Saturday, May 07, 2005

It Took Long Enough....

Descartes has finally won out over Voetius (in French). In March the University of Utrecht lifted its 363-year-old condemnation of the teaching of the works of Descartes. (hat-tip: Philosophical Fortnights). Honestly, I hadn't even realized the condemnation was even still in place; it's amazing how long this sort of thing sometimes lasts.

Two More Scribbles

Two more, this time a bit closer to my usual.

Other Things

The sky was bright blue,
Bursting with the sunlight,
But I continued on my way,
Concerned with other things.

The sky threatened rain;
I walked on, undaunted,
Hurried by the end before me,
Thinking of other things.

The sky wept tears,
Thundering over my negligence,
But I paid no attention,
Worrying about other things.

As you hurry on your way,
Stop a moment to see the sky;
I have too often neglected it
In my fretting about other things.

For When the Sun is Bright

Sing your praise unto the Lord,
sing of the joy of Him;
among His people He abides,
between the cherubim.

Play, O lambs upon the hills,
leap with solemn play,
upon the mountains of the Lord
in light of God's own day.

Holy, Holy is the Lord,
Holy is His light;
tabernacled here with us,
He saves us in the night.

Glory is a heavy thing;
it presses down with love.
Raise your voice and gladly sing
the praise of God above.

Selling What Cannot Exist

Herzog at "Left2Right" has what he calls a skeptical challenge. Fill in the blank:

(C) ________________ is unnatural and therefore wrong.

And then provide an account of why (C) is true.

My off-the-top-of-my-head suggestion:

Usury is unnatural and therefore wrong.

My off-the-top-of-my-head account:

Money presupposes the stable existence of society, which is organized for common good; as a matter of common good, we need something that can serve as a medium of exchange and savings. Money (as such), therefore, has no legitimate use except as fulfilling this role. In usury, one attempts to use money as such not purely for the fulfilling of the role of being a medium of exchange and savings, but as a commodity for rent. Usury, being rationally perverse, is unnatural and therefore wrong; QED. Confirming evidence: Most forms of usury involve charging people for being in need.

Or to put it in Aristotelian terms: usury is very unnatural; or in the popular slogan: Money does not breed.

The rest of Herzog's argument, by the way, is (as far as I can see, at least) incoherent; not only does it recklessly conflate Aristotelian teleology with teleology in the later sense, it puts excessive emphasis on what are the unique conditions for human nature (which play no relevant role in the discussion, contrary to Herzog's implication), historically it fails to recognize that teleology in the later sense was not in any noticeable way replaced by the mechanistic view (indeed, it is a mechanistic view, arising for the same mechanistic reasons the design argument became so popular), the claim that teleologists were never able to explain why nature sometimes failed to realize her intentions is utterly absurd, it fails to recognize that the views he is criticizing can be formulated without appeal to nature, etc., etc.

Things of Interest

* PseudoSeven: Nathanael Robinson hosts Carnivalesque #7 #5, the Early Modern Carnival. There are some really great posts. Here are just some of the topics: whether Newton was a deist, Ratzinger on Galileo and the Church, Hume's natural history of religion, the nature of Carnival, the role of women in the French economy, British royal scandals, Jane Austen's word artistry, the inimitable Sor Juana, the Reformation, Reuchlin and the Dominicans on Jewish books, and the methodology of the history of ideas. An awesome collection of posts. Go see!

* Richard discusses The Argument from Hell at "Philosophy, etc."

* Lindsay at "Majikthise" continues her discussion of moral relativism with a Relativism Case Study.

* William Vallicella at "Maverick Philosopher" summarizes an argument that Romanticism is subjectified occasionalism in About Schmitt: Romanticism as a Form of Occasionalism. I find this a very intriguing idea. It's an odd interpretive move, but the more I think about, just given what little I know about the Romantics, the more I think there may be something in it, at least as a suggestive beginning for interpretation.

* Steven Riddle at "Flos Carmeli" has a nice poem called Jonah.

* Colonel David Hackworth, military reform advocate, died Wednesday. Hackworth is best known for his organization, "Soldiers for the Truth," which provides a forum for investigation and dissemination of information about (among other things) mismanagement of the military by Congress or the Pentagon, civil rights issues for soldiers and veterans, and the accurate flow of information between the military and civilians. Hackworth was a pro-military voice who was sharply critical of American participation in and handling of the Iraq war. (hat-tip on the bad news: Vox Popoli)

* Apparently, East Waynesville Baptist in North Carolina asked nine members of the congregation to leave because they were Democrats, leading to more than 40 leaving in protest. (hat-tip: Science and Politics). There has been a lot of fuss about it in the blogosphere; but it's actually not particularly surprising. Baptists are schismatic by nature, and there are few of us who are or have been Baptists who have not experienced church splits of one sort or another over some silly detail or other: the use of tambourines and overheads in church services comes to mind as one example. It follows from the Baptist emphasis on the individual and the local congregation; the church power structure is entirely bottom-up, with the real power belonging to the individual Baptists, who gather together into a congregation, which pools money with other congregations for particular purposes (usually missionary purposes of various sorts) to create a convention. What seems to have happened -- although the news articles are very vague -- is that the pastor exceeded his authority, which is established, of course, by the by-laws created by the congregation.

* At "Ralph the Sacred River" there's an interesting post on George Psalmanazar (1679-1763).

* By all accounts, Revenge of the Sith will be much better than Episodes I and II. Hurray!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

A Scribble

A bit different from my usual....

