Saturday, July 10, 2004

True Metaphors (LFPA)

Citation: Timothy Binkley, "On the Truth and Probity of Metaphor," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Winter 1974, 171-180.

Summary: In this paper, Binkley takes on a set of assumptions about the nature of metaphor, namely, that metaphors taken at face value are either false or meaningless, and that the linguistic norm is literal. More specifically, he argues "(a) that metaphors need not involve false or nonsensical uses of language, (b) that metaphors can be true, i.e., that they can be used to state true propositions, and (c) that the truth-value of a metaphorical claim can be discerned in fundamentally the same way we discern the truth-value of a literal one" (171).

Why would someone suggest that "Richard is a fox" is false? The reason is apparently the fact that Richard is not a fox, but a man. But as Binkley notes, "Groups of words which can be used as contradictories will be contradictory only if they are used with the same sense (but for the negation) and in the same context" (172). Given that "Richard is a fox" is metaphorical and "Richard is not a fox" is literal, they do not contradict. The view that the two contradict can only occur if we confuse "Richard is a fox" taken metaphorically with "Richard is a fox" taken literally; but although they use the same words, they do not express the same proposition. Although these literal and metaphorical uses of the word "fox" are related, they are different uses.

To claim that "Richard is a fox" taken metaphorically is false might be taken to contradict the fact that Richard is not literally a fox; but again, the falsity of "Richard is a fox" does not follow from that fact. Then Brinkley notes:

One of the most widespread myths about metaphors is the idea that at the literal level they harbor an impropriety of language....The notion that the literal reading of a metaphor is false or nonsensical is too familiar to need thorough documentation. Yet there appear to be simple counter-examples to this almost universally held belief. Consider the trite "He lives in a glass house." This statement may, but need not, involve a strain in language, even at the literal level....We know that the statement is metaphorical not because we know the person in question lives in a brick house (we may have no information about where he lives), but because the conversation has been about his behavior and not about his residence. (173)

There is, in fact, no good reason to think that metaphors involve any sort of linguistic impropriety.

So we haven't found a contradictory to "Richard is a fox" yet. How about "Richard is not a fox" taken metaphorically? In a conversation, if you said Richard is a fox, I might protest, saying Richard is not a fox (his apparent cunning might really just be a lucky blunder). In such a case, Richard either is or is not a fox; we are disputing over the truth of what is said, in much the same way we might dispute over whether Richard is a good husband or a buffoon. "In all these cases, a claim can be made which is amenable to argument, which has more or less determinate criteria of evaluation, which can be supported and weakened with evidence, and so on" (174). There's some vagueness in each of these cases, but in all of them we all know more or less what is meant. To this Binkley adds another argument:

Furthermore, whether a metaphor can be true does not depend upon its age. A dead metaphor will act almost as though it were literal, and will consequently raise no special problems about truth. But a fresh metaphor is no less capable of stating truths if its author wants to make claims with it. (174)

Someone might argue, however, that metaphorical claims are true in a less direct way than literal claims, i.e., that they have truth only insofar as they are connected with literal claims, i.e., insofar as they are just literal statements embellished. It is true that metaphor depends on the literal in that we need to know the literal use of the words to recognize the metaphor; but this in itself is a limited sort of dependence, and doesn't require us to say that metaphorical language is parasitic on literal language simply speaking. We need to understand the literal use of the words to grasp the metaphor, "But once metaphorical meaning is secured, the words and the meaning are not mediated by a third term, the literal translation of the metaphor" (175). The dependence of metaphorical claims on literal claims has nothing to do with their truth or falsehood. Likewise, there doesn't seem to be any reason to demand a mediation by a literal paraphrase of the metaphor (e.g., "Richard is sly"). He notes as well that sometimes to clarify literal claims we have to resort to metaphorical paraphrases.

It is commonly thought that literal language is more precise than metaphorical language. It is true that literal language is very helpful for clarification; "however this is no reason to presume that it is any more precise in expressing meaning or any closer to 'true' meaning than the metaphorical" (174). As he notes, sometimes we mean precisely something that is vague. The literal may be more precise with respect to certain endeavors, e.g., clarification; but this does not make it a more exact expression of meaning.

Someone might hold, however, that the literal is still a more exact way of expressing reality; i.e., that "Richard is cunning" gives a more accurate picture than "Richard is a fox." This, however, need not affect their truth or falsehood at all: "Descriptive power may be affected by the precision of an expression, but truth-value is not" (177). This is true even of literal statements, which may be imprecise but still true or false. There are, likewise, criteria for the metaphorical use of statements just as there are criteria for the literal use of statements.

Binkley then goes on to identify one of the reasons why philosophers of language have so easily misled themselves on the subject.

When someone wants to put forth an example of a use of language he exhibits an expression out of context....

Because of the nature of linguistic example-giving, it will appear as though those expressions whose meanings are (on the average) less context-dependent or less in need of explication will be the most perspicuous conveyors of meaning. The examples of language which are most readily exhibited and most easily understood in the context of example-giving will be those which are least context-dependent for their meanings. Accordingly, those expressions which will appear to embody their meanings most limpidly when they are exhibited in philosophical discourse will be explicit literal sentences whose meanings are not highly sensitive to changes in context and do not rest heavily upon circumstances of their use. (178)

(Another way to put this, to use a phrase Binkley does not use, is that philosophers of language have been led by the observer-selection bias of their choice of examples.) Sentences that convey their meanings more clearly and directly as examples will not necessarily do so in actual use (and vice versa).

Three distinctions, if used appropriately, clarify how metaphors can be true or false.

a)Establishing the truth of an expression and establishing the meaning of an expression are two different activities.

b) Metaphor as a resource of language should be distinguished from the various uses to which metaphor can be put. Metaphors can be used as poetic devices; this does not mean they are exclusively so, since they can be used to state facts. "A 'literal claim' is nothing other than a claim made with literal language. Literal truth is not a kind of truth, but a truth expressed in literal language" (179) (I consider this the most important statement in the paper.)

c) We should avoid confusing the meaning of a metaphor (or any other expression) with its explication.

