Friday, February 17, 2006

Wherein I am Unmasked

I am a d4

You are a four-sided die, a d4. Otherwise known as a tetrahedron, a "Caltrop", or (to a lesser degree) "Ol' Pointy". This crap bores you, so I'll get to the point. Others tend to see you as petty, conniving, manipulative, argumentative, defensive, greedy, and needlessly antagonistic. You see yourself as focused, effective, efficient, influencing, shrewd, tactical, and direct. Both points of view are in fact correct. You always know the best way to get things done, a fact that never wins sympathy with others. Whenever you manage to gain control of a situation, your solutions are swift and brutal. Unfortunately everyone else is convinced that granting you such power is, "a bad thing" and often conspire to keep it out of your hands. Such short-sighted fools!

Take the quiz at

(HT: Parableman) BTW, I'll be gone this weekend for a family thing; I'll be back posting on Monday.

Richard Bentley

Michael Gilleland has a post on Richard Bentley. Bentley was primarily a classicist; but he has some claim to fame in the philosophical world as well. His A Confutation of Atheism constituted the first Boyle lectures (1692), were a major fountainhead of early modern natural theology, and were a major milestone in a long line of attempts to present Newton's physics in a popular form and examine its philosophical implications. The only thing I've been able to find online by Bentley is the preface to his edition of Milton's Paradise Lost.

Masham's Occasional Thoughts

The eighteenth century saw the rise of a number of women who, philosophically trained (either because they were privileged or, in rare cases like Mary Astell, because they were brilliant and self-taught, and eventually able to find a privileged patron), began to write significant philosophical works. Some of these works were more purely philosophical, while others were on a topic dear to their hearts: the education of women. Indeed, some of the best work in eighteenth-century philosophy of education was done by women. The outstanding example of this was Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Parts I and II. Astell's philosophy of education is perhaps the most thoroughly considered philosophy of education by a rationalist in this period, and Part II of A Serious Proposal, in particular, is well worth anyone's time and effort to read, whether you be male or female. One of the most important (and neglected) works of philosophy of education written by an empiricist, is Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life (1705) by Damaris Cudworth, Lady Masham (Astell's sometime philosophical opponent). Masham's philosophical education was enviable according to anyone's standards: the daughter of Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth (at one point even corresponding with Leibniz on his philosophy), she became closely associated with John Locke -- his patron, in fact. Occasional Thoughts is noteworthy in that (1) it grew out of conversations Masham had had with other learned ladies; and (2) it focuses heavily on the problem of children's education. In particular, it makes an important argument that motherhood is (as it were) first pedagogy, the one that starts the ball rolling:

If the assistance of Mothers be, as I have already affirm'd it is, necessary to the right forming of the Minds, and regulating of the Manners of their Children; I am not in the wrong in reckoning (as I do) that this care is indispensibly a Mothers Duty. Now it cannot, I think, be doubted, but that a Mothers Concurrence and Care is thus necessary, if we consider that this is a work which can never be too soon begun, it being rarely at all well performed, if not betimes undertaken; nothing being so effectual to the making Men vertuous, as to have good Habits and Principles of Vertue establish'd in them before the Mind is tainted with any thing opposite or prejudicial hereunto. Those therefore must needs much over-look the chief Business of Education, or have little consider'd the Constitution of Humane Nature, that reckon for nothing the first eight or ten Years of a Boys Life; an Age wherein Fathers, who seldom are able to do it at any time, can neither charge themselves with the care of their Children, nor be the watchful inspectors of those that they must be trusted to; who usually and unavoidably by most Parents, are a sort of People far fitter to be Learners than Teachers of the Principles of Vertue and Wisdom; the great Foundation of both which consists in being able to govern our Passions, and subject our Appetites to the direction of our Reason: A Lesson hardly ever well learnt, if it be not taught us from our very Cradles. To do which requires no less than a Parents Care and Watchfulness; and therefore ought undoubtedly to be the Mothers business to look after, under whose Eye they are. An exemption from which, Quality (even of the highest degree) cannot give; since the Relation between the Mother and Child is equal amongst all Ranks of People. And it is a very preposterous Abuse of Quality to make it a pretence for being unnatural. This is a Truth which perhaps would displease many Ladies were it told them, and therefore, probably, it is that they so seldom hear it: But none of them could be so much offended with any one for desiring hereby to restrain them from some of their expensive and ridiculous Diversions, by an employment so worthy of Rational Creatures, and so becoming of maternal tenderness, as it is just to be with them for neglecting their Children: A Fault that women of Quality are every way too often guilty of, and are perhaps more without excuse for, than for any other that they are ordinarily taxable with. For tho' it is to be fear'd that few Ladies (from the disadvantage of their own Education) are so well fitted as they ought to be, to take the care of their Children, yet not to be willing to do what they can herein, either as thinking this a matter of too much pains for them, or below their Condition, expresses so senseless a Pride, and so much want of the affectionate and compassionate Tenderness natural to that Sex and Relation, that one would almost be tempted to question whether such Women were any more capable of, than worthy to be the Mothers of Rational Creatures.
(pp. 76-77)