I Remember

your words are only words
your dreams are only dreams
but I remember
once we sat beneath an oak
murmuring beneath gold-green leaves
that shushed us softly

you took my hand
tracing the lines of truth
in the veins of my skin

Enquiry Concerning the Origin of Religion

Hume's The Natural History of Religion, published in 1757, opens with a distinction between two questions one might ask about religion. The first is "that concerning its foundation in reason" and the second is "that concerning its origin in human nature." The first, which has to do with the rational justification of religion, is discussed in Hume's more famous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The second, and I think Hume's more important contribution, is about the psychological factors involved in religious belief. What Hume is trying to do is discuss the psychological factors that make it possible to talk about the history of religion. If religion were merely a matter of argument, it would have some sort of history, but a very attenuated one. Religion, however, is more than argument, so a more involved investigation is necessary. In this investigation he comes to several conclusions.

A. That Polytheism was the Primary Religion of Man. The prior work that perhaps most closely approaches the sort of thing Hume is attempting here was the De Religione Gentilium (1663) of Edward Herbert of Cherbury. Herbert argued that all actual religions in existence were corruptions of an original rational worship consisting of five notions:

(1) That there is a supreme God;
(2) That this God ought to be worshipped;
(3) That the primary form this worship takes is piety combined with virtue;
(4) That men should repent of their sins;
(5) That vice and virtue are punished and rewarded (respectively).

Herbert's book was an attempt to argue that religions exhibited these principles in more or less faithful forms. Hume takes an entirely contrary approach, arguing that human beings were originally polytheistic. The farther back we go in history, Hume argues, the more polytheistic societies become. The "savage tribes" of America, Asia, and Africa are all polytheists. Hume allows that it is possible to develop an argument for monotheism from an accurate investigation into the frame of nature, but suggests that common people of any time don't really pay much attention to the data that would be required to make and appreciate this argument.

B. Religion originally arises out of hope and fear in matters of everyday life. If we aren't going to locate the origin of religion in speculative reason, then, Hume argues, we must locate it in the passions; in particular, in "the anxious concern for happiness, the dread of future misery, the terror of death, the thirst of revenge, the appetite for food and other necessaries" (p. 28).

The way in which these passions lead to polytheism is this. Actuated by hope and fear about the future, human beings begin to worry about the unknown causes that govern things like sickness, famine, and the like; "and while the passions are kept in perpetual alarm by an anxious expectation of the events, the imagination is equally employed in forming ideas of those powers, on which we have so entire a dependance" (p. 29). In the absence of a developed theory of the relevant causes, the human mind anthropomorphizes. Not only does it happen in poetry, but common people often go farther than the poet and begin believing in the hamadryad in the wood or the spirit of the waters. Even philosophers, Hume thinks, are not immune, giving the standard list of supposed scholastic anthropomorphisms (the horror of the vacuum, sympathies, antipathies, natural appetite).

No wonder, then, that mankind, being placed in such an absolute ignorance of causes, and being at the same time so anxious concerning their future fortune, should immediately acknowledge a dependence on invisible powers, possessed of sentiment and intelligence. The unknown causes which continually employ their thought, apeparing always in the same aspect, are all apprehended to be of the same kind or species. Nor is it long before we ascribe to them thought and reason and apassion, and sometimes even the limbs and figures of men, in order to bring them nearer to a resemblance with ourselves. (p. 30)

Any human passion, Hume thinks, may lead to the belief in "invisible intelligent power"; but Hume thinks that the less agreeable passions -- fear, grief, and the like -- are more conducive to the development of religion, since they lead to attempts to appease the invisible powers.

Interestingly, the bulk of this explanation is not found exclusively in Hume. One also finds it in Malebranche. Malebranche's The Search after Truth discusses a very similar type of mechanism in explaining how original sin creates a pagan mindset in people; this mechanism plays an important role in Malebranche's account of how we fall into the error of believing that things have their own causal powers. Hume would certainly have known of the passages in which Malebranche discusses this; he quotes elsewhere from one of the most important. Whether Hume's eighteenth-century naturalistic account is adapted from Malebranche's seventeenth-century Catholic account is unclear, however; very little work has been done on the historical influences for The Natural History of Religion.

C. Monotheism arises through a propensity to flattery. After discussing various other issues (e.g., the limited non-creative function of polytheistic gods, allegory, hero-worship, and the like), Hume goes on to discuss the origin of theism from polytheism. His view is that it does not arise by any process of reasoning but by a sycophantic tendency in human nature. Polytheists tend to have special devotions to a particular god; as time goes on they tend to flatter and eulogize that deity, whose characteristics become greater and greater until all the other gods are edged out. Gods become supreme through bootlicking.

D. Polytheism and monotheism are engaged in a perpetual cycle of flux and reflux. The propensity to anthropomorphize forces the mind in a polytheistic direction; the propensity to adulation forces the mind in a monotheistic direction.

From this Hume passes on to discussion of how the two, polytheism and monotheism compare. Polytheism makes men tolerant, monotheism makes them intolerant; polytheism makes men heroic, monotheism makes them servile; monotheism, while initially more rational, is more likely to corrupt philosophy for precisely that reason; both are a bad influence on morals. Hume finds this all quite puzzling, and thus ends the work with a famous passage:

The whole is a riddle, an aenigma, an inexplicable mystery. Doubt, uncertainty, suspence of judgment appear the only result of our most accurate scrutiny, concerning this subject. But such is the frailty of human reason, and such the irresistible contagion of opinion, that even this deliberate doubt could scarcely be upheld; did we not enlarge our view, and opposing one species of superstition to another, set them a quarrelling; while we ourselves, during their fury and contention, happily make our escape into the calm, though obscure, regions of philosophy. (p. 76)

One of the interesting limitations of Hume's approach in The Natural History of Religion is that his knowledge of the "savage" societies is very indirect. Virtually all of his knowledge of pagan life is drawn from classical writings, particularly from Greek and Roman historians. This means that his knowledge of other religious cultures is a curious mix of idealization and traveler's tales. In this sense, Hume's attempt to a psychological history of religion runs into a problem that is common in this period: newly interested in other cultures, Europeans of the time are nonetheless almost wholly dependent on ancient sources, traveler's tales, and missionary reports.

