Saturday, June 13, 2009

Hale on Feminism

Tabitha Hale has an interesting post at "Pink Elephant Pundit" on conservatism and feminism:

Someone called me a "true feminist" last week in response to my articles regarding Playboy and Guy Cimbalo. At first, I was slightly taken back. Feminists generally don’t like me very much. It’s not a crowd I’ve ever considered running with. It did, however, make me think. What is a feminist? In my mind, it’s someone who embraces women for what they are.

Casanova's Fideism (Re-Post)

This is a re-post of a discussion of Casanova's philosophy from 2005, slightly edited to remove broken links.

In the Author's Preface to Casanova's memoirs we read:

I will begin with this confession: whatever I have done in the course of my life, whether it be good or evil, has been done freely; I am a free agent.

The doctrine of the Stoics or of any other sect as to the force of Destiny is a bubble engendered by the imagination of man, and is near akin to Atheism. I not only believe in one God, but my faith as a Christian is also grafted upon that tree of philosophy which has never spoiled anything.

As he notes, he writes his memoirs as a confession, but not in the style of a repentant sinner; he regards his indulgences as the follies of youth, and portrays them in that light. The Preface has what looks like a sharp rejection of Cartesianism:

A certain philosophy, full of consolation, and in perfect accord with religion, pretends that the state of dependence in which the soul stands in relation to the senses and to the organs, is only incidental and transient, and that it will reach a condition of freedom and happiness when the death of the body shall have delivered it from that state of tyrannic subjection. This is very fine, but, apart from religion, where is the proof of it all? Therefore, as I cannot, from my own information, have a perfect certainty of my being immortal until the dissolution of my body has actually taken place, people must kindly bear with me, if I am in no hurry to obtain that certain knowledge, for, in my estimation, a knowledge to be gained at the cost of life is a rather expensive piece of information.

He also laments over Spinoza:

Oh, blissful ignorance! Spinosa, the virtuous Spinosa, died before he could possess it. He would have died a learned man and with a right to the reward his virtue deserved, if he had only supposed his soul to be immortal!

It is not true that a wish for reward is unworthy of real virtue, and throws a blemish upon its purity. Such a pretension, on the contrary, helps to sustain virtue, man being himself too weak to consent to be virtuous only for his own 'gratification. I hold as a myth that Amphiaraus who preferred to be good than to seem good. In fact, I do not believe there is an honest man alive without some pretension, and here is mine.

Casanova also takes the trouble to distance himself from freethinkers:

A so-called free-thinker told me at one time that I could not consider myself a philosopher if I placed any faith in revelation. But when we accept it readily in physics, why should we reject it in religious matters? The form alone is the point in question. The spirit speaks to the spirit, and not to the ears. The principles of everything we are acquainted with must necessarily have been revealed o those from whom we have received them by the great, supreme principle, which contains them all. The bee erecting its hive, the swallow building its nest, the ant constructing its cave, and the spider warping its web, would never have done anything but for a previous and everlasting revelation. We must either believe that it is so, or admit that matter is endowed with thought. But as we dare not pay such a compliment to matter, let us stand by revelation.

I think that what he chiefly has in mind here is the immortality of the soul: Casanova is a skeptical fideist about the immortality of the soul. Reason cannot prove it (pace Descartes), it must be accepted on faith alone (pace an unnamed freethinker), and it is rational to hope for it (pace Spinoza).

He has an interesting discussion with a Muslim in chapter XIV, where he implicitly accepts the Incarnation, and gives a fideist response to the Muslim:

"My religion tells me to believe without arguing, and I shudder, my dear Yusuf, when I think that, through some specious reasoning, I might be led to renounce the creed of my fathers. I first must be convinced that they lived in error. Tell me whether, respecting my father's memory, I ought to have such a good opinion of myself as to sit in judgement over him, with the intention of giving my sentence against him?"

However, after the conversation, he allows that Yusuf might be right; but still says that it would be absurd to leave the creed of his fathers for Islam because even if Muhammed were right on this point, he was still an 'arrant imposter'. (The discussions with Yusuf are all fascinating, and well worth reading.) He is certainly a Catholic (goes to confession regularly, is certain that he is absolved of his sins in it, etc.) He is severely critical of the adoration of the Sacred Heart (which he thinks a bit disgusting), and is suspicious of Jesuits, but neither of those would have been all that uncommon for Catholics at the time. He reminds me in many ways of Montaigne: philosophically skeptical, fideistically Catholic. His memoirs are a great resource for those interested in early modern fideism.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Poem Draft and Two Re-Drafts

Flowing Clock

You turned into a flowing clock
dripping down the wall
which had a bulge and curvature
like a time-hued ball,
and I fled
down streets of jasmine scent
through catacombs of the dead
where thoughts were bent
around a singularity,
attractive, charming, strange,
a sublime focus of orbit
that time and space deranged
until they curled and flowed
like some mobius made of worlds
that hang like crystal globes
through free-fall hurled.
And you were still around
like the breezes in the air,
touching my thought and passing
in games of truth or dare,
and one point drew me on,
a magnet drawing steel,
and I, a pawn,
the check of life could feel
until that gentle point,
wild and sublime,
turned a clock into a flowing face
and turned back space and time.