Masham's primary argument in Occasional Thoughts is that, because mothers are, in their own way, the first and most formative educational influences, it is essential for women to be brought up well-educated and treated as rational creatures. We can call this the Lockean argument for the better education of women. This argument for the better education of women is an adaptation of Lockean principles of education:

In Mr. L---- s excellent _Treatise of Education_, he shews how early and how great a Watchfulness and Prudence are requisite to the forming the Mind of a Child to Vertue; and whoso shall read what he has writ on that Subject, will, it is very likely, think that few Mothers are qualify'd for such an undertaking as this: But that they are not so is the Fault which should be amended: In the mean time nevertheless, their presum'd willingness to be in the right, where the Happiness of their Children is concerned in it, must certainly inable them, if they were but once convinc'd that this was their Duty, to perform it much better than such People will do, who have as little Skill and Ability for it as themselves; and who besides, that they rarely desire to learn any more than they have, are not induc'd by Affection to do for those under their care all the Good that they can. Since then the Affairs either of Men's Callings, or of their private Estates, or the Service of their Country (all which are indispensibly their Business) allows them not the leisure to look daily after the Education of their Children; and that, otherwise, also they are naturally less capable than Women of that Complaisance and Tenderness, which the right Instruction and Direction of that Age requires; and since Servants are so far from being fit to be rely'd upon in that great concern, that to watch against the Impediments they actually bring thereto, is no small part of the care that a wise Parent has to take; I do presume that (ordinarily speaking) this so necessary a Work of forming betimes the Minds of Children so as to dispose them to be hereafter Wise and Vertuous Men and Women, cannot be perform'd but by Mothers only. It being a thing practicable but by a very few to purchase the having always Wise, Vertuous and well Bred People, to take the place of a Parent in governing their Children; and together with them such Servants and Teachers, as must peculiarly be employ'd about them; For the World does not necessarily abound with such Persons as these, and in such circumstances as not to pretend to more profitable employments than Men of one or two thousand Pounds a Year (and much less those great numbers who have smaller Estates) can often afford to make the care of governing their Children from their Infancy to be. The procuring of such a Person as this may (by accident) sometimes be in such a ones Power; but to propose the ingaging for reward whenever there shall be need for them, vertuous, wife, and well-bred Men and Women, to spend their time in taking care of the Education of young Children, is what can be done but by a very few; since the doing this would not be found an easy charge to the greater part of almost any rank amongst us; unless they would be content for the sake hereof to abridge themselves of some of their extravagant Expences; which are usually the last that Men will deny themselves.
(pp. 80-81)

