Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Envelope-Opening Office

John Adams, our nation's first Vice President, was said to have declared the office the most insignificant that man's imagination had ever conceived. This is the sum total of the constitutional duties required of the Vice President:

(1) To break ties in the Senate. (Article I, Section 3)
(2) To preside over the Senate when it counts Electoral College votes. (Twelfth Amendment)
(3) To discharge the duties of the Office of President as the Acting President if neither the Electoral College nor the House of Representatives is able to elect a President. (Twelfth Amendment)
(4) To succeed the President if the President dies. (Twentieth Amendment, Twenty-Fifth Amendment)
(5) To succeed the President if the President resigns. (Twenty-Fifth Amendment)
(6) To discharge the duties of the Office of President as the Acting President if the President declares himself unable to discharge the duties of the office. (Twenty-Fifth Amendment)
(7) To discharge the duties of the Office of President as the Acting President if the Vice President and the majority of the Cabinet declare the President unable to discharge the duties of the office. (Twenty-Fifth Amendment)

(2) is a duty that has to be fulfilled once every four years. (3) involves being the back-up plan to the back-up plan to the Electoral College; it requires such an unlikely deadlock in our election process that it will be astonishing if it is ever required. (4)-(7) only come into effect if the President dies, resigns, or is declared incapacitated. And the record holder for (1) is John Adams who in eight years broke a total of 29 ties; so even in an extraordinarily deadlocked Senate we would not expect more than three to four cases a year (and almost certainly much less).

The Vice President has no constitutional day-to-day duties. The President is not required to brief the Vice President on anything. The President is not required to allow the Vice President to sit in on Cabinet meetings (and there have been administrations when they were not invited to such meetings). The Vice President, as Vice President, has no official authority to do anything not strictly required by any of the above. The expectation in the Senate is that the Vice President, as President of the Senate, plays a purely procedural role; this is entirely a matter of what Senate rules allow the Vice President to do. The President, of course, can choose to make use of the Vice President as an agent of the Office of the President; but this is entirely at the discretion of the President.

So it's a curious office. It serves three structural functions:

(1) To allow the Senate to have an official presiding officer without requiring any Senator to fulfill that office.
(2) To assist in giving procedural legitimacy to the counting of Electoral College votes.
(3) To prevent the executive branch from shutting down in the case of a loss of the President (for any reason).

In essence, the Office of the Vice President serves as a sort of basket for a handful of our Constitution's miscellaneous back-up systems. As far as constitutional authority goes, it carries with it only two very limited active powers:

(1) To break ties in the Senate;
(2) To declare, with a majority of the Cabinet, that the President is unable to discharge the functions of the Office of the President.

Everything else depends on what other people decide to let the Vice President do. Strictly speaking, the Vice President is not required to do anything on a day-to-day basis: all the required functions of the office are sporadic and rare. Strictly speaking, no one is required to give the Vice President anything to do, ever. It is constitutionally possible to have a Vice President who is not allowed or able to do anything important his or her entire term except open the envelopes that hold Electoral College votes at the end of the term. Of course, some Vice Presidents have been able to turn this into a productive advantage. Apparently, when Thomas Jefferson was elected Vice President, he had nothing to do -- the notion that the Vice President was supposed to be assistant to the President hadn't really taken off yet. So he spent four years working on adapting parliamentary procedure to the needs of the U.S. Congress and working on his campaign for President. Henry Wilson, Grant's second VP, spent much of his time doing historical research, out of which came his three-volume work,History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America (which you can see online at Internet Archive).