Evaluation: What can I say? I agree with every point Binkley makes; and most of them I had come to on my own through similar arguments before I came across this paper. (I came across it just half an hour ago when I was taking a break; and was so excited on finding this generally unread, wonderfully correct paper in a (relatively) obscure journal that I had to put it up on my weblog as LFPA.) As I've told someone before, it's a scary thing when the people who claim to be able to do philosophy of language can't even figure out that the phrase "the literal truth" involves a figurative use of the word "literal."

Lament of Alcestis Draft

Here is the current draft of an opening of a verse-tragedy I've been writing (off and on) on the myth of Alcestis and Admetus.

Lament of Alcestis

Alas! The day is here so long in dread;
Time, ever-traitor, has betrayed.
I feel it in my bones; death is near,
Perhaps today, perhaps when morning comes,
But soon - alas! the day we know will come,
The day that always is a day too soon.
O Love, yours is the hardest rule,
The sharpest pain, the never-ending grief
That is to know, before the day, of parting
(For every love must end, this wicked truth
Is harshest of all sorrows, the purest ache).
Alas! The day is near; I feel it close,
Close as friendship's kiss, and yet no friend;
Today may be the day, or mayhap the morrow's dawn
Will bring to me the ending and the night.
But can I weep, who brought this on myself?
I, who set my fate by choice - such rare choice -
Can such as I show grief and bitter pain
Without guilt of vain - absurd! - impudence?
Apollo knew my husband, tended kine
Upon the plains of Thessaly at Zeus' behest
As punishment divine for deed misdone.
Admetus, ever kind to all he knew,
Respecter of no person, impartial in good will,
Was good master to his servant-god;
The Healer in his thanks sought out the Fates,
They who spin the fates of gods and men,
To counteract Admetus' greatest fear,
The fear that chilled his heart with terror's ice,
Which was the fear of death; to die
Brought to his heart a flight of desperation.
Fate's decree was clear: all men must die,
But one exception can be made for this,
One even they must allow or fall aside.
True substitution is the highest law
In all this cosmic order, which it makes;
It alone is deeper yet than death, and more strong -
Thus sacrifice vicarious is our holy rite -
It is the heart of pure piety and love,
The core of faith, the key of hope and health,
Justice in its nature manifesting act.
One may stand for one; and even death itself
Has no defense against the sacred high exchange;
Death must bow to law, this law beyond all other law.
Admetus, fearful, begged the aid of friend and kin;
In desperation's voice he made appeal.
I, I alone responded to his plea.
I gave myself vicarious for his life;
Now soon death's hawk will swoop upon my wings.
Although I brought it on myself and chose myself,
I cannot but in heart cry out, Alas!
The day draws near, the day of death is nigh,
And woe is come, for now I, face to face,
Will meet with death who rapts us all away.

No Problem Here

I just got back from dinner; on the way there was a 'book blowout', so I stopped in to see what was offered. I came across a copy of Owen Flanagan's The Problem of the Soul. I've liked some of Flanagan's other works, and hadn't read this one, so I considered buying it. I flipped through it as I deliberated. I was a bit surprised to find him quoting a camera commercial to make a point about human nature, but I'm not a snob about such things in philosophy books; whatever works. Then a few flips later, I came across a discussion in which he talks about what 'professional philosophers' think about the mind, and in which he says that professional philosophers do not defend the immateriality of the mind. Which is, in a fashion, true. Professional philosophers don't defend the immateriality of the mind; except, of course, for the ones who do.

I put it down and bought a hardcover copy of J.R.R. Tolkien's Unfinished Tales instead.

Diligent Baroque Master of Pretty Much Everything

I am...

Take the Dead German Composer Test!

"Johann Sebastian Bach was the king of the Baroque period, master of the oratorio, the fugue, the mass, the cantata, and pretty much everything else he chose to write. He worked for the church, which fortunately was a good enough position to allow him to raise his 20 children. For all his current staggering fame, though, he was unknown in his lifetime. His rediscovery can be attributed to Felix Mendelssohn, who wasn't mentioned on this quiz until now.
A few key works: B-Minor Mass, The Well-Tempered Clavier, The Art of the Fugue, Brandenburg Concerti"

And as it happens, I think Bach the coolest composer. So I am consistent....

Ordinary Language (LFPA)

Citation: Gilbert Ryle, "Ordinary Language," The Philosophical Review, LXII (1953), 167-186. This was reprinted in Charles E. Caton, ed., Philosophy and Ordinary Language, University of Illinois Press (1963), 108-127, whence I take it.

Summary: Gilbert Ryle is always a bit difficult to summarize, but here's my attempt at it (with lots of block-quoting - sorry). The article is an examination of arguments that turn on "references to what we can and cannot say" (108), and in particular, with the dispute over whether these sorts of arguments are legitimate. He does this by examining the phrase "the use of ordinary language."

1. "Ordinary Language." Ryle carefully distinguishes "the use of ordinary language" from "ordinary linguistic usage" and "the ordinary use of the expression '...' ". In "the use of ordinary language" the word 'ordinary' is in contrast with things like 'esoteric', 'technical', 'poetical', 'archaic', etc. It indicates the vernacular or common language. In "the ordinary use of the expression," however, 'ordinary' is contrasted with 'non-stock' or 'non-standard'. If a term is very technical, laypeople will not know its 'ordinary' use; if it is a conversational term, most people will know its 'ordinary' uses (and many of its non-standard uses, too, if it has any). This sort of 'ordinary' is "philosophically colourless" (110); when we use it, all we are doing is making it easier for others to get the reference, and disputes about which uses are the standard uses are not philosophically interesting. When a specialist of any sort is looking at the ordinary use of a given expression, he is not looking at its colloquial use, but at its special use.