You can find Locke's 'Treatise of Education' online. She considers this education to be particularly important in matters of religion, since she accepts the common view that some sort of basic rational religion (God, immortality of the soul, moral law) is, while perhaps not absolutely necessary to a moral society, is nevertheless especially conducive to it, when it is taken sufficiently seriously and is combined with a generally diffused education about important matters. Masham is very explicit that she is not just arguing that the women of her time should have a better education, which she thinks is obviously due to them as rational creatures; she is also trying to persuade men. She is not running a speculative argument, holding that in the abstract women should have a good education; she is advocating a practical program for the improvement of society, and wants to effect actual change:

But it is not perhaps very seasonable to propose that Ladies should have any greater Accomplishments or Improvements of their Understandings than the well discharging of their Duty requires, till it is thought fit for them to have that: The advantages of which to Men themselves, and the necessity thereof to a right Education of their Children of both Sexes are too evident, when reflected upon, not to obtain Encouragement of so much Knowledge in Women from all who are Lovers of Vertue, were it not true that Conviction does not always operate. The Law of Fashion or Custom, is still to be obey'd, let Reason contradict it ever so much: And those bold Adventurers are look'd upon but as a sort of _Don Quixots_; whose Zeal for any Reformation puts them upon Combating generally receiv'd Opinions, or Practices; even tho' the Honour of their Maker be concern'd therein: Or (what is nearer to most) their own Private and Temporal Interests. I am sure that a just consideration of both these furnishes every one with very cogent inducements to make what opposition they can to Immorality, both by amending their own faults, and by indeavouring to prevail upon others to correct whatever has contributed to the making us a vicious People.
(pp. 98-99)

In a sense, Masham's work on education epitomizes the Enlightenment stereotype: education being key to the moral society, it is essential for us to have better and more widely available education in order to improve our morals. But the argument is in many ways unique, particularly given its well-thought-out focus on domestic education (which in some respects far exceeds Locke's more famous discussion in subtlety and reasoning); and it is a pity that the text did not have a wider audience. Indeed, it's a pity that it does not have a wider audience today. Fortunately, thanks to Project Gutenberg and, you can read it in a handy online edition.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Links and Notes

* I only read him occasionally, but philosophical maverick Crispin Sartwell is always an interesting read. He wrote a column on academic freedom a few weeks ago that's well worth reading.

* John Gregg has an interesting discussion of Daniel Dennett's philosophy of mind.

* Aspazia, guest-blogging at "Majikthise", has a post On Ambivalence Towards Critical Thinking. Unfortunately, I think she's right about the problem with teaching critical thinking, in part because critical thinking cannot be taught. If you have a class on critical thinking, it only meets its objective if the students take what they learn in the class in the spirit of critical thought; otherwise, they merely learn to outmaneuver people. It's the perpetual paradox: instead of producing critical thinkers, you produce sophists. The study of fallacies is a good example: you want students to learn how to avoid certainly fallacies, and inadvertently end up teaching them how to brand other people as fallacious, without any serious improvement in their ability to understand the other person's argument. We teach techniques and conclusions; we do not characters, intellectual any more than moral. I share some of the same concerns about much of what goes by the name of 'analytic philosophy', as well. (One thing that particularly bothers me is that the terms analytic philosophers usually use in their analyses -- intuition, proposition, property, sortal, etc. -- are in fact far more vague and ambiguous than the things they are usually analyzing. They raise a dust, and then come the complaints that they can't see.

* Oxford philosopher Peter Strawson has died. (The Times obituary, the Guardian obituary). One of his very famous articles is Freedom and Resentment.

* Chris has a good post on what framing analysis really is. In effect, it just does what used to go under the name of 'rhetoric'; the key difference being that it's a framework for doing it as cognitive science, with experimental support, etc.

* Ed Cook at "Ralph the Sacred River" reviews the graphic novel, Marked.

* The most recent God or Not carnival was on the subject of Faith.