Friday, August 29, 2008

Thinking about Sexism

Reading a great deal of the talk about Sarah Palin, McCain's choice for a running mate (a clever one, I think), I suddenly had a realization at the umpteenth snide comment about 'beauty queen' and 'soccer mom' (and the umpteenth defense of the form, "If it's sexist to call a woman X, is it sexist to call a man Y?"). Most people, conservative and liberal alike, think of sexism as wholly a matter of intention. That is, everything is set up symmetrically, so sexism only occurs with a bunch of people deliberately messing with this symmetry. But this, of course, misses the fact that not everything is set up symmetrically. For instance, insulting a man for being a man simply does not have the bite that insulting a woman for being a woman does. For one thing, all standard insults that involve insulting a man for being a man are ambiguous, and use terms that in lots of closely related contexts would be compliments; usually, you have to get very creative to get around this while at the same time not trying to use an insult most people would simply laugh at. Most sexist insults that apply to men are insults not because they suggest that being a man is a bad thing but because they suggest that the man is too much like a woman, and thus that being a woman is a bad thing, and therefore most sexist insults applicable to men are sexist in a way that favors men and denigrates women. It's not equally easy to be sexist against men and against women. It's certainly not impossible to be sexist against men, but there are considerably fewer resources and conventions for it. But to listen to people talk, you would think that it was indeed equally easy.

Also, of course, everyone acts as if sexism is something the Other Side does; conservatives who thought it was OK to make sexist remarks about Clinton suddenly get offended when they are made about Palin, and liberals who were offended by such remarks about Clinton have few qualms about using similar remarks against Palin. When the other side does it, that's sexism; when we do it, it's rational criticism. When the other side gets offended, that's identity politics; when our side gets offended, that's fairness. When the other side says something that's borderline, that's obviously sexism; but when we say something borderline, it should be interpreted charitably. But these, of course, are precisely the ways sexism gets propagated. Most people don't start out in the morning saying, "Today's a great day to be sexist." But we still often end up using standards of rationality, fairness, and charity that stack the deck against women, especially when we disagree with them. Every one of us is capable of this irrational slipperiness whereby we fail to render to women their due, without even thinking of it. No one is immunized from it by ideology. Fighting sexism is a constant spiritual discipline. Meaning well is not enough, no matter who or what we are.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Yesterday was the feast of St. Monica, and today is the feast of St. Augustine, her son, so here is Augustine's account of one of the most famous 'religious experiences' in the world, which is interesting both in itself and for the fact that it was shared by Monica and Augustine. It is found in Confessions Book IX, Chapter 10:

As the day now approached on which she was to depart this life--a day which thou knewest, but which we did not--it happened (though I believe it was by thy secret ways arranged) that she and I stood alone, leaning in a certain window from which the garden of the house we occupied at Ostia could be seen. Here in this place, removed from the crowd, we were resting ourselves for the voyage after the fatigues of a long journey.

We were conversing alone very pleasantly and "forgetting those things which are past, and reaching forward toward those things which are future." We were in the present--and in the presence of Truth (which thou art)--discussing together what is the nature of the eternal life of the saints: which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man. We opened wide the mouth of our heart, thirsting for those supernal streams of thy fountain, "the fountain of life" which is with thee, that we might be sprinkled with its waters according to our capacity and might in some measure weigh the truth of so profound a mystery.

And when our conversation had brought us to the point where the very highest of physical sense and the most intense illumination of physical light seemed, in comparison with the sweetness of that life to come, not worthy of comparison, nor even of mention, we lifted ourselves with a more ardent love toward the Selfsame [Idipsum], and we gradually passed through all the levels of bodily objects, and even through the heaven itself, where the sun and moon and stars shine on the earth. Indeed, we soared higher yet by an inner musing, speaking and marveling at thy works.

And we came at last to our own minds and went beyond them, that we might climb as high as that region of unfailing plenty where thou feedest Israel forever with the food of truth, where life is that Wisdom by whom all things are made, both which have been and which are to be. Wisdom is not made, but is as she has been and forever shall be; for "to have been" and "to be hereafter" do not apply to her, but only "to be," because she is eternal and "to have been" and "to be hereafter" are not eternal.

And while we were thus speaking and straining after her, we just barely touched her with the whole effort of our hearts. Then with a sigh, leaving the first fruits of the Spirit bound to that ecstasy, we returned to the sounds of our own tongue, where the spoken word had both beginning and end. But what is like to thy Word, our Lord, who remaineth in himself without becoming old, and "makes all things new"?