Half Asleep in a Thunderstorm

I lie in bed at night,
a fan above my head;
my mind whirls round and round
and I dream that I am dead.

The darkness all around me
is a blanket on the brain,
my heartbeat in my ears
is the pounding of the rain,
and I watch the world go by,
autumn leaves upon the gale,
full of visions of lost time
and the lapse of every tale.

The darkness thunders softly
as I drift here in my bed,
half in the world and of it,
half out of it and dead.

Outside, It Is Night

Outside, it is night;
but I and the raccoons
are still going over accounts,
picking out the morsels
from cast-off residues.

Would I were a Pangur Bán
hunting for his mouse,
searching out the meaning
of these everlasting words!
Then there'd be a point.

Instead, I stare at the page.
I muse on the words.
I make a few revisions.
And all this little work
leaves me feeling exhausted.

Often I find something good;
that's hearteningly true.
But it amazes even me
how absurdly difficult
I can make writing a paper.

Academic writing, like poetry,
is proof that there is a Muse,
a source of inspiration;
it's there or it isn't,
but either way, you have to try.

One always suspects that others
are able to do better.
Some work more consistently,
without this mental stutter,
but I'm not sure it's worth it.

After all, never to be inspired
is never a consolation
for lacking the pangs of genius.
That sounds quite good--
this is labor before birth.

Or perhaps it's mental aridity.
Those monks in the desert knew
that springs sometimes go dry;
and what I have is just that,
aridity. That's good, too.

But then I always wonder
if I'm really just kidding myself.
After all, it sounds pretentious
to talk of Muses, pains of labor,
aridity of the mind.

I'm pulled both ways.
I can't shake the feeling
that I should be grateful
for this gift of stop-and-start
that shirks dull assiduity.

But I also can't shake the feeling
that it's all an excuse,
a self-indulgent pretense,
by which I justify a lack of work
and empty nighttime efforts.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Quick Note

I will be out of town until next Wednesday, visiting some college friends in Portland, Oregon, and I doubt I'll be online during that time. But I've arranged for a few small things to be automatically posted over the next few days, so it should be as if I were never even gone. See you Wednesday!

Brandon Watson

EA Fakes Christian Protest

An interesting development in the world of advertising:

Video game giant Electronic Arts has admitted it funded a group of fake protesters who pretended to be Christians as a publicity stunt to spur interest in its upcoming action game very loosely based on Dante’s “Inferno.”

The game company hired a group of almost 20 people to stand outside the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles on Wednesday, the Associated Press says. The phony protesters passed out amateurish material and held signs bearing slogans such as “Trade in Your PlayStation for a PrayStation,” “Hell is not a Game” and “EA = Electronic Anti-Christ.”

Holly Rockwood, an EA spokeswoman, said the charade was arranged by a viral marketing agency hired by the company.

A web page in the crude style of 1990s web design was also created in connection with the stunt. It depicted crosses crushing the word “sin” and placed images of the King James Bible among phony condemnations and thinly-veiled promotions of the game.

This sort of publicity stunt is likely to be more and more common as time goes on. Outrage, or just someone playing on your prejudice and accepted stereotypes to sway your opinion? There will be times that it will become difficult to tell.

Connaissances du Coeur

Le coeur a ses raisons que le raison ne connaît point; on le sait en mille choses.
The heart has its reasons whereof reason knows nothing; one knows it in a thousand things.

It is sometimes difficult to convey how much modern people have a one-dimensional view of their own minds. Everything is jumbled and conflated together until we can hardly talk of 'belief' or 'intuition' or 'thought' or 'reason' without equivocating ourselves to high heaven. But it is possible to recognize that our thoughts have a texture to them, that they are not all the same kind of thing; and this pertains the maxim above, because Pascal is, in fact, arguing for precisely this sort of distinction.

I. Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a seventeenth-century prodigy, a pioneer in projective geometry and probability theory. He was early on a participant in the Jansenist movement, but entered what is often known as his 'worldly period', in which he distanced himself from religious matters, from 1648-1654; this period was brought to an end by a brush with death in 1654, which led to an intensified interest in religious topics. He took up the cause of Jansenism against the Jesuits with his Provinical Letters, an attack on Jesuit casuistry. As he was finishing up the Letters, his 10-year-old niece Marguerite Périer, ceased to suffer from a condition thought to be incurable when a relic, said to be a thorn from Christ's crown of thorns, was touched to her eye; this event, the Miracle of the Holy Thorn, took the already growing Jansenist movement and galvanized it, sparking it to new life. It was in this context that Pascal set out to write his life's masterwork, an Apologie de la religion Chrétienne (Defense of the Christian Religion). By the time of his death, however, the work still consisted only of scattered notes and fragments. These were collected together after his death as the Pensées de M. Pascal sur la religion, et sur quelques autres sujets (Thoughts of Mr. Pascal on religion and on some other subjects). The Pensées, despite their fragmentary character, have become a world classic.

