Saturday, March 29, 2008

Questions on Compensating for Scholarly Biases

I've been thinking a bit about the role of biases in my own scholarly work, and about what one should do to compensate for them. A case in point, and the one that started me thinking about the subject: I have a suspicious taste for underdogs, and it shows up in a number of ways. I tend to develop enthusiasms for neglected and ignored figures, for instance. It also shows up in what I tend to argue. Long years of study as a philosophy student has made me argumentative, in the sense that I keep thinking of possible objections to arguments that people make, on whatever subject. But overwhelmingly I keep those to myself; if I think they are particularly interesting, I write them down somewhere. But my inclination faced with a position, even one I think obviously false, is to say, "Interesting," and move on. I love arguments, i.e., reasonings, but I dislike arguing; and, having seen more than a few arguments in my day that were largely just intellectual bullying (and occasionally done some bullying myself), I try, as part of my (unevenly successful) attempt to hold myself to a standard of amiability, to put a sharp limit to how far I will go in arguing with anyone. But there are types of arguments in which my usual taste and all my good intentions get thrown to the wind unless I catch myself in time and forcibly restrain myself. And a number of these (again, a suspicious number), involve me defending someone from the suggestion of being easily refuted by an argument I don't think easily refutes them (whether I agree with them or not). It has put me in some weird company on occasion, let me tell you, vehemently defending views antithetical to my own. Now, this and a number of other things suggests to me that I have a bias in favor of positions that are being criticized, regardless of what they are; and that this bias is only compensated by its appearing fairly obvious to me that the criticism is deserved. But I have, as far as I can see, no reliable way of determining how far this bias distorts my judgment and good taste in any particular instance. And this would seem to be the case with a lot of the potential biases that might distort scholarly judgment. And a question I am considering now, and for which I have not yet found any clear answer, is the best way to go about refining one's scholarly practice in order to catch biases that might otherwise be undiscovered, or to compensate for biases that are likely there. The question could be put in other terms: we want to develop good taste in scholarship, but we'd rather not have to do it by trial and error. So what sort of practices of self-reflection and self-critique should scholars generally develop to compensate for hidden biases in themselves? Must they vary widely across disciplines and fields, or are there strong analogies? Do scholars generally just rely on the trial-and-error, sink-or-swim approach, or have people come up with more methodical and systematic ways to handle the problem? Are there many practices of self-reflection and self-critique in common use, or are there just a few that are common, or are any common at all? How successful are they?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Some Myth-Themed Poem Drafts

These are all old, but I want to start combing through some of the poem drafts I've posted here, so here's a re-posting of several myth-themed poems I've written.

The Bacchae

When the god of wine and revel
made dizzy the city's prince,
the omens darkly muttered
with a strange malevolence.

But the king kept to his folly;
he was slain by the godly bull
and carried home in his mother's arms.
Amen: the gods are cruel.

You are proud in your ways, O mortals!
Better it is to mourn
than to march through mocking streets
to where the beasts are torn.

You are vain with the vain cosmetics
by which you hide your soul;
you boast of your civic order,
but destruction is your goal.

You speak the name of Justice?
But Justice walks with a sword
to slit the throats of mortals
with a fate no charm can ward.

When your life is over --
when we see the path you've trod --
we will see not boasted glory,
but the mocking of the god.


You have heard that the Phoenix
dies the death of bright fire,
fierce flames of burning,
feeding mortal desire.
You have heard that fine feathers,
red-gold, are thus turned
to ash of black dust
when the Phoenix is burned,
that amid deathly ash
the egg of great price
breaks from the flame
that the Phoenix may rise.
You have heard of all this,
but have you heard that they say
that the Phoenix at morning
sings songs of the Way?
What wonderful songs!
None other compares
in sweetness and glory,
in order most fair!
For the truth is but this:
the Phoenix-made flame
is the falling of morals,
the mixing of names.
But when it comes forth
in a birthing of light,
the Way is returned,
the names are made right
by the voice of its singing,
beyond nightingales:
a sign placed to show us
the Way shall not fail!


Mountained is my love,
wearing holy fawn-skin,
singing as he slays the goat,
delighting in the flesh.

Mountained in Phrygia is my love,
Bromios, who dancing leads
by milk-rich, wine-flowing streams,
by nectar-wine of bees.


With incense-fume of pine torch,
fragrant on the fennel rod;
running, dancing, hair-streaming,
band-rousing, ever shouting:


Booming timbrels hymn the Bacchic god;
the Phrygian flute of Mother Rhea,
satyr-stolen, it blends with revel,
sweet-graced and most holy,

antheming the wild troops;
mounting up they band and revel,
mountained, they are light of foot,
gambolling like wild foals.