[Page numbers are from David Hume, The Natural History of Religion. H. E. Root, editor. Stanford University Press (Stanford: 1956).]

[For a more modern approach that Hume would have loved, and which occasionally shows some surprising agreement with his speculations, see Chris's January posts at "Mixing Memory" here, here, and here.]

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Various, Including Providential History

* If the recent long posts are a bit fatiguing, I apologize; April was a busy month and a number of things I wanted to do had to be put off to the side. There will be more to common, but (I hope) not all in one lump.

* I have to do some re-working of the paper on Malebranche's mind-body union that I'll be giving later this month, so posting will probably be light until Saturday or Sunday. I'm pretty sure that I'll be doing a post on Hume's Natural History of Religion, though; I've been wanting to do it since Chris was discussing cognitive science work on religion in December, and I think I'll probably submit it to Carnivalesque, since I've intended to submit and haven't done so.

* Which reminds me: For Carnivalesque (the early modern carnival), don't forget to turn in your submissions to Nathanael Robinson at rhineriverATearthlinkDOTnet (replace AT with @ and DOT with .). For the Philosophers' Carnival put in your submission at the link.

* Jonathan Dresner has an excellent post on providential history at Cliopatria. I'm not sure I quite follow his point in the last paragraph about logical tautology, but it's well worth reading. I don't think I have a firm grasp on the whole dispute, but I think I'm pretty much in agreement with it. I consider providential history (or some equivalent) to be a necessary and important part of how we approach history; but there's a sense in which it is not history at all, but a higher-order philosophical and theological reflection on history. It needs to be sharply distinguished from the historical work itself, which should be more or less the same in all cases. It's the higher-order interpretations, necessary not so much for historical work as it is for what we decide to learn from it, that are really at issue. And I think this is true from the providential history end as well as from the historical end. For, in the end, I hold to an Old Testament view of providential history: a good providential history never papers over the endless tale of human failings and folly. What makes a providential history different from mere propaganda is that it gives us an idea of how providence deals with us as we are and have been, not with some idealization of ourselves. And that generally requires good, standard historical work to begin with. (I like the analysis in section I, as well).

* Clark links to this paper on Levinas and the Talmud.

* At "Majikthise," Lindsay discusses What's wrong with relativism (the discussion in the comments section is long, but worth reading as well).

* At "Maverick Philosopher," Bill Vallicella posts his paper responding to Quentin Smith on the questio of whether the universe could cause itself to exist.

* Rebecca is collecting the Words We Love. One word I love is syzygy. The opportunity to use it doesn't come up much. I once wrote a nonsense poem consisting of words I enjoy hearing; it was called "A Syzygy of Caribou".

* misteraitch at "Giornale Nuovo" presents us with Michelangelo's Dream.

A Brief Jotting on Atheism

Apparently atheists don't hold the belief that God doesn't exist. And atheism is not a belief system but "Atheists attack religions for 'painting a false picture of the world' because that's what religions damn well do!"

Of course, Benson is right that atheism, as such, is not a belief system. But it is interesting that she can't keep her own distinction up even to the end of her post. Since atheism, as such, is not a belief system, it is pointless to talk about what 'atheists' in that sense attack and what they don't, and particularly pointless to talk about their reasons for doing so. They are likely to do different things (as Evans and Benson are doing different things), and what they do in common they are likely to do for different reasons. As she noted just above, "It's not incompatible with a belief system, or many, of course, but it itself is not a god damn belief system, it's the refusal of one!"

And, of course, what she doesn't say, but should have, is that 'atheism' is commonly used in ordinary English to mean 'belief system (of whatever sort) that is atheistic', where 'atheistic' (believing that there is no God) can be distinguished from 'nontheistic' (not believing anything one way or another about the matter). I would have thought this bit of vocabulary common knowledge; but perhaps Benson didn't have the time to employ more critical thought in responding to the article; a common blogging hazard. Or perhaps this is just a first draft, to be put in more rational order later. In any case, in that sense the original article is obviously right that there are different species of atheism. That of Evans, for instance, is different from that of Benson, so much so that Benson can't prevent herself from swearing at Evans's.

Coolidge on the Hope of Permanent Peace

One of the greatest dangers to peace lies in the economic pressure to which people find themselves subjected. One of the most practical things to be done in the world is to seek arrangements under which such pressure may be removed, so that opportunity may be renewed and hope may be revived. There must be some assurance that effort and endeavor will be followed by success and prosperity. In the making and financing of such adjustments there is not only an opportunity, but a real duty, for America to respond with her counsel and her resources. Conditions must be provided under which people can make a living and work out of their difficulties. But there is another element, more important than all, without which there can not be the slightest hope of a permanent peace. That element lies in the heart of humanity. Unless the desire for peace be cherished there, unless this fundamental and only natural source of brotherly love be cultivated to its highest degree, all artificial efforts will be in vain. Peace will come when there is realization that only under a reign of law, based on righteousness and supported by the religious conviction of the brotherhood of man, can there be any hope of a complete and satisfying life. Parchment will fail, the sword will fail, it is only the spiritual nature of man that can be triumphant.

--Calvin Coolidge, Inaugural Address

German Science

There are a great many myths about Pierre Duhem floating around. The most notable, I think, is that he advocates scientific anti-realism; an attribution which requires a very selective reading of Duhem, ignoring everything in Duhem's arguments that Duhem himself seemed to have considered most important. I won't argue this issue here. What I do want to do is say something about the claim that Duhem rejected the theory of relativity.

