Sunday, December 30, 2012

Feast of Holy Family

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
that 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, December 28, 2012

Reification Fallacy

There are a lot of ersatz 'fallacies', and an ever-increasing number, at that. One that I've been thinking of recently has been the so-called 'reification fallacy'. According to Wikipedia, it "is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity." It's a rather ironic fallacy, actually, since discussions of fallacies regularly treat abstractions as "concrete, real events or physical entities", since fallacies, which are abstract categories are often treated as if they weren't abstract at all. This is often a mistake, of course, but no fallacy is committed, because there is no such thing as a reification fallacy. A fallacy has to be a single, specific, stable, structurally identifiable form of misreasoning; merely making a mistake does not make one's reasoning fallacious, and this is true of merely making a mistake in how the abstract relates to the concrete.

And when we look at supposed examples of reification, we regularly find that there is no substance to the charge of fallacy. There is clearly no single type of error that is classified by the label: we see this already in Wikipedia's fairly typical vagueness about whether we are talking about 'abstraction', 'abstract belief', or 'hypothetical construct', which are none of the three the same. We see this even more clearly when (as with the Wikipedia article) people classify the 'pathetic fallacy' as an example of the 'reification fallacy', because there is no single kind of misreasoning classified by the pathetic fallacy, either. The 'pathetic fallacy' wasn't even originally intended as an error of reasoning; the phrase was coined by Ruskin to describe a misplacement of feeling in poetry, as when we call a storm cruel or a flower gold because they feel cruel or gold, which occurs when poetry is over-sentimentalized. To the extent that Ruskin's pathetic fallacy is even an error, it is purely an error in taste, in which the false is taken as true due to overwrought poetic sensitivities; calling it a 'fallacy' was at best a figure of speech. From there it became generalized to apply to any sort of anthropomorphizing or personification -- with regard to which 'fallacy' is even less appropriate. But even if we set that aside, the 'pathetic fallacy' taken so generally covers many different things -- because personification and anthropomorphization are labels covering reason not by the structure or character of the reasoning but by its effect, and thus indicates any kind of reasoning that leads to a particular kind of result.

Similarly, any kind of list of examples of this alleged fallacy always looks like it was composed by idiots who don't understand basic figures of speech. Also from the Wikipedia article:

Nature provides empathy that we may have insight into the mind of others.

What makes this an instance of the 'reification fallacy'? It clearly cannot be a fallacy at all, since it's merely a claim, and you can't have a fallacy unless you actually have an inference or process of reasoning. Another example from the Wikipedia article:

The notion that ideas are literally "infectious," "predatory," and "selfish" is a fallacious reification of the idea-as-organism metaphor....

Except that this is obviously false. You can never identify a fallacy except to the extent that you can identify how someone is reasoning. Without knowing how one gets from the idea-as-organism metaphor to the notion that ideas are literally infectious, predatory, or selfish, we have no way of determining whether the reasoning itself was fallacious or whether the reasoning was nonfallacious reasoning from false assumptions (assuming, of course, that the assumptions are false, which is itself a substantive thesis requiring some kind of supporting reasons). Of course, almost no one actually thinks that ideas are themselves literally selfish; when people talk this way, they are talking figuratively, even if they are not always careful about that fact. But even if they weren't, mistaking figurative usage for literal is a very different thing from mistaking the abstract for the concrete.

Three examples from another source:

1. The government has a hand in everybody's business and another in every person's pocket. By limiting such governmental pickpocketing, we can limit its incursions on our freedom.

2. I can't believe that the universe would allow humans and human achievement just to fade away, therefore there must be a God and an afterlife where all will be preserved.

3. Religion attempts to destroy our liberty and is therefore immoral.

But there is nothing fallacious about either of these forms of reasoning; in any conversation in which one found these, one would obviously take them to be figurative. The first isn't even obviously an inference, rather than a single position expressed in colorful phrasing. In the second we have reasoning, but the reasoning itself is unexceptionable given certain assumptions; the reification occurs entirely within the first premise (the universe would not allow humans and human achievement just to fade away) and therefore is not fallacious at all, even if it is misleading or incorrect even when interpreted in the appropriate sense. The same is true of the third: if religion does in some meaningful sense attempt to destroy our liberty, then it really is, assuming certain plausible things, immoral; no fallacy is involved at all. The supposed problem is simply with the premise, taken in a sense other than most people would take it, and not with the reasoning at all. Austin Cline is at least sensible enough to recognize that this is all just figurative language; he still tries, unsuccessfully, to salvage its status as a fallacy by saying that such metaphors become fallacies when 'taken too far' -- but this gives away the game, since whether a metaphor is taken too far simply depends on which practical goals are relevant, and not on anything intrinsic to the reasoning itself. One could perhaps argue that, contrary to Wikipedia, the reification fallacy is a fallacy of irrelevance rather than a fallacy of ambiguity -- but this would not change the fact that what is repeatedly identified in such examples cannot be fallacies in the first place because they are not forms of reasoning, just claims that may be mistaken or misunderstood.

Another example, from a third source:

Tom: We as a nation need to have a coherent economic policy.
Dick: Who does?
Tom: The nation, you know, the people.
Dick continues: Oh, you mean the government.

According to this source, Tom in his response to Dick commits the reification fallacy "because there is in fact no such thing as a nation" and Dick in turn commits the reification fallacy "because there is in fact no such thing as 'the government'". This is taking a fear of reification to ludicrous extremes, and is another way in which this is a very ironic fallacy: they only way you could think that Tom and Dick are reifying is by treating 'the people' and 'the government' here as referring to things other than people and institutions -- in short, by assuming, quite falsely, that whenever people refer to concrete things in the world abstractly that they are necessarily referring to things that concretely exist in their own right. Falsely, I say; fallaciously is another matter, because the problem here is a an absurd assumption rather than any problem of reasoning. In any case, neither Tom nor Dick are committing any fallacy, unless by 'committing a fallacy' you mean 'making a claim with which the speaker disagrees', which is so pretentious, artificial, and expansive sense of the phrase as to make it useless.

Two examples from yet another source:
How can you not want to go jogging? Look at that street -- it’s calling your name. It wants your feet pounding on it. “Jog on me!”

The Bible says that we parents should kill our disobedient children by stoning them to death.

According to this source, the reason why the first example commits the reification fallacy is "we are attempting to establish a greater emotional connection, thus attempting to get the person to act more on emotion than reason." Err, or we could just be joking around like people do. In any case, trying to get people to act more on emotion, even more on emotion rather than reason, is not any kind of mark of a fallacy, because it is, yet again, not the right kind of thing to be fallacious. The explanation of the second moves us from the territory of Wrong to the territory of Simply Ludicrous, since the supposed explanation of why it is a fallacy is that the Bible, being a book, doesn't say anything. Unless, of course, you speak colloquial English, in which case everyone understands exactly what you mean by saying that a book says something.

It gets even worse when people try to use the label to do amateur philosophy. Platonisms of various sorts are the usual victims of this egregiously bad thinking. Platonists do not, in fact, treat Platonic entities (forms, or mathematical objects, or the like) as "concrete, real events or physical entities"; no Platonist of any kind treats Platonic entities as physical entities, and the only sense in which they are 'concrete' is that they have independent subsistent. But even if we set this aside, if Platonists are wrong it's not because they are making some mis-step in inference; Platonic arguments that are not fallacious are not that difficult to construct. If Platonism goes wrong, it goes wrong because it makes mistaken assumptions; the wrongness of Platonism is a substantive wrongness that can only be identified by substantive arguments, not by simply claiming that there are structural faults in Platonic reasoning. In part this is because when applied to Platonism all the label is saying is that Platonism misdraws the relationship between the abstract and the concrete. This may be true, but this is just to say that Platonism is wrong for some reason, perhaps due to a mistaken assessment or assumption at some point; it is not to say that Platonists are necessarily engaging in any kind of misreasoning. Trying to refute Platonism by saying it commits the reification fallacy is the height of intellectual laziness: the label conveys no actual information about what is wrong with Platonism beyond the fact that it is Platonism and not some other philosophical position. (I see that Paul Manata at "Triablogue" once pointed this out for a somewhat different context, although he doesn't criticize the notion of a 'reification fallacy' as such.)

One of the fundamental problems with much talk about fallacies is that people repeatedly show that they are unable to grasp the distinction between being mistaken in one's position and being fallacious in one's reasoning. One can use 'fallacy' to describe the former but this is a figure of speech. And if one fails to recognize its figurative status, one ends up labeling things as fallacious simply because one disagrees with them. This runs the whole point of calling things 'fallacies' into the ground; it becomes an impatient dismissal rather than a rational assessment. This is certainly the case with pseudo-fallacies like the 'reification fallacy', which seems to have arisen not from any special insight into reasoning, but simply because some people can't understand basic English.

Love and Warmth To-Morrow

Holy Innocents
by Christina Rossetti

Sleep, little baby, sleep;
The holy Angels love thee,
And guard thy bed, and keep
A blessed watch above thee.
No spirit can come near
Nor evil beast to harm thee:
Sleep, Sweet, devoid of fear
Where nothing need alarm thee.