Osiris sleeps and dreams of death,
entombed in ebon halls of stone,
the death-blessed god on sacred throne,
and over gilded sands his breath
still seeks the signs of Isis' will.

And, in Egyptian starlight still
that shines in quiet on the sands,
it courses past the nomad-bands,
a honeyed wind that blows no ill,
pulsing with all hope's demands.

And Isis wanders through the lands
to seek the tombs and sacred throne,
to re-knit flesh to flesh and bone;
she takes the children in her hands
and makes them gods upon the flame.

The dead all have Osiris' name;
one soul goes up, one soul remains,
and on the Nile night-sent rains
will fall to heal the blind and lame
and raise the dead to grace.

Salme's Song

I will not love the night-lord,
nor marry the harried moon,
whose work is always pressing,
whose rising is too soon.

I will not love the sun-king;
his fire I cherish not;
he blights the land with drought
when his passions wax too hot.

But the star I take as lover
for he shines with gentle light;
his eyes are kind and loving
and steady through the night.

Starry youth and Salme
shall have nuptials sublime
and waltz on Harria's shores
until the end of time.


The blue flower blooms in the realm of Tapio,
where the tree-roots deeper than any mountain's grow
and the forest-tops are marching like the sea,
an endless and everlasting sea,
and the mead-paws dance in fields untouched by snow
where flowers bloom whose names nobody knows
on a hill whose name nobody knows.

The Cranes of Ibycus

Can blood-guilt scream to heaven, its cry unsated?
And can the gods be blind to living law?
Can murderers find solace by forgetting?
Has memory no more its tooth and claw?

Say no! The gods are watchful and most wary,
but step by step the deserving march to doom,
and in the sky, be it sun-bright or starry,
Nemesis will soar and Sekhmet's shadow loom.

And the cranes that fly so far in gentle peace
will bring to mind the murder that is done;
whatever form they take, what shape they wist,
they recall the darkness to the darkened one.

When deed is done, the sinner shuns the sky
for there the ruthless cranes on wings of judgment fly;
but though he cry for the mountains to hide his head,
the cranes still bear sure vengeance for the dead.


This torment of the wicked
is the comfort of the good;
that evil be not licit
but punished as it should;
that its pain and penal color
be the flourishing of the seed
implanted in the darkness
by the doer of the deed;
that conscience be not toothless,
but bear a whip and flail
so that when our justice falters
the Furies still prevail.

All-Father's Knowledge

Weird is the wyrd of man, and wild,
written on the stars with sacred stile,
carved on the ash of ages blessed,
graven on its leaves, which all confess
the truth to those who hang for nine --
nine days, nine nights, in death sublime.
Then opens the eye, the source of awe,
then wise becomes the Hanging God,
wise with lore of ancient runes,
wise in the ways of birth and doom.
A draught fresh-drawn from the prophet's well,
from which the poets drink their fill,
the scops who with their eddas dream
of things to come and things unseen,
will wake from slumber sleeping thoughts;
then wise becomes the prophet-God,
who gives an eye to be made wise,
who on the ash of ages dies.
The ravens from past the rainbow-bridge
with peircing eye for all things hid
go back and forth through all the lands --
of death, of elf, of god, of man;
through all the ages they, restless, roam
from root to crown to Father's throne,
his thought, his memory, turned to wing
and seeking out all things unseen.
But he sees in all, blessed or defiled,
that the strangest fate is the human child's.

Nine Days by Nine

Upon the tree I hang nine days by nine;
I seek the truth that stays and outruns time,
I seek the high sublimity that overrules
The passing of the age, the wildest words
That overcome destruction and decay.
Upon the tree I hang beyond the years,
The pain upon my side and in my hands,
A hanged man on the gallows, swinging wide,
Caught up in bitter gales, swung side to side,
And on the tree of ages, forest-thick and dark,
The runes and riddles grow, unread by men,
The foundation-markings of the girded yards
That hold all things in heaven and on earth.
Upon the tree I hang nine days by nine,
Reading words in runes that, line by line,
Now step in endless march before my eyes,
Unveiling every secret, laying bare
The nature of the world that I with care
Unravel in the riddles with patience slow and wise
In writings rushing past, nine days by nine.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Whip on the Shoulders

The story is told that there once was a rajah who entrusted his son to the instruction of a wise pandit. For many years the pandit taught the prince, leading him through all the branches of learning, until the prince was a true and universal scholar, acquainted with all the things most needful for a prince to know, except for one. And when he had reached that point, the pandit when to the rajah and, bowing low before him, said: "Sire, I have taught your son all the things a prince should know, except for one thing. Of all things, that is the most necessary of all; but I cannot teach it to him unless I have from you a promise of pardon."

