Saturday, March 11, 2006

Default and Circumscription and Search

An important type of reasoning that is often neglected is the search among possibilities. The primary problem with a rational search is that possibilities are infinite, and of infinitely many kinds. To make rational searches manageable, therefore, we make use of circumscription conditions and default assumptions.

I've already said something about circumscription conditions here. We develop circumscription conditions because there are too many things to think about; so we simply don't consider some possibilities because they are a waste of our time. To do this without being completely arbitrary, we formulate or presuppose a circumscription condition. A case of a circumscription condition would be something like this: the objects that can be shown to have a certain property P (e.g., flight) by reasoning from certain facts A (e.g., the possession of wings) are all the objects that satisfy P (in other words, to find flying things, we ignore anything that does not have wings).

A default assumption is an assumption about what is typically true. For instance, we take it to be typically true that birds can fly. Therefore our default assumption is that when Tweetie is a bird, and we know of nothing that makes it unable to fly, Tweetie can fly. If some new fact comes along suggesting that Tweetie is unable to fly (Tweetie's wings are clipped, or too short, or whatever else) this makes us revise our inference, but our default remains the same. Likewise, we take it to be typically true that animals that fly that are not insects are birds. There are other things that fly that are not insects (bats, for instance), but if something is an animal the flies, and we have reason to think it is not an insect, it is a reasonable (albeit defeasible) conclusion that it is a bird. An example of a type of default assumption very important for rational searches is a closed world assumption. Closed world assumptions basically say that what is not recognizably true (in some way) is false. A closed world assumption is essential for one of the most important types of rational searches, the negation-as-failure search. In a negation-as-failure search, failure to find something is taken as proof that it does not exist. Is there a cat on the desk in front of me? I haven't run every possible test to determine whether there is, but I don't see one. I have a default assumption that if something is a cat, it is visible; given this, I form a plausible circumscription condition that the only cats that can be said to exist are those that can be seen. I perform a search by viewing the desk. I can't see a cat. Therefore there is no cat on the desk in front of me. It's not impossible that there's an invisible cat (an exception to the typical case) on the desk in front of me; it's not impossible that the reason I can't see a cat on the desk is not that there isn't one, and not that it's invisible, but that there's something wrong with my vision. But it's entirely reasonable to conclude that there's no cat on the desk if I can't see one, because the default assumption and the circumscription condition are both good ones. So this is a good, reasonable negation-as-failure search.

Philosophy is full of negation-as-failure searches, put in one form or another; a good example is to be had in Berkeley (Principles 10):

But I desire any one to reflect and try whether he can, by any abstraction of thought, conceive the extension and motion of a body without all other sensible qualities. For my own part, I see evidently that it is not in my power to frame an idea of a body extended and moving, but I must withal give it some colour or other sensible quality which is acknowledged to exist only in the mind. In short, extension, figure, and motion, abstracted from all other qualities, are inconceivable.

This is a challenge: perform a rational search (by reflecting) for the ability to conceive extension without other sensible qualities among all abilities to frame ideas; if your search fails, the reasonable conclusion is that you have no such ability. Indeed, on the basis of his own search, Berkeley says that he sees evidently, i.e., clearly, that he has no such ability. Of course, this reasoning makes perfect sense in a framework based on a closed world assumption (namely, that if you aren't able to recognize your possession of an ability simply by reflecting, you don't have that ability).

Another philosophical example of a negation-as-failure search is found in the problem of evil. The problem of evil, as usually presented, is effectively based on a challenge like Berkeley's, but with different parameters. The challenge is this: Perform a rational search among possible reasons for allowing the existence of such-and-such evils. If you can't find one, we can presume that none exists (negation as failure). Then, typically, one goes on to use this result (no reason exists) to challenge the existence of God (on the assumption that there would have to be a reason, given that God is good and wise).

