Thursday, December 31, 2009

Brief Jotting on Infinite Regresses

Sometimes when infinite regress arguments come up, especially in the Intro Phil classroom, the following sort of argument (sometimes in a more crude form) is given by a student as a possible reason why they might not work -- that is, as a possible reason for the conclusion that an infinite regress is possible. Let's confine our attention to the case of an infinite regress of causes, and let's take some effect. We can assign that effect 0, and its cause -1, and the cause of that -2. Now the negative numbers are an infinite set; so it's possible that the series could be stretched back. So it's entirely consistent for there to be an infinite regress of causes: no contradiction in the numbers.

This sort of argument, which I've heard from students in several different forms, clearly doesn't work against infinite regress arguments, and in fact is wholly irrelevant to them, but I think it's worthwhile to stop a moment and consider the precise logical misstep involved, if only because it's useful for explanations.

Suppose I want to see whether it's possible for me to have infinite apples. I assign numbers to my apples, and recognize that for each apple that I have there is a higher possible number of apples. Aha! says Tom, thus it's at least in principle possible for me to have infinite apples, because for any number of apples I have I could have a greater number of apples! But Tom is mistaken; the fact that for any number of apples I could have a greater number of apples is entirely consistent with saying that it is impossible to have infinite apples. For what Tom has proven is not that I can have infinite apples but that for any finite number of apples I could have a greater finite number of apples.

So it is with the students' objection to infinite regress. Assigning numbers in this way only shows that, as far as the numbers go, any finite series can be exceeded by another finite series. But this is entirely consistent with there being only finite series. It would be entirely possible for this to be true and for there to be no infinite series at all, because we never actually got around to talking about infinite series, just as in the apples example we never actually got around to talking about infinite apples. We just talked about how there was no limit to the size of finite series, or to finite collections of apples. From "For any finite number of apples a greater number of apples is possible" one cannot infer "There is a possible collection of apples greater than any finite number of apples". It is the latter that you would need in order to have shown that an infinite collection of apples was possible; the former is consistent with the impossibility of having infinite apples, because it only talks about finite numbers of apples.

Of course, in the end, it's obviously the case that whether I can have an infinite number of apples has nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with apples and what's needed in order to have apples. You can't have infinite apples, not because infinite numbers are impossible, but because you couldn't possibly have the apple trees to produce more than a very large finite number of apples. And likewise, whether I can have an infinite regress of a certain type of cause has nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with those causes and what you need in order to have those causes. This is true generally of disputes like this -- whether the world can actually be eternal with an infinite past or future, whether there can actually be infinitely many objects in the universe, whether there can be actual infinitesimals, and so forth.


Joe Carter summarizes Julia Nefsky's theory of humor using Seinfeld episodes. There are, in effect, three major kinds of theory of humor in the history of the subject, which might be called arousal theories, superiority theories, and incongruity theories.

There are typically two kinds of arousal theory; one holds that the pleasantness of humor (however conceived) results from some kind of arousal or tension, and the other that it results from some kind of relief from arousal or tension. The latter seem to be more popular; and the most widely known versions of it are Freudian, which, as you might expect, take the arousal or tension to be sexual in some form.

Hobbes is an example of a superiority theorist, with his account in Of Human Nature of sudden glory as the thing that makes us laugh:

For when a jest is broken upon ourselves, or friends of whose dishonour we participate, we never laugh thereat. I may therefore conclude, that the passion of laughter Is nothing else but sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly; for men laugh at the follies of themselves past, when they come suddenly to remembrance, except they bring with them any present dishonour. It is no wonder therefore that men take heinously to be laughed at or derided, that is, triumphed over.

There are two possible kinds of incongruity theory; one could hold that humor consists primarily in incongruity itself or that it consists primarily in the resolution of incongruities. Incongruity-resolution theories seem to be the most widely accepted among cognitive scientists today; they were also the favored approach of Scottish Common Sense philosophers, such as Beattie, whose summary is still quoted:

Laughter arises from the view of two or more inconsistent, unsuitable, or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex object or assemblage, or as acquiring a sort of mutual relation from the peculiar manner in which the mind takes notice of them.

Both arousal and superiority approaches get some plausibility from the fact that so much humor does involve sex, embarrassment, and disparagement; but one of the great advantages of the incongruity approach is that it allows one to take into account the role of fallacies, which Nefsky highlights, whereas the other two don't seem to account for it at all. One can, of course, hold that they have a supplementary role -- Beattie, for instance, recognized that mood and distress could be relevant to humor, and distinguished between two kinds of humor, one of which does involve disparagement. But neither arousal nor superiority approaches seem to get us very far on the logic-play that is involved in so much of humor.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Well, I'm back in Austin, having had a good Christmas. Arsen's dystopian post on airline security is a bit too true, but it's surprising how quickly you can move through security if you have early flights. I saw several movies over the holiday, including the new Sherlock Holmes (you'll like it, more or less, if you approach it more as a comic book movie starring Sherlock Holmes than as a Sherlock Holmes movie), and went skiing at Red Lodge. I re-read Flynn's Eifelheim, finished Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, and did some reading in the Berquist translation of Aquinas's commentary on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics. You can expect some posts on some or all of these things, but for now I'm tired, and I am going to get in bed and re-watch the first season of Battlestar Galactica. Go Roslin!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Feast of Holy Family

The Passover in the Holy Family
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Here meet together the prefiguring day
And day prefigured. 'Eating, thou shalt stand,
Feet shod, loins girt, thy road-staff in thine hand,
With blood-stained door and lintel,' — did God say
By Moses' mouth in ages passed away.
And now, where this poor household doth comprise
At Paschal-Feast two kindred families, —
Lo! the slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay.

The pyre is piled. What agony's crown attained,
What shadow of death the Boy's fair brow subdues
Who holds that blood wherewith the porch is stained
By Zachary the priest? John binds the shoes
He deemed himself not worthy to unloose;
And Mary culls the bitter herbs ordained.

Rossetti wrote the poem to accompany a painting.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Feast of Stephen, Protomartyr

Good King Wenceslaus
by John Mason Neale

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath'ring winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know'st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

St. Stephen's Day
by John Keble

As rays around the source of light
Stream upward ere he glow in sight,
And watching by his future flight
Set the clear heavens on fire;
So on the King of Martyrs wait
Three chosen bands, in royal state,
And all earth owns, of good and great,
Is gather'd in that choir.

One presses on, and welcomes death:
One calmly yields his willing breath,
Nor slow, nor hurrying, but in faith
Content to die or live:
And some, the darlings of their Lord,
Play smiling with the flame and sword,
And, ere they speak, to His sure word
Unconscious witness give.

Foremost and nearest to His throne,
By perfect robes of triumph known,
And likest Him in look and tone,
The holy Stephen kneels,
With stedfast gaze, as when the sky
Flew open to his fainting eye,
Which, like a fading lamp, flash'd high,
Seeing what death conceals.

Well might you guess what vision bright
Was present to his raptured sight,
E'en as reflected streams of light
Their solar source betray -
The glory which our God surrounds,
The Son of Man, the atoning wounds -
He sees them all; and earth's dull bounds
Are melting fast away.

He sees them all--no other view
Could stamp the Saviour's likeness true,
Or with His love so deep embrue
Man's sullen heart and gross -
"Jesus, do Thou my soul receive:
Jesu, do Thou my foes forgive;"
He who would learn that prayer must live
Under the holy Cross.

He, though he seem on earth to move,
Must glide in air like gentle dove,
From yon unclouded depths above
Must draw his purer breath;
Till men behold his angel face
All radiant with celestial grace,
Martyr all o'er, and meet to trace
The lines of Jesus' death.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Stalled Ox Knelt

A Christmas Carol (On the Stroke of Midnight)
by Christina Georgina Rossetti

Thank God, thank God, we do believe,
Thank God that this is Christmas Eve.
Even as we kneel upon this day,
Even so, the ancient legends say
Nearly two thousand years ago
The stalled ox knelt, and even so
The ass knelt full of praise, which they
Could not express, while we can pray.
Thank God, thank God, for Christ was born
Ages ago, as on this morn:
In the snow-season undefiled
God came to earth a little Child;
He put His ancient glory by
To live for us, and then to die.

How shall we thank God? How shall we
Thank Him and praise Him worthily?
What will He have Who loved us thus?
What presents will He take from us?
Will He take gold, or precious heap
Of gems? or shall we rather steep
The air with incense, or bring myrrh?
What man will be our messenger
To go to Him and ask His will?
Which having learned we will fulfil
Though He choose all we most prefer: –
What man will be our messenger?