II. Pensées

Because it consists only of notes we always have to be very careful in interpreting claims we find in the Pensées. For instance, there are indications throughout the text that parts of the work were intended to be presented in dialogue form, or something like it, and therefore not every sentence in the notes may represent Pascal's own view, as opposed to a view that he thought he needed to consider. A good example of how this can affect interpretation is the most famous argument in the Pensées, Pascal's Wager. The notes related to the Wager are often read as if they were all part of a single argument; but there are indications in them that the Wager argument in its final form would have been dialogical, and that different parts of the argument are actually responses to very specific concerns by an interlocutor. (I've given a rough account of the way I think the Wager argument should be read here.)

Nonetheless we can get at least a rough idea of what Pascal intended for the work. The two major themes of the work, which would probably also have formed the two major divisions of the book, are the wretchedness of human beings with God and Jesus as the way for human beings to be united to God. Judging from the notes we have, it is very likely that the latter would also have included a defense of the Jansenist miracles, like the Holy Thorn, from their Jesuit detractors.

III. Reasons of the Heart

Traditionally, the 'heart' was seen as the seat of personhood. For instance, the scholastics often took the 'heart' to mean the intellect and will. It isn't clear whether Pascal had this specifically in mind, but Pascal's 'heart' is also the source of understanding and loving in the human person. The passage from which our dictum comes is the following note:

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point; on le sait en mille choses. Je dis que le coeur aime l’être universel naturellement, et soimême naturellement selon qu’il s’y adonne; et il se durcit contre l’un ou l’autre à son choix. Vous avez rejeté l’un et conservé l’autre: estce par raison que vous vous aimez? (#277)

The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing; one knows it in a thousand things. I say that the heart loves universal being naturally, and also itself naturally, insofar as it gives itself to them; and it hardens itself against one or the other at its own choice. You have rejected the one and kept the other; it is by reason that you love yourself?

Note that the emphasis here is not on our dictum but on the two kinds of love: love for universal being and love for one's self. And the point is that the latter is not girded by reasoning, calculating out the reasons for loving oneself: one simply does it, naturally, and one can only fail to do it by deliberately hardening your heart against yourself. Likewise with love of universal being. The heart involves instinctual impulses, fundamental principles of life; they are not reasoned out, but they are also not irrational. We see this when we ask what sort of things Pascal thinks the heart can know. And, mathematician that he is, he is very clear: one of the things we know by heart rather than reason is mathematics:

We know truth not only by reason but also by the heart; it is in this last way that we know first principles, and reason, having no part in it, tries in vain to combat them. Pyrrhonians, who have nothing else for their object, labor uselessly. We know we do not dream; however powerless we may be to prove it by reason, this poweressness shows nothing other than the weakness of our reason, not the uncertainty of all our knowledge, as they claim. For knowledge of first principles, such as space, times, motions, numbers, are as sure as anything that our reasoning gives us. And this knowledge of the heart and of instinct are such that reason must trust it, and base all of its discourse on it. (The heart feels that there are three dimensions in space and that numbers are infinite and reason then shows that there are no two square numbers of which one is double the other. The principles are felt, the propositions are concluded, and all with certainty, although in different ways.) (#283)

If we had stronger and better minds, we would, in fact, know everything by heart, the way we know our first principles. But our minds are actually fairly weak. So some things we know by heart, such as the things without which we cannot even make sense of our own reasoning, and from these fundamental things reason draws its conclusions. If we did not have the heart to anchor our reasoning, all our reasoning would be purely hypothetical: it is the heart that, without having to reason, reasonably accepts some things as certainly true and some things as certinly false.

This ties into the theme of the Pensées in that Pascal argues throughout that God can only properly be known through the heart: it is by the heart, namely, through our love of universal being, that we know God, not by going through a step-by-step enumeration of reasons. This heart's knowledge of God is faith. Reasoning can have a role, in preparing the mind for faith; but the heart alone can sense God, and only when God draws it to love Himself. Pascal recognizes that there is a danger here: as he says elsewhere (#275), people often mistake their imagination for their heart -- they think they know and love when in fact all they are doing is imagining what it would be like to know and to love, just as, perhaps, some people confuse understanding mathematics with imagining that one understands it. But this danger does not show that there is no such thing as knowledge of the heart; rather, it shows the importance of finding true knowledge of the heart rather than merely imaginary knowledge.

This context perhaps gives a better idea of what Pascal means when he says the heart has its reasons whereof reason knows nothing; it's not about fuzzy sentiment but about fundamental understanding and love, the kind that makes reasoning possible in the first place. It is not based on reasoning; rather, it is that on which reasoning is based. And despite not being based on reasoning, it is also eminently reasonable, since reason gets its own reasonableness from it. The heart goes beyond reason because it is the very environment in which reason operates, without which it could not even exist. Some things are beyond our power to reason out; they must be simply understood.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The New York State Senate

has gone insane. Or, more probably, it was already insane and is slipping to a new level of craziness.

