Saturday, November 08, 2008

The U.S. Election

I notice with some amusement that many U.S. bloggers who have had election-related posts over the past two weeks or so are now moving on to other things; amusement, because I am just getting started. Whether we treat it as such or not, the U.S. is set up in such a way that voting begins the election rather than constitutes it; and deciding who we want is the first step, not the final step, of choosing the President. I think people have difficulty wrapping their minds around this notion that the process of choice can go on long after you have pretty much completely decided who is going to be chosen; but it can, and the office of the President is certainly an office of such importance that it would be absurd to choose the President in a day. Time should be taken, if for no other reason than to emphasize the solemnity of the choice. So I will continue to have election-related posts here and there until the Vice President opens those electoral envelopes in the presence of the Congress.

The Election of the President according to the Original Ratified Constitution:

Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.

The electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for two persons, of whom one at least shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves. And they shall make a list of all the persons voted for, and of the number of votes for each; which list they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates, and the votes shall then be counted. The person having the greatest number of votes shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such majority, and have an equal number of votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately choose by ballot one of them for President; and if no person have a majority, then from the five highest on the list the said House shall in like manner choose the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by States, the representation from each state having one vote; A quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. In every case, after the choice of the President, the person having the greatest number of votes of the electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal votes, the Senate shall choose from them by ballot the Vice President.

The Congress may determine the time of choosing the electors, and the day on which they shall give their votes; which day shall be the same throughout the United States.

No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty five years, and been fourteen Years a resident within the United States.

The Modification of the Twelfth Amendment:

The electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate;--The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;--the person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President. The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

The Modification of the Twentieth Amendment, Sections 1-4:

Section 1. The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

Section 2. The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.

Section 3. If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President. If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.


An old Jewish parable, adapted somewhat to new ends:

A man planted a vineyard, hoping to grow grapes. But the grapes were wild and useless. Because his planting did not succeed, he tore it up and, sorting out the good grapes from the bad, planted again. Again it did not succeed, and again he tore it up and, sorting out good from bad, planted again. This third time did not succeed, either, and so he tore it out, cleaned it, and planted again. And how long did the man keep this up? Even until the thousandth generation.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

HoP, Networks, and Problems

David Chalmers and David Bourget are putting together what they call a taxonomy of philosophy. The actual draft of the taxonomy is here. It's really only a taxonomy in a loose and figurative sense (in much the same sense in which a taxonomy of items on my desk might include CDs, Envelopes, Papers, Books, Notebooks, Cups of Tea, etc.), but it's an interesting project; the idea is to help organize access to online work in philosophy. Stop by and leave comments on their post if you have any comments to make on how they can modify their draft for greater convenience.

One of the things I began thinking about after looking at the draft was how best to organize information in History of Philosophy. The Chalmers-Bourget approach is to do it by period, which is probably the best way to do it for their purposes. But HoP doesn't taxonomize well at all, even with this loose sort of taxonomy, and it's worth thinking about why this is so, since I think it touches on an important aspect of the discipline.

The field of inquiry for HoP naturally organizes itself along two completely different lines, each of them important and essential to the field. On the one hand, what historians of philosophy study is naturally seen as a complicated historical system of networks: networks of influence, networks of institutions, networks of oppositions, networks of personal interaction, along with the individual thinkers at the nodes of these networks. On the other hand, they study not only networks but themes, which we usually call, somewhat misleadingly, problems. Thus historians of philosophy do philosophy by tracing both the history of networks of various kinds and the internal structures of problems discussed and investigated within those networks; and what is more, they do so simultaneously, and doing so simultaneously is essential to the approach.

It is also what puts non-dabblers -- that is, people like myself who do history of philosophy professionally, rather than as a small supplement to various other projects, or as an occasional hobby -- in a rather tricky position. On the one hand, we are like historians; that comes naturally from our interest in networks; and we are always under a bit of pressure from the historical side to put more emphasis on the networks. But we're historians in a purely incidental way, by a kind of accident arising from some of the tools we use and what we use them on. I fully understand Miriam's amusement whenever someone calls her a historian because what she studies is historical: historians of philosophy are in the same boat, because we're accidental and incidental historians, and thus historians in a sort-of-kind-of-but-not-really sort of way.

