Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ibn Khaldun on Three Degrees of Thought

The ability to think has several degrees. The first degree is man's intellectual understanding of the things that exist in the outside world in a natural or arbitrary order, so that he may try to arrange them with the help of his own power. This kind of thinking mostly consists of perceptions. It is the discerning intellect, with the help of which man obtains the things that are useful for him and his livelihood, and repels the things that are harmful to him.

The second degree is the ability to think which provides man with the ideas and the behavior needed in dealing with his fellow men and in leading them. It mostly conveys apperceptions, which are obtained one by one through experience, until they have become really useful. This is called the experimental intellect.

The third degree is the ability to think which provides the knowledge, or hypothetical knowledge, of an object beyond sense perception without any practical activity (going with it). This is the speculative intellect. It consists of both perceptions and apperceptions. They are arranged according to a special order, following special conditions, and thus provide some other knowledge of the same kind, that is, either perceptive or apperceptive. Then, they are again combined with something else, and again provide some other knowledge. The end of the process is to be provided with the perception of existence as it is, with its various genera, differences, reasons, and causes. By thinking about these things, (man) achieves perfection in his reality and becomes pure intellect and perceptive soul. This is the meaning of human reality.

Ibn Khaldun, al-Muqaddimah (Franz Rosenthal, translator), chapter vi, section 1.

Four Poem Drafts


Walk the rightwise way,
reason, revel, pray;
in labor, study, play,
show your worth.
Love, delight, dwell,
turn to heaven even hell,
and you will flourish well
on the earth.

Psalm 100

Rejoice loudly to the Lord,
all on earth;
worship His Name, gladly sing
in glory.
Know that He is God, the one Lord:
He made us.
We his people are his pastured flock.

Enter the gate with thanksgiving,
come in with praise.
Thank Him and bless His holy Name.
He is good,
His lovingkindness will last,
His troth endure,
unto every generation.


Black mire, dark night, wraps around me,
storms of rain pour down on my head
and I weep now for what I miss:
your voice, your smile, conversations,
shared dreams, sunrise hopes,
and you, all you.


Fair form
gives us access
to fine custom,
custom to fair lesson,
beautiful thought,
which comes home soon
to beauty.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Stronger Chairs for Heavy Philosophers

Mr. Hume was one of our constant visiters, making, as was the custom of those days, tea-time the hour of calling. In the summer he would often stroll to my father's beautiful villa of North Merchiston. On one occasion — I was then a boy of thirteen—he, missing my mother, made his tea-drinking good with two or three young ladies of eighteen or nineteen, (his acquaintances,) who were my mother's guests. I recollect perfectly how agreeably he talked to them ; and my recollection has been rendered permanent by an occurrence which caused some mirth and no mischief.

When the philosopher was amusing himself in conversation with the young ladies, the chair began to give way under him, and gradually brought him to the floor.

The damsels were both alarmed and amused, when Mr. Hume, recovering himself, and getting upon his legs, said in his broad Scotch tone, but in English words, (for he never used Scotch,) "Young ladies, you must tell Mr. Adam to keep stronger chairs for heavy philosophers."

Quoted from an account by Lord Chief Commissioner Adam in John Hill Burton, Life and Correspondence of David Hume, page 440. Since Adam was born in 1751 this would put the event about 1764; Hume would have been about 53 years old.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Ethics of Belief and the Will to Believe

I don't think it's often recognized just how odd the argument of Clifford's The Ethics of Belief is. Much of the argument consists only of analogy and bare assertion, for instance, and there is no systematic exploration of some fairly obvious distinctions that have to be made in this sort of case: belief vs. inquiry, ethics vs. prudential policy, etc. Likewise, there are several ways in which James's response, The Will to Believe, is more clever than usually recognized, because it systematically plays off failures in Clifford's own analysis. For instance, Clifford identifies belief with aptness to act, in very strong terms:

Nor is it that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it. He who truly believes that which prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust after it, he has committed it already in his heart. If a belief is not realized immediately in open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future. It goes to make a part of that aggregate of beliefs which is the link between sensation and action at every moment of all our lives, and which is so organized and compacted together that no part of it can be isolated from the rest, but every new addition modifies the structure of the whole. No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever.

