Saturday, September 17, 2011

Hildegardis Bingensis

Arsen Darnay reminds us that today is the traditional feast day of St. Hildegard von Bingen. She is indeed Saint Hildegard; while she is not on the Universal or General Calendar, she is listed as a saint in the Martyrologium Romanum. This is, usually, a sign of someone who is saint by longstanding -- we are talking literally ages -- and widespread popular recognition of the right sort rather than by any formal canonization process. The main difference between saints on the Universal Calendar and saints not on the Universal Calendar is precisely that -- the latter have regular liturgical recognitions on their feastday only on some local calendars.

You can find a good list and discussion of English translations of a number of Hildegard's works here. The following is a selection from a letter (translated by Abigail Ann Young) in which she explains her own view of her visions:

O faithful servant, I, poor as I am in womanly form, am speaking these words to you again in true vision. If it pleased God to console my body as He does my soul in this vision, the fear would still not recede from my mind and heart, because I know that I am still a mere mortal, although from my infancy I have been in enclosure. Moreover many wise men have been so infused with wondrous deeds that they opened many hidden things but, as a result of vainglory, they attributed those deeds to themselves and so they fell. But those who draw off wisdom from God in the lifting up of their soul and account themselves as nothing become the columns of heaven, just as happened in Paul's case. He preceded the rest of the disciples in preaching and nevertheless regarded himself as of no value. John the Evangelist also was full of gentle humility and therefore he drew forth many things from divinity.

A New Poem Draft

On Time as the Consistent Union of Contraries

Through time
The droughten sky with rain can swell

Through time
Who does things badly does them well

Through time
The sinner is righteous saint

Through time
The stalwarts fail and faint

Through time
The risky is stable and safe

Through time
The soothing catches and chafes

Through time
The living are dead in earth

Through time
The worthless is priceless worth

Through time
The silent all have their say

Through time
Tomorrow is yesterday

Through time
The world, grown old and frail,
Is newly born, and strong and hale.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Music on My Mind

Noel Coward, "There are Bad Times Just Around the Corner." The man was a genius; few songs are so good at making bad times seem cheerful. I love the line, "Hurray! Hurray! Hurray! Suffering and Dismay!"

Myth of Barter

David Graeber has a really excellent post on money and the Myth of Barter -- the view that primitive trade is a barter system and that money develops as a way to facilitate such bartering. Exchanges and debts are pretty general features of the human condition, of course, but as anthropologists and historians have looked at the evidence, it has become increasingly clear that this story is false. Part of the problem is a lack of imagination -- the notion that if an exchange system is not money-based, it is necessarily a barter system, when in fact the ways and means of exchange are extraordinarily diverse (barter is widespread, but you can have gift economies, for instance, that work on completely different principles, and you can have economies largely based on highly structured ritualized transfers rather than any bartering). And part of the problem is that barter systems, where they exist, seem usually to presuppose money as a means of equalizing barter; that is, it would be more plausible -- although still perhaps not quite right -- to say that barter is a result of money than that money is a result of barter. What would really be more accurate to say is that, while occasional barter occurs spontaneously, bartering is not the crude and primitive economic interaction it is often treated as being, but requires, in order to be systematic, rather sophisticated conventions already to be in place. As Graeber notes, systematic barter typically requires either the development of traditional equivalences based purely on consistencies in trade (which are unlikely ever to require the development of a standardized money) or the pre-existence of at least a crude money-based accounting. Systematic barter is neither crude nor simple; but people keep thinking of it as if it were, ignoring the whole pack of assumptions involved in that. It's likely there are other factors involved in the endurance of the Myth of Barter.

Graeber's reply is a response to criticisms of his interview, which is also worth reading. You do have to be a little careful reading him, because he has a sense of humor that sometimes is a bit subtle.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Levinas on Heidegger and Nazism

Can we be assured, however, that there was never any echo of Evil in it? The diabolical is not limited to the wickedness popular wisdom ascribes to it and whose malice, based on guile, is familiar and predictable in an adult culture. The diabolical is endowed with intelligence and enters where it will. To reject it, it is first necessary to refute it. Intellectual effort is needed to recognize it. Who can boast of having done so? Say what you will, the diabolical gives food for thought.

