Saturday, October 06, 2007

Notes Upon Notes, and Links Too

* John Wilkins has a post on Feyerabend that is worth reading.

* JJ at "Feminist Philosophers" notes a point where cognitive science can potentially meet up with feminist inquiry, in the sense of providing materials for feminists investigating the real relationship between emotion and reason.

* As an early modernist, though, I can't help but twitch a little at the quotations from Pascal used in the excerpt from Trends in Cognitive Science that JJ quotes; I really wish cognitive scientists wouldn't do things like this, because it makes me fidget and want to say, "But we have to be careful in bringing the Pascalian heart into a discussion of 'emotions', since it is the faculty by means of which we understand space, time, and mathematical and logical first principles; it is our loving sense of everything real (including ourselves and God), and while it can be the root of passions, we can only discuss its role in our passionate life by carefully distinguishing it from the imagination, with which it is often confused. In Pascal's example, people often feel they are converted when really all they have done is imagine being converted. The heart does have connections with the sorts of things we might classify as 'emotions'; it is by the heart, for instance, that we know we ought to be loved, and it is by the heart that we love ourselves and thereby know ourselves to be lovable. But it's really not wise to bring it in unless you make those distinctions...." And so forth. It takes some force of will not to continue!

* Incidentally, to return (tangentially) to the issue of feminism, it has occurred to me recently that one reason people often eschew the title of 'feminist' might possibly be that they think of feminism as a theory: a set of things (perhaps only vaguely delineated) that you have to believe. Something like a system but less orderly, perhaps. But more and more I think we should regard feminism as a project of inquiry -- one that allows an immense amount of diversity, but is united in an attempt to find ways to see things in a better and more accurate light given a recognition of the need to make an explicit attempt to oppose and undo bias against women, as well as to oppose and undo those constraints that lock people into unconstructive, and often destructive, patterns of oppression, culpability, and complicity. And there are plenty of areas in which one can see that this is a beneficial and valuable project: I've briefly noted some scientific examples before (even though there I also used the term 'theory', what I describe can best be put in terms of this project of inquiry, and although I now think that what I say there is too restrictive), and history of philosophy provides plenty of examples as well. I'm inclined to think that seeing it this way shows (in a way that thinking of it as a theory does not) that it is utterly necessary and can't just be treated as an isolated group of things believed by That Group Over There. Of course, this isn't wholly new; in a sense Helen Longino has always been saying it in philosophy of science, for instance, and it isn't that difficult to extrapolate from there. But it would be nice to see it more widely and thoroughly developed and recognized.

* There is a post at "Crooked Timber" on the danger of softpedalling book reviews (among other things). I confess that I think the problem here is the tendency to think of the point of a review as evaluation, which I don't think is reasonable. It is utterly irrelevant to me whether the esteemed professor from such-and-such college thinks the book is worth reading. I've met enough esteemed professors to know that I don't trust their taste in books, or, in some cases, their reading skills. What I want to know is what I, the reader, should know if I do, in fact, happen to read the book. Now, I can see the point of laying out something to satisfy those who go into the review wondering whether they should put the book at the top of their reading list or put it aside in favor of other things. But there is no piece of writing so odious as a book review in which the reviewer tries to tell the readers what to think of a book before they've read it; except perhaps a book review in which the reviewer tries to tell the readers what to think of the author of the book. And that is true whether the it's all praise or all blame.

It's an issue for me because I'm the sort of person who will be reading the book reviews. I always read all the book reviews in almost every philosophy journal I pick up; because I often read outside my field, I often read book reviews in journals outside my field; and I think long and hard about the reviews I read. There have been academic book reviews that have given me something to think seriously about for hours. But there are a great many bad book reviews out there, too, and what makes it worse is that you can be pretty sure that the reviewer thinks they are doing a good job writing it. The three questions that come to my mind, in one form or another, whenever I read a book review:

(1) Does this review give me the means better to compare this book with other books and articles on the topic?

(2) Does this review help me to identify interesting things in the book discussed that I would not otherwise have identified, and give me the tools for getting more out of reading the book than I otherwise might?

(3) Does this piece help me to recognize dangerous latent biases in myself that might interfere with good reading of the book?

Now, I ask you: if the answers are No, No, and No, what possible function could the review have except to be a sordid little line on someone's CV and a bit of pointless little fluff taking up space and paper and ink that would be better used if it were filled with something else entirely? I would even prefer badly-written reviews that do at least one of these three things to well-written reviews that do none of them.

Of tenure review letters I know much, much less, and, in any case, I am puzzled by the notion of an 'overly generous tenure review letter'; I don't understand how generosity enters into the equation. Either you are lying or you are not. If you are lying, your moral self-inquiry should begin with something other than the issue of excessive generosity. If you are not lying, you are only doing the person reviewed a justice he or she deserves as a human being and a colleague. Of course, your letter might suffer the defect of leaving out things that need to be seriously considered in tenure review; but any praise you give stands or falls not on this, which is another thing entirely, but on the truth. So I would have thought. But, as I said, I know rather little about such matters.

