Saturday, May 16, 2009

An Episode in the History of Philosophy of History

Clemens notes that the sentence immediately after the famous saying of Lord Acton, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely," was the often overlooked "Great men are almost always bad men." The whole letter in which these phrases appear is worth reading; it's a letter to Mandell Creighton in which Acton argues that it is absolutely essential to good judgment in history to avoid compromising moral principle, for any reason. The particular topic at issue was how the historian should approach the Inquisition in the time of Pope Sixtus IV; Acton, a devout Catholic himself (although of the liberal camp that had thought that the definition of Vatican I was ill-advised)*, had some harsh words about the Pope's responsibility here, and thought that it was utterly important for a historian, and especially a Catholic historian, not to make such a matter a partisan issue and, e.g., try to defend Sixtus purely because he was a Catholic Pope. Creighton had suggested in a book on the history of the Papacy that the historian should not be forever moralizing, and should instead take into account the differences of their historical context (he had defended Pope Alexander VI by noting that his vices were actually fairly common at the time and that he did have the advantage of not being hypocritical about it) and the "high office and lofty claims" of those being discussed.

This was pretty much the opposite of Acton's view. When Creighton asked Acton to review the book, Acton gave Creighton's book a fairly negative view without getting into the reasons for it; but he mentioned in a letter that the result of the difference of opinion here was due to differences in their philosophy of history. Creighton, who had been taken aback by the review, replied that he wished Acton would take the trouble at some point to explain his philosophy of history; and the long letter in early April of 1887, in which the famous phrase appears, is devoted to laying out Acton's philosophy of history, one in which moral principles play the key role in making Acton's view almost the opposite of Creighton's view (which would probably be pretty commonly accepted by historians today). I can't find the full letter online, but you can get something of a taste for it with the following selection:

Text not available
Life and letters of Mandell Creighton, D.D. Oxon. and Cam., sometime bishop of London ... By Louise Creighton

Creighton's response is just as interesting, and can be found at the same link. To a third party Creighton summed up the issue as he saw it:
Text not available
Life and letters of Mandell Creighton, D.D. Oxon. and Cam., sometime bishop of London ... By Louise Creighton

* ADDED LATER: Acton's difficulties with the notion of Papal Infallibility were actually closely related to this topic, as Creighton recognized; Acton argued for fallibilism on the basis of the moral judgment of history. He feared that the doctrine of infallibility involved being indulgent toward terrible evils committed by past popes. Newman had much the same problem with the doctrine; after the Council he accepted the definition on the authority of the Church, but confessed that he didn't know how to reconcile it with certain historical facts. Acton was somewhat less yielding on the matter, in part because he had spent much, much more of his life on the issue.

Friday, May 15, 2009

'Though Unreachable, My Heart Longs'

If this bears fruit, it is very, very welcome:

I recently attended a conference near Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, hosted by local officials who spoke with pride about their efforts to revive Confucianism under the banner of “Chinese culture.”

It’s easy to forget that the 74-million-strong Chinese Communist Party is a large and diverse organization. Elderly cadres, still influenced by Maoist antipathy to tradition, often condemn any efforts to promote ideologies outside of a rigid Marxist framework. But the younger cadres in their 40s and 50s tend to support such efforts, and time is on their side. Part of the political debate is the effort to revive Confucianism.

Daniel Bell, the author, has tended to be very much on the optimistic side of this, though, so time will tell how things move. It's always possible that nothing major will come of it; and it is always possible that the movement will go wrong in some way. Bell has another article from last September on the same general subject.

On Star Trek Again

I am always mystified by people who find movies ruined if they know plot details beforehand, but if you are one of those mystifying people, and unaccountably have not seen the movie yet, here be spoilers.

There have been quite a few interesting comments on the movie, trying to weigh out what has been changed and what has remained the same. See Daniel Larison, for instance, or Peter Suderman, or Steven Greydanus. As I've said before, I think it takes its place as one of the fun movies of the franchise, in the company of The Wrath of Khan (with its relatively clear story and the one villain in the whole history of ST that manages to be both plausible and gloriously over-the-top) and The Voyage Home (with its great crew interaction and genuine humor). A number of other movies had strengths -- The Undiscovered Country has some great dialogue and so forth -- and so forth, but a feature film needs to be genuinely fun, particular since Star Trek seems to have difficulty coming up with more than TV-movie plots. In entertainment Fun covers a multitude of sins.

