Saturday, September 25, 2004

Beyerstein on Quine

If anyone reading this is interested in Quine and naturalized epistemology, Lindsay at Majikthise is looking for comments on a proposed interpretation of his project, here. It looks very plausible to me, but I don't do Quine, and haven't read him in ages. Head over if you think you might have something to say.

The Dangers of Poorly Chosen Metaphor

One of the reasons I worry about the popularity of the Lakoff thing, or, to be more precise, the popularity of Lakoff's framing idea as it has actually been taken up, is that it seems to be encouraging pseudo-progressives. (I will discuss why I call them 'pseudo-progressives' in a moment.) But I also dislike the fact that it is shot through with false metaphor. (Yes, metaphors can be false, because they can be true.) An example of this is found in the undeniable clumsiness (at the most lenient reasonable assessment) of Lakoff's 'strict father/nurturant parent' metaphor which are supposed to be models for understanding conservative and progressive worldviews. But the metaphors are objectionable on almost every side. In The American Prospect article, Lakoff says of conservatives:

When this view is translated into politics, the government becomes the strict father whose job for the country is to support (maximize overall wealth) and protect (maximize military and political strength). The citizens are children of two kinds: the mature, disciplined, self-reliant ones who should not be meddled with and the whining, undisciplined, dependent ones who should never be coddled.

First, in what strict-father family is the mature, disciplined, self-reliant child never meddled with? But putting aside that small matter: as I said in a comment to a post below, no conservative who believes in small government will allow the government to be a father of any sort. A small government conservative will insist, forcefully, that this is precisely the whole problem with big government politics, and something inconsistent with a small government view of the world. You can't have both a strict father as Lakoff paints him and have a non-dictatorial father. For the strict father model, Lakoff insists, disobedience must be punished, the child's duty is to obey, the strict father controls the women. The strict father model is a dictatorship. But this means there are a vast number of conservatives to whom the strict father model could not conceivably be applied.

The 'nurturant parent' metaphor is possibly better; although there are perhaps many progressives who will also quite consistently reject the notion that any parental metaphor should be applied to the government at all. It is better, however, because it is utterly amorphous. When he talks about the 'strict father' metaphor in the article above, Lakoff gives us a vivid picture. When he talks about 'nurturant parent', the best he can do is say:

It is assumed that the world should be a nurturant place. The job of parents is to nurture their children and raise their children to be nurturers.

Lovely, and very vague. It isn't surprising that many people who consider themselves progressives recoil from the metaphor as exactly what they don't need: yet another reason to think that progressives are vaguely mushy and gooily vague. It's a bit like people who say, "All you need is love": true, and not helpful for understanding anything. Likewise with the 'nurturant parent' model. Again, these metaphors are supposed to be models for understanding the respective positions; but they are very poor at that. And when Lakoff goes on to describe what he thinks follows from the 'nurturant parent' metaphor we realize that he honestly thinks that absolutely everything good does. In discussing the 'strict father' metaphor he gives us an abusive and omnipotent government; in the 'nurturant parent' metaphor he gives us a perfect and infallible government. And it is not surprising if there are people on both sides who will say, "Wait a minute; we aren't trying for a government that's any of these things." There is, indeed, something disturbingly psychoanalytic about these 'models for understanding' progressives and conservatives; it is as if Lakoff is trying to put people on the couch:

CONSERVATIVE: I advocate small government.

LAKOFFIAN PSYCHOANALYST: Ah, you see government as a strict father.

CONSERVATIVE: No, most certainly not.

LAKOFFIAN PSYCHOANALYST: But of course you do; you think people are born bad and need to be made good by obedience.

CONSERVATIVE: How could I possibly do that while believing in small government? To be sure, some of my friends hold that people are born with a tendency to sin; but they still hold that people who take the trouble of trying to be reasonable are able to live in a society on their own without the government telling them what to do. I think people are born good and need mostly to be left alone by the government to develop their own potential; the only reason we need government is that we are also born imperfect.

LAKOFFIAN PSYCHOANALYST: But then you are a progressive, because you see the government as a nurturant parent....

CONSERVATIVE: No, confound you! I don't see the government as any sort of parent at all!

LAKOFFIAN PSYCHOANALYST (writing in his notebook): Subject, like most people, employs a mix of the strict-father model and the nurturant-parent model....

And it is, in fact a bad way to frame the whole discussion. Coturnix at Science and Politics argues that it is not a frame at all:

Second, some do not understand that the Lakoff's theoretical model is not a frame itself. They complain along the lines of "if we use these terms, conservatives will destroy us by painting us as effeminate". But, Lakoff does not suggest that we use the family-related terms in political rhetoric. Thinking of the nation as a family is a way to understand the psychological basis of framing, not a frame itself. Quite to the contrary, Lakoff suggests in several articles that progressives should use the frames that project strength, masculinity and uprightness, as well as to paint conservatives as cowards, sissies and "girlie-men".