* Tertullian on reason (De poenitentia 1.2):

For reason is a thing of God, since there is nothing which God, the creator of all things, has not foreseen, arranged and determined by reason; moreover, there is nothing He does not wish to be investigated and understood by reason.

* In Getting Past Multiple Guess at "In Socrates' Wake", Michael Cholbi asks about the use of multiple choice examinations in philosophy. I suspect the common sort of protest against them would be that which Cholbi notes: "But it can be difficult to fashion multiple choice exams that test higher level skills or knowledge that we typically care about a lot in philosophy: the ability to craft or appraise arguments, the understanding of logical relations, etc." But it is noteworthy that this is often surprisingly true of the common alternative, essay questions; as are most of the other common objections: superficiality, excessive dependence on memorization, etc.

I also (I must confess) am a bit suspicious about the horror many people have when it comes to multiple choice, because I always wonder whether the real reason for the revulsion comes from the difficulty of writing good multiple choice tests: you have to know and understand your subject extraordinarily well to formulate good multiple choice tests that require the use of higher-level skills and knowledge. Most people seems to be very lax about essay questions, though; and writing an essay question only rarely involves the same amount of effort in a teacher that answering it requires in a student, whereas multiple choice questions are a much more level playing field by the very nature of the question. (I think short answer tends to be a more level playing field, too.)

I am more heretical than those who like multiple choice questions; my preference is for true/false quizzes, which I've always loved -- I love taking them, I love writing them, I love grading them. (Although I also like short answer. I don't like essay questions, unless they are very precise and specific about what is required, although I was always exceptionally good at them.) But then I am perverse enough to write true/false quizzes like the one I give in the comments here, which, though, was not for a grade but as a review activity, and was, it should also be said, a slightly mocking self-parody.

* The Thomist at "Just Thomism" hits the nail on the head with regard to Pascal's Wager.

Friday, October 05, 2007

A Sample of Music for the Halloween Season

* Black Black Heart (David Usher with Kim Bingham) -- To start off with something you've probably heard.

* Wolf Moon (Type O Negative)

* My Velvet Little Darkness (Lacrimas Profundere)

* Legion (Saviour Machine)

* Lotus Flower (Tearwave) -- You might have to click the link for the song yourself.

* Wiec My (Illuminandi) -- A good Holy Week song, by the way.

* Invasion (Eisley)

* Clown (Switchblade Symphony)

* Amy (Dead Artist Syndrome) -- You might have to click the link for the song yourself.

* Whispers in the Dark (Skillet) -- Because it can't all be dark.

Books Not Yet Read

Bold = read; italic = I've read something of it; standard roman type = still to be read. (ht)

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi : a novel
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
The Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler's Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations
American Gods
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Atlas Shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury tales
The Historian : a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault's Pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible : a novel
Angels & Demons
The Inferno
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Oliver Twist (This was the first book I ever remember not finishing; I haven't gotten back to it yet)
Gulliver's Travels
Les Misérables
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela's Ashes : a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People's History of the United States : 1492-present
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake : a novel
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity's Rainbow
The Hobbit
In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

Thursday, October 04, 2007

A Thought from Epictetus

Never call yourself a philosopher, nor talk a great deal among the unlearned about theorems, but act conformably to them. Thus, at an entertainment, don’t talk how persons ought to eat, but eat as you ought. For remember that in this manner Socrates also universally avoided all ostentation. And when persons came to him and desired to be recommended by him to philosophers, he took and- recommended them, so well did he bear being overlooked. So that if ever any talk should happen among the unlearned concerning philosophic theorems, be you, for the most part, silent. For there is great danger in immediately throwing out what you have not digested. And, if anyone tells you that you know nothing, and you are not nettled at it, then you may be sure that you have begun your business. For sheep don’t throw up the grass to show the shepherds how much they have eaten; but, inwardly digesting their food, they outwardly produce wool and milk. Thus, therefore, do you likewise not show theorems to the unlearned, but the actions produced by them after they have been digested.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, sect. 46. I like the sheep analogy; it's worth remembering.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

An Augustine Quotation

Saint Augustine had said, "Angel is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is spirit; if you seek the name of their office, it is angel; from what they are, spirit, from what they do, angel.

Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife, chapter 12.

