Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Links and Notes

* Sandy Berkovski discusses the best way to characterize the role of chance in history (PDF).

* Scott Carson has a fascinating discussion of Anselm's argument on the Filioque. I'll be re-reading this more closely a few times.

* Lindsay has a post on different varieties of swear words. The distinction between blasphemous swear words and (what I would call) immodesty swear words is an important one; it's difficult to quite transfer into English the force of 'tabernacle!' -- an expletive you might hear in Quebec in many slightly different forms, depending on how forceful the speaker wants to be. The reference of the term, obviously, is to the tabernacle that holds the Host. In fact, the word for 'to swear' in Quebec is sacrer -- literally, to consecrate; and virtually all of the strongest expletives in the Quebec dialect of French are blasphemies. I would distinguish, however, between blasphemies and curses; using the name, 'Jesus Christ', as an expletive is a blasphemy, but 'damn' is a curse. It's not really blasphemous to express a desire for something to be damned to hell; it's malicious, or, at least, would once have been. The mark of the difference is that blasphemies become swear words because they are good, and using them profanely is considered (at least at some time in their history) perverse; what makes a curse a curse is that it is (again, at least at some time in its history) a bad thing you wish on someone or something. As Lindsay notes, English is very weak when it comes to blasphemies -- it has very few and they are not very strong . Almost all of the strongest swear words in English are sexual. I think Lindsay is also right that gutter insults should be distinguished from pure expletives.

* Malcolm Gladwell at "Gladwell.com" has an interesting post suggesting criteria for evaluating the severity of racist comments. I'm inclined to disagree about the importance of content. Richards, for instance, would not have committed any less serious an offense if he had used different words than he did. The aspect of content that I suspect is relevant is the one that is most closely associated with the other two (intention and conviction) -- what we might call 'aptitude for action'. To use a trivial example, if I say, "Three times three is nine," that's a comment that in most contexts has almost no aptitude for action. It just doesn't usually invite it. If I say, however, "Everyone had better start leaving me alone," that's a comment that has more of an aptitude for action (I might take action to make people start leaving me alone, or someone might start taking it for me). I'm sure there's a better way to characterize it, but I think this gives the general notion. What makes the charge that Jews are all out for their pound of flesh so bad, for instance, is that it has shown itself very apt to discharge in terrible actions against Jews. This, I think, captures Gladwell's intuition that specificity is relevant -- a very vague racial slur has less aptitude for action than a very precise one. Likewise, the type of action we are concerned with is not just any sort of action, but violent actions toward people insofar as they can be labelled as members of particular racial or ethnic groups; so it may also capture Gladwell's suggestion that deviation from legitimate generalization is relevant as well. In any case, the worse cases of racism appear when comments tending to action are made with a malicious intent springing from a firm conviction. I am thus inclined to regard Richards's actions in a less favorable light than Gladwell is; Richards didn't just call a name, he made a lynching joke. His convictions on the matter are obscure, although plunging right into racial slurs on being heckled doesn't speak very favorably of them; and while merely angry intentions may be less serious than really malicious ones, they can do as much damage. But I do agree that there may be an argument that part of the reason Richards crashed was simply incompetence as a comedian; although I think it's unclear how much this should ameliorate anyone's judgment.

* Chris has a number of Schopenhauer's parables. Vivid imagery is one of Schopenhauer's great strengths as a philosopher; he has a lot of really great word-pictures scattered through his works.

* Tomorrow is the memorial of St. Nicholas. Yes, that St. Nicholas. Take advantage of the day to do someone a good turn. Those interested in St. Nicholas himself will be interested in the St. Nicholas Center.

* Bill Moyers recently gave an excellent speech at the United States Military Academy.

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