I am unconvinced. Framing is, according to Lakoff himself, ubiquitous. It is not something you turn off and on, as if you could say, "Now I am framing, now I am not." You are always doing it. Lakoff, in constructing his 'models' is framing. People reading Lakoff who talk about how they agree with with him are framing. Progressives are already using the family-related terms in political rhetoric because Lakoff himself does so. And this is the danger of such a poorly chosen set of metaphors. Once it is out there, it is out there; and it is out there. Coturnix also wonders how 'nurturant parent' can get associated with 'nanny state'; but that's a virtual inevitability of the metaphor, with its big government and nanny-like and treating-the-people-as-children associations. This is why metaphors in these matters must be chosen carefully and trusted only when they show themselves tried-and-true; they associate on their own. If progressives can't understand this, Lakoff is certainly right about one thing: they are incompetent at framing.

In any case, my chief objection to the way framing has been taken up has nothing to do with these absurd 'models'. It is the point I highlighted in my post about framing the issue of framing. I do not know if it is a trend or just something that has been there that I did not see before, but I have recently seen a terrible number of so-called 'progressives' saying very nasty, contemptuous, haughty things about ordinary people. Let us be clear. You are not a progressive if you regularly have contempt for ordinary people, even those who disagree with you. You are not a progressive if you insult large masses of people on a regular basis with phrases like 'stupid' (nor if you regularly treat them as stupid, which is the link to the topic of this post; see the point about manipulation in my framing of framing post). A true progressivism always has a populist side: it is with respect to improving and helping actual people that progress is measured. And you can't be populist while attacking large masses of the actual people, because that is regressive. If you treat people with contempt you aren't treating their good as the standard of your progress; and that is not, I would assume, what progressivism is supposed to be about. Unless I have completely misunderstood what 'progressive' is supposed to mean?

UPDATE (9/26): You can find a sample chapter of Lakoff's book Don't Think of an Elephant here; there are some things added beyond the article noted above, but not much.

UPDATE (10/1): Looking back over Language Log's comments on Lakoff, I find that they also noted the vagueness of the 'nurturant parent' metaphor (on September 9). For other interesting posts, see here and here, where it is pointed out that Lakoff's framing is not verbal framing but idea-framing (and, in the latter, the suggestion, which I find intriguing, that framing is about rhetorical pathos).

Friday, September 24, 2004

Lament of Admetus Draft

Continuing the draft of the verse tragedy I've been roughing out (which will not exactly be so tragic, but it was enough for Euripides), this is the Lament of Admetus. The prior scenes are:

1. Lament of Alcestis
2. Elders of Pherae
3. Alcestis and Admetus

This is a sort of choral dialogue between Admetus [A] and the Chorus of Elders [E]. Yes, it's a bit cheesy, but that's why it's called an early rough draft.

Lament of Admetus

Weep, O world of men,
  lament the passing soul,
One whose virtue blessed
  is known throughout the land,
Praised, by tongue confessed,
  and gone, no more to call
  out live that makes heart whole,
Softly did she fall,
Quick as hind she left our halls.

All life is hard and cold;
And every man in every state
Shall face the face of death,
  And know that best of all
  Is not to live, nor yet to die,
  But never to be born.

Wisdom comes from death.
  They say it often - fools!
Death is foe of mind;
  in pain we catch our breath,
Stunned, we stagger blind
  and babble worthless sounds
  of maxims, proverbs, rules.
Grief alone is found,
Death alone, the twilight hound.

All life is hard and cold;
And every man in every state
Shall face the face of death,
  And know that best of all
  Is not to live, nor yet to die,
  But never to be born.

Yet this I cannot say,
For, shun I light of day,
I shun the day of life
When took I faithful wife.

The next scene, when I get around to finishing it: The Children of Alcestis.

Climates and Discourses

This is my 300th post at Siris! It's amazing how time flies.

