Saturday, January 14, 2012

Music on My Mind

Lauren O'Connell, "All I Have to Do is Dream" (Everly Brothers cover). I very much like the instrumentation here.

Authorial Intention

There is an ambiguity in what people mean when they talk about 'authorial intention' or 'intent of the author', arising from the fact that 'intention' has been used so long and in so many contexts.

(1) When people started using the term, 'intention' was a much broader term; it meant the act of disposing or orienting something to an end. Thus it included not only what one would like to get out of the action, but also the actual organization and structuring of the action. In the case of a text, saying that the meaning of the text was the intention of the author was saying that the meaning of the text is the organization and disposition, by the author, of words to mean something.

(2) However, there is a narrower sense of 'intention', which here we can just call 'intent', that sprang up at some point as an offshoot. In this case, the intent is merely what the author was aiming at, and not the whole act of aiming and firing at it. 'Intention' was an action term -- it is the orientation and force, the tendency, you actually give the arrow. 'Intent' is more subtle -- it is what you want the arrow actually to do, and, in particular, what you want it to hit.

We see the importance of distinguishing the two especially well in cases like Kierkegaard's pseudonymous works. One cannot assume that a pseudonym completely represents Kierkegaard's view; each of his pseudonyms is put forward as a persona. Thus there is an authorial intention discoverable in the text, since each text is carefully constructed, but Kierkegaard's own intent -- what he's aiming at in the first place -- is deliberately masked by the presentation of the persona and that persona's purported intent. Learning the intention for the text in Kierkegaard is usually not that difficult. You usually need some context so that, for instance, you can figure out that Kierkegaard is adapting terminology already in use, or is alluding to common philosophical topics of the time. But anyone worth their salt can do this, one text at a time, simply by studying the text, both in itself and in its context; this is effectively a study of how, and the way, in which a text means anything at all. Determining Kierkegaard's intent in writing it, on the other hand, is extraordinarily difficult, and requires a critical judgment based on familiarity with how the text fits into the whole of things that Kierkegaard writes about.

Nor is this an artifact of pseudonymity. Kant's book on Swedenborg, Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, is a very readable book: the intention is not difficult to find. It's a well-organized text that can be read without much difficulty, and is certainly much easier to read than most of Kant's other works. On the other hand, it's notoriously difficult to interpret. How can this be? Because no one quite agrees on what Kant's intent was in putting the book forward and putting it forward in the way he does, and what can be gleaned from the text and context leaves a great deal undetermined. Much can be determined about what Kant is doing, and thus we can determine much about the authorial intention; but one part of it, why, exactly, he is doing it, is elusive, and so we argue about intent. We see this as well with Hume. The most irreconcilable interpretations have been put on Hume's work, despite a lot of agreement about the texts themselves, and why? Because people differ about how skeptical his intent actually is.

The distinction is important in another way, in that skepticism about authorial intention is often conflated with skepticism about authorial intent. Intent can be very tricky; it's a matter of motives and expected consequences, and is almost always the hardest thing to determine about the intention of the text. Just as in a conversation we can understand quite well what is said but miss the point of its being said entirely, we can grasp the organization and sense of a text without being aware of why one would write such a thing at all, or why one would write such a thing in this particular way. And the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the intention of the author can go awry, and deviate massively from his intent. Just as an archer can want to hit the bull's-eye, but actual dispose and orient the bow so that it ends overshooting the target entirely, so the intent of a text can be one thing and the whole intention or disposition of the text be heading in an entirely different direction. Clearly, any approach to a text that can't recognize this is radically faulty; but this is precisely what one gets when one fails to make the distinction between intention and intent.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Malleus Arianorum

Today is the Feast of St. Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300 - c. 368), Doctor of the Church, Hammer of the Arians, and the most Greek of the Latin Fathers. He was a Neoplatonist who converted to Christianity. He became so popular in Poitiers that when the bishop died the people forced him to become bishop even though he was actually married and had a daughter. (Married priests were still not uncommon in the West; but it was by this point generally expected that bishops would not be married.) He became deeply involved in the controversy over Arianism, as one would expect from his nickname, and it got him exiled once and into trouble several more times. He was one of the great early defenders of Nicaea, and the greatest Western theologian prior to Ambrose and Augustine. His greatest extant work is the De Trinitate. Very little else is known about his life.