Thank God, thank God, the Man is found,
Sure-footed, knowing well the ground.
He knows the road, for this the way
He travelled once, as on this day.
He is our Messenger beside,
He is our door, and path, and Guide;
He also is our Offering,
He is the gift that we must bring.
Let us kneel down with one accord
And render thanks unto the Lord:
For unto us a Child is born
Upon this happy Christmas morn;
For unto us a Son is given,
Firstborn of God and Heir of Heaven.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


I will be in Montana over Christmas, and will not be back before next Wednesday. I probably won't be online, but I have a few small posts set up to come out automatically here and there.

Some links:

* The 101st (or ninety-eleventh) Philosophers' Carnival is up at "MandM".

* Jim S. on philosopher William Urban Marshall

* Eugenia Constantinou, Andrew of Caesarea and the Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation (downloadable PDF; ht)

* Douglas Wolk summarizes Kant's Critique of Aesthetic Judgment in five minutes using comics.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Two big new items on the canonization front: both John Paul II and Pius XII are now Venerable. The canonization process has to do with how the remembrance of a person is incorporated into the overall liturgy of the Church; those undergoing it go through four different statuses, each represented by a different title:

Servant of God

'Servant of God' just means that there's prima facie reason to start the investigation. The primary issue in the first part of the phase is to determine whether the person in question lived a life of heroic virtue -- that is, practiced virtue in an eminent degree. Contrary to what is usually thought, this does not mean having lived perfectly; virtues are reliable by definition, not infallible, and even heroic virtue is liable to occasional lapse. Someone with heroic virtues is someone from whose life one can learn more about the theological and moral virtues, someone who can be a moral role model or hero to many. When the investigation has concluded that the person did, in fact, live a life of heroic virtue, they are recognized as Venerable. Such people do not have a feast day, and churches can't be named in their honor; the only thing that changes is the mode of investigation for canonization. Up to this point the investigation concerned the person's character; after this point the investigation begins to look into not just heroic virtue but holy intercession, and that typically means the inquiry is into one of two things: proof of martyrdom or proof of miracle. Martyrs for the faith do not need an associated miracle for beatification; everyone else does. Thus when someone is declared Venerable, the next step is for people to pray for a miracle through that person's intercession; if any reported miracles bear up under investigation, the person can be called Blessed, and are, in some sense, already considered a saint, since the distinction between beatification and canonization is not, in fact, as sharp as is usually thought; the major difference at present is that feast days for beatified are not universal, but usually restricted in some way. Canonization, requiring additional proof of holy intercession, even for martyrs, removes these restrictions.

The more controversial of these two moves, of course, is Pius XII; he has been sharply attacked in the past decade or so for having failed to help Jews during the Holocaust. It's difficult to know what to make of these things; at the time Pius XII had exactly the opposite reputation (with only occasional exceptions outside of the Soviet Union), and the shift in views against him can clearly be traced back not to original historical evidence, which is very limited either way, but to an anti-Catholic play in the 1960s, Hochhuth's The Deputy, which fictionalized Pius XII as an anti-Semite. That certainly isn't true, whether he did enough to help Jews escape the Holocaust or not; and Hochhuth is notorious for not playing nicely with the facts of history -- a number of his plays are conspiracy-theory-type things, like the one in which Winston Churchill arranged the murder of the Polish Prime Minister. Such is folk history; and this is why so many people were up in arms about The Da Vinci Code, since it is virtually guaranteed that thirty years from now something that Dan Brown just made up will be repeated as gospel truth because people remember things long past the time that they remember where they read it.

At the same time, the Vatican has an immense amount of discretion as to how quickly or slowly they do these things, and it would have been entirely possible to allow a longer period of fact-airing. I don't know if it would have done any good, given that most people making the criticism want it to be true just as most of the people rejecting it want it to be false, which is a recipe for some nasty politicking, not reasonable discussion; but it was entirely possible. Perhaps it would give more of the open-minded a chance to be convinced; perhaps it wouldn't. These things are difficult to estimate.

John Paul II is much less controversial, and much less of a surprise, of course; I disapprove of how quickly it's moved in his case, but this is a matter of taste, and nothing really depends on whether I approve or disapprove. Certainly there will be plenty of people who will be enthusiastic about it.


'The horn of Heimdall
I hear ringing;
the Blazing Bridge
bends neath horsemen;
the Ash is groaning,
his arms trembling;
the Wolf waking,
warriors riding.

The sword of Surt
smoketh redly;
the slumbering Serpent
in the sea moveth;
a shadowy ship
from shores of Hell
legions bringeth
to the last battle.

The wolf Fenrir
waits for Ódin,
for Frey the fair
the flames of Surt;
the deep Dragon
shall be doom of Thór -
shall all be ended,
shall Earth perish?

If in day of Doom
one deathless stands,
who death has tasted
and dies on more,
the serpent-slayer,
seed of Ódin,
then all shall not end,
nor Earth perish.

On his head shall be a helm,
in his hand lightning,
afire his spirit,
in his face splendour.
The Serpent shall shiver
and Surt waver,
the Wolf be vanquished
and the world rescued.'

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, Christopher Tolkien, ed. HarperCollins (2009) pp. 62-64.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Collins on Academic Stagnation

Academicization is a two-edged sword. The material base that schools provide for intellectual life can be positive or negative in supporting creativity. The tendencies toward rote learning, narrow technique, and a routine of exercises and exams are always present. When they are overlaid by the energies of building new career paths and reorganizing intellectual space, the result is creative breakthroughs in the realm of higher abstractions. It is only when a fine balance holds among intersecting factions at a focus of attention that creativity exists. Distrubing the balance or removing the focus, one may be left with the material institutions and large numbers of intellectuals, but settled into schoalstic routine. With this comes the stagnation of classics and technicalities, and eventually an atmosphere in which the more creative high points may even be forgotten. Stagnation in all its forms is a danger of academic success.

Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA: 1990) p. 521. Collins identifies three forms of stagnation in the intellectual life of a culture: (1) stagnation involving loss of cultural capital; (2) stagnation involving confinement to the classics; and (3) stagnation involving jargonistic over-refinement. None of these mean that there is no good work being done; rather, they are three different ways that new research and examination of new ideas is hampered. Old ideas, which can birth new ideas, may be forgotten -- raised, but overlooked, and re-discovered only in hindsight. Intellectuals may enter into a little treadmill of treating the same points over and over again, without serious regard for problems and aporia. And the way in which intellectuals typically approach a question may become so overspecialized that non-specialists have difficulty seeing the value of the work, which makes it harder to recruit top minds to that field of study, which, if not corrected, leads to marginalization or collapse. Infrastructure and context is heavily responsible for this -- for instance, a culture in which scientists spend most of their time writing grant applications for expensive experiments to answer big questions will have a very different intellectual character, and be in danger of very different intellectual failings, when compared to a culture in which scientists spend most of their time coming up with cheap garage-and-kitchen experiments to answer little questions. Schooling ties intellectual life to a particular kind of infrastructure, at least loosely. This infrastructure allows intellectuals to keep track of more ideas, engage in more extensive investigations, and interact on a larger scale than they otherwise could, but at the same time it also locks in routines and expectations, some of which can, at a certain point, impede any of these three things unless it is restructured to take new circumstances into account (which can sometimes be difficult to do). Collins is famously pessimistic about our current academic infrastructure, which he has argued is creating conditions for all three kinds of intellectual stagnation. Unfortunately, he is largely right, although educational reforms could potentially breathe new life into the culture of study and research.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Inveni David (Repost)

I had intended to repost this earlier this month, but forgot in the December rush. This is a slightly revised version of a post from 2008.

Among Thomas Aquinas's extant sermons is one, usually known by the name Inveni David, which is devoted to St. Nicholas of Myra. The exact circumstances of the sermon are unknown, but we know that it was preached in December in Paris either on St. Nicholas Day or around that time. A Tale of Two Wonderworkers (PDF) by Peter Kwasniewski does a good job of giving the background.

The topic of the sermon is that God works wonders in His saints, and St. Thomas treats of this topic by taking a verse from the Psalms about David (a standard verse for saints who are bishops):

I have discovered David my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him; my hand will help him, and my arm will strengthen him (Ps. 88:21-22).