Ralph Luker at Cliopatria pointed out an excellent post by Caleb McDaniel at Mode for Caleb called Climates of Opinions, on the metaphors used in intellectual history. He compares 'climates of opinion' with 'discourses', and opts for the former. I don't have much of an opinion on the particular metaphors involved, but I do have an argument for a condition that any such metaphor should meet. We can start by considering the thought experiment from Carl Becker used to introduce the phrase 'climates of opinion'. In Caleb's words:

Suppose, he told his readers, that you suddenly found yourself face-to-face with a resuscitated Dante or Thomas Aquinas. Imagine trying to argue with them, Becker said, about some (then) contemporary issue like the viability of the League of Nations. Dante and Aquinas would doubtlessly make arguments for the League premised on a kind of Christian universalism or on the idea of "natural law." Many of these arguments would have little purchase, though, for twentieth-century interlocutors. The problem would not be that Aquinas and Dante were stupid or their arguments formally invalid; the problem would be that their worldviews are not easily compatible with modern "climates of opinion."

The problem I have with the Becker experiment is that I'm not so clear on the issue of compatibility. To be sure, the worldviews of Aquinas or Dante are not compatible with many of the worldviews of the 20th century; but neither were they compatible with many of the worldviews of the 13th and 14th centuries, either. And they are compatible with some of the worldviews. For instance, there was a revival of Thomists in the 20th century; one of them, Jacques Maritain, was, if I understand rightly, an influence in bringing about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maritain had been a major player as the French delegate on the commission that drafted the charter for UNESCO, and had to face the problem of coming to agreement in a pluralistic atmosphere. He dealt with the problem through Thomistic arguments on the natural law, which allow for various sorts of distinctions in how we know it. When the Declaration was drafted, that commission (Maritain was, if I remember correctly, also the French delegate to that commission) took the same approach that had been advocated by Maritain for UNESCO.

To return to the point (yes, I do return to the point occasionally), Becker's thought experiment seems to fail, in that when we look at it more closely, it (usually) gives us no clear notion of anything that could be called a historical climate of opinion. On the other hand, there does seem to be something to it; it's not as if just anyone can pick up even a good translation of Aquinas and feel completely at home. I think the problem with Becker's thought experiment is perhaps merely that it suggests sharper barriers than usually exist. I wouldn't say than can ever exist, because one could perhaps succeed with a Becker thought experiment if we substitute periods for contemporary cultures long isolated from each other. But in general barriers are not quite so difficult to overcome; as can be seen in the fact that, rather amazingly, we are in a constant process of overcoming them. The metaphor, then, needs to allow for these sorts of complications.

None of this, of course, causes problems for the 'climate of opinion' metaphor; as Caleb notes, it's a metaphor that actually allows for quite a bit of complication. What in our normal experience of the world, after all, is more complicated than the weather?

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Coals on the Head

I just came up with a slogan for my campaign for civility in politics:

No one can be ruthlessly victorious who cannot be scrupulously civil.

But, as one might guess, the Book of Proverbs says it better, because it makes it clearer why this is so:

Proverbs 25 (Young's Literal Translation)
21 If he who is hating thee doth hunger, cause him to eat bread, And if he thirst, cause him to drink water.
22 For coals thou art putting on his head, And Jehovah giveth recompense to thee.

People, I think, are always hesitant to be civil in politics because they are afraid that nice guys finish last. But whoever said that being civil meant being nice? Civility covers all sorts of situations, including situations in which you have to deal with unpleasantness. You can be coldly civil as well as kindly civil. You can be pointedly, even bitingly, civil when others are being uncivil. You can be civil without being servile; you can be civil without being quiet. For, as the saying goes, civility is simply about carefully choosing one's way rather than running heedlessly through the dirt. It does take a certain ingenuity. But it is what succeeds.

Treat your enemies with civility and it's coals on their heads, friends, and no loss to you: Jehovah giveth recompense!

Maverick Philosopher on Framing

Small world! On the framing issue, I find that Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, has posted his response to a Lakoff interview. Criticizing interviews is tricky, but the characterization of the liberal/conservative divide in terms of the "strict father" vs. "nuturant parent" thing is found elsewhere. I find that part a bizarre. As I noted in an aside in my first post on the issue:

And what's up with Lakoff's 'strict father' and 'nurturant parent' models? Does he only study people who like big government?

But I've since realized something: he's trying to nudge the issue by his characterization (in other words, he's framing). Who would deny that a nurturing parent is more desirable than a strict father? I'm glad he stopped a bit short of contrasting the loving mother with the strict step-mother; but he's only just short of framing it all as a fairy tale.

Nodes of the Internment Issue

(I originally tagged this to the end of The Internment Issue; but then I decided, since it will grow longer, that it should have a post of its own. Not having read Malkin's book, I'm hampered in my ability to say much about the argument. So far the issues that I think are really key, i.e., the metapolitical issues of justification itself, haven't - at least from what I've read so far - been discussed much, although here and there it's been touched on. The less important factual issues seem to center on the three possibilities of 1) invasion, which Malkin seems to have conceded; 2) sabotage/espionage; 3) raids. In all cases the question is both whether & to what degree they were possible, and what people at the time knew about whether & to what degree they were possible. I'll be adding to the argument later: I have to finish Muller and add Malkin so the whole thing comes into perspective. And, of course, there are others.)