Several classical responses to the problem of evil focus on the challenge. An example is the omniscience objection. (The omniscience objection is based on the point that the challenger has to show not merely that we wouldn't have a reason, but that an omniscience, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being wouldn't have a reason. In other words, we have to search all possible reasons that are available to an omniscient, omnipotent being.) The search among all possible reasons is an immense one. When we are dealing with finite creatures like human beings, we can circumscribe this search using assumptions about human beings. When we are talking about an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being, however, we can't use those circumscription conditions. Someone who puts forward the omniscience objection in a sense regards the challenge stage of the problem of evil as a bluff: the challenger says, "If we run a rational search, we find no reason"; the omniscience objector says, "You have not run the relevant rational search, because you are assuming circumscription conditions that are not relevant to this problem, and the circumscription conditions that are relevant are not sufficient to make the search manageable." Another (related, but different) sort of response is the ignorance response, which attacks the closed world assumption itself. One form of the ignorance response, the skeptical form, simply denies that we have any reason to think that a negation-as-failure would yield a correct answer in this sort of case. Another form, that associated with Bishop Butler, takes a different route. Butler argues not from skepticism about our ability to know but from our knowledge about what we don't know: the claim is that we know that we don't know a lot of things that are relevant to the success of the search. Of course, not every formulation of the problem of evil that implicitly makes use of a rational search uses the same assumptions and conditions; so it does not follow from a given response's being successful against one formulation that it will be successful against every such formulation. And we need not assume that every formulation of the problem of evil makes use of a rational search (although all the most common ones seem to do so). But a review of formulations of the problem of evil will easily turn up formulations that fall to objections like these, because the search to which they appeal is not of the right sort, or is improperly formulated, or whatever else.

There are lots of other cases where these points are relevant. (Of course, there has been some fascinating work recently on circumscription and default logics, particularly with regard to artificial intelligence; obviously the above is related to these, but it should be kept in mind that the focus of such research is formal systems, which is a much narrower focus than anything I am discussing above.)

And it happened in the days of Achashverosh...

Since the Purim season is here again, it's time to reflect on the Book of Esther. Last year Purim fell near Easter, which naturally led to a reflection on the Resurrection and joy. This year, however, it falls in Lent. In the Orthodox Old (Julian) Calendar, it falls just after the first Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, which commemorates the restoration of icons, and thus the re-establishment of the teaching of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in 843. This sets up a few loose associations in my mind.

While Purim is a holiday of light and gladness, joy and honor, it is also closely associated with fasting. After learning of Haman's plan, Esther sends word to Mordecai:

Then Esther bade them return answer unto Mordecai: 'Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.'

So Mordecai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him.

Because of this it is traditional to fast before Purim. The point of fasting is to pray in preparation for, or in memory of, something. Thus people fast in Quadragesima (Lent) as a prayerful preparation for Holy Week, or, at least, that's what they should be doing; many, of course, just do it because that's what they've heard people do during Lent. Lent is fundamentally the fast in preparation for the joy of Easter. In the case of the fast of Esther, the fast was a prayerful preparation -- a physical cry to heaven -- in the face of a looming danger and clear need. As the Talmud says somewhere, when the community is in trouble, no one should go home with the thought of eating and drinking. People fast as an expression of their priorities; to purge themselves of weakness; to steal themselves for trouble ahead; and to cry out to God with their deeds. All of them are bound up in this sort of fasting.

Liturgically, we fast in preparation for the feast. As the twelfth canon of II Nicaea says,

It is very important to dedicate everything to God and not to become slaves of our own desires; for whether you eat or drink, the divine apostle says, do all for the glory of God.

Thus we are out not merely to eat and drink, but to do these things to divine glory; and fasting emphasizes this.

In any case, it seems fitting to end with an old rabbinical tradition about Purim:

On the day when Mordecai ordered his brethren to fast and humble themselves before God, he uttered the following supplication:

"Our God and God of our fathers, seated on Thy throne of grace! Oh Lord of the universe, Thou knowest that not through the promptings of a proud heart did I refuse to bow before Haman. Thee only I fear, and I am jealous of the glory of Thy presence; I could not give to flesh and blood Thy honour--to the creature that which belongs to the Creator alone. Oh God, deliver us from his hand, and let his feet become entangled in the net which he has spread for us. Let the world know, oh our Redeemer, that Thou hast not forgotten the promise which supports and strengthens us in our dispersion. 'And yet for all that, though they be in the land of their enemies, will I not cast them away, neither will I loath them to destroy them utterly, to break my covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God.'"

When Esther received the message of Mordecai, she too ordered a fast, and replaced her royal apparel with the sackcloth and ashes of mourning; and bowing her face before the Lord, she uttered this heartfelt prayer:

"God of Israel, from the beginning of time Thou hast reigned; the world and all it contains Thy power has created; to Thee, Thy handmaid calls for help! I am alone, oh God, without father and mother. Even as a poor woman, who begs from door to door, do I come before Thee for mercy, from window to window in the house of Ahasuerus. From Thee alone can help and salvation flow. Oh, Father of the fatherless! stand upon the right hand of the orphan, I beseech Thee; give her mercy and favour in the eyes of Ahasuerus, that he may be moved to grant her petition for the lives of her people. 'May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before Thee, oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen!'"