Thomas Williams has an interesting paper online (PDF), in which he argues that the Vision at Ostia marks a sharp break between Augustine and Neoplatonism of the sort found in Plotinus. I don't agree with everything in the paper, but I think the basic point is right. The Vision at Ostia is marked by a number of features: Augustine describes it in clearly Trinitarian terms, it is social (it is not two independent experiences, but one experience shared by Monica and Augustine together), and it occurs as part of a conversation about the Christian doctrine of heaven. This is something uniquely Christian.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Poem Draft


Joy in some is gold-caught emerald;
in others it is sunlit grass.
Some see it as the shapes that stay,
but others as the songs that pass.
I taste it as the rich, ripe fruit
brought from the bough to waiting tongue;
it sweetly maddens, Hesperid wine,
ever ancient, ever young.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Leiter on the Profession

I recently read Brian Leiter's The State of the Vocation and found I liked the argument. There's a caveat to that. I'm not really sure I understand what Leiter means by "vocation." To my ear, or eye, as the case may be, the word suggests something contrary to what it seems to express for Leiter; not membership in a profession but a calling extending well beyond the confines of one's job or career. I think he means "profession," but given that he uses several different forms of the word "profession," I would have thought it would leap to mind, so I keep wondering if there's some special reason for using the word "vocation." But it does have something to do with jobs and careers, which keep coming up. The Weber quotation is supposed to clarify this; but Weber, I had thought, used the word "vocation" in much the sense in which I'm inclined to take the word: it had to do not with professional work but with intoxicating, obsessive passion that motivates hard self-discipline; in the paragraph Leiter quotes, he is talking about the state of the vocation of science under the hand of the 'devil', i.e., rigid rationalism, and what Leiter seems to take as the characteristics of science as a vocation, Weber takes as the unavoidable facts that limit the vocational character of science. (So I would have interpreted it; it is possible that I have misunderstood Weber, since I find the line of thought in the lecture hard to follow.) This fits with some of what Leiter says, but not all. Because of that I'm not sure I really understand Leiter's meaning, and I find the conclusions about vocation a bit mysterious; it's the perpetual problem of differing idiolects.

I'm also inclined to raise a skeptical eyebrow at the argument for the importance of rankings. I'm really not surprised, of course, that Leiter makes it, but I do find the appeal to Collins unexpected and interesting. I would suggest, however, that if we are building on Collins, Collins's work on stagnation also suggests that things like rankings are really a symptom of a problem the profession is currently struggling to overcome (and for which it has no clear solution in hand), namely, massive, and steadily increasing, fragmentation and dilution of talent. (It could, perhaps, be argued that they are a temporary solution to certain aspects of this problem.) Collins's work can be read as showing that professionalization in philosophy breeds reaction against the profession, leading to the marginalization of the professional aspect of philosophy in the major philosophical work of the time, which is eventually drawn back into the profession when conditions change. What we think of as the major philosophical work in the early part of the early modern period, for instance, is closely connected to a major series of attacks on the philosophical profession of the time; philosophy moves out of academia and stays out until academics in places like Scotland and Prussia begin doing some heavy reworking of university institutions and conventions. Then, very slowly, philosophy begins moving back into academic life and taking on more of the features of a profession. In our day this has become very advanced; and Collins has argued in a number of places that academia in general has begun to show the signs of entering into a phase of stagnation -- prime breeding ground for the beginning of an anti-profession counter-reaction. The good news, if Collins is right, is that philosophy can survive quite well outside a professional context; the bad news, if he is right, is that the old bogey, which was once upon a time called the 'philosophy of the schools' or the 'the philosophy of the schoolmen', may return to haunt people as the symbol of intellectual stagnation and triviality -- and, if so, we would be the ones being labeled with it (not quite fairly, now as then, but fairness is not really in view in a reaction of this sort). It's also possible, of course, that Collins is wrong.

Regardless, rankings and job placement information really don't tell us much about networks, which in this day and age are not likely to be confined to single departments -- indeed, never really have been. Networks involve interactions along lines of interest. Philosophical interaction within departments tends to be much, much less than interaction within, say, philosophical societies and associations. However important the department may be, the institutions that primarily support the creative interactions of academic networks today are conferences and journals. Departments have a value in this primarily when they do two things: produce new members of the profession and support members of departments to make it easier to engage in network interaction. The sort of department ranking that would genuinely be useful for network analysis is ranking of departments according to how well they perform their supporting function. It's very possible that rankings like those in the PGR are indirect measures of this, but we have do not at present have a good way of saying how indirect, nor do we seem to have a clear way of linking them to the sort of network interactions that dominate the field.

