Friday, March 06, 2009

Notes and Links

* Boolos's famous Godel's Second Incompleteness Theorem Explained in Words of One Syllable (PDF)

* A. C. Grayling has an essay on a book about Hume and Rousseau at the Barnes & Noble Review. It's the fairly typical hatchet job against Rousseau that admirers of Hume often propagate: the Legend of St. David and the Madman. Hume's motives were in fact not wholly pure; and he himself admitted in correspondence at the time that he bullied Rousseau into going places Rousseau didn't want to go and doing things he didn't want to do. Rousseau, of course, was not a well man; many of his personality quirks were due to the fact that he had severe urinary problems, and before Hume brought him up to Scotland Voltaire had sent him into a nervous breakdown and put him into some social trouble by spreading around details of we would usually call 'his personal life' (Rousseau had several children whom he turned over to an orphanage). And two more contrary personalities could hardly be imagined. It was a train wreck waiting to happen; Hume certainly got the better of it, and acted somewhat more reasonably, but he hardly was blameless in the matter.

Grayling's distinction between Hume's 'Enlightenment' thought and Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment 'Romantic' thought is, of course, perfectly meaningless, and has no foundation but anachronism and wishful thinking, like all such attempts to create an Enlightenment to one's personal taste (or distaste, as the case may be). It requires a good deal of gerrymandering to fit such a distinction into the intellectual world at that stage of the game. And in any case what put Hume and Rousseau into opposition was not primarily difference in theory but rather something they shared: lives based on sentiment. They had very different habits of sentiment.

* Scalia's opinion in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, et al. v. Summum (PDF) says some interesting things about public monuments.

* Gift exchanges are customary symbolic gestures when the leaders of nations meet, and a great deal of thought is usually put into them. For instance, Gordon Brown recently gave the President a pen holder made from the timbers of the HMS Gannet, a sister ship of the Resolute, and had been an important anti-slaver ship in the Mediterranean. One can see the significance of giving such a symbol of liberty as a sign of the friendship between two nations. Reading around, however, I find quite a few Brits are a bit baffled by President Obama's return gift: a 25-disc collection of American classic movies. I think one can sympathize with those finding it difficult to see how this symbolizes American-British friendship.

* Pascal Boyer has an interesting post on institutions. It's interesting, but it does seem to me to run into a standard reductionist problem: an absurd conclusion is reached and then epicycles are added to make sure that it looks less absurd. It's an obvious fact that institutions aren't merely sets of representations. For instance, the University of Oxford is not merely a set of representations of rules and roles, but also a bunch of people and a bunch of land with buildings on it that can be experienced, have a discoverable history, and, in the case of the people, have experiences of their own. A court of law is not merely distributed representations and normative notions but a place you actually go to find actual judges and juries and have certain kinds of experiences. The reductionist view (like much, although not all, reductionism) would have to show that it is not making a merely necessary condition a sufficient condition. This may not be impossible -- perhaps there is a way to explain insitutions entirely in terms of representations. But it would have to be a very surprising way.

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