2. "Use." (This is a good section, so I'll blockquote quite a bit.) Ryle notes that the operative word in the phrase "the ordianry use of the expression" is 'use', not 'expression':

Hume's question was not about the word 'cause'; it was about the use of 'cause'. It was just as much about the use of 'Ursache'. For the use of 'cause' is the same as the use of 'Ursache', though 'cause' is not the same word as 'Ursache'. Hume's question was not a question about a bit of the English language in any way in which it was not a question about a bit of the German language. (112)

He then goes on to note,

Putting the stress on the word 'use' helps to bring out the important fact that the enquiry is an enquiry not into the other features or properties of the word or coin or pair of boots, but only into what is done with it, or with anything else with which we do the same thing. That is why it is so misleading to classify philosophical questions as linguistic questions--or as non-linguistic ones.

It is, I think, only in fairly recent years that philosophers have picked up the trick of talking about the use of expressions, and even made a virtue of so talking. Our forefathers, at one time, talked instead of the concepts or ideas corresponding to expressions. This was in many ways a very convenient idiom, and one which in most situations we do well to retain. It had the drawback, though, that it encouraged people to start Platonic or Lockean hares aboutthe status and provenance of these concepts or ideas. (112-113)

He continues this brief historical discussion a bit more to suggest why philosophers started talking about uses of expressions, then notes that one of the great merits fof this idiom is that it allows us to talk about misuse.

3. "Use" and "Utility." There are problems with the idiom, however; one of which is that people can read 'use' as 'utility' or 'usefulness', and conclude that the use of an expression is what it is useful for. This can sometimes be profitable, but there is a fundamental difference between 'use' (vs. uselessness) and 'use' (vs. misuse). "Questions about the use of an expression are often, though not always, questions about the way to operate with it; not questions about what the employer of it needs it for" (115). The What-for question can be asked; but usually the answer is obvious.

4. "Use" and "Usage." "Much more insidious than this confusion," Ryle says, "is the confusion between a 'use', i.e., a way of operating with something, and a 'usage'" (115). This confusion, which Ryle attributes to "lots of philosophers," is a howler, since a usage is "a custom, practice, fashion or vogue"; there is no such thing as a misusage. Investigation of usage is philological; learning a usage is learning about historical or "sociological generalities." Learning a use, however, is learning how to do something. To avoid confusions like these, Ryle suggests using the cognates of 'employ' instead.

Ryle finishes his discussion of "the use of the expression" by pointing out that we can ask whether a person knows how to use a certain word, but not whether a person knows how to use a certain sentence. We can, of course, talk about the use or misuse of sentences when those sentences have "congealed" into a single phrase, but this is something different. (Ryle doesn't go into the issue; I presume it is due to the fact that we can in certain situations treat phrases or even sentences as words; but this is different from the ordinary way sentences are involved in our language.) In a typically Rylean analogy, he suggests that words are to ingredients of a pie somewhat like sentences are to pies; a cook can misuse ingredients of a pie, but cannot in this way misuse the pie itself. We can have dictionaries of words, but not dictionaries of sentences; this is not merely because of the size a sentence-dictionary would have to be, but because sentences, uncongealed into word-like phrases, are just not the sort of thing of which one could have a dictionary. The 'meaning or use of a word', therefore, is radically different from the 'meaning or use of a sentence'.

Having looked at these issues, Ryle then returns to the subject of philosophy and ordinary language:

The vogue of the phrase 'the use of ordinary language' seems to suggest to some people the idea that there exists a philosophical doctrine according to which (a) all philosophical enquiries are concerned with vernacular; and (b) in consequence, all philosophical discussions ought to be couched entierly in vernacular dictions. The inference is fallacious, though its conclusion has some truth in it. (121)

Merely from the fact that someone is writing about wit it does not follow that they should be writing wittily; just as it does not follow from the fact that someone is writing about words of Celtic origin that their point will be better expressed if it is phrased entirely in words of Celtic origin. It is true that slavery to jargon is bad writing in any case, although jargon has its uses; but "there is no a priori or peculiar obligation laid upon philosophers from talking esoterically," despite there being "a general obligation upon all thinkers and writers to try to think and writeboth as powerfully and as plainly as possible" (122).

He then goes on to say "two philosophically contentious things":
(a) There is a special reason for philosophers to jettison regularly the technical terms of their predecessors, beyond the reasons it can be helpful for any specialist to do so: "There is no peculiar field of knowledge or adeptness in which philosophers ex officio make themselves the experts--except of course the business of philosophising itself" (124).
(b) This is best put in Ryle's own words:

The appeal to what we do and do not say, or can and cannot say, is often stoutly resisted by the protagonists of one special doctrien, and stoutly pressed by tis antagonists. This doctrine is the doctrine that philosophical disputes can and should be settled by formalising the warring theses....

Of those to whom this, the formaliser's dream, appears a mere dream (I am one of them), some maintain that the logic of everyday statements and even the logic of teh statemetns of scientists, lawyers, historians and bridge-players cannot in principle be adequately represented by the formulae of formal logic. The so-called logical constants do indeed have, partly by deliberate prescription, their scheduled logical powers; but the non-formal expressions both of everyday discourse and of technical discourse have their own unscheduled logical powers, and these are not reducible without remainder to those of the carefully wired marionettes of formal logic. (124-125)

Ryle then delivers his verdict on the dispute opening the paper:

Well, then, has philosophy got something to do with the use of expressions or hasn't it? To ask this is simply to ask whether conceptual discussions, i.e., discussions about the concept of, say, voluntariness, infinitesimals, number or cause, come under the heading of philosophical discussions. Of course they do. They always have done, and they have not stopped doing so now.