This means that he is actually considering 'belief' in a fairly technical sense, because our ordinary use of the term is not this constrained. Fair enough. But he develops his account of belief in this sense in a completely lopsided way: the only case considered is the case in which the actions to which belief disposes us are bad. In "The Will to Believe" James shows that you can take exactly the same pragmatist analysis of belief, look at all the good actions, and draw the opposite conclusion, that it's often a good thing to risk believing beyond the evidence. And, of course, James is quite explicit about it, since this is his point about the fact that "Believe truth" and "Shun error", while complementary, are not the same command, and that Clifford's uncritical assumption that the latter takes precedence in every case can be questioned.

Much of the oddness of Clifford's argument derives from two sources: (1) The overblown rhetoric that arises from simply taking religiously-tinged moral rhetoric and inserting 'belief' wherever it talks about actions; and (2) the fact that the argument is clearly rigged to get certain conclusions, which in turn leads to rather implausible and poorly defended strictures. The two go together, to some extent: Clifford himself recognizes the implausibility of some of his claims, and tries to stifle the doubts by adapting moral rhetoric. He never really takes the trouble to show that his account of the ethics of belief complies with its own requirements, though; and this, of course, is another flaw James uses to his advantage, because much of Clifford's argument does not, in fact, comply with the requirements of the 'ethics of belief' it is defending. As James puts it, speaking of people like Clifford:

We slouchy modern thinkers dislike to talk in Latin,--indeed, we dislike to talk in set terms at all; but at bottom our own state of mind is very much like this whenever we uncritically abandon ourselves: You believe in objective evidence, and I do. Of some things we feel that we are certain: we know, and we know that we do know. There is something that gives a click inside of us, a bell that strikes twelve, when the hands of our mental clock have swept the dial and meet over the meridian hour. The greatest empiricists among us are only empiricists on reflection: when left to their instincts, they dogmatize like infallible popes.

And thus we have the irony, very deliberate on James's part, that while James's conclusions are inconsistent with Clifford's conclusions, James's argument is in greater compliance with Clifford's conclusions than Clifford's argument is.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Banham on Clarity in Philosophy

Exactly right:

Calls for clarity in philosophy are in themselves obscure since underneath them is a view of what such clarity has to consist in. It must involve the ability to translate thought into a general common medium whose own conditions of possibility are never made transparent.

I've argued much the same thing myself. And as I've noted before, when we ask for examples of philosophers who are clear, we often get people like Hume -- who is notoriously ambiguous and difficult to interpret (which in a way is good for those of us who study Hume). And when you look closely at the claims about what it is to be clear in philosophy, they always seem to be an incoherent mishmash.

Whenever this topic comes up, I'm always reminded of Mary Midgley's sarcastic comment in The Owl of Minerva:

"Philosophers are always complaining that other people's remarks are not clear when what they mean is that they are unwelcome. So they often cultivate the art of not understanding things -- something which British analytic philosophers are particularly good at."

Clamberer on a Steep Cliff

The mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness which has become a proverb, and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation. It passes on from point to point, gaining one by some indication; another on a probability; then availing itself of an association; then falling back on some received law; next seizing on testimony; then committing itself to some popular impression, or some inward instinct, or some obscure memory; and thus it makes progress not unlike a clamberer on a steep cliff, who, by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends how he knows not himself; by personal endowments and by practice, rather than by rule, leaving no track behind him, and unable to teach another. It is not too much to say that the stepping by which great geniuses scale the mountains of truth is as unsafe and precarious to men in general, as the ascent of a skilful mountaineer up a literal crag. It is a way which they alone can take; and its justification lies in their success. And such mainly is the way in which all men, gifted or not gifted, commonly reason,—not by rule, but by an inward faculty.

