Saturday, September 17, 2005

In Other Words, I Do Philosophy

Your Superhero Profile

Your Superhero Name is The Earth Eye
Your Superpower is Distant Attack
Your Weakness is Balloons
Your Weapon is Your Silver Bludgeon
Your Mode of Transportation is Stilts

Philosophical argument is certainly distant attack; balloons, with their hot air, are certainly a philosopher's weakness; every student of philosophy makes use of an occasional silver bludgeon; and it's something of a job requirement to move around with our heads in the clouds.

This has to be the most rigorously accurate quiz result I have ever had....

Notes and Links

* Scott Paeth guest-blogs on Niebuhr at "Majikthise".

* Also guest-blogging at "Majikthise", Scott Lemieux has an interesting post on judicial review.

* Mental Illness and Proper Response at "Studi Galileiani": Hugo discusses changing views of mental illness, which is always an interesting topic. One wonders, for instance, what exactly was wrong with Kit Smart, for instance. Smart was one of the most brilliant English poets of the 18th century; he was locked in an asylum for what was called at the time 'religious mania'. It isn't wholly clear what this was supposed to be. When Samuel Johnson mentions the case, for instance, he seems to reduce it down to Smart's odd tendency to pray out loud every time he felt an impulse to pray, no matter what the circumstances. (There's also a story, which may or may not be true, of his going about naked, singing psalms in the rain.) Smart, as is clear from his poetic masterpiece, Jubilate Agno, written while in the asylum, certainly didn't think he was suffering from a mental illness. Of course, there's always a question as to how much one should trust someone's own judgment in such cases. But it's hard for us to have any clear grasp of what was going on in the Smart case, and this isn't just for lack of information; the society was different, the expectations were different, and we are always a bit in the dark about the details. Should we just write it off as a case of schizophrenia, before schizophrenia had a name? Or is that really any more helpful than those absurd late nineteenth-century attempts to classify Teresa of Avila as a 'hysteric'?

* "Redeem the Time" has one of Thomas Aquinas's most famous passages on government up -- Lord Acton once said, on the basis of precisely this passage, that Aquinas was the first Whig. Of course, non-Whigs read it differently. There's a good interview on precisely this subject here. Regardless of the details of interpretation, Aquinas's analysis is one of the finest arguments for mixed government ever written.

UPDATE: C. S. Peirce and his Quincuncial Map Projection get a mention at "Cosmic Variance".

* It's Harvest Moon season (HT: Dappled Things)

Friday, September 16, 2005

John of St. Thomas on Animal Cognition

John of St. Thomas (in his Cursus philosophicus) identifies four causes of knowledge:

(1) productive cause: the power that elicits an act of cognition (e.g., eye)
(2) objective cause: that to which the cognition tends (e.g., thing seen)
(3) formal cause: the actual exercise of the power that is able to cognize (e.g., sight)
(4) instrumental cause: the means by which the object is represented to the power (e.g., mirror).

Of these, (1)-(4) all have as their action "to make to know" (facere cognoscere); (2)-(4) 'make to know' by representing (i.e., they make something present to a power).

Against this background, John of St. Thomas builds his definition of a sign: A sign is that which represents something other than itself. The key conditions that this definition demands are (a) that there be a distinct object capable fo being manifested to a cognitive power; and (b) that there be something representative. John also wants 'represent' here to be taken in a stricter sense than it might otherwise be, so he adds three clarifying conditions, which distinguish signs from things that represent in a looser sense of the term:

(1) The sign must be better known than the signified (relative to the cognitive power involved).
(2) The sign must be (in some way) subsidiary or inferior to the thing signified.
(3) The sign must be dissimilar to the thing signified (in some relevant way).

The net effect of these conditions is to make it so that a sign is representative in that it manifests only as representative. Other things that are representative do so not only as representative, but in some looser sense. For example, a sheep does not signify another sheep qua sheep, although in a loose sense one can say that all sheep represent each other by being sheep. Likewise, God does not signify creatures, but He represents them in a looser sense in that He pre-contains their perfections in a more eminent way.

A corollary of this is that signs and images are not the same sort of thing: while an image may be a sign, not every sign is an image, and not every image is a sign. Smoke, for instance, is not an image of fire, although it is a sign of fire; and a son is not, in himself, a sign of his father, although he is certainly in himself an image of his father.