Like Sparks o' Things Feller Keeps A-Thinkin'

Michael Gilleland is quoting James Whitcomb Riley. Here's another by the same.

Dawn, Noon and Dewfall


Dawn, noon and dewfall! Bluebird and robin
Up and at it airly, and the orchard-blossoms bobbin'!
Peekin' from the winder, half-awake and wishin'
I could go to sleep agin as well as go a-fishin'!


On the apern o' the dam, legs a-danglin' over,
Drowsy-like with sound o' worter and the smell o' clover:
Fish all out a visitin'--'cept some dratted minner!
Yes, and mill shet down at last and hands is gone to dinner.


Trompin' home across the fields: Lightnin'bugs a-blinkin'
In the wheat like sparks o' things feller keeps a-thinkin':--
Mother waitin' supper, and the childern there to cherr me!
And fiddle on the kitchen-wall a-jist a-eechin' fer me!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Links and Notes

* John Farrell discusses his book, The Day Without Yesterday:

I liked the book when I read it about two years ago. It does the two things that good science writing for the public should do: it focuses on the people, and it is careful to get, at least a bit, into the actual science rather than staying on the level of vague analogies. (It is astonishing how much science writing there is from which you can learn no science whatsoever.) The errata list is here.

* A tutorial for making your own version of the Grail Diary from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

* Mulla Sadra, overwhelmingly the most important Muslim philosopher of the early modern period, and arguably of the past several centuries, finally has an entry at the SEP. Much more work needs to be done on him in the West.

* Susan Palwick discusses being a volunteer chaplain in an ER.

* Andrew Brown discusses David Hume's Comment Policy.

* Simon Tisdall suggests that the surprise Lebanon elections (in which the March 14 bloc defied expectations by inching past the March 8 bloc) were partly due to the "Obama effect". He recognizes that it makes little sense to attribute the effect to Obama's speech there, but suggests that Maronites in the country have appreciated the overall Obama approach since he has been taking office. I'm skeptical that it had much direct influence. But it could be that the Obama administration helped indirectly by not messing things up, which is not inconceivable. Regardless, things are still very dicey; politics is very generous in giving everyone second chances for throwing things into chaos.

* Playboy recently got into a huge pot of hot water when they put up a hate-sex article by Guy Cimbalo, called "So Right, It's Wrong," subtitled, "The Top 10 Conservative Women We Hate to Love." This sort of despicable rape fantasy nonsense, needless to say, stirred up some outrage. Playboy eventually removed the article, but Caleb Howe has the screenshots (NSFW). I don't recommend you look at them if you have little stomach for the vile; I give the link only so that it can be made clear, to those to whom it needs to be made, just how vile it was.

One thing I've noticed here, which I've noticed before, is that some of the anger that has been stirred up among the women discussing the issue has been against feminists; Tabitha Hale puts this view in succinct form (only one of the forms it has taken, though):

And are any feminists going to come to the rescue? No. Because modern feminism does not apply to conservative women. It is not about supporting women at all, in fact – it is about supporting Liberalism. It’s about hating men. It’s about hating mommies. It’s about pro-choice. They’ve shown us their true colors with Sarah Palin and Carrie Prejean. Even Hillary Clinton was treated horribly, because she was juxtaposed with a black man who was even further to the Left than her.

This claim, that modern feminism does not apply itself to conservative women, seems to me to be a growing one; I've heard it more and more from conservative women in the past few years. I imagine it will come up again.

(Elisabeth Hasselbeck, one of the women treated in this way, did get the NOW to make a statement on the subject.)

* I'd intended to mention this before; some time ago Rebecca put up a link to, which is a very interesting Bible study site.

* Sherry's Hundred Hymns List continues:

#96 I Will Sing of My Redeemer
#95 God Moves in a Mysterious Way
#94 Wonderful Grace of Jesus
#93 Tell Me the Story of Jesus

* Ophelia Benson gives her theory for why so many women are religious.

* Miriam has some humorous YouTube finds. The Anna Russell ones are especially worthwhile.

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Cowardice Argument against Pseudonymity

One of the arguments brought against pseudonymity that always puzzles me is that it is more 'cowardly'. I never see anyone develop this into anything of substance. Is it really the case that smearing someone on the internet (which, after all, is a pretty attenuated medium whatever name you use, not a face-to-face encounter) while using your own name is less cowardly than doing so under a pseudonym? Or is the idea that there is real evidence that pseudonymous bloggers are massively more likely to smear others than people blogging under their own names? I confess I'm very skeptical of both suggestions; the latter seems to me to be straightforwardly false, and I see no good reason to accept the former. Or is the idea simply that there is some sort of evasion of accountability? Within the blogosphere itself there are no mechanisms of accountability: it is self-policing. So perhaps the idea is that it is easier to get people fired for what they've said on a blog if they blog under their own name? If that's so, then we are clearly entering into territory where one man's cowardice will be another man's prudence and good sense. After all, I assume most people who think hiding their name cowardly would not think that hiding their home address is cowardly. So what principled difference is supposed to be operative here, that not only distinguishes the two cases, but would also make the former overwhelmingly on the cowardice side while the latter is overwhelmingly on the prudence side? Or if none of these is what is meant, what is the underlying reasoning?