UPDATE: In the comments to this post at Cliopatria, Jonathan Dresner brings up a valid point in response to a comment that is in some ways like some of my suggested points:

With regard to Malkin's exposure, you're forgetting a steady stream of public appearances, mostly facilitated by College Republicans, which result in a steady stream of newspaper and local tv news reportage, and the 'multiplier effect' of having syndicated conservative columnists praising her work.

This, I think, would make a good beginning for an argument that bloggers need to pay more attention to the issue and, as it were, nip it in the bud. In case this does take off in the blogosphere, here is the beginning of my list of nodes for the 'cooperative distributed argumentation' that it would involve:

* Vox Popoli has lots and lots of posts on it; just a small and somewhat random selection:
(responding to Muller at Volokh),
(linking to an interesting bit of evidence from Robinson via Muller at Volokh),
(an open letter to Malkin),
(with several link to resources that I'll have to look at more closely),
(commenting on a response by Malkin),
(commenting on a remark by Muller),
(another open letter to Malkin, with 10 questions needing answers),
(a quick satire)
(24/09/04 UPDATE: Checking this from a different computer, I just realized that not everyone will be taken directly to the post; people will often have to scroll down. I'll post clearer information, e.g., date, on each of these links a bit later.)

Vox Day also has columns on the subject at WorldNetDaily:

No Case for Internment and A Challenge to Michelle Malkin.

(9/27) And another column by Vox Day: Was Al Franken Right?

* Powerline first mentioned it here and comments on the Malkin/Muller debate here

* Muller has written on this:

-> At The Volokh Conspiracy:
(starts here)
(on Vox Day on military necessity)
(the Mackenzie King bit from Robinson)

-> At IsThatLegal? (I haven't followed these very closely at all, so I'll have to put up particular samples later)

-> I just noticed (9/25) that there is a compilation site for posts by Muller and Robinson on Malkin

Note on Comments

I've been having a bit of trouble with Haloscan today; sometimes the comments and trackback links are there, and sometimes not. If they're not there, you might just have to hit the Refresh button on your browser; if that doesn't work, clicking to another site and back seems usually to work.

On the Framing of Framing

Lindsay Beyerstein at "Majikthise" has a great response to my framing post. As she notes:

Lakoff is simply arguing that liberals need to devote more effort to packaging their ideas into attractive rhetorical/metaphorical soundbites. He got tired of watching conservatives win media debates by saying "I'm for tax relief." and "My opponent supports the death tax." Nobody wants to be against relief, nobody wants to be seen pushing a death tax.

Liberals need vigorous counter-framing to highlight our beliefs and values. Framing doesn't have to be deceptive or simplistic. I happen to believe that taxes are more like the dues of an exclusive club than like a disease from which one deserves relief....

Ironically, I think "welfare" was a great liberal frame back in the day. Eventually, even the best frames become dead metaphors. Nowadays, "welfare" is losing its original positive connotation and even becoming perjorative (eg "welfare bum". "welfare queen"). That's why we have to keep thinking up new ones.

And I certainly have to concede all this; my criticism was a bit loose and unguarded. Nonetheless, the point I primarily intended remains. I think I might be able to clarify it by looking at it indirectly:

1) The way progressives are framing the issue of framing itself is a bad way to do it.

This in two ways:

a) First, They Need to Link to Experience: Lakoff's example of taxation is a case in point. Lakoff repeatedly speaks as if the primary reason people consider tax reduction to be 'tax relief' were that they keep hearing it over and over again. But unless one just meant that people are using the label because they've heard it before, this seems to be simply false. People do use the words they hear; and it is the case that this has some influence on their thought. But it doesn't explain why they pick up some such phrases so easily and just ignore others. There is, I think, a very good reason to think that the reason 'tax relief' was picked up so quickly and easily was that it fits what people, rightly or wrongly, already felt tax reduction to be. For one thing, the view that taxation is a burden of some sort goes back a long, long way. The value of the notion of 'framing' is that it puts in a clear way the consequences of characterizing something inappropriately, i.e., the problems that arise when you characterize bad things as if they were good and good things as if they were bad. But this can only be applied if people don't use it as an excuse to avoid seeing why people are so ready to characterize some things the way they are.