The proximate source is almost certainly the Catechism of the Catholic Church (section 329), which in a footnote gives the reference as "St. Augustine, En. in Ps. 103, 1, 15: PL 37, 1348". It's actually very difficult to find this passage, in English at least; English editions tend to leave it out, presumably because most of them are following the Nicene Fathers edition, in which a lot of the original Enarrationes is left out. The original Latin is:

Qui facit angelos suos spiritus, et ministros suos ignem flagrantem. Et hoc, quamvis non videamus apparitionem Angelorum; abscondita est enim ab oculis nostris, et est in quadam republica magna imperatoris Dei, tamen esse Angelos novimus ex fide, et multis apparuisse scriptum legimus, et tenemus, nec inde dubitare fas nobis est. Spiritus autem Angeli sunt; et cum spiritus sunt, non sunt angeli; cum mittuntur, fiunt angeli. Angelus enim officii nomen est, non naturae. Quaeris nomen huius naturae, spiritus est; quaeris officium, angelus est: ex eo quod est, spiritus est; ex eo quod agit, angelus est. Vide illud in homine. Nomen naturae homo, officii miles: nomen naturae vir, officii praeco; homo enim fit praeco, id est, qui homo erat fit praeco; non qui erat praeco fit homo. Sic ergo qui erant iam spiritus conditi a creatore Deo, facit eos angelos, mittendo eos nuntiare quod iusserit; et ignem flagrantem facit ministros suos. Legimus apparuisse ignem in rubo 72, legimus etiam missum ignem desuper, et implesse quod praeceptum est. Ministravit ergo, cum impleret: cum esset, in natura sua erat; cum egit quod iussum est, ministerium implevit. Sic secundum litteram in creatura.

Sacred Texts II

Jason Kuznicki has a response to my response to his post on sacred texts:

Yet this is exactly the problem with sacred texts: We readers are always students; we can never be judges. Our role is set out for us beforehand, by an extraordinary claim attached to the text itself. We may approach that text literally or figuratively, we may argue over its meanings, but to doubt the value of the text is to doubt its sacredness. Always we are students, and always, when a difficulty exists, the error is presumptively in our own understanding rather than in any relevant feature of the text itself. Sacredness may not destroy all interpretation (although fundamentalism makes an effort at making it do just that), but sacredness certainly does play the interpretive game with loaded dice.

But this seems to me to confuse evaluation of a text with interpretation of it. Consider Shakespeare's Hamlet, for instance, or Dante's Divine Comedy; anyone who sits on such texts as a judge in such a way as to cast doubt on their value has, by that very fact, thrown suspicion on his judgment. But his interpretation of the text may be fine, if it respects the fact of the text as written and as read. A problem with judging the value of a text requires considering more readers than just oneself; and it is not something that can be read off the text itself. This essential element of rational interpretation (of any text) makes the whole notion of reading a text as judge rather more complicated than it might seem. And, of course, when we are reading a text of high value -- e.g., Plato's Republic -- it is often perfectly reasonable to presume that if your reading shows up errors that this is likely due to an error in your reading, for several reasons: (1) People make mistaken readings all the time -- it's a very easy thing to do, so you always have to engage in rigorous self-criticism when you are criticizing any text (which is very hard for any of us to do properly, of course); (2) Again, you have to consider other readers, and if no other readers have been bothered by the alleged error, you have at least to ask yourself why; (3) You have to consider the aptitude of the author -- if the way you read Leibniz, for instance, has him making a simple and obvious logical error, you had better have stunningly good evidence for your reading, or you should go back and look where you made your mistake, because Leibniz was a brilliant logician. All of these come into play with texts that are considered sacred, although not always in straightforward ways. There is nothing wrong with presumptions of value, nor is there anything wrong with such presumptions grounding presumptive guidelines for interpretation. Even with low-value texts we need good reasons for abandoning the principle of charity. It's entirely reasonable to think that the higher the value of the text, the better your reasons should be.

In any case, there are hermeneutics in which the value of the text need not be doubted but the text can still be judged erroneous. One finds such a method of interpretation in Edwin Abbott Abbott's classic work of liberal-modernist theology, The Kernel and the Husk; Abbott, of course, finds the text erroneous all over the place, but its value is unchanged. And this, I think, is another good bit of evidence that we should not conflate questions of evaluation with questions of interpretation. Sacredness does not automatically imply infallibility or lack of error, for instance; even fundamentalists have recognized that you have to argue for it, even though they think the argument is fairly straightforward.


One of Jason's commenters had this to say:

The comment that everyone must approach sacred texts as students and never as judges makes me think of humanity in a perpetual state of childhood with no possibility of attaining adulthood.

Which is a rather odd thing to say, it seems to me; it requires the assumption that only children are students and that attaining adulthood means that you stop learning from teachers. I suppose one can interpret Kant's heteronomy/autonomy account of Enlightenment along these lines (although Kant himself does not). But I'm inclined to think that ceasing to learn from teachers, ceasing to be a student, is to stunt one's maturation at the level at which one stops learning.