This gives us a series of wonders that God works in the servants of God -- David in particular, of course, but also any servant of God. And thus Thomas uses it to speak of how St. Nicholas was such a servant. There are four basic parts to the verse, to which Aquinas assigns one feature of God's wondrous working in the saints:

(1) I have discovered David my servant: election
(2) with my holy oil I have anointed him: consecration
(3) my hand will help him: execution of duties
(4) and my arm will strengthen him: steadfastness

Thus Thomas will show wondrous election, singular consecration, effective execution of office, and abiding steadfastness in St. Nicholas. Actually, he never gets to the last; the sermon we have stops abruptly and without explanation after (3).

Wondrous Election

I have discovered David my servant, the Psalmist says; what's involved in discovering someone? Discovery, says Thomas, suggests rarity, at least to the extent that it needs to be discovered; it suggests search; it suggests disclosure; and it suggests conviction through experience. All these are elements of God's wonderful choosing of St. Nicholas: the first in that St. Nicholas was virtuous from youth, the second in that the Lord seeks faithful souls to delight in; the third in that Nicholas stood out through his pious affection and profound mercy and compassion; and the fourth in that Nicholas faithfully served the Lord's interests rather than his own. The third is particularly important for Aquinas; St. Nicholas is an example he holds up in more than one place for his compassion and mercy. He clearly likes the story of St. Nicholas finding a way to give gold in secret to the poor virgins so that they could have a dowry without the embarrassment of being beholden to him for it. Notably Thomas also uses his discussion of Nicholas's election to attack abuses by the clergy.

Singular Consecration

According to legend, St. Nicholas was elevated to the position of bishop by God Himself. The old bishop had died with no one obvious as a replacement. Those who were trusted with choosing the successor had a dream one night that they should consecrate as bishop the first man who walked through the door of the Church that morning. This happened to be Nicholas, who was at the time a young priest and a newcomer to Myra. He took considerable convincing, but eventually he was installed as bishop. This is perhaps subtly in the background here, although Aquinas doesn't mention it explicitly here (he does explicitly mention it elsewhere, so he knew of the story). Instead he focuses on the phrase with my holy oil I have anointed him. Oil has four uses, says Aquinas, all of which are suggested in this context.

First, oil is used for healing. Thus oil is an image of God's healing grace, and we see the operation of such grace in such a holy man as Nicholas.

Second, oil is used for lighting. To this extent it symbolizes the learning of wisdom, which is why it is associated with prophecy and illumination.

Third, oil is used for flavoring. In this sense it is an image of spiritual joy; just as a sprinkling of oil makes food taste better, so does a sprinkling of spiritual joy make good works easier. It is in this sense that oil is associated with priesthood.

Fourth, oil is used for softening and smoothing. Understood in this way it signifies mercy and kindness of heart which, of course, St. Nicholas had in astounding measure. Thus, says Thomas Aquinas, just as oil spreads itself out, so does mercy, and just as oil coats things, so mercy coats every good work. He then has a very interesting passage:

You ought to consider that in the future, according to the merits of graces the evidence of rewards will appear in the glorified bodies of the saints, and that even in this life the signs of their affection appear. This is evident in the case of blessed Francis, where the signs of the passion of Christ became visible, so vehemently was he affected by the passion of Christ. In blessed Nicholas's case, signs of mercy appeared when "his tomb sweated oil," thus indicating that he was a man of great mercy.

The linking of the two extremely popular saints, Saint Francis and Saint Nicholas, is rather interesting in itself, since, while Nicholas founded no order, there are nonetheless a great many similarities between the two, as regards their place in the Church and what they have left for posterity. It has also not gone without notice that here Thomas the Dominican goes out of his way to mention the stigmata of Saint Francis, which has suggested to some that his audience may have been Franciscan. Saint Nicholas was a favored saint of the Dominicans, playing a large role in early Dominican spiritual life, and thus the linking here strongly indicates that Aquinas wants to suggest something about the two orders taken together.

In any case, Thomas holds that this fourth signification of oil is why oil is often associated with kingship.

And thus in these four ways, divine grace, prophetic wisdom, priestly gladness, and kingly compassion, God works wonders in His saints.

Effective Execution

My hand shall help him
. The hand symbolizes God's strength, and Thomas suggests four ways in which God's strength is found to operate in saints like Nicholas. First, God drew Nicholas to Himself and away from evil. Second, God guided Nicholas as He does all the just. Third, He gave him strength and comfort. And fourth, because Nicholas showed exquisite mercy, God worked miracles through him.

And this is how the sermon ends, abruptly but memorably:

It was mercy that made blessed Nicholas an extraordinary man, and the Lord strengthened him even unto everlasting life. May He lead us there, who lives with the Father and the Holy Spirit, &c.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Apparently Deciding Who Is Jewish Is Now Racially Discriminatory

This annoys me in so many ways:

The Jewish Free School has lost the hard-fought case on the criteria for admissions to this sought-after school. The next step might be to challenge equality legislation itself, as the admissions criteria, found to be racially discriminating, was based on the 3,500-year-old criteria for judging whether a person is Jewish or not, fundamentally by the religion of the mother.

The UK Supreme Court today, by the narrowest of margins, held that the admissions criteria of JFS, which gave preference in the event of oversubscription to children who are Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law (either by descent or conversion), were in the definition of the 1976 Race Relations Act, directly racially discriminatory.

This despite the fact that Judaism in Jewish law is not a racial category. As Gledhill notes, anyone can become Jewish by conversion, but even more than that, even being Jewish by descent isn't a racial matter. If your mother was English and converted before your birth, that counts, although (as in the case that started this off, in which a boy's Italian mother was a convert) sometimes there are conditions that must be met before the conversion is considered adequate (in this case, the problem was that the synagogue under whose auspices the mother converted was liberal rather than Orthodox). The ruling is here (PDF). The majority tries, and tries, and tries to insist that it is not being anti-Semitic, and that it is not calling the JFS policy racist, but it rings very hollow. The reasoning given for treating the admission criterion as racial discrimination under the definition of the law is extremely strained in Lord Phillips's opinion, and insisting that there is no way to distinguish Jewish religion and Jewish ethnicity, which the presiding judge openly does, is a standard anti-Semitic ploy. Also, Lord Phillips, appealing to the Chief Rabbi's discussion of conversion, so massively misreads it as a discussion of Jewishness that it is difficult to see it as anything but deliberate. Lady Hale's reasoning is, as far as I can see, thoroughly incoherent; the mother's Italian origins were entirely irrelevant, since someone with Italian origins can be eligible for admission (as Lord Rodger rightly notes: "His mother could have been as Italian in origin as Sophia Loren and as Roman Catholic as the Pope for all that the governors cared..."). And, as any rational person knows (and as Lord Rodger also suggests), when you get absurd results on the basis of your reasoning, that should lead you to reconsider thoroughly the principles on which you got them, to make sure that no mistake was made on the way. Lord Mance accepts a ridiculous argument that requires reading a statement by the Office of the Chief Rabbi as saying that Jewishness is a racial category, when it actually just says that anyone recognized by the OCR is Jewish and considered to be Jewish, which is an entirely different thing. Lord Kerr says that the issue is "whether it is discrimination on ethnic grounds to discriminate against all those who are not descended from Jewish women," calmly ignoring the fact that the use of the Orthodox criteria for Jewishness makes this impossible: since you can be Jewish if you are not descended from Jewish women, use of the criteria cannot be discrimination against everyone not descended from Jewish women. Saying otherwise is a straightforward contradiction.

On the definition given by the act, a person or group racially discriminates if they treat someone less favorably for reasons of "colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origins". Not one of these is genuinely involved here; treating the matter as discrimination on the ground of ethnic origins or ethnic status is absurd given that there is a perfectly straightforward way for someone to be eligible despite his origin -- matrilineal descent is merely one way to be eligible -- and given that on this argument virtually every religion becomes an ethnic group. The only issue involved in the case at hand was that the OCR does not recognize conversions for certain kinds of synagogues; the JFS policy is clearly proportionate to its aim, which is to give Orthodox Jews, whether they are practicing or not, a better education, including an education in the Jewish religion. The JFS got into trouble here precisely because it intended for all Orthodox Jews to be eligible for admission; if its admission criteria required proof of religious practice, it would not have had this problem, and would not have been accused by the UK's supreme court of racial discrimination under the law. But its mission is to give Orthodox Jews, practicing or not, a better understanding of the Jewish legacy, and therefore it counts as eligible anyone whom the OCR deems to meet the Orthodox Jewish criteria for being a Jew. And the Court has effectively ruled that any application of the Orthodox Jewish criteria for being a Jew is racial discrimination. This is the height of absurdity, and this decision has shown British discrimination law to be a laughingstock.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Links for Linking

* John Pieret is short and sweet on 'bad design' arguments, which, as he notes, are the mirror-universe versions of the arguments of intelligent design theory.