In other words: instead of starting with trying to reframe the issues, progressives should start with people's actual experiences, and look into what it is in people's experiences that makes it seem so fitting for so many to talk about burdens and relief. Lindsay is right to bring up dead metaphors; but the difference between dead metaphors and living metaphors is that people simply use dead metaphors as labels, but use living metaphors as somehow appropriate. If they have no experience of something they receive a metaphor about, they (if they accept it) take it as appropriate on trust. However, if they do have experience of it -- and it is certainly the case that people have experience of taxation -- they will also often reject metaphors that seem inappropriate to that experience, and accept metaphors that seem appropriate. (It's always possible, of course, that people are simply making errors about what actually is appropriate to their own experiences; but this, again, is something that can only be seen by looking at people's actual experiences.) What worries me on this point is that progressives, so excited about 'framing', have not yet been able to characterize it in such a way that would distinguish it from euphemism. And the reason is that they have not taken this opportunity to look at the fact that most political policies get interpreted through a mix of good and bad experiences for many, many people. Suppose we stopped calling taxes 'taxes' and started calling them 'national dues'. The question that has to be asked is: would people start liking taxes better, or would most of them start hating the whole notion of national dues? And this can't be answered without looking first at what people actually experience and seeing how to make that better.

b) Second, They Need to Stop Framing It as Manipulative: And they do frame it as manipulative; the discussion in this Crooked Timber post from a few weeks back is a case in point. In what way do they frame it as manipulative? They focus on trying to get a psychological effect rather than trying to meet with people where they are, and where their experiences are. Thus the post talks about "creating a psychological barrier to opposition". This meets up, of course, with my first concern: Instead of looking at why real people are, because of their experiences, finding conservative tropes plausible, the conversation slips into talking about how to make it impossible for people to disagree with you. Instead of listening in on a genuinely progressive gameplan, we start getting, by an unfortunate crossing of wires, the next Doubleplusunthink project from Minitrue in Orwell's 1984.

2) What we need is not a new progressive vocabulary. What we need are new progressives, that is, progressives who are genuinely progressive in how they approach the entire issue. That means that they must be personalist, concerned with policies not in the abstract but in the concrete ways they affect real, living, breathing human beings. They must be ready to recognize that a lot of good policies have the problem that they often leave experiences that seem bad if not put in the larger context, and sometimes even experiences that are genuinely bad; and dealing with this should always be the first concern of progressives. It is out of this, and this alone, that the best, and most genuinely progressive, framings of the situation will come; they certainly will not come out of a label war. But it looks like liberals are heading for a label war.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Framing, the Silver Rule, and Political Taste

There's a good discussion of Lakoff's theory of framing at "Mixing Memory" (hat-tip to Majikthise).

What I wonder is why Lakoff always focuses on taxation. There's an equally good set of frames in the case of welfare -- e.g., the fact that we talk about 'health care' rather than 'emergency medical subsidies' or, for that matter, about 'welfare' rather than about 'poor law' and 'the dole', and about 'welfare recipients' rather than 'charity cases'. Since Lakoff is a la mode for liberals these days, perhaps they would do well to keep in mind that conservatives can turn the matter around just as easily as liberals can. If people really want to make political discourse a war for names, it's a game that can be played by anyone. My own view is that this is all playing with fire -- and you know what you risk when you play with fire.

This is part of what I think might be a serious flaw in our political reasoning, namely, a failure to think long-term. One sees this in critiques of conservative critiques of judicial activism that make the false assumption that judicial activism is an inherently liberal phenomenon, i.e., that there will never be a time when conservatives are using the courts for their side in the way they claim liberals are using the courts now. There's definitely something to critique in those conservative critiques (for one thing, they also make the false assumption); but if you're a liberal, it might be a good idea to frame your critique so it doesn't come back to bite you hard you know where. Similar things can be said about conservative critiques themselves. People just don't think beyond the immediate context. It's not like it's difficult, though. It's simple reciprocity: if you're a conservative criticizing liberals, think how you would respond if you were put in a situation similar to that of the liberals; if you're a liberal criticizing conservatives, think how you would respond if you were put in a situation similar to that of the conservatives. And yes, you can be put in a situation similar to that of your opponents; if you don't realize that, start paying attention to how topsy-turvy politics has been lately. The Silver Rule ("do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you") will save you from making many stupid or dangerous moves; it is the heart of good political taste, in the sense in which I use the term (see elsewhere on this weblog -- you can do so by typing "political taste", with quotation marks, into the search engine on the Blogger bar).

Boehme and Law

"Giornale Nuovo" has a great post on Behmenists. Behmenists are followers of the mystic Jakob Boehme (1575-1624). I read a translation of his Aurora once; very weird stuff, although it's always hard to tell how much of that is real weirdness and how much is just apparent weirdness due to choice of words. For further information on Boehme, see the Jacob Boehme Resource Page. There are lots of links to great images there.