John Henry Newman, Oxford University Sermons, Sermon 13: Implicit and Explicit Reason.

Notes and Links

* I may have linked to this before, but it's interesting enough. John Pugh's 3D murals. My favorite is the fourth one down.

* I found this post at "u n d e r v e r s e" rather funny; one really does have to deal with people like this at times. (I was equally amused by the commentator who tried to reverse the parody using alcoholism instead of music, apparently thinking it was something about music that made the reasoning bad, when obviously it's the approach itself that's the problem.)

* Barrett Brown wrote a post that leads me, for the first time I can ever recall in over five years of blogging, to link to the Huffington Post: Intelligent Design, Online Edition (ht: Wilkins and Farrell). The usual sorts of comments ensue, but they are worth reading as well because Wesley Elsberry (who blogs at The Austringer) does the Lord's work of insisting on the facts.

* A federal appeals court recently reversed the decision of the lower court in the Merced case; Jose Merced is a Santero who was fighting a Euless, Texas ordinance against animal sacrifice. The lower court took the side of the city; the appeals court argued instead (and rightly, I think) that the city was imposing a substantial burden without proving that it was the least burdensome means to fulfill a government interest.

* I loved this post at "Quodlibeta" on the medieval legends about the Dog-Heads. Humphrey had another post recently on early modern research into dragons.

* Roger Scruton mourns the passing of the pub.

* Josh Levin has an interesting article in which he wonders whether Mormons will carry forward American ideals long after the U.S. is gone. Such things really depend, of course, on institutional structures: schools, monasteries, etc. But assuming those, Mormonism is in many ways a very, very American religion, and would be likely to preserve lots of features of American life into whatever eras to which it itself extends.

* Sherry's Hundred Hymns list continues:

#47 Joy to the World
#46 The Church's One Foundation
#45 Immortal, Invisible
#44 Just As I Am
#43 Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy

#42 What a Friend We Have in Jesus
#41 This Is My Father's World

* And he's right; there's nothing in the Constitution that says a Cylon can't be President:

Monday, August 10, 2009

True Enlargement of Mind

That only is true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence. Thus is that form of Universal Knowledge, of which I have on a former occasion spoken, set up in the individual intellect, and constitutes its perfection. Possessed of this real illumination, the mind never views any part of the extended subject-matter of Knowledge without recollecting that it is but a part, or without the associations which spring from this recollection. It makes every thing in some sort lead to every thing else; it would communicate the image of the whole to every separate portion, till that whole becomes in imagination like a spirit, every where pervading and penetrating its component parts, and giving them one definite meaning. Just as our bodily organs, when mentioned, recall their function in the body, as the word "creation" suggests the Creator, and "subjects" a sovereign, so, in the mind of the Philosopher, as we are abstractedly conceiving of him, the elements of the physical and moral world, sciences, arts, pursuits, ranks, offices, events, opinions, individualities, are all viewed as one, with correlative functions, and as gradually by successive combinations converging, one and all, to the true centre.

John Henry Newman, Idea of a University, Discourse 6. In his The Achievement of John Henry Newman, Ian Ker notes that it is to this that Newman attributes any and all value in a liberal arts education: not so much the particulars of what is taught, but the fact that if it is taught properly it provides tools for, and practice in, seeing how different things one might learn fit together and cohere. Obviously the "abstractedly" conceived Philosopher mentioned here is an idealization; but when Newman says that a University exists to teach Universal Knowledge, he does not mean omniscience, nor even knowledge of everything that there is to know (which has not been possible for millenia), but this ability to pick up any bit of new knowledge during one's entire life and see, so to speak, where it goes in the library of all knowledge and what its potential value to human civilization might be.