The best text for understanding Duhem's view on relativity is German Science. There have been many complaints about this book; for instance, it has been called an unfortunate piece of (World War I) war propaganda. What offends about the work are what are usually called its caricature of the 'German mind'. There's no doubt that the work presents us with something of a caricature; but a caricature is not a wholly inaccurate portrait. A caricature involves some distortion, but only for the purposes of bringing out particularly recognizable or distinctive points. And Duhem himself is quite clear that in talking about the 'German mind' he merely wants to indicate a tendency that arises from the way the Germans teach and learn science, not to make a universal statements about Germans. As he notes, there is no trace of the exclusively 'English mind' in Newton, and no trace of the exclusively 'German mind' in Gauss. His interest in the subject, actually is that it provides a useful context for investigating the mentality that is ideal for scientific work. The Germans just happen to be the concrete case that (he thinks) comes closest to a pure case of one element of this mentality.

We often tend to talk as if scientific progress were unilinear, as if all scientists had one type of mentality in their scientific work, one methodical approach. Duhem does not. Duhem has a Pascalian view of the human mind, which means he thinks there are two (major) kinds of mentality. The first is the esprit de finesse, the intuitive mind; the second is the esprit de géométrie, the geometrical mind. All human beings have both to some extent. A rare few have close to the perfect balance of both. Most of us, however, tip strongly to one side. Some of us are primarily intuitive, some primarily geometrical. There are several different sorts of both. For instance, one sort of intuitive mind (Duhem calls it the 'English mind') is heavily imaginative -- it relies on models, picture-thinking, metaphors. Another (the 'French mind' -- but Duhem is very clear that it is the French mind as it used to be, in the days of Pasteur or Ampère) is very formal; it eschews the messiness of models and pictures in favor of formal structures that lay things out neatly and clearly. No doubt there are other possible variants. The 'German mind', Duhem thinks, is geometrical.

Duhem insists that the healthy progress of science requires the active participation of both intuitive and geometrical minds. In other words, there are two lines of progress in science, each correcting the excesses of the other; both are essential if science is not to lose its way. The intuitive mind (and we are talking here chiefly of the formal-intuitive mind) is the mentality that allows for definite discovery; it is what keeps us grounded in reality. It calls us back to common sense, and provides the general background principles for rational discussion. Its two great characteristics are clarity and good sense. When the intuitive mind adds something to science, the addition illuminates. It articulates an explanation that makes sense because it is clearly linked to the common principles rational human beings have in common. The geometrical mind, on the other hand, is the mentality that is deductive, rigorous, and precise. It follows reasoning wherever it goes. It is disciplined and patient in a way the intuitive mind is not. Whereas the intuitive mind is often the source of a new scientific discipline, it is the geometrical mind that takes the principles provided by the intuitive mind and sets them into a rigorous logical or mathematical order so that their consequences can be followed to the very end.

Duhem's constant worry throughout German Science is the imperialism of the geometrical mind. The geometrical mind is very rigorous and logical; but in another sense it is very unruly. The geometrical mind is impressed by reasoning as such; it is careless about the starting points of the deduction. Indeed, these are treated as almost insignificant; the geometrical mind just posits whatever starting points are convenient for whatever it is doing. There is no absolute problem with this; but there is the danger that the geometrical mind, carried away with following out a line of reasoning to its bitter end, will stifle or completely ignore the intuitive mind. It is the intuitive mind, remember, that keeps reasoning grounded in reality; it is also the intuitive mind that has the real skill to recognize when our reasoning has brought us to a genuine absurdity. Duhem's worry is that science is in danger of being highjacked by the geometrical mind's tendency to be seduced by sophisticated reasoning, thus losing sight of the reality it is really supposed to be explaining.

Nonetheless, even when the geometrical mind gets carried away, it is making genuine contributions to the progress of science. It is only if the intuitive mind is pushed out that we have serious problems. So for Duhem, a step forward in the progress of science can be a step forward either by the intuitive mind or by the geometrical mind. Duhem considers the theory of relativity to be a useful step forward along the geometrical line of progress. It tells us how you can go about preserving Maxwell's equations in the face of a number of perplexities; it allows us to make precise and accurate predictions we could not otherwise make. There is no question that Duhem considers this to be a valuable step forward.

However, what Duhem wants, and what he's not getting, is for the geometrical mind to allow the formal-intuitive mind to look at the theory of relativity and say, "OK, use it insofar as it is useful. But notice that we come up with several conclusions down the road that seem counterintuitive. Let's see if we can take what we've learned from the theory of relativity and go back to re-analyze the foundations from which it set out, in order to see if we can develop a theory that does not have these counterintuitive conclusions but preserves much of what is valuable about the theory of relativity. If we can find such a theory, that would be even better than the theory of relativity." Clearly, we can be wrong about the general principles of good sense or common sense, and sometimes have been; but Duhem finds it worrisome that so many people are willing to say, "By positing this starting point (the principles that will maintain the form of Maxwell's equations) and rigorously following our deductions through to useful effect, we have proven that such-and-such common-sense principle is false."