The Love which doth not sleep,
The eternal Arms surround thee:
The Shepherd of the sheep
In perfect love hath found thee.
Sleep through the holy night,
Christ-kept from snare and sorrow,
Until thou wake to light
And love and warmth to-morrow.

1 July 1853

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


St. Stephen's Day
by John Keble

He, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. Acts vii. 55

As rays around the source of light
Stream upward ere he glow in sight,
And watching by his future flight
Set the clear heavens on fire;
So on the King of Martyrs wait
Three chosen bands, in royal state,
And all earth owns, of good and great,
Is gather'd in that choir.

One presses on, and welcomes death:
One calmly yields his willing breath,
Nor slow, nor hurrying, but in faith
Content to die or live:
And some, the darlings of their Lord,
Play smiling with the flame and sword,
And, ere they speak, to His sure word
Unconscious witness give.

Foremost and nearest to His throne,
By perfect robes of triumph known,
And likest Him in look and tone,
The holy Stephen kneels,
With stedfast gaze, as when the sky
Flew open to his fainting eye,
Which, like a fading lamp, flash'd high,
Seeing what death conceals.

Well might you guess what vision bright
Was present to his raptured sight,
E'en as reflected streams of light
Their solar source betray -
The glory which our God surrounds,
The Son of Man, the atoning wounds -
He sees them all; and earth's dull bounds
Are melting fast away.

He sees them all—no other view
Could stamp the Saviour's likeness true,
Or with His love so deep embrue
Man's sullen heart and gross -
"Jesus, do Thou my soul receive:
Jesu, do Thou my foes forgive;"
He who would learn that prayer must live
Under the holy Cross.

He, though he seem on earth to move,
Must glide in air like gentle dove,
From yon unclouded depths above
Must draw his purer breath;
Till men behold his angel face
All radiant with celestial grace,
Martyr all o'er, and meet to trace
The lines of Jesus' death.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Pretty Babe All Burning Bright

The Burning Babe
by St. Robert Southwell

As I in hoary winter's night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, though scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed,
As though his floods should quench his flames, which with his tears were fed.
"Alas," quoth he, "but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts, or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men's defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood."
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas Day.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Before the Paling of the Stars

A Christmas Carol
by Christina Rossetti

Before the paling of the stars,
Before the winter morn,
Before the earliest cockcrow
Jesus Christ was born:
Born in a stable,
Cradled in a manger,
In the world His Hands had made
Born a Stranger.

Priest and King lay fast asleep
In Jerusalem,
Young and old lay fast asleep
In crowded Bethlehem:
Saint and Angel, Ox and Ass,
Kept a watch together,
Before the Christmas daybreak
In the winter weather.

Jesus on His Mother's breast
In the stable cold,
Spotless Lamb of God was He,
Shepherd of the Fold:
Let us kneel with Mary Maid,
With Joseph bent and hoary,
With Saint and Angel, Ox and Ass,
To hail the King of Glory.

26 August 1859

Birds that Sing and Bells that Ring

Christmas Eve
by Christina Rossetti

Christmas hath darkness
Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas hath a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas hath a beauty
Lovelier than the world can show:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

Earth, strike up your music,
Birds that sing and bells that ring;
Heaven hath answering music
For all Angels soon to sing:
Earth, put on your whitest
Bridal robe of spotless snow:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

First What He Is Enquire

New Prince, New Pomp
by St. Robert Southwell

Behold a silly tender Babe, in freezing winter night;
In homely manger trembling lies, alas a piteous sight:
The inns are full, no man will yield this little Pilgrim bed,
But forced He is with silly beasts, in crib to shroud His head.
Despise Him not for lying there, first what He is enquire:
An orient pearl is often found, in depth of dirty mire;
Weigh not His crib, His wooden dish, nor beasts that by Him feed:
Weigh not His mother's poor attire, nor Joseph's simple weed.
This stable is a Prince's court, the crib His chair of state:
The beasts are parcel of His pomp, the wooden dish His plate.
The persons in that poor attire, His royal liveries wear,
The Prince Himself is come from heaven, this pomp is prized there.
With joy approach, O Christian wight, do homage to thy King,
And highly prize this humble pomp, which He from heaven doth bring.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Poem Draft

At White Sulphur Springs

In the darkness and cold,
though the winds rise to wail,
we will stand, and our hearts
shall not fail.

From the heat of the earth
we were born, we were made,
with a flame in our minds
like a blade.

Though the ice-shackles form,
though the gales come in force,
we will draw endless warmth
from our source.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Links of Note

* For the obvious reasons, the next two weeks will be a slow time around here.

* Through Make-A-Wish a sick Belgian boy, who had grown up hearing his grandfather's stories about the American contribution to the liberation of Belgium from the Nazis, was able to spend some time getting a small taste of what it is like to train as an American soldier.

* At the IEP, Erik Hansen has an article up on Immanuel Kant's account of radical evil.

* 3AM interviews John Haldane.

* A portion of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin, a small Anglican order of nuns, is becoming Catholic as part of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. The CSMV was established in the nineteenth century by William John Butler, who was a minor (but very active) participant in the Oxford Movement. Butler would be disappointed; he regarded loyalty to the Church of England as one of the foundational principles of the community. But in this the CSMV, a tiny portion of the Oxford Movement that has in a sense continued to the present day, has exhibited the usual features of the Oxford Movement itself, namely, the split into those whose Anglo-catholicism tended to Rome and those whose Anglo-catholicism did not.

* Philosopher's Carnival 146 is up at "Talking Philosophy". I didn't find any of the posts particularly interesting, but I thought the format of the carnival itself was.

* Matthew Flannagan discusses Peter Singer's arguments on infanticide:

Part One
Part Two

* John Wilkins on Classification and the periodic table

* I mentioned the Great Maple Syrup Heist a few months ago, and now it looks like a break has finally been made in the case.

* An interesting discussion of John Quijada's artificial language, Ithkuil. Quijada's Ithkuil website is also interesting.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Give Me My Freedom and the Burning Stars

The Prisoner
by Lucy Maud Montgomery

I lash and writhe against my prison bars,
And watch with sullen eyes the gaping crowd.
Give me my freedom and the burning stars,
The hollow sky, and crags of moonlit cloud!

Once I might range across the trackless plain,
And roar with joy, until the desert air
And wide horizons echoed it amain:
I feared no foe, for I was monarch there!

I saw my shadow on the parching sand,
When the hot sun had kissed the mountain's rim;
And when the moon rose o'er long wastes of land,
I sought my prey by some still river's brim;

And with me my fierce love, my tawny mate,
Meet mother of strong cubs, meet lion's bride.
We made our lair in regions desolate,
The solitude of wildernesses wide.

They slew her...and I watched the life-blood flow
From her torn flank, and her proud eyes grow dim:
I howled her dirge above her while the low,
Red moon clomb up the black horizon's rim.

Me, they entrapped...cowards! They did not dare
To fight as brave men do, without disguise,
And face my unleashed rage! The hidden snare
Was their device to win an untamed prize.

I am a captive...not for me the vast,
White dome of sky above the blinding sand,
The sweeping rapture of the desert blast
Across long ranges of untrodden land!

Yet still they fetter not my thought! In dreams
I, desert-born, tread the hot wastes once more,
Quench my deep thirst in cool, untainted streams,
And shake the darkness with my kingly roar!

At this point in the grading, which is going more slowly than usual and seems to be compounded with some kind of bug or weird allergy doing evil things to my sinuses, I need something rousing. Lucy Maud Montgomery is, of course, Prince Edward Island's greatest literary figure. She is most famous for Anne of Green Gables, but she also wrote a considerable amount of high-quality poetry. While the conceit of this poem is a common one, the execution is quite exquisite -- it would be difficult to do better than she has done here.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Njal's Saga


Opening Passage:

There was a man called Mord Fiddle, who was the son of Sighvat the Red. Mord was a powerful chieftain, and lived at Voll in the Rangriver Plains. He was also a very experienced lawyer --- so skilful, indeed, that no judgment was held to be valid unless he had taken part in it. He had an only daughter called Unn; she was a good-looking, refined, capable girl, and was considered the best match in the Rangriver Plains. (p. 39)

Summary: The Saga of the Burning of Njal starts out quietly enough, with marriage and fortune-making, among the farmers and freeholders of southwestern Iceland. It's a community in which everyone knows everyone, at least by reputation. The tight-knittedness is emphasized by the genealogies that run through the work: a large number of these people are related, whether by blood, or by marriage, or by foster-sonship. Over a generation or two the society grows more and more out of control as bad blood mixes with bad blood. Decent men and women attempt to fix the damage, but it spins out until the community is utterly and violently divided.

