Saturday, January 02, 2010

Two Poem Re-Drafts and a New Poem Draft

The first is a minor re-drafting, the second a cannibalizing of a poem based on a poem by Seneca, and the third new.

Gray Skies

Skies are gray today; but what of it?
Every gray sky has blue sky above it,
and warm light;
when gray clouds are done
out will spring the splendid sun,
clear and bright.


Swiftly spring to winter tends
as all things hurry to their place;
but swifter far than to this end
do human hearts to nothing race.
With nothing left, no more than death,
the final goal, so swiftly found,
let craving flee with fleeing breath,
resign to fate with reason sound,
and, if you fear the heart's last beat,
then bury fear within the grave.
Time and night do not retreat.
Death will not in mercy save.
The road before is yet unknown;
who of our spirit's fate is sure?
Ask those now laid beneath the stone,
ask those who never lived nor were --
but still the battle-lines are drawn,
still I stand, though but a husk,
and though there may not be a dawn
I yet may have a hero's dusk.

On the Genealogy of Christ

Long years stretch back
where legends walk and men
who toiled in the lack
and famine born of sin;
long years, and endless days
of men at city gates
as women in sundry ways
bore children and life's weight,
and not one, not one, knew
the things God had in store,
how simple things and true
heaven's promise bore,
not one person dreamed
in households in the land
the light of heaven gleamed
in married life's demand,
that fathers grown from sons
and mothers made from maids
would be the chosen ones,
foundations heaven-laid,
that in their daily work
to live and to survive
hope would begin to lurk
and glory to revive,
that God, our God, in men
blood and womb would mesh
to make himself our kin,
our cousin, Word made flesh.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Admin Note

Haloscan, the free commenting service I have used since almost the beginning of this blog (back in the long-ago days before Blogger was acquired by Google), is being phased out, so I'm trying out a different commenting platform. We'll see how it goes. In the meantime, there may be some oddities in how comments are handled here, until I decide how best to arrange the settings.

Transfiguring, Subtle, Mad, Divine

Every artist knows how far from any real feeling of letting himself go his "most natural" state is--the free ordering, placing, disposing, giving form in the moment of "inspiration"--and how strictly and subtly he obeys thousandfold laws precisely then, laws that precisely on account of their hardness and determination defy all formulation through concepts (even the firmest concept is, compared with them, not free of fluctuation, multiplicity, and ambiguity).

What is essential "in heaven and on earth" seems to be, to say it once more, that there should be obedience over a long period of time and in a single direction: given that, something always develops, and has developed, for whose sake it is worth while to live on earth; for example, virtue, art, music, dance, reason, spirituality--something transfiguring, subtle, mad, and divine.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Part V, section 188, Kaufmann, tr. Vintage (New York: 1966), pp. 100-101. As he calls it earlier in the passage, it is a 'long compulsion', and to understand what is inestimably valuable in, say, Stoicism, you should look for that in it which can be compared to something like the compulsion of meter and rhyme on language, which educates and strengthens and makes more alive the very words we use.


I collect little parables and fables that I think are interesting. Here are some of the ones that have made it here to Siris.

Scratches on Silver
Morning Three, Afternoon Four
Sufi at Prayer
The One Overlooked Thing
The Fox and the Grapes
The Rooster Prince
The Container of Water
Monkeys and Shoes
Broken Window
Naked in a Barrel
Crossing the River
The Bag Behind
The Mountains in Labor
The Dog in the River
Race to Mecca
What You Should Never Forget
Three Pods of Pepper

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Brief Jotting on Infinite Regresses

Sometimes when infinite regress arguments come up, especially in the Intro Phil classroom, the following sort of argument (sometimes in a more crude form) is given by a student as a possible reason why they might not work -- that is, as a possible reason for the conclusion that an infinite regress is possible. Let's confine our attention to the case of an infinite regress of causes, and let's take some effect. We can assign that effect 0, and its cause -1, and the cause of that -2. Now the negative numbers are an infinite set; so it's possible that the series could be stretched back. So it's entirely consistent for there to be an infinite regress of causes: no contradiction in the numbers.

This sort of argument, which I've heard from students in several different forms, clearly doesn't work against infinite regress arguments, and in fact is wholly irrelevant to them, but I think it's worthwhile to stop a moment and consider the precise logical misstep involved, if only because it's useful for explanations.

Suppose I want to see whether it's possible for me to have infinite apples. I assign numbers to my apples, and recognize that for each apple that I have there is a higher possible number of apples. Aha! says Tom, thus it's at least in principle possible for me to have infinite apples, because for any number of apples I have I could have a greater number of apples! But Tom is mistaken; the fact that for any number of apples I could have a greater number of apples is entirely consistent with saying that it is impossible to have infinite apples. For what Tom has proven is not that I can have infinite apples but that for any finite number of apples I could have a greater finite number of apples.

So it is with the students' objection to infinite regress. Assigning numbers in this way only shows that, as far as the numbers go, any finite series can be exceeded by another finite series. But this is entirely consistent with there being only finite series. It would be entirely possible for this to be true and for there to be no infinite series at all, because we never actually got around to talking about infinite series, just as in the apples example we never actually got around to talking about infinite apples. We just talked about how there was no limit to the size of finite series, or to finite collections of apples. From "For any finite number of apples a greater number of apples is possible" one cannot infer "There is a possible collection of apples greater than any finite number of apples". It is the latter that you would need in order to have shown that an infinite collection of apples was possible; the former is consistent with the impossibility of having infinite apples, because it only talks about finite numbers of apples.

Of course, in the end, it's obviously the case that whether I can have an infinite number of apples has nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with apples and what's needed in order to have apples. You can't have infinite apples, not because infinite numbers are impossible, but because you couldn't possibly have the apple trees to produce more than a very large finite number of apples. And likewise, whether I can have an infinite regress of a certain type of cause has nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with those causes and what you need in order to have those causes. This is true generally of disputes like this -- whether the world can actually be eternal with an infinite past or future, whether there can actually be infinitely many objects in the universe, whether there can be actual infinitesimals, and so forth.


Joe Carter summarizes Julia Nefsky's theory of humor using Seinfeld episodes. There are, in effect, three major kinds of theory of humor in the history of the subject, which might be called arousal theories, superiority theories, and incongruity theories.

There are typically two kinds of arousal theory; one holds that the pleasantness of humor (however conceived) results from some kind of arousal or tension, and the other that it results from some kind of relief from arousal or tension. The latter seem to be more popular; and the most widely known versions of it are Freudian, which, as you might expect, take the arousal or tension to be sexual in some form.

Hobbes is an example of a superiority theorist, with his account in Of Human Nature of sudden glory as the thing that makes us laugh:

For when a jest is broken upon ourselves, or friends of whose dishonour we participate, we never laugh thereat. I may therefore conclude, that the passion of laughter Is nothing else but sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly; for men laugh at the follies of themselves past, when they come suddenly to remembrance, except they bring with them any present dishonour. It is no wonder therefore that men take heinously to be laughed at or derided, that is, triumphed over.

There are two possible kinds of incongruity theory; one could hold that humor consists primarily in incongruity itself or that it consists primarily in the resolution of incongruities. Incongruity-resolution theories seem to be the most widely accepted among cognitive scientists today; they were also the favored approach of Scottish Common Sense philosophers, such as Beattie, whose summary is still quoted:

Laughter arises from the view of two or more inconsistent, unsuitable, or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex object or assemblage, or as acquiring a sort of mutual relation from the peculiar manner in which the mind takes notice of them.

Both arousal and superiority approaches get some plausibility from the fact that so much humor does involve sex, embarrassment, and disparagement; but one of the great advantages of the incongruity approach is that it allows one to take into account the role of fallacies, which Nefsky highlights, whereas the other two don't seem to account for it at all. One can, of course, hold that they have a supplementary role -- Beattie, for instance, recognized that mood and distress could be relevant to humor, and distinguished between two kinds of humor, one of which does involve disparagement. But neither arousal nor superiority approaches seem to get us very far on the logic-play that is involved in so much of humor.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Well, I'm back in Austin, having had a good Christmas. Arsen's dystopian post on airline security is a bit too true, but it's surprising how quickly you can move through security if you have early flights. I saw several movies over the holiday, including the new Sherlock Holmes (you'll like it, more or less, if you approach it more as a comic book movie starring Sherlock Holmes than as a Sherlock Holmes movie), and went skiing at Red Lodge. I re-read Flynn's Eifelheim, finished Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, and did some reading in the Berquist translation of Aquinas's commentary on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics. You can expect some posts on some or all of these things, but for now I'm tired, and I am going to get in bed and re-watch the first season of Battlestar Galactica. Go Roslin!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Feast of Holy Family

The Passover in the Holy Family
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Here meet together the prefiguring day
And day prefigured. 'Eating, thou shalt stand,
Feet shod, loins girt, thy road-staff in thine hand,
With blood-stained door and lintel,' — did God say
By Moses' mouth in ages passed away.
And now, where this poor household doth comprise
At Paschal-Feast two kindred families, —
Lo! the slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay.

The pyre is piled. What agony's crown attained,
What shadow of death the Boy's fair brow subdues
Who holds that blood wherewith the porch is stained
By Zachary the priest? John binds the shoes
He deemed himself not worthy to unloose;
And Mary culls the bitter herbs ordained.

Rossetti wrote the poem to accompany a painting.