He recognizes that there is a practical value in the particular posited starting-point of the theory of relativity, and that the theory of relativity has numerous other practical values that show that it is, indeed, a major contribution to scientific progress: beauty, simplicity, predictive power. But it is the geometrical mind that is interested in these pragmatic values in the first place. The geometrical mind is interested in what you can do with scientific theories; it is interested in how they can facilitate the deductive processes so central to its approach. The formal-intuitive mind, however, is much less interested in pragmatic values like the beauty, simplicity, and predictive power of the theory. The formal-intuitive mind is not so much interested in what you can do with the theory, but in what it makes obvious. The epistemological goal of the formal-intuitive mind is not a pragmatically valuable theory; it is the theory that makes things clear and obvious. The geometrical mind likes that you can use the theory of relativity to calculate satellite orbits; thinking in terms of clocks and rubber sheets and elevators might perhaps enchant the imaginative-intuitive mind for a while; but the formal-intuitive mind is left in the dark if it is not allowed to use the theory of relativity to progress along its own line of interest. The formal-intuitive mind can accept the theory of relativity as a valuable contribution of the geometrical mind, but only on its own terms, which require using what we learn from it in order to find a more common-sensical theory. Duhem is worried about the tendency of the geometrical mind to try to shut this down entirely. This heedlessness, this refusal even to take into account the fact that not all minds can be satisfied with what satisfies the geometrical mind, is Duhem's real irritation when it comes to the theory of relativity -- it is not the theory itself, but the refusal to recognize even the existence of the formal-intuitive mind and its needs. It is only in the cooperation of the geometrical and the intuitive minds that ideal science exists (German Science, p. 110):

French science, German science, both deviate from ideal and perfect science, but they deviate in two opposite ways. The one possesses excessively that with which the other is meagerly provided. In the one, the mathematical mind reduces the intuitive mind to the point of suffocation. In the other, the intuitive mind dispenses too readily with the mathematical mind.

Science needs the geometrical mind for rigor; but it needs the intuitive mind for truth. Such is Duhem's view, anyway. As he insists, "For science to be true, it is not sufficient that it be rigorous; it must start from good sense, only in order to return to good sense" (p. 111).

The Judicial Power

I've been reading a lot in the blogosphere about the independence of the judiciary, and this has started me thinking on the subject (alas, instead of finishing my grading as I should be). Here are my rough thoughts. To the extent the U.S. has an independent judiciary, it is entirely constituted by the following elements:

* the inability of Congress to exercise judicial functions outside of the court of impeachment;
* a standing supreme court;
* tenure for good behavior;
* protection from diminished compensation.

That is pretty much all there is to it. Federal courts below the Supreme Court exist entirely as Congress sees fit. Appointments are entirely dependent on the other two branches. Everything else is pretty much an ad hoc matter of convenience, except for the four points above, which together are what Madison calls the independence of the courts of justice. In the ratification debate, Federalists and Anti-Federalists alike agreed that the last two were essential to a good judiciary. The Anti-Federalists worried that the first two, without further checks, would tend to judicial supremacy. Madison's response to this is not entirely heartening; it basically amounts to his usual view of checks and balances, which is a very nasty struggle and not the relatively benign thing we usually think of: on his view, the judiciary cannot establish such supremacy, because the legislature and executive can just ignore it if they decide to do so. But despite ratification, the Anti-Federalist worry on this point has never been quelled. It has been a reasonable worry from the beginning and, I imagine, will be a reasonable worry until the end of the Union. But so long as the four criteria above are met, we have as independent a judiciary as we have ever had.

Related to this, the other possible thing that could be meant when people talk about an independent judiciary is just a non-partisan judiciary, or a judiciary as non-partisan as possible (an independent-minded judiciary); which is necessary for the just fulfillment of the function of the judiciary. In this sense, it requires that the judiciary be forced to be independent; that is, it is part of our responsibility as citizens to be sharply vigilant on this front, since it will inevitably tend to become partisan. It's in this sense that I always say that we should be worried about the work of all the courts all the time -- nothing short of serious vigilance suffices. And this is why I'm also not bothered by charges of 'judicial activism'; they're often very garbled, but they always need to be seriously considered. Simply dismissing them is as utterly irresponsible as simply dismissing claims that the President is exceeding his authority; even if wrong we need to give such claims careful, serious, and public consideration. We can't afford not to do so, even when we agree with the result. If it is wrong, it needs to be clearly shown to be wrong. If there is the remotest possibility that it might be right, it needs to be investigated. Shrugging it off is dangerous. (One might add that getting hysterical about it, or jumping the gun about whether it is genuinely an abuse, is generally pointless; these charges are often merely partisan in nature, and are as likely to be false or confused as not, however passionately they are believed by those putting them forward. That we have a responsibility always to take the claims themselves seriously doesn't mean we have a responsibility to take seriously every shrill-voiced, label-slinging partisan putting them forward.)

This is also why I'm not particularly bothered about issues of filibustering, etc. Whether you agree with the filibustering in any particular case, there is nothing problematic about it. I'm also not particularly bothered by threats of changing the rules so that filibustering is impossible; whether it should be allowed or not is purely a matter for Congress to decide. Personally it seems to me more prudent to continue to allow filibustering, but nothing earth-shattering hinges on it. Regardless of the outcome, regardless of Congress's mode of proceeding, our responsibility for vigilance will be the same, and will not be over.

Likewise, I'm not particularly bothered by threats of impeachment on the part of legislators. I'm with Madison in viewing this as a natural part of checks and balances. One would hope, of course, it wouldn't come to that sort of fight; but the system is built to deal with such things. At least, it is on the supposition that the people retain a certain measure of vigilance and good sense. And now we come to the one thing that bothers me. It is partisan self-complacency, on every side, that worries me.