What makes it tragic, of course, is that all the people involved are ordinary people. Yes, they are very honor-conscious in a very honor-oriented culture, but many of them go out of their way to keep the peace. Yes, there are people who are less than virtuous, but even if we look at the worst of these, people like Thjostolf and Mord Valgardsson, are not what we would think of as atrociously wicked: Mord is no more than a greedy and ambitious man envious of the successes of other people, and Thjostolf is a thug who, while lacking much sense of justice, has very little influence on the society around him and nonetheless had a certain measure of loyalty to a small handful of the people around him. Much of the actual chaos is due to decent and honorable people trying to keep the peace to the extent they can, who nonetheless soon find themselves pushed just a little too far over lines they cannot ignore, or who, forced to rely on mere technicalities of law, end up weakening the bonds of the community as they put out fire after fire.

Until, of course, the literal fire, in which the family of Njal is burned alive. Njal, his wife Bergthora, and their young grandson Thord die in bed, accepting their fate. Njal's sons die trying to escape. Only Kari Solmundarson, Njal's son-in-law, escapes. The law, which is the central feature of Icelandic life, is soon seen to be completely impotent for restoring balance and justice as both sides, the Burners and their opponents, manage to tangle each other up in mere legalities that only stir up even more anger. One of the most telling signs of deterioration is that early on Mord Valgardsson suggests burning someone alive in their house at one point, and everyone reacts with shock at the suggestion; and yet, of course, this is precisely what ends up happening with Njal, and the ones who do it try to get out of the consequences by complicated court maneuvers.

It would be easy to overlook the degree to which we are like them. It is easy to focus on their sensitivity to matters of honor, or the peculiarities of their justice system, and treat them as an oddity. But Njal's Saga is not a story of men so caught up in their honor that they nearly destroy themselves; it is a story of men, deeply sensitive to their honor, who nonetheless repeatedly swallow insult and humiliation and even the killing of family members, all in the hope of peace -- but repeatedly find that it is never enough. Likewise, we with our pseudo-populist sensibilities, might be inclined to think that it is absurd that they all go around killing each other in retaliation and getting away with paying settlements, rather than leaving it to a legitimate government. But such an attitude would overlook the key point of this very Scandinavian way of handling things: they were the government. They made the laws. They kept the laws. They enforced the laws. And most importantly, when they enforced the laws, they always held themselves accountable to the law in the way they did it. This is so engrained in their thinking that even at the height of bloodshed, it never occurs to a single person simply to ignore the law: everything must be brought back to the law in some way, somehow. Even the outlaws respect the law. (There is a very real sense in which Njal's Saga is a legal drama.) And we are not really in a position to be high and mighty: you have only to look at a list of race riots in the past century to see stories, sometimes brutally similar, of decent men and women bearing with irritation, hindrance, insult, killing, trying to keep the peace, until one day things just snap. And the thing of it is, everyone handled it better than we would handle similar situations. As I mentioned before, there are no real villains in the piece. Not everyone is decent, but most are, and all the major players are reasonable. Flosi Thordarson, who is guilty of the burning of Njal, was not an evil man. Kari, who starts systematically hunting down the Burners, never ceases to be reasonable even while refusing to stop. Everyone right to the end can be made to see the arguments on the other side, and, sometimes, to bend because of them.

In a sense, the story of the events on and around the Ranga River are a lesson in the fact that nothing but humility can hold a deliberative society of free people together. The story is split into two parts, the pagan era and the Christian era; in the pagan era what keeps the peace is people swallowing their pride, and in the Christian era what finally brings peace back is people like Hall of Sida actively giving up the idea of heroic response, actively accepting the possibility of dishonor and shame, simply to save lives. Flosi does not take vengeance for Kari's acts of vengeance. He goes on pilgrimage to get absolution from the Pope. And when he comes back, he extends hospitality to Kari and his men when they need it, and thus the breach is healed. Humility alone restores what honor and law cannot.

One thing I haven't noted is the humor. It is very dry, very quiet, but it runs through the entire work, and is a great contributor to the fact that very few characters in the saga are flat. All the major characters are seen from many different angles, and with the kind of realism that is only possible with a sense of humor. And I would suggest, in fact, that the realism of character in the saga often exceeds the realism of many modern novels and historical works for precisely this reason: the anonymous author has the humorous interest (and, occasionally, quiet exasperation) for the people he is talking about that people usually have for close friends and members of their family -- which novelists only rarely for their characters at all, and historians only occasionally for the subjects of their study.

Favorite Passage:

Next day both sides went to the Law Rock, and both of them, Christians and heathens, named witnesses and renounced their community of laws. The Law Rock was in such uproar as a result that no one could make himself heard. People then dispersed, and everyone thought the situation looked very ugly.

The Christians chose Hall of Sida to be their Law-Speaker; but Hall went to see Thorgeir the Priest of Ljosawater, and gave him three marks of silver to proclaim what the law should be. It was taking a risk, for Thorgeir was a heathen.

For a whole day, Thorgeir lay with a cloak over his head. Noone spoke to him. Next day, people gathered at the Law Rock.

Thorgeir asked to be heard, and said, "It seems to me that an impossible situation arises if we do not all have one and the same law. If the laws are divided the peace will be divided, and we cannot tolerate that. Now, therefore, I want to ask heathens and Christians whether they will accept the law which I am going to proclaim." (p. 225)

Recommendation: An excellent and gripping history, somewhat fictionalized, about a communal tragedy that never loses sight of real, well-rounded characters. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Peek and Peer

by Amy Lowell

When night drifts along the streets of the city,
And sifts down between the uneven roofs,
My mind begins to peek and peer.
It plays at ball in old, blue Chinese gardens,
And shakes wrought dice-cups in Pagan temples,
Amid the broken flutings of white pillars.
It dances with purple and yellow crocuses in its hair,
And its feet shine as they flutter over drenched grasses.
How light and laughing my mind is,
When all the good folk have put out their bed-room candles,
And the city is still!

Like most of Lowell's poetry, and most of Imagist poetry generally, it overstrains, but this one does what Imagist poems often do best: precisely marking out a mood with striking images.

Mereotopology and Lists

Here's a list:


And another list:


One way we could compare these is by taking 'Dog' as a shared part. The lists overlap at dog. We could call this a mereological approach to lists.

A different way is that we could say, "No, 'Dog' is not a shared part, because they are different lists, not some kind of branching list with 'Dog' at the crossways. But the lists are connected at 'Dog'." We could call this a topological approach to lists.

This bifurcation occurs in lists of all kinds. Two similar pictures, for instance, could be compared in mereological terms (they share features) or in topological terms (their features are corresponding, whether you wish to regard them as actually shared or not). (If it sounds odd to call pictures 'lists', think of a computer screen, which consists of rows of pixels. A picture of this sort would be a list of pixel-patterns according to row.) In practical terms the mereological and the topological approaches are equivalent: when similarity is involved, you can always treat it mereologically as a sort of overlap or part-sharing or topologically as a sort of connection or correspondence. Connection is usually treated as weaker than overlap, which it is logically, since overlapping things always connect, but not vice versa. But in the context of lists, they are closely connected to the same thing, the fact that different lists can have the same items, and therefore are (nonsynonomous) ways of talking about the same thing. The mereological approach just (as a matter of structure) emphasizes the sameness, while the topological approach (again as a matter of structure) de-emphasizes it, and these lists are simple enough that it doesn't matter much which you do.

But there are kinds of lists in which one would want to be able to do both. Take this list.

  • Dog
    1. Collie
    2. Great Dane
  • Cat
    1. Egyptian Mao
    2. Ragdoll
  • Pets Jack Owns
    1. Collie
    2. Goldfish
    3. Egyptian Mao

We have lists within lists, and we want to be able to talk mereologically (the [Collie, Great Dane] list is part of the [Dog, Cat, Pets Jack Owns] list) and topologically (the [Collie, Great Dane] list is connected to the [Collie, Goldfish, Egyptian Mao] list).

The mereotopology of lists has broader implications than just lists in our ordinary sense, because modal logics can all be treated as the logics governing different kinds of relations among different kinds of lists. We can distinguish source lists and target lists (not necessarily mutually exclusive); and modal logic would be an account of what you can determine about target lists from source lists. Suppose that [p] is Box-p (It is necessary that p, It is required that p, It is always true that p, etc.) and <p> is Diamond-p (It is possible that p, It is is permissible that p, It is sometimes true that p, etc.). Then our source list says [p], we can conclude that if there are any target lists, they have p as an item. Likewise, if our source list says <p>, then we can conclude that there is some target list that has p as an item. Given this, however, we can say that, for any source list, [p] indicates that any list connected to the source list (in the relevant way) overlaps with the source list at p, and <p> indicates that some list overlaps with the source list at p and therefore is connected to the source list (in the relevant way).

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Grading, Grading, Grading, Grading

It's the end of term, which means I have Ethics exams to grade, as well as both history of philosophy and cumulative quizzes to grade for my Intro course, and, as if that were not enough, extra credit logic modules and feminist philosophy assignments, and late major projects on top of that, so for obvious reasons things will be slow the next few days, although there will probably be a few things already in the pipeline coming out here and there.


A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, and in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man's distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: 'This tower is most interesting.' But they also said (after pushing it over): 'What a muddle it is in!' And even the man's own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: 'He is such an odd fellow! Imagine using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? he had no sense of proportion.' But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.

J. R. R. Tolkien, "Beowulf and the Critics" (PDF). Tolkien was speaking of Beowulf, but it could serve as an allegory for the history of philosophy, as well. Of course, in the history of philosophy, one would also find people criticizing the old house for not being a tower, and criticizing the tower for not having been instead something more modern and useful, like a parking lot.

Smiling Conscience in a Sleeping Breast

A Good-Night
by Francis Quarles

Close now thine eyes and rest secure;
Thy soul is safe enough, thy body sure;
He that loves thee, he that keeps
And guards thee, never slumbers, never sleeps.
The smiling conscience in a sleeping breast
Has only peace, has only rest;
The music and the mirth of kings
Are all but very discords, when she sings;
Then close thine eyes and rest secure ;
No sleep so sweet as thine, no rest so sure.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lavish Bills

On the World
by Francis Quarles

The world's an Inn; and I her guest.
I eat; I drink; I take my rest.
My hostess, nature, does deny me
Nothing, wherewith she can supply me;
Where, having stayed a while, I pay
Her lavish bills, and go my way.

A Reason I Dislike Single People

chuffly pointed to this recent article, and I notice that Mike Flynn also gives some brief discussion of it. And it is connected with something that is really a pet peeve of mine, namely, people who never stop whining about being single.

I am single myself. The number of ways in which I am a stereotypical bachelor cannot be counted on only two hands. And yet there is almost nothing I hate more than people whining about being single: the Church doesn't do enough, society doesn't do enough, why do married people have all the perks, blah, blah, blah. Look, while anyone in any state of life may do important things, marriages are treated as more important than single life because married people are doing something important simply by being married and single people are not doing something important simply by being single. Singleness in itself is not an achievement. Singleness is the default of human life; it's what everyone is when they are not being something more important. Everyone can do it, and by definition everyone can do it on his or her own. Married life is not the default of human life. It is one of the things that people do that is more important and can only be done in cooperation with someone else. Every marriage is an achievement. Single life, as such, contributes nothing of importance to human society, although single people may in their various capacities contribute important things. Married life, however, contributes the human race itself: in marriages we have the standard contexts for the having and raising of children, and all families and educations in one way or another, directly or indirectly, form only because marriages are the seed-crystals around which they develop.

What irritates me about the whining is that I did not sign up to be in the Kiddy League of Life. We do not all get consolation prizes whenever things do not go our way, and we do not all get trophies whether we win or not. The world does not exist to validate us. Moreover, we are all perfectly capable of handling this fact. And even to suggest that single people need to be treated in such infantile ways, spoon-fed through a state of life that by definition can be handled by anyone and which, considered in itself, has no standards of excellence that have to be met, is an insult to all single people everywhere. I don't care how lonely you feel. Get over yourself and do something important, and then maybe you'll get a pat on the back.

The article, however, is amusing in its conception of what a wedding is: "a time when people travel from afar to bring you gifts and toast your life decisions", or in Sex and the City words (the source itself should make our ears prick up for signs of infantilization), an "occasion when people celebrate you". Let me tell you what, if I ever marry and any of you attend, if any of you ever suggest that the point of the wedding is simply to bring me gifts and toast my "life decisions" and "celebrate me", I will have no problem beating you up in front of all the other wedding guests for the insult. The point of a wedding is to solemnize a marriage, not to have a party. No gifts are necessary. No toasts are necessary. No 'celebrating me' is necessary. These things, when not simply made up by wedding planners trying to scam clients or greengrocers trying to imitate royalty, are just things people throw in to make attending a little more fun for everyone and the commitment a bit less scary for the bride and groom. None of us exist to give you gifts and toast your decisions.

Now, if you, as a single person, want to do something really important, like say, commit to helping someone else raise children well for as long as you live, should you ever have any children, then feel free to send out invitations. And we'll come if we can, and we'll gladly call it a wedding, for, of course, that is what it will be.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Historic Ditch

I've been visiting family, so I'm behind on things like responding to comments and finishing Njal's Saga. But, as always happens when visiting cousins, we drove by that key landmark of Central Texas, Menard's Historic Ditch Walk.

There's a reason for having a Historic Ditch, believe it or not, since it's actually a still-used irrigation canal that was made in 1756 when Texas was under Spanish rule, but laughing about the Historic Ditch is something that never gets old.

Friday, December 07, 2012

One Sign of Pathological Self-Absorption... when you steal ashes from a concentration camp crematorium to make paint for your art. The real kicker, though, is the response of the art gallery showing the piece:

The British newspaper reported that despite the scandal surrounding the painting, the Lund gallery owner Martin Bryder defended the decision to exhibit the work of art, telling the Polish News Agency, "Please come to the gallery, see the painting and judge for yourselves whether it's controversial."

Yes, come and give publicity and support to my art gallery by taking the trouble to see the painting partly made from murdered Jews before you judge whether it's controversial. I am not a huge advocate of these sorts of measures, but at this point I am thinking that if someone were to burn down the Lund Gallery over this they wouldn't be entirely unjustified. Then at least we could use the ashes of the gallery to make paint and tell Mr. Bryder that he should wait to see the paintings before he judges the matter. But even that just would not convey the degree of narcissism this artist and this gallery owner must have.

Global Village Construction Set

A tool economy, or tool ecology, is itself a highly modular machine with hardware, that is, an infrastructure, and software, that is, processes that run on the infrastructure. The hardware/software aspect is not accidental; if one looks at Babbage's plans for the Analytical Engine, one quickly realizes that Babbage was modeling computation on production: the Analytical Engine is a little tool ecology or manufacturing system of its own, for producing a particular kind of product (data structures) from a particular kind of supply (energy). Any tool economy is itself a sort of Engine, analytical or not.

I was interested to come across the Global Village Construction Set, which is an attempt to pull together into one package a little sustainable manufacturing system of its own -- Industrial Revolution in a box, so to speak. It's based on the idea of product ecologies: you can use (say) solar collectors to power steam engines to generate electricity to run machining tools that can make solar collectors, steam engines, electrical generators, and machining tools, thus creating a potentially sustainable cycle. If you can link several different possible cycles, you have a network and a highly flexible system. The GVCS is planned to make use of 50 different machine components:

CEB Press, Cement Mixer, Saw Mill, Bulldozer, Backhoe

Tractor, Seeder, Hay Rake, Well Drilling Rig
Microtractor, Soil Pulverizer, Spader, Hay Cutter, Trencher
Bakery Oven, Dairy Milker, Microcombine, Baler

Multimachine, Ironworker, Laser Cutter, Welder, Plasma Cutter, Induction Furnace
Torch Table, Metal Roller, Rod and Wire Mill, Press Forge, Universal Rotor, Drill Press
3D Printer, 3D Scanner, Circuit Mill, Industrial Robot, Chipper Hammermill

Power Cube, Gasifier Burner, Solar Concentrator, Electric Motor Generator, Hydraulic Motor, Nickel-Iron Battery
Steam Engine, Heat Exchanger, Wind Turbine, Pelletizer, Universal Power Supply

Aluminum Extractor, Bioplastic Extruder

Car, Truck

Most of it is still in the planning and development stages. It's one thing, of course, to have these things, which we obviously do, and another to have them under the right conditions: the project requires cheap, replicable versions that are capable of working with the other parts in the system to allow actual replication. Not an easy thing to do. But some of the basic ideas are quite interesting.

To some degree, though, this is due to the ambition of the project. One could imagine less ambitious versions, intended not as tool micro-economies but as upgrade systems for tool economies already in place. Further, for a lot of things one wouldn't need state-of-the-art solar collectors and the like; technology far short of the state of the art can do less, but it also generally requires less to replicate it and sustain its tool economy. And one could also focus on specific subdomains of the tool economy, like agriculture, irrigation, or basic tool-making. In a sense this is the kind of thing that the Africa Windmill Project is trying to put together.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Analytic/Synthetic II

Thinking about some issues raised by Pseudonoma's comments on my previous Kant-and-mereotopology post, one question that keeps coming up is what connection would the account of synthetic judgments require? Kant says (A7):

Either the predicate B belongs to the subject A as something that is (covertly) contained in this concept A; or B lies entirely outside the concept A, though to be sure it stands in connection with it.

The second clause is synthetic or ampliative judgment. The relevant connection can't be internal definitional relevance, i.e., it can't be the connection of an internal part for the definition, because that would mark an analythic judgment. So it has to be in some way extrinsic to the definition as such. At the same time it's unclear whether, when considering definitions, anything can be relevant to anything else without overlapping it at some level of generality. So something in between seems relevant, and that would suggest something like an overlap. But we seem to have two different kinds of synthetic judgments: those like "The house is red" and those like "The shortest distance between two points is a straight line". The latter seems more obviously to have an overlap than the former. I'm more and more taken with the idea that the difference is that, as far as Kant goes, the former has to do with possible experience, whereas the latter has to do with the possibility of experience. Thus house and red overlap in the sense that they share general features (sensible, for instance) that mean it is possible that they can come together in experience, whereas straight line and shortest distance between two points as Kant understands them overlap in the sense that their sharing something is required for experience (of any sort that we would recognize) at all. But that's a rough characterization that would need more development, and I haven't a clue how it would further relate to Kant's broader question of how we can know synthetic a priori truths.

Two Poem Drafts


The human heart is frail:
a breeze its strength may take.
But though the dogs of hell
with storms the worlds shall shake,
my friend, beside you I
will stand, a wall will make;
then see, though hell-hounds cry,
I swear you shall not break.


You are most lovely of lovable things,
rising in splendor, aurora-arrayed,
roseate, luminant, aureate-splayed,
lightening worlds. The morrow-red sings
songs that will chase away winter-formed frost,
brightening ice that, translucent, transforms
light into iris in colorful storms,
hope iridescent. I would be lost,
broken, should brightness not rise in the west,
joy iridesce on the surface below,
breaking the bondage and service of snow:
you I behold, and by you am blessed.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Notable Linkabilia

* Brendan Woods discusses Euthyphro Dilemmas

* Looking around for something on error statistics, I discovered that Deborah Mayo has a blog, Error Statistics Philosophy. Mayo is one of the top philosophers of statistics, and her approach to the general philosophy of science, error statistics (PDF), has always seemed to me to be far more plausible than Bayesian epistemologies. Bayesians, of course, would disagree.

* D.G. Myers discusses the doctor/patient relationship.

* Archambeau discusses parallels between Kant's account of the sublime and Russell's account of the intellectual.

* Some recent SEP articles of interest:
Philosophy of Humor (John Morreal)
Japanese Pure Land Philosophy (Dennis Hirota)

* It's looking like Germany will pass a ban on bestiality in the next few weeks; animal welfare issues, of course.

* Robert C. Rubel, The Epistemology of War Gaming (PDF)

* Gerald Russello reviews a book on John Witherspoon, America's most important connection with the Scottish Enlightenment.

* Palaeocast is a paleontology podcast that looks interesting.

Let's Not Agree to Disagree

I'm finishing up the grading of dialogue projects for my Intro course -- my major projects are quite involved and I've been headachy and tired from allergies recently, so it's been a long process -- and I have noticed that a quarter of the dialogues at some point use the phrase "let's agree to disagree," or some close variation. I'm not sure if it's just that the phrase is suddenly having a mini-vogue, or if I'm just primed to see it this round because I watched the third Men in Black movie last week, which uses the phrase several times. It's starting to wear on my nerves. Obviously there are cases where, for ethical or practical reasons, it makes sense to 'agree to disagree', but in general it's not what philosophy teachers want to hear. Let's instead agree to figure out which of us has the better reasoning, especially when writing philosophical dialogues. (In fairness, they usually seem to use it as a way of artificially bringing the dialogue to a close, and there is, of course, nothing wrong with a philosophical dialogue in which the dispute is not resolved -- excellent Platonic precedent for that.)

Of course, part of it is that I've never liked the phrase anyway; it's one of those cases of associations being colored by personal experience. I was once, years and years ago, falsely accused by someone of egregious dishonesty, and after I put forward evidence that the accusation was false, was told, "Let's just agree to disagree." At which, of course, I exploded; I would not be agreeing to disagree about whether I had been completely dishonest, thank you very much. And every time someone uses the phrase I am tempted to say, "We don't need to agree to disagree because we already are disagreeing." I think what gets me is that it's such an unbelievably low standard that almost anything would be more intellectually robust; why not agree to something more ambitiously intellectual, like swapping book recommendations, or having a temporary cooling-off period, or going to a third party for arbitration or advice, or anything else, really?

Apparently we owe this phrase to George Whitefield, although the first person we actually have on record using it is John Wesley. Thank you, Anglican-Revivalists-slash-Methodists, for this particular Totschlagargument.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

By Day She Woos Me

The World
by Christina Rossetti

By day she woos me, soft, exceeding fair:
But all night as the moon so changeth she;
Loathsome and foul with hideous leprosy
And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.
By day she woos me to the outer air,
Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety:
But through the night, a beast she grins at me,
A very monster void of love and prayer.
By day she stands a lie: by night she stands
In all the naked horror of the truth
With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands.
Is this a friend indeed; that I should sell
My soul to her, give her my life and youth,
Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?

An allusion, of course, to the old saw that there are three Enemies: the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.

Monday, December 03, 2012


Mary Beard on teaching evaluations from students:

On the forms I have been dutifully handing round to my audiences, we even ask the poor dears: "Do you have any difficulty hearing the lectures?" "Yes" or "No". An innocuous question maybe. But the rebel in me does think that if a group of highly intelligent 19-year olds have just dumbly sat through eight weeks of lectures without putting their hands up to say, "Err sorry, we can't hear you at the back", they hardly deserve to be at university.

The primary benefit of student evaluations is that they are highly reliable (i.e., students tend to agree with each other) and, given that, moderately valid for 'teaching effectiveness' (i.e., student evaluations tend to track, roughly, with other measures of teaching effectiveness). The former is less of a benefit than it is often made out to be -- a great deal of it seems to be due to the fact that the evaluations tend to be very generic questions answered very generically by people who do not have a deep familiarity with the field and don't have much of an opinion on the quality of the class (and often don't think that the evaluations will have any effect one way or another), but do tend to agree generally on what is not stress-inducing. It's the latter, for instance, that appears to be the reason why student evaluations exhibit a very measurable leniency bias -- favorable evaluation correlates very well with students expecting high grades -- and is related to their exhibiting a 'Fox Effect' (in which enthusiasm and confidence, rather than content or how much is learned, tends to the major influence on evaluations of quality). One study showed that end-of-term student evaluations could be predicted with fairly good accuracy from how students judged thirty-second clips of professors on things like 'optimism' and 'confidence'. And it has been shown that students think they've learned more in a class with an animated instructor than in a class with a dull instructor, even if all objective measures suggest they have learned less.

Contrary to the usual talk on the subject, we do not know how to evaluate teaching effectiveness. There are a number of reasons for this: good teaching is often potentially controversial in its approach, we have no way of precisely comparing the difficulty of (say) the graph theory of a discrete mathematics course with the House of Fame section of a Chaucer course, what is effective for some students will not be so for others so there are no general measures, there seem to be several very different things conflated together under the label 'teaching effectiveness', etc. Students do not know how to assess it, contrary to what they feel; faculty do not know how to assess it, contrary to what they think (faculty assessments of teaching suffer from analogous problems, but are also far less consistent with each other than student assessments); and administrators certainly do not know how to assess it. Perhaps this is because we have not thought carefully enough about what it is.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

A Mystical Potation

A Cup Of Tea
by James Whitcomb Riley

I have sipped, with drooping lashes,
Dreamy draughts of Verzenay;
I have flourished brandy-smashes
In the wildest sort of way;
I have joked with 'Tom and Jerry'
Till wee hours ayont the twal'--
But I've found my tea the very
Safest tipple of them all!

'Tis a mystical potation
That exceeds in warmth of glow
And divine exhilaration
All the drugs of long ago--
All of old magicians' potions--
Of Medea's filtered spells--
Or of fabled isles and oceans
Where the Lotos-eater dwells!

Though I've reveled o'er late lunches
With blasé dramatic stars,
And absorbed their wit and punches
And the fumes of their cigars--
Drank in the latest story,
With a cock-tail either end,--
I have drained a deeper glory
In a cup of tea, my friend.

Green, Black, Moyune, Formosa,
Congou, Amboy, Pingsuey--
No odds the name it knows--ah!
Fill a cup of it for me!
And, as I clink my china
Against your goblet's brim,
My tea in steam shall twine a
Fragrant laurel round its rim.

Saturday, December 01, 2012


In a recent discussion of just war theory, Jeff McMahan makes a common mistake about permissibility:

As I noted earlier, just war theory distinguishes between the principles of jus ad bellum (resort to war) and those of jus in bello (conduct in war). According to the Theory, the latter are independent of the former, in the sense that what it is permissible for a combatant to do in war is unaffected by whether his war is just or unjust. Whatever acts are permissible for those who fight in a just war (“just combatants”) are also permissible for those (“unjust combatants”) who fight for aims that are unjust. Combatants on both sides have the same rights, permissions and liabilities — a view commonly known as the “moral equality of combatants.” According to this view, if we accept that it is permissible for just combatants to participate in warfare, we must also accept that the same is true of unjust combatants. Both just combatants and unjust combatants act impermissibly only if they violate the rules of jus in bello — that is, only if they fight in an impermissible manner.

This has one immediately paradoxical implication: namely, that if unjust combatants fight without violating the rules governing the conduct of war, all their individual acts of war are permissible; yet these individual acts together constitute a war that is unjust and therefore impermissible. But how can a series of individually permissible acts be collectively impermissible?