He gives us the story of his conversion in Book I of the De Trinitate. He spent an extended period reflecting on the meaning of life; on the basis of such reflection he rejected the view that life should be spent seeking material satisfaction; rather, a life of virtue was the only life that was fitting for a human being. But when he looked at the philosophers around him, he had difficulty finding any philosophy that rose above the mere animal minimum -- none of them really called human beings to the best and the highest. The kind of moral philosophy that human understanding calls out for, he thought, could not rest in anything other than something divine. But this, too, was a problem. When he looked around at the philosophers of the day, he found a wide variety of views, and, like many pagans of Neoplatonist bent in this age, he came to the conclusion that bare polytheism was itself not sufficient: the divine must have both eternity and power over all, and these were not communicable or divisible.

So far many other pagan Neoplatonists had gone, and not gone any further. But a happenstance changed Hilary's life forever:

While my mind was dwelling on these and on many like thoughts, I chanced upon the books which, according to the tradition of the Hebrew faith, were written by Moses and the prophets, and found in these words spoken by God the Creator testifying of Himself 'I Am that I Am, and again, He that is has sent me unto you.' I confess that I was amazed to find in them an indication concerning God so exact that it expressed in the terms best adapted to human understanding an unattainable insight into the mystery of the Divine nature. For no property of God which the mind can grasp is more characteristic of Him than existence, since existence, in the absolute sense, cannot be predicated of that which shall come to an end, or of that which has had a beginning, and He who now joins continuity of being with the possession of perfect felicity could not in the past, nor can in the future, be non-existent; for whatsoever is Divine can neither be originated nor destroyed. Wherefore, since God's eternity is inseparable from Himself, it was worthy of Him to reveal this one thing, that He is, as the assurance of His absolute eternity.

And reading further only confirmed the impression: here at last was the divine he had been seeking.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Schoen at Kickstarter

Chris Schoen, who blogs at underverse, has a project up at Kickstarter. Kickstarter, if you don't know, is a really clever fundraising site in which people pledge certain amounts of money to certain projects in return for certain benefits. It's a good, solid way of getting basic artistic projects started. Such things were once not uncommon, but seem to have been harder to find for a while; it's good to see that they are still around. In any case, the project is compiling an album of Baudelaire poems translated by Chris and set to music, itself a subproject in a much larger project. Go over and look, and see if you are interested in pledging something.

Well, That Was a Different Take

So a man named Bill Snyder came across a 1937 British children's book and saw at once its potential; he acquired the film rights in 1964 for a fairly small amount because no one knew the author yet. The only condition was that the rights would revert if no motion picture were made by June 30, 1966. That book was The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. He got a young screenwriter to work up a screenplay on it. By this point The Lord of the Rings had been published, but very few people even knew that, and certainly not the people involved here. Because of this, the screenwriter, whose name was Gene Deitch, did what people do with children's books when they want to make them movies: he modified some of the storyline to make it easier to follow, added some characters for interest, and, in short, ignored the greater background of the book for the simple reason that he had no idea that it existed. He did, eventually, manage to read LOTR, and started revising his script to take it into account (to avoid shutting down the possible sequel, of course). But at first nobody knew Tolkien yet! Try as they might, Snyder, Deitch, and others struggled to find anyone who would want to back the movie. This ate up precious time and the clock was ticking. And then, with the publication of the paperback LOTR, Tolkien exploded into public recognition as the clock was ticking. Suddenly the film rights held by Snyder were much more valuable, and he wasn't going to risk losing them. But there was a loophole: the Tolkien lawyers had been a little sloppy in their language, and thus all Snyder had to do to keep the rights was produce some kind of full-color motion picture. So he made Deitch cut down his script to a short short and in thirty days had the very first film version of The Hobbit thrown together, all twelve minutes of it. Because of it Snyder was able to keep the rights long enough to sell them back for much more than he had paid for them.

Behold it now in the splendor of its sublime awfulness! (ht) But be prepared for the strangeness....