Monday, May 02, 2005

"The dull mind rises to the truth through material things"

This is Suger of Saint-Denis's great work on the decoration of the church; it survives only in fragments, but what we have is fascinating:

On What Was Done in His Administration

Suger of Saint-Denis, by the way, was the person who succeeded the abbot of Saint-Denis who appears as a villain in Abelard's story (whose name was Adam, if I remember correctly). When Suger became abbot, he began an extensive set of reforms, of which the projects mentioned in the above fragment were a part. Suger's administration was of massive importance for the history of architecture; the first rise of a clearly Gothic design appears to have been his re-construction of the abbey church. Some elements of Gothic pre-date it; some elements came later; but the basic approach is fully developed here. Readers of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose will find Section XXIII somewhat familiar: the discussion of gems by the abbot in Eco's book is a cynical modification of the thought of this section. But Suger, unlike Eco's abbot, seems to take very seriously the anagogy of decoration, the means by which the beauty of the Church is intended to be an earthly echo reminding people of the glory of heaven. Eco's abbot, of course, seems to use it merely as an excuse for fleshly indulgence, and it's an obvious danger in what Suger was doing. But it's also clear that there is something to this doctrine of anagogy.

You can see some of Suger's windows (discussed in Section XXXIV) here. Here is a chalice acquired by him.

The Hard Question

Browsing around I came upon this response to an article in Philo. What really caught my attention was the title of the article to which the response is being made:

"Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable"

Now, I'm sure there's more to the article than this, but I found this title hilarious. Tough issue, that; it will take some effort to find out why anyone would think someone's being raised from the dead initially unlikely. And here I've been thinking about trying to whip a paper into shape on the problem of how to interpret the doctrine of the efficacy of ideas in Malebranche; really, all I need to do is write a paper on something like,

"Why We Do Not Expect People to Be Able to Walk on Water"

When I write it, it will be earth-shattering, and change the way we do philosophy forever.

Historia Calamitatum, Part III

(Part II)

Peter Abelard, we have seen, had found some consolation in the Oratory of the Paraclete. It was not to last. His former rivals began to stir up against him opponents of a rather more significant nature than he had yet known. Indeed, so formidable were they that they were both later canonized. One was named Norbert of Prémontré, founder of the Premonstratensians. The other was Bernard of Clairvaux, who had become the spearhead of the Cistercian reform of monastic abuses. [Abelard doesn't actually mention names; I'm following the traditional identification, although there is actually some reason for doubting it. Norbert and Bernard fit the description, but we have no independent evidence that Norbert attacked Abelard, and it isn't clear that Bernard would have known of Abelard this early. --ed.] On hearing that a new council was being planned, Abelard sunk into despair, to such an extent that he even considered fleeing to non-Christian lands.

At this period Peter was elected the abbot of a monastery far to the west, and he accepted it in order to escape from his troubles. The abuses of the monastery were almost overwhelming, and, since the area was very barbaric, Peter was afraid that pushing reforms would endanger his life. He was also worried about the Oratory of the Paraclete. As it happened, however, Héloïse and the nuns at Argenteuil were turned out by Peter's former abbot, who had gained control of the convent. They relocated to the Oratory; he made it over to the nuns, and this gift was confirmed by Pope Innocent II. It was a good move:

And this refuge of divine mercy, which they served so devotedly, soon brought them consolation, even though at first their life there was one of want, and for a time of utter destitution. But the place proved itself a true Paraclete to them, making all those who dwelt round about feel pity and kindliness for the sisterhood. So that, methinks, they prospered more through gifts in a single year than I should have done if I had stayed there a hundred.

People, however, began to complain that Peter wasn't doing enough for the nuns; at the very least he could preach to them. So he returned occasionally for precisely that purpose. Then his monks began to murmur that he had really returned because he wanted to engage in fleshly lusts with his wife, despite the fact that they were both under a vow of chastity. Naturally, Peter the eunuch found this slander extremely irritating. The persecution did not relent, but grew more intense. There were even attempts on his life. Peter continued to pursue reforms, using the threat of excommunication as a way of restoring order.

And here the story ends, for it is at this point that Abelard is writing the letter to his friend in which he tells it. As I noted before, his telling of it is not the expression of an idle autobiographical itch; he is building an argument on the basis of his own life:

And now, most dear brother in Christ and comrade closest to me in the intimacy of speech, it should suffice for your sorrows and the hardships you have endured that I have written this story of my own misfortunes, amid which I have toiled almost from the cradle. For so, as I said in the beginning of this letter, shall you come to regard your tribulation as nought, or at any rate as little, in comparison with mine, and so shall you bear it more lightly in measure as you regard it as less.

But Peter goes further, arguing on the basis of his own experience that these tribulations are governed by God's good providence:

We should not doubt that even if they are not according to our deserts, at least they serve for the purifying of our souls. And since all things are done in accordance with the divine ordering, let every one of true faith console himself amid all his afflictions with the thought that the great goodness of God permits nothing to be done without reason, and brings to a good end whatsoever may seem to happen wrongfully. Wherefore rightly do all men say: "Thy will be done." And great is the consolation to all lovers of God in the word of the Apostle when he says: "We know that all things work together for good to them that love God" (Rom. viii. 28). The wise man of old had this in mind when he said in his Proverbs: "There shall no evil happen to the just" (Prov. xii. 21). By this he clearly shows that whosoever grows wrathful for any reason against his sufferings has therein departed from the way of the just, because he may not doubt that these things have happened to him by divine dispensation. Even such are those who yield to their own rather than to the divine purpose, and with hidden desires resist the spirit which echoes in the words, "Thy will be done," thus placing their own will ahead of the will of God.

Our sufferings, Peter thinks, are for our own good. Either they punish us for our sins or they purify our souls. After so many calamities, Peter Abelard has finally learned to say, "They will be done," and recommends the same resignation to us all, insisting that there is a divine purpose, difficult as it may seem at times. And that is the argument of the Historia Calamitatum, the philosophical autobiography of Peter Abelard.