* A brief piece on one of the two currently working versions of Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2. Ralph Luker points to a YouTube demonstration of it.

* Adriano Celentano shows us what American pop music used to sound like to Italians. It's very catchy, in a crazy-making way.

* James Franklin, Aristotelian Realism (PDF)

* David Oderberg, On an Alleged Fallacy in Aristotle (PDF)

* Rebecca Stark on Sure Things Only Because.

* Very sad:

Karim Mansour, the store and dog owner, received a warning: Remove the dog or the Florida Department of Agriculture would declare all of Mansour's food products — mostly bottled sodas, Slim Jims and candy bars — unfit for consumption.

Mansour, who adopted 6-year-old Cody three years ago, had no choice but to sign the warning. His primary violation: "Prohibited animals present in a food establishment. Dog seen in retail area."

The store doesn't serve hot food such as hot dogs or even fresh cold deli-type items. The only food it carries are packaged products such as chips, crackers and candy.

But food, apparently, is food.

Even dogs are being laid off these days.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hume on the Two Delicacies

Some People are subject to a certain delicacy of passion, which makes them extremely sensible to all the accidents of life, and gives them a lively joy upon every prosperous event, as well as a piercing grief, when they meet with misfortunes and adversity. Favours and good offices easily engage their friendship; while the smallest injury provokes their resentment. Any honour or mark of distinction elevates them above measure; but they are as sensibly touched with contempt. People of this character have, no doubt, more lively enjoyments, as well as more pungent sorrows, than men of cool and sedate tempers: But, I believe, when every thing is balanced, there is no one, who would not rather be of the latter character, were he entirely master of his own disposition. Good or ill fortune is very little at our disposal: And when a person, that has this sensibility of temper, meets with any misfortune, his sorrow or resentment takes entire possession of him, and deprives him of all relish in the common occurrences of life; the right enjoyment of which forms the chief part of our happiness. Great pleasures are much less frequent than great pains; so that a sensible temper must meet with fewer trials in the former way than in the latter. Not to mention, that men of such lively passions are apt to be transported beyond all bounds of prudence and discretion, and to take false steps in the conduct of life, which are often irretrievable.

There is a delicacy of taste observable in some men, which very much resembles this delicacy of passion, and produces the same sensibility to beauty and deformity of every kind, as that does to prosperity and adversity, obligations and injuries. When you present a poem or a picture to a man possessed of this talent, the delicacy of his feeling makes him be sensibly touched with every part of it; nor are the masterly strokes perceived with more exquisite relish and satisfaction, than the negligences or absurdities with disgust and uneasiness. A polite and judicious conversation affords him the highest entertainment; rudeness or impertinence is as great a punishment to him. In short, delicacy of taste has the same effect as delicacy of passion: It enlarges the sphere both of our happiness and misery, and makes us sensible to pains as well as pleasures, which escape the rest of mankind.

David Hume, "On the Delicacy of Taste and Passion". I've been re-reading Mansfield Park in breaks in grading -- unfortunately, since I like the book it has at times meant more breaks than grading -- and one thing that struck me this time around was the degree to which delicacy of taste is attributed to Fanny Price. The phrase itself was applied directly to her once, the word 'delicacy' several times again, and her reactions to both the natural world and reading are standard examples of delicacy of taste.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Sing, O daughter of Zion!
Shout, O Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away your judgments,
He has cast out your enemy.
The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
You shall see disaster no more.
In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:

"Do not fear;
Zion, let not your hands be weak.
The LORD your God in your midst,
The Mighty One, will save;
He will rejoice over you with gladness,
He will quiet you with His love,
He will rejoice over you with singing."

Zephaniah 3:14-17 (NKJV)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Roses from the Arms of Death

Blue Roses
by Rudyard Kipling

Roses red and roses white
Plucked I for my love's delight.
She would none of all my posies--
Bade me gather her blue roses.

Half the world I wandered through,
Seeking where such flowers grew.
Half the world unto my quest
Answered me with laugh and jest.

Home I came at wintertide,
But my silly love had died
Seeking with her latest breath
Roses from the arms of Death.

It may be beyond the grave
She shall find what she would have.
Mine was but an idle quest--
Roses white and red are best!

Sins that Cry Out

Someone didn't quite go that extra mile of research. Here is the complete Wikipedia article on sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance:

The sins that cry to Heaven (or sins that cry Out to Heaven) is a group of sins in Catholic doctrine that cuts across mortal sins and venial sins. All of them are exemplified by a biblical sin:

* Willful murder – Cain's murder of his brother – Genesis 4:1-16
* Sodomy – the sin of Sodom – Genesis 19:5
* Oppression of the poor esp. widows, orphans and strangers for which the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites Exodus 20:20–22 (which is not obvious to the non-believing).
* Defrauding laborers of their wages – based on Deut 24:14–15

The list is just a list of sins which in the Bible are mentioned as crying out to the Lord for justice. The Catechism does indeed cite Exodus 20:20-22 as the source for oppression of the poor; and no doubt that passage doesn't obviously support the point for the non-believing, because it doesn't support it at all, whether you are non-believing or not. It's a typo; the passage in view is Exodus 22:20-24, which is a quite grim picture of divine reciprocity:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

To say that the sin of Sodom that cried out to the heavens for vengeance was the sin of sodomy is more than a bit of understatement; the context in Genesis is very clear that the men of Sodom were gang-raping travelers. The sequence of events starts with the Angel of the Lord telling Abraham that people are crying out to heaven against the sins of Sodom, and He says that he is going down into the city to see if it is true: "I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know." And then the two angels go down to Sodom to stay at Lot's house, where the men of Sodom gather, demanding that Lot give them the two guests to rape -- thus showing not only that they are sexually dissolute but that their sexual depravity extends even to disregard of the (at the time) iron-clad moral conventions concerning the basic hospitable treatment of guests. And then the angels tell Lot to flee the city, because it will be destroyed; the actions of the men of Sodom have confirmed the outcry to heaven against them. Lacking a real sense of hospitality, we lack a proper sense of the horror the ancient world would have had of the sheer, terrible sexual depravity involved in such violation of hospitality. But, no doubt, we can still see how it might cry out for vengeance.

The final sin in the list, robbing workers of their wages, is interesting in that it is mentioned in both the Old Testament and the New; and, indeed, the picture in James 5 is even more vivid than that found in Deuteronomy:

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter.

An Austen Evening Prayer

Jane Austen wrote three evening prayers. Here is one of them, an abridged version of which hangs on the wall in St. Nicholas Church, Steventon, where first her father and then her brother were rectors.

Give us grace, Almighty Father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our Hearts, as with our lips. Thou art every where present, from Thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this, teach us to fix our Thoughts on Thee, with Reverence and Devotion that we pray not in vain.

Look with Mercy on the Sins we have this day committed, and in Mercy make us feel them deeply, that our Repentance may be sincere, and our resolution stedfast of endeavouring against the commission of such in future. Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of Temper and every evil Habit in which we have indulged to the dis-comfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own Souls. May we now, and on each return of night, consider how the past day has been spent by us, what have been our prevailing Thoughts, Words, and Actions during it, and how far we can acquit ourselves of Evil. Have we thought irreverently of Thee, have we disobeyed thy commandments, have we neglected any known duty, or willingly given pain to any human being? Incline us to ask our Hearts these questions Oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by Pride or Vanity.

Give us a thankful sense of the Blessings in which we live, of the many comforts of our lot; that we may not deserve to lose them by Discontent or Indifference.

Be gracious to our Necessities, and guard us, and all we love, from Evil this night. May the sick and afflicted, be now, and ever thy care; and heartily do we pray for the safety of all that travel by Land or by Sea, for the comfort and protection of the Orphan and Widow and that thy pity may be shewn upon all Captives and Prisoners.

Above all other blessings Oh! God, for ourselves, and our fellow-creatures, we implore Thee to quicken our sense of thy Mercy in the redemption of the World, of the Value of that Holy Religion in which we have been brought up, that we may not, by our own neglect, throw away the salvation thou has given us, nor be Christians only in name. Hear us Almighty God, for His sake who has redeemed us, and taught us thus to pray.