Correction in the Classroom

Someone somewhere recently brought up this article from last summer by Peter Boghossian, in which he expresses both his complete cluelessness about something that anyone with a significant education should have figured out, namely, that most professors do not regard it as reasonable or practically effective pedagogical practice to go about directly attacking student's opinions, and affirms with every uncritical cliche in the book his resolution to teach students critical thinking:

Should professors attempt to change students’ beliefs by consistently challenging false beliefs with facts?

I believe that this is exactly what our role should be. My colleagues’ intense, unexpected, yet understandable reaction to my failed attempt change the mind of a student, I believe, fundamentally misconstrues what the role of educators should be. I believe our role as educators should be to teach students not just factual data, but the importance of critically examining beliefs by exposing them to facts, and then revising cherished notions when confronted with reliable but discomforting evidence.

There are a number of problems, of course, with Boghossian's entire argument. The first and most important, of course, is that education is by its nature a cooperative venture; teachers can't force knowledge into student heads. And that means without any doubt that one of the things teachers have to work for is the cooperation of the students themselves. We see this problem rear its head almost immediately in the article with Boghossian's clueless bafflement that his fellow instructors would be even more shocked by Boghossian's insistence when he read the comment made by the student. Obviously any such comment clearly indicates that the student has completely given up not just cooperation but any real possibility of it. Some students, of course, never give cooperation in the first place, and others are just overly inclined to give up at the slightest difficulty; but usually if they go out of their way to mention it that means something went terribly wrong. Sometimes it's not the professor's fault, sometimes it is, but when students go through the motions and then stubbornly insist that they are only going through the motions because they've been forced to do so, something has gone wrong.

In practice recognition of this means that most professors who put some thought into their pedagogy pick very carefully their hills to die on. If Boghossian had offered a topic-specific argument, i.e., that professors should work harder to provide accurate information to students on this or that topic (e.g., evolution, which seems to be an issue that Boghossian has in mind) rather than let inaccuracies slide, I would be much more sympathetic. But there are lots of situations where it is obviously better either just to encourage the students to look into the matter further, providing resources, or to aim for a more attainable goal than correction (e.g., getting them simply to recognize some attractions of the opposing side).

And even then professors need to take into account that their credibility to students is not unlimited; students do not just assume that professors know what they are talking about, although they are usually willing to defer quite a bit if the professor seems competent in general, seems not to be pushing a prejudice, and is clearly talking about a field he or she has studied extensively. If any one of these conditions fails, though, the attempt to correct students directly can backfire. On biological matters, students will, all other things being equal, respect the claims of a biology professor more than those of a philosophy professor, of a well-credentialed and obviously deeply informed professor over any other, and of a genial professor over one who seems abusive or confrontational. And note that it's not even about what one really is; you can be the best informed person in the world, talking completely objectively, out of a genuine love for your students, and if the students don't get that impression, it's almost for nothing. You'll simply be convincing the students that you can't be trusted, either because you are ignorant, or because you are prejudiced, or because you are stupid. There will be students who will end up thinking this no matter what; but there is good reason to avoid recklessly pushing students into deciding all at once, on a single issue or a small collection of issues, that you either are right or ignorant/prejudiced/stupid. In part because for a lot of practical reasons the latter option is going to be much easier for students to take.

This gets into the whole critical thinking issue. Apparently Boghossian doesn't grasp this fact, but there is a form of critical thinking most students engage in a lot. They don't always do it optimally -- indeed, I think there is a good argument that they usually do not -- but they do it constantly. And this form of critical thinking is the assessment of whether a professor is worth learning from at all. When it comes to such an issue, they are not really very trusting, and not inclined to give much benefit of the doubt. If professors really want to go around correcting every incorrect thing a student says, they need to be constantly proving to the students that they are fair, trustworthy, and informed. This is harder to do than it sounds, and modern universities and colleges are not really set up to make it easier. One of the signs of excellent pedagogical practice is when instructors can with some regularity start with students actively suspicious of them -- there are always a few, and under some conditions more than a few -- and at least by the end of the term convince some of them that they can afford to be more open-minded in this context and take the opposing arguments seriously.