But try telling that to many of our philosophical colleagues! They are interested chiefly in problems, or at least the tiny temporal slices of problems being discussed in the journals at a given moment, which they also call 'problems'. You might get them interested in networks and nodes as a side interest, as a sort of profession-relevant entertainment, in much the same way that a physicist might become absorbed in a biography of Albert Einstein, but it takes extraordinary efforts to convince them that what we're doing is really philosophy, and most are never convinced at all. I have heard job candidates for a HoP position criticized for being too historical; I have heard papers in the field insulted on the same grounds; I have heard graduate students discouraged from interesting lines of historical investigation on the grounds that it would take them too far afield from philosophy. If you're dealing with people who only have an interest in what domesticated philosophy can do for them, it simply does no good to try to convince them that there is intrinsic value in the study of philosophy in the wild. All you can do is torture whatever you're studying out of shape until it looks or feels roughly like it might possibly be relevant to understanding the particular strain they are breeding. Good luck on telling them that you are studying (say) the role of thaumaturgy in Neoplatonism after Iamblichus; you'll have to tell them that in some bizarre way Neoplatonistic thaumaturgy was a presentiment of Donald Davidson. Good luck trying to convince them that philosophical thought can benefit from studying Suhrawardi's notion of illumination, simply because Suhrawardi's brilliant and his ideas are interesting; if it doesn't foreshadow Williamson, they just won't regard it as philosophy.

It is curious, if I may say so, how HoP is treated in the profession. Functionally it is the core of the discipline: it is the foundation of virtually any undergraduate program, and it is often the one thing that allows there to be any common ground for discussion among very disparate viewpoints. Nobody gets away with ignoring it altogether, and everyone dabbles in it regularly. But historians of philosophy are continually forced to justify their works in ways that no other members of the profession have to do so, because if they don't, they'll be seen as doing just history -- by which the philosophers will mean that they are not doing philosophy at all.

But I am digressing. My point is that HoPers are in this odd situation because they simultaneously study ideas, positions, and arguments through the lens of networks and the lens of problems. This often creates interests that might not otherwise exist. Take just one small example. No one really reads the British Malebrancheans any more; trying to get a typical analytic philosophers interested in Mary Astell's idea that we should court truth with a romantic passion, or John Norris's ontologism, is a futile endeavor. But network-wise they are extraordinarily interesting. For one thing, it's not so clear how Malebranche has influenced them. He certainly has, and there is a line of influence running from Malebranche to Norris to Astell. But both Norris and Astell seem to have come to the bulk of their philosophical views completely independently of Malebranche. Norris tells us explicitly that he had come to his position before reading Malebranche, and Astell certainly had her basic views in place before she read Malebranchean passages in Norris and then contacted him to start up a correspondence, the one that eventually led to the publication of the Letters Concerning the Love of God. They both make considerable use of Malebranchean idiom, though, and Norris adapts Malebranche's arguments. So we have the spontaneous formation of a small but rather creative Malebranchean network in Britain, which is interesting itself. This network of correspondence and influence is itself part of a larger network involving an opposition to the Lockeans; Norris had been a friend of Locke (through Damaris Masham) but had had a falling out with him, and Norris takes the trouble to adapt Malebranchean arguments against Lockean empiricism. This in turn sets Locke to building an empiricist response to Malebranche. Meanwhile, Lady Masham works out a Lockean counterproposal to Astell's rationalist theory of education. That's interesting as well: the opposition between the Malebrancheans and the Lockeans means that there are two different and mutually exclusive justifications for the education of women floating around in the early eighteenth century, one rationalist and emphasizing philosophical reflection away from the world, the other empiricist and emphasizing active participation in society. At the same time, we begin to see the importance of the patronage of people like Lady Masham -- so important to Norris and Locke early in their careers, and without whom none of this interaction could have been possible at all. Coalescence points like Masham or (even more strikingly) Mersenne in France are extremely important for any account of how philosophical ideas, positions, and arguments originated, were propagated, and eventually die. And what we don't know about the networks are often of interest as well: Astell's education is hard to pin down (one is reminded a bit of the mystery of Boethius, fluent in Greek under circumstances where it's hard to see how that would have even been a possible part of his education -- and that mysterious fluency turns out to have a massive effect on the history of philosophy), Norris's influence is equally unstudied.