At which point the congregation would recite the Our Father together.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Amiability, Seriousness, Constancy

As a break from end-of-term grading, I re-watched the Rozema Mansfield Park, which recently became available at Hulu. I'm inclined to think that of all the Austen adaptations I have seen that it is the one that works best as a movie; but it very strikingly manages to do so by taking some very un-Austen-like directions. (And I think that when those divergences are considered it perhaps says something about us: for arguably what makes it more like a typical movie and less like an Austen novel is that in it women's bodies are an almost purely social artifice. But that is too complex an issue for an aside.)

In any case, it has started me thinking about the novel. While I think Pride and Prejudice will likely never be dethroned as the consummate novel, the novel that does most exquisitely what novels do most exquisitely, every time I go back to Mansfield Park I get a stronger conviction that it is really Austen's masterwork. It is not so perfectly a novel as some of her other works; but it has perfections of its own that are perhaps better than the perfections we look for in novels. This, of course, is an idiosyncratic view: Mansfield Park is famously the least liked of all Austen novels, and Fanny Price is famously the least liked of all Austen heroines. But I think this is all of a piece. What annoys people about Fanny is how unlike an Austen heroine she is. Were Mansfield Park written to the taste of most readers, Fanny Price would be a much stronger, much more charming, much wittier person than she is: her disadvantage with respect to Mary Crawford would not be due to any features of her personality but solely due to some feature of her social situation hiding her real superiority from the view of other characters (but not the readers). But Fanny foils all such expectations over and over again. She is not more charming than Mary; she is more amiable, but not even in the same league as Mary when it comes to charm. She is not wittier than Mary; she is just as intelligent, but no more so, and too quiet to be witty. And, remarkably, she is not stronger than Mary: Mary ends up shooting herself in the foot, so to speak, in the novel, but other than that she is largely in control of whatever situation it is in which she finds herself. Fanny is virtually never in control of the situation in which she finds herself, and she is clearly, and I think quite deliberately, a much weaker person, if we measure strength by forcefulness; a more constant person, certainly, but also a much weaker one. Mary Crawford is remarkable in that she is an Austen heroine, with the single all-important exception that she continually subordinates conscience and sympathy -- and I think it is clear enough that she is not wholly lacking in these -- to her own interest. And thus the contrast is almost complete: Mary is charming, intelligently witty, and forceful; Fanny is amiable, intelligently serious, and constant. The difference is that all of Mary's good qualities are in how she strikes you. All of Fanny's good qualities are in how she lives.

Thus I think Fanny calls up exactly the kind of sympathy people don't want to feel toward an Austen heroine: she is not at all the sort of woman someone could imagine being, or could imagine falling in love with, or, indeed, could easily imagine living happily ever after. She cries, and cries, and cries again. While she's not quite as silent and quiet as some of her detractors treat her, even when she speaks up she does so quietly. And her worst sin of all is that she is in no way fun; she is, if anything, far too serious. I do not think, contrary to a common view, that Austen writes her as always right; she spends much of the novel needlessly confused and part of her misery is her own doing. She does nothing but muddle through; but she muddles through with amiability, seriousness, and constancy.

And who wants that? That's what we think of as a good sidekick; it's what we want in a friend who will never outshine us, not in ourselves. And I think readers are over and over again annoyed by the fact that in Mansfield Park Austen shows, almost inexorably, that their own tastes are flawed. For our tastes are flawed; they are something to laugh at. We get so caught up in the obviously almost that we miss the subtly so. Mary Crawford had every potential to be an Austen heroine; Henry Crawford shows more than once that he has the potential to be an Austen hero. One of the reasons they are so likable is that they are not creatures of unadulterated selfishness, and more than once sincerely do something right. They have every obvious advantage. But they both fail miserably. None of the things Fanny has are immediately obvious; there are so many subtle complexities to her character that if you did not have the whole course of the story, you might well have overlooked or even misinterpreted them entirely. When she asserts herself at all she comes across as passive-aggressive. But reading her as such is itself a moral failing: it shows an inability to look beyond the superficial, the immediate context. For love and virtue and happiness simply are not a matter of immediate context; they require, as MacIntyre might put it, the narrative order of a life.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Some Poem Drafts

All very rough.


Do I exist and live and die to bare my heart in vain
like the unregarded droplets bursting on the window pane
in the ever-falling sorrow of the melancholy rain?
Do I exist to bare my heart, and bear this all, in vain?


Let the figure be composed:
two winged horse, a charioteer;
in gods they are of fair breed,
in us they are mixed, one noble, one ignoble,
difficult to manage withal.
The soul cares for all the inanimate part,
traversing every heaven,
manifold in appearance, shape, and form,
some perfect and swift-winged,
soaring upward then to rule the world,
some imperfect, unfeathered,
failing in flight, falling to earth.


Essays were made for babbling, trying out things, gibbering, jabbering, talking out randomly, lying out loud, wheezily whispering what deserves a good shout, and yet by deals in dark backrooms, the rag-magazines, crypts we call classrooms, somehow it seized the reins of our words, and all words by essays are measured. I tried, I tried, I truly tried, but no more will I live this lie of babbling, jabbering essays: better words more artfully made, better outlines and disputations, better posts and confrontations, than words bound up and rationed by irrational self-parody of prose. Is not the essay nothing but loss to language, to life, to thought? Has it not made the mind to rot in pedestrian ways pedantic minds love? It is complicit in the ravings of degenerate minds gone mad, it is fluff, it is guff, it is puff, and filler and filling-stuff is all we ever see (not that we see much). I tried, I tried, I tried, but to try is not enough; that here and there is one worth reading--that too is not enough. And the saddest of all bad things in these essays that never assay, is that essays can never be taught, never be learned (banish the thought!), can never succeed save in lie, for by nature it can only be tried, and trying is far beyond the reach of even the finest teachers to teach. I have had enough of it. It is time that we got rid of it, time to teach the world to craft its words and cultivate language like gardeners' flowers, to capture again thought's wonder and power, and find in each word power and wonder, and banish this generic non-genre.

The Lady of the Garden

The garden bears the vestiges
of Our Lady of the Rains,
baptized from conception,
gentle Mary without a stain,
never without redeeming grace
from God made flesh and slain.
You are a flower in the garden;
beneath the trees grow I,
and the roses grow in splendor
with bright blooms that never die:
all are nourished by praying tears
she beneath the cross did cry.

Peirce on Dormitive Virtue

You remember the old satire which represents one of the old school of medical men,--one of the breed to whom medicine and logic seemed closely allied sciences,--who, asked why opium puts people to sleep, answers very sapiently "because it has a dormitive virtue." Instead of an explanation he simply transforms the premiss by the introduction of an abstraction, an abstract noun in the place of a concrete predicate. It is a poignant satire, because everyone is supposed to know well enough that this transformation from a concrete predicate to an abstract noun in an oblique case, is a mere transformation of language that leaves the thought absolutely untouched. I knew this as well as everybody else until I had arrived at that point in my analysis of the reasoning of mathematics where I found that this despised juggle of abstraction is an essential part of almost every really helpful step in mathematics; and since then what I used to know so very clear does not appear to be at all so....It is not an explanation; but it is good sound doctrine, namely that something in opium must explain the facts observed.

C. S. Peirce, Pragmatism as a Principle and Method of Right Thinking, Turrisi, ed. SUNY Press (Albany: 1997) p. 133. Catherine Legg has an excellent paper (PDF) on this argument.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Book Recommendation

I happened to be browsing in the library the other day and happened to pick up Edward Reed's From Soul to Mind. From the title I was expecting it to be rather bad, I think, but it turned out to be well worth reading. It's a history of the development of psychology as a discipline, very readable; it confirmed some things I had thought, corrected some misconceptions I had had, and taught me things I hadn't known at all.

Philosophers tend to assume that psychology grew out of philosophy; in fact, it's not hard to find them saying that it did, without qualification. There is a sense in which it is true; both contemporary academic philosophy and psychology grew out of more wide-ranging philosophical thought, especially in moral philosophy. But there is also a very important sense in which the reverse is true, and although it is a secondary issue in the book, Reed is especially good at pinning it down. Academic philosophy as we know it grew up as a reaction to the development of psychology as a science. Philosophy departments, especially in the English-speaking world, began to be created as a regular, distinct department as part of a struggle between those who held that psychology should be handled in purely experimental terms and a reactionary movement that advocated non-experimental approaches, or who argued for other sharp limitations in the study of psychology, and was trying to imitate the institutional success of psychology. 'Philosophy' is a potentially equivocal term. It can be used in broader and narrower senses, and it is generally only when used in the most broad sense that we can seriously say that psychology developed from philosophy. Any common use of the term that is narrower than that (and it is not difficult to find people advocating such uses as the primary uses) makes the reverse true.

(Although Reed doesn't address this particular point, it is precisely for this reason that twentieth century analytic philosophy was so dominated by MME: mind, metaphysics, and epistemology. Although all three areas slowly expanded in what they covered, MME at its core consisted of topics, handled non-experimentally, that the psychologists at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries were attempting to study. There is no intrinsic reason why so much of philosophy in the past ten decades should have been taken up with issues in epistemology and the philosophy of mind. History of philosophy developed too slowly to serve in the same stead, and the same is true a fortiori for comparative philosophy, but ethics would have done just as well as the dominant philosophical field. Indeed, in a sense it started out that way: moral philosophy was king and in the nineteenth century topics analogous to those handled in MME were typically handled as adjuncts to such moral philosophy (philosophy of science, for instance, was an incidental outgrowth of disputes between utilitarians and intuitionists). But early philosophy departments were heavily concerned with psychological issues, or, perhaps more accurately, philosophical issues raised by psychology, and the result was that those issues became fixed as standard philosophical topics: skepticism, mind-body union, accounts of sensation and how they relate to the external world, etc. These topics can be traced back historically; and their rise can be traced to groups that, for widely varying reasons, opposed experimental approaches to the study of the mind. Since that time they have taken on a life of their own, but the reaction to psychology is what entrenched them. So the early institutional origins of contemporary philosophy -- in reaction to and in imitation of the development of psychology departments -- have had an impact on the field, even though (of course) there are other factors that have come into play since.)

There are occasional weaknesses in the discussions in the book, but I found them to be rather minor. Highly recommended, especially to philosophers.

Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009)

Stephen Toulmin died on Dec. 4 at age 87. He was probably most widely known for his theory of argument. He was both well respected and a genuine maverick; he never simply followed fads but continually went out in new directions. There's very little by him that's online, but here's an interview with him:

A Conversation with Stephen Toulmin

Monday, December 07, 2009

Marenbon on 'Aquinas's Principle' (Repost)

This is a repost from October 2007.

In a discussion in his newer introduction to medieval philosophy text, John Marenbon considers the following principle in Aquinas, which he calls 'Aquinas's Principle':

If the antecedent of a conditional contains a cognitive proposition, the consequent should be understood according to the mode of the knower, and not that of the thing known.

The illustration is the conditional,

If I understand something, it is immaterial.

This, if 'Aquinas's Principle' is used, should be understood as:

If understand something, it is immaterial according to its being understood.

To this Marenbon replies that there are plenty of conditionals with cognitive antecedents to which Aquinas's Principle does not apply. His example:

If I feel something with my touch, it is a material thing.

Of which he says, "The consequent...does not need to be qualified by a phrase such as 'according to its being touched'. It is simply true that anything I can touch must be material."

Whatever may be said of 'Aquinas's Principle', Marenbon's counterexample seems to me to be badly chosen. For while it may be simply true that anything I can touch must be material, it does not follow that anything I touch must be simply material. The natural way to understand Marenbon's conditional is to understand it as meaning,

If I feel something with my touch, it is a material thing insofar as it is touched.

For instance, there are plenty of entities that can be touched but are not simply material; for example, a university, which is material to the extent that you can touch it, but is not insofar as it is (for instance) a legal corporation. And the qualification could still be added, without significant change of meaning, for purely material things -- it's just that there would be very little point in doing so. The fact that we don't need it for practical purposes isn't an adequate reason for rejecting 'Aquinas's Principle'.

In any case, I don't see any reason to hold that Aquinas held 'Aquinas's Principle' in an unqualified way; it seems to me that Marenbon takes Aquinas's words out of context and interprets them out of that context. The natural way to read Aquinas's statement in context is to take him as saying that when the antecedent clarifies that the existence in question is existence in the soul rather than in itself, we must not then take the consequent as saying anything about existence in itself. The principle that is really doing work here is not the claim about conditionals, however, but the claim that "the existence of a thing in itself is different from the existence of a thing in the soul."

John Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy Routledge (New York: 2007) 253-254.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Tumultuous Privacy of Storm

Friday there was a great big fuss about the snow we were supposed to get here in Austin; people were in a fit of anticipation over the fact that there was supposed to be an inch of it -- which is rather funny, but snow is a very occasional thing here. As it happened, we did get snow: there were a few snowflakes drifting down for about ten to twenty minutes, and that was all.

The Snow-Storm
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hill and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hiddden thorn;
Fills up the famer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and at the gate
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Aquinas on Poetics

Sometimes we are moved towards one part of a contradiction by nothing more than a kind of regard or esteem resulting from the way something represented. This is analogous to the way in which a particular food appears disgusting when it is represented in the image of something disgusting. The art of poetry is ordered to this. For the poet's vocation is to guide us towards what is virtuous by representing it as attractive.

Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, Berquist, tr., Dumb Ox (Notre Dame: 2007), p. 3. What Aquinas means by 'some part of a contradiction' here is one of two mutually exclusive alternatives; and 'art of poetry' would be better translated more literally as 'poetics', which in medieval Aristotelianism (both Muslim and Christian) is one of the departments of logic (due to the fact that Aristotle's Rhetoric and Poetics were interpreted as dealing with special kinds of inference or reasoning). 'Vocation' is not in the original. The Latin is:

Quandoque vero sola existimatio declinat in aliquam partem contradictionis propter aliquam repraesentationem, ad modum quo fit homini abominatio alicuius cibi, si repraesentetur ei sub similitudine alicuius abominabilis. Et ad hoc ordinatur poetica; nam poetae est inducere ad aliquod virtuosum per aliquam decentem repraesentationem.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Students and the First Way

I have been grading take-home quizzes on the history of philosophy for my intro course. One of the questions was "In Thomas Aquinas's First Way, what do you think is the weakest premise (the one that would require the most work to defend), and why?" The point of it was primarily to see if they had learned what 'the First Way' meant, but having phrased it in this roundabout way this time around, I think I got more interesting answers than I have previously (which asked for a summary of it). To some extent the answers aren't wholly surprising, and no great weight can be put on them, given that students only had had one class on the argument, which was primarily geared to simply providing a tour of the medieval scholastic approach to philosophy, and inovlved only a very light summarizing of the background for the argument. So you get some standard confusions and incoherent arguments. But, of course, that's about the level at which most people approach it, so it provided an interesting sample of the range of immediate responses people might have. That's certainly useful. (And I have to say that in some cases my students make more perceptive responses on the basis of one class than I've sometimes heard from professional philosophers; a sign, I think, of the occasional laziness of the latter.) Here are the answers from the quizzes that were turned in on time which had answers for this particular question. I have paraphrased and abbreviated pretty much all of them.

* "This cannot go on to infinity because there would be no first mover." This is begging the question; for all we know, it can go on to infinity.

* "This everyone understands to be God." Aquinas would need to be able to prove the existence of God for this to be true. The belief that God exists is not evidence that God exists.

* The idea that it is impossible for a thing to be both mover and moved, because the argument over the first mover or cause, as God, does not admit of proof.

* "Whatever is moved must be moved by another." We move and we are moved by our own will. Plenty of things move themselves.

* "This everyone understands to be God." Not everyone believes in God, and some people don't believe God is a mover.

* That the motion of the whole world and each motion within it is caused by the motion of the heavens, because he believed in geocentrism. [This may seem to come a bit out of nowhere, but it's not really the student's fault. The nice thing about take-home quizzes is that students can cite the sources they get their information from, and there was a source here.]

* The idea that an infinite number of movers is impossible. The law of conservation of energy states that energy is neither created nor destroyed, so it is possible for there to be an infinite number of movers.

* That nothing can be in actuality and potentiality at the same time. Something can be on fire and still have the potential to burn.

* That there must be a first mover. It seems strange to me that God just came to be, and that there was nothing that set him in motion.

* The one that attributes first motion to God. If everything that happens has to have a first cause, why does the first cause have to be God? If God is the cause of everything and everything requires a cause, what is God's cause?

Links for Thinking

* Michaël de Verteuil on Michael Cerularius

* Peter Gilbert on John Bekkos (PDF)

* Jonathan Jarrett on Saint Ermengol and medieval simony

* Cantoni and Yuchtman, Medieval Universities, Legal Institutions, and the Commercial Revolution (PDF)

Cantoni, The Economic Effects of the Protestant Reformation (PDF) -- I don't think this tests the Weberian hypothesis very directly at all, but it's interesting nonetheless

Acemoglu, Cantoni, Johnson, Robinson, From Ancien Régime to Capitalism (PDF)

* "Eating the Road" makes eating out easier by providing a handy flowchart. There are many delightful bits to it. (ht)

* Layman discusses Alexander and Rufus, sons of Simon of Cyrene

* An article about the years we had two Thanksgivings. Texas's reason for celebrating both was very, very Texan.

* The hundredth Philosophers' Carnival

* The 56th Carnivalesque (early modern edition)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Two Poem Drafts

Silent Stars

When you are lost in shadow and your heart is all alone
and you wander in these mazes made of cold, unyielding stone,
when death is on your doorstep, you still may see a ray
from silent stars still shining all along the Milky Way.

When cities fall and languish and the world is in despair
and truth is crowded out by all the lies that fill the air,
then let your heart take courage; you yet may find a way
under silent stars still shining all along the Milky Way.

Silent stars are shining in the endless void of night;
silent stars are shining with a quiet, constant light.
In every night of trouble, every darkness at midday,
still silent stars are shining all along the Milky Way.

Flame Upon the Sky

Flame upon the sky! Bright dawn arose, and rosy were her fingers;
although she is now gone, yet her form and presence linger
in the pools of memory, those reflections that lag and wait
so that, although the light has passed, they still will seek to sate
their thirst with forms that haunt the mind like wraiths, ghosts, shades,
reverberations of a dawn that thus can never wholly fade.
Fire in the heavens! It seems both lasting hope and looming doom,
hope in beating back the grasping of the nightly bitter gloom,
but doom, as in the judgment when before the flawless throne
we all will come to sentence, and each will stand alone.
And perhaps, through some great irony, God has made them one
and made a symbol of them both in this rising of the sun.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Wolterstorff and Foundationalism

Analytic philosophers have a very bad habit of making historical pronouncements that do not stand close examination. I recently came across what seems a good example of this in Nicholas Wolterstorff's Reason within the Bounds of Religion. In it Wolterstorff claims (pp. 28-30) that foundationalism is the "classic theory of theorizing in the Western world" and "has proved endlessly attractive to Western man," that it "has been the reigning theory of theories int he West since the high Middle Ages". It apparently traces back to Aristotle, and as other examples Wolterstorff gives "Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, the logical positivists".

Were I a naive historian of philosophy, I would find this exciting, a sort of Key to All Epistemologies. A generalization of this extent and definiteness would be truly significant. But not being quite so naive, I sigh and look skeptically for the precise definition of this "endlessly attractive" foundationalism. Wolterstorff helpfully sums it up in three principles:

(1) A person is warranted in accepting a theory at a certain time if and only if he is then warranted in believing that that theory belongs to genuine science (scientia).
(2) A theory belongs to genuine science if and only if it is justified by some foundational proposition and some human being could know with certitude that it is thus justified.
(3) A proposition is foundational if and only if it is true and some human being could know noninferentially and with certitude that it is true.

And it is so thoroughly implausible that this has been the standard view in the history of Western philosophy that I actually wonder if anyone held it prior to the twentieth century. I have noted before that Descartes is not what analytic philosophers call a "Cartesian foundationalist"; for exactly the same reasons it follows that he is not a foundationalist in Wolterstorff's slightly broader (because slightly vaguer) sense. And despite the fact that Wolterstorf treats Aquinas as a "classic version", it is clear that Aquinas does not accept any of these three points. Wolterstorff himself touches on the fact that on Aquinas's view there is an entire field of 'theories' in Wolterstorff's sense which should be accepted, which are not foundational in the sense of (3) nor justified by something foundational in the sense of (2), namely, those accepted on faith. He explicitly recognizes (p. 149n11) that sacred doctrine, despite being considered a scientia in Aquinas's sense fails to be one in Wolterstorff's sense; but he seems oblivious to the fact that this would mean that Aquinas is not a foundationalist about the very things he would have considered most important. The relativity to human beings in Wolterstorff's description is particularly troublesome. And Wolterstorff does not consider that Aquinas seems clearly to allow for reasonable opinion, which seems yet another exception. (Nor can he be using 'warranted' in a technical sense, because then he would need to give us a definition of warrant, which he pointedly refuses to do, claiming that we all know what it means.)

Aquinas does hold that there are conclusions we can hold on the basis of self-evident principles, and that when we do we have scientia, knowledge; but that some of the things we are warranted in accepting are had in this way is not enough to make him a foundationalist in Wolterstorff's sense. To make Aquinas a foundationalist in Wolterstorff's sense you have to take such a tiny slice of Aquinas, ignoring the rest, that very little of his actual view remains, just as making Descartes a 'Cartesian foundationalist' in the common sense requires not proceeding past Meditation Five. In light of things like this, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that 'foundationalism', historically considered, is a figment of contemporary epistemologists' imaginations. But, of course, there's always the possibility that they haven't quite hit on the right way to formulate it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Creation and Generation

One of my pet peeves, which is beginning to get up there with drivers who don't use their blinkers, is the tendency of people to talk about "God using evolution to create". This has become very common among theists of many different persuasions, and it shows the degree to which people no longer have any notion of creation. Evolution is not a means of creation; it isn't very clear that the notion of a 'means of creation' is coherent. Evolution is a theory of generation; to be more precise, it is an account of how populations change when the generation and destruction of individuals in the population is linked to variation in the individuals, through things like selection and drift. This is something entirely different from creation; living things are not created through evolution, or by evolution, or any such thing. Evolution is part of the overall account of how living things are generated, of how they change from contrary to contrary, from being that to being other than that; it therefore is part of our account for why something is this rather than that. But creation has to do not with change from contrary to contrary, not with why something is this rather than that, but with why something is at all; and, moreover, it is not a matter of change at all, although we often for convenience use analogies it has to change in order to talk of it, because change is more immediately obvious to us than creation is. As Aquinas says, "Creation is not a change, except according to a mode of understanding" (ST 1.45.2 ad 2); there are genuine analogies between the two, and thus we can model creation as a change for particular purposes, but actual conflation of the two is what Aquinas calls "false imagination". And, indeed, Aquinas has a very good discussion of why it makes no sense to say that God creates 'through' something else, where this is not a figure of speech: creation by its very nature (and unlike generation) involves no instruments or mediating causes. It involves, as one might say, direct dependence on God, regardless of the way the dependent thing might have come from something else.

Thus it is simply absurd to say that "Evolution is God's method of creation," or that "God used evolution as a way to create living things"; saying something like this is a sign that you don't know anything about what creation is. Fortunately, these descriptions are less common among actual theists who accept evolutionary theory than they are among their opponents -- you usually see their position described in this way by atheists or by intelligent design theorists or by young earth creationists, rather than by themselves. There's a reason, for that, actually; it's because these people usually allow themselves no way of distinguishing questions of creation from questions of generation, so they slide between them as if they were the same. But I have noticed it creeping into more common acceptance; and it should be rejected firmly. Creation shows up in the answers to questions that are rather different from the questions in whose answers we find evolution showing up. Treating them as if they answered the same questions is to concede incoherent assumptions, and thus make one's own position incoherent.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


I found this passage in a post by Jerry Coyne hilariously funny:

Well, I’m not in favor of stereotyping individual Muslims, but as for Islam, well, it does seem to be an intrinsically belligerent religion. Read the Qur’an — you’ll find plenty of belligerence there. And if you object that the Old Testament is belligerent, too, look then all the imams calling for jihad. And how many Muslims stood up to protest the widespread jubilation in the Middle East that ensued after 9/11, or stood up to defend the right of Danish newspapers to publish cartoons mocking Mohamed?

