Saturday, October 10, 2009

Two New Poem Drafts

Both at a very rough stage.

Francesca and Paolo

I asked what was their story,
but sulking Paolo only wept,
and Francesca said with sorrow,
"It was the book's fault,
wherein we read of Lance and Gwen,
for what the book said, we did,
and when they touched and kissed,
then Paolo, and this was his fault,
leaned in with touch and kiss,
and I couldn't refrain from return,
for Love overpowers all,
and through the fault of love
we read no more that day."
So said Francesca sadly;
but sulking Paolo only wept.

Freezing Rain

Some there are who cannot reason;
seasons pass them in the snow.
Frozen in their hearts' desires,
fires cannot such souls thaw.
Awful is their hell self-building,
gilded with malicious frost,
costly in its rare derangements,
stranger than a madman's thought.
Caught in irony iron-bounded
redounding to their blatant shame,
nameless fears they feel are winging,
singing in unholy rains.

Friday, October 09, 2009

On Ought and Is, II

If I say that I ought to do something, what am I actually saying? Let's take a fairly straightforward example. I want to be downtown by a certain time, so I say, "I ought to be at the bus stop to catch the 1M before 7:15." It's clear enough that what I'm really talking about here are ends and means: I have an end view (being downtown by a certain time) and I have a means for it (taking the 1M from the stop before 7:15). By saying that I ought to catch the 1M before 7:15, I'm saying that the means is the way to get to the end. It's clear enough that this is a matter about which I could be right or wrong. You might reply: "Oh, no; there is no possible way that taking the 1M will get you downtown by the time you need to be there. You ought to take the 174 instead; that's the only route that will get you there in time. It arrives at that stop about 15 minutes before the 1M." To which I might reply: "You're right, now that I think of it. I ought to be at the stop to catch the 174 by 7:00." Given that this is so we can see immediately that it can be trivially easy to derive an 'ought' claim from an 'is' claim: given the end, claims about the means to the end (which are 'is' claims) can yield 'ought' claims. It's important to see, too, that the "given the end" restriction is equally unmysterious. In the sort of context in which we talk about 'ought' and 'should', the end is merely establishing a problem to be solved. From 'is' claims about possible solutions to this problem (e.g., the 1M does not arrive by the required time, only the 174 is early enough and fast enough to arrive by the required time) we derive claims about the optimal solution to the problem (e.g., I ought not to take the 1M but instead ought to take the 174). That is all there is to it. In scenarios like our bus schedule scenario, 'ought' is a very ordinary thing, and 'ought' can easily be inferred from 'is'.

Making the 'ought' moral doesn't change anything about the 'ought' itself. Only the kind of end changes. Some ends are temporary and limited (like the one in our bus scenario) while some are general and standing (like living a great life). And there are no doubt other differences. The difference between a moral 'ought' and any other kind of 'ought' would be due entirely to the difference in the ends in question. Since ends are pegged as ends by being considered good in some way, this means that the differences between different kinds of 'ought' claims reduce down entirely to the differences between different ways in which things can be classified as good.

So I would claim, anyway, and at an abstract level this is the structure we find in Hume. Hume's account of obligation depends on his account of how we recognize good and bad. The differences between different kinds of 'ought' claims reduces to differences between different ways in which we can recognize something as good in some way. Hume makes a distinction between 'natural obligations' and 'moral obligations'. What Hume calls 'natural obligations' are those that follow from recognizing something as good for us, which is determined by our interests. What he calls 'moral obligations' are those that follow from recognizing something as good even without regard for our interests: "'Tis only when a character is considered in general, without reference to our particular interest, that it causes such a feeling or sentiment, as denominates morally good or evil" (T 3.2.4, SBN 472). (Hume uses an interesting analogy: recognizing something as morally good even though not in our interests is like recognizing that a man has a beautiful voice even though we can't stand the man. It can be done; indeed, much of our moral life is based on the fact that, no matter how often we let our interests bias our moral judgments, we can and at least sometimes do recognize that the two are irreconcilable.)

Hume is also right that is far more reasonable than the rationalist idea that obligations are relations or rapports. A problem with the rationalist view is that if I recognize (to use an example from Malebranche) that the soul is superior to the body, that in itself tells me nothing about my obligations. Does it mean (as Malebranche takes it to mean) that we should everywhere and under every circumstance prefer the things of the soul to the things of the body? Or does it simply propose a useful ideal, like saying that an A paper is superior to a B paper? The relation is not enough, even if it exists; something else must convert (so to speak) the relation into an end or good that will establish the right kind of obligation. In fairness, there are rationalists who recognize this. Malebranche himself, for instance, recognizes it: while the content of our obligations is determined by relations of ideas perceived in divine Order, what makes these relations of ideas obligatory is divine Love, which is, a love of Order. I won't get into the account here. But what it means is that the 'obligatoriness', so to speak, is not deriving from the relation at all.

Where Hume goes wrong, however, is in thinking of this in terms of a kind of pleasure. Hume would not have been alone in the period in thinking of ends entirely in terms of pleasure. It was a widespread view, and is found even among Hume's rationalist opponents -- Malebranche, for instance, had said that "pleasure is good and pain evil, and...the pleasure and pain that the Author of nature has attached to the use of certain things makes us judge whether they are good or evil" (LO 359). But there are serious problems to any such view. For instance, many cases of pleasure and pain can't be explained unless we allow them to be explained in terms of our perception of things as good or bad. The same gesture can induce laughter or fear depending on whether we see it as a good thing (like good-natured play) or a bad thing (like an attempt to murder us). Also, whatever link there may be between them, the like between pain and our recognition of evil, or pleasure and our recognition of good is not straightforward: pain and pleasure can pass over into each other, pains like the ache of exercise can be regarded in some cases as good (as the saying goes, pain is proof you are alive), and some pleasures can be regarded as bad. Indeed, this follows from Hume's own view; you can be pleased at a pain, pained at a pleasure. But then the relation between the two pairs, pain and pleasure, good and bad, is not going to be a straightforward one. It's much simpler to take pleasure and pain as either oblique to the question of good and bad, or as (at least sometimes) following on our recognition of something as good or bad.

There are a few more things to be said, but this is enough for a post.

By the way, I realize that I've not been explicit about references, using standard abbreviations in a number of posts. Here's a key:

T David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature. The Treatise is divided into three books, each of which is divided into parts. Each part is divided into sections, and one can number the paragraphs in each section. Thus if you see a reference like T, that means Book I, Part I, Section I, paragraph 1.

SBN Despite Hume's popularity there is no scholarly, critical text Collected Works of Hume, although there has been one in the works for some time now. Since it's useful to have a standard edition for scholarly reference, Hume scholars have for a very long time used Nidditch's revised version of Selby-Bigge's editions of A Treatise of Human Nature and of Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. Hence the SBN. If we're talking about the Treatise, SBN 213 would mean page 213 of the Selby-Bigge/Nidditch edition. If we're talking about the Enquiries, SBN 213 would usually mean marginal number 213 in the Selby-Bigge/Nidditch edition. Sometimes, to distinguish the two volumes, E is used instead of SBN for the Enquiries.

NN Norton and Norton edited the Oxford edition of A Treatise of Human Nature. Exasperatingly, despite the fact that it would be nice to take it as a new standard edition, they didn't bother to put the SBN numbers in their text, so you can't use the NN edition to look up almost anything published by Hume scholars prior to the publication of the NN edition itself: it's all in SBN numbers. So instead of having a new standard edition, Hume scholars now have two standard editions. Since NN (unlike SBN) numbers the paragraphs, some Hume scholars don't bother to give the NN page numbers, but simply give the paragraph number. Were I writing for publication or even presentation, I would provide all three (the paragraph reference, the SBN page, and the NN page), but for blog posts I'm not going to worry about it.

LO This refers to the translation of Malebranche's A Search after Truth, by Lennon and Olscamp.

Scotus on Superfriendship

...[C]harity can be properly called friendship. I do not take it entirely in the strict sense in which the Philosopher uses the term when he speaks of it. If we somehow extend the meaning he had in mind so that it applies to God, we can say that charity is something more excellent than friendship. For this excess in the object does not take away anything of perfection in it, but only removes what is imperfection. Therefore this excess does not invalidate our proposal. Uprightness indeed in what is lovable and a return of love in the beloved are per se conditoins in the lovable object. But equality in these things is only a concomitant condition, and not a matter of perfection. Indeed, charity is not more perfect if it is only a return of love. God, however, has both grounds for being loved, namely, the fact that he returns our love as well as that more excellent amiability or goodness in itself, and with him there can be a friendship that is called "superfriendship." And if one argues that equality is also a basis for friendship, that is true, but it always presupposes some honorable good that deserves to be loved for its own sake, and this is the primary reason why something is amiable. Equality is a basis for friendship strictly speaking, but excellence is an even greater reason for a similar or even more perfect habit than a friendship, and here I call such a habit "charity."

Duns Scotus on the Will & Morality, Wolter, ed. & tr. CUA Press (Washington, D.C.: 1997) pp. 285-286.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Light Posting

I recently started having monitor problems on my home computer; depending on how quickly I get the problem fixed, posting may be light and sketchy over the next few days.

UDPATE: I've fixed the problem, but I'm not sure it's more than a temporary fix. If I go silent for a while at any point in the next seven days, you'll know why. But I think I've got it squared away for most of the interim.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Five Ways of Teaching

Mencius said, 'A gentleman teaches in five ways. The first is by a transforming influence like that of timely rain. The second is by helping the student to realize his virtue to the full. The third is by helping him to develop his talent. The fourth is by answering his questions. And the fifth is by setting an example others not in contact with him can emulate. These five are the ways in which a gentleman teaches.'

Mencius Book VII, Part A, section 40. D. C. Lau, tr. Penguin (NY: 1970) p. 191.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

On Ought and Is: Preliminary Detour

I promised that I would say something about my own view of the is/ought problem, and thus say something about where I agree and where I disagree with Hume. To give the basic summary at the outset, the points I think Hume gets right are these:

(1) The inability to infer a statement with an 'ought' from a statement with an 'is' is a problem that arises only within the context of moral rationalism.
(2) Hume is right that an account treating moral obligations as relations between ideas is a highly implausible account of obligations.
(3) Hume is right that an 'ought' can be derived from a certain class of facts, namely, facts about what we regard as good and bad.
(4) Much of our moral life is a matter of good or bad moral taste.

Where I chiefly disagree with Hume is in his sentimentalism; I think it leads him to draw the line between reason and passion in the wrong place, and therefore to give a misleading account of how we recognize goods, to confuse virtues and moral roles, and to take a genuine insight (that there is moral taste) too far, by treating it as covering the entire field of moral life. But to understand why I think so, it is important to take a brief detour at the beginning to discuss what Hume means by 'reason'. This is a point that trips up many amateurs reading Hume, not always through any fault of their own.

There is a very famous line from Book II of the Treatise of Human Nature: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve an dobey them" (SBN 415). The claim is easy to misunderstand if taken out of context, but in context it makes sense.

'Reason', or as he sometimes calls it, 'understanding', is a technical term for Hume. It is, specifically, the imagination insofar as it judges according to demonstration or probability: "as it regards the abstract relations of our ideas, or those relations of objects, of which experience only gives us information". The 'imagination' part of this is all Hume, since Hume thinks all operations of the mind are operations of the imagination. But insofar as it involves relations, Hume is in agreement (as far as his use of the term goes) with the rationalists. In Malebranche and Clarke, the major rationalists Hume knew, the judgment of reason is understood as the perception of relations. The precise account varies, because there is no perfection agreement about what is related by these relations. But it is a standard rationalist position that when we judge something to be the case, what we are really doing is perceiving a relation between things. So, for instance, a rationalist might hold that when we make a judgment about what 2 + 2 is, we are really not doing anything other than perceiving that the idea of 2 + 2 is related to the idea of 4 by a relation of equality and is related to the ideas of 3, 5, etc., by relations of inequality. And, of course, the use of the word "perceiving" here is quite intentional: rationalists hold that the relations are not made by us, but exist independently of us. All that's left for us to do is to perceive the relation.

So 'reason' is a technical term for the rationalists, and Hume simply takes over this sense of the term -- as I said, and as I will explain later, I think this was a mistake, but it was understandable: it was, after all, the way many of the philosophers who discussed the question used the term. The only modification made was to adjust for the fact that Hume, unlike the rationalists, did not distinguish between reason and imagination (this, I think, is another mistake, but, again, that will come up later). Hume makes his claim about reason being the slave of the passions in the context of motivation, and in particular while discussing the common trope of the struggle of reason against the passions. His point is quite clear: reason in the technical sense can't motivate any action because merely perceiving a relation is not a motivation to anything at all. It may on some occasions be an object of motivation, that is something to be motivated about, but only insofar as you have an independent aversion or inclination to it. Hume is certainly right about this: nothing can motivate except insofar as it seems good or bad. But mere perception of relation between two things is not a recognition of the relation as good or bad, nor of the objects related as good or bad.

In Hume's account we recognize objects or relations as good or bad not by perceiving relations but by the pleasure and pain caused by our passions when we are thinking about the objects or relations. Some things make us uneasy; we are carried away from those things. Some things we find satisfying; we are drawn toward those things. Therefore, since reason can't motivate, and all motivation is through the passions, the only role reason has in action is to bring things to the passions. Reason, as perception of relations, is indeed like a slave: it brings things to the passions to judge, and it is the passions, not reason, that decide what to do with them. And it really ought to be: if you tried to make it the master, nothing would get done. So, Hume concludes, there is no real sense in which anyone experiences a struggle between reason and passion, ever.