History Carnival XXIV

History Carnival XXIV, with a special focus on women achievers, is up at Philobiblon.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Old Assignment

Digging around in my files, I came across this in-class assignment (for review, not for a grade) I had given the students of my Rationalists class. There were four groups, and each group was given one of these directives. (The first group came up with a very clever jingle, but unfortunately I've forgotten it since then.)


Suppose that philosophical arguments needed to be advertised. Come up with a television advertisement, one you can act out as a group, for Malebranche’s ideological argument for the existence of God. Make sure that viewers can learn the basic elements of the argument from your advertisement. Your advertisement should include a jingle and a slogan.


Suppose that philosophical arguments needed to be advertised. Come up with a television advertisement, one you can act out as a group, for Malebranche’s argument for the immateriality of the soul. Make sure that viewers can learn the basic elements of the argument from your advertisement. Your advertisement should include a jingle and a slogan.

Party Debate

Suppose the Cartesians were the philosophical equivalent of a political party. As a group, script and act out a moderated debate within the party on whether the party platform should include Descartes’s or Malebranche’s views on whether we have a clear idea of the mind. Make sure that those watching the debate can glean the basic positions and arguments of both sides. Each side should in the course of their arguments lay out a basic campaign strategy for arguing against the dreaded Skeptics, Materialists, and Atheists Party (the Cartesian Party’s political foes), including a proposal for a campaign slogan.


You have been chosen to coordinate a philosophical presentation in the Canadian Society of Philosopher-Mimes. Divide up the elements of Malebranche’s theory of sensation among yourselves and together figure out how to present, in mime form, each element. When you present, you may put a word or two (but no more) on the board to clarify the presentation. Be prepared to explain your presentation to reporters, who, alas, are uninitiated in the ways of philosopher-mimes.

Heinrich Heine

Nathanael Robinson at "The Rhine River" notes that Friday is the 150th anniversary of Heine's death. I've only read some Heine (in translation, since my German consists of tatters), but Heine is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking poet. Some of Heine's works in translation online:

Selections from Heine's essays

On Teleology


O Death, that is the Cooling Night

Selected poems

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Poem Draft

A rough first draft, but if I tighten it a bit I might be able to do something with it. It's based, of course, on Euripides.

Medea to Jason

I saved your life; they saw me save it
who stood on the Argos-decks and saw
the ships come rushing like sea-gull's flight
with spray of the sea and sign of the sun,
bearing down on you like morning light.
My dearest brother, my father's son,
who in the sunlit gardens had played,
my dearest kin, my sweetest soul, --
with the bronze at my side I gave him the night,
I sent him to darkness of death and of sea.
As his blood licked the foam and lept on the wave,
spreading like wind-blown fog on the current,
I saved your life. They saw me save it
when you sowed the seed of the dragon's teeth,
when the gods were against you, and without friend
you wandered, but I was good to you,
and I, half-crazed with love for you,
saved your life in despite of the gods.
Now all of these years in a little box,
as a little wife in a little town
my blood I've hid out of love for you,
my divinity hot with the heat of the sun,
my fire and fierceness, to be your wife,
to be a Greek; and for endless days
I bore the trial of name and despite--
barbarian! witch! vile of blood! --
I, who am kin of the royal sun! --
the names out of love I patiently bore,
and I bore the yoke, and I bore your sons,
for I was yours and you were mine,
a joy worth the trade of blood divine!
Until the day when your Grecian slut,
with her simpering ways and sluggish blood
came calling and you crept away,
a worm, a snake, after lesser things,
who had had to bed the kin of the gods.
Then you hid yourself and your slimy sin
behind the faces of our sweetest sons;
to free them from the stigma of blood --
the stigma of me -- such a sun-bright sin,
to be a princess of a foreign land
where the sun once wooed a Phoenician maid
who bore my father, a gold-rich king.
Such shame! How dare I live, a god to them,
when every Hellene a brat has borne
apparently can better me in every way!
Steal my life, and steal my soul,
and steal my sons to sate your sin,
and you will see, in a light so bitingly fierce,
in a fire that only the sun-born can light,
then you will see, with the burst of a stunning dawn,
what it is that you stole, and in despair
you will rue the day your mother bore,
you will rue the light, you will rue the day,
you will rue the sun that makes you see,
and weep in the morning at dawning light!
For I am Medea; call me a witch,
a barbarian-slut, and curse my name,
but never again as the sun survives
will you stray from me in your slightest thought,
or cast me aside, or take me for nought;
for as long as you live, and wherever you go,
this pain will sear your inmost soul.