One of the things that makes it difficult to weigh this film is that we don't actually know where anything is going, and this movie may come to be seen as stronger or weaker as a reboot depending on how well the other movies follow up on it. Here's what I think should be a big issue in films to come. The destruction of Vulcan, one of the chief pillars and founding members of the Federation, cannot go without effect. In terms of the previous continuity (or quasi-continuity, which is as close as it sometimes got to continuity), it seems clear enough that Earth and Vulcan were the key members of the Federation, engaging in a partial division of labor. The Federation was built on Vulcan technological and scientific infrastructure; while its role was often never well-defined, it seemed clear enough that the Vulcan Science Academy was one of the most important, and (given the nature of the Vulcans) probably the most important research institution of the Federation. Earth, on the other hand, was the primary foundation for Starfleet itself, in all of its functions: exploration, policing, defense. Humans are always presented as the ones giving vivacity to the Federation: rushing in where angels fear to tread. Vulcans gave it strength and caution: logic, whatever that was thought to mean exactly by whichever writer was writing at the time. There were other species and civilizations that played their roles, but over and over this was clear: the two powerhouses of Federation politics and policy were Earth and Vulcan. This whole scenario has changed. The Vulcan powerhouse is now a minor colony struggling to survive. The Vulcan Science Academy is shredded. All the ties of economics, research, and production linking Vulcan to the rest of the Federation are severed. This is a massive and terrible wound for a Federation that still must handle Romulans and Klingons, as well as all sorts of other dangers. Imagine what the U.S. would have been like in the Cold War if California had unexpectedly and catastrophically collapsed into the sea. In The Undiscovered Country the Klingon Empire was brought to its knees by the destruction of a single mining planet. No doubt the Federation is more stable, but it's also suffered a far more serious blow. If you're brash enough to kill six billion Vulcans, ruining the great civilization for centuries at least, you'd better follow through with the consequences.

The natural result of this would be desperation. The sharks are swimming out there beyond the borders and there is blood in the water. The whole government of the Federation, if it is not completely oblivious, will be worried. Who will try to take advantage of this weakness? What can be done to stop them? How can the Federation compete with rival nations? Can Federation values be maintained in the face of the needs of survival? Everything is unstable and in doubt; the continued existence of the Federation is in the air; and it will take all of Starfleet's best to keep things from spiralling out of control. In fact, if the producers play their cards correctly, what we should see in the next several movies, and certainly the next movie, is that things are doing precisely this: spiralling out of control. Terrible war with the Romulans (or Klingons) should be narrowly averted, or (if war is not averted) the Federation should have victory by remaining true to itself; the dangers of Federation desperation (and the consequent temptation to play dirty) should be made clear; and a new equilibrium must be found. And the crew of the Enterprise, as always fallibly but also in the long run surely, first in sheer doggedness and then in triumph, must be there waving the flag of Roddenberry's basic vision: progress and peace, tolerance and respect, discovery and courage. The Federation cannot possibly be the same; it faces a struggle like no other. But the vision has to stay at least more-or-less the same. This contrast is what gives room for genuinely interesting possibilities.

I really don't have all that much faith that this will happen. But it's what should happen. If something more-or-less like it does, it will have all turned out well. And if it does not, people will be annoyed at the unfulfilled potential.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wollstonecraft and the Elements of Morality

Ooh, good Google Book find:

Text not available
Elements of Morality For the Use of Young Persons. From the German By Christian Gotthilf Salzmann

If I'm not mistaken this is based on Mary Wollstonecraft's translation (although this particular edition looks like it has some revision). Wollstonecraft's original edition is also up:

Elements of Morality, for the use of children, Volume I

Volume II
Volume III

The Elements of Morality, as you would expect, is a fictionalized conduct book for children; it tells a story that is intended to make various points about ethics. Wollstonecraft's translation is, from what I understand, not woodenly literal: she regularly Anglicizes the stories, and gave a number of characters the names of her own family members. The translation was one small part of Wollstonecraft's contribution to a major interest in progressive education that was sweeping Europe at the time. Salzmann was the founder (in 1784) of the Schnepfenthal Institute, which was an experimental school built on principles drawn from Rousseau, Locke, and the educational reformer Johann Bernhard Basedow. Much of what is commonly thought of as 'Enlightenment values' is heavily drawn from the Europe-wide educational reform movement of which these were a part and, in a sense, most of Wollstonecraft's philosophical work is a contribution to this movement.