Notes and Links

* The Battlestar Galactica finale, for those who haven't seen it, is quite amazing; nowhere near as startling as the shooting of Adama at the end of last season, but good nonetheless, and much more drastic. From here on out it's a different game.

* A good post on the proper paragraphing of Ephesians 5, by Wayne Leman at "Better Bibles Blog".

* From Henry Drummond's Lowell Lectures on the Ascent of Man (1894):

There are reverent minds who ceaselessly scan the fields of Nature and the books of Science in search of gaps—gaps which they will fill up with God. As if God lived in gaps? What view of Nature or of Truth is theirs whose interest in Science is not in what it can explain but in what it cannot, whose quest is ignorance not knowledge, whose daily dread is that the cloud may lift, and who, as darkness melts from this field or from that, begin to tremble for the place of His abode? What needs altering in such finely-jealous souls is at once their view of Nature and of God. Nature is God’s writing, and can only tell the truth; God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. [From chapter X]

Henry Drummond was a nineteenth-century evangelical who associated with Moody and lectured on science. (HT: Evangelical Outpost)

* An interesting article on the concept of ijtihad, from a Shia perspective.

* Thought for the day: The first responsibility of any human being to any other human being is good will.

* UPDATE: I just remembered that Doctor Who is making its U.S. premiere this week (March 17) on the Sci-Fi Channel. Do watch it. I've already seen the first season (via the CBC, which proves that a Canadian BBC-wanna-be can still be good for something) and it was quite good. The original Doctor Who is the longest-running science fiction show in history (26 years!) and the new series is a good follow-up. I doubt it will last as long, but it's got plenty of potential for good things.

Friday, March 10, 2006

One Dark Night

Stanzas of the Soul

One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night (Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, trs.; Copyright 1991 ICS Publications)

The Positive Side of Islam

Given that a recent poll showed an increase in negative sentiment against Muslims, I thought it would be worthwhile to point to a small sample of the more positive parts of the rich legacy of Islam, parts that tend to be lost to view in this day and age.

* Ibn Arabi's masterpiece of Sufi mystical poetry, The Bezels of Wisdom.

* Al Ghazali's philosophical-alchemical reflection on spiritual transformation, The Alchemy of Happiness.

* Averroes's brilliant philosophical work, The Incoherence of the Incoherence. In this work Averroes defends Aristotelian philosophy from Al Ghazali's skeptical criticisms in The Incoherence of the Philosophers (which you can also find online in PDF). A sample from the most famous section, the criticism of al Ghazali's occasionalism:

To deny the existence of efficient causes which are observed in sensible things is sophistry, and he who defends this doctrine either denies with his tongue what is present in his mind or is carried away by a sophistical doubt which occurs to him concerning this question. For he who denies this can no longer acknowledge that every act must have an agent. The question whether these causes by themselves are sufficient to perform the acts which proceed from them, or need an external cause for the perfection of their act, whether separate or not, is not self-evident and requires much investigation and research. And if the theologians had doubts about the efficient causes which are perceived to cause each other, because there are also effects whose cause is not perceived, this is illogical.

* Islam is very focused on text; and this has contributed to the development of some stunningly beautiful calligraphic arts, of which the most interesting is Kufic script. Through the architectural use of Kufic script, a building becomes a text.

* For Sunni jurisprudence, the Hanafi school, founded by Abu Hanifah is the largest of the four major Sunni schools of law (and, it should be noted, usually considered the least conservative). Ask the Imam analyzes Muslim law from the Hanafi perspective.

* The spiritual poems of Rabi'ah al-'Adawiyyah are masterpieces that deserve to be more widely known. You can read her biography at Poet Seers.

Browse around a bit. If you find anything you like, share it with others.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Readings Pursuant to the Theme of International Women's Day

For Blog Against Sexism Day, laypalady at "It's a Scarf!" has provided an interesting and worthwhile post on Christianity and sexism. Highly recommended. Also of interest for Blogging Against Sexism Day:

Tenth Carnival of the Feminists at "Indian Writing"

Science and Sexism at "Adventures in Ethics and Science"

What it feels like for a geek girl at "Radioactive Banana"

International Women's Day at "The Huntress"

On International Women's Day at "Philobiblon"

Women's History at "Writing at Jo(e)"

Playing Doctors and Nurses at "Peregrinations"