Got it; we're not in favor of stereotyping individuals, just of stereotyping entire populations generally. One wonders how long Coyne's list of "all the imams calling for jihad" is; how many instances did he bother to collect before he said, "Oh, yes, this is clear evidence that Islam is an intrinsically belligerent religion." A thousand? A hundred? Or is it just a vague sense that they are everywhere, derived from watching the news? Has Coyne actually researched this matter, and is just not sharing the research itself? I'd be interested in such research; which imams? Is there a lack of clear regional association (since if calls for jihad tend to be associated only with particular regions of the world, or emigrants from those regions, that would indicate that it can't be evidence for intrinsic belligerence even if there are lots of imams making those calls)? Is it evenly, or at least widely, distributed among Sunni and Shi'a and smaller Islamic sects? Are there any stable, long-term movements that are exceptions? It's extremely difficult to imagine that the Chishtiya or the Mawlawi or the Qadiris or the Mourides are going about belligerently calling for jihad, for instance. Well, I seem to remember that the Mourides do call for jihad, the jihad al-'aqbar (Great Jihad), which consists of trying to win over others through hard work, example, prayer, and study, which I suppose might be considered a kind of belligerence in a world of complete paranoia. Are there any Sufis really going around insisting on killing people? That would be interesting to know; if even Sufis were widely belligerent that would pretty much clinch the argument that Islam is intrinsically belligerent. I really would have to see the proof, though; a vague bit of handwaving, with a few rhetorical questions that are probably not based on actual study of the matter, is not a replacement for evidence.

Hellenic Reconstruction

An interesting interview on Hellenismos (hat-tip):

Jessica Orsini: Let's see. I was raised Roman Catholic, but the best way I can put it is that it "didn't click". For whatever reason, I was never able to forge a connection with the Abrahamic god . At 14, my immediate family left the Catholic Church in a tiff, storming off to the Baptists. That went no better for me. At 17, when I went off to college, my spirituality did as well. I finally came to realize that the connection I *had* forged, the voice I'd heard in the woods since I was a small child, was Artemis.

I was introduced to paganism by a very soft-polytheistic Wiccan; from there, I ran through the usual assortment of Llewellyn publications and wound up with a sort of mish-mosh. I spent twenty years of wrangling through various efforts at implementation, trying somehow to fit my beliefs to Wicca. I tried this sort of "take the best from each" approach - the "many facets" concept that is so popular with a lot of pagans today. But it never really worked for me. I finally realized that my beliefs would never fit Wicca... and that there was this amazing old way that actually *did* fit.
When it all boiled down, I needed the hard, deep roots of Hellenism. I needed Hesiod's Theogony, his Works and Days. I needed that cohesive pantheon, and the culturally complete approach it allows.

(I've removed footnote numbers and corrected a typo.)

I don't have much to say about it. But polytheistic reconstruction movements, like Hellenismos or Theodism, are an interesting phenomenon. There's a tendency to conflate 'ethnic/tribal religion' with 'folk religion'; but reconstruction movements are an obvious example of how this conflation fails to do justice to facts. Hellenismos, for instance, is an ethnic religion, but since it is a reconstructed one, it is scholarship-based in at least a basic way (and usually thoroughly so), and therefore not a folk religion in the usual sense. Greek and Roman reconstructions are particularly interesting, given the richness of the resources from which they can draw; one could certainly do much worse than thoughtful, reasoned appropriation of Sallust and Hesiod.

But abhorred Strife bare painful Toil and Forgetfulness and Famine and tearful Sorrows, Fightings also, Battles, Murders, Manslaughters, Quarrels, Lying Words, Disputes, Lawlessness and Ruin, all of one nature, and Oath who most troubles men upon earth when anyone wilfully swears a false oath. [Theogony, 226-232, Evelyn-White, tr.]

Three Words

Just as we consider three things in the case of a craftsman, namely, the purpose of his work, its model, and the work now produced, so also do we find a threefold word in one who is speaking. There is the word conceived by the intellect, which, in turn, is signified by an exterior vocal word. The former is called the word of the heart, uttered but not vocalized. Then there is that upon which the exterior word is modeled; and this is called the interior word which has an image of the vocal word. Finally, there is the word expressed exteriorly, and this is called the vocal word. Now, just as a craftsman first intends his end, then thinks out the form of his product, and finally brings it into existence, so also, in one who is speaking, the word of the heart comes first, then the word which has an image of the oral word, and, finally, he utters the vocal word.

Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate q. 4 art. 1. (translation from Thomas Aquinas, Truth, vol. 1. Mulligan, tr. Henry Regenery (Chicago: 1952).

Friday, November 27, 2009


by Christina Rossetti

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

I think it was Sidgwick who said that this poem was the most perfect poem that any of his contemporaries had ever written.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Memorist (Part Five)

This is the fifth and final part of a short story draft. Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

The world rippled away again, and the Matriarch was once again the Infanta she had been. She sat at a low table. Across from her the Matriarch of the time, and next to her, the man the Infanta loved, that Matriarch's son.

They had just finished an intense argument on the handling of the civic unrest; one might almost call it heated except that heat was not something that could be associated with that Matriarch, and when she argued it was always coolly, coldly, freezingly. The Matriarch-to-be, who in the memory had both the thoughts she felt as Infanta at the time and the memories of the Matriarch she would become, remembered all too well how freezingly cold the Matriarch could be.

The argument had resulted in an impasse, and an impasse favored the Matriarch. Sighing, the Infanta called for drinks, which she set up herself on the low table. "It seems we will not be able to agree," she said.

"One would hardly expect that we would," said the Matriarch with cold amusement. "You do not see things as I see them, as you will see them when you yourself become Matriarch. You do not see the pitfalls of the alternatives you have suggested. A Matriarch must always be many steps ahead of everyone, or she is no longer Matriarch."

A loud rumbling noise outside caused everyone but the Matriarch to jump and look toward the window.

"What is that?" the Infanta demanded, turning back to the Matriarch, who was now leaning forward and looking intently at her.

"They are the bombs exploding in the city," the Matriarch replied. "There are many bombs in many cities today. But you need not be concerned, my dear; they are far enough away that we risk no harm." She smiled, for that Matriarch did smile, and it was a smile of cold and inhuman amusement.

The Infanta forced herself to be calm. "Well," she said, "I may not agree with the method, but we can all hope that it succeeds in obtaining the right results. Let us toast to the hope of your success."

And they toasted. The Infanta was carefully watching the Matriarch's face the entire time, so she was caught wholly by surprise when the man beside her suddenly seized, went white, and became rigid. She cried out in shock and horror, not knowing what to do; but there was nothing that she could have done, anyway. He was already dead. She looked again at the Matriarch and was arrested by that smile of cold, inhuman amusement that still played across her face.

"Almost, my dear," she said. "But not quite. I confess that this is the first time that you have given me reason to believe that you could really succeed me. It is clear from your bungling today that you are not yet ready. But that will be remedied in time. And for the same reason, you should not punish yourself too much for this. You will find that there is always punishment enough in being Matriarch."

The two women, the Matriarch then and the Matriarch who would come after her, looked across the table at each other. "If it's any comfort, my dear," the first one said, "it was as much his bungling as yours. He didn't quite betray you; but he had hinted enough that I might rue disagreeing with you that it was clear enough what you were planning. My son had his charms -- but he knew nothing about power. So very like a man -- to the end, he thought he was a player at the game rather than a piece on the board in a game played by you and me, Matriarch to Matriarch. Well, almost, anyway: if you had succeeded, you would have shown yourself a true Matriarch. A Matriarch is in control until the very end, and only a Matriarch can kill a Matriarch."

"Yes," the other woman said -- but here the memory began to ripple away, for this is not how thing had gone at the time. At the time she had been too shocked and horrified to respond. But now she spoke, as if she had waited a long time to say the words. "That is one of the few truths you ever told me. Only a Matriarch can kill a Matriarch. I proved that well enough when later I killed you. I have held power longer than you, and I am in control to the end, and, unlike you, to the very end. Only a Matriarch can kill a Matriarch."

The memory was rippling away into the Drawing Room, and she, now Matriarch herself again, could see the water on the table beside her. She seized the glass of water and drank it down. As she did, she heard the defining word of her life spoken to her, but it sounded as if it were shouted from a long way away: "Matriarch!"

The Matriarch of Syan was dead. She was rigid and pale. Her lips were set in that thin line that may or may not have been a smile or a frown. Her eyes were glassy, staring ahead, and a single tear coursed down her cheek.

The Memorist leaped up and smelled the glass she had used. "Poison," he said, "very strong!"

The Matriarch's attendant grabbed her right hand. The compartment on the ring had been opened and emptied. "She poisoned herself," he said in a tone of complete bafflement. Then he turned to the Infanta, whom he had brought as the Matriarch had ordered. She was standing in the doorway, bewilderment on her face.

"You are the Matriarch now," he said.