The Desert Fathers as Moral Philosophy

It's perhaps not surprising that people expect ethics or moral philosophy to be a very practical area of philosophy, an area that does not involve mere theoretical argument but practically useful counsel and advice, a field that is not lost in words and positions but involves the active pursuit of the good life. After all, if ethics isn't practical what is? But very often ethics still seems to fall well on the theoretical side.

There have been times and places, however, in which ethics was taken seriously as philosophy -- indeed, taken seriously as the philosophy, the area of most crucial importance -- precisely insofar as it is practical. The era of the Desert Fathers was one of those. We don't normally think of ethics or moral philosophy as a bunch of hermits praying in the wilderness. But if you had asked them what they were doing, they would have answered without hesitation that they were doing philosophy. Indeed, that's exactly what they did say they were doing. We get a nice summary of this view in the Life of St. Theodosios the Abbott. In his youth he began to take a passionate interest in the philosophical life, and the philosophical life he was interested in wasn't debates and lecture hall but practical philosophy, one devoted to the study of the good. And what kinds of life were available for such a philosophical pursuit? The eremitic and coenobitic. Hermit and monk.

The idea behind the lavra as a form of philosophical research was nicely laid out by St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite in his 1783 preface the Evergetinos, one of the major works of Orthodox piety. One of the most significant aspects of moral life is how we manage our more disruptive passions, and St. Nikodemos argues that what we see in the Desert Fathers is a sort of intensive research into this practice of obtaining a dispassionate view. As he puts it:

And so, isolating themselves in the "deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth", to quote St. Paul, and having chosen unbroken silence, they set themselves to the task of uncovering in a positive, exact fashion, the original causes of the passions and eradicating them. (p. xxxiii)

More than this, however, the intense pursuit of virtue under difficult conditions led them to discover different ways to classify and categorize virtues; and by teaching others they passed on this practical know-how to others, so that directly and indirectly we can benefit from it through works like the Evergetinos. St. Nikodemos uses a striking analogy to clarify his point:

Just as those interested in physiology determine bodily properties by means of countless instruments and after numerous experiements, chemical analyses, and multifarious tests, in similar fashion these men of God experienced countless temptations, carried out trials and experiments over numerous years (for it could take these men up to fifty years to test a single principle), and discovered, byt the illuminating guidance of the Holy Spirit, the depths of moral philosophy, refining these virtues out of their respective excesses and deficiencies. (p. xxxiv)

Thus the ascetic life in the wilderness is a sort of massive moral experimentation away from the distractions and disruptions of civil life; in this relative isolation they tested out various moral principles by trying to live their entire lives according to them. Like an inventor experimenting with different materials or an artist experiment with different techniques, the Desert Fathers began to develop a practical know-how in the artistry and engineering of the moral life, which they then communicated to each other and to those who were willing to journey out to them in order to listen to them. Their expertise in this or that ethical matter can then be put to use in our own lives:

...[T]hese men teach us which virtues are bodily, which are spiritual, and which noetic; and how and to what extent and why, if put into practice, they are welcome or not. They teach us which passions are general or specific, which in turn are bodily, spiritual, or noetic, and how one might readily be rid of these. In short these men set forth the man in Christ. Indeed, it is extraordinary that the sayings of these blessed desert Elders, though couched in a simple, colloquial style, nonetheless greatly enrich us with their immediacy, so that they influence nearly all those who read them. (p.xxxiv)

But, of course, it's not just their words that teach us; we have their lives, the failings they had to overcome and the ways in which they did so, and these, too, teach us about the moral life; the isolation of the hermit or monk isolates the moral principles and shows us how they work in a relatively undisrupted environment. This can give us a better understanding of the moral principles themselves, and therefore a better understanding of how they might be applied in our own rather more turbulent environments.