Perhaps the real difference between children and adults is that children learn because they have to: they are students by necessity. Adults, when they continue growing mentally and morally, learn because it is life worth living: they are students out of love.


Nathanael Robinson makes an interesting comment on the argument:

Brandon Watson has an interesting take on Jason Kuznicki’s post on sacred texts. I wish, however, that they would have looked at the authority of sacred texts within any given community, how underneath orthodox claims of immutable truth come fluid, dynamic practices that show how communities adapt sacred texts to their interests. Aren’t we ’sacredly’ reading differently after Martin Buber?

I think looking at the authority and the dynamic practices are both worthwhile things to do; but they are well beyond my competence to do in a general way, because there is so much diversity in the landscape. The Sikh sacred text, for instance, the Sri Guru Granth, is a psalter; it is prayed, and to pray it is to sing it, and it has its life and its meaning in its being prayed and sung by what's sometimes called the Sri Guru Panth, the whole Sikh community. The Book is Guru when it is sung, and the people are Guru in their singing of it; in a sense they are one Guru, the Perpetual Nanak. It would take a deep familiarity with Sikh life and Sikh tradition to work out the authoritative role of such a text, and the dynamic practices in their relation to claims of immutable truth. And I think the same goes with any sort of sacred text, since every sacred text organizes a different sort of community, and in doing so is a different kind of sacred text, whose authority, and the relation of that authority to the interests of the community and to claims of immutable truth, will therefore be different. They can't even be studied the same way. The Granth is sung by Sikhs, the Qur'an is recited by Muslims, the Bible is read by Christians. In Islam the Qur'an only has authority in Arabic; any translation of it is an assistance to reading the Qur'an, and cannot claim the authority of the Qur'an itself. The Christian Bible, on the other hand, is from the very foundations of Christianity something that crosses translation, that is always read in translation, that can maintain its authority even in translation. On the other hand, there is a longstanding tradition in Islamic communities of taking the Qur'an as being something eternal; a similar longstanding tradition can be found with the Torah in Judaism. But there is not a whisper of this in Christianity; from the very beginning Christianity shuns the idea that the text is in any way eternal, however inspired it may be. For Catholics Scripture only exists as an authority, only has meaning, in being taught and prayed by the Church; for Protestants, Scripture's authority and meaning is a criterion for evaluating the teaching and prayer of the Church. Such diversity is hard to get a hold of. Nathanael is entirely right that these issues are radically important for understanding sacred texts; but they are also well beyond my ability to say much about. So it goes with many important things, I suppose.

William Adams and David Hume

Dr. Adams had distinguished himself by an able answer to David Hume's 'Essay on Miracles.' He told me he had once dined in company with Hume in Logond: that Hume shook hands with him, and said, 'You have treated me much better than I deserve;' and that they exchanged visits.

Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL. D., vol. 2. Fletcher, ed. Heritage Press (New York: 1963) p. 234.

The Dr. Adams in question is William Adams; his answer to Hume's essay can be found online. Hume is not conceding anything to Adams in this anecdote as far as the substance of Adams's critique goes; rather, he is thanking him for his civility. And Boswell goes on to note that he and Johnson have an argument with Adams over whether it is proper to treat an infidel's writings with civility, with Adams arguing that it is.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Notes and Links

* Way cool: communication between plants. (ht)

* How does one face Mecca in prayer if you are floating around in space? Muslims have given serious thought to questions like this. This news article gives a few of the rules for being an observant Muslim in orbit.

* An interesting question came up in the comments boxes of Cantànima: Why is St. Hubert the patron saint of mathematicians? It's easy to see why he's the patron saint of hunters, forest rangers, etc., because the Conversion of St. Hubert is a very famous legend. As the Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes it:

On Good Friday morn, when the faithful were crowding the churches, Hubert sallied forth to the chase. As he was pursuing a magnificent stag, the animal turned and, as the pious legend narrates, he was astounded at perceiving a crucifix between its antlers, while he heard a voice saying: "Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell". Hubert dismounted, prostrated himself and said, "Lord, what wouldst Thou have me do?" He received the answer, "Go and seek Lambert, and he will instruct you."

As I said, this is a very famous legends, and you can find traces of it all over Europe, sometimes in unexpected places (like the Jägermeister logo; the brand is hunting-themed). But I don't know of any legend or story associating Hubert with mathematics. Does anyone know?

* An interesting weblog concerned with looking sympathetically (from an Orthodox perspective) with John Bekkos: De unione ecclesiarum. (ht)

* Bill Vallicella discusses the Weyl Tile Argument for the conclusion that space is not quantized. It reminds me, interestingly, of problems that early modern empiricists had with combining their rejection of infinite divisibility and their acceptance of mathematics. Hume deals with the problem by denying that geometry is an exact science. Berkeley doesn't, as far as I recall, address the point in any of his published works, but in his early notebooks we find him toying with the idea that the Pythagorean theorem is false; he suggests saving it by regarding it not as a statement of mathematical fact but as a recipe for mathematical construction (to a given, always finite, level of precision).