Supreme Court Friezes

In the Courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court building there is a frieze identifying eighteen lawmakers, symbolic of development of law and its lasting value for civilization. The eighteen (with the interspersed allegorical figures) are:

South Wall
[Light of Wisdom]
Octavius Augustus

North Wall
John Lackland
Louis IX
Hugo Grotius
[Right of Man]
[Liberty and Peace]

The frieze was created by Adolph Weinman when the courtroom was built in the 1930s. Weinman has another frieze in the room (on the East and West Walls) that is more purely allegorical. The East Wall frieze focuses on Law and Government. The center of the frieze are two tablets, reminiscent of the Ten Commandments; however, the tablets primarily represent the ten amendments of the Bill of Rights. These tablets are flanked by Majesty of Law and Power of Government. To Majesty of Law's right is found Wisdom, and a group of figures representing The Defense of Human Rights and the Protection of the Innocents. To Power of Government's left is found Truth, and a group of figures representing the Safeguard of the Liberties and the Rights of the People in their Pursuit of Happiness. The West Wall frieze is somewhat different; it represents the struggle of good and evil. At its center are Justice and Divine Inspiration, flanked by Wisdom and Truth. A little heavy-handed, I think; the North and South Wall friezes are better. Moses, Confucius, and Solon both appear again on the eastern pediment of the building, created by Hermon McNeil. The appearance of Muhammad in the North Wall frieze, by the way, is given a cautious but favorable review by KARAMAH, Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights.

You can see the friezes for yourself.

An Alternative

For those of you who do not wish to celebrate Valentine's Day, I suggest you take the Latin out and celebrate Slavic culture on this fine Feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. You can practice your Cyrillic. You can study a bit of Old Church Slavonic online. If music's your thing, try a bit from the Slavonic Liturgy.

Nagel and Malebranche

As I mentioned before, Alejandro at "Reality Conditions" has a good review up of Nagel's The Last Word. I just wanted to say something about whether Nagel really is inflating his conclusions in order to get a "Platonic-Cartesian" theory of reason (as he calls it). I don't think he is. The gold standard for any "Platonic-Cartesian" theory of reason is Nicolas Malebranche. Malebranche's credentials in this regard are impeccable. Not only is he a Cartesian; he is perhaps the Cartesian after Descartes to whom Cartesianism most owed its dominance. (There's a letter from Hume to Ramsay, if I recall correctly, in which Hume is telling Ramsay what background he should read in order to understand Book 1 of the Treatise. In addition to Berkeley, Hume says, he should definitely read Malebranche's Search After Truth; and Descartes's Meditations -- if he can find Descartes's Meditations.) He is also a Platonist; specifically, he is explicitly an Augustinian, on all the points where Augustine is most Platonist (in our usual sense of that term). A considerable portion of Malebranche's rather hefty corpus is devoted to arguing for and developing a theory of reason of precisely the sort that Nagel calls "Platonic-Cartesian". To top it all off, he's generally regarded as having an extreme version of this: almost everyone who holds a "Platonic-Cartesian" theory of reason has a weaker version than Malebranche does.