My first introduction to Boehme was through William Law (1686-1761). Law is most famous for his A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, a sober, practical guide to the elements of religious devotion, which is most notable for its illustration of its points by beautifully written, and psychologically realistic, representations, or fictional character sketches. This work impressed the likes of Samuel Johnson and the Wesleys. His Boehme-influenced works are a bit later.

This website says that Law wrote a thesis at Cambridge on Malebranche's Vision in God thesis. This is the first I'd heard of it. Since I do Malebranche, I'll have to see if I can find it.

Christian Carnival XXXVI

The Christian Carnivalvis up at Neophyte Pundit. I had intended to submit something, but due to my cold I never had the chance to write what I intended to write. Perhaps next time. In any case, some posts that especially struck me:

* Kerry, The Democrats, and Postmodernism in Politics at "Digitus, Finger & Co." This is actually less about Kerry or Democrats than it sounds. A good portion of it is about Canada, which, as an American in Canada I found particularly interesting. Some of it is a bit hard on the Canadians, I think, but, just going on my own limited experience, a good portion of it rings true. This is especially true on the contrast between the Canadian and the American sense of national identity. Once after class I was hanging out with some of my students at the GSU pub, and somehow or other the discussion got off of philosophy and onto the question of national identity. And I said at some point that what seemed to me to be the difference between Canada and the U.S. on this point is that Americans don't worry much about national identity and they don't worry much about assimilating other cultures, whereas Canadians (insofar as one can discern from public figures and the like) seem to worry about them a lot. The point, of course, was not that Americans never worry about these things, nor that Canadians always worry about them; but they occupy very different roles in the public discourse of the two nations. One of the students, though, said that this claim didn't seem to fit well with the notion of an American 'melting pot'. I don't remember what I replied to that. But Neil provides what I think would be a major part of a good response. I'm a bit less convinced by the application to the Democratic Party; but I think it does describe quite accurately how the Democrats look from a fairly common perspective.

* I was surprised to learn from Joshua Clabourne about Louisiana's State Marriage Amendment. It's rather strongly worded; and I don't really see what is gained by putting it in the state constitution. We'll see what happens in terms of the courts.

* Jimmy Swaggart Incites Violence Against Gays at "The Journey" on some comments by Swaggart that are being rightly condemned by evangelicals.

[On this point, incidentally, there's a great comments discussion going on at "Parableman" here. I especially like the comment that (I'm paraphrasing) a problem with the attitude of many Christians towards homosexuals is that they think in terms of homosexuality, i.e., a set of issues, rather than in terms of homosexuals, i.e., real people like oneself.]

* The Rise and Decline of Modern Atheism at "viewpoint", reviewing Alister McGrath's book of the same name. McGrath is perhaps on to something in his discussion of the rise of modern atheism; I'm not convinced it's in decline, though. It's just that its mushier side has been growing more dominant. You know the sort of thing I mean; I read a blog not too long ago, for instance, in which an atheist was lamenting the fact that, because he was an atheist, everyone assumed he wasn't spiritual. Spiritual Atheism does seem to be the order of the day. You do still find hardheaded atheists, though; I like them better because they make more sense.

* "At first I saw a person..." at "Constantly Abiding" (a great post, highly recommended, on seeing people as people)

* Rebecca continues her series on God's attributes with God's Truthfulness at "Rebecca Writes"

As usual, it's a good carnival.

The Internment Issue

Well, everything is conspiring to make sure I do no work; first this cold, which set me back a day or two, and now the computers in the Philosophy Department are unable to connect to the server. I'm currently writing thisin Robarts Library, which is a surprisingly noisy place to do work. I can't really do any work, because my work is all online, in my Yahoo! Briefcase, and I don't have a disk, so I can't save any work I'd do here.

Since it came up, I thought I would say something on the internment dispute. I don't really have much to contribute; I haven't read Malkin on the subject, and the factual issues lie well outside any area in which I am competent to speak. I've been following Vox Day's criticisms of Malkin, and if he has his facts right, and if he is characterizing her correctly, he seems to have built a decisive refutation of her main factual claims (I can't evaluate whether his facts are all right; those few I can seem to be). In any case, there is a sense in which the point is rather moot; for a government to engage in the internment of its own citizens without any regard for their guilt or innocence is not justifiable by any of the basic principles of republican government, whatever the facts of the situation. I take this as fairly obvious; if necessary I could expand on exactly how such internment violates consent of the governed, sovereignty of the people, and due process, but I won't unless there's a reader out there who really has difficulty seeing how they do. The only way I can see that anyone would consider it justifiable is if they held that utilitarian or realpolitical considerations overruled matters of principle. And that would only work if Malkin has her facts straight and if they were of the sort that would trigger the right utilitarian or realpolitical considerations. But as I said, the point is moot; such considerations do not overrule the moral-philosophical foundations of government. Such internments are indefensible.