The combination of networks and problems makes it difficult to divide the field of inquiry in any clear way. Should Hume be placed with Locke, whose empiricism he adapts, or Malebranche, whose rationalist attack on causation he adapts? How in the world do you do justice to the fact that almost everyone in seventeenth century France is interacting, directly and indirectly, with the texts of Augustine? And so forth. One of the things we do in practice is build a typology. For instance, we introduce two opposing types, the Rationalist and the Empiricist, and put Hume in the cluster of thinkers tending toward the Empiricist type. (This is certainly where Hume puts himself, despite his debt to Malebranche, and Hume seems to be the first person explicitly to propose this particular typological opposition between rationalists and empiricists as a way of understanding early modern philosophy.) But typologies are a tricky kind of classification when you are dealing with something as complex as human thought. Change the types to Occasionalists and Defenders of Causal Powers and Hume and Berkeley are suddenly a long way from empiricist Locke, and not far at all from rationalist Malebranche. And what reason would there be for thinking this typology in any way inferior to the other? Another thing we do is simply mark off periods of time (like the Eighteenth Century): it has the advantage of being easy to do and the disadvantage of corresponding to nothing real. So we modify this by looking at heavily interconnected networks that extend through a significant period of time -- the Scottish Enlightenment, for instance; now we're building on evidence, but we have overlapping categories, gray areas, and important figures falling through the cracks, as Whewell inevitably does whenever people try to do this with nineteenth century Britain, because they are at unusual places where very disparate networks interconnect. And so forth. It's an unruly field. And how could it be otherwise, when human reason itself is so unruly?

Notes and Links

Houyhnhnm Land is currently being upgraded from shared hosting to a virtual private server. This won't affect the site at all unless I do something completely stupid, but there was a snag in setting up email, so if you are trying to contact me and use the branem2[at]branemrys[dot]org address you won't be able to get through for probably about a week. If you need to contact me in the meantime, you can reach me at bwatson2 [at] austincc [dot] edu (all together, with [at] and [dot] properly changed).

In any case it will be a nice change; there will be an adjustment period (a problem with technology: you get comfortable and then have to upgrade), but it will allow me to expand the sorts of resources available through Houyhnhnm Land, and finally get some things up and running that I haven't yet had the chance to start up, without worrying much about things like memory and bandwidth. I'm already liking Plesk better than the CPanel I was stuck with under shared hosting. It's a crazy bit more expensive than shared hosting, though; it's the equivalent of quite a few trips to Half-Price Books!

* Documenta Catholica Omnia. Wow.

* Voting and Calvinist Prayer at "Parableman".

* Something I didn't know: George Washington is one reason why Americans don't celebrate Guy Fawkes' Day.

* Somehow I don't think that trying to stir up anti-Mormon prejudices is quite the way to encourage sympathy for gay marriage, even if there was widespread Mormon support for the opposed measure.

* YouTube find: Ralph McInerny on Thomas Aquinas as an heir of Aristotle

Overheard on the Bus

A: He's always talking about change. He won't change nothing.

B: Oh, I don't know about that.

A: He won't change nothing. They're going to assassinate him.

B: You think so?

A: They're going to assassinate him. He won't last long. Story of our lives. They're not going to let a black man be President.

B: But I tell you what: he made history. They can't erase that.

