Saturday, December 19, 2009

Collins on Academic Stagnation

Academicization is a two-edged sword. The material base that schools provide for intellectual life can be positive or negative in supporting creativity. The tendencies toward rote learning, narrow technique, and a routine of exercises and exams are always present. When they are overlaid by the energies of building new career paths and reorganizing intellectual space, the result is creative breakthroughs in the realm of higher abstractions. It is only when a fine balance holds among intersecting factions at a focus of attention that creativity exists. Distrubing the balance or removing the focus, one may be left with the material institutions and large numbers of intellectuals, but settled into schoalstic routine. With this comes the stagnation of classics and technicalities, and eventually an atmosphere in which the more creative high points may even be forgotten. Stagnation in all its forms is a danger of academic success.

Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA: 1990) p. 521. Collins identifies three forms of stagnation in the intellectual life of a culture: (1) stagnation involving loss of cultural capital; (2) stagnation involving confinement to the classics; and (3) stagnation involving jargonistic over-refinement. None of these mean that there is no good work being done; rather, they are three different ways that new research and examination of new ideas is hampered. Old ideas, which can birth new ideas, may be forgotten -- raised, but overlooked, and re-discovered only in hindsight. Intellectuals may enter into a little treadmill of treating the same points over and over again, without serious regard for problems and aporia. And the way in which intellectuals typically approach a question may become so overspecialized that non-specialists have difficulty seeing the value of the work, which makes it harder to recruit top minds to that field of study, which, if not corrected, leads to marginalization or collapse. Infrastructure and context is heavily responsible for this -- for instance, a culture in which scientists spend most of their time writing grant applications for expensive experiments to answer big questions will have a very different intellectual character, and be in danger of very different intellectual failings, when compared to a culture in which scientists spend most of their time coming up with cheap garage-and-kitchen experiments to answer little questions. Schooling ties intellectual life to a particular kind of infrastructure, at least loosely. This infrastructure allows intellectuals to keep track of more ideas, engage in more extensive investigations, and interact on a larger scale than they otherwise could, but at the same time it also locks in routines and expectations, some of which can, at a certain point, impede any of these three things unless it is restructured to take new circumstances into account (which can sometimes be difficult to do). Collins is famously pessimistic about our current academic infrastructure, which he has argued is creating conditions for all three kinds of intellectual stagnation. Unfortunately, he is largely right, although educational reforms could potentially breathe new life into the culture of study and research.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Inveni David (Repost)

I had intended to repost this earlier this month, but forgot in the December rush. This is a slightly revised version of a post from 2008.

Among Thomas Aquinas's extant sermons is one, usually known by the name Inveni David, which is devoted to St. Nicholas of Myra. The exact circumstances of the sermon are unknown, but we know that it was preached in December in Paris either on St. Nicholas Day or around that time. A Tale of Two Wonderworkers (PDF) by Peter Kwasniewski does a good job of giving the background.

The topic of the sermon is that God works wonders in His saints, and St. Thomas treats of this topic by taking a verse from the Psalms about David (a standard verse for saints who are bishops):

I have discovered David my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him; my hand will help him, and my arm will strengthen him (Ps. 88:21-22).

This gives us a series of wonders that God works in the servants of God -- David in particular, of course, but also any servant of God. And thus Thomas uses it to speak of how St. Nicholas was such a servant. There are four basic parts to the verse, to which Aquinas assigns one feature of God's wondrous working in the saints:

(1) I have discovered David my servant: election
(2) with my holy oil I have anointed him: consecration
(3) my hand will help him: execution of duties
(4) and my arm will strengthen him: steadfastness

Thus Thomas will show wondrous election, singular consecration, effective execution of office, and abiding steadfastness in St. Nicholas. Actually, he never gets to the last; the sermon we have stops abruptly and without explanation after (3).

Wondrous Election

I have discovered David my servant, the Psalmist says; what's involved in discovering someone? Discovery, says Thomas, suggests rarity, at least to the extent that it needs to be discovered; it suggests search; it suggests disclosure; and it suggests conviction through experience. All these are elements of God's wonderful choosing of St. Nicholas: the first in that St. Nicholas was virtuous from youth, the second in that the Lord seeks faithful souls to delight in; the third in that Nicholas stood out through his pious affection and profound mercy and compassion; and the fourth in that Nicholas faithfully served the Lord's interests rather than his own. The third is particularly important for Aquinas; St. Nicholas is an example he holds up in more than one place for his compassion and mercy. He clearly likes the story of St. Nicholas finding a way to give gold in secret to the poor virgins so that they could have a dowry without the embarrassment of being beholden to him for it. Notably Thomas also uses his discussion of Nicholas's election to attack abuses by the clergy.

Singular Consecration

According to legend, St. Nicholas was elevated to the position of bishop by God Himself. The old bishop had died with no one obvious as a replacement. Those who were trusted with choosing the successor had a dream one night that they should consecrate as bishop the first man who walked through the door of the Church that morning. This happened to be Nicholas, who was at the time a young priest and a newcomer to Myra. He took considerable convincing, but eventually he was installed as bishop. This is perhaps subtly in the background here, although Aquinas doesn't mention it explicitly here (he does explicitly mention it elsewhere, so he knew of the story). Instead he focuses on the phrase with my holy oil I have anointed him. Oil has four uses, says Aquinas, all of which are suggested in this context.

First, oil is used for healing. Thus oil is an image of God's healing grace, and we see the operation of such grace in such a holy man as Nicholas.

Second, oil is used for lighting. To this extent it symbolizes the learning of wisdom, which is why it is associated with prophecy and illumination.

Third, oil is used for flavoring. In this sense it is an image of spiritual joy; just as a sprinkling of oil makes food taste better, so does a sprinkling of spiritual joy make good works easier. It is in this sense that oil is associated with priesthood.

Fourth, oil is used for softening and smoothing. Understood in this way it signifies mercy and kindness of heart which, of course, St. Nicholas had in astounding measure. Thus, says Thomas Aquinas, just as oil spreads itself out, so does mercy, and just as oil coats things, so mercy coats every good work. He then has a very interesting passage:

You ought to consider that in the future, according to the merits of graces the evidence of rewards will appear in the glorified bodies of the saints, and that even in this life the signs of their affection appear. This is evident in the case of blessed Francis, where the signs of the passion of Christ became visible, so vehemently was he affected by the passion of Christ. In blessed Nicholas's case, signs of mercy appeared when "his tomb sweated oil," thus indicating that he was a man of great mercy.

The linking of the two extremely popular saints, Saint Francis and Saint Nicholas, is rather interesting in itself, since, while Nicholas founded no order, there are nonetheless a great many similarities between the two, as regards their place in the Church and what they have left for posterity. It has also not gone without notice that here Thomas the Dominican goes out of his way to mention the stigmata of Saint Francis, which has suggested to some that his audience may have been Franciscan. Saint Nicholas was a favored saint of the Dominicans, playing a large role in early Dominican spiritual life, and thus the linking here strongly indicates that Aquinas wants to suggest something about the two orders taken together.

In any case, Thomas holds that this fourth signification of oil is why oil is often associated with kingship.

And thus in these four ways, divine grace, prophetic wisdom, priestly gladness, and kingly compassion, God works wonders in His saints.

Effective Execution

My hand shall help him
. The hand symbolizes God's strength, and Thomas suggests four ways in which God's strength is found to operate in saints like Nicholas. First, God drew Nicholas to Himself and away from evil. Second, God guided Nicholas as He does all the just. Third, He gave him strength and comfort. And fourth, because Nicholas showed exquisite mercy, God worked miracles through him.