So, let's take (in a somewhat crude form) the features of reason for which Nagel argues:

(1) Objective
(2) Universal
(3) Normative
(4) Capable of exhibiting genuine necessity
(5) Capable of discerning features (e.g., in mathematics) that can only be characterized by appeal to infinites

The noteworthy thing is that, in arguing for his own theory of reason, Malebranche argues for every single one of these things. There is only one major claim that Malebranche makes that Nagel does not; Malebranche goes one more step and argues, on the basis of these characteristics, that reason is divine. Nagel doesn't go this far, and clearly starts applying the brakes once it becomes clear that he's heading in that direction. So Nagel's conclusions are fairly clearly in Platonic-Cartesian territory.

Contrast this, by the way, with the opposing theory of reason, which one finds to a limited extent in Berkeley (who, however, is partly Platonic-Cartesian himself) and to a greater extent in Hume. This is characterized (again, we are being somewhat crude) by the following:

(1) There is no strong distinction between the subjective and objective; objectivity is merely intersubjectivity.
(2) We do not know how universal reason is; we simply find it universal enough for the purposes of common life.
(3) Reason is not normative; rather, what we call the normativity of reason is just a combination of (a) the fact that we are set up so that sometimes it is difficult for us to think otherwise than we usually do; and (b) we are set up so as to approve and disapprove certain things.
(4) The so-called necessity of reason is purely verbal.
(5) Reason has no access to these supposed infinites. Berkeley in his notebooks goes so far as to deny that the Pythagorean Theorem is true; it's not the sort of thing that is true or false, being just a procedure for getting an answers (an algorithm, as we would call it) and not a truth about triangles at all. Hume doesn't, as far as I know, say this, but it can be argued that his position requires it; he denies, for instance, that geometry is a precise science -- for him it is an art, full of vagueness and imprecision, of approximation. Such positions on infinites are significant because, as both Malebranche and Nagel argue, if you accept the Platonic-Cartesian claim about infinites, you have to accept the others to at least some extent. And if you accept the claim about infinites, it becomes a genuine puzzle for the empiricist theory of reason -- a puzzle that has never been solved -- to see how you can pull genuine thought about infinity out of finite operations on finite sensory information by a finite substance. The most consistent empiricists, like Berkeley and Hume, don't even try to solve it.

So, in other words, I don't think Nagel has to inflate his claims to get a Platonic-Cartesian view. If you accept Nagel's conclusions, you are committed, whether you knew it or not, to the Platonic-Cartesian position on reason. What he is (more or less) doing in The Last Word is showing that we all tend toward such a view as it is; it's a strong view, but it's not a weird view. This can be compared to things like subjectivism and relativism, which are weak views of reason, but are weird. Of course it doesn't follow from this that all of Nagel's arguments are sufficient to support all of his claims. Rather, it's just to point out that Nagel's not really far off when it comes to arguing for the Platonic-Cartesian account of reason.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Parallels in Ghazali and Aquinas on Moral Economy

An interesting paper (in PDF format): The Economic Thought of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali and St. Thomas Aquinas: Some Comparative Parallels and Links, from the History of Political Economy journal. It's a worthwhile read, although philosophically trained readers will experience the usual frustrations with papers on the history of philosophy written by historians: the odd tendency to cite extensively what other historians say about the texts, the failure to analyze arguments into their component parts, etc. But patience pays off here as elsewhere. I'm not really sure what the author was thinking citing Durant as a source on scholasticism, though.

Siris Word Cloud

(HT: Science and Politics) You can see what your own weblog's word cloud is at SnapShirts, which has its own blog. You can get your word cloud on a T-shirt, which would definitely be interesting.

Early Modern Philosophy Puzzles

I've recently placed two puzzles at Houyhnhnm Land.

The easiest is a Malebranche Word Find; the objective is to help you associate with Malebranche's name a number of terms that are closely associated with him.

The other, which is somewhat harder, is a word scramble. Unscramble the sentence to uncover a sentence from a famous early modern philosopher. Then name the philosopher.

Wildness in Wait

The real trouble with this world is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter VI