Such is St. Nikodemos's argument. One can find similar arguments elsewhere, e.g., in St. Thomas Aquinas's idea that a religious order is a school for charity. It is noteworthy, I think, how far from this very practice-oriented pursuit modern ethics is; and, I would suggest, it is worth asking how such a practical approach to philosophy, where the philosopher is supposed to delineate actual moral life and distill moral experience into usable, practical ideas, would work in our own day. Of course, that makes it sound like it has totally vanished; but, rare though it may be, there are still eremitics and coenobitics in this world who see themselves in much the same terms their forebears did. We pay little attention to them, all things considered, particularly for moral insight; and, having never really replaced it with anything else, we have lost the sense of moral philosophy as a master craft. It is worth remembering that it is entirely possible to think of moral philosophy in those terms; it has been done before, with interesting result.


All quotations are from The Evergetinos: A Complete Text, Book I, Chrysostomos and Patapios, trs., Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies (Etna, CA: 2008).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Non-Point of Creation

Jason Rosenhouse:

I think Coyne is right both about humans not being inevitable and about the importance of this question to religious folks. If Stephen Jay Gould was right about humans being unlikely to evolve a second time were we to replay the evolutionary process, then Christianity is really in some very serious trouble. It's pretty hard to argue that humans are the point of creation if it's a serious possibility that evolution would never have gotten past the trilobite.

No doubt it would be hard to argue, at least granted certain presuppositions; but humans aren't the 'point of creation'. And this has in fact been a pretty common position in the history of Christian theology, whatever its status among the sorts of people Rosenhouse reads; and, indeed, the same goes for lots of 'religious folks' outside of Christianity. We have no particular reason to hold that we are cosmically significant by nature; God is cosmically significant, to be sure, and thus friends of God, to use the old phrase, have a sort of indirect significance. But in a sense the whole point of human life is recognizing that we are not the point of the world. Of course, we are still pretty significant to ourselves, and we can do some pretty splendid things like seek God and write poetry and figure out the gravitational constant, and we can do some thoroughly horrible things like rape and genocide and torture; but that's a different sort of significance.

And as to inevitability: any 'yes' or 'no' answer on that point would have to be massively qualified on any position, because inevitability is always relative to a particular causal background. If you specify the causes sufficiently precisely, anything is inevitable, because you've narrowed down the causal options to the one effect; and if you are sufficiently general in your identification of the causes, nothing is, because you've broadened all the causal options to more than one effect. So if we ask whether human beings were inevitable, we have to ask, in light of which set of causes? Those constituting the entire evolutionary history right through to modern homo sapiens? Those involved in the formation of the earth? Those involved in the formation of the sun? The eternal plans of God? The cosmic radiation leading to this or that mutation? The early reproduction of the first eukaryotes? The diverging of the Diapsidae from the Synapsidae? Pick your set of causes, the details of your answer will depend very crucially on the causes you've picked. The causes set the possibilities.

UPDATE: In the comments Jason notes that in context he meant something much more specific than his words seemed to imply; taken in that more specific sense, I'm still not convinced, but I think it's a much stronger argument.

Who Kissed You Through the Dark, Dear Guesser?

A Child's Thought of God
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning


They say that God lives very high;
But if you look above the pines
You cannot see our God; and why?


And if you dig down in the mines
You never see Him in the gold;
Though from Him all that's glory shines.


God is so good, He wears a fold
Of heaven and earth across His face—
Like secrets kept, for love, untold.


But still I feel that His embrace
Slides down by thrills, through all things made,
Through sight and sound of every place.


As if my tender mother laid
On my shut lips her kisses' pressure,
Half-waking me at night, and said
"Who kissed you through the dark, dear guesser?"

Monday, May 11, 2009

Linkable Notables, Notable Linkables

* Mark Chu-Carroll discusses the problems with a recent paper by Dembski. He has a very good summary of reasons why you have to be very, very careful in treating evolution in terms of search and search landscapes.

* What is Jughead's hat?