He does note that formulating the discussion in these terms is only helpful in certain contexts; it's a long-winded description of what's being done, and more importantly, "preoccupation with questions about methods tends to distract us from prosecuting the methods themselves" (126). There are, however, compensating advantages, since it helps us distinguish what we're doing from what other people are doing, e.g., it helps remind us, when looking at what it means to perceive something, that we are not engaging in the psychology of perception.

I'll give my rough evaluation of this a bit later (prob. in the comments).

Supreme Court Sarcasm; and Don't You Dare Call Me a "Pack Rat"!

This is the full text of Justice Scalia's concurring opinion in Intel Corp vs. Advanced Micro Devices:

JUSTICE SCALIA, concurring in the judgment. As today’s opinion shows, the Court’s disposition is required by the text of the statute. None of the limitations urged by petitioner finds support in the categorical language of 28 U. S. C. §1782(a). That being so, it is not only (as I think) improper but also quite unnecessary to seek repeated support in the words of a Senate Committee Report—which, as far as we know, not even the full committee, much less the full Senate, much much less the House, and much much much less the President who signed the bill, agreed with. Since, moreover, I have not read the entire so-called legislative history, and have no need or desire to do so, so far as I know the statements of the Senate Report may be contradicted elsewhere. Accordingly, because the statute—the only sure expression of the will of Congress—says what the Court says it says, I join in the judgment.

(From the U. S. Supreme Court website)

It's always enjoyable to see people involved with the application of law expressing impatience with lawyers. (This brief opinion was called to my attention by browsing NRO's The Corner.)

I have sometimes thought that some of the principles that go into making a good legal brief go into making any good objection-type argument, however philosophical the topic. I recently came across this interesting discussion of how to write a legal brief, and was struck by how the "Six Enemies of the Well-Written Brief" have counterparts in the writing of philosophical responses:

1) "Attila the Hun," i.e., the person whose response is geared mostly to insult;
2) "William Faulkner and the Bronte Sisters," i.e., the person whose response is more literary flair than response;
3) "Albert Einstein," i.e., the person whose response gets bogged down in technicality and jargon;
4) "Tricky Dicky," i.e., the person whose response is more slippery salesmanship than sound reasoning;
5) "The Pack Rat," i.e., the person whose response is overloaded with irrelevant issues;
6) "The Great Ground Sloth," i.e., the person whose response is more lazy whine than reason.

Of course, in the actual rough-and-tumble of philosophical response, things are less clear-cut than in writing a legal brief. But I think it fair to say that just about every thinker, however brilliant, has a tendency to slide, if self-discipline is not exercised, into one of these characters.

Friday, July 09, 2004

No Wonder I Find My Progress So Slow

Xuan Wu ~ Turtle
You are Xuan Wu!

Mythological background: Because the turtle has a
thick, solid shell that serves as protection -
this animal is associated with stability. You
enjoy intellectual pursuits.
Also, in Feng Shui (the Chinese myths behind
choosing a house), the black turtle's solidity
is used to protect from cold northern winds.

Which Chinese Mythological Being Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Translating English into English

A great paper by Jonathan Bennett can be found here (thanks to Ektopos for the link). The title is "On Translating Locke, Berkeley, and Hume into English." I find it fits my experience entirely, alas; students just don't know how to read early modern philosophy, and I'm inclined to agree with Bennett's diagnosis: "Their schooling has been such that they have never learned properly to read anything; and the habits of impressionistic approximation which they picked up there are not seriously opposed in many departments of the University."

I have doubts about the extent to which the proposed solution really helps, however. That's not to say I think it without value, since I think it helpful to an extent. It would be very useful for high school philosophy classes, for instance, and probably, (used with discernment) for 100-level undergraduate classes, too. But I think there are far better ways to deal with the problem. I've been trying for some time to develop an adequate response to this problem in my own teaching. Since I haven't been teaching very long, I'm still relatively new at it all. But I find that the most effective thing is guided reading in class (of which there are several different variations, some of which work better than others). The major impediments to this are time and endurance. I'm currently teaching classes that are three hours long; we started guided reading in Berkeley's Three Dialogues (each student read a passage, gave their first impression of it, and I commented). The First Dialogue, which we didn't quite finish, took the whole three hour period, excepting a ten-minute break, and by the end the students were noticeably fatigued. (On the other hand, I covered most of what I would have covered had I done straight lecture, and I'm fairly sure that the students took away more that was really Berkeley himself than they would have done under most approaches.) Another variation is to have students paraphrase the text themselves, and then go over it with them. There probably is a better variation on the guided reading approach than those I've used so far, but I prefer this approach (admittedly more difficult for both teacher and students) because:

1) The whole "it's the language" complaint is the one type of student complaint for which I have no sympathy whatsoever; when students use that one on me, I reply, "So now you have the opportunity to learn real English." I don't have problem with updating spelling and (to a lesser extent) punctuation, any more than I have problems with updating typeface; beyond that, I am not inclined to budge on the issue. 18th-century English is not convoluted; it involves a more complex, less eighth-grade-level quasi-journalistic style than is common today, since we oversimplify our sentences, but all it takes to read it is a bit of practice and familiarity.

2) I'm inclined to think that the language is much less of an actual problem than it might sometimes seem. Some students do have difficulty with it - Bennett is right when it comes to ESL students, for instance, and some students are just atrocious readers. For the most part, however, I've found from my (admittedly limited) experience that they can read it when they expend the effort, and quite well (only occasional slip-ups due to the language); they just don't consider it a high priority. I have doubts about the wisdom of what might amount to accommodating people's refusal to consider philosophy important.