This is complicated by the fact that students don't grow up in academia. They are used to the idea that there are people who disagree with them, but they aren't usually used to direct correction. They, unlike Boghossian, do not start with the assumption that professors, or anyone else, has the right to tell them they are wrong. They'll accept that professors get to set the hoops they have to jump through to get through the obstacle course of college, they'll generally accept that you can suggest that other views are better, but many students come in inclined to treat direct correction, where they have not clearly already consented to it, as attack or power play. And this is amplified by the consumerist attitudes of many students, which sometimes leads them to think that professors are being paid to deliver a much narrower service than professors are actually paid to deliver. (This came up in my Ethics class, twice, last fall. It was a really great group of students, one of the best classes I've had, but they were occasionally frustrated, particularly when studying Kant, that I didn't just tell them the answers but made them work through them on their own or as a class. And twice they told me that they were paying me to give them the answers. To which I replied that if they were paying me I would be charging them a lot more than the college did; and that the college, which actually was paying me, was not paying me to do things their way but to do whatever I deem fit as long as it meets the standards of the college and the department. As I said, it was actually a great class; and the fact that they even dared say it straight to my face says something about how well the class and I were getting along. But you can tell from evaluations and the like that students often think it even if they won't say it.) These problems can be handled, but, again, it requires that professors prove their integrity by working with the students in a way that students will generally see as fair, by showing competence in their field, and by starting where the students are, at least to the limited extent that current college set-up allows that. You don't teach children to take medicine simply by forcing it down their throats at any cost; if you do that, all you teach them is that they can't avoid doing things your way when you're around. They have to come to see themselves that it's a good thing, and that's much harder. And students are not really different. Spoon full of sugar, and all that. This is really part of why Boghossian's colleagues were aghast at his position. They no doubt believe that "students must cross the boundary between knowledge and belief," although this way of using the terminology is somewhat eccentric; what Boghossian fails to grasp is that they are not denying this. They are denying that Boghossian is achieving it by the means he is using.

But there is a more serious issue here. I agree with Boghossian's claim that one of our roles as educators should be "to teach students not just factual data, but the importance of critically examining beliefs by exposing them to facts, and then revising cherished notions when confronted with reliable but discomforting evidence," although I doubt I understand it in quite the way he does, but the most fundamental thing about this is that you can't teach it except by example. You cannot teach the value of critical examination and revision in light of facts unless they see you yourself critically examining your ideas and revising them in light of evidence. Anyone who thinks he is succeeding at teaching critical thinking when students cannot see the professor himself practice it is deluding himself (and, again, it's what the students can see that matters). This makes it a very hard thing, because as a professor you have a very limited window in which to teach by example, just a few hours a week over a few months, and these are hours in which a lot already has to be done. And the simple fact of the matter is that students aren't seeing you engaging in critical thinking if you are correcting them all the time. All they see is that you are so certain that you are right that you think everyone else has to agree with you. To be sure, you may be right; but you are delusional if you think it's teaching them critical thinking.

So if the point is not merely to correct students what is it? That surely is obvious, and it's what most professors are really aiming for: exposure that allows for understanding. Understanding can't be forced, but we can do a lot to make it more likely, simply by exposing students to what they didn't know before. And when we recognize this as the better end, we recognize that correction still has an important place: we correct students when they have outright misunderstood the issue, or have clearly misconstrued the arguments, or are overlooking some serious evidence, and we try to do so in such a way that leaves them open-minded enough that the arguments and evidence have a chance of working on their own. That is, we set them up for successful self-correction. There are still times when I would be willing to risk burning all my credibility to convince a student of something -- usually when the error in question is clearly preventing them from even understanding the alternatives. And then there's the housekeeping kind of correction -- this is directly relevant to the course, this is the only answer that is going to be accepted as correct, this is why, and, yes, it will be on the test. But, of course, this doesn't get you any farther than the sort of student who wrote the comment Boghossian mentions at the beginning of his article. Most of the time I'll just say, "Well, I'm not convinced of that myself, for such-and-such reasons," or "Most people think otherwise, because &c." and move on; particularly if it is only loosely relevant to the immediate discussion. Sometimes, if it's on a really important issue, everything else gets set aside, and, instead of simply 'correcting' the student, the whole course is diverted temporarily into looking at the background of the problem, the evidence, the arguments, and so forth. And then there are cases when it's just not worth the precious time it would burn to handle the matter properly, but students are nonetheless clearly thinking things through more carefully, and the only reasonable thing to do is let it slide and trust that their thought will work itself out.

The biggest mistake an instructor can make, I think, is to focus too narrowly on the course itself. In many cases our best successes have not been achieved by the end of the course; they are sometimes achieved when it's only down the road that the student grasps the point. As teachers we cannot afford only to look at the fact that a student is, here and now, wrong; we need to set things up so that, at least in principle, students who are wrong now will come to see on their own how they were wrong, even if it takes three more years. To be sure it takes a little trust that Boghossian doesn't seem to have: a little trust that students can figure things out on their own if they are only given the right resources and enough time, a little trust that it's often better for them to learn by discovery rather than by rote, a little trust that gentle exposure to evidence and arguments and encouragement not to dismiss them out of hand will work in the long run, and a little trust that you are running your course well enough that students will take seriously your view even if they are not inclined to agree and even if you don't press it very forcefully. But (1) this is the better path of pedagogy; and (2) given our limitations of resources and time, it's often the best we can do anyway. And it is the task of the teacher not to shape students but to help them shape themselves in a better way than they otherwise would. Simply trying to force students to accept things they aren't inclined to accept is not teaching but perversion.

The Buzzing of a Fly

One of the main causes of our mind's lack of application to abstract truths is that we view them as remote, whereas things much closer to the mind are constantly being presented to it. The mind's close attention, as it were, brings the ideas of objects it is attending to much closer, but it often happens that when one is intent upon metaphysical speculations, one is distracted from them because some sensation crops up in the soul that is, as it were, still closer to it than its ideas....The buzzing of a fly, or some other slight noise -- given that it is communicated to the main part of the brain so that the soul may perceive it -- in spite of our resistance is capable of preventing us from thinking about the loftiest abstract truths, because no abstract idea modifies the soul as sensations do.

Malebranche, The Search After Truth 3.1.4 (LO 213).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Meet Nicholas Steno (Repost)

Apparently Google is honoring Nicholas Steno today (ht). So I thought I'd put up a re-post, with some revisions, of something I've done on Steno before.

Depending on whether you date according to the Julian or the Gregorian calendar, Niels Stensen was born in Copenhagen January 1 (Julian) or January 11 (Gregorian) 1638. (The Gregorian calendar only began to be used in Denmark itself after 1700.) He was a second child of the goldsmith Sten Pedersen; his mother's name was Anne. He would become one of the great overachievers of the early modern period. While other people were often working on the same subjects, and there are several instances of 'firsts' typically attributed to him where it's possible to argue, depending on how you define terms, that he was really co-discoverer or independent discoverer, it is nonetheless extraordinary how often his name comes up as a candidate for a 'first'; whatever else may be said about his discoveries, Steno was at the forefront of a wide number of fields.

In 1656 he matriculated under the name Nicolaus Stenonis at Copenhagen University, and it is under variants of this name that he is most widely known. While he was attending University, Denmark and Sweden became involved in a war, and King Karl X Gustav of Sweden invaded. Because of winter ice in 1658, Karl Gustav was able to cross over to Zealand, the island on which Copenhagen was located. King Frederik III of Denmark had to cede territory to stop the advance. Karl Gustav invaded again in 1659 in an attempt to take all of Denmark; Copenhagen repelled the main attack, but remained under a landside siege until 1660. We know that Steno spent some time in a student company manning the ramparts, but not much more; most of what has survived of Steno's life is found in a text called the Chaos-manuscript (discovered in 1946 in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale of Florence, Italy, by Father Gustav Scherz): 92 folio pages of closely written observations, experiments, reflections, and excerpts.

In 1659 Steno seems to have sailed to Amsterdam, perhaps with an extended stop in Rostock, where he attended lectures by Gerard Blaes (Blasius), the City Physician. He was given leave at the time to do his own dissections, and entered the first major controversy of his life. During dissection of a sheep's head, he discovered the parotid excretory duct, and showed it to Blaes, who was inclined to dismiss it as either an artifact of dissection or a freak of nature. While it had been discovered before, this was not known at the time. Several days later he found the parotid excretory duct in a dog's head, and showed it to Blaes. After defending his thesis (on hot springs), he left Amsterdam for Leiden. At the University of Leiden, he showed his discovery to to several professors, one of whom (Van Horne) began demonstrating it in his anatomical lectures as the ductus Stenonianus (Stensen's duct, which is its name still). At about the same time, however, Blasius was demonstrating it in his lectures as his own discovery and by 1631 had published it, also as his own discovery. Niels found himself attacked as a plagiarizer by Blaes and his supporters. The dispute, quite fierce, lasted for some time, and did not entirely die out until it became more generally known just how brilliant an anatomist Steno actually was. Spurred on by the dispute, Steno plunged into his investigation of glands and ducts, and discovered (among many others) the lateral nasal gland, which is still called Steno's gland. Steno published his work, which was very well received. At this point he wanted to give anatomy a rest, but for various reasons soon returned to it. One of those reasons was the posthumous publication in 1662 of Descartes's Treatise on Man. Niels began to study the major subjects of that work: the heart, the muscles, and the brain. In 1662 he discovered sino-atrial and atrio-ventricular dissociation. He proved that the heart was entirely a muscle (which had been affirmed, without full explanation, by Harvey, but was not the common view at that time); he also discovered, pace Harvey, that the muscle was arranged spirally rather than circularly.

While in Leiden he made a number of acquaintances, which he would later call a very freethinking group, including Swammerdam, de Graat, and Spinoza, but he didn't stay long; in early 1664, he returned to Copenhagen. There he published De musculis et glandulis observationum specimen, one of the major early modern works in the history of cardiology. At this time he was 26.

In autumn of 1664, Steno left Copenhagen for Paris, and at some point in winter of 1665 he delivered a lecture on the brain (published in 1669 as Discours sur l'anatomie du cerveau). In the lecture he criticized Descartes's view of the brain, and, in particular, the appeal to animal spirits. After traveling in the south of France, Stensen arrived in Tuscany. In 1667 he published his major work on muscles, the Elementorum myologiae specimen, one of the distinctive features of which is that in it Steno develops a theory of muscle contractions that did not appeal to animal spirits. His alternative theory was attacked again and again, so that it was no longer held by anyone by the end of the 18th century. Work on the subject since 1980 has shown that parts of his argument actually did have merit, and, on this point at least, myology has now caught up to where Steno was at age 29 in 1669.

The Elementorum myologiae specimen is also significant in that appended to it were two works describing shark dissections. One of these works, called Canis carchariae dissectum caput, noted the resemblance between shark's teeth and certain fossils; Steno agreed with those who had suggested that the latter were somehow versions of the former, and began to develop an argument that this was possible. The second treatise, the Historia dissecti piscis ex canum genere, showed that the 'testes mulierum' of the non-oviparous dogfish were sufficiently ovary-like to be considered ovaries. This is commonplace now, but at the time it was unclear whether the females of many species had ovaries. After the publication of this work, Steno continued his study of female reproductive organs, and is sometimes credited with being the first discoverer of the mammalian ovarian follicle.

In November 1667, Steno became Catholic. He was confirmed December 8, and on the same day he received a letter from Frederik III ordering him to return to Copenhagen; he replied with a letter asking if the order was still stood given that he was no longer Lutheran. In the meantime, he studied geological formations, publishing a preliminary report on them in 1669: the De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus (also here in Latin). In it he gives the first systematic classification by common origin for solids within solids, and in so doing laid down the principles of reconstruction of geological history. The Prodromus is a founding text of paleontology and dynamic geology; it is also, with the work of Erasmus Bartholin on Iceland spar, one of the founding works of crystallography. One of its many important contributions was the recognition that the faces of quartz crystals are related to each other by a constant angle, which is perhaps the fundamental insight of crystallography. Here and there it is referred to as "Steno's rule".

From late 1668 to early 1670, Steno traveled through Europe confirming his geological theories and giving anatomical demonstrations. At one such demonstration (at Innsbruck in June) he dissected the head of a hydrocephalic calf, showing that the deformity was caused by a disease, and thus providing a strong argument against the view that it was caused by maternal fantasies, a view that still had some broad acceptance even up to the early nineteenth century. When he returned to Florence in 1670, he was made court geologist by the Grand Duke, Cosimo III. Steno became more involved in theological discussions, and on the publication of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in 1670, he wrote a letter to his old acquaintance urging him to become Catholic.

In April 1675 he was ordained a priest in Florence and became tutor and moral preceptor to the Crown Prince. In 1677 he was appointed by Innocent IX apostolic vicar of the northern missions and was consecrated the titular bishop of Titiopolis. Steno went to Hanover at the invitationof Duke Johann Friedrich of Brunswick-Lüneburg. When Johann Friedrich died, Steno became auxiliary bishop to Prince Bishop Ferdinand von Fürstenberg of Münster. Catholicism there seems to have been rather lax; Steno spent much of his time there advocating pastoral reform against strong opposition, and eventually left in protest. He began to live an ascetic life of poverty at Hamburg, during which he began, but never completed, an essay reviewing confirmed knowledge of the nervous system.

Steno died November 25 (Julian, 5 December Gregorian), 1686. He was 48. His last words are said to have been Jesus sis mihi Jesus et misericordiam tuam, Domine, in aeternum cantabo. Cosimo III had Steno's body brough back to Florence, where it can be found in the Church of San Lorenzo. on 23 October 1988, John Paul II beatified him. His feast, officially celebrated in certain areas of Europe, is celebrated (as they often are) on the day of his death, December 5.

It's difficult to find good works on Steno in English. Here are two recommendations, from which some of the details above come.

Troels Kardel. Steno: Life - Science - Philosophy. Acta Historica Scientarum Naturalium et Medicinalium, vol 42. Munksgaard (Copenhagen) 1994.

Hans Kermit. Niels Stensen: The Scientist who was Beatified. Michael Drake, tr. Gracewing (Leominster, Herefordshire) 2003. (This is good as a purely introductory work.)

Bonds We Cannot Break

To destroy the Stoic wisdom completely, one need know but one thing, which is sufficiently proved through experience and by what has already been said, that we are tied to our body, to our parents, to our friends, to our prince, to our country, by bonds we cannot break, and would even be ashamed to try to break. Our soul is joined to our body, and through our body to all visible things by a hand so powerful that it is impossible to loosen them by ourselves....One is never above nature, unless through grace, and a Stoic will never hold the glory and esteem of men in contempt simply through the strength of his mind.

Malebranche, The Search After Truth 2.3.4 (LO 182-183).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Tebowological Argument

People play a lot of games, things that are just a bit of horsing around; and one of the games people are playing right now online is the construction of Tebowological arguments. That is, they take some fact or other about Tim Tebow, or the Denver Broncos and their unexpected knack of suddenly winning when Tebow is on the field despite the fact that everyone agrees that Tebow looks like a combination of how not to do things as a quarterback, especially when it comes to passing. And, of course, other people argue that the Tebowological argument fails in some respect or others. You can find a large number of things just by googling Tebow "existence of God". Most of them are just slapped together, but some of the arguments are actually pretty ingenious in their own way; and it's always amusing at how heated some of the arguments get over a bit of sophistical exercise.

But I think there are probably connections between this bit of light horseplay and less fun things. Tebowological arguments are, after all, design arguments -- artificially manufactured design arguments, but design arguments nonetheless. And arguments that they fail are arguments from evil -- artificially manufactured ones, again, but still arguments from evil. It's not difficult to find the parallels. I'm interested in philosophical folklore, so if I had the time, it would be interested to look at the phenomenon more closely as a way of getting insight into how people process and construct philosophical arguments, even if only jokingly, on this subject outside the usual limited treadmill of arguments. This would be potentially valuable both for getting a better idea of how people think when dealing with the topic and for studying the potential structural variations of this general kind of argument, since people are constructing them under conditions that are less constrained than real arguments for and against the existence of God. And both of these are interesting for understanding how arguments work in practice.

Notable Links for Noting and Linking

* An interesting post by Eric Schliesser on Hume and Clarke on Newton

* In 1961 C. S. Lewis nominated J. R. R. Tolkien (whose birthday anniversary on January 3 recently passed) for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Prize Committee was rather dismissive (although given how dismissive they were of the others, Tolkien was in good company). In any case, Tolkien wouldn't have cared either way, and Ivo Andrić, who actually won, did some good work with the prize money by donating it for the development of libraries in Bosnia.

* Is frankincense on its way to extinction?

* An interesting post on Euripides' Bacchae at "Rethink"

* John Haldane on Michael Dummett

* A post on Berkeley's philosophy of language

* The IEP article on Platonism and Theism has some interesting bits.

* MrsDarwin comments on Catholic discernment.

Two Poem Drafts

Hy Breasail

Valiant-timbered reason
through the river-veins
of vine-rich jungle-lands
vales of mist discovers;

there visions softly rain,
swiftly flood the rivers,
with vital, vivid dreams.

In Luthany the Shadows Fall

In Luthany the shadows fall
on ruins of deserted halls
that, great of beam, still rise on high,
that, strong of stone, yet stand and wait;
for earth may fade and sun may die
but Luthany will stand and wait.

In Luthany the birds yet trill
and there are lark and whippoorwill,
where nightingales remember days
and mockingbirds recall the years
when merchants traversed well-trod ways;
but only birds recall those years.

Yet someday soon will woods awake
and gods undie and hearts unbreak;
and then the dreaming souls will rise,
and then the sleeping land will dance,
when lives again the thing that dies,
when you and I once more will dance.

Monday, January 09, 2012

With Looks Aghast and Sad

Now had the great Proclaimer with a voice
More awful then the sound of Trumpet, cried
Repentance, and Heavens Kingdom nigh at hand
To all Baptiz'd: to his great Baptism flock'd
With aw the Regions round, and with them came
From Nazareth the Son of Joseph deem'd
To the flood Jordan, came as then obscure,
Unmarkt, unknown; but him the Baptist soon
Descri'd, divinely warn'd, and witness bore
As to his worthier, and would have resign'd
To him his Heavenly Office, nor was long
His witness unconfirm'd; on him baptiz'd
Heaven open'd, and in likeness of a Dove
The Spirit descended, while the Fathers voice
From Heav'n pronounc'd him his beloved Son
That heard the Adversary, who roving still
About the world, at that assembly fam'd
Would not be last, and with the voice divine
Nigh Thunder-struck, th' exalted man, to whom
Such high attest was giv'n, a while survey'd
With wonder, then with envy fraught and rage
Flies to his place, nor rests, but in mid air
To Councel summons all his mighty Peers,
Within thick Clouds and dark ten-fold involv'd,
A gloomy Consistory; and them amidst
With looks aghast and sad he thus bespake.

From John Milton, Paradise Regain'd, Book I.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Tabulae Novae

Who in the world, indeed, that has the feelings of a man, can endure that they should have a superfluity of riches, to squander in building over seas and leveling mountains, and that means should be wanting to us even for the necessaries of life; that they should join together two houses or more, and that we should not have a hearth to call our own? They, tho they purchase pictures, statues, and embossed plate; tho they pull down new buildings and erect others, and lavish and abuse their wealth in every possible method, yet cannot, with the utmost efforts of caprice, exhaust it. But for us there is poverty at home, debts abroad, our present circumstances are bad, our prospects much worse; and what, in a word, have we left, but a miserable existence?

Will you not, then, awake to action? Behold that liberty, that liberty for which you have so often wished, with wealth, honor, and glory, are set before your eyes. All these prizes fortune offers to the victorious. Let the enterprise itself, then, let the opportunity, let your poverty, your dangers, and the glorious spoils of war, animate you far more than my words. Use me either as your leader or your fellow soldier; neither my heart nor my hand shall be wanting to you. These objects I hope to effect, in concert with you, in the character of consul—unless, indeed, my expectation deceives me, and you prefer to be slaves rather than masters.

Lucius Sergius Catilina, An Exhortation to Conspiracy (as presented by Sallust). This, of course, is the Catiline denounced by Cicero who attempted to overthrow the Roman Republic. People go back and forth on Catiline, depending largely on whether they judge him sincere in his advocacy for the poor or simply a rabble-rouser using them for his personal ends. But it's a little unsettling to think how well the Catilinian line would play today.