* Greg Frost-Arnold notes that when you tie validity to Venn diagrams, the result is not classical. I've noticed this with Carroll's literal diagrams modified for propositional logic myself, although I'm not sure if I've ever mentioned it here; that's not surprising, since literal diagrams and Venn diagrams are very similar sorts of diagrams. Given the way this sort of diagram relates to inference rules, I think that the reason for it is that the rules of Addition and Weakening can only apply in a very limited and restricted form -- i.e., to use them in their full sense would require changing the diagram to a different diagram every time you used them to introduce a new proposition unless you were (per impossibile) working with a diagram that already contained all possible propositions. (How exactly it would work in a particular case would depend, I imagine, on precisely what conventions of diagramming you were using.) Like Frost-Arnold, I'm sure someone has looked into something like this in the literature; but I've never been able to find anything like it. If you know of any case, let me know.

* Chad Orzel has a fun post on Rumpelstiltskin and spinning gold from straw.

* John Farrell looks into the evolution of protein folding.

* James Chastek has a good post on what Thomas Aquinas means when he talks about similitudes in the mind.

* Peter at "On Philosophy" reflects on the philosopher as artist.

* John Wilkins discusses what it means to ask whether religious cognition is adaptive. I'm inclined to agree with his suggestion that "religion is adaptive at various levels in various conditions, and no general claims can be made about it"; the reasons he suggests seem reasonable to me. Although, confessedly, part of my inclination here is that I also tend to think that there are too many very different things that get the label 'religious' for it to be a natural explanandum in the first place. It's like asking whether political cognition is adaptive; the first thing you'd have to do even to make much sense of the question is to begin to distinguish all the jillion very different things that can fall under that category, and you would expect that some of those are and some of them aren't, and you would expect any that are to be so for very different reasons, depending on how it relates to survival and reproduction, and you would expect the whole investigation to be extraordinarily complex and difficult. The sort of study discussed is indeed one of the things you'd want to do, in the hopes of clarifying things; but it's only one, and on its own barely begins to explore a very convoluted surface.

* YouTube finds:

Would anyone fall for the Trojan Horse trick again? One of the funniest things I've seen. At least the Turkish consulate knew better than to trust the Greeks bearing gifts.

The day the squirrel went berserk in the First Self-Righteous Church; I've always liked that one. It's almost as good as his Ballad of the Blue Cyclone, and even better than I'm My Own Grandpa (although on that last, it's hard to beat Lonzo & Oscar).

* Anita Silvers has an article on Feminist Perspectives on Disability at the SEP. Like much of Silvers's work, it is very interesting.

* Ed Peters discusses lay blessings in communion lines at Catholic Mass. I have never been able to make sense of the practice; it seems that was because there's no sense. The trouble is that I suspect that it will be virtually impossible to stamp out as long as non-Catholics are present at the actual communion; it's a very common habit, and very commonly recommended by Catholics for non-Catholics without any clarification or qualification, and I suspect both that lay ministers would not really know what to do if the practice were suspended and people still came up to them for it and that it would be something of a nightmare in many parishes to try to get across the underlying idea for the suspension to the people in the pews.

Hutcheson on the Beauty of Principles

Text not available
An Inquiry Into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue In Two Treatises By Francis Hutcheson

Magically Emerging Collective Products

I saw this quotation by Jeff McMahan, over at Leiter Reports:

Part of the reason why analytic philosophy generally is in such a healthy state is that, as Jerry Fodor observed in a recent book review, philosophers no longer tend to have philosophies. We no longer devote our lives to developing comprehensive philospohical or ethical systems. We are individually narrower and more specialized, which enables us to focus more carefully and minutely on the problems we study, and as a consequence to produce work that is more rigorous and detailed. The result is that philosophy has become more of a collective endeavour than it was in the past, in the sense that different people are focusing selectively on problems that are elements or aspects of larger problems. When the results of the individual efforts are combined, we may achieve a collective product that exceeds in depth, intracacy, and sophistication what any individual could have produced by working on the larger problem in isolation.

If nobody is devoting their lives to developing comprehensive philosophical or ethical systems, who is supposed to be doing the combining of individual efforts into a comprehensive collective product, or any sort of product at all? A collective product, like an individual one, has to be actually made somehow, and there is at present no mechanism in place for doing this if there aren't groups of people actually devoting themselves to it. Don't get me wrong; in intellectual matters I'm all for working together. Symphilosophie would be lovely. But somehow I don't think this particular strategy for it has been very well thought out.