And the rajah said, "You need have no fear in that regard. I had heard many wonderful things about your learning before I handed my son over to you; and in teaching my son you have gone beyond what any other pandit could do. Whatever you propose to teach, I am sure you will have good reason."

"As you wish," said the pandit, who then asked for a horse to be saddled. When it had been brought to him, he mounted, and called the prince over. Once the prince was near, the pandit took the horse-whip and laid it smartly over the prince's shoulders, and, spurring his horse, use the whip to force the prince to run alongside him.

The rajah, after he had recovered from his initial shock, ran after the pandit, demanding to know the meaning of these actions.

The pandit, pulling up his horse, replied, "I beg pardon, sire, for this; but it was the one thing that your son yet needed to be taught. All his life he has been raised as a prince, and so he has no understanding of the pain and terror of the whip on the shoulders. The name he knew; but the substance he had never tasted. How then could he have had true sympathy with the sufferings of others? How could he then have seen the necessity of letting one's judgments lean toward mercy? How could he have known how truly serious and humiliating severe punishment can be? But these are all necessary attributes of a ruler, that he do nothing cruel or foolish."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

0 and 1

There is an interesting discussion going on at FQI about noncognitivism and logic; I show up a few times in the comments thread. One of my arguments there is that propositional logic is simply an interpreted algebra. Thus none of its features have any necessary relation to the things that most interest philosophers in using it -- truth values. You can have a system of reasoning that has exactly the same structure in which nothing has a truth value. All you have to do is find another way to interpret the 0's and 1's of the algebra. And it is not difficult to find other workable interpretations; computer scientists use a different interpretation of the same algebra for some of the things they do. You can have topological interpretations, about which I know very little; and, of course, you can just take the algebra at face value. I'm sure there are many other viable interpretations. And in all of these the logical structure is preserved. So you don't need truth values to have the same inferences that you get in propositional logic; you just need some viable interpretation of 0 and 1.

I've recently come to think that this is a fundamentally important fact that we philosophers need to take more trouble to remember than we do -- we get so caught up in truth functions that we forget that what they really are is a mathematical structure that's convenient (at least for some purposes) for modelling true and false; the 'true' and the 'false' do no significant logical work. They are, I would suggest, epiphenomenal; or, perhaps more accurately, bridging concepts that facilitate application of the mathematical structure to model something that's not itself mathematical. In any case, there is nothing sacred about the way we do things; and nobody's proven that there isn't some fantastically better way to do it, waiting to be discovered. But discovering it requires recognizing that the world is bigger than our ordinary tools would suggest.

That I have become convinced of this is an extraordinary pain, because having been taught in the modern school systems, my mathematical background is extraordinarily patchwork, piecemeal, and undeveloped; and thus it hurts to have to just go back to basics and learn on my own all the things I should have been taught about (say) rings and fields but no one ever, ever mentioned to me. I expect many long years of making many stupid mistakes in the process. But as far as I can see, there's no helping it.

There's an article at the SEP, by the way, on the mathematics of Boolean algebras. It is singularly unilluminating to anyone who might actually be ignorant enough to need it; so I recommend you find some other introduction. Actually, Wikipedia usually isn't a bad place to start; it usually has decent links and not-overly-misleading explanations. Perhaps there are lots of computer science majors who edit Wikipedia rather than sleeping....

Monday, March 24, 2008

True, False, and Inquiry

A botanist seeking a rare tree met two country people from whom he requested information. "There is one of those trees in this wood here," says the first. The other says to him, "Take the third path that you come to. Follow it for one hundred paces. You will be at the very foot of the tree you are seeking." The botanist takes the third path, he goes a hundred steps, but he does not reach the object of his quest. To touch the foot of the tree requires an additional five paces.

Of the two pieces of information that he received, the first was true and the second was false. Even so, which of the two country people has more right to his gratitude?

Pierre Duhem, "On the Subject of Experimental Physics," Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science, Ariew and Barker, eds. & trs. Hackett (Indianapolis: 1996), p. 110

Sunday, March 23, 2008

He is Risen

Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

God bless you all on this Feast of the Holy Resurrection.


Which of the three types of stagnation do we exemplify? Loss of cultural capital (Stagnation A), certainly, marked by the inability of today's intellectuals to build constructively on the achievements of their predecessors. Simultaneously there exists a cult of the classics (Stagnation B): the historicism and footnote scholarship of our times, in which doing intellectual history becomes superior to creating it. And also we have the stagnation (C) of technical refinement: to take just a few instances, the acute refinements and formalisms of logical and linguistic philosophy have preceded apace in little specialized niches; in the same way among all factions of the intellectual world today we find the prevalence of esoterica, of subtleties, and of impenetrable in-group vocabularies.

Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, Harvard UP (Cambridge MA: 1998) 521.