Saturday, August 25, 2012

Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Neil Armstrong, born on August 5, 1930, has now died on August 25, 2012. Armstrong was a Naval pilot in the Korean War; he later became a top-notch test pilot, and over time shifted into the space program. It's said that he was being groomed by NASA to become the first civilian astronaut -- at least, this was common speculation at the time -- but Valentina Tereshkova beat him to that honor; instead he went on to become an important part of the Gemini and Apollo programs. And, of course, he was selected to become the first man to walk on the moon in the Apollo 11 mission, which he flew with Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin.

How high dreams went then, and how far away they seem now. But Armstrong's achievements will always stand as a sign of just how much can be done.

Euclid's Common Notions

I was thinking about Euclid's common notions yesterday, and in particular about what we get if we focus only on them. The common notions, or axioms, if you will remember, are (in usual translation, going back to Heath):

(1) Things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.
(2) If equals are added to equals, then the wholes are equal.
(3) If equals are subtracted from equals, then the remainders are equal.
(4) Things which coincide with one another equal one another.
(5) The whole is greater than the part.

What do we get if we look only at this? A very simple mereology, that is, a system of reasoning about parts and wholes. Axiom 5 tells us that a whole is distinguishable from its parts, and vice versa. The other four axioms tell us what we can conclude if parts or wholes are indistinguishable (indiscernible/equal/exactly similar) in some way. Axiom 1 tells us how things relate to each other when they are both indistinguishable from the same thing (the answer is: indistinguishably!); it's about equality with respect to equality. Axiom 2 is about equality with respect to addition; in other words, they tell us something we can conclude about the wholes when parts are joined to other parts. Axiom 3 is about equality with respect to subtraction; that is, they tell us something we can conclude about leftover parts when we remove parts from a whole.

Axiom 4 is interesting. The Greek means something like "Things that fit onto each other are alike/equal"; it tells us that if you can fit something (part or whole) onto something (part or whole) that they are indistinguishable. So this is about equality with respect to superposition, whether of parts or wