Saturday, August 20, 2011

The French School of Spirituality

Yesterday was the Feast of St. Jean Eudes, which makes this as good a time as any to talk about the French School of Spirituality.

The French School is a somewhat loose group of people (in France, as one would expect) in from the late 16th century to the early 18th century; it is we, looking back on them, who give them the label, since they would not have seen themselves quite as such. But there is a certain amount of coherence to the group, and the reason for this is one of the most important French bishops of the early eighteenth century, Pierre de Bérulle.

Bérulle was indeed one of the most important Frenchmen of the seventeenth century. Born in 1575 in Chateau Cérilly, Bérulle first rises to significant public notice as an assistant to Cardinal Du Perron in that man's debates with Philippe de Mornay, but his real influence largely comes from his having founded the Société de l'Oratoire de Jésus et de Marie Immaculée, more commonly known simply as the Oratory. The basic inspiration for such a congregation seems to have come from St. Phillip Neri's founding of his Oratory in Italy, but the two should not be confused, being completely distinct societies. The basic idea behind the Oratory was to reform the priesthood by cultivating a great focus on Jesus as the Incarnate Word of God. The Oratory spread, and through it Bérulle's influence on the theology of the day. On Bérulle's conception, we all come from God on the pattern of Christ, our sin shows our need for Christ, and we return to God through Christ. This is possible through anéantissement (abnegation or kenosis; the word derives from néant, meaning 'nothingness'). All throughout the French School one will find an emphasis on recognizing that we are nothing before God and that we are nothing without God; that Christ made Himself nothing for our sake, so that if we make ourselves nothing for His sake, we may be joined to Him. In short, we make ourselves nothing, by service to Jesus, so that Christ may fill us and be our All, by elevating us in our adoration of Him.

Besides writing devotional theology, Bérulle was one of France's great statesman; his Oratory was the major opposition to the Jesuits in France, and Bérulle was one of the few enemies of Cardinal Richelieu who at least sometimes managed to have his way in the face of Richelieu's steadfast opposition. Bérulle and his Oratory are also important for philosophy. When Descartes wishes to name-drop so as to support his credentials as a Catholic, he sometimes implies that he was on excellent terms with Bérulle. The precise details of this we don't know; they seem to have met at least once, perhaps several times, at a salon, and Descartes may have visited Bérulle at least once at the Oratorian House. According Adrien Baillet, the first notable biographer of Descartes, it was Bérulle who provided the initiating spark for Descartes: Descartes, having meditated and reflected on philosophical topics for years by then, attended the salon in question and gave several impressive arguments against skepticism, which was a worrying philosophical trend at the time. Bérulle was so impressed that he and Descartes started talking, and, having met several more times, Bérulle urged Descartes to withdraw into solitude in order to devote himself to philosophy. Descartes took this advice to heart and so left France, to which he never returned, settling in the Netherlands. So Baillet. Beyond the evidence we have that Bérulle and Descartes met at least once, there is no evidence whatsoever for this story, and it is almost certainly apocryphal. It's difficult to get around the fact, though, that it is pretty much the only semi-plausible explanation anyone has ever given for one of the big biographical mysteries of Descartes: why did a rising philosophical star suddenly and apparently without any reason leave France forever to settle in the Netherlands? So strong is Baillet's tale as a 'likely story' explaining this that even Baillet's critics tend to resort indirectly to Baillet: Richard Watson and A. C. Grayling both reject Baillet's claim that Descartes took Bérulle's advice, but they both steal from Baillet the claim that Bérulle was the reason for the move -- Watson claiming (with much less evidence than Baillet) that Descartes was turned off of France by the powerful Cardinal's fanaticism, and Grayling claiming (with somewhat less evidence than Baillet) that Bérulle, noting Descartes's association with the Jesuits, gave Descartes an ultimatum to leave France or face trouble. Of course, in both cases it is only Baillet in the first place who gives us any reason to think Bérulle had anything to do with the move, and Baillet's account at least has the advantage over these accounts that it is difficult to imagine that a proud man like Descartes would ever name-drop Bérulle if there were such tension between them at any point; and Descartes certainly was friends with certain Oratorians, most notably Fr. Condren. While the Oratory was never officially Cartesian (it tended to appeal in philosophical matters to Augustine), and had some occasional anti-Cartesians in its ranks, the Oratory was always relatively friendly to Cartesian thought.