3) My goals in teaching are also, I expect, somewhat different from Bennett's. My primary interest is to try to give the students a feel for the actual text that they might carry forward; obviously, there's some tension between this and giving the students a modified text. I am less interested in arguments (Bennett's 'intellectual content') than with the classics with which a great student of early modern philosophy can wrestle the rest of his life through. I see no particular value in postponing this to graduate-level studies. Further, in the case of the Scottish writers, they spent an immense amount of time and effort working to write good 18th-century English. If they could have the courtesy to try to write 18th-century English, we can have the courtesy to try to read 18th-century English. The distance between 18th-century Scots English and 18th-century standard English was much greater than the distance between 18th-century standard English and our own standard English. But maybe this is just all a sign that I'm getting old-fashioned. Sigh. So it begins....

-> I'm a little puzzled, by the way, at Bennett's modification of Cottingham's translation of Descartes; while Cottingham's translation is more or less satisfactory, it seems to me that it would have been far better to have translated colloquially directly from the French. 'Translations' of translations leave me a bit skeptical; for instance, I think Bennett may be misled by Cottingham's translation; Descartes's original seems to me to be rather far from sarcasm. Compare the Cottingham translation Bennett gives with the more closely literal John Veitch translation (paragraph 5). But I'm not a Descartes scholar, so it could be that I'm missing something.

-> It took me this long to realize (tomfool that I am) that there's a spellcheck option on the post interface! Woohoo! You can all look forward to posts with fewer typographical errors....

Thursday, July 08, 2004

The Ethics of Superheroes

In the wake of Spider-Man 2 this seems a common theme, so I thought I'd try my hand at a first attempt on it.

What is the heart of the ethics of superheroes? It is the notion of a Calling (sometimes it goes by other names, e.g., freely-chosen Destiny). One of the more insightful posts I have seen on the ethics of Spider-Man 2 is found here at "Catholic Ragemonkey," because the author, Fr. Shane Tharp, rightly touches on this point. To be a superhero is to be called to live a life apart in the service of higher things (in particular, the saving of others).

This touches, it must be said, on an important increase in ethical maturity from Spider-Man to Spider-Man 2. A line from the first movie, "With great power comes great responsibility," is often quoted. What is not often noticed is that in S2, Parker outgrows seeing his life as Spider-Man in these terms. His new maturity doesn't show it to be false; what it shows is that the principle on its own simply does not capture the full ethical situation of the superhero. It is one facet only. Were the principle all there was to it, one could circumvent it by setting aside the power. But Parker finds that when he tries to do so, he in a sense sinks below himself; indeed, at his low point he even fails to rise to the level of heroism for which we could hope in an ordinary man, just turning away when someone right in front of him needed help.

Note, too, that the ethics of a superhero is in a sense highly individualized, and in a sense something in which we all participate. There is a hero in all of us, as S2 notes; there is a sense in which we are all called to be heroes. But we are not all called to be Spider-Man; only Peter Parker is. We can say to Peter Parker, "You are called to be good, Peter; indeed, you are called to be heroically good," but no one can demand of Peter Parker that he be Spider-Man, anymore than anyone can demand of an excellent firefighter or cop that he continue in that profession. But some people are called to this; and it is to their own Conscience that they are beholden. There is no general law written on the tablet of the heart saying, Thou shalt use thy superpowers for vigilante justice," in terms of which we can say, if Peter decides no longer to be Spider-Man, "Peter, you are being immoral; turn from your wicked ways." We can appeal, we can plead, we can hope, but we cannot demand. And likewise, in the ethics of superheroes, common, ordinary people are called to be heroes; but we cannot say, "We demand of you that you following your calling." What we can do is encourage people to do so - in part, by showing them the example of the ones who do. It seems to me that the ethics of superheroes places an immense amount of importance on Conscience. What, really, can oblige Peter Parker to be Spider-Man? Conscience, alone. The ethics of superheroes is an ethics not of rules or formalized duties or consequentialist calculations; it is an ethics of conscience. There is no pre-existing general set of rules for what one should do in the particular case of having superpowers. There is only ordinary morality, and the authority of conscience in guiding us, given the very particular issues of our own situation. The morality of the superhero is ordinary morality made extraordinary by a particularized call of conscience, appropriate to the unique details of this particular case. There is a commonality, that can be demanded of everyone; but there is also a particular call, that could never be the same for any two people.

One of the great moments of S2 is in the subway train just before Spider-Man is taken, when ordinary people take a stand against a villain far exceeding their abilities to control. This is exactly the sort of thing which the ethics of superheroes calls us. We are, paradoxically, not called to a level commensurate with our abilities; we are called to a level commensurate with the need of others, even if it so far exceeds our powers that we fail. This is the level of the heroic, that it concerns itself not merely with thinking about its own responsibilities but goes beyond them to think about what is really needed. It is in this sense that being heroic is supererogatory. People are called to be heroes; but none of us are in the position to demand the heroic of others. At best we may demand it of ourselves, and plead and hope for it in others. In general, it is difficult even to demand it of ourselves.

What Peter Parker learns about being Spider-Man in S2 is that there is more at stake than his own powers, more at stake even than the responsibilities required by those powers; at stake are bigger things than anything to do with himself alone. He cannot genuinely fulfill his destiny as Spider-Man if he is concerned only with his guilt for his uncle's death. He has to forget himself. This is one of the reasons why Spider-Man is so likable. He is one of those superheroes who tends to go against villains who are, in their own ways, more powerful than he is. But he does so anyway, because it doesn't matter that he's likely to lose; what matters is that people need saving, and he is the one called to save them. Recognizing the responsibilities power brings is one step in being a superhero; but the responsibilities required by our powers are all responsibilities having to do with our use of those powers. A superhero must go beyond this, and recognize that this is only one aspect of his destiny; that the salvation of others is an entirely bigger thing than anything to do with him alone. The responsibilities are still there, but they are seen in the light of something even bigger. (I'm sometimes inclined to think we over-extend this term 'responsibility'; it indicates something of immense importance. But there are many cases to which conscience calls us where saying that we had a responsibility to do what we did is not quite right. Our responsibilities for others, and over others, are really quite limited, for instance; but what is right for us to do with respect to others is much less so. One could use 'responsibility' for this, too; but I think it's a different enough that we are running the risk of equivocation by extending the word 'responsibility' to cover this as well, particularly given how much it already covers.)