Emmanuel Levinas, in his essay, "As If Consenting to Horror," which can be found in Critical Inquiry, Vol 15, No 2 (as translated by Paula Wissing). Prior to the Second World War, Levinas was one of the most important interpreters of Heidegger in France. Interested in phenomenology, he had gone to meet Husserl, and in so doing took a course by Heidegger, and was bowled over by him -- very impressed. Being and Time, which he considered an extraordinary philosophical work to the end of his life (but which he is speaking of in the quotation above), completely changed his view of the world. News of Heidegger's joining of the Nazi Party in 1933 left him thoroughly stunned, and it may well be this that led the Jewish philosopher to develop his own original work; some have argued that it did so be leading Levinas to regard Heidegger's work as in a fundamental way anti-anti-pagan -- and thus anti-Jewish in this indirect sense, Judaism being anti-paganism in its purest historical form. Levinas seems to have felt guilt at times, or at least embarrassment, for not recognizing, in his enthusiasm for Heidegger, even the possibility of Heidegger's commitment to a cause like the Nazi cause.

Links for Thinking

* Peter at "Conscious Entities" on qualia and intentionality. My view is a variation of his position (3); I think qualia are merely philosopher's fictions that imperfectly capture intentionality.

* John Wilkins had an interesting quotation from William Sharpe on historical study of sources.

* Roger Scruton, From Christ to Coke, discusses iconography.

* Adele J. Haft, Maps, Mazes, and Monsters: The Iconography of the Library in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose

* The London School of Philosophy has recently opened, and looks like an interesting venture.

* Peter Millican, who is a top-notch Hume scholar, has an excellent post on Hume, although it's also about the value of studying the history of philosophy in general.

* D. G. Myers discusses the (pseudo-)genre of literary fiction.

* The Maverick Philosopher discusses Lev Shestov's interpretation of the Fall. And previously he had a post on allegorical interpretation of the Fall.


* G. B. Sadler discusses Descartes and Dark City.

Chaerephon the Bat

Chaerephon is one of history's memorable secondary characters, in the sense that we hardly see him at all and yet can hardly forget him. He was a real person, a close childhood friend of Socrates. Xenophon calls him one of Socrates's "true companions" in the Memorabilia; in Plato's Apology, Socrates mentions him as a good friend of both Socrates and many in Socrates's jury; Aristophanes makes him a character and companion of Socrates in The Clouds, and we find him talked about in The Wasps and The Birds, as well. It was Chaerephon who went to the Oracle at Delphi and asked it whether there was any man in Greece wiser than Socrates, and thus it is Chaerephon whom Plato, at least, suggests was the one who started Socrates on his mission to find people who really knew what they were talking about. We know bits and pieces about his biography from Plato's Apology. In The Clouds Aristophanes refers to him as a living corpse, which perhaps is a clue to his appearance, and this may be thought confirmed by the fact that Aristophanes also nicknames Chaerephon "the bat" in The Birds. In both cases, of course, Aristophanes would have expected his audience to get the joke, so we can well imagine that the labels would have been obvious to the (apparently many) Athenian citizens who knew Chaerephon. I've always liked the bat label in particular: Chaerephon the Bat has a nice ring to it. It's hard to avoid thinking of him as looking a little like Dracula.

So you can imagine my delight on discovering that there is an entire genus of bats with the name Chaerephon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Heidegger and Ryle's Dictum

Reading Richard Polt's Heidegger I was interested to read his discussion of Heidegger's Nazism and the shadow it casts over his work. Actually, that is to minimize what is far more serious: Heidegger's philosophy was the philosophy of a man who was a Nazi; it's not the sort of thing that merely casts a shadow. And, of course, people with a taste for Heidegger are often willing to defend the philosophy; in general, their reasoning tends to continue Heidegger's own dishonesty, evasion, and bad faith on the subject. But some points are often right; and since arguments on the subject are by the nature of the subject arguments that one can use Heidegger's ideas without going back to the beginning and building them again on independent grounds, it is always interesting to see what they are.

In any case, Polt considers the famous saying about Heidegger attributed to Gilbert Ryle: "Bad man; must be a bad philosopher." And his response to it involves four arguments:

(1) The dictum assumes that what philosophers think is completely harmonious with what they do, which is false. Polt, however, massively overstates things here; nothing of the sort is required for Ryle's Dictum, which only indicates that bad character makes for bad philosophy, not that character and philosophy are completely harmonious.

(2) The dictum simplistically assumes that a philosophy correct on any point is correct on all points, and that philosophies are merely correct or incorrect, end of story. But again, Polt overstates things: Ryle's Dictum does not require that philosophies are merely correct or incorrect, nor does it assume that philosophies correct on one point are correct on all of them. Ryle's view of philosophy is far from simplistic; Mabbott said of him that philosophy irradiated his whole life, and the reason for it is that Ryle did not regard philosophy as some little department of life, some modular technology to be used or not used, applied or not applied, applied well or applied badly. Philosophy is not a machine; it is not constructed of interchangeable, replaceable parts, but grows out of a reflective life. To be sure, the philosopher has in his view a special cartographical task -- he charts the lay of the land, by walking through it, by surveying it, by looking around, by talking to natives. But it's the whole lay of the land, and doing it requires having a particular kind of character, one out of which it grows. It doesn't require perfection; but it does require some virtues.

Likewise, just as philosophy is not a detached mechanization of thought for Ryle, so too it is unlikely that he would think that Nazism is a matter of a few points. Indeed, even under Heidegger's later characterizations of the problems with Nazism, in terms of the technological response to Being seems to make it impossible to see it as merely an occasional foible in the system.

(3) The dictum is usually used simply as an excuse for not reading Heidegger, but if we only read books with which we agree and which are written by people "with impeccable moral judgment" we will read little and learn little. Again, Polt overstates matters; even if Ryle's Dictum is taken as an excuse not to read Heidegger (it need not be), it doesn't require reading only people with whom one agrees (indeed, doesn't come close to it; and, in any case, disagreeing with Heidegger's Nazism is not like disagreeing with Sartre's characterization of the gaze -- disagreements are simply not all level like that). It likewise doesn't require anything about impeccable moral judgment; for one thing, this does not logically follow, as noted with (1), and for another, it's not like we are talking about a limited failure of moral judgment, as with someone who thinks lying can be virtuous if it's in a good cause.

(4) We could use Heidegger's politics as a reason for suspicion of his philosophy, and thus read him critically and carefully, but this is how one should read all philosophers. The description of it as "Heidegger's politics" is interesting, because it again flattens what's actually going on. Nazism isn't politics in the sense that your politics might be trying outmaneuver the other party on the Water Commission Board, and it isn't politics in the sense of trying to get more funding for your department. We are talking about an entire ideology, a way of looking at the world; and if you are going to claim that your way of looking at the world is irrelevant to your philosophy, I am simply going to scoff at your stupidity. It's not his voting record that's the sore point here; it's his explicit identifications with Nazi ideals. To be sure, Heidegger was no Hitlerite; but few academic Nazis were. Some academic Nazis, of whom Kurt Huber is the most famous, even became well-known for opposition to Hitler. But no one who joined the Nazi party saw it as something that only mattered in the voting booth.

The critical thought that goes into, say, Saint Augustine, is simply not the same that goes into reading Heidegger; Augustine can in general be taken or left, but Heidegger can never merely be taken without first being unwound and then rewound; anything that has to do with technology or Being in his philosophy is something that by his own admission is relevant to his support for Nazism -- which goes well beyond, again, mere association with Nazi politicians. He can, of course, be simply left. Which is better will depend on the person doing the taking or leaving. I have seen Heidegger's defenders compare his philosophy to von Rad's rocketry; but, besides the fact that we are again at the entirely mechanized neutrality Heidegger's defenders often attribute to philosophy, von Rad's rocketry can be demonstrably duplicated on non-Nazi principles that have nothing to do with von Rad's life. No one, for instance, would say that cavalierly that Nazism was no more a reason to reject Heidegger's philosophy than it was a reason to reject Mengele's medical research; the example is being quite clearly cherry-picked. Unwinding von Rad's rocketry takes relatively little; unwinding Mengele's medicine is a fearsome task. Heidegger is not anywhere near Mengele, but it is absurd to say that his philosophy has no more to do with his Nazism than von Rad's physics.

To his credit, Polt rejects the position opposite to Ryle's dictum, saying, "It is foolish to insist that someone who is good at philosophizing has to be good at making moral choices -- but it is also foolish to insist that there can never be any relation between thought and action" (p. 160). But, of course, Ryle's Dictum doesn't really imply that someone good at philosophizing has to be good at making moral choices; only that you need a certain kind of good character to philosophize well. Polt also considers the Hiedegger-was-naive response (or, as I like to call it, the Heidegger-was-a-complete-idiot defense, because that's about what it amounts) and rightly rejects it; and the he-was-like-a-lot-of-others evasion, and rightly rejects it. He also considers the Heidegger-was-inconsistent response, which in general is the most respectable of the defenses of Heidegger, in the sense that one can actually respect such an argument, and considers the possibility that Heidegger's philosophy was proto-Nazi through-and-through, and rejects them both. And he rightly points out that the upshot of this whole discussion is that you can't evade the problem. So I don't want this all to sound like an attack on Polt, whose discussion is largely quite reasonable. But he simply hasn't done justice to the thought behind Ryle's Dictum. As with all sayings of Ryle, there's a lot packed into a little space, and it should never be dismissed lightly.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Note to Self

In the future, let's avoid the whole car-suddenly-stops-working thing in the one term of the year that I always end up driving all over creation, especially right before the time of the week when I do it.

Fortunately, the warranty should still be good. I'll be paying out the nose to get to where I need to be in order to teach, though. Today I'm in Round Rock (15 miles to get here, same, of course, to get back, and no time to get a rental car); tomorrow I'm in Georgetown first thing in the morning (20 miles) and then directly to South Austin (33 miles) and back home (16 miles). I don't think I'll have to do it all by taxi, since I think I can hop by Enterprise in Georgetown tomorrow (I'm also seriously thinking about getting a hotel room tonight between Round Rock and Geogetown; at these miles, it's not going to be hugely more expensive, and might even be cheaper).

It's actually not a serious problem, although it comes at the most inconvenient possible time; a little organization will handle, and money, too, of course, but I'm careful enough with the latter that it will hardly be noticed as long as it doesn't go on for more than a few days. But it is a sudden reminder of how much I am at the mercy of my schedule. And you, what would you do in this situation?

UPDATE:Ha, I think I've got it. More expensive than not having car problems, of course (but what isn't), but I think I've got things down so that I'll be able to make it to all my classes with minimal cost, at least to the extent that the cost can be minimal given that everything has to be done at last minute with insufficient time.

It's rather interesting; in my Ethics class tonight I was talking about John Stuart Mill's Art of Life. Unlike many (although not all) utilitarians, Mill doesn't think that utilitarianism is only a theory of morality, right and wrong; he thinks it's a general account of practical reason. One of his criticisms against Bentham is that Bentham constantly talks as if the only thing relevant to happiness was right and wrong. But, says Mill (in his excellent essay, On Bentham, which I highly recommend), there are other things that contribute to it: not just duty, but also beauty and lovableness, for instance. And when he talks about the Art of Life in the System of Logic, he says there are three departments of it: Morality, Policy or Prudence, and Aesthetics or Good Taste. The middle one of the three, Policy, deals with the expedient or useful, and as I pointed out to the class, our happiness depends on competence or effectiveness just as truly as it depends on virtue and duty, and we constantly act on the assumption that it does. You may care whether your hired help is honest, but most of the time you care more about whether he's a competent than whether he is (for example) an occasional adulterer, however seriously you take the latter. And, likewise, we don't just want to have moral lives, and a theory (like Bentham's, as Mill sees it) that only gives us that is deficient. To have a genuinely happy life, we need to see ourselves as competent and effective, as well. And, while I wish my car were already fixed, I'm almost enjoying being able to get to far-flung places (far-flung, at least, if you don't have a car and have a schedule you have to keep!) without any of my ordinary means for doing so, and no doubt I'll be proud of having done it when it's all over.

Vanquishing St. Thomas Philosophically

The philosopher must not only be able to see and show the fact that someone else whent about it in such and such a way; his insight must not only extend to the connections between the other's grounds [Grund] and consequences. The philosopher must also grasp why his predecessor went about it like this. He must get down intot he grounds themselves and grasp them. And this means that the grounds must grip him and best him in the sense that he decides to accept them and retraces within himself the path the othe rfollowed from gorunds to conclusions, perhaps even going beyond him. Or else he must best the grounds; I mean, he must decide to get free of them and take another path. To be bested by St. Thomas's "grounds" means to vanquish him philosophically for ourselves. To best his grounds means to "be done" with him philosophically.

Edith Stein, Potency and Act, ICS (Washington, D.C.: 2009) p. 3. Of course, this is quite general: regardless of the philosopher, we must in the end be bested by their grounds, and thus vanquish that philosopher for ourselves, conquer the mountain of their thought, or we must best their grounds, showing (not, of course, merely assuming) that there is a better way.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Busy Phantasies, Boding Fears

Sonnet XIX. October 1792
by William Lisle Bowles

Go then, and join the distant city’s throng!
Me thou dost leave to solitude and tears,
To busy phantasies, and boding fears,
Lest ill betide thee: but ’twill not be long,
And the hard season shall be past: adieu!
Till then;—yet sometimes this forsaken shade
Rememb’ring, and these trees now left to fade;
Mayst thou, amidst the scenes of pleasure new,
Think on thy absent friend: in heaviness
To me the hours shall roll, weary and slow,
Till mournful autumn past, and all the snow
Of winter pale! the glad hour I shall bless,
That shall restore thee from the crowd again,
To the green hamlet in the peaceful plain.

The 'the scenes of pleasure new' and 'the snow / of winter pale' are quite well done, I think; the adjective distributes across the phrase: new scenes, new pleasure; pale snow, pale winter. John Thelwall, a poet who despised Bowles's whole approach, called these inversions to break the neck of sense, but the sense survives the athletic feat just fine.