I think it's actually incorrect that in just war theory jus in bello is independent of jus ad bellum, despite the fact that there are important and morally significant distinctions between the two and despite the fact that the relationship between the two is not always straightforward. The major complications are (1) that combatants, while not usually being the ones who actually decide to initiate belligerent action, have obligations of allegiance, obedience, protection of their fellow citizens, and the like that are not suddenly disrupted and (2) that combatants are not always in a position to fully understand the larger issues in the war -- they can be deceived, they can be misinformed, they can be mistaken, they can be in a position where they are missing crucial information. However, I think there's a more general problem here: permissibility is a very weak modality. Just as something's being possible does not imply that it's actually possible in a given case, so something's being morally permissible does not imply that it's actually morally permissible in the given case -- it just means that there are general considerations that do not of themselves make it impermissible. Take, for instance, McMahan's scenario:

Suppose, for example, that the armies of Aggressia have unjustly invaded and conquered neighboring Benignia. Aggressian soldiers never once violated the principles of jus in bello. But to defeat the Benignian army, it was necessary for them to kill more than a million Benignian soldiers, most of whom were civilians when the invasion began and enlisted in the military only to defend their country from Aggressia. According to the Theory, the only people who have done anything wrong in bringing about this vast slaughter are a handful of Aggressian political leaders who spent the war in their offices and never killed anyone.

In actual fact, there is simply not enough information to go on in this example. What we do know is that the soldiers of Aggressia cannot be accused of acting unjustly simply in terms of the particular format in which individual soldiers carried out the details of the war, since nothing distinguishes their conduct on these particular points from those of Benignia. If there's anything wrong with the actions of Aggressian soldiers, it is not in how they carried out the war, simply considered as such; it is a matter of what they could honestly have known about the war, what options they actually had available, what the situation actually means for their standing obligations as citizens and soldiers, and so forth. These are not usually considered solely in terms of just war theory for the obvious reasons that these are not issues that have specifically to do with warring but with general problems we all face in being members of a society. In fact, many of them will be exactly the same problems faced by non-combatant Aggressians. Just war theory does not rule out that the Aggressian soldiers have done something wrong; there could be any number of ways they are acting wickedly, as human beings, citizens, or even as soldiers generally speaking. To determine this would require much more detail than we are actually given. All that can be ruled out is that any such wrongdoing has to do specifically with the format in which they acted specifically as soldiers in a war situation, precisely considered as such.

A different but related issue arises with McMahan's question above about "But how can a series of individually permissible acts be collectively impermissible?" But there is only a paradox if we are taking permissibility to be a stronger modality than it is. It is entirely possible for something to be permissible in one respect and impermissible in another. For instance, it is entirely permissible for any individual to go without ever having children; if everyone did so, the human race would go extinct; and one could at least argue that it is not permissible for the human race to structure its choices so that the human race goes extinct. But that's not paradoxical; the impermissibility is not any one person's going without children but the whole society's doing so. And that's no more paradoxical than the fact that A, B, C, and D could all each be possible but A & B & C & D could be an impossible combination. Indeed, it is structurally the same; permissibility and possibility are both Lozenge or Diamond modalities, and permissibility is just possibility in some form of deontic modal logic.

This, incidentally, is why I think bioethics often ends up being very screwy; bioethicists tend to argue at the level of the permissible in general. But this is very, very weak; it is entirely possible for something to be permissible in general and yet for it to be actually impermissible in any foreseeable practical circumstances. (Utilitarians are very familiar with this sort of thing; in principle, you can treat anything as morally permissible in utilitarianism, if you only modify the circumstances enough. This is sometimes used to attack utilitarianism. But, while no deontologist would ever accept this as an adequate response, utilitarians will quite reasonably respond that many of these modifications are so extreme that we have no reason to think that they could ever possibly happen in the actual world. If it's a purely abstract and hypothetical question of whether there is some conceivable circumstances under which a grave atrocity would be permissible, that is a different thing from saying there are any reasonably possible circumstances in which there would be nothing at all that makes the atrocity impermissible.) It is generally useless to know that an action is morally permissible at the general level, because this is consistent with its not being permissible in a particular case, or even in all particular cases that anyone will ever actually come across; and permissibility is in practice generally permissibility-in-light-of-the-particular-reasons-that-have-actually-given, and is consistent with the very same action being impermissible for reasons not given. This contrasts with impermissibility, which is almost always useful to know. I often point out to my Intro students that it is only rarely useful to know that an argument is invalid, although it is almost always useful to know that it is valid; there are important differences between this and permissibility (they attach to rather different sorts of things, permissibility is a Diamond modality and invalidity a Diamond-Not modality, etc.), but in both cases the reason for the asymmetry is built into the modalities themselves.

The moral of the story, of course, is that, except in very specific cases, ethicists should never be talking about what's permissible; they should be talking about what's impermissible and what makes it so, precisely because of this sharp difference in strength between the two.

Conservative and Liberal

Tim Egan at The Opinionator:

The Progressives of the early 20th had an amazing run — direct elections of senators, regulation of monopolistic trusts, modernization of public schools, cleaning up the food supply — with only one major blooper: Prohibition.

As David Bernstein notes at "The Volokh Conspiracy", this is a bit of a rosy-colored glasses view:

I’m not a big fan of either the Seventeenth Amendment or of antitrust law, but put those aside; what about, among other things, residential segregation laws in the South and border states (fortunately invalidated by the Supreme Court, much to the dismay of Progressive commentators), eugenics legislation, hostility to the Equal Rights Amendment/support for “protective” law for women only, support for American imperialism (at least via one of the Progressives’ great champions, Theodore Roosevelt–and Woodrow Wilson didn’t exactly distinguish himself with American intervention in World War I, which may be the single greatest “blooper” in American history), and support for state legislation monopolizing certain fields on behalf of incumbent businesses (see, e.g., New State Ice v. Liebmann)?

In any case, Egan's argument is an interesting example of a common failure in our ordinary political discourse to recognize that the liberal/conservative labels change drastically over time. There are lots of cases. I remember Janet Radcliffe Richards giving a (very good, as one would expect from her) interview about Mill on the subject of women and mentioning the 'conservative judge' James Fitzjames Stephen. Now, there's no question that some of Stephen's positions would be considered quite conservative now; but he was a utilitarian like Mill, a member of the Liberal Party like Mill, an advocate of reform like Mill; he just thought that Mill's account of liberalism was incoherent and utopian, and that utilitarianism required certain kinds of coercion that Mill's harm principle disallowed (an argument that has never stopped being made by liberal utilitarians). So it's unclear what is meant by calling Stephen conservative in this context; his right to be called liberal and Liberal at the time was quite as good as Mill's -- better, in fact, since Stephen's liberalism would have been more widely recognizable as liberalism in their own day. There is, of course, a very limited sense in which you can say that Stephen was 'more conservative than' Mill on specific points, but this is a very weak and purely relative sense, useful only for very specific kinds of situation; the fact that Noam Chomsky is more conservative than an old-school Stalinist does not make Chomsky a conservative anything.

Through time there are liberalisms, not liberalism; there are conservatisms, not conservatism. These labels are defined relative to a spectrum that is always changing.

I was going to put this in the next links post, but this is as good a place as any:

xkcd had an interesting comic recently on the make-up of the U.S. Congress through the centuries. It's somewhat misleading; the right/left or conservative/liberal distinction is not actually a stable one through time. But the sense it is used here is stipulated as how one is ranked in a DW-NOMINATE system in terms of who one votes with. That is, if all Congress were to turn Communist tomorrow, we'd still get the same sort of left/right spectrum (assuming that members of Congress were still allowed to vote differently), because 'conservative' and 'liberal' are here relative to other people within the same Congress on the particular non-unanimous issues brought before Congress, not to any particular set of ideological claims. It indicates the internal splay of Congress more than its political leanings. It is to some extent arbitrary which direction we consider conservative or liberal -- DW-NOMINATE does not tell us -- so we're actually just looking at distance of legislators from each other, which is often given a loose 'conservative'/'liberal' label based on certain aspects of economic policy (a pretty divisive area of politics that tends to create a lot of divergence among groups of legislators). These labels can make sense if you are simply looking at legislators in a single Congress, but they don't make much sense at all for comparing legislators in 1990 to legislators in 1890. It's an interesting graphic, and definitely fun. But it's almost bound to be misread, precisely because of this common tendency of thinking of 'conservative' and 'liberal' as timeless and monolithic labels rather than as what they are, pragmatic labels for a given time that loosely cover vast numbers of rather different movements, ideas, and people.

The Gust, the Whirlwind, and the Flaw

A Dream, After Reading Dante's Episode of Paulo and Francesca
by John Keats

As Hermes once took to his feathers light,
When lulled Argus, baffled, swoone'd and slept,
So on a Delphic reed, my idle spright
So play'd, so charm'd, so conquer'd, so bereft
The dragon-world of all its hundred eyes;
And, seeing it asleep, so fled away -
Not to pure Ida with its snow-cold skies,
Nor unto Tempe where Jove griev'd a day;
But to that second circle of sad hell,
Where 'mid the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw
Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell
Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kiss'd, and fair the form
I floated with, about that melancholy storm.

Tanaver IV

The following chapters have been done at Tanaver.