A: They'll assassinate him; but you're right there. He's made history.

B: If they do it, it'll be pointless for them to do it; he's already made history, and they can't erase that.

A: He's made history.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Vicars of the People

A reminder that our civic responsibilities with regard to our representatives do not end at electing them:

When I possess a material good, I cannot give it to another without losing by the very fact my possession of it....But when it is a question of a moral or spiritual quality, such as a right is, I can invest another man with a right of mine without myself losing possession of it, if this man receives this right in a vicarious manner--as a vicar of myself. Then he is made into an image of myself, and it is in this capacity that he participates in the very same right which is mine by essence....The people are possessed of their right to govern themselves in an inherent and permanent manner. And the rulers, because they have been made into the vicars of the people, or into an image of them, are invested per participationem--to the extent of their powers--with the very same right and authority to govern which exists in the people per essentiam, as given them by the Author of nature and grounded upon His transcendent, uncreated authority. The people, by designating their representatives, do not lose or give up possession of their own authority to govern themselves and of their right to supreme autonomy.

Jacques Maritain, Man and the State, U of Chicago P (Chicago, 1998) 134-135.

In other words: by electing our representatives we have made them into instruments, so to speak, in our own self-governance. Democracy is not something exercised at elections; elections are just a choice of tools. Democracy, on the other hand, is the process of a people using such tools to set themselves in a good order. By electing, say, Obama, we as a people do not give Obama power in its own right; we invest him with part of our right of self-governance, hired him as our agent and representative. Now the real work of democracy begins.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election Day

Socrates, in Plato's Gorgias:

No, Callicles, the very bad men come from the class of those who have power. And yet in that very class there may arise good men, and worthy of all admiration they are, for where there is great power to do wrong, to live and to die justly is a hard thing, and greatly to be praised, and few there are who attain to this. Such good and true men, however, there have been, and will be again, at Athens and in other states, who have fulfilled their trust righteously; and there is one who is quite famous all over Hellas, Aristeides, the son of Lysimachus. But, in general, great men are also bad, my friend.

UPDATE: Well, I voted, and quite the endeavor it was, too. I was on foot, and the polling place was such that I had to cross Parmer Lane near MoPac -- if you know that area of Austin, you know that this was taking my life into my own hands, since Parmer Lane is a very busy and very pedestrian-unfriendly street (few sidewalks, few crosswalks) with an insanely high speed limit, currently undergoing quite a bit of construction in that area. It took me forever to cross. Once in, there was no line and it was all quite easy. But then I had to walk back.

A Sprig of Moly

Homer, Odyssey X:

But when, as I went through the sacred glades, I was about to come to the great house of the sorceress, Circe, then Hermes, of the golden wand, met me as I went toward the house, in the likeness of a young man with the first down upon his lip, in whom the charm of youth is fairest. He clasped my hand, and spoke, and addressed me: “‘Whither now again, hapless man, dost thou go alone through the hills, knowing naught of the country? Lo, thy comrades yonder in the house of Circe are penned like swine in close-barred sties. And art thou come to release them? Nay, I tell thee, thou shalt not thyself return, but shalt remain there with the others. But come, I will free thee from harm, and save thee. Here, take this potent herb, and go to the house of Circe, and it shall ward off from thy head the evil day. And I will tell thee all the baneful wiles of Circe. She will mix thee a potion, and cast drugs into the food; but even so she shall not be able to bewitch thee, for the potent herb that I shall give thee will not suffer it.

Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis VII, 16:

As, then, if a man should, similarly to those drugged by Circe, become a beast; so he, who has spurned the ecclesiastical tradition, and darted off to the opinions of heretical men, has ceased to be a man of God and to remain faithful to the Lord. But he who has returned from this deception, on hearing the Scriptures, and turned his life to the truth, is, as it were, from being a man made a god.

Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy IV, meter 3:

The east wind wafted the sails which carried on the wandering ships of Ithaca's king to the island where dwelt the fair goddess Circe, the sun's own daughter. There for her new guests she mingled cups bewitched by charms. Her hand, well skilled in use of herbs, changed these guests to different forms. One bears the face of a boar; another grows like to an African lion with fangs and claws; this one becomes as a wolf, and when he thinks to weep, he howls; that one is an Indian tiger, though he walks all harmless round about the dwelling-place. The leader alone, Ulysses, though beset by so many dangers, was saved from the goddess's bane by the pity of the winged god, Mercury. But the sailors had drunk of her cups, and now had turned from food of corn to husks and acorns, food of swine. Naught is left the same, speech and form are gone; only the mind remains unchanged, to bewail their unnatural sufferings.

How weak was that hand, how powerless those magic herbs which could change the limbs but not the heart! Within lies the strength of men, hidden in deep security. Stronger are those dread poisons which can drag a man out of himself, which work their way within: they hurt not the body, but on the mind their rage inflicts a grievous wound.

Boethius, in a way analogous to Clement, has just contrasted the theriogenic tendency of vice to the deifying tendency of virtue: "Thus then a man who loses his goodness, ceases to be a man, and since he cannot change his condition for that of a god, he turns into a beast." The allegorical interpretation of Odysseus's encounter with Circe seems actually to have become fairly common among the Neoplatonists: Hermes, divine reason, gives to human beings the herb moly, the divine paideia which renders the mind indomitable, a pharmakon esthlon, a potent drug, to counter Circe's pharmakon lugron, her bitter drug; Circe represents, of course, the passions, which, given dominance over the mind, turn us mentally into beasts. Thus moly is a sort of right reason or prudence that the passions cannot shake. Boethius makes a similar use of the story to convey the point (which he ties closely to the argument of Plato's Gorgias) that the good are always powerful and the wicked are always weak; but notice that he does it not by allegorizing the story but by a sort of contrast: Circe could turn men physically into beasts, but the passions are more powerful and dangerous than Circe, because they can turn the mind bestial and "drag a man out of himself".

This fits into a larger theme that dominates the Consolation, namely, the contrast between the merely beast-like mind and the mind that nobly and freely lifts itself up to look at the stars (an image that recurs again and again in different forms, from Philosophy's first poem to her last). That image is drawn from Ovid:

Thus, while the mute creation downward bend
Their sight, and to their earthly mother tend,
Man looks aloft; and with erected eyes
Beholds his own hereditary skies.
From such rude principles our form began;
And earth was metamorphos'd into Man.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sor Juana Rebukes the Rose

This is a new draft of my translation of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz's sonnet on the rose. Previous drafts are here and here. It still needs work.

In which she rebukes a rose, and in it those like it

Divine rose, you are grown in grace,
with all your fragrant subtleness,
teacher with scarlet beauty blessed,
winter lesson in lovely face,

twin of human frame and doom,
example of a graciousness vain,
in whom are unified these twain:
happy cradle, grieving tomb.

Such haughty pomp, such pride,
such presumption, disdaining mortal fate;
but later you, dismayed, will hide

as dying you show the withered state
of which, by learnéd death and foolish life,
alive you lied, but dying demonstrate!

Notable Links

* I've linked to it before, but 'tis the season: Bl. Ramon Llull's discussions of election systems. Llull's writings on elections were only rediscovered relatively recently; it turns out he had already recognized a few things in election theory that weren't rediscovered until Condorcet and later. Here's a paper arguing that Llull elections are strongly resistant to major kinds of electoral control (a fairly high standard of election system quality).

* At "Rebecca Writes," Rebecca has an excellent Reformation Day post, It Was All About the Gospel.

* An audio interview with Anne Rice on her Catholicism (mp3).

* The Antichrist and Aristotle's Tomb at "The Smithy"

* I had come across this excellent parody of Britney Spears several years ago on TV, but just came across it again.

* In nearby Bastrop County (Texas), the 109-year-old daughter of a slave recently mailed in her vote for Obama.