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

A Bit from Novalis

My previous post on my Romantic propensities in blogging have set me thinking about Novalis. I don't have much in the way of Novalis on hand, but I have gone back to read George MacDonald's Phantastes again. Here is the big section quoted from Novalis at the beginning:

One can imagine stories without rational cohesion and yet filled with associations, like dreams; and poems that are merely lovely sounding, full of beautiful words, but also without rational sense and connections--with, at the most, individual verses which are intelligible, like fragments of the most varied things. This true Poesie can at most have a general allegorical meaning and an indirect efect, as music does. Thus is Nature so purely poetic, like the room of a magician or a physicist; like a children's nursery or a carptenter's shop....

A fairy-story is like a vision without rational connections, a harmonious whole of miraculous things and events--as, for example, a musical fantasia, the harmonic sequence of an Aeolian harp, indeed Nature itself.


In a genuine fairy-story, everything must be miraculous, mysterious, and interrelated; everythign must be alive, each in its own way. The whole of Nature must b ewondrously blended with the whole world of the Spirit. In fairy-story the tie of anarchy, lawlessness, freedom, the natural state of Nature makes itself felt in the world....The world of the fairy-story is that world which is opposed throughout to the world of rational truth, and precisely for tha treason it is so thoroughly an analogue to it, as Chaos is an analogue to the finished Creation.

And, at the beginning of Chapter XXV is this Novalis quote: Our life is no dream, but it ought to become one, and perhaps will.

More Weblog Neighborliness

It bears mentioning that the weblog "17th century", self-described as "An online community for early modernists," has put up a link to my other weblog, "Houyhnhnm Land". As I noted previously, history of early modern philosophy is more philosophy than history; but H.L. is, I think, in the process of becoming useful to those who might need resources on the metaphysical and religious thought of the 17th and 18th centuries (with a bit of the 16th and 19th thrown in).

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Spidey Sense

I've been having difficulty with a chapter recently, so I set it aside for a bit and went and saw Spiderman 2. It was very well done; much better humor, better spectacle, better organization of spectacle, and better dialogue. I didn't entirely like the ending (insofar as it involved MJ). Indeed, I found Mary Jane in this movie to be largely an irritation, and thought some of her actions were inexcusable. I would have enjoyed the ending more had the movie cut out the last bit with her. But other than that, it was a great movie. The Elfin Ethicist has a post on the movie that's worth reading.

Now I'm recharged for tackling that chapter....

Monday, July 05, 2004

Political Taste

I do a lot of thinking about early modern interest in Taste (see here for my brief definition of this term), and it occurred to me that one could expand it beyond the aesthetic issues to which discussion of taste is usually confined. In a sense this is what Hume attempts to do in his ethics; and there certainly does seem to be such a thing as good and bad ethical taste, even if you think (as I think) there must be more to ethics than good taste alone. It could also, I think, be extended to politics (this was what interested me about this line of thought). One wouldn't have to hold that reasoning about politics is purely a matter of taste in order to allow that taste plays an important role in politics. Nor would one have to make a value judgment about whether (e.g.) conservatives or liberals have better political taste (which is what these debates are usually about, as can easily be seen by looking at the major conservative and liberal weblogs) in order to find the concept useful. Hume, in his essay "Of the Standard of Taste" (its organization is hard to follow, but it's worth reading) rightly notes that the real difference between good and bad critics of art (and therefore between good and bad taste) is that bad critics allow various flaws of reasoning into their evaluative judgments: 1) prejudice, which biases their perception of the actual thing being evaluated; 2) narrowness of acquaintance with the various sorts of things that might be experienced; and 3) inconsistency in the application of the general evaluative rules good taste generates. These are counteracted by 1) focusing on the actual issue at hand, and not letting prior conceptions about the people involved, or the party involved, or whatever, cloud your judgment; 2) looking into the political actions of other cultures, nations, times, &c., comparing and contrasting them - good taste is a matter of seeing things in the whole context of their possibilities, and to understand what those possibilities one needs to see what's out there; 3) striving for consistency in evaluation.

One of the neat things about a theory of political taste is that it would be eminently practical: a theory of political taste would be a theory about the basics of how to make reasoning about political matters, both private and public, more consistent, accurate, and useful. It would also give people something whereby they might engage in self-critique, improving the basis of their judgments (one of the problems with political reasoning as it stands is that everyone thinks they have good sense and their opponents don't; this is conducive to bad taste). It would also raise the political discussion to the right level. If you look at the major groups in the debate over the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, you will find that both sides put forward leaders with far better political taste than most of the people we manage to put forward: they are paradigmatic cases of political good case, exemplifying all three of the actions that signal a good political critic to an eminent degree. (Various examples are available here.) They should be the starting point (with select others) for the building of a theory of political good taste.

Incidentally, even if we set aside the issue of the standard of political taste, there is still value in reading both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists; for one thing, some of the debates they had still go on (e.g., over the proper role of the judiciary in the Constitution, which the Anti-Federalists claimed, and the Federalists denied, was insufficiently checked and balanced), and for another, they show just how thoughtful political disagreement over major issues can be.

No, He Wasn't Crazy

Today I gave an introductory lecture on Berkeley, focusing on his theory of vision in New Theory of Vision and Alciphron and the reflections on tar-water in Siris. They're a bit heavy for a first introduction, but I like to start with them because, if you can see what Berkeley is doing there, you can see far more easily what he is doing in his better-known works. It's exhausting, but on the plus side I get to teach the jolly prelate's poem, On Tar, which I always enjoy doing. My thoughts on the poem:

Hail vulgar juice of never-fading pine!
Cheap as thou art, thy virtues are divine.
To shew them and explain (such is thy store)
There needs much modern and much ancient lore.