Nonetheless I would like to defend bloggers in the blogosphere from the charge that they are being inconsistent or somehow have their priorities wrong in focusing so much on the memo scandal and not very much on the internment scandal. I think one can make a reasonable argument that bloggers should worry more about Malkin's position on internments. But this is a far cry from saying they are being unreasonable by not worrying much about it. There are several things that need to be kept in mind:

1. The issue with the memos is not, contrary to how some have tried to spin it, over Bush's TANG service in the Vietnam War. The issue is the journalistic integrity of a major news organization here and now. This is what bloggers have focused on; many of them don't care the slightest bit what happened in the Vietnam War. I do care somewhat; but the only value it has (beyond the purely academic) is what it contributes to our knowledge of the character of the Presidential candidates. I will not be deciding the politics of the next four years entirely, or even largely, on the basis of things that happened before I was born. And while I can't vouch for the 'before I was born' part, I think this is a common view. In any case, to return to my point: what made the issue important for the blogosphere was what is happening here and now. And questions about the journalistic integrity of a major news organization make for a very serious, very important issue. It is not a matter of memos but a matter of what they tell us about news journalism; and people are very disturbed by what they seem to say.

2. There is a sense in which Malkin's defense of internment is rather like Ferguson's defense of imperialism. Lots of people have heard about it, and know about it. But I think we should not overestimate how many people really pay much attention to it in the first place; certainly it's the sort of thing people find interesting if they fancy themselves intellectuals without wanting to work too hard at being so. But it's really about some rather abstract philosophical conclusions drawn from events that happened years ago (at least the way it is usually portrayed; like most people, I haven't read or paid much attention to Malkin on this subject at all); disputes about what really happened in the British Empire or in World War II are historical questions requiring historical expertise (and even historical expertise, depending on the events and evidence being considered, can be rather wrong). The memos just depended on being able to trace down the accurate technical knowledge, and the conclusions drawn were conclusions about a living person and contemporary news organization. I take the Chestertonian view that the abstract, philosophical conclusions are really the more serious -- I love the Chestertonian fancy of a 'philosophical detective' in The Man Who Was Thursday, someone who instead of solving crimes already committed prevents crimes yet to be committed by rooting out their philosophical roots before they begin to sprout -- but I can entirely understand that many people wouldn't. And as for the sort of knowledge required, deciding whether (for instance) FDR had reason to believe that the Japanese could actually invade the West Coast, or (to take another instance) whether on the evidence FDR had there was genuinely good reason to worry about a Fifth Column, is an entirely different order of complexity (both complexity of argumentation and complexity of evidence) compared to deciding whether the spacing on a memo could be accomplished by a typewriter. It is a more intimidating issue. It is an issue to which fewer people are exposed. It trades on matters in which fewer people have an obvious, direct, and concrete interest.

3. As I said, the issue about the memos is a matter of the journalistic integrity of a news organization. The focus is on Rather; but CBS has a major stake in it all. The journalistic integrity of Malkin is a much less significant issue.

Again, my argument is not that the memos issue is more important than the internment issue, but that 1) the memos issue is not as trivial as some people have pretended; and 2) that the case for the greater importance of the internment issue has to be made, not assumed; and, indeed, 3) that the case for it occupying the attention of a considerable portion of the blogosphere also has to be made, not assumed. It's perhaps clear that internment is a matter of greater moment than forgery; but that is not in itself sufficient. The end of the world is a matter of greater moment than either of them, but that doesn't mean bloggers should take time off from considering memos or internment in order to investigate and refute the claims of the crazy guy with the sandwich board that says "THE END IS NEAR." And it doesn't mean that there would be much to say if they did. I think the internment issue is important, but I think it important because I think philosophy is, in a sense, more important than facts, not in the sense that facts are unimportant, but that what makes facts really important is always philosophical. And there are clear philosophical issues. But, really, as I said above, even given that I don't have much to add to the matter; at least, nothing that I think isn't obvious if formulated the right way. As I said, I think Malkin's work is a bit like Ferguson's; it excites a bunch of people who fancy themselves intellectuals and think that means chasing after every new trail. And it worries, quite rightly, people whose actual field of study or interest touches on their own subject in some way. But most people are quite simply only vaguely aware of it at all, and would have to delve into quite a bit of research before they could really say much on the subject. If it becomes a bigger issue, in the sense of an issue that's harder to ignore, more would have to be said, and, I think, more would be said. Bloggers are not being unreasonable on this point; and this may be said even if it would be better if they paid more attention to the internment issue.