But when I say I like the argument in Leiter's piece, though, I mean that I like the approach he takes for these mysterious conclusions, namely, a serious regard for the institutional, conventional, and social character of philosophy, a recognition that to understand philosophy here and now we need to look at networks, institutions, hierarchies, and the like. We need to have more of this sort of examination of philosophical practice today.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Nietzsche's Prayer

I have firmly resolved within me to dedicate myself forever to His service. May the dear Lord give me strength and power to carry out my intention and protect me on life's way. Like a child I trust in His grace: He will preserve us all, that no misfortune may befall us. But His holy will be done! All He gives I will joyfully accept: happiness and unhappiness, poverty and wealth, and boldly look even death in the face, which shall one day unite us all in eternal joy and bliss. yes, dear Lord, let Thy face shine upon us forever! Amen!

From Aus meinem Leben (1858), quoted in Bruce Ellis Benson, Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith, Indiana University Press (Bloomington: 2008) p. 18.

Of course, by 1862 there's evidence that firm resolve is failing and that Nietzsche is leaving behind the Lutheran Pietism of his youth. I think, though, we might consider it as a possible explanation of one of the puzzles of Nietzsche's attitude toward Christianity: even at his most critical he tends to avoid direct criticism of true believers, reserving all his wrath for those who try to temporize and compromise. The former still come under his genealogical account; but more than once, in fact, he expresses admiration or respect for them, even when firmly stating that their views are false. There's a shading of criticism: the pious usually receive no criticism beyond the criticism that their views are false; the liberal theologians who reinterpret old doctrines to fit the expectations of the age are much more severely criticized; and atheists who try to have their cake and eat it too by rejecting Christian metaphysics but accepting the Christian morals it supported are most sharply criticized of all. And perhaps -- I say this only as a 'perhaps', leaving it to Nietzsche scholars to determine -- the reason is that Nietzsche is not like some would-be freethinkers, who, having believed X sincerely at one point, later begin mocking the stupidity of people who believe X. Such an attitude is not very wise; stupid people do not suddenly become intelligent by being convinced they were wrong on some particular point, so if people who believe X are stupid, there is no reason to think that an atheist who used to believe X is not himself stupid. It is actually one of Nietzsche's strengths that he turns out, if you read him closely, to be surprisingly self-critical: he sometimes does swing to a sort of triumphal mania, but he tends to be very careful about what he is criticizing. And knowing how religious fervor feels from the inside, such a self-critical and cautious criticizer is unlikely to make the error noted above. He is, indeed, almost never indiscriminate: he does make a serious attempt to focus on hypocrites and leave those he regards as merely mistaken alone. In any case, as I said, this is not based on any profound scholarship, but merely on occasional reading of Nietzsche, so it is an idea that should be taken with a grain of salt.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Two Poem Drafts


Even on this desert planet
water can be found,
dew in secret places,
little pools by sheltering rocks;
but the air is hot and dry
with stormy clouds of dust :
there are endless realms of sand
where the hardy die of thirst.

But I have had a dream
that this desert became a beach.
Mist was in the air,
and great oceans of philosophy
broke against the shore.

Blessed Is the Blood Now Bled

Blessed is the blood now bled
from down the thorn-encircled head,
from out the spear-intruded side,
upon the cross where Christ has died.

Blessed is the holy Name
that lives from age to age the same,
that bled upon the unjust cross
and drew just blessing from the loss.

Blessed are the tears of grace
that flow down from Christ's own face,
with health of mind and depth of heart
that never shirks the servant's part.

Blessed is the open tomb
which angels herald as the womb
from whence the Lord of life speeds true
to make our weary hearts as new.

Your Horoscope for Today

This song has been stuck in my head today for some reason. In any case, I thought I would pass it on as the definitive discussion of astrology: