Saturday, April 02, 2011

Diversity of Illustration and Variety in Method

Philosophical thought and knowledge, with that diversity of illustration and variety in method which follows from its universality, is in this respect somewhat in the same case with poetry. Of all the imitative arts poetry alone embraces and by its nature is intended to embrace the whole man. It is therefore free to borrow its similes or colours and manifold figurative expressions from every sphere of life and nature, and to take them now from this now from that object, as on each occasion appears most striking and appropriate....In the same way, philosophy is not confined to any one invariable and immutable form. At one time it may come forward in the guise of a moral, legislative, or a judicial discussion; at another, as a description of natural history. Or, perhaps, it may assume the method of an historical and genealogical development and derivation of ideas as best fitted to exhibit the thoughts which it aims at illustrating in their mutual coherence and connexion.....Every method and every scientific form is good; or at least, when rightly employed, is good. But no one ought to be exclusive. No one must be carried out with painful uniformity, and with wearying monotony be invariably followed throughout.

Friedrich von Schlegel, Philosophy of Life, pp. 188-189.

Friday, April 01, 2011

On Liberal Artisanship as a Precondition for Good Philosophy

I've mentioned before that the phrase 'liberal art' used not to be so gooey as it is today. If you go around asking academics to describe what people get out of liberal arts today, you'll find claims like the following:

the aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to re-orient themselves

Which is either mere academic gibberish to hide the fact that they are saying nothing or a sign that the people saying it have some severe mental problems. In actual fact, nobody who is truly passionate about liberal arts as liberal arts, rather than as propagandizing instruments or spaces to say and do any stupid thing one pleases, puts much emphasis on "disorientation" and "re-orientation". And that is because when you pierce through all this jargonistic fog, what people really love about liberal arts, and the reason why liberal arts are absolutely ineliminable from education, is closer to what the term 'liberal art' originally meant.

The word indicates a kind of craft; it's a productive skill, and one who learns a liberal art becomes an artisan, shaping, and making, and adapting things to good and useful and beautiful ends. Liberal arts are distinguished in one way from servile arts, which are devoted to making oneself useful to other people, and in another way from the manual arts, which make material products (handiworks, things that can be manufactured, things made and shaped by hand). Thus liberal arts are the crafts that involve making those intellectual and imaginative constructions that assist each person in thinking and determining his or her own ends as a free individual. The liberal arts in this sense are literally the arts of free reason.

And it cannot be emphasized enough: they make things, and these things, along with the products of all the other arts, are what make up the material of civilization.

The traditional list of the liberal arts, of course, mention seven pure liberal arts, divided into three (the trivium) and four (the quadrivium). The trivium consists of arts that are concerned in some way with verbal constructions:


These are ordered in the list from the less abstract (and thus more directly concerned with words as such) to the more abstract (and thus more concerned with adapting words to the use of intellectual life as such). What things do these arts allow you to make? Putting it very roughly, meaningful and useful sentences (enunciations), well-constructed compositions (discourses), and well-structured arguments (syllogisms).

The quadrivium consists of arts that are in some way concerned with mathematical constructions:


The first two in the list have the more abstract constructions; what they produce are mathematical constructions precisely as such. What they produce are, respectively, enumerations and measurements. The second two are less abstract: what they produce are mathematical constructions as applicable to certain kinds of domain. Both of these terms were broader than they are today. The medievals held that everything, not just sound, had a sort of music to it: there was a sort of music to the spheres and a sort of music to the human body, and so forth. When they said these things they meant that there was an implicit mathematics to these things, one involving proportions and ratios. This is what the liberal art of music concerned itself with: patterns involving proportions and ratios (harmonies and disharmonies, consonances and dissonances, non-verbal analogies). (Music in our sense involves manual art as well as liberal art.) Astronomy, too, was not confined to the heavens; surveying and navigation used astronomy all the time to make calculations based on stable phenomena. And that's what the liberal art of astronomy concerned itself: calculations involving measurements of phenomena. You can see immediately that music in this sense is a particular sort of applied arithmetic, while astronomy in this sense is a particular sort of applied geometry.

If one does not wish to stretch the terms so far as to keep the liberal arts to seven, one does not need to do so. But the fact of the matter is that the liberal arts in this sense are all the crafts that make rational artifacts for rational life. A liberal art in this sense needs no defending; anyone who rejects liberal art in this sense is effectively rejecting education itself. A liberal art in this sense is obviously useful: its whole raison d'etre is to make things useful for the mind. And there's nothing so fuzzy or vague or useless as "disorientation and re-orientation" here.

These liberal arts play a crucial role in serious philosophical thought. From logic, arithmetic, and geometry we learn rational method. And all of the liberal arts fashion the tools and instruments all good philosophers use to think: literary constructions and compositions, rhetorical discourses and tropes, deductive and inductive arguments, tallies and equations, comparative measurements, patterns and proportions, and computations involving phenomena. These are the products of liberal craftsmanship; these are the works of the liberal artisan. Because the mind uses these things to make itself more fit for discovering and understanding the truth, whoever can make these things well can in principle think more clearly, reason more fully, and understand more deeply than one who cannot. (In practice it is a little more complicated than this, because one needs not only the skill to make these things well but also the good sense -- the prudence -- to apply them properly.)

To make good philosophers, then, you need to teach them liberal arts first, because it is the liberal arts that give them the intellectual tools to reason and understand on a far greater scale than they can manage on their own. Good philosophy begins in the workshop of thought, where one manufactures what one needs to reason well and understand fully. People who have no such workshop-skills will be limited by the tools they have available.

Needless to say, it follows from this that we currently educate people very poorly; it's not that people don't get these skills, but they must either be drawing on natural talents or actively seeking them out on their own. What they do get of them is largely slapdash and piecemeal (and this is true even of logic, which is where our current philosophical curricula fall down least). I know mine was. Ideally, philosophy students should be explicitly and actively encouraged to learn languages, study literature, work on their writing and speaking skills, do archival research with historians, do ethnographic studies with anthropologists, do field work and laboratory work (even if only minor things) with natural scientists, study mathematics as far as they can. In practice, we could probably do a great deal to improve philosophical education simply by adding to the requirements interdisciplinary courses in undergraduate and an interdisciplinary year in graduate, so that they can do more to hone the intellectual tools they have available.

But in the larger view, what's really needed is closer focus on liberal arts in the educational system generally. After all, not all good philosophical minds go into academic philosophy; you can find true philosophers in other professions and trades. Further, since the liberal arts produce works essential for a thriving civilization, we are all better off if everyone picks up as many such skills as they can. And, perhaps most importantly of all, since they are the arts above all else that assist us in living lives that are genuinely free and rational, we have a moral responsibility to insist that they be taught. It is the liberal arts that make us more than slaves.

Two Poem Drafts


The heart that cannot ache no love can know:
the strain of pinion-wing to rise above
and look upon the green of fields below
alone can teach us flight -- and that is love.
When wings unused for long are stretched to fly,
the muscles, moved and stressed, will feel the pain,
but oh! to soar and swoop with wing on high
will make such minor ache a kind of gain!
Thus proud the athlete feels the burn within,
resistance overcome and well endured,
as flame that ripples underneath the skin
to prove all challenge met, and prowess pure.
So let your heart from drowsy slumber wake
and seek out things so great, so pure, so fair,
so sad, your heart will at the vision ache
and thus grow strong, and heaven's glories dare.


The hollow-laden willow waves the leaflets of its limbs
in the winds that whip around it in the shadowed evendim;
my heart is hale and singing with a hymn of hope and praise,
a hymn of hope and praise that I have learned from summer rain,
a healing psalm so soulful that it saves from fear and pain
and lengthens out like prayer all the wonder of my days.
With the waving willow I with spirit rise and sway
as the raindrops, kissed by moonlight, on my eyelids leap and play.

Like a Vast Shadow

For whatever reason (perhaps because teaching Plato's Republic and Boethius's Consolation in succession really brings out the Neoplatonist elements of the latter), this poem has been much on my mind recently.

The World
by Henry Vaughan

I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light
All calm as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time, in hours, days, years,
Driven by the spheres,
Like a vast shadow moved, in which the world
And all her train were hurled.
The doting Lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit's sour delights;
With gloves and knots, the silly snares of pleasure;
Yet his dear treasure
All scattered lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flower.

The darksome Statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight fog, moved there so slow
He did nor stay nor go;
Condemning thoughts, like sad eclipses, scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digged the mole, and, lest his ways be found,
Worked under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey; but One did see
That policy.
Churches and altars fed him, perjuries
Were gnats and flies;
It rained about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.

The fearful Miser on a heap of rust
Sat pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust;
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves.
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugged each one his pelf.
The downright Epicure placed heaven in sense
And scorned pretence;
While others, slipped into a wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort, slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor despisèd Truth sat counting by
Their victory.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing and weep, soared up into the Ring;
But most would use no wing.
'Oh, fools,' said I, 'thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shows the way,
The way which from this dead and dark abode
Leaps up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he.'
But as I did their madness so discuss,
One whispered thus,
This Ring the Bridegroom did for none provide
But for his Bride.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The 'Trolley Problem' Problem

At "DarwinCatholic," Mrs. Darwin has an excellent short post on "sterile ethical quandaries like the trolley problem"; Darwin's comment in the comments thread is worth reading as well. I had a comment that I don't want to lose sight of, but keep as a reminder, so I put it here:

I think it pretty much says it all about trolley problems, though. Why are they so popular in ethics? In part because they are so sanitized and sterilized and you don't have to be haunted by them. It's connected to the fact that the Fat Man who shows up in a number of variations ends up being dropped on train tracks, blown up, etc.: it's cartoon ethics.

I tell you true: you will know the stories and scenarios from which you may genuinely learn about ethics and moral life from the fact that they seize you and will not let go -- for they are the ones you cannot manipulate and gloss as you please.

The Chestertonian Argument against Utopia

The fashionable fallacy is that by education we can give people something that we have not got. To hear people talk one would think it was some sort of magic chemistry, by which, out of a laborious hotchpotch of hygienic meals, baths, breathing exercises, fresh air and freehand drawing, we can produce something splendid by accident; we can create what we cannot conceive. These pages have, of course, no other general purpose than to point out that we cannot create anything good until we have conceived it. It is odd that these people, who in the matter of heredity are so sullenly attached to law, in the matter of environment seem almost to believe in miracle. They insist that nothing but what was in the bodies of the parents can go to make the bodies of the children. But they seem somehow to think that things can get into the heads of the children which were not in the heads of the parents, or, indeed, anywhere else.

G. K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World, "An Evil Cry"

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An Argument for Teaching More Hellenistic Philosophy

Kate Douglas has an article in which she imagines her 'ideal religion'. Building on a post by Harvey Whitehouse, she sees religious practices as having four flavors:

First, the "sacred party", such as incense burning, bell ringing and celestial choral music in Catholicism. Second, "therapy": for example, the practices of healing and casting out devils among some evangelical Christians. Third, "mystical quest", such as the Buddhist quest for nirvana. And finally, "school": detailed study of the Koran in Islam or reading the Torah in Judaism.

Using this template, she tries to imagine her 'ideal religion'. What actually struck me, though, is that all four of these, in some way, were ways in which the Hellenistic schools of philosophy (Academic, Peripatetic, Stoic, and Epicurean) characterized themselves: as banquet (ranging from highly metaphorical with the Stoics to highly literal with the Epicureans), as therapy (which is one of the dominant themes of Hellenistic philosophy), as quest (usually for virtue or ataraxia or some such), and as school (which they obviously literally were). And, despite the fact that I suspect there are many, many people today who share Douglas's vision, every single one of the four Hellenistic schools of philosophy is provably both more rational and more ingenious in filling out these categories than Kate Douglas's ideal religion, which, depending on exactly how you read it, is either a crazy fringe cult, or a really seedy frathouse, or Unitarian Universalism with dancing, chanting, and hazing. The Epicureans did much better. So perhaps the real answer to all this fuzzy-headed make-it-up-as-you-go spirituality is to spread the ideas of Hellenistic philosophy.

Then again, the sight of Unitarian Universalists rhythmically dancing and chanting is bound to put the fear of God into most people, so maybe we should encourage that.

Seriously, though, we should teach more Hellenistic philosophy than we do. If people don't know the spiritual exercises (as Hadot likes to call them) of Marcus Aurelius and Lucretius, it's no wonder that they chase after silly imitations.

Notable Notes and Some Links

* Shiller and Shiller, Economists as Worldly Philosophers (PDF)

* I pay more Federal taxes than General Electric.

* Some interesting news with respect to Eastern Catholicism, which I am late in getting to. The Maronites have a new Patriarch, Béchara Boutros Raï. By all accounts he is a good man who stands a chance of curing the disease of political partisanship that has afflicted much of the Maronite Church. He is the 77the Maronite Patriarch. There are about 3 to 4 million Maronite Catholics in the world, although there is some guesswork in that number; a little less than a third of those live in Lebanon, where they make up more than a fifth of the population. Raï will have to face some considerable challenges; it's like being elected to sit on the powder keg.

In the meantime, the Ukrainian Catholic Church has elected a new Major Archbishop, a relatively young one: Sviatoslav Shevchuk. He has already been pushing a request for Rome to give the Ukrainian Catholic Church patriarchal status; this was an important issue for his predecessor, but Rome has always worried about the reaction of the Orthodox Church to such a recognition, and so has dragged its feet. It would make some sense for the Ukrainian Catholic Church to be given the status of a patriarchate; it is the largest of the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome, having at best estimate about 4.3 million members.

* For those who don't know what I'm talking about when talking about Eastern Catholics: not all Catholics are Roman Catholics (or Western Catholics, as they are sometimes also called); there are varieties, so to speak, of Eastern Christians who are in communion with Rome and thus are Catholic, although in many ways independent of the Western Catholic Church (sometimes, alas, in principle more than in practice). These varieties are called sui juris (roughly, self-governing) Churches; there are 23 such Churches. Six of these (Coptic Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite Catholic, Armenian Catholic, and Syrian Catholic) are headed by a bishop with the highest rank in the Church, Patriarch; the rest are headed by Major Archbishops. They are often grouped by their primary liturgical practices, into Alexandrian, Armenian, West Syrian, East Syrian, and Byzantine. A little less than half of Eastern Catholics belong to Churches that have some sort of Syrian rite, and a little less than half belong to Churches that have some sort of Byzantine rite. As noted above, the largest sui juris Eastern Catholic Church in terms of population is the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (Byzantine rite, hence the 'Greek'), which includes about one-quarter of all Eastern Catholics; the second largest sui juris Eastern Catholic Church is the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church (East Syrian rite), which has about 4 million members and includes about one-fifth of all Eastern Catholics. The Maronites (West Syrian rite) are the third largest. Most (although not all) Eastern Catholic Churches are pieces of the Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Churches (neither of which are in full communion with Rome) that broke off and joined with Rome which heads the one and only sui juris Catholic Church that is not 'Eastern'. They are at present dwarfed by the Roman Catholic Church, which is currently approaching 1.2 billion members, but have over time been slowly playing an increasingly important role in Catholic life.

* Of course, almost everything is dwarfed by the Roman Catholic population (the population of China is itself about 1.3 billion members). Some other comparison numbers to keep in mind: the total number of atheists in the United states is about one million, the total population of Los Angeles is less than 4 million, and there are 16 million Southern Baptists, 14-18 million Jews, 14 million Mormons, and 8 million Bahai in the world. All these numbers are rough approximations, of course, and don't really admit of direct, unqualified comparison. But they suffice to show that the larger Eastern Catholic Churches, while not immense, are also not small fry.

* John Wilkins has a good post on the Turtles All the Way Down story.

Religious Affiliation and Mathematical Models

There has been some buzz in the blogosphere about this paper, which in the press and on blogs has usually been described as predicting the extinction of religion in nine countries. So I thought I'd put in my two cents.

(1) Saying that the study predicts the extinction of religion is somewhat misleading; what it predicts is the extinction of religious affiliation. On the account of 'religion' being considered, someone who believes in God, prays every day, and attends church every Sunday (but not as a member, only as someone looking for a church to attend) could count as not being in the 'religious' column. Likewise, many people who count as non-religious under this sort of definition believe in God, pray, etc.; they just don't attend church or anything like it. We also have to keep in mind that religious affiliation is not hard-and-fast (people are often in transition states) and have been known on occasion to hide their actual affiliation or affirm an affiliation solely due to social pressure.