Here the poem opens by noting the occasion: the phenomenon of tar-water's apparent healing virtues, and, more generally, its hidden complexity. This will be a theme throughout the poem: there is more to tar than meets the eye, and if you inquire into this apparently lowly substance in the right way, you will find yourself drawn into much greater things.

While with slow pains we search the healing spell,
Those sparks of life, that in thy balsam dwell,
From lowest earth by gentle steps we rise
Through air, fire, æther to the highest skies.
Things gross and low present truth's sacred clue.
Sense, fancy, reason, intellect pursue
Her winding mazes, and by Nature's laws
From plain effects trace out the mystic cause,
And principles explore, though wrapt in shades,
That spring of life which the great world pervades,
The spirit that moves, the Intellect that guides,
Th' eternal One that o'er the Whole presides.

Note that we investigate the healing properties of tar "with slow pains." This emphasis on the difficulty of the investigation carries over from the first part of the poem, and continues until the end. By "sparks of life" Berkeley means pure invisible fire (=light=aether), which he hypothesizes to be the source of tar-water's efficacy as a medicine. He then opens the ascent them that continues through the rest of the poem. From lowest earth (tar) we proceed to air (from which plants distill their sap, which becomes tar), to fire or light (which is what they draw from the air), to aether (which is fire or light in its purest form, pervading the universe and guiding the motions of everything else), to "the highest skies," i.e. Heavenly providence. "Clue" can mean either 'clue' or 'thread'; it does double-duty here. The link between threads (the original meaning of the word) and what we call clues can be seen in the story of Ariadne, to which the poem alludes. The world is a maze, but by seeking the true explanation of the phenomenon, we can follow a thread that leads out of the maze, or, in other words, by discerning Nature's laws we can move from the phenomena or "plain effects" to the true causes of the effect, and, in particular, to God. Notice that there are actually two ascents here. There is an ascent from effects to causes in things (tar, air, fire, aether, God), and there is an ascent in the type of inquiry (the data of the senses, the patterns of sensory data, the rational investigation of what underlies those patters, the intellectual understanding of the phenomena in relation to its true causes). "Fancy" is another word for imagination, and means (roughly) sub-rational sensory processing.

Go learn'd mechanic, stare with stupid eyes,
Attribute to all figure, weight and size;
Nor look behind the moving scene to see
What gives each wondrous form its energy.
Vain images possess the sensual mind,
To real agents and true causes blind.

The "mechanic" here is someone attempting to explain the efficacy of tar entirely in terms of the motion of particles. This is staring "with stupid eyes" - if you've ever seen someone so tired they can't think very quickly, you've seen the sort of staring with stupid eyes (stupid from the stupor of sleep) Berkeley means. The stupor of the mechanical philosopher is that he can't get beyond the appearances to the true causes, which are not sensible and therefore not, strictly speaking, imaginable. The mechanical philosophers, caught up with the success of mechanistic philosopher, avoids the real rational and intellectual work required to see what is really happening. Berkeley holds that the only real agents and true causes are minds or spirits; this is the basis for one of his arguments for God's existence.

But soon as intellect's bright sun displays
O'er the benighted orb his fulgent rays,
Delusive phantoms fly before the light,
Nature and truth lie open at the sight:
Causes connect with effects supply
A golden chain, whose radiant links on high
Fix'd to the sovereign throne from thence depend
And reach e'en down to tar the nether end.

Contrasted with merely mechanistic investigation is genuinely intellectual study of the world. This includes mechanistic investigation as part of the ascent; but in the right sort of inquiry we attempt to go beyond bare appearances, and beyond the purely mathematical patterns exemplified by those appearances, to causes. When we do this, and rise, through reasoning, from a purely imaginative level of inquiry to a genuinely intellectual level of inquiry, false views start falling away and we begin to understand the true nature of the world. Notice that the golden chain discovered by the intellect is fixed to "the sovereign throne," not tar. We ascend from tar to God in inquiry, but this is only possible because there is a chain of cause and effect leading from God (as first cause) to tar (which, because of its utter mundaneness, symbolizes the least effect). By recognizing effects, we begin to inquire into causes; and even if we start with phenomena as unimpressive as those associated with tar, we reach God.

The poem, then, is an account of what Berkeley thinks is the correct attitude in investigating anything. 1) Start with the phenomena; 2) recognize that it takes time and effort because there is more even to the least important things than meets the eye; 3) rise, from effect to cause, through the causal chain by, at the same time, rising from the senses, through the imagination, through reason, to intellectual understanding; 4) we understand things, properly speaking, by understanding how they fit into the golden chain that is the universe, and which depends on God.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

The Look of a Window Around the Corner

I recently changed the lightbulbs in my bedroom; I thought I would try the 'daylight' kind that filter out the yellow and are supposed to be better for your eyes. I wasn't especially impressed by them when I put them in. This morning, however, I was walking toward my room, when suddenly I saw why they call them 'daylight'. This wouldn't be interesting except that the reason it suddenly really looked like daylight was that it looked like a window was around the corner. It's a strange thing, if you think of it, that someone can know what having a window in the wall would look like from around a corner. Berkeley, I think, would love an example like this: the immediate perception of the play of light across the floor, the color of the light, the angle from which I was viewing, all contributed to the suggestion of there being a window in a wall I could not see. It was a mooreeffoc moment:

And there is (especially for the humble) Mooreeffoc, or Chestertonian Fantasy. Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.
J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

I Can Do a Great Exegesis of Myself

It suddenly occurred to me what I see myself as doing in Siris. I tend to think of weblogs, at their best, as exercises of wit in the old sense, i.e., ingenium, the faculty of discovery and invention. This is what I tend to look for when I look at other weblogs; if I don't find it I'm disappointed. So what I do here is pull together resources, link diverse ideas together, combine poetry and philosophy and anecdote, cover the universe and back again piecemealwise, all to the service of wit (my own, primarily, but you're all welcome to what you can get out of it). Posts are like brainstorming, or, to borrow an image from Novalis, pollen. In blogging, at least, I am a Romantic philosopher. For evidence see here and here, among other places. The last time I read any of the Romantics was in undergrad; if I remember correctly Novalis intrigued me, but Schlegel bored me. Perhaps I will have to go back and look at them more closely.