First, Second, Third

The first and most necessary topic in philosophy is that of the use of moral theorems, such as, "We ought not to lie;" the second is that of demonstrations, such as, "What is the origin of our obligation not to lie;" the third gives strength and articulation to the other two, such as, "What is the origin of this is a demonstration." For what is demonstration? What is consequence? What contradiction? What truth? What falsehood? The third topic, then, is necessary on the account of the second, and the second on the account of the first. But the most necessary, and that whereon we ought to rest, is the first. But we act just on the contrary. For we spend all our time on the third topic, and employ all our diligence about that, and entirely neglect the first. Therefore, at the same time that we lie, we are immediately prepared to show how it is demonstrated that lying is not right.

Epictetus, Enchiridion #51

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Not Acceptable

Ed Whelan recently outed "Obsidian Wings" blogger Publius, publicizing his real name and position. He then went on to defend himself with the following argument:

...Blevins (aka publius) and others seem to assume that I owed some sort of obligation to Blevins not to expose his pseudonymous blogging. I find this assumption baffling. A blogger may choose to blog under a pseudonym for any of various self-serving reasons, from the compelling (e.g., genuine concerns about personal safety) to the respectable to the base. But setting aside the extraordinary circumstances in which the reason to use a pseudonym would be compelling, I don’t see why anyone else has any obligation to respect the blogger’s self-serving decision. And I certainly don’t see why someone who has been smeared by the blogger and frequently had his positions and arguments misrepresented should be expected to do so.

Blevins desired to be unaccountable—irresponsible—for the views he set forth in the blogosphere. He wanted to present one face to his family, friends, and colleagues and another to the blogosphere. That’s understandable but hardly deserving of respect. If he wanted to avoid the risk of being associated publicly with his views, he shouldn’t have blogged. It’s very strange that angry lefties are calling me childish (and much worse) when it’s Blevins who was trying to avoid responsibility for his blogging.

Let us be quite clear: this is not a left/right issue, this is not a liberal/conservative issue. Pseudonymity does not mean lack of accountability or responsibility, any more than blogging under one's own name means the reverse, and the suggestion otherwise is absurd. There are endless myriads of reasons why bloggers might use a pseudonym and Whelan had no knowledge of the reasons underlying Publius's pseudonymity. He was not in a position to determine whether in unveiling publius he would be hurting him more than he himself was hurt by publius's brusque words. (This was rightly noted by Publius's co-blogger, Hilzoy.) Whelan is conveniently forgetting the fact that pseudonymity is pretty fragile on the internet (sufficient persistence or sometimes sheer accident often break it), and that that very fact means that exposers can often hurt the pseudonymous far more than they were hurt. This was certainly the case here; after all, even putting the matter in the terms most favorable to Whelan, all that had happened is that Whelan was criticized harshly and inaccurately by some relative unknown out there whose opinion had no more force and weight than had accumulated under the pseudonym. And by escalating the matter to this extent, Whelan acted vengefully and recklessly, and therefore irresponsibly. With arguments like this, it is Whelan who is trying to wiggle out of being accountable here.

The issue is likewise not a matter of obligation 'not to expose a pseudonymous blogger'; the moral obligations are pretty much what they always are when dealing with people, and it is those that Whelan broke -- and 'he did it first' is no more an excuse here than on the elementary school playground. He also showed extraordinarily bad taste as a blogger by doing this, and a complete disregard for the benefits many of us in the blogosphere receive, even those of us who are not pseudonymous, by the maintenance of polite conventions to protect pseudonymity. Many people who first venture out into the blogosphere do so under the cover of pseudonymity, even if they later blog under their own name. There are good pseudonymous bloggers who really are in positions that make it so that they would not blog at all if they had no such protection. If those protections don't exist, if we do not protect the pseudonymity of others, that contributes to an atmosphere of hostility in the blogosphere, many good bloggers will be lost, and we will all be the poorer. (Jonathan Adler makes this point well at "The Volokh Conspiracy".) There are pseudonymous bloggers whose identities I'm pretty sure of, for one reason or another; but even if there were a serious falling out, I guarantee you that I would never, under any circumstances, expose their identity, precisely because of all the other pseudonymous bloggers with whom I have not had a falling out.

I was never much of a reader of Publius; I usually would read "Obsidian Wings," on the irregular occasions I did so, for Hilzoy's posts. I never really liked much of what Publius wrote. But Whelan should be ashamed of himself; even if he broke no obligations to Publius, he did violate common decency, and should be called on it.

UPDATE: Whelan still doesn't get it:

But if the supposed ethics of the Internet treat a blogger’s smears and misrepresentations as par for the course yet condemn someone who accurately identifies a blogger who is using the cover of a pseudonym to engage in those smears and misrepresentations, then I don’t accept those rules.

