad; my flight out from Chicago I was put in first class, and we missed a bit of nasty weather in Toronto. Moral of the story: Events that happen to us may be good for the same reasons they seem to be bad.