John divides signs according to two different sorts of distinction. The first distinguishes signs relative to the productive cause:

(a) Formal signs: represent without the mediation of another (e.g., concepts)
(b) Instrumental signs: represent something other than themselves by being themselves first known (e.g., footprints, words, pictures)

The second distinguishes signs relative to the objective cause:

(a) Natural signs: represent by the natures of the things they are (e.g., smoke represents fire by being its effect)
(b) Ad placitum signs: represent from the imposition of public authority (e.g., words have stable communal meanings which can be checked against authoritative references)
(c) Customary signs: represent from use alone (e.g., by sheer regularity of association, napkins on the table can represent a meal)

John notes that animals other than human beings make use of both natural and customary signs, e.g.,

We see that the animal (brutum), on seeing one thing, tends toward some other distinct thing, as when, perceiving a scent, it bounds along some path, or, hearing the roar of a lion, trembles or flees, and six hundred other cases, in which the animal does not stay with what it perceives by exterior senses, but is through it drawn to something else. Which plainly is to use a sign, that is, a representation of one thing not only for itself, but for something distinct from it. (Tractatus de signis, bk. 1, q. 6)

Likewise, animal learning shows that other animals clearly make use of customary signs.

History Carnival XVI

The 16th History Carnival is up at "Respectful Insolence." It's The Historoblog Channel.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Dangerous Lovers of Lectures

Certain zealots had eracted themselves into a society for buying in of imporporiations, and transferring them to the church; and great sums of money had been left to the society for these pious purposes. But it was soon observed, that the only use which they made of their funds, was to establish lecturers in all the considerable churches; men, how, without subjection to episcopal authority, employed themselves entirely in preaching and in spreading the fire of puritanism. Laud took care, by a decree, which was part in the court of exchequer, and which was much complained of, to abolish this society, and to stop their progress. It was, however, still observed, that, thro-out England, the lecturers were, all of them, puritanically affected: and from them the clergymen, who contented themselves with reading prayers and homilies to the people, commonly received the reproachful appellation of dumb dogs.

The puritans, restrained in England, shipped themselves off for America, and laid there the foundations of a government, which possessed all the liberty, both civil and religious, of which they found themselves deprived in their native country. But their enemies, unwilling that they should any where enjoy ease and contentment, and dreading, perhaps, the dangerous consequences of so disaffected a colony, prevailed witht he King to issue a proclamation, debarring these devotees access even into those inhospitable desarts. Eight ships, lying in the Thames, and ready to sail, were stayed by order of the council; and in these were embarked Sir Arthur Hazelrigh, John Hambden, and Oliver Cromwel, who had resolved for ever to abandon their native country, and fly to the other extremity of the globe; where they might enjoy lectures and discourses of any length or form which pleased them. The King had afterwards full leizure to repent this exercise of his authority.

[Hume, History, Charles I, chapter 3.]

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Good Taste in Argument

I had my first lecture today for the course I'm teaching this fall. I decided to try out Caleb's rule of thumb, i.e., don't pass out the syllabus until halfway through the period; I liked doing it that way. In my lecture, I suggested that part of the purpose of a intro phil. course with a historical approach is to give them good taste in arguments -- the ability not only to evaluate whether arguments are valid or sound, but to tell when they are excellent in another sense -- fruitful for thought, interesting as a starting point, etc. (In this sense, even an invalid argument can sometimes be a good argument in the sense of worthy of serious thought, because it might go wrong in an interesting way, or it might be a close, but inaccurate, approximation to a better argument.) This prudence or good taste requires three things:

(1) a broad base of experience in different kinds of argument, so you can make informed comparisons;
(2) the skills of discernment relevant to argument, i.e., the acquired ability to identify important moves, novel twists, and the like;
(3) good sense, understood as the self-critical fairmindedness that allows us to be objective and unbiased.

As I see it, one of the great benefits of taking a historical approach to philosophy is that it is the best way to develop this taste for excellent thought. It's the perfect approach for becoming a connoisseur of great reasoning, because it provides a great field for improving ourselves in the above three ways. And that's what I really want students to come away with: a broader base of experience with different kinds of argument; a better skill-set for discerning the features of those arguments; and a better sense of how to understand the arguments of others without being misled by hidden prejudices.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Links and Notes

* It took me forever to figure out which link it was, but I found myself geting hits from the theological anthropology page of The Threshold, a Calvinist website that has a lot of great resources. They were linking to a post on John Calvin's discussions of the Image of God in his biblical commentaries. I'm glad that someone found the post useful.

* Looting and Proverbs 6:30 at "Ralph the Sacred River"

* Anselm's Ontological Argument at "Fides Quaerens Intellectum"

* An interesting discussion of ad hominem fallacies at "Philosophy, etc."

* The other day I looked at a book in the public library called Descartes for Beginners (a.k.a. Introducing Descartes, by Robinson and Garratt). I'll be teaching Descartes fairly soon, so my idea was that I'd see if the book had any useful ways to simplify any Cartesian issues, or any clever take on some general issue. Ugh! I wish I hadn't, since the book almost made me sick to my stomach. It will still be useful, though, since I don't know of any other work that says so many stupid and wrong-headed things about Descartes in such a short space.