(2) Obviously the conclusion that religious affiliation will go to zero is so historically and sociologically improbable, particularly given factors like immigration, that the conclusion really should be understood to be qualified by "if no significant countervailing factors arise." (The authors are quite above-board about the fact that they are abstracting from things that could have real effect -- this is an 'assume a cow is a perfect sphere' sort of exercise, to get an idealized model that is at least reasonably close to serve as a starting point for further work.) That there can be significant countervailing factors is clear enough from history; it doesn't follow, of course, that they are always operative in sufficient strength to make a difference.

(3) The key assumption, that perceived utility and size of population are significant factors in the decrease of religious affiliation, is very plausible. Both factors, perceived utility and size of population, clearly do have an effect on religious affiliation, which is why laws, for instance, can have an effect on religious affiliation by increasing or decreasing the benefits associated with it or by affecting support of the population size by immigration. Almost everyone recognizes the effectiveness of these factors to some extent. (The history of the Catholic Church in the United States, to take just one example, consists in great measure of struggles over laws that were officially neutral but were nonetheless clearly designed to make it harder for Catholics to operate or immigrate, and indeed were often explicitly defended by their proponents as such.) Human beings are social animals; social value does have an effect on such things.

(4) Nonetheless, none of the nine countries presented as fitting the model is a hugely impressive choice: all nine are countries in which religious affiliation is already well-known to be declining. Thus it seems to me that even if the statistics completely checks out, the paper at most tells us that, of countries in which religious affiliation is declining, at least these nine fit a simple model in which decline is generated by perceived social utility and size. This leaves open any number of questions.

(5) I find it somewhat ironic, though, that the authors say, "For decades, authors have commented on the surprisingly rapid decline of organized religion in many regions of the world," given that for decades authors have also commented on the surprising tenacity of organized religion in many regions of the world. In actual fact this paper doesn't tell us anything fundamentally new; the data is already known (it's the only reason why the mathematics is taken to model a decline rather than a more symmetrical relationship) and people have proposed similar causal analyses for it before. All it does is provide one possible mathematical model for such a causal analysis. Indeed, the general point of the model is already widely accepted: that in a situation in which there is a choice of membership between two populations, then, ceteris paribus, circumstances favor the population that is larger and is widely seen to be socially preferable. One can well imagine that if the researchers had proposed a mathematical model for organized-religion-is-tenacious analysis, picking out countries where it already is known to be tenacious and showing that they fit the model, that some of the paper's current critics would not be so critical and some of its current enthusiasts would not be so enthusiastic, especially if the press reported it as an argument that religion was here to stay.

(6) It was a cool idea to try to develop, regardless; and I hope more work of this sort is done.

(7) All of the above is very quick and rough.

Monday, March 28, 2011

An Ocean Infinite of Light

Sonnet V
by George Santayana

Dreamt I today the dream of yesternight,
Sleep ever feigning one evolving theme -
Of my two lives which should I call the dream?
Which action vanity? Which vision sight?
Some greater waking must pronounce aright,
If aught abides still of the things that seem,
And with both currents swell the flooded stream
Into an ocean infinite of light.

Even such a dream I dream, and know full well
My waking passes like a midnight spell,
But know not if my dreaming could break through
Into the deeps of heaven and of hell.
I know but this of all I would I knew:
Truth is a dream, unless my dream is true.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

More Music on My Mind

I've sometimes been known to say that in a perfect world we'd all trade in English, woo in Spanish, and sing in Finnish.

In a sense it's nothing special -- a pop song, albeit a very popular one, about being far away from the one you love. Someone with a good voice could sing a Finnish phone book and it would be stunning, and this is rather better than a phone book, and Vartiainen is much better than merely a 'good voice'. But good voice or not, why would anyone with a language like this do anything but sing and write poetry? I honestly don't know; almost everything else would be a waste of time.

One with Nineveh and Tyre

by Rudyard Kipling

God of our fathers, known of old--
Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe--
Such boasting as the Gentiles use
Or lesser breeds without the law--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard--
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard--
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord!

Given that we are now involved in military actions in three different countries on two different continents, and given that this is Lent, it seems an appropriate thought to remember.