The idea, I think, is this. When we are (rightly) punished, what happens to us is, in itself, an evil. It's something bad; otherwise, it's not punishment. If, however, this evil is not merely an evil but an-evil-used-for-deserved-punishment, then this evil is also a good. Bad in itself, it is contextually good. Now, we can imagine a similar analysis for what Abelard calls 'purification of the soul'. Thus, what we have in the Historia Calamitatum is a philosophical argument based on Abelard's own experiences with misfortune. We could even call it an argument from religious experience; philosophers of religion tend only to talk about religious experience in the context of God's existence, but (of course) religious experience is not so narrowly confined. Abelard uses his own experience as a case-in-point, a demonstration or example of the thesis that the bad things that happen to us are contextually good, being either for our punishment or for our purification. Because of this, we should never regard the evils that befall as mere evils but as evils that punish or purify. Bad in themselves, there is a context in which they are also good. The forcible castration, the persecution, the murder attempts, the condemnations: Abelard wishes to show us that these, which by any measure are rather terrible misfortunes, can all be seen under a description by which, while they remain as terrible as ever to experience, they turn out to be good as well. And the reaction for which such a perspective calls is patience, not complaint. His autobiography is a philosophical argument for this conclusion.


The Historia Calamitatum should perhaps never be read without also reading the (probably authentic, although disputes have occasionally arisen because of the poor quality of the manuscript tradition) correspondence it provoked between Héloïse and Abelard, which includes Héloïse's moving response, the First Letter. For in it she says something of her griefs; how she fears for Abelard in his danger, and how she is afraid, due to his neglect of her, that his love for her was based on desire rather than affection:

And the greater the cause of grief, the greater the remedies of comfort to be applied. Not, however, by another, but by thee thyself, that thou who art alone in the cause of my grief may be alone in the grace of my comfort. For it is thou alone that canst make me sad, canst make me joyful or canst comfort me. And it is thou alone that owest me this great debt, and for this reason above all that I have at once performed all things that you didst order, till that when I could not offend thee in anything I had the strength to lose myself at thy behest.

For to the end Peter Abelard, despite his good qualities, was a self-centered and self-absorbed person; and although he had learned to accept his calamities as a good in the greater scheme of things, he perhaps never truly understood how much his own life had been a calamity for others. We perhaps see something of this in Peter's response in the Second Letter. Héloïse responded in the Third Letter that he had provided her no consolation; how can she be comforted at his calamities, given her love for him? His response in the Fourth Letter is better; I leave it to you to say whether it is genuinely adequate. In any case, whether authentic or not, and whether Abelard's response is adequate or not, it is a useful reminder that the Historia Calamitatum is pulling a double duty as both autobiography and philosophical argument; while it's fairly obvious that the details of the philosophical argument depend on the autobiography, it is perhaps good to be reminded that the philosophical argument is sometimes subtly modifying the autobiography as well.

Historia Calamitatum, Part II

(Part I)

When we left off the autobiographical/philosophical argument of Peter Abelard's Historia Calamitatum, Peter had just been violently castrated in the night for his involvement with the lovely and brilliant Héloïse.

In the morning, everyone was gathered outside Peter's door, sending out cries of lamentation; and as is often the case with commiserators, enduring their compassion and lament was even harder than enduring the physical castration, being a constant stimulus to Peter's shame. Interestingly, he has to admit that there is a certain poetic justice to it:

I saw, too, how justly God had punished me in that very part of my body whereby I had sinned. I perceived that there was indeed justice in my betrayal by him whom I had myself already betrayed; and then I thought how eagerly my rivals would seize upon this manifestation of justice, how this disgrace would bring bitter and enduring grief to my kindred and my friends, and how the tale of this amazing outrage would spread to the very ends of the earth.

Out of the misery of the disgrace of being a eunuch, Peter takes shelter in the monastic life. There he and his abbot were constantly pestered by people wanting to study under the great Peter Abelard. Now, how many of you think that Peter is going to settle comfortably into monastic life and live happily ever after? Put your hand down; you should know better. According to Abelard, the abbey to which he fled was very worldly, and the lives of the monks quite scandalous. Peter began to denounce the goings-on until everyone completely detested him. They eagerly seized on the constant pestering in order to get rid of him, and he withdrew to a small hut in order to teach. The students around him grow, and the other teachers become envious, stirring up the authorities against him.

During this time Peter wrote a book on the philosophical issues involved in the doctrines of the unity and trinity of God. This book became very popular; and as a result, according to Peter, his rivals became furious, summoning a council in order to take action against him. Because of the slanders of these men, he was nearly stoned on the way to the council. However, at the council, Peter's antagonists had difficulty finding anything in the book on which they could convict him, so they put off condemnation of the book until the council's end. Meanwhile, Abelard began to teach, and the people he taught became enthusiastic, and began to murmur among themselves that Abelard's judges must be the ones in error. His rivals try to catch him out on a few occasions; but he manages to show that their quibbles are the result of their own ignorance. As the council drew to a close, Peter's enemies were forced lamely to conclude that his book should be condemned because he had dared to read it in public without the approval of the Roman pontiff. This was an absurd charge, but it was pretty much a kangaroo court, anyway, so they required Peter to throw his own book on the flames. They also insisted that he read aloud the Athanasian Creed -- as if he were a child, Peter says -- and he did so as best he could amid his tears. He was handed over to the Abbot of St. Médard, to whose monastery he was consigned. It was like being sentenced to prison.