* The Royal Guardsmen sing Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron. "Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron" was written by Dick Holler, who on a more serious note also wrote Dion's famous civil rights protest song, Abraham, Martin, and John.

* No one can scat like Ella.

* Jonathan Ellis criticizes Bernard Suits's analysis of games (PDF). I think a simpler and more straightforward somewhere is an activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs (arriving at a destination); it is an activity in which we may only use means permitted by rules, namely, traffic law; the rules prohibit more efficient means in favor of less efficient means (e.g., it would be more efficient for the purpose of getting where you are going to ignore traffic lights and to move off-road); and the rules are accepted because they make possible such activity. So when two people agree to meet up at the mall as soon as they can safely and legally get there, they are engaging in an activity that has all the characteristics Suits identifies and yet is not by any stretch of the imagination a game. I do think, though, that Suits is on to something significant (albeit not what he thinks); namely, that the field of games divides into games that are well-defined (meeting Suits's criteria) and games that are ill-defined or ad hoc (such as the silly games Ellis mentions) and the distinction is actually a fairly important one.

* This is utterly deplorable; at least, it is the sort of thing that massively irritates me. What is more, it is a sign of the degenerate nature of a set of social expectations in which we are all continually being made complicit. (ht)

* IQ and heritability at "Three-Toed Sloth".

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Bible in Classical Fundamentalism

We may refer to the original roots of the Christian fundamentalist movement as Classical Fundamentalism; this will be the sort of reactionary evangelicalism associated with The Fundamentals. We can then ask ourselves, What is the role of the Bible in Classical Fundamentalism?

The first thing to note is that its view is partial-dictationist. By 'partial-dictationist' I mean that the Classical Fundamentalist regards some of the Bible to be dictated by God, namely, those instances in which God is said to have spoken. As to the rest, there is no definite position. This is put very neatly by Bettex in his Fundamentals article, "The Bible and Modern Criticism":

But here a distinction must be made. The Bible reports matters of history, and in doing so includes many genealogies which were composed, first of all, not for us, but for those most immediately concerned, and for the angels (1 Cor. 4:9). Also it reports many sins and shameful deeds; for just as the sun first illuminates himself and then sheds his radiance upon the ocean and the puddle, the eagle and the worm, so the Bible undertakes to represent to us not only God, but also man just as he is. In giving us these narratives it may be said, moreover, that God, who numbers the very hairs of our head, exercised a providential control, so that what was reported by His chosen men should be the real facts, and nothing else. To what extent He inspired those men with the very words used by them, it is not for us to know, but probably more fully than we suspect.

But when God, after having communicated the law to Moses on Mount Sinai and in the Tabernacle, communes with him as a friend with friend, and Moses writes "all the words of this law in a book" (Dent. 28:58; 31 :24), then Moses really becomes the pen of God. When God speaks to the prophets, "Behold, I put my words in thy mouth," and "all the words that thou hearest thou shalt say to this people," then these prophets become the very mouth of God. When Christ appears to John on Patmos, and says, "To the angel of the church write these things," this is an instance of verbal dictation.

While it does not have any definite position as to the inspiration of 'the very words', it does exhibit the following sort of reasoning:

1. A scriptural text can only have doctrinal value to the extent that it is authoritative, and can only be authoritative to the extent it is reliable.

2. However, it can only be reliable to the extent that it is an accurate historical account.

3. It cannot be an accurate historical account if it is a heterogeneous compilation of mythology and folklore by unknown redactors.

Thus not all Scripture need be taken equally precisely as to the words (although there is a diversity of views about this); but it must all be taken equally accurately as to the facts. This, of course, is understood of the autographs or original record; there is some explicit allowance for errors by copyists and translators through history. There is a basic analogy between the Scriptural word and the Incarnate Word here as elsewhere: the Incarnate Word must be perfectly without sin, but this does not conflict with the concession of imperfection in our representations of His character.

Moreover, the Classical Fundamentalist view defines itself in opposition to the Higher Criticism, especially source criticism. Source criticism is seen as making the following mistakes: it treats naturalism as a sufficiently authoritative foundation for pronouncing judgment on the accuracy of the Word of God; contrary to its claims of scientific authority, it is a mish-mash of purely arbitrary suppositions; it systematically provides the interpretation of the facts of sacred history that is least favorable to a positive evaluation of the character of God; its practitioners treat the fundamentals of the faith with scorn and arrogance; it leads to relativism. However, there is no denial that there are sources for the Biblical texts; this is supported by recognizing that the Bible itself mentions some of them (the Book of Jasher, etc.).