Grid-blog for International Women's Day: Hammer-Time at "Thursday PM"

"What I am doing and what I have failed to do" at "Hugo Schwyzer"

It's an old post, but I want to bring it up again. At "Sappho's Breathing" two years ago there was a post called Why do women want to be philosophers? The post raised the serious issue of women in academic philosophy. Things are better than they used to be (which wouldn't take much), but they are far from acceptable. (See also the article by Julie Van Camp on Female-Friendly Departments.) As I've mentioned before, there is also this widespread assumption that the study of women philosophers (e.g., Astell, Masham, Wollstonecraft, Shepherd) is not significant work, that, because they are marginal in terms of curriculum, they must also be intellectually marginal as well. This is an attitude that needs to be undone. Here is the website of The Society for Women in Philosophy, which does a lot of good work in bettering the situation.

NRA Sues New Orleans

I was interested to see that America's most controversial civil rights organization, the NRA, is suing Mayor Ray Nagin, the chief of police, and the City of New Orleans for alleged illegal gun confiscation in the aftermath of the Katrina flooding. Although it obviously wasn't the primary issue at the time, the issue was raised: Louisiana statute gives a lot of leeway on gun regulation in emergencies, but the NRA got a restraining order, which, they claim, was ignored. Nagin, on the other hand, had denied that he authorized taking firearms from citizens, and that appears to be the line taken now: that no guns were seized. I don't really have any commentary on it, but I thought it was interesting.

Women Philosophers in the SEP

For International Women's Day, here are the articles on women philosophers from the online SEP (the author of the article is listed in parentheses):

Mary Astell (Alice Sowaal)
Simone de Beauvoir (Debra Bergoffen)
Catharine Trotter Cockburn(Patricia Sheridan)
Anne Conway (Sarah Hutton)
Damaris Masham (Sarah Hutton)

It seems a little light, doesn't it? In several of these cases, too, the scholarship has not developed very far. Several of the articles above are quite excellent, considering the state of scholarship; but in each case there needs to be much more work done. And think of all the women philosophers who do not yet have articles up: Anscombe, Stein, Conrad-Martius, Cavendish, Shepherd, etc. And, if it needs to be made clear, the claim that they need to be studied more is not simply an affirmative action policy; these women are often brilliant, and there is much to be learned from them. There is a lot of work to do.

Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan was born in Venice in 1364. At the age of five she moved with her father to Paris, and at fourteen she was married off to Etienne du Castel. By all accounts it was a happy marriage, one of true love. But when he died eleven years later, Christine was in rather severe straits, finding it immensely difficult to collect money due to his estate, and was forced into several rather draining lawsuits. To help pay the bills she took up the pen.

Her most famous work is The Book of the City of the Ladies. In this work, the narrator, despairing of having been born a woman, is visted by three women: Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice, who promise to build a city for good women, a refuge adequate for keeping their despisers at bay:

There is another greater and even more special reason for our coming which you will learn from our speeches: in fact we have come to vanquish from the world the same error into which you had fallen, so that from now on, ladies and all valiant women may have a refuge and defense against the various assailants, those ladies who have been abandoned for so long, exposed like a field without a surrounding hedge, without finding a champion to afford them an adequate defense, notwithstanding those noble men who are required by order of law to protect them, who by negligence and apathy have allowed them to be mistreated. It is no wonder then that their jealous enemies, those outrageous villains who have assailed them with various weapons, have been victorious in a war in which women have had no defense. Where is there a city so strong which could not be taken immediately if no resistance were forthcoming, or the law case, no matter how unjust, which was not won through the obstinance of someone pleading without opposition? And the simple, noble ladies, following the example of suffering god commands, have cheerfully suffered the great attacks which, both in the spoken and the written word, have been wrongfully and sinfully perpetrated against women by men who all the while appealed to God for the right to do so. Now it is time for their just cause to be taken from Pharaoh's hands, and for this reason, we three ladies who you see here, moved by pity, have come to you to announce a particular edifice built like a city wall, strongly constructed and well founded, which has been predestined and established by our aid and counsel for you to build, where no one will reside except all ladies of fame and women worthy of praise, for the walls of the city will be closed to those women who lack virtue.
[City of the Ladies 1.3.3]

I haven't been able to find a copy online; but you can read a summary of it. Christine also wrote The Treasure of the City of the Ladies, which discusses the proper education of a woman.

She became involved in a literary dispute over the Romance of the Rose, which she regarded with some detestation as immoral and misogynistic (see part of her reasoning here).