Submit posts, that is.

* The Third Poetry Carnival will be hosted at on September 26. There's also a new Poetry Carnival group, which (I take it) is where the future hosts, etc. will be announced -- cleaner and less of a hassle than e-mail.

* The next History Carnival will be hosted at Respectful Insolence on September 14 15, so send any submissions or nominations right away.

Doleful News for Austria

I've been reading Hume's History of England, and, in particular, the history of the reign of James I. One of the situations James found himself in had to do with the Palatinate. James's son-in-law Frederick, the Elector Palatine, had attempted to take control of Bavaria; he was put to flight by the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand, who also seized the Palatinate. James had made the very unpopular decision not to support the Elector militarily; instead, he tried to deal with the problem diplomatically, by negotiation. Hume discusses the problems with this at length. One passage was particularly amusing (History, vol. 1, ch. 5):

To shew how little account was made of James's negotiations abroad, there is a pleasantry which is mentioned by all historians, and which, for that reason, shall have place here. In a farce, acted at Brussels, a courier was introduced, carrying the doleful news, that the Palatinate would soon be wrested from the house of Austria; so powerful were the succours, which, from all quarters, were hastening to the relief of the despoiled Elector: The King of Denmark had agreed to contribute to his assistance a hundred thousand pickled herrings, the Dutch a hundred thousand butter-boxes, and the King of England a hundred thousand ambassadors.

UPDATE: It might be worth adding a brief note or two about Hume's approach to history. He's writing philosophical history, so his primary interests are the lessons history can teach us about the way politics and society works. One of his common themes is a realistic account of human progress: if we take the notion of progress seriously, we have to take seriously the fact that people start in relative confusion and only gradually through the give-and-take of society come to a relatively clear view. Thus, our ancestors often came to the right conclusions for all the wrong reasons, or put forward all the right reasons but still somehow managed to draw the wrong conclusions, or (and Hume discusses a lot of cases like this) drew the lines of the debate in a place that we would consider very odd. Hume thus criticizes James for his failings (e.g., in not being forceful where forcefulness was needed), but he also criticizes James's critics, pointing out that (for instance) if James had done more to tolerate Catholics than he actually did, he would have faced the same problems Charles later did, and probably worse, because the Protestant subjects of the King barely accepted what he did do, and that grumblingly and grudgingly. Our sense of civil liberty or tolerance would have guaranteed the destruction of society as they knew it; our sense of liberty was hard-won, and required many social changes before it was even a remotely practicable way of looking at the world.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


I read this passage with interest the other day:

Consider what that method of evidence-cum-faith would mean in everyday life: if you caught a co-worker lying to you a fair amount of the time - not all the time, for sometimes he or she says things that are indeed true - but in a significant portion of instances, on occasions when his or her word could not be checked, would you automatically accept as your presumption that the uncheckable utterances were true? Not if you valued your own position.

[Akenson, Saint Saul, McGill-Queen's University Press (Montreal: 2000) p. 140.]

Akenson is in the process of arguing that the common use of Acts as a historical document in uncheckable instances is unreasonable because Acts on its own is in some cases at the very least misleading. Whatever may be the case with that, in his everyday example Akenson is somewhat confused; it has been known for a long time (since the 18th century) that not only do we often accept testimony under such conditions, in everyday life we regard people who refuse to do so as unreasonable (the 'principle of credulity' remarked upon by Reid, Campbell, and others, where 'credulity' is taken in a non-pejorative sense). And, indeed, we academics should be very thankful this is so, for scientists, historians, biblical scholars, and the like are one of the biggest sources of misinformation for non-academics. We're a major source of information, as well; but if people actually treated historians and the like according to the principles Akenson is suggesting, the only possible result would be widespread refusal to accept expert testimony; for people are mislead by purported experts, of all sorts of credentials, quite often. In fact, this approach to testimony would be unreasonable, since we best police testimony by accepting as much of it as we can, eliminating contradictions, filtering it through our own experience, etc. If you value your position, you might well be unreasonable to refuse to accept the testimony of a coworker who often lies but sometimes tells the truth, even if you are wise to do so with considerable caution.

[On the question of Acts itself, it strikes me that the question is rather unimportant; whether one uses Acts in this way will simply depend on what you are trying to do. Some methods are just bad historical methods, period, since they are of little value for any historical work one might be doing; but many methods are of use for certain sorts of ends, and the only bad historical work with them is using them for ends that should eliminate them.]