The key to interpretation is taken to be experiential: one interprets Scripture in light of a personal encounter with the text as an authoritative source of conversion. In reading it, the reader finds his sins condemned in a way that he cannot evade and an opportunity for redemption that he cannot but recognize; when this opportunity is accepted it sweeps all doubt away. Sometimes the experience is not an experience of Scripture in reading but an experience of Scripture in evangelical preaching.

It's an interesting question, I think, how much of this Classical Fundamentalism has been preserved in more contemporary fundamentalisms.

Little Flower

I often asked myself why God had preferences, why all souls did not receive an equal measure of grace. I was filled with wonder when I saw extraordinary favours showered on great sinners like St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Mary Magdalen, and many others, whom He forced, so to speak, to receive His grace....

Our Lord has deigned to explain this mystery to me. He showed me the book of nature, and I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtide beauty, and the fields would no longer be enamelled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord's living garden. He has been pleased to create great Saints who may be compared to the lily and the rose, but He has also created lesser ones, who must be content to be daisies or simple violets flowering at His Feet, and whose mission it is to gladden His Divine Eyes when He deigns to look down on them. And the more gladly they do His Will the greater is their perfection.

Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, chapter 1.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Three Separate Things on Income Disparity and on Prostitution

This comment by Megan McArdle reminded me (slightly) of Thomas Aquinas:

I mean, I understand that there are people who think it is immoral that the educated should earn substantially more than people who clean houses. But it seems to me that the obvious solution to this dilemma, until you have effected the radical political change you believe will rectify this situation globally, is to give away all of your salary in excess of the wage of the average housecleaner. Ideally, you would donate it either to people who clean houses, or to some organization you believe will improve their earning prospects.

This is rather like what Thomas Aquinas considers to be the only just course of action. Aquinas, of course, doesn't think it is immoral for some to earn substantially more than others (I'm not sure he would have understood such a claim at all, since he would want to ask who in particular was being immoral in the scenario, and I don't think people who hold this view would usually have a satisfactory answer for him); he just think it's immoral to spend any more on yourself than is required to support yourself and your family. It's a good thing to earn more than that, though, so you can use it all to do good to those whom you are best placed to help. Aquinas has high standards like that.

Incidentally, on a complete tangent, when reading up again on what Thomas says about property and almsgiving, I suddently realized something that I don't think I ever realized before: Thomas doesn't think it's immoral to receive payment for sex. He does, of course, think fornication and adultery immoral, and thus prostitution to the extent that it involves these; but he explicitly says that when a woman takes money for it she is not doing so unlawfully or unjustly. One of the things that make it remarkable is that it is yet one more example of the massive reverse of the modern (American) view from the medieval view on the issue of prostitution, at least if we abstract from occasional exceptions and inconsistencies. Medieval thinkers, of course, tended to follow Augustine in holding that it should be tolerated as a necessary evil; in modern (American) society we certainly do not tolerate it, and a great deal of police effort is expended in this nontoleration. And here we have Thomas insisting vehemently on the evil of fornication and adultery, while also insisting firmly that it is not immoral for prostitutes to take money; whereas a great many people in our society are very indulgent of fornication and adultery but regard being paid for them as a terrible form of wickedness. Here I think Aquinas's medieval view is much more rational than ours. I can understand nontoleration; tolerating without appearing to condone is a very tricky thing, and it's difficult to find a good way to do it. But prostitution is not worse than, say, adultery, and there's no good reason why receiving payment should be considered such a terrible evil. It is quite a bit more reasonable than most other sexual activities that are tolerated. (Pimps, of course, are another story.)

On yet another tangent, Xenophon is often saddled with the sharp criticism that he has Victorian morals. Actually, Xenophon is the target of a great many utterly absurd criticisms. For instance, to see what libellous things scholars have said about Xenophon in print, one would think he was a barely-literate idiot. But of course, he has a very intelligent philosophical mind and considerable literary talent (I dare say more, in both cases, than most of his accusers). To be sure not all of his literary attempts are complete successes, but even Homer nods. And the snide remarks about his philosophical ability are always the result of comparing him to Plato. Now, I ask you, how many philosophers in all history are in Plato's league? It's like saying that the physics faculty of MIT is incompetent because none of them quite measure up to Einstein. Moreover, it's often clear that part of what is underlying this critical assessment is a matter of taste, both philosophical and literary. Philosophical: Plato has what might be called abstract tastes; like all the great Greek philosophers he's interested in practical life, but he examines it at a very abstract level. Not so Xenophon who, to someone trained to like Plato's approach, comes across as very mundane, simply because he is far more interested in the concrete. (Trying to read the Oeconomicus if you are expecting something like the Republic is excruciating.) Literary: Plato was originally a tragic poet; Xenophon's primary career outside philosophy was as a soldier. It shows. Plato is wittier, and much better at flashy rhetoric; Xenophon often (although not always) comes across as clumsy when he tries these rather than what he's good at: ordinary narrative. Indeed, Xenophon is much better than Plato at plain narrative. You can see this if you compare Plato's Symposium with Xenophon's; the latter is a real party. (Plato is not talentless in this arena, by any means; but I don't think he seriously compares to Xenophon at his best.) Xenophon is usually said to lack subtlety, which seems to be true, but he has a knack for telling a story that is sometimes just stunning.