This is overlooking the fact that the one is not a proportionate response to the other; that Whelan had many other options available to him; and that Whelan was in no position to be able to say why pseudonymity had been chosen in the first place. This is not a matter of arbitrary rules one can accept or not accept; the action was not a rational response to the situation, and it has the potential to harm many, many more people than Publius alone.

UPDATE II: Whelan has now apologized for being uncharitable; good on him for at least doing that -- there are people who would not have, but only have become further entrenched in their position.

Malebranche's Infinity Challenge (Repost)

The following is a repost of a discussion that first appeared 29 July 2004, with some slight editing. It's actually an early draft of a small part of my dissertation. There are things I would say somewhat differently today, but the basic idea has held up fairly well under closer scrutiny. And while generally I find Malebranche's argument dismissed, I do think he is on to something, even though I don't think his solution is quite correct.

Abbreviations: "LO" indicates the Lennon-Olscamp translation of The Search after Truth; "JS" indicates the Jolley-Scott edition of Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion; "OC" indicates not a county in California but the Oeuvres Complètes. Footnotes are indicated by bracketed numbers.

Digression on Infinity and Ideas

...As we shall see, Malebranche’s thoughts on the infinite show quite clearly that theory of ideas subserves this greater project of formulating a theory of Reason.

A good place to start, when considering Malebranche’s view of the infinite, is geometry. We have, one could say, an idea of extension, which has no limits; it is an infinite idea. Our minds cannot exhaust it. It cannot be a modification of our minds, since we are finite substances and therefore incapable of having the infinite as a modification of our substances. Our thought cannot, as it were, 'stretch' to measure out this infinite idea. Should we then say that we cannot really have such an idea? It might well seem tempting at this point to deny that we, as finite substances, conceive the infinite at all. [1] There is reason to think this too easy, however, and Malebranche provides a powerful little argument along these lines, which we can call the world traveler argument.

Suppose a man falls from the clouds to the earth. He has no prior experience of the earth, so he brings with him no preconceptions about it. He begins to walk in a straight line along one of the earth’s great circles. We will suppose as well that no features of the earth, e.g., mountain ranges or oceans, impede him. After he has been doing this for several days, he still has not found the end of his journey. If he is wise, he will not thereby assume the surface of the earth to be infinite; and, in fact, he is right, for if he walks long enough, he will eventually return to his starting point. The earth is finite. The idea of extension, however, is different; this idea is inexhaustible, and, says Malebranche, this is “because [the mind] sees it as actually infinite, because it knows very well it will never exhaust it” (JS 15).

The force of this argument can easily be missed, so it may perhaps be useful to look at it more closely. [2] Suppose our world traveler moves successively through points A, B, C, D, and E on the earth’s surface. In describing the whole journey he expects to make, he might write in his journal:

<A, B, C, D, E,...> ,

that is, "First A, then B, then C, then D, then E, and so on." Let us then contrast this with movement along the x-axis of a Cartesian grid. We might describe this as:

<0, 1, 2, 3, 4,...>,

that is, "First 0, then 1, then 2, then 3, then 4, and so on." Now we have an interesting contrast. In both descriptions we have used the ellipsis or "and so on" to gesture to a continuation of the series. The two gestures however, are almost palpably different. The "and so on" of the first series is not the same as the "and so on" of the second series. We might put the difference by describing the former as 'indefinite' and the latter as 'infinite'. The infinite is not merely a group of finite things combined with a gesture toward their continuation; it is something that can be recognized on its own without running through the series. We do not need to journey the entire x-axis to see that it has no end. We cannot adequately explain the infinite by taking a series of finite things and recognizing that it continues; it must continue in a particular way, namely, an infinite way. The infinite series does not just continue; it continues infinitely. This argument serves to show us that, finite though we may be, we do in some way perceive the infinite. Malebranche supports this claim with a further consideration. Geometry clearly deals with infinites (infinite lines, infinite divisibility, and so forth). The claims made by geometers, however, are not tentative judgments based on trial and error or analogy. Once you understand the mathematics, it is not necessary to test it out against the finite things we find in the world around us. In mathematics there seems to be some sense in which we simply 'see' that something is infinite. [3] The claim that we, though finite, really do in some way perceive the infinite, is a well-founded one.

Infinity is not a solitary case. Our conclusions about infinity imply conclusions about the universality or generality of our ideas. Malebranche, in fact, barely separates the two. If we take, for instance, the idea of a circle in general, "the idea of the general circle represents infinite circles and applies to them all" (JS 27). Such an idea has to apply not merely to the circles we have actually experienced, but to every possible circle. If you claim to have an idea of a circle insofar as it is a circle, but cannot apply it to every possible circle, then, properly speaking, you do not have the idea you claim to have. Malebranche uses this to develop an argument about universality parallel to that about infinity. Someone might hold that general ideas like that of a circle are either a confused assemblage of particular ideas or something formed out of such an assemblage. Let us suppose we have encountered five circles, one, two, three, four and five units in diameter, respectively. The fact that we need to it to be applicable to infinite possible circles means that, for the reasons given above, this assemblage of circles cannot be our idea of circle in general. Any such assemblage will be finite, no matter how confused we made it, applying only to the region of all possible circles from which we have gathered our particular circles. Such an assemblage, intended to indicate circles universally, could not be distinguished from the same assemblage intended to refer only to this region of possible circles, without already having a universal idea.