Why, then, does the trope exist at all? The answer Hume gives is that 'reason' in the rationalists' technical sense is not the only sense of the term. We have a more colloquial sense, not defined very well, and perhaps not definable at all, that is much broader than the technical sense. On Hume's view, not all passions are violent or easily noticeable. Some passions are very calm and quiet. What is more, a number of these calm and quiet passions are very powerful passions: they are stable, effective, and decisive. Because they are calm and quiet and produce no disorder in us, however, we have a tendency to confuse them with another kind of mental operation that is calm and quiet and produces no disorder: reason. In Hume's own words:

'Tis natural for one, that does not examine objects with a strict philosophic eye, to imagine, that those actions of the mind are entirely the same, which produce not a different sensation, and are not immediately distinguishable to the feeling and perception. Reason, for instance, exerts itself without producing any sensible emotion; and except in the more sublime disquisitions of philosophy, or in the frivolous subtilities of the schools, scarce ever conveys any pleasure or uneasiness. Hence it proceeds, that every action of the mind, which operates with the same calmness and tranquillity, is confounded with reason by all those, who judge of things from the first view and appearance.

These calm passions are known by their effects, which can sometimes be extensive. Examples that Hume gives are benevolence, resentment, love of life, kindness toward children, the general desire for the good, and the general aversion to evil. These things, because they are calm, are colloquially treated as if they had more to do with reason than with other passions. Therefore when people talk about the struggle between reason and passion they are really, in Hume's view, talking about the struggle between two kinds of passion: calm passion and violent passion.

This is an important point, without which Hume's view will be radically misunderstood: what Hume calls 'reason' is not what most people call 'reason'. Most people are not using the term in the technical sense Hume has in mind. 'Reason' for him means what the rationalists mean by it: perception of relations. Most of us use the term in what Hume would regard as a loose sense of the term. Some of the things we attribute to reason Hume would agree should really be attributed to 'reason' if we are going to use the term this loosely; but he thinks it doesn't belong to reason in a strict philosophical sense but to our passions and sentiments.

I've taken this detour because in any comparison between Hume's view and other views, failing to understand what Hume means by 'reason' will muddy the comparison. Hume is using the term in a technical sense, one that must be taken into account in interpreting him. It is also a sense that must be taken into account when saying what one thinks he gets right and wrong. Since this post is getting a bit long, I will do that in my next post on this subject, which should appear at some point in the next few days.

In a Lower Orb, and Slower

The Conquest
by John Norris


In Power or Wisdom to contend with thee,
Great God, who but a Lucifer would dare?
Our Strength is but Infirmity,
And when we this perceive, our Sight's most clear:
But yet I will not be excell'd thought I,
In Love; in Love I'll with my Maker vy.


I view'd the Glories of thy Seat above,
And thought of every Grace and Charm divine,
And farther to encrease my Love
I measured all the Heights and Depths of thine.
Thus there broke forth a Strong and Vigorous Flame,
And almost melted down my mortal Frame.


But when thy Bloody Sweat and Death I view,
I own (Dear Lord) the Conquest of thy Love;
Thou dost my highest Flights outdo;
I in a lower Orb, and slower, move.
Thus in this Strife's a double Weakness shewn,
Thy Love I cannot equal, nor yet bear my own.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Links and Notes

* The Women in Philosophy Task Force "is an umbrella group that works to coordinate initiatives and intensify efforts to advance women in philosophy". (ht)

* Alexander Pruss on the Grim Reaper Paradox and the Kalam argument

* D. G. Myers has a post up on the topic of influence, following on a discussion of what it means for something (like a novel) to be overrated. There are some things I agree with and disagree with, I think, and you can expect a post at some point; but I will have to think through some things more carefully first.

* The SEP has a new article on xuanxue.

* George Washington Carver's pamphlet, How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption. The same website also gives his pamphlets on sweet potatoes and tomatoes. Carver, I think, is often misunderstood; he was one of the great science popularizers of the twentieth century. He did relatively minor scientific work, had far fewer discoveries than are usually attributed to him, and most of those were mere curiosities rather than revolutionary. He was a competent researcher, in that he got results, but he was also an unorthodox one, perhaps due to his lifelong aversion to administrative tasks: he refused to write down his procedures and he kept no lab records. But he was truly extraordinary at interesting people in the science of simple things, so much so that in the six decades since his death his legend has never stopped growing.