Such are my initial thoughts, anyway; I'm entirely open to being persuaded otherwise, since this is just my first impression.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Noetic Glue

Posting has been light because I've been feeling under the weather; but I hope to churn out something more substantial this afternoon tomorrow morning. In the meantime, go read Joshua Duncan's interesting post on Emotion and Knowing at The Lazy Logician.

To Clarify

This is an example of the reason I dislike the whole idea of academics, and especially philosophers, blogging politics in a partisan way. It's something of an extreme example of the corrosion of discourse; but I think this sort of corrosion is that to which such blogging tends. Political faction corrupts reason, and even when it does not corrupt reason, it corrupts communication of reasons. It's my romanticism: I like the idea of academics improving the quality of discourse rather than contributing to its decay. This is not to say, of course, that bloggers should never talk politics or come down firmly on one side of the question (academics could never improve the quality of a discourse in which they never participated). But political factiousness is the most sordid part of politics, and the part that needs to be kept firmly on a leash.

Monday, September 20, 2004

What I Do When I Should Be Sleeping....

The light is a tiger pouncing,
a panther pawing, a lion roaring;
the pouring of the cataracts,
water falling, to my eyes,
a thundering of color, unrelenting.

The light on the wall is flowing,
playing with the shadows,
mousing all the darkness,
leaping and lightly purring
as it panthers in my room.

Rippling in the shadows
like a rumor in the city,
it leaps like glory's coming
in the rainbows of the flood.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

A Thought on Helen of Troy and on the Sentimental Sex

I was thinking yesterday, for some reason, of Helen of Troy. One of the things I find most intriguing about her characterization, to some degree in Homer, but much more in the Greek tragic authors, is the difference in the way she is perceived by men and by women. The (Greek) men will call her all sorts of names; but there's something rather perfunctory about it. When she's actually there, men tend to be a bit more forgiving; and, in the case of the Trojans, the only one who really is consistent in criticizing her is Hector, whose love for Andromache makes him impervious to her beauty. With the women, however, it is rather different. They do not see the Trojan War as a matter of honor, nor as the matter of reclaiming (Greek) or protecting (Trojan) a beautiful women.

Marlowe (in the person of Faust) famously wrote:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?--
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss --

Faust then goes on to babble about how he'll be the new Paris, and how it will be Wittenberg, not Troy, that is sacked. This is very much a man's view. Anyone with sympathy for the women (Greek and Trojan) has to see Helen in a rather different light. For they don't see the Trojan War as anything else but a massive bloodshed, caused by a woman who couldn't keep her legs together, in which their fathers, husbands, and sons are dying and which (in the case of the Trojans) they themselves are likely to be enslaved and (in the case of the Greeks) they themselves are likely to be replaced by other women. So whenever they talk about Helen (and this includes even Helen's sister Clytemnestra), they are merciless; they would never call her 'sweet'. Instead they call her 'slut', 'whore', and the like. And I can't help but think that the men are being overly led by sentiment rather than reason. The women, at least, do not have that luxury; they have to face the cold, hard facts, and in light of those facts Helen's actions seem to be very serious crimes indeed. And (unlike the men) they don't buy for a moment this whole nonsensical story of the golden apple and the Choice of Paris. In Euripides' The Trojan Women, Hecuba rips apart Helen's appeal to that story as an absurd excuse, and, indeed, a blasphemy. Can anyone honestly and sensibly think that the wise Athena would enter a beauty contest and try to bribe the judge?

If I ever get around to writing my verse novel on the Curse of the Atreides, this would form a considerable part of the plot.

Distributed Cognition

Having written my post on cooperative distributed argumentation a while ago, I happened to stumble today on a (draft) paper by P.D. Magnus (thanks to Ektopos for the link):

The Promise and Perils of Science as Distributed Cognition

It's a fairly interesting discussion of (as you might expect) the distributed cognition model of science. One question I'd raise is about the specification of the purpose of a task: a purpose or function can be specified to various levels of precision. For instance, I can say that this keyboard's function is typing; this is a very vague specification. But someone could also give a more precise specification in terms of the particular construction of the keyboard, the sending of impulses of a certain sort to an input port, etc. So all a distributed cognition model of science would need to get off the ground is a very, very, very general specification of the function or purpose of scientific activity; the rest would be simply a matter of refinement. In any case, I thought I'd mention it, since I posted on a related issue recently.