Refreshing and Purifying

From Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno (Fragment B3):

For the Planet Mercury is the WORD DISCERNMENT.
For the Scotchman seeks for truth at the bottom of a well, the Englishman in the Heavn of Heavens.
For the Planet Venus is the WORD PRUDENCE or providence.
For GOD nevertheless is an extravagant BEING and generous unto loss.
For there is no profit in the generation of man and the loss of millions is not worth God's tear.
For this is the twelfth day of the MILLENNIUM foretold by the prophets -- give the glory to God ONE THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED AND SIXTY --
For the Planet Mars is the word FORTITUDE.
For to worship naked in the Rain is the bravest thing for the refreshing and purifying the body.
For the Planet Jupiter is the WORD DISPENSATION.
For Tully says to be generous you must be first just, but the voice of Christ is distribute at all events.
For Kittim is the father of the Pygmies, God be gracious to Pigg his family.
For the Soul is divisible and a portion of the Spirit may be cut off from one and applied to another.
For NEW BREAD is the most wholesome especially if it be leaven'd with honey.
For a NEW SONG also is best, if it be to the glory of God; and taken with the food like the psalms.
For the Planet Saturn is the word TEMPERANCE or PATIENCE.
For Jacob's Ladder are the steps of the Earth graduated hence to Paradice and thence to the throne of God.

The line about worshipping naked in the rain seems to be autobiographical; in Fragment C we find the line, "For it is good to let the rain come upon the naked body unto purity and refreshment." Praying out loud at the top of his lungs is one of the things that led Smart to be locked up in the asylum for 'religious mania', and it was while in the asylum that Smart wrote Jubilate Agno.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

On Being Patronizing

Julian Baggini:

To treat someone as though they were less intelligent than they are is patronising; to treat someone as though they were less intelligent than you, when they are indeed less intelligent than you, is not. That is why we do not patronise small children when we talk at their level.

This makes no sense to me. For one thing, it is simply a mistake -- a patronizing one, in fact -- to assume that because small children have much less experience than you and much less practice with many of the things of life that they are less intelligent than you. And second, anyone who has much to do with children knows that in fact a great many adults very, very obviously patronize children. Indeed, I have difficulty seeing how someone who has ever been a child could not know this; I can think of half a dozen cases when I was patronized by adults as a child, just off the top of my head.

For another, it's not consistent with the way the word is actually used to say that treating someone "as though they were less intelligent than you, when they are indeed less intelligent than you" is therefore not patronizing: merely because you are right and more clever does not automatically mean you are not being condescending. A very handy man with a very un-handy wife can still treat his wife patronizingly when it comes to getting things done around the house -- I know more than one, in fact, who has a serious difficulty getting this point through his thick skull. It's true that when there is a clear disparity of intelligence, the difference between the one who patronizes and the one who does not will not necessarily be that the latter ignores the disparity. But that doesn't mean being right about the disparity automatically means you are not patronizing. Someone who haughtily goes out of his or her way to make people less intelligent than they are feel acutely the fact that they are less intelligent is an almost paradigmatic case of being patronizing. Everybody knows, or one would think so given how the word is actually used, that very, very intelligent people are very, very likely to be patronizing to people who are very average and ordinary: if you ask people if that's the case, they'll often say it is. And that cuts against Baggini's claim.

(The rest of Baggini's article is of some interest, although I don't have much to say about it. I have yet to see Dennett or anyone else provide any serious evidence that "belief in belief" is a very widespread problem. I have myself never met anyone who holds of any belief that it is "so important that it must not be subjected to the risks of disconfirmation or serious criticism", although claims that particular rhetorical styles or particular kinds of fora and occasions are not appropriate to criticizing certain kinds of belief are very common. Without evidence that it's actually a serious problem, it's difficult to see this whole 'belief in belief' trope as any more than wishful thinking, in which people like Dennett pretend that their critics are stupider and less reasonable than they actually are.)