The view that we form the idea of circle in general from the circles we have actually experienced fares somewhat better, although it, too, is rejected:

It is false in the sense that there is sufficient reality in the idea of five or six circles to form the idea of a circle in general from them. But it is true in the sense that, having recognized that the size of circles does not change their properties, you have perhaps stopped considering them one after the other according to their determinate size., in order to consider them in general according to an indeterminate size. Thus, you have, as it were, formed the idea of circle in general, by spreading the idea of generality over the confused ideas of circles you imagined. (JS 27)

In other words, the cardinal difficulty with this attempt is one of explanation. While this view purports to explain how we get our idea of circle in general, the explanans is not adequate to the explanandum. In a more subtle way it runs into exactly the same problem the previous view did, since the assemblage of circles in itself does not provide what is needed in order to have an idea of circle in general rather than just of some circles. This is a problem analogous to the one we saw with infinity. Just as we cannot shift from indefinite continuation to infinite continuation without already appealing to the infinite, so we cannot shift from a confused composite to a general idea without appealing to generality itself; and, as Malebranche has Theodore say, "I maintain you could form general ideas only because you find enough reality in the idea of the infinite to give the idea of generality to your ideas" (JS 27). We cannot explain our having ideas of infinite possible application without allowing something recognizably infinite from the very beginning, and the same is true of universality. Nor are these two properties the only problematic ones. Considerations like these will continue to cascade into cases, like necessity, that are closely connected to issues of infinity and generality. If naturalizing something means reducing it to, or explaining it in terms of, something more manageably finite, our ideas cannot be naturalized.

I wish to insist on the strength of the position just discussed. Malebranche’s arguments do not, I think, admit of any easy evasion. One cannot evade the argument, for instance, by making a distinction in ideas between perceptions and objects and arguing that our ideas are formally finite while objectively infinite. If the 'objectively infinite' aspect of the idea is part of the 'formally finite' aspect, i.e., if the object is in any sense part of the perception, then it is not clear that the distinction has evaded the problem at all. If the 'objectively infinite' is completely different from the 'formally finite,' then it is unclear why this is not conceding the whole argument. In fact, it is unclear what would distinguish this from Malebranche’s own solution; while it is not Malebranche’s preferred way of describing his position, it is a fairly accurate characterization of it. [4]

This returns us to our original puzzle about the origin of these infinite (general, necessary, etc.) ideas. Since we cannot resolve the matter by explaining it away as any sort of illusion, confusion, or extrapolation, given that we clearly do perceive the infinite in some way, we need another solution. Malebranche provides one in his thesis about the vision in God. The basic elements of the argument for this solution are the following:

1. We perceive ideas that are infinite.
2. We are finite.
3. Nothing that is finite can represent the infinite.
4. Therefore there is an infinite something other than ourselves in which we perceive ideas, i.e., God. [5]

At this point it is a good idea to stop and ask ourselves where Malebranche intends to go with this line of thought, which is often called the 'argument from properties'. [6] It is easy to think that the point of this is just to establish a particular theory of ideas, namely, the vision in God thesis. There is good reason, however, to think that Malebranche has more in view. In all the cases in which Malebranche gives or alludes to his infinite ideas argument, he makes or has made some link between it and universal Reason. This is least obvious in the discussion of Descartes’s argument in Search 4.11, where the mentions are brief and oblique: one reference to divine self-knowledge and another to the eternal model in God’s essence. On their own they could easily be interpreted in ways having nothing to do with Malebranche’s frequent mentions of sovereign Reason, the interior Teacher, and the like. The thing we need to keep in mind, however, is that The Search after Truth is an unwise place to make an argument from silence, or even simplicity of interpretation. The Search, although it is a rich lode of Malebranche’s thought, is not devoted to expounding that thought in a systematic form. Instead, it is concerned with teaching how to avoid error in inquiry. Because of this, Malebranche’s substantial views are presented in a disjointed way, often as mere examples or asides to illustrate or qualify the more methodological concerns of the text. The discussion of Descartes’s argument is a good example of this; it occurs as an illustrative example in a discussion of how love of sensible pleasure can prejudice people against the truth. To see the proper context of Malebranche’s thought, we must look elsewhere; and what we seem to find is that the infinite ideas argument is generally used to contribute to a theory of Reason. The entire Dialogues, for instance, presents itself a discussion presupposing the centrality of universal Reason. The very first speech given to Theodore, Malebranche’s primary spokeseman in the Dialogues, shows this clearly:

Let us attempt to have nothing prevent us each from consulting our common master, universal Reason. For it is inner truth that must govern our discussion. This is what must dictate to me what I should tell you and what you are to learn through me. (JS 3)