* Some notable YouTube finds:

Johanna Kurkela, Nothing Else Matters
The Quire of Cheahs, Spem in Alium. The wonders of technology: Spem in Alium is a forty-part polyphonic piece by Thomas Tallis. Once this would have required a choir of forty people, each taking a part. This was done by one person and recording technology. The nearly ten minute piece required 36 hours to make. (ht)
Idumea (an excellent version, a bit quieter and less anguished than most good versions, in which, through the wonders of technology again, seven of a person sing the Sacred Harp classic together)

* Nathan Smith, Why Socialism Does Not Work but Monasticism Does (Word). We tend not to see monasteries this way, but they have good claim to be the most efficient and stable wealth-generating institution prior to the rise of the modern corporation -- and even there, while they are less efficient than modern corporations, under the right conditions they can be massively more stable. This wealth-generating feature of monasteries is found in Buddhism as well as Christianity; and the ease with which Buddhism and Christianity allow for monastic lifestyles has been one of the historical causes for a number of the massive expansions each has undergone. Monasteries also have the important feature that they are not merely wealth-generating institutions but also study-based institutions; in addition to building a stable economic framework, they create an infrastructure for interaction among intellectuals. They are very efficient at this, too; it took the invention of the university to find anything that could surpass them at it.

* Daniel Nolan, Why Historians (and Everyone Else) Should Care about Counterfactuals (PDF)

* Sherry's Hundred Hymns List continues:

#21 Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee
#20 There is a Fountain
#19 Crown Him with Many Crowns
#18 That Old Rugged Cross
#17 In Christ Alone
#16 O Sacred Head Now Wounded
#15 Christ the Lord is Risen Today
#14 Before the Throne of God Above
#13 O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus

#19 was third on my ten hymns list, and so far is the fourth (if I count correctly) to be listed in the Hundred Hymns.

Immaterial Unintelligent Substance

An interestingly unusual instance of an appeal to the great chain of being:

It has been observed by the curious, and beautifully described by Mr. Addison and Mr. Locke, that in the scale of beings, there is such a gradual progress in nature, that the most perfect of an inferior species comes very near to the most imperfect of that, which is immediately above it: that the whole chasm in nature, from a plant to a man, is filled up by such a gentle and easy ascent, that the little transitions from one species to another are almost insensible: That if the scale of beings rises by such a regular progress so high as man, we may, by a parity of reason, supppose, that it still proceeds gradually through those beings, that are of a superior nature to him; that there is no manner of chasm left, no link deficient in this great chain of beings.

Now according to this observation, which is apparent through all the known works of God, and by a parity of reason presumed of those above our knowledge, there should be in nature some being to fill up the vast chasm betwixt body and spirit; otherwise the gradation would fail, the chain would seem to be broken. What a gap between senseless material, and intelligent immaterial substance, unless there is some being, which, by partaking of the nature of both, may serve as a link to unite them, and make the transition less violent? And why may not space be such a being? Might we not venture to define it, an immaterial unintelligent substance, the place of bodies, and of spirits, having some of the properties of both.

[Catharine Trotter Cockburn, "Remarks on the Notes by Archbishop King's Translation Concerning Space, &c., With a digression on Dr. Watt's Notion of Substance," in Catharine Trotter Cockburn: Philosophical Works, Sheridan, ed., Broadview Press (Toronto: 2006) p. 97.]

Cockburn is one of the too-often-overlooked great philosophers of the early modern period. This passage is from an appendix to a work published in 1743. Space as a substance intermediate between mind and body makes for a somewhat striking picture, a version of a view that was actually quite popular in the early modern period; to accept it you would have to have very particular assumptions, but I imagine that a poet or fantasy writer could do some splendid things with it.

(I intended to note that the reference to Locke is to ECHU III.iv.12 and IV.xvi.12.)

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Admin Note

You may notice that comments are now moderated. The reason is that someone was recently banned from commenting here due to irrational attacks on other commenters (antisemitic insults and the like). In particular, he continued to do so after being explicitly warned to stop or be banned; but as sometimes happens with comment-thread trolls, the person in question has been unable to grasp the concept of a ban, and has repeatedly tried to evade it. So that I won't have to worry about quieter folks being attacked by the sort of malice typically involved in his comments, comments will be under moderation for an indefinite period. This will allow me to delete his comments before anyone wastes time reading them, but will mean that during certain times of the week (Fridays and Saturdays especially at present) any comments you leave will be slow in appearing. Apologies for any inconvenience.

UPDATE: A warning for all commenters -- instead of addressing the issue on his own blog, he has bothered one commenter here on her blog, writing trollish off-topic comments as part of his case that he is not a troll. I am recommending to all commenters that for the immediate future they not enter their blog link when commenting here if they allow comments there. Apologies yet again for any inconvenience. This post will be moved to the top.