And this is how the sermon ends, abruptly but memorably:

It was mercy that made blessed Nicholas an extraordinary man, and the Lord strengthened him even unto everlasting life. May He lead us there, who lives with the Father and the Holy Spirit, &c.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Apparently Deciding Who Is Jewish Is Now Racially Discriminatory

This annoys me in so many ways:

The Jewish Free School has lost the hard-fought case on the criteria for admissions to this sought-after school. The next step might be to challenge equality legislation itself, as the admissions criteria, found to be racially discriminating, was based on the 3,500-year-old criteria for judging whether a person is Jewish or not, fundamentally by the religion of the mother.

The UK Supreme Court today, by the narrowest of margins, held that the admissions criteria of JFS, which gave preference in the event of oversubscription to children who are Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law (either by descent or conversion), were in the definition of the 1976 Race Relations Act, directly racially discriminatory.

This despite the fact that Judaism in Jewish law is not a racial category. As Gledhill notes, anyone can become Jewish by conversion, but even more than that, even being Jewish by descent isn't a racial matter. If your mother was English and converted before your birth, that counts, although (as in the case that started this off, in which a boy's Italian mother was a convert) sometimes there are conditions that must be met before the conversion is considered adequate (in this case, the problem was that the synagogue under whose auspices the mother converted was liberal rather than Orthodox). The ruling is here (PDF). The majority tries, and tries, and tries to insist that it is not being anti-Semitic, and that it is not calling the JFS policy racist, but it rings very hollow. The reasoning given for treating the admission criterion as racial discrimination under the definition of the law is extremely strained in Lord Phillips's opinion, and insisting that there is no way to distinguish Jewish religion and Jewish ethnicity, which the presiding judge openly does, is a standard anti-Semitic ploy. Also, Lord Phillips, appealing to the Chief Rabbi's discussion of conversion, so massively misreads it as a discussion of Jewishness that it is difficult to see it as anything but deliberate. Lady Hale's reasoning is, as far as I can see, thoroughly incoherent; the mother's Italian origins were entirely irrelevant, since someone with Italian origins can be eligible for admission (as Lord Rodger rightly notes: "His mother could have been as Italian in origin as Sophia Loren and as Roman Catholic as the Pope for all that the governors cared..."). And, as any rational person knows (and as Lord Rodger also suggests), when you get absurd results on the basis of your reasoning, that should lead you to reconsider thoroughly the principles on which you got them, to make sure that no mistake was made on the way. Lord Mance accepts a ridiculous argument that requires reading a statement by the Office of the Chief Rabbi as saying that Jewishness is a racial category, when it actually just says that anyone recognized by the OCR is Jewish and considered to be Jewish, which is an entirely different thing. Lord Kerr says that the issue is "whether it is discrimination on ethnic grounds to discriminate against all those who are not descended from Jewish women," calmly ignoring the fact that the use of the Orthodox criteria for Jewishness makes this impossible: since you can be Jewish if you are not descended from Jewish women, use of the criteria cannot be discrimination against everyone not descended from Jewish women. Saying otherwise is a straightforward contradiction.

On the definition given by the act, a person or group racially discriminates if they treat someone less favorably for reasons of "colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origins". Not one of these is genuinely involved here; treating the matter as discrimination on the ground of ethnic origins or ethnic status is absurd given that there is a perfectly straightforward way for someone to be eligible despite his origin -- matrilineal descent is merely one way to be eligible -- and given that on this argument virtually every religion becomes an ethnic group. The only issue involved in the case at hand was that the OCR does not recognize conversions for certain kinds of synagogues; the JFS policy is clearly proportionate to its aim, which is to give Orthodox Jews, whether they are practicing or not, a better education, including an education in the Jewish religion. The JFS got into trouble here precisely because it intended for all Orthodox Jews to be eligible for admission; if its admission criteria required proof of religious practice, it would not have had this problem, and would not have been accused by the UK's supreme court of racial discrimination under the law. But its mission is to give Orthodox Jews, practicing or not, a better understanding of the Jewish legacy, and therefore it counts as eligible anyone whom the OCR deems to meet the Orthodox Jewish criteria for being a Jew. And the Court has effectively ruled that any application of the Orthodox Jewish criteria for being a Jew is racial discrimination. This is the height of absurdity, and this decision has shown British discrimination law to be a laughingstock.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Links for Linking

* John Pieret is short and sweet on 'bad design' arguments, which, as he notes, are the mirror-universe versions of the arguments of intelligent design theory.

* A brief piece on one of the two currently working versions of Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2. Ralph Luker points to a YouTube demonstration of it.

* Adriano Celentano shows us what American pop music used to sound like to Italians. It's very catchy, in a crazy-making way.

* James Franklin, Aristotelian Realism (PDF)

* David Oderberg, On an Alleged Fallacy in Aristotle (PDF)

* Rebecca Stark on Sure Things Only Because.

* Very sad:

Karim Mansour, the store and dog owner, received a warning: Remove the dog or the Florida Department of Agriculture would declare all of Mansour's food products — mostly bottled sodas, Slim Jims and candy bars — unfit for consumption.

Mansour, who adopted 6-year-old Cody three years ago, had no choice but to sign the warning. His primary violation: "Prohibited animals present in a food establishment. Dog seen in retail area."

The store doesn't serve hot food such as hot dogs or even fresh cold deli-type items. The only food it carries are packaged products such as chips, crackers and candy.

But food, apparently, is food.

Even dogs are being laid off these days.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hume on the Two Delicacies

Some People are subject to a certain delicacy of passion, which makes them extremely sensible to all the accidents of life, and gives them a lively joy upon every prosperous event, as well as a piercing grief, when they meet with misfortunes and adversity. Favours and good offices easily engage their friendship; while the smallest injury provokes their resentment. Any honour or mark of distinction elevates them above measure; but they are as sensibly touched with contempt. People of this character have, no doubt, more lively enjoyments, as well as more pungent sorrows, than men of cool and sedate tempers: But, I believe, when every thing is balanced, there is no one, who would not rather be of the latter character, were he entirely master of his own disposition. Good or ill fortune is very little at our disposal: And when a person, that has this sensibility of temper, meets with any misfortune, his sorrow or resentment takes entire possession of him, and deprives him of all relish in the common occurrences of life; the right enjoyment of which forms the chief part of our happiness. Great pleasures are much less frequent than great pains; so that a sensible temper must meet with fewer trials in the former way than in the latter. Not to mention, that men of such lively passions are apt to be transported beyond all bounds of prudence and discretion, and to take false steps in the conduct of life, which are often irretrievable.

There is a delicacy of taste observable in some men, which very much resembles this delicacy of passion, and produces the same sensibility to beauty and deformity of every kind, as that does to prosperity and adversity, obligations and injuries. When you present a poem or a picture to a man possessed of this talent, the delicacy of his feeling makes him be sensibly touched with every part of it; nor are the masterly strokes perceived with more exquisite relish and satisfaction, than the negligences or absurdities with disgust and uneasiness. A polite and judicious conversation affords him the highest entertainment; rudeness or impertinence is as great a punishment to him. In short, delicacy of taste has the same effect as delicacy of passion: It enlarges the sphere both of our happiness and misery, and makes us sensible to pains as well as pleasures, which escape the rest of mankind.

David Hume, "On the Delicacy of Taste and Passion". I've been re-reading Mansfield Park in breaks in grading -- unfortunately, since I like the book it has at times meant more breaks than grading -- and one thing that struck me this time around was the degree to which delicacy of taste is attributed to Fanny Price. The phrase itself was applied directly to her once, the word 'delicacy' several times again, and her reactions to both the natural world and reading are standard examples of delicacy of taste.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Sing, O daughter of Zion!
Shout, O Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away your judgments,
He has cast out your enemy.
The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
You shall see disaster no more.
In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:

"Do not fear;
Zion, let not your hands be weak.
The LORD your God in your midst,
The Mighty One, will save;
He will rejoice over you with gladness,
He will quiet you with His love,
He will rejoice over you with singing."

Zephaniah 3:14-17 (NKJV)