The actual discussion of the infinite ideas argument we have just considered is for the express purpose of clarifying the nature of universal Reason. Thus Theodore asks Aristes, his interlocutor, "Do you now know what that Reason is, about which so much is said in this material and terrestrial world, but of which so little is known there?" and Aristes responds with a summary of the infinite ideas argument. The same theme occurs, somewhat less obviously, in the Tenth Elucidation to the Search, on the nature of ideas. The discussion of the nature of ideas there places ideas entirely within the context of universal Reason. The properties of ideas are not distinguished form those of universal Reason itself, because the argument that universal Reason is infinite, necessary, immutable, and therefore divine, is at the same time an argument that ideas are so. In other words, Malebranche considers the infinite ideas argument for God’s existence to be an argument that Reason itself, being infinite, is divine. The theory of ideas is one aspect of a theory of Reason. To one who knows what to look for, this is true even in the Search, since it is elsewhere quite clear that the eternal model in the divine substance, known through divine self-knowledge, is Reason. [7]


[1] There is another possible response, namely, to try to find a way around the argument by distinguishing formal from objective infinity. This will be considered more fully below.

[2] This account should be compared to Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, I, § 208, on the ‘and so on’ that is, and the ‘and so on’ that is not, an abbreviated notation.

[3] Note that to reject this supplementary argument requires more than an appeal to the possibility of a finitistic mathematics; it requires the stronger and more controversial claim that mathematics can only be finitistic. All Malebranche needs for his argument is the conclusion that mathematical use of infinites can make sense; if this is so, then when we think of the infinite, we really are thinking of the infinite rather than something else (e.g., a confusion, or indefiniteness).

[4] For hints toward an argument like the one I am suggesting here, see Malebranche’s discussion of Arnauld and Descartes on the objective reality of ideas in Trois Lettres, I, Rem. III (OC 6:214-218). See also OC 6:58, to which he refers in this passage.

[5] Identifying this something other than ourselves in which we perceive ideas as God is not as much of a leap as it may seem. It does presuppose the Cartesian view that God is infinite being, but nothing more than that, and can largely be considered simply a verbal issue. Also, it should be kept in mind that, while I only list infinity here, there are other properties closely related to infinity that also are in play because they follow patterns similar to infinity: universality, necessity, and so forth.

[6] See Nadler, Malebranche and Ideas, 92-97; Pyle, Malebranche, 57-61.

[7] For an excellent summary of these aspects of Malebranche’s theory of Reason, with the relevant references, see Reid, "Malebranche on Intelligible Extension," British Journal for the History of Philosophy (November 2003) 587-589.

We Have Not Sighed Deep, Laughed Free

Youth and Art
by Robert Browning

We lodged in a street together,
You, a sparrow on the housetop lonely,
I, a lone she-bird of his feather.
Your trade was with sticks and clay,
You thumbed, thrust, patted and polished,
Then laughed "They will see some day
Smith made, and Gibson demolished."
My business was song, song, song;
I chirped, cheeped, trilled and twittered,
"Kate Brown's on the boards ere long,
And Grisi's existence embittered!"
I earned no more by a warble
Than you by a sketch in plaster;
You wanted a piece of marble,
I needed a music-master.
We studied hard in our styles,
Chipped each at a crust like Hindoos,
For air looked out on the tiles,
For fun watched each other's windows.
You lounged, like a boy of the South,
Cap and blouse--nay, a bit of beard too;
Or you got it, rubbing your mouth
With fingers the clay adhered to.
And I--soon managed to find
Weak points in the flower-fence facing,
Was forced to put up a blind
And be safe in my corset-lacing.
No harm! It was not my fault
If you never turned your eye's tail up
As I shook upon E in alt,
Or ran the chromatic scale up:
For spring bade the sparrows pair,
And the boys and girls gave guesses,
And stalls in our street looked rare
With bulrush and watercresses.
Why did not you pinch a flower
In a pellet of clay and fling it?
Why did not I put a power
Of thanks in a look, or sing it?
I did look, sharp as a lynx,
(And yet the memory rankles,)
When models arrived, some minx
Tripped up-stairs, she and her ankles.
But I think I gave you as good!
"That foreign fellow,--who can know
How she pays, in a playful mood,
For his tuning her that piano?"
Could you say so, and never say
"Suppose we join hands and fortunes,
And I fetch her from over the way,
Her, piano, and long tunes and short tunes?"
No, no: you would not be rash,
Nor I rasher and something over:
You've to settle yet Gibson's hash,
And Grisi yet lives in clover.
But you meet the Prince at the Board,
I'm queen myself at bals-paré,
I've married a rich old lord,
And you're dubbed knight and an R.A.
Each life unfulfilled, you see;
It hangs still, patchy and scrappy:
We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
Starved, feasted, despaired,--been happy.
And nobody calls you a dunce,
And people suppose me clever:
This could but have happened once,
And we missed it, lost it for ever.

I only read this one for the first time today, and liked it. It catches the note of nostalgia perfectly, and the sentences are structured so well you only just notice the rhyme dodging in and out of the very natural language.