The monks of the monastery rejoiced at the coming of the great Peter Abelard, and tried to console him; but they weren't very successful:

O God, who dost judge justice itself, in what venom of the spirit, in what bitterness of mind, did I blame even Thee for my shame, accusing Thee in my madness! Full often did I repeat the lament of St. Anthony: "Kindly Jesus, where wert Thou?" The sorrow that tortured me, the shame that overwhelmed me, the desperation that wracked my mind, all these I could then feel, but even now I can find no words to express them. Comparing these new sufferings of my soul with those I had formerly endured in my body, it seemed that I was in very truth the most miserable among men. Indeed that earlier betrayal had become a little thing in comparison with this later evil, and I lamented the hurt to my fair name far more than the one to my body. The latter, indeed, I had brought upon myself through my own wrongdoing, but this other violence had come upon me solely by reason of the honesty of my purpose and my love of our faith, which had compelled me to write that which I believed.

"Kindly Jesus, where were you?" The report of the injustice of the trial began to spread, however, to such an extent that even the instigators had to deny their involvement. Peter was allowed to return to his old monastery. It was not to be an entirely happy reunion, for, you will recall, he had been active in denouncing their scandalous lifestyle. His enemies in the monastery waited for a chance to catch him out.

One day in his reading, Peter came across a passage in Bede that denied that St. Denis was the bishop of Athens, contrary to the tradition of the monastery. In a half-joking manner he showed it to some nearby monks, who angrily replied that Bede was a liar, for Hilduin, a former abbot, had traveled to Greece and confirmed the tradition. On being asked whether he thought Bede or Hilduin the better authority, Peter replied that Bede's writings were held in high esteem by the whole Latin Church. They angrily replied that he had now shown his true colors as a despiser of the monastery, having denied that the Areopagite was their patron saint. Peter protested that he had done no such things, but they ran to the abbot with their complaint. The abbot threatened to hand Peter over to the king for punishment. Peter fled, but over the next several years repeatedly tried to establish some sort of reconciliation. In a compromise solution, Peter was allowed to retire into solitude in the country. He chose a place in the region of Troyes, and there built his first oratory to the Holy Trinity. Hearing of his retreat, students began to flock to him again, enduring hardship in the wilderness simply in order to study with him. In order to feed himself, Peter began again to teach. The oratory, in order to hold all the students had to be expanded and was converted from a rude hut of stalks into a larger building of stone and wood. He called it the Paraclete, i.e., the Comforter or Consoler, for in his retreat he was finding something like a divine gift of consolation.

If you haven't figured out that it was temporary, you need to read more closely. The story is not yet finished....

Sunday, May 01, 2005


This weekend I've been grading exams (this is for rent-money -- I'm not teaching the class). For all y'all academic types, next time you're stuck grading, think of me, spending the entire weekend wading through mind-numbingly dull undergraduate musings on suicide, and take consolation in knowing you could have it worse.

But it's not all bad. Sometimes it's funny. I just finished reading an answer which said that Kant's position on suicide was suspiciously convenient in how closely it fit his doctrine of the categorical imperative. The answer left it a bit unclear what Kant should have done differently. I suppose he could have done something like Hume's missing shade of blue....

Bunyan's Riff on Ruth

In ancient times, e'er Israel knew the way
Of kingly power, when judges bore the sway:
A certain man of Bethlehem Juda fled,
By reason of a famine that o'erspread
The land, into the land of Moab, where
He and his wife, and sons, sojourners were.
His name Elimelech, his eldest son
Was called Mahlon, t'other Chilion,
His wife was Naomi, Ephrathites they were:
They went to Moab and continued there:
Where of her husband Naomi was bereft,
And only she and her two sons were left:
Who took them wives of Moab in their youth.
The name of one was Orpah, t'other Ruth:
And there they died ere twice five years were gone;
And Naomi was wholly left alone.

From John Bunyan, "The Book of Ruth," Scriptural Poems. He tells the whole story. Also of interest on the same page is his versification of the Sermon on the Mount:

The eye's the light o' th' body, which if right
Then thy whole body will be full of light:
But if thine eye be evil, then there will
A total darkness thy whole body fill.
If therefore all the light that is in thee
Be darkness, how great must that darkness be?
No man can serve two masters, either he
Will hate one, and love t'other, or will be
Faithful to one, and t'other will forego.
Ye cannot serve both God and mammon too.


Since Nathanael at "The Rhine River" decided to share the love, here's my response to the book meme that's been going around.

* What book in Fahrenheit 451 would you want to be?

The Epistle to the Hebrews!

* Have you ever been really struck by a fictional character?

All the time; I strongly connect with fictional characters. Fortunately, I've never been so struck by a fictional character as to have a half-fictional illegitimate child with one, as happens in Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds.

* What was the last book that you bought?

Friday I bought: Pierre Duhem, German Science; Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey; and Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds (you were wondering where that reference came from, weren't you?). I was hoping to find O'Brien's The Third Policeman, but in retrospect it was probably better that I didn't -- if I had found it I don't know whether I would have been able to prevent myself from squealing like an adolescent girl.

* What was the last book you read?

This and the next one were tough to answer, since I am usually reading several books at once and often finish them in quick succession. I'll go with Asimov's Prelude to Foundation, which I re-read after re-reading The Dune Trilogy, after reading Thackeray's Vanity Fair.

* Which books are you reading?

A sample:
Action and Conduct, by Stephen Brock: on Aquinas's theory of the will
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman , by Laurence Sterne
Oeuvres Philosophiques d'Arnauld (volume 2)

* Which five books would you take to a desert island?

1. The Bible
2. Summa Theologiae (Thomas Aquinas)
3. History of England (David Hume) -- it would give me a good chance to read it straight through.
4. A complete works of Euripides (in translation)
5. Divine Comedy (Dante)

As you can see, I have rather classical interests.

* To whom are you going to send this erm... let's say confession...and why? (three people)

Tell you what -- I'll let you volunteer. And if you don't, I can name a few names, like you, Wilson.