She was one of the first French writers to celebrate Joan of Arc's restoration of the fortunes of the Dauphin in 1429; you can find an English translation of her beautiful Le Ditie de Jehanne d'Arc online (see also here for a prose translation); it was written within two weeks of the Dauphin being crowned king.

You can read English translations from several of Christine's works (see also here for a good list); there's also an online concordance to her works (in test phase) at the Christine de Pizan Database.


Jewish World Review has a nice little essay on Francis Salvador, a Jewish hero of the American Revolution. See also the essay on the denization of Luis Gomez, and Rabbi David Aaron's little essay, The Divine Wants You to be Happy, on why being a teacher of Torah is like being a gourmet chef. (Aaron's essays are often a little 'gushy' for my taste, but I liked this one quite a bit.)

* Bill at "Bill's Comments" has a post laying out everything you could possibly need to know about making perfect hard-boiled eggs.

* An essay at "Reason" on the Fair Trade movement (HT: verbum ipsum)

* Melchior del Darién posts on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz for International Women's Day. (HT: EMN)

I'll try to put something up for the occasion, if I have time. A bit of Christine de Pizan, perhaps.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Plain Michael Faraday

At you can read Michael Faraday's great classic of scientific popularization, The Chemical History of a Candle. Faraday (1791-1867) is one of my favorite scientists in history. Raised working class, he became interested in science when, apprenticed to a bookbinder, he read books on science. At one point he was given tickets to a set of lectures by Humphrey Davy; he took notes and a year later presented them to Davy, asking if Davy could give him a position assisting him with scientific research. No position was available at the time, but by chance a position did open up a few months later. Davy, remembering Faraday, interviewed him again, and thus, by sheer fluke, the Great Experimentalist entered his scientific career as a Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institute. In 1821 he discovered electromagnetic rotation; in 1823 he liquefied chlorine; in 1825 he discovered benzene. In 1826 he began a long and eminently successful career in lecturing to the public on scientific issues. In 1831 he discovered electromagnatic induction. And so it went.

One of Faraday's continual problems working in Victorian England was his relatively limited education -- while certainly not stupid or ignorant in any sense of the term, he lacked a classical background and had only a very limited mathematical education, both of which made it difficult for him to convey his theoretical ideas to his peers; which is perhaps one reason why, despite his theoretical brilliance, he had a much greater reputation for experiment than theory. However, he was able to compensate somewhat for his lack of a classical background by his correspondence with friends, like William Whewell (who, for instance, suggested the terms 'anode' and 'cathode' rather than Faraday's original 'eastode' and 'westode), and the mathematical formulations would come later with Thomson (later called Lord Kelvin) and Maxwell.

Like many of the great Victorian scientists, he had a very high ideal of the ethical character of a good scientist; it is even said that this was a factor in his attempt to enter a career in science: scientific research was a higher ethical calling than the trades, and one that was more conducive to integrity. (He declined the presidency of the Royal Society for similar reasons: he told Tyndall, one of his friends, that he must remain "plain Michael Faraday" to the last, and did not think he could preserve his intellectual integrity in such a position.) It's hard to find any reason not to like him.

Here you can read a reprinted Everyman edition of selections from his Experimental Researches.

I am indeed a tricky one...

You scored as Severus Snape. Well you're a tricky one aren't you? Nobody quite has you figured out and you'd probably prefer it stayed that way. That said, you are a formidable force by anyone's reckoning, but there is certainly more to you than a frosty exterior and a bitter temper.

Severus Snape


Ron Weasley


Remus Lupin


Albus Dumbledore


Hermione Granger


Sirius Black


Lord Voldemort


Draco Malfoy


Harry Potter


Ginny Weasley


Your Harry Potter Alter Ego Is...?
created with

...but it would take quite a few whiskey shots before anyone would ever confuse me with Severus Snape.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Providential and Written Constitutions

Orestes Brownson, in his work The American Republic (1866), invented a clever argument that, in discussing constitutional matters, we should clearly distinguish two constitutions: the providential constitution of the people, and the fundamental law or written constitution. Since we have a tendency to think of a constitution in both these terms, our failure to distinguish the two leads to all sorts of sophistry. Here's Brownson's argument:

The constitution drawn up, ordained, and established by a nation for itself is a law--the organic or fundamental law, if you will, but a law, and is and must be the act of the sovereign power. That sovereign power must exist before it can act, and it cannot exist, if vested in the people or nation, without a constitution, or without some sort of political organization of the people or nation. There must, then, be for every state or nation a constitution anterior to the constitution which the nation gives itself, and from which the one it gives itself derives all its vitality and legal force.