In any case, to return from this comparison of the two students of Socrates to the charge that Xenophon has Victorian morals. I am not kidding when I say this accusation is made of him. I'm not so convinced that "Victorian morals" is always a bad thing, whatever its limitations; and a Victorianist can tell you just how complicated a phenomenon real Victorian morals were. But setting that aside, I think it's a silly charge. Here's a challenge: name a philosophical text from before the 1900s that fits more easily into today's hip-hop culture than Xenophon's Symposium. Only the Greek loves aspect, I suspect, is really strange in this way; and I'm not even sure it would really seem so very strange. I also rather suspect that an eighteen-year-old today can more easily see the point of the (very philosophical) argument that Socrates is a pimp than most of their elders, who would tend to be less amused and tolerant of jokes about how teachers are really pimps of the mind.

Teaching both Plato's and Xenophon's dinner-party dialogues would make an interesting part of an intro philosophy course, and I wish I had thought of it this summer. Ah well; there's always the future.

The Socratic Method

Of drinking, that is:

But Socrates said, "Well, gentlemen, drinking gets my approval, in so far as it's a fact that wine refreshes the heart, and both allays worry like a sedative and feeds the flame of good cheer like oil. But it seems to me that the human body is affected in just the same way as plants are. When God gives plants too much to drink at a time, they can't stand up or breathe in fresh air; but when they drink only as much as is pleasant, they grow up quite straight and flourish and reach the fruiting stage. In the same way, if we imbibe all the drink at once, both our bodies and our minds will quickly let us down, and we shan't be able to breathe, much less speak.But if the servants drop for us frequent dew in goblets small, to put it as Gorgias would have, then, instead of being forced into intoxication by the wine, we shall reach a more playful mood through gentle persuasion."

[Xenophon, Symposium, ii.]

This is from the Tredennick-Waterfield translation in the Penguin Classics. Here's the Dakyns translation:

At this point Socrates: Nay, gentlemen, if drinking is the order of the day, I heartily approve. Wine it is in very truth that moistens the soul of man, that lulls at once all cares to sleep, even as mandragora drugs our human senses, and at the same time kindles light-hearted thoughts, as oil a flame. Yet it fares with the banquets of men, if I mistake not, precisely as with plants that spring and shoot on earth. When God gives these vegetable growths too full a draught of rain, they cannot lift their heads nor feel the light air breathe through them; but if they drink in only the glad supply they need, they stand erect, they shoot apace, and reach maturity of fruitage. So we, too, if we drench our throats with over- copious draughts, ere long may find our legs begin to reel and our thoughts begin to falter; we shall scarce be able to draw breath, much less to speak a word in season. But if (to borrow language from the mint of Gorgias), if only the attendants will bedew us with a frequent mizzle of small glasses, we shall not be violently driven on by wine to drunkenness, but with sweet seduction reach the goal of sportive levity.

Sacred Texts

Jason Kuznicki has an interesting post on sacred texts that, I think, gets some things right and some things wrong. On the wrong side:

Second, the difference between a sacred text and other texts is very simple. A sacred text commands obedience. An ordinary text must stand or fall on its own merits, but a sacred text is never thought capable of error.

“Sacred,” when applied to a text, means that apparent difficulties with the text are a priori more likely, or even certain, to be the fault of the reader than of the text. The more sacred the text is thought, the more likely the reader is presumably at fault.

This is a lousy way of reading, and it means that — in Nietzsche’s wonderful phrase — the art of biblical interpretation becomes the art of reading badly. Texts alone should not command obedience. They should command a thoughtful, respectful, and very earnest struggle, one in which the intellectual outcome is not a foregone conclusion. When reading a text — any text — it must remain possible, from the outset until long after the text is set down, that the reader may have varying relationships with it or with any of its parts. He should be able to interrogate the text without the intervening argument from authority. Sacred texts, however, demand not our engagement, but our submission. This is a remarkable epistemological gambit, and I think a fatal one.

I can think of no serious rational grounds for such a view either of sacred texts or of reading. It sounds good enough if you don't stop and critically think about it, but I think there's plenty of question about whether it can be seen as defensible if we pause a moment to examine it.