In any case, the most obvious connection between the Oratory and philosophy is through the major Cartesian, Nicolas Malebranche, who was himself an Oratorian priest, and whose philosophical work has a number of notable analogies to Bérulle's thought. These have not, however, ever been worked out properly; one of the many tasks that awaits students of seventeenth century philosophy.

So that's the Oratorian branch of the French School. Bérulle is also partly responsible for another, somewhat independent branch of the French School, the Discalced Carmelites of Paris. The Carmelite Order in France was due largely to Barbara Acarie, later known as Bl. Marie of the Incarnation, who had a vision in which St. Teresa of Avila appeared to her and urged her to found French Carmelite convents. Having received permissions from Henry of Navarre, Acarie met with Bérulle, St. Francis de Sales, and a number of others in order to found the Reformed Carmel in France in 1602, which was recognized by Pope Clement VIII the next year. Acarie was herself one of the influences on Bérulle in the founding of the Oratory, since he seems to have asked her advice on the matter, and she, Bérulle, and St. Vincent de Paul were involved in the actual foundation. The Carmelite branch of the French School is sometimes tossed in with the Oratorian branch; but, despite many beneficial relationships between Oratorian priests and Carmelite sisters, they really are distinct. In the Bérulle and the French School volume of the Classics of Western Spirituality series, the Carmelite branch is represented by the writings of another notable French Carmelite, Ven. Madeleine de Saint Joseph.

Jean-Jacques Olier was encouraged to become a priest by St. Francis de Sales. He considered monastic life and was also offered a court chaplaincy, but he decided instead to devote himself to the poor and sick, and with the assistance of St. Vincent de Paul had a ministry of catechizing vagrants and beggars and engaging in various other missionary endeavors. Eventually his story links up directly with the Oratorians, because Charles de Condren, who had become the director of the Oratory after Bérulle's death in 1629, became his spiritual director. He seems shortly afterward to have had a major breakdown in health, lasting a couple of years; after a major religious experience in 1641, however, he seems to have recovered considerably. Partly under the influence of Condren, he founded a seminary in 1641, moving it to his own parish, Saint-Sulpice, the next year. In 1645 the Society of Saint-Sulpice was officially founded, and with it the Sulpician branch of the French School was born. The Sulpicians went on to found a number of important seminaries throughout France, French Canada, and the world, including (in 1791) St. Mary's in Baltimore. Like the Oratorians, they were a reform movement for priests; but they were highly focused on education of clergy, and many of the great manualist theologians of the nineteenth century were either Sulpician or influenced by them. Olier himself wrote a number of a major works of devotional theology which were widely read.

And this brings us to St. Jean Eudes, who lived right through the most flourishing period of the French School, having been born in 1601 and dying in 1680. He knew Bérulle, Condren, and Olier personally, and became an Oratorian himself. Like Olier he had a strong interest in seminary education and, leaving the Oratorians, he founded his own congregation, the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, and thereby began the Eudist branch of the French School. Eudes was one of the two major factors leading to the rise of the devotion to the hearts of Jesus and Mary (the other being St. Marguerite Marie Alacoque); he was, prior to St. Louis de Montfort, its major theoretician and was the major figure in obtaining official approval for the devotion to the Alliance of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. He also founded a number of other societies and congregations.

These four branches -- the Oratorian, the French Carmelite, the Sulpician, and the Eudist -- constitute the 'French School' in the narrow sense of the term. Using the term more loosely, we could also included branches deriving from Francis de Sales and Vincent de Paul. In general, the French School tends to emphasize personal relationship to Jesus, cultivation of religious sentiments, and a highly devotional approach to theological education.

One of the things that becomes notable in studying the French School is that many things that we consider stereotypically Catholic are, in fact, rooted in the French School: the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary as well as many other Catholic practices are due to them. It was, perhaps, inevitable: the Oratorians, Sulpicians, and Eudists trained generation after generation of priests and founded missions all over the world: most people's sense Catholic life was, directly or indirectly, due to the seminaries and missions of some branch or other of the congregations and societies that grew out of, and to some extent carried on the views of, the French School. Because of this, there's an argument that the French School was the most significant element of the late Counter-Reformation, one that has shaped Catholicism, and views of Catholicism, for centuries since, and perhaps centuries to come.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Berkeley on Reading Berkeley

What you have seen of mine was published when I was very young, and without doubt hath many defects. For though the notions should be true (as I verily think they are), yet it is difficult to express them clearly and consistently, language being framed to common use and received prejudices. I do not therefore pretend that my books can teach truth. All I hope for is, that they may be an occasion to inquisitive men of discovering truth, by consulting their own minds, and looking into their own thoughts.

George Berkeley, letter to Samuel Johnson, 25 November 1729. (This is the American Samuel Johnson, who would later become the first president of Columbia University, which at the time was called King's College; the correspondence occurred while Johnson was in Connecticut and Berkeley was in Rhode Island.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Poem Draft

Olympus Mons

The gods for softer sports
within their summer courts
as vernal breezes intertwine
with holy breath
and from the West,
like songs on string,
a zephyr intimation brings
of slow, bright dawns
that rise upon Olympus Mons.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What Drinks He?

The Sun
by Janos Endrodi
translated by Sir John Bowring

Cease thy reproaches, my friend, nor hastily blame me if, weary,
Stretch'd on a pillow of down, I have tarried too long in my slumbers;
Say not, The sun is awake, and is mounting aloft to meridian;
Long, long before thee he rose; but night is the time for reposing.
Friend! when the sun hastens down to the ocean at even, what drinks he?
When he seeks rest and sweet sleep, what drinks he? He drinks the salt billows;
Had he but drunk of the grape which grew on Szeszgard's lovely vineyard,
He had not roused him so soon, but had slept to this moment, my friend!

Epistemic Peers, Equal Weight, and Out-of-Control Suspension of Judgment

In comments on the recent discussion of epistemic peers, I gave an argument that I want to give in a slightly cleaner form. It's not a hugely earth-shattering argument, but it's a nice little guideline in this sort of discussion.

Definition of 'Epistemic Peer' (more or less)

Two people are epistemic peers precisely when they are equal in such background, ability, inquiry-relevant virtues, and means as are relevant for evaluating evidence and drawing correct conclusions about a given topic.

: NB! This means that 'being an epistemic peer of' just means 'being equal to, in epistemic matters'. Thus the relation 'being an epistemic peer of' has all the basic features of the relation of equality:

It is reflexive: Everyone is epistemic peer of themselves.
It is symmetric: If you are epistemic peer of anyone on a given topic, they are an epistemic peer of you on that same topic.
It is transitive: If A is an epistemic peer of B on a given topic, and B is an epistemic peer of C on that same topic, then A is an epistemic peer of C on that same topic.
It is antisymmetric: If A and B are epistemic peers, they are for all relevant purposes not distinct -- you can interchange them without changing anything essential for evaluating evidence and drawing correct conclusions.

: Also, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that, despite analytic tendencies to put everything in alphanumeric symbols, all accounts and definitions of epistemic peers are left somewhat vague, since what makes someone your epistemic peer is merely whatever is relevant for evaluating evidence and drawing correct conclusions about the topic at hand.

Definition of Equal Weight View

If a person, A, comes to a conclusion, and another person, B, comes to a contrary conclusion on the same topic, and A and B are epistemic peers, and A discovers that B is drawing a contrary conclusion, A, knowing that B is his or her epistemic peer, should give B's conclusion equal weight with his or her own.

: There are complications in making this very precise, as well. Jehle and Fitelson have a paper (PDF) in which they consider various versions of what one might mean by 'equal weight'.

A Simple Argument

(1) Epistemic peers are epistemically indistinguishable from oneself.
: From the more-or-less defintion of what it is to be an epistemic peer.
: Epistemically indistinguishable, of course, meaning that they are equal in all relevant epistemic respects.

(2) Therefore any position your epistemic peer holds that is contrary to your own is a position you yourself could hold, whether by mistake or by chance differences in assessment of evidence or reasoning used.
: Conceivably there might be other ways in which deviation could occur, but they would just make the premise more complicated without changing anything fundamental.

(3) Therefore any disagreement between you and an epistemic peer is possible solely to the extent that you are able to come to either the position you hold or the contrary position your epistemic peer holds.
: And therefore talk of epistemic peers is not fundamentally different from talking about your own ability to come to different conclusions than you actually do. Indeed, it can't be, by the properties of the relation: for all relevant purposes, your epistemic peers are just like you, and could as easily be considered duplicates of you. If they can draw a conclusion, so can you.

(4) Thus if you should give equal weight to the conclusions of disagreeing epistemic peers, you should give equal weight to any contrary conclusions you could draw.
: From (3), adding the hypothetical of giving equal weight to disagreeing epistemic peers.

(5) Therefore the equal weight view implies that you should suspend judgment about any matter on which you might come to a contrary conclusion, whether through mistake or chance differences in reasoning.
: Strictly speaking, the equal weight theorist could get around this by saying that all your possible selves get a vote, and the majority wins. So, for instance, if there are 100 possible versions of you and 99 come to one conclusion and only 1 deviates, giving them all equal weight makes you, in a sense, 99% certain of the position. But since we have no way of identifying how many discrete possible selves you have -- indeed, the whole question may be nonsensical -- and since, epistemic peers being interchangeable, all of your possible selves that accept the same conclusion can always be treated as one, this doesn't seem to be a viable way out.
: Again, if there are other ways you might come to a contrary conclusion without changing your background, abilities, virtues, and means, feel free to add them.

(6) It is absurd to suspend judgment about everything about which one could be mistaken or about which one cannot be perfectly certain.
: Even Descartes didn't go so far: although he thinks you can only legitimately do it a certain way, he does salvage certain kinds of belief in uncertain matters (in Meditation VI).
: It's arguably not even psychologically possible to do such a thing.
: We can have quite good reasons for accepting a conclusion even when we know we might have made a mistake somewhere, and even when we know we can only establish it with some probability.

(7) Therefore the equal weight thesis is absurd.
: Of course, given the vagueness besetting the whole discussion, there might be variations that avoid this conclusion. But an argument of this sort gives us a reference point for discussion.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Ramble on Some Patron Saints

A question came up in a comments thread at "John C. Wright's Journal" about the patron saint of alchemists, with a commenter mentioning that he had somewhere read that it was St. James, but had never been able to verify it. I had always heard that it was St. Roseline de Villeneuve, but I have never been able to verify it from a reputable source. They could both be true, too; there are overlaps.

I do know who the patron saint of sorcerors, magicians, and necromancers is: St. Cyprian of Antioch (not to be confused with the more famous St. Cyprian of Carthage). According to the legends, Cyprian was a practitioner of black magic who gave it all up on conversion to Christianity, which he did when his attempts to use magic to seduce a Christian girl named Justina failed because of her devotion to the cross of Christ; they both became martyrs under Diocletian, and in some calendars have their feast day on September 26. It's one of those things worth noting if only because the legend of St. Cyprian shows up in a lot of places in literature. Pedro Calderón de la Barca, who is perhaps one of the few dramatists to rival Shakespeare in quality, wrote a wonderful play based on the legend, El Mágico prodigioso, which you can read online in a nineteenth-century translation by Denis Florence Mac-Carthy. In any case, the rationale for having a patron saint for practitioners of dark arts is that they certainly need someone to pray for them.

This is a rationale found elsewhere. There is a patron saint of prostitutes, too; his name is St. Nicholas of Myra, and yes, he is the same St. Nicholas whom we associate with Christmas. The reason is that one of his great deeds was to save poor young women from having to prostitute themselves to feed their families. For similar reasons, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of thieves, for which reason you will occasionally find thieves referred to as Knights of St. Nicholas or St. Nicholas's Clerks. St. Dismas is also the patron saint of thieves; Dismas is the name traditionally given to the good thief who died on the cross next to Jesus. The patron saint of murderers, I believe, is St. Julian the Hospitaller.

Of course saint patronage is as much folklore as it is anything else; but it is certainly the case that we need some kinds of symbols to remind us that everyone is worth praying for, in one way or another, whether it's mathematicians or hunters (who share the same patron saint, St. Hubert, whose symbol, a cross-shaped star between antlers, is on the Jägermeister label), or philosophers (whose patron saint is St. Catherine of the Wheel), or sailors (St. Nicholas again), or clowns (St. Julian again), or actors and comedians (St. Genesius of Rome). Whatever one thinks of patron saints and practices associated with them, it's worth considering one of the things the whole practice, and especially its popularity, shows: people often need others to pray for them, and what is more, often need to know that there are others doing so.

Music on My Mind

Alexi Murdoch, "Breathe." Good advice going into a busy week of finishing up preparations for Fall term.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Intellectual Peers and Epistemic Peers

Paul M. has a nice post on a particular application of thoughts about epistemic peer disagreement. I'm in broad agreement with the basic thrust of the post; I've argued against the position he calls ST myself a number of times. (I am inclined to think that NDT is ultimately not coherent given standard characterizations of what is meant by 'epistemic peer', but it's much less common to meet it in the wild, anyway -- most people have more moderate views.) I do think, however, that the post suffers from not looking more closely at what 'epistemic peer' means in this context, and this does have some ramifications for the argument given. To say that someone is an epistemic peer in a given context is to say that this person has no significant disadvantages or advantages with regard to background, ability, or external assistance for that context. Practically every serious discussion of the subject requires this: no argument can be made about epistemic peers and what follows from their disagreement if, for instance, we merely mean that two people arguing over a calculation are more or less generally equal in background and overall ability if it also turns out that one person has devoted hours more to the calculation, or has a greater proficiency in this particular kind of calculation, or has a calculator.

It also has the effect of complicating any discussion of practical applications. If you're just positing an abstract situation for the purpose of better understanding knowledge, or disagreement, or some such, things are easy: you just posit that there are two or more people, none of which have any relevant epistemic advantages over the others. In real life, however, there is good reason to think that one can never know with sufficient precision whether anyone is an epistemic peer. In real life, of course, when we think of peers, we think of what we might call intellectual peers -- people who have, in general, roughly the same ability as averaged out over a number of things and very broadly speaking the same kind of educational background. But this is not precise enough to say much about whether these intellectual peers are epistemic peers in any particular case. And in practice it doesn't matter -- we don't have to bother with epistemic peers. Indeed, even whether someone is an intellectual peer is not hugely important. Sally may be the world's most brilliant mathematician, and John merely a competent one, but there will be plenty of circumstances where John will be competent enough to check Sally's work, disagree with her on a mathematical issue and be right, or catch Sally out in a mistake. It reminds me of a philosophy professor I know who once told a rather condescending story about a discussion with his teenage daughter on critical thinking, in which his daughter put forward some reasonably clever arguments and the philosophy professor gave some very mediocre answers to them, answers that did not really do justice to the issues raised by the daughter's arguments. When this was pointed out, he got into something of a huff and pointed out that he was a professor of philosophy who had studied analogous issues for some time and his daughter was merely a teenager. Now, it is true that in general teenagers are not the intellectual equals of tenured professors. But the moral to be taken from the story, besides the point that any parent, regardless of intelligence and education, who thinks they will always have the better argument in a discussion with their teenager is making a truly stupid assumption, is that good arguments are good arguments regardless of who makes them. Setting aside the fact that the stupidest teenager can have a good day in an argument, and the cleverest professor a bad day (anyone can stumble onto something good, and anyone can just plain stumble), in some contexts even the stupidest teenager can be in a better position to know what they are talking about than even the cleverest professor. Set your finest college professors in the same room with a very irrational pre-teen and ask them which of the actors you will show them is the more accurate Justin Beiber impersonator, and you will see that epistemic peers for a given kind of problem need not be intellectual peers in general. In My Cousin Vinny, Mona Lisa Vito is not an intellectual peer of George Wilbur; at the very least, he is certainly better-educated than she is, and there's no implication in the movie that his intellectual abilities are inferior to hers. But in the area of general automotive knowledge, she may well be his epistemic superior, because her father was a mechanic, and his father was a mechanic, and her three brothers are mechanics, and four uncles on her father's side are mechanics, and she's worked in her father's garage, and she can tell the make and model of a car by looking at what tire tracks imply about positraction.

Intellectual peerage in other words is not epistemic peerage; it states something about one's general-purpose intellectual competence, not one's competence for drawing particular kinds of conclusion with particular kinds of evidence, and thus is mostly useful just for identifying which people are equally likely to be competent over a wide range of issues. It's an important distinction, although easy to overlook; much of the early discussion of epistemic peer skepticism was vitiated by a failure to distinguish intellectual peerage (which is broad and has no implications for particular topics because it, so to speak, is a form of assessment-by-average -- this person is my peer because in general or on balance we share backgrounds and intellectual dispositions) from epistemic peerage (which has to be defined in terms the ability and background people have for drawing conclusions in any particular context -- this person is my epistemic peer because we share the same background and ability for drawing a general kind of conclusion from the same evidence). Two people with equally good eyes and equally good observational skills looking from equally good vantage points without any advantages over the other with respect to relevant tools are epistemic peers on the question of who crossed the finish line first, even if one is for most things clearly smarter, better informed, and more thoughtful. Two intellectual peers, with the same basic education and intelligence, might not be epistemic peers in judging the significance of a bit of evidence in their field if one is highly biased with a bias that distorts precisely this sort of judgment, or if one has put considerably more effort into this particular problem, or if one has an educational gap at just the right point.

Thus (1) in practice we use intellectual peerage rather than epistemic peerage, and the two are not the same; (2) we can practically identify intellectual peers, but this has very little in the way of epistemic consequences for any particular context; and (3) identifying real epistemic peers requires a degree of precision we rarely if ever have in practice. The upshot of this is that any discussion of epistemic peers is at an abstract and hypothetical level; it can be useful in certain circumstances at precisely this level (e.g., in better understanding the nature of inquiry or how knowledge works under conditions of disagreement). It follows from this, however, that we can't use the disagreement over ST as an argument against it. Certainly intellectual peers disagree over it. But the claim is not about intellectual peers but about epistemic peers: and among intellectual peers some can be in a better position to know something. Some will have a better acquaintance with the arguments; some will better understand the arguments made; some will have a more extensive relevant background; some will be making perfectly ordinary mistakes that anyone in their position could make but that not all of them are guaranteed to make; some will have biases sufficiently strong to distort evaluations, creating unnecessary doubt or imprudent confidence, and so forth. We can posit as a hypothetical that if epistemic peers disagree over ST, the conjunction of this with ST is defeating for ST. But hypotheticals of this sort don't refute or defeat anything. Similar problems arise both with the position Paul designates as CAST, as formulated, and with his argument against it.

A True Jesuit

On August 9, Fr. Roberto Busa, S.J., died (he was 98 years old); he was one of the major pioneers in applied computing. Here is a website on him at IBM; he pushed the business machine manufacturer to engage in the world's first large-scale computational linguistics project: the complete lemmatization of the works of Thomas Aquinas, which resulted in the Index Thomisticus, a project so large that in paper form it constitutes the largest single multi-volume work published to date. The Alliance of Digital Humanities Organization gives out a Busa Prize for outstanding lifetime achievements in the application of information technology to humanities research.

Ernesto Priego discusses the man. The following is from Busa's essay, The Annals of Humanities Computing: The Index Thomisticus (PDF), which is a delightful read:

I feel like a tight-rope walker who has reached the other end. It seems to me like Providence. Since man is child of God and technology is child of man, I think that God regards technology the way a grandfather regards his grandchild.

If the Jesuits produced more of his caliber, they would again be as formidable an intellectual force as they once were.