The people must be, in some way, constituted a nation for the fundamental law to be interpreted and applied; a law needs such a background for both interpretation and application. As Brownson says, "Nations have originated in various ways, but history records no instance of a nation existing as an inorganic mass organizing itself into a political community. Every nation, at its first appearance above the horizon, is found to have an organization of some sort." Thus he distinguished between the written and the unwritten constitutions:

The written constitution is simply a law ordained by the nation or people instituting and organizing the government; the unwritten constitution is the real or actual constitution of the people as a state or sovereign community, and constituting them such or such a state. It is Providential, not made by the nation, but born with it. The written constitution is made and ordained by the sovereign power, and presupposes that power as already existing and constituted.

Brownson argues that the United States has a peculiar providential constitution, one that is extremely difficult to characterize and largely misunderstood. The United States, for as long as it could be said to have any constitution at all, has simply been the United States: a union of states in which the union is not derived from the states nor the states from the union. Even when the states declared independence and claimed themselves each to have state sovereignty, they did so as a union. Brownson attributes the failure of the Articles of Confederation to its failure to fit this unwritten constitution, and the success of the newer Constitution to its much better fit to the same. The American polity is so very odd because it has no sovereign people without states; no states without union; no union without states; and neither states nor union without the sovereign people. All three go together, and if you try to pry them apart, you end up with something that's not recognizably American. As he says:

This is not a theory of the constitution, but the constitutional fact itself. It is the simple historical fact that precedes the law and constitutes the law-making power. The people of the United States are one people, as has already been proved: they were one people, as far as a people at all, prior to independence, because under the same Common Law and subject to the same sovereign, and have been so since, for as united States they gained their independence and took their place among sovereign nations, and as united States they have possessed and still possess the government.

Thus we have the American peculiarity: a sovereign nation organized into several sovereign states that participate in a sovereign union. Of course, there are governments structurally similar, in that they are federalist; but what we are talking about here is not the federalist structure of U.S. government, but the prior and more fundamental fact that makes it impossible for the U.S. to stand for any other sort of government, the fact that defeats any theory that tries to ignore it. (Brownson, of course, is reflecting on this matter in the aftermath of the Civil War, which he sees as yet another instance in which attempt to deviate from the unwritten constitution failed precisely because it was such a deviation.)

Simon on Why All Human Beings Are Equal

Asserting the reality of a human nature, one and the same in all men, does not imply belief in any Platonic type. It is in the mind alone that human nature, or any nature, possesses a condition of positive unity. In the real the features which make up the universal human nature exist in the state of individuality, which means that human nature exists in James as identical with the individual reality of James. The same human nature exists in Philip in the state of individuality, which means that it exists in Philip as identified with the individual reality of Philip. (Yet James is not identical with Philip. As John of St. Thomas says, two things each of which is identical with the same third thing are not necessarily identical with each other if the third thing is virtually multiple: "But the universal nature is virtually multiple because it is communicable to several things; therefore, identity with it does not entail the identity of the individuals among themselves.") Inasmuch as it is the same human nature, made of the same intelligible features connected with one another in the same system of intelligibility, which exists in the real as identified with James and as identified with Philip, James and Philip are one in nature and are equal in an essential and fundamental sense, regardless of the inequality of their individual properties. From the very instant of their creation men are different and unequal in countless respects; yet it is highly proper that they should be described as created equal, for in each of them the same system of intelligible features supplies the individual with ability to exist.

Yves R. Simon, The Philosophy of Democratic Government, IV.1.


* An essential instrument for undergraduates applying for graduate school: the rejection rejection letter (HT: Matthew Mullins).

* Early modern missionary David Brainerd shows by example how to deal with reproof and correction.

* A good paper on common misconceptions of natural law theory:
Kelsen and Aquinas on "the Natural-Law Doctrine" by Robert George

* Archives of the Newsletter of the American Psychological Association's Division 36 are available in PDF online.

* Does Sikh Gurbani suggest an afterlife (including the transmigration usually attributed to the Sikhs in the West)? Such a view is apparently not as well-founded as some in the West have been led to believe.

For some time now there has been a major tug-of-war going on in the field of Sikh Studies; it's a very difficult dispute for an outsider to navigate, but for a reasonably even-handed commentary on a major thread of the dispute, see here.

* In what circle of hell do hypocrites reside? Michael Gilleland has the answer.