Part I

Chapter I: A Day in the Life
Part I, Part II

Chapter II: This Darkest Sea
Part I, Part II

Chapter III: Conversation over Lunch
Part I, Part II

Chapter IV: City in Heaven
Part I, Part II

Chapter V: Ohu's Stronghold
Part I, Part II

Chapter VI: Representatives
Part I, Part II

Chapter VII: Negotiations
Part I, Part II

Chapter VIII: The Thing That Can Explode **New**
Part I, Part II

Chapter IX: Transitions **New**
Part I, Part II

Chapter X: Samar in the Field **New**
Part I, Part II

Chapter XI: Pavilion **New**
Part I, Part II

Chapter XII: The Gates of Death **New**
Part I, Part II

The last two weeks of November saw a severe slowdown, as it all had to compete with more immediately important things; having fallen behind about a week, I couldn't catch up and, as I had originally suspected, it took the whole month of November to get through Part I. The wordcount for Part One comes to about 40800, or about 9000 words short of the NaNoWriMo goal. And since Part I was just supposed to set up for Part II, where the major action in the book takes place, I suppose that's a long way to go without getting to the meat of the story. On the other hand, considering that this is all a completely first rough draft with almost no revisions, I think it has actually turned out well so far. Much of the material will eventually need to be redistributed a bit; the few something-like-action parts will need to be redone, and several of the conversations will need to be made less rough-hewn (and in parts trimmed and reworked considerably), but all in all it's OK.

One of the things I have an interest in when reading stories is the philosophical backgrounds in play. In most stories, especially most science fiction, this ends up being of the most simplistic kind, just as science fiction tends to be ploddingly prosaic (or else merely pseudo-poetic, with a lot that is kitschy and incoherent). A Canticle for Leibowitz is probably the most famous science fiction exception on both points. In any case, I have been angling for something that is at least not an egregious offender on these two fronts.

The Samar are an interesting case, because the sort of philosophical backgrounds that have to be available in Samar culture in order for them to do what they do is actually quite constrained. What do the Samar do? Well, they're an entire civilization that functions as a sort of civil service, but given the size of what they have to handle, they cannot be (as civil service usually ends up being) a rigid and extensive bureaucracy. Civil service has to specialize heavily but the Samar have to be generalists to the extent possible. They go around and try to help different societies, operating on a large scale, and they are trying to make things better. That means they have to have a clear sense of which direction progress is found. And they have to do this over an extraordinary variety of cultures. There are lots of things they cannot be. They cannot be relativists, because to be relativists doing what they do on the scale that they do would mean that their actions would be indistinguishable from a might-makes-right approach, and would make any general sense of progress impossible. Sophisticated relativists can make sense of progress on a small scale, but it's not a sense of progress that scales up. A lot of philosophical backgrounds are ruled out simply by being too small change: the Samar are dealing with so many things on such a scale that any philosophy suitable to what they do has to be bold, ambitious, sweeping, capable of taking an immense civilization in all its richness into its scope. But it also has to be practical and flexible, and it has to have a strong moral component. That rules out a lot. But the Samar do need a very developed philosophical background, given the sheer extent of their operation.

There are two general kinds of philosophical background that come immediately to mind given this sort of description: one Eastern, one Western, namely, Neo-Confucianism and Neoplatonism. These are more families of philosophies than particular philosophies, but they have the right scale: they are massive in scope and ambition. They are highly rational. Neo-Confucianism is obviously practical, and perfect for philosophically astute civil servants who have to be generalists; and, while it's not what tends to be studied when people study it, Neoplatonism is also quite practical in orientation. Not all versions of each are equally appropriate. One thing that is needed is detachability from historical contingencies, which means that Plotinian and Christian Neoplatonisms are more suitable than Iamblichian (if that's the right adjectival form) Neoplatonisms. In Neo-Confucianism, the lixue of Zhu Xi and the daoxue of Wang Yangming are certainly more appropriate than the scholarly back-to-the-text approach of the hanxue.

So I made them Neoplatonist Neo-Confucians: they have a Neo-Platonist sense of beauty and a Neo-Confucian attitude toward its pursuit. Most of what the Samar say on this subject have parallels on one side or the other. Their philosophical practices are a mix of Neoplatonist 'therapy of the soul' and Neo-Confucian self-cultivation.

All of this contrasts with the Ylfae or the Syylven. The Ylfae are only seen from outside as rather incomprehensible, so any sense of their philosophical approaches to the world can be left inchoate, although they would probably like Novalis. The Syylven are not as active in the world, and thus their philosophical background can be left implicit, as a sage philosophy, in their poetry and wisdom traditions.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Music on My Mind

Jana Mashonee, "What Child Is This?" (Cherokee version). A little Greensleeves, a little Cherokee (which is one of those languages that, in the right song, can be stunningly beautiful), a little something better than the pop-song carols we are starting to hear this time of year.

Incidentally, if you prefer not to get your Christmas carols quite so early, you might listen to The King's Singers singing the actual song Greensleeves. One of those truly great folk songs. The history of it is rather tangled; the tune goes back at least to the sixteenth century. There appear to have been several ballads about Lady Green Sleeves; I'm not sure where the one that won out originated, but it seems to do have done so quite early. The tune became popular and a lot of songs were sung to it, including Christmas carols. The particular carol to which it has become indissolubly attached, "What Child Is This?", was written by William Chatterton Dix in the 1860s as he was bedridden with a terrible illness that looked like it would be fatal, although he did eventually recover and live three decades more.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Scholardarity Essay Contest

Jason Zarri notifies me that Scholardarity is holding an essay contest. For those who are interested:

There are two topics to choose from:

(1) What role should the government play in a society and what is the proper relation of the government and economy in order to best serve the common good? Would new approaches to the discipline of economics— for example, the evolutionary or complexity economics of Eric Beinhocker or other approaches, e.g., the social economics of Anghel Rugina, contribute to the well-being of society?

(2) What is the proper relationship between government and religion in a democracy? What are the effects, positive and/or negative, of government on religion, of religion on government, or of both on society as a whole? Essays may include the pros and cons of the separation of church and state, governmental restrictions on certain religious practices, as well as restrictions placed on a religion, such as wanting to impose its will on the whole society.

There will be two rounds: In Round 1, contestants will submit a proposal of about 500 words in which they give an outline for a paper on their selected topic. From these proposals, twenty will be selected as finalists to enter Round 2. The finalists will write a paper based on their proposal, of about 2,000 words in length. All twenty of the finalists’ essays will be published on Scholardarity.

The cost of entry is $5 (which goes to form a pot for the contest) and the deadline for Round 1 is February 15. To get more information, or to contribute your essay, visit the essay contest page.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Kant famously says (Critique of Pure Reason A7):

In all judgments in which the relation of a subject to the predicate is thought (if I only consider affirmative judgments, since the application to negative ones is easy) this relation is possible in two different ways. Either the predicate B belongs to the subject A as something that is (covertly) contained in this concept A; or B lies entirely outside the concept A, though to be sure it stands in connection with it. In the first case, I call the judgment analytic, in the second synthetic.

This relates to definitional mereotopology: Kant's claim is that analytic or explicative judgments are cases where, when B is predicated of A, B is a definitional part of A, and that synthetic or ampliative judgments are cases where, when B is predicated of A, B is definitionally relevant to A but not a definitional part of A, and A is not a definitional part of it. He says other things that can be taken mereotopologically, too, of course; for instance, that in (certain kinds of) synthetic judgments B is predicated of A because A and B are both parts of a whole, namely, the experiential unity combining them.

Africa for Norway

Hilariously funny as it is, it makes a serious point: "Imagine if every person in Africa saw the “Africa for Norway” video and this was the only information they ever got about Norway. What would they think about Norway?" And, of course, it says something about celebrity culture in the Western world that so many features of the video are easily recognized tropes.

(ht: Feminist Philosophers)

Anne Jaap Jacobson at 3AM

Anne Jaap Jacobson has an interesting interview at 3AM:

One of the questions that most interests me is the extent to which the intellectual excellence – or even competence – that our species is capable of is fundamentally social. Are we isolatable rational beings, or should we think of ourselves as inextricably social? So the worry is not really about human cognitive capacity, but about that of those who either are in practice or in theory isolated individuals. It is in fact quite stunning, I think, to find that much of the embodied movement in philosophy has left out the role of society or assigned it an ancillary role. Sue Campbell, whom sadly recently died, is a notable exception. It has been a very important part of feminist philosophy to challenge the pervasive thesis that the human beings are at their best operating on their own and thinking purely rationally; equally, feminist thought is rich in its explorations of the role of the community in the creation of the individual.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Fortnightly Book, November 25

Is it really November 25 already? November, where did you go?

I am closing out November with one more bit of Northernesse (probably the last for a while): Njal's Saga. Njal's Saga is one of the classic Icelandic prose sagas. Like so very many of the great Northern works, it is a tragedy, but it is less a tragedy of heroes than of an entire community.

Unlike most Scandinavian cultures, the Icelanders had developed a commonwealth structure of government. They brought over a great many Norwegian legal and judicial customs, but avoided the highly centralized government that had grown up in Norway. The government consisted of a large number of priest-chieftains. This position was hereditary, although it could be bought or sold. The freemen of the island were each required to give their allegiance and support to one of the chieftains. However -- and this is a somewhat remarkable feature that has always fascinated people -- freemen could choose which chieftain to support in this way, regardless of where they lived. The chieftains led the Althing, the Icelandic assembly, but freemen (who were known as 'assembly-men') were also required to attend. (Iceland's Althing, which still exists, is often called the single oldest Parliament in the world, since it has functioned in one form or another, with the exception of a few decades in the nineteenth century, since the tenth century. But it has changed quite a bit over the centuries.)

A nation of free people! But between about AD 960 and AD 1020, this free nation nearly tore itself apart. Njal's Saga is a thirteenth century look back, using oral and written sources, on this period. We start with a quiet community of people living quiet lives like they usually do, the most exciting things being (for the most part) court cases and weddings and gossip-laden divorces. Occasionally murders out of passion, or out of vengeance for slights real or imagined, will cut across the scene and shock everybody, but they live in a culture where peace and consensus and fair dealing are the expected norm. As events unfold, however, things slowly begin to heat up. Slights, insults, offenses to honor slowly build up in just the right places; tensions increase. Little jealousies begin spinning out into petty acts of spite. People acting criminally are not quite brought to justice. Through it all, the people of the community work to restore balance and peace. Decent men -- honorable Hoskuld, prudent Njal, valiant Gunnar -- try to restore the situation, but their attempts to correct it make things worse. The very proud and honor-conscious men of the community actively try to swallow their pride and let minor slights to their honor pass; but they can only do so much. Things that seem to bring peace actually do nothing but let wounds fester under the surface. Honest peace offerings get misinterpreted as intentional insults. Harsh action leads to harsher actions, and harsher actions to actions harsher still. Pettiness leads to violence leads to atrocity, culminating (but not ending) in the terrible event that gives the Saga its full name, the Saga of the Burning of Njal, in which Njal and his sons are burned alive in their house. An ordinary community thrown into terrible chaos by very ordinary failings. And the story is told with great vividness, despite (but sometimes perhaps because of) the Scandinavian tendency to avoid any explicit exploration of motivation; the anonymous author has given us one of the great works of Western literature.

The translation I will be using is that of Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, i.e., the Penguin Classics edition.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún


Opening Passage (from the Lay of the Völsungs):

Of old was an age
when was emptiness,
there was sand nor sea
nor surging waves;
unwrought was Earth,
unroofed was Heaven --
an abyss yawning,
and no blade of grass.

Opening Passage (from the Lay of Gudrún):

Smoke had faded,
sunk was burning;
windblown ashes
were wafted cold.
As sun setting
had Sigurd passed;
and Brynhild burned
as blazing fire.

Summary: The source materials for our knowledge of the heroic legends surrounding Sigurd the dragon-slayer are in a state of some confusion. The basic story we know. Sigurd, occasionally also known as Siegfried or Sivard, is the son of Sigmund, who is one of the great warriors of his day. As always happens with the great warriors, Odin favors Sigmund until one day he strikes him down in battle, bringing him to Valhalla to wait the Final Battle. The fragments of his sword are given to his son. Sigurd, Sigmund's son, eventually comes to the care of Regin, who repeatedly attempts to tempt Sigurd to terrible violence. (In the course of these temptations, Sigurd comes to possess his legendary steed, Grani, who descends from Odin's steed Sleipnir.) Eventually Regin tells Sigurd of a great treasure of gold that is guarded by a dragon, Fafnir, who is Regin's brother. This gold had been the wergild for the death of Otr (Otter); it in turn was stolen from a dwarf named Andvari, who, not allowed to keep back even one ring, cursed the ring with a terrible curse. Fafnir killed one of the other brothers in order to have the gold all to himself. Sigurd agrees to take on Fafnir, but he needs a sword. Regin tries to make swords for him the ordinary way, but Sigurd repeatedly shatters them. Finally, Regin makes the sword Gram out of the fragments that Sigurd had inherited from his father, and this is the sword that does not shatter. Sigurd kills Fafnir by digging a trench and slicing the dragon in his soft belly as he passes overhead; bathing in dragon's blood he becomes physically invulnerable. Regin asks Sigurd to cook him the dragon's heart. While Sigurd does, hot drops fall on his hand, and licking them off his hand he gains understanding of the speech of birds, from whom he learns that Regin intends to kill him. So he kills Regin instead. In some versions, Regin is the dragon, and Mimir is the one who fosters Sigurd.

After this point the story gets more complicated, because we have the story of Sigurd and Brynhild, and then of Sigurd and Gudrún, and there are different versions of both. In the case of Brynhild, we have at least two different lines of tradition. In one she is a Valkyrie who angered Odin and therefore was doomed to wed; she surrounds her stronghold with a ring of fire and swears that she will only wed the hero brave enough to ride through it. This is her way of planning to marry only Sigurd, the supreme hero. Sigurd, sworn to aid Gunnar, rides through the flame, pretending to be Gunnar; Brynhild is both baffled and disappointed, but her oath holds her: she weds Gunnar, believing him to be the hero who rode through the flame. She later learns that it was really Sigurd, and this infuriates her: Sigurd and Gunnar have conspired together to make her break a sacred oath. She lies in order to get Gunnar to break his own oaths and kill Sigurd, and then after letting Gunnar know the truth, she burns herself alive on a funeral pyre. In another line of tradition, she is the daughter of Budli and the sister of Atli (Attila the Hun). So we have here a division between a highly mythological version of the story and a highly historicized version of it; the historicized version, in which she is not a Valkyrie but a princess, is almost certainly derivative. At the least, that was Tolkien's view: Brynhild in this other tradition is a Valkyrie humanized, not a human woman Valkyrized. This complicates matters with the tale of Gudr&uactue;n; Gudrún is the one who actually marries Sigurd, through the machinations of her mother, who is a witch, and who sets off the events that lead to Brynhild's revenge; and she later marries Atli and much of her appearance in the stories is precisely in the historical mode. So she bridges the two, and we have all these stories that are not entirely consistent with each other, not just in details, which is only to be expected, but in the entire approach taken to the subject matter. This is a pretty serious issue given that much of our material is fragmentary, anyway, and often obviously worked over in several different, and not always consistent layers.

Tolkien makes an attempt to reconcile this comiplicated and confused mass of source material into a coherent body of story through two lays written in alliterative verse. (The poems were written so he could get practice in writing alliterative verse of the form in which the original poems were written.) He smooths out inconsistencies, fills in gaps, and improves defective features in the originals. He also picks and chooses among alternative versions (e.g., there is no agreement in the source materials about how Sigurd dies). He takes the mythological version of Brynhild, and manages to connect it with reasonable smoothness to the more historicized Gudrún from the Atli stories. This makes the two lays a complete history of the Völsungs, from Sigmund through Sigurd (the Völsungs themselves), to Gunnar's downfall in battle with Atli and Gudrún's avenging of him by killing Atli; simultaneously, because the stories are interwoven, we have the full tale of the Nibelung gold from its being stolen by Loki from Andvari through Sigurd's obtaining of it by killing Fafnir, to the sinking of it in the Rhine by Gunnar and Högni when they are betrayed by Atli. He does very well at giving us more of a sense of motivations than the originals often do.

The form of narrative verse used by the story is a difficult one to write well. It is, in a sense, a very staccato form of narration. Instead of telling a continuous story, it works more by creating frames, in the way a movie reel is created by photographic frames. Each stanza is striking in some way, and the story is less told to you than shown to you by this series of striking poetic scenes; the story is built up in your mind rather than being simply told to you. Tolkien handles this aspect quite well, in part because he was quite aware of it. Christopher Tolkien quotes a nice summary of this point from his father (p. 48):

In Old English breadth, fullness, reflection, elegiac effect, were aimed at. Old Norse aims at seizing a situation, striking a blow that will be remembered, illuminating a moment with a flash of lightning -- and tends to concision, weighty packing of the language in sense and form, and gradually to greater regularity of form of verse.

This is in part, perhaps, why the originals can often get away with being so incoherent, and why they can get away without giving us much sense of the motivation of the characters: the stories are built not out of motivations, nor out of any plotline, but out of scenes that are striking in their own right. This is not to say, of course, that the poets ignored plot or characterization, but these are not emphasized by this kind of stanza narrative.

Favorite Passage: There are several good ones, but this might be one (from pp. 114-115, stanzas 46-47 of the Lay of the Völsungs).

Dark red the drink
and dire the meat
whereon Sigurd feasted
seeking wisdom.
Dark hung the doors
and dread the timbers
in the earth under
of iron builded.

Gold piled on gold
there glittered palely;
that gold was glamoured
with grim curses.
The Helm of Horror
on his head laid he:
swart fell the shadow
round Sigurd standing.

Recommendation: Excellent both poetically and narratively. The style of poetry probably takes a certain taste, but this is definitely recommended.

[Page numbers refer to J. R. R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, Christopher Tolkien, ed. Harper Collins (London: 2009).]