Consider a Sikh singing the verses of the Sri Guru Granth. He is reading the text. But it's not quite right -- even in the strongest and most narrow-minded forms of conservative Sikhism -- to say that the Sri Guru Granth is not demanding his engagement with the text, or that there is no room for interrogation of the text. On the contrary, Sikhism requires that there be such an engagement or interrogation, because it sees the Sri Guru Granth as a perpetual teacher, and such engagement or interrogation is essential to the process of learning. It just requires that you also allow yourself to be engaged by, and interrogated by, the Guru.

Now, I grew up Southern Baptist, and I have met many narrow-minded and fundamentalist (the two overlap but do not by any means coincide, since you can find narrow-minded non-fundamentalists and more open-minded fundamentalists than one might expect, since the reasons people become fundamentalists are legion) Baptists in my day, and the view of Scripture in such circles is not different in its basic outline. What is required is that you come before the text as a student, not as a judge. You may question and puzzle and struggle all you wish; just remember that you are there to be taught, to let the passages speak to you. Indeed, it's not uncommon for even fundamentalists to view their engagement with Scripture explicitly along the lines of Jacob's encounter at Peniel -- certainly a more nuanced view than Kuznicki suggests, whatever its limitations. And, of course, as we move away from people who can seriously be considered fundamentalist toward those who can't, the less the terms 'obedience' and 'submission', understood as obedience and submission to the text, make any sense.

Moreover, there is nothing about this method of reading that makes it distinctively of the sort that goes with sacred texts, nor is it the case that only sacred texts present themselves as teachers to which one must undergo a sort of apprenticeship. Some teachers are more authoritarian than other -- Kuznicki's description describes your typical student reading your typical school textbook or reference work much more accurately than it describes fundamentalists in Sunday Schoool or Bible Study, and such works are certainly more explicitly concerned with their own authority than sacred texts generally are -- but one can, in fact, see all texts along these lines. You come to learn and that is, by its very nature, a "thoughtful, respectful, and very earnest struggle". But there is nothing here that singles out sacred texts, even for fundamentalists; and if it doesn't fit fundamentalists, a fortiori it doesn't fit others.

What marks out a sacred text, of course, is that it is regarded as sacred, holy; but this tells us nothing about how it is to be read. It only tells us that it serves as a locus of respectful devotion because it is taken as a special symbol of the divine; this is consistent with any number of approaches to reading.

However, Kuznicki is right, I think about this (which deserves quotation in full):

We are told that sacred texts may often be read literally or figuratively, and, as far as it goes, this is true: One may believe in a literal Noah, a literal Flood, a literal Ark full of tree sloths and hissing cockroaches and stegosauruses — or one may think that this is an allegory of something else, rather than a literal series of events. It’s a moral story about stewardship of the earth and about obedience to God. Each of these is in a sense a strategy about how to read, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The problem arises, though, when someone claims that the literal reading of a sacred text is the more unvarnished, purer, truer reading, that it is free or at least more free from human interpretation, and that fundamentalism is therefore closer to God. This is a dangerous delusion for two reasons.

Reason one: Fundamentalism is an interpretive strategy. Fundamentalism is not a divine command; it is a human decision about how to read a text, and it should be made to prove itself against all of the other equally human approaches to reading. No one has a magical hermeneutic key descended from Heaven, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe from the outset that fundamentalist readings are any closer to God than any other. The fundamentalist interprets his text just like anyone else does. The only difference is that he claims not to interpret, and the sacredness of the text causes many people to believe what would in any other context be an obvious imposture.

Reason two: Fundamentalism does not yield a single reading outcome. One man’s “literal” reading may well conflict with another’s, whether because the text contradicts itself or because many things seem obvious or literal only in reference to a particular set of cultural understandings. Even those who strive to approach a sacred text the most literally of all are going to bring with them interpretive filters that go entirely unnoticed and uncriticized. This happens precisely because they, as readers, have declared that they are free of such things.

I think this comes much closer to capturing fundamentalist reading -- the fundamentalist takes a stance in which the plain sense -- what he takes to be the plain sense, that is -- involves minimal interpretation, and in which other forms of reading are naturally understood as evasions of the obvious. The danger here is precisely what Kuznicki suggests; and the irony, of course, is that it often ends up being the case that the fundamentalist stops taking the text as teacher (despite his claims) and ceases to let himself be judged and interrogated by it. All I would add to this is to point out that it is not merely religious fundamentalists who make the assumption that the fundamentalist reading strategy is "the more unvarnished, purer, truer reading"; I have come across many atheists who clearly assume exactly this. Of course, they don't hold that this truer reading is closer to God; but they dismiss any other reading as dishonest or hypocritical. This runs into precisely the same problems in the atheistic case that it does in the fundamentalist case. As Kuznicki goes on to note, those who read differently (and this is true whether they are religious or nonreligious themselves) will at least be giving themselves reminders to be self-critical in reading.