Unquinable Malebranchean Modifications

I am currently doing some revising of a chapter that includes a section on Malebranche's theory of sensation. I've dealt with some of it before, but things come across differently when you are trying to write about them than when you are trying casually to read them. One argument has struck my eye anew. Malebranche is arguing that we have good reason to think not everyone has the same sensations:

Suppose that there are twenty people, and that oen of them, who does not know the words used in France to indicate cold and warmth, has cold hands, and the others have extremely warm hands. If tepid water were brought to them during the winter for washing, those with warm hands, taking their turns to wash first, would say, this is very cold water, I do not like it at all. But when he with the very cold hands finally had his turn to wash, he would say, I do not know why you do not like cold water; for myself I find the sensation of cold water and washing in it quite pleasing.

It is quite clear in this example that when this fellow says, I like cold, it means nothing if nto that he likes warmth and that he feels warmth where others feel the opposite.
(Search after Truth 1.13, LO 65)

Malebranche uses this as part of an argument arguing that, because no one's sensory organs are exactly the same, and since the dispositions of our sensory organs are correlated to our sensations by general laws, no one has exactly the same sensations. What struck me was the closeness of this to some discussions of qualia in more recent literature. Indeed, this whole notion of 'qualia' is an attempt to re-insert Cartesian modifications of the soul into philosophy of the mind; they are both "the way things seem to us."

It is worth noting, however, that Malebranche's 'modifications' are on very strong ground, because he does not rely on them, as qualia theorists often rely on qualia, to argue against reduction of mind to body. That is dealt with in a different set of arguments. Consider the arguments against qualia in Dennett's famous paper, Quining Qualia. (It will help if you refer back to the paper at each point.

Intuition pump #1: Watching You Eat Cauliflower. This sounds a lot like Malebranche, but unlike Dennett's qualia-advocates, he does not make his case on the basis of a stripping down to residuals, independently of how they are stimulated. On the contrary, his primary argument is that because they are stimulated in different ways, they (probably) have different modifications of the soul.

Intuition pump #2: The Wine-tasting Machine. The reason the wine-tasting machine cannot enjoy wine is that it has no soul; thought is not a modification of extension.

Intuition pump #3 & #4: These pro-qualia inverted spectrum stories can easily be accepted by Malebranche if they are correlated to changes in the sensory organs (this turns out to be significant later). Malebranche would have problems with #5 since it would suggest a denial of his conception of general laws, but could probably allow for something like it as a possibility.

I'm not sure precisely how Malebranche would deal with intuition pump #6 (alternative neurosurgery), but since he does not need an inverted spectrum story to argue for his position, and since his dualism is supported on other grounds, he would not be put out by it at all. In both cases all that's being fiddled with are the equivalent of what he would have called animal spirits in the brain. Malebranche would also consider Dennett a victim of what he lists as the first error about the passion of the soul in sensation: Dennett confuses the modification itself with the body-state correlated with it, and would reply to him, "a man cannot be entirely ignorant of what pain is when he feels it."

On Intuition pump #7, Malebranche would (I think) deny that, properly speaking, we can be wrong about our modifications; he would be unimpressed by Wittgensteinian arguments to the contrary. Whether he would be wrong on this would be too complex to go into here. Suffice it to say that Malebranche would not be scared off by a little changing in coffee tastes, particularly since he thinks he already knows why tastes change, and so would undoubtedly take Sanborn's side. There is perhaps some reason to give him at least a little benefit of the doubt on this, given that his choosing to take Sanborn's side would not be based exclusively on an attempt to give an account of qualia. I confess to having a bit of difficulty following what's supposed to be going on in intuition pump #8, so I'll skip that one. I suspect Malebranche would think it contravened general laws, but I'm not sure what precisely Dennett's going for in this one.

Intuition pump #9: Experienced Beer Drinker. As far as I see Malebranche has no problem with this on; at least I don't see how this would be a problem for him. Ditto on intuition pump #10, which he clearly would consider to be mired in another error pertaining to the passion of the soul, namely, considering the sensible qualities of things to be in the things.

Intuition pump #11: the cauliflower cure. Malebranche would deny this is a possible situation, given the way he argues for the differences of modifications of the soul.

Intuition pump #12 would be taken care of by general laws again.

Cerebral achromotopsia is, I think, easily handled by Malebranche's dualism, whatever the precise details. (And, indeed, I suspect the differences among qualia theorists Dennett notes has less to do with qualia than with different notions of the mind and its relation to the body, so this is perhaps not surprising.)

Malebranche would, again, be unimpressed by intuition pump #13, insofar as it is skeptical about things like modifications of the soul. He would attribute the difficulty of capturing the osprey cry in words to the limitations of our will; we can't call up sensations the way we can call up ideas at wills, so this limits the way we can use language to communicate things about them. He would disagree that it is a matter of informativeness, and would have nothing but contempt for Dennett's Jello box analogy, intuition pump #14. He would consider intuition pump #15 to be mired in one of the errors he identifies.

This is all rough-and-ready, and it has been years since last I even looked at Dennett's paper, so I might be a little off on Dennett. But I find it enlightening about Malebranche; I think he would agree with a great deal of David de Leon's paper on qualia.