My own view, by the way, not that anyone really cares, is that analytic philosophy is not in a healthy state, but is slowly collapsing, mostly due to serious inadequacies in the academic infrastructure that carries it, but partly also due to the fact that people are not really engaging in a cooperative venture -- people cannibalize and build on each other's work, but they do it mostly from scratch, again and again. There is simply not enough unity to have a collective anything; we are entering an era of Ten Thousand schools. And because of that, no one is really tracing out the ramifications of the detail-work people do (which in fact is only at the very top levels "more rigorous and detailed" than what people have been doing for decades now). This is precisely what would be avoided if philosophers took the trouble to have philosophies, and worked with those who had similar philosophies, but still specialized in particular areas; this is the only way I can think of in which the result McMahan is hoping for has ever actually come about: specialization inevitably collapses unless people have sufficient unity of opinion with each other to allow specializations to fit together and cross-fertilize. Moreover, I think a telltale sign is that what goes by the name of analytic philosophy has been steadily becoming more amorphous for decades now, with older terms -- like 'analysis' and 'analytic' themselves, to such a degree that it's difficult to say what 'analytic philosophy' is supposed to be -- being stretched farther and farther in a sort of concept inflation. This, too, has often been a bad sign in history, because it eventually reaches a point where all the major similarities and agreements are purely verbal and begin to be recognized as such. Of course, this is also often the very sign that people take to show that analytic philosophy is flourishing, using different words from 'amorphous' and 'concept inflation'; time will tell, I suppose. But at present it seems to me that such claims as the above have little more substance than a self-satisfied pat on one's own back.

Going Again Where No Man Has Gone Before

I saw the new Star Trek movie yesterday.

Good points:

* It really does put some fun back into a franchise that was beginning to come across as pompous and pretentious.
* There are some beautiful special effects, and I suspect that they will date less quickly than those of previous movies.
* Some of the character acting was splendid, and as usual some of the secondary main characters -- Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) especially -- give a crucial bit of balance, humor, and feeling of teamwork to the story. This is one of the things that has often been seriously lacking in the movies, despite the fact that it's the thing that's usually most needed.
* The comic side of the story is generally written and acted well.

Bad points:

* There is no plot, just an extensive stringing together of coincidences. Now, we shouldn't look down on coincidences: good plots often trade on them. But this has a lot of implausible coincidences, falling into three groups: (1) coincidences that are implausible but can be accepted because they are given the right comic twist; (2) coincidences that are implausible but are bearable because they contribute to the story at least a little bit; (3) coincidences that are so implausible they make no sense. And while (1) is just a staple of science fiction on the screen, (3) comes thick and heavy here, especially toward the middle.
* I thought the opening scenes were mostly cheesy.
* The score is oddly done. On the one hand, there are occasional good uses of silence in the music to give vivid contrast to the difference between the inside and the outside of the ship. On the other, there are several times when it should have been quiet and suspenseful but instead became noisy and intrusive.
* Very forgettable villain.

But all in all, it's worth watching. One hopes that this run will mature a bit and not be quite so much about Pretty Young Things; but it's fresh life for the franchise.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Art of Thinking

Frederick C. Kolbe on the Art of Thinking:

Text not available
The Irish Monthly By Matthew Russell

The whole essay, published in 1893, is actually fairly interesting. In it he traces a set of analogies between the art of thinking and the fine arts, and argues that the art of thinking, like the fine arts, must be characterized by the following features:

(1) "Art-work is not the work of individuals, but the outcome of the united efforts of a school." As he says elsewhere, to have a genuine art of thinking, you need to "begin in reverence," i.e., to allow some room for apprenticeship to great minds.
(2) "Every art has its own drudgery. That of thinking consists in the elementary practice of formal logic."
(3) "Art is concerned with things, not with notions; and there are things of the mind every whit as real as tables and chairs." Thus part of the art of thinking is learning to deal with realities rather than getting mired in purely verbal disputes or sticking merely to knowledge of theories about realities.
(4) "We must love our art, for its own sake, not for anything it can bring us....We must be real philosophers, lovers of wisdom: otherwise we can never become artists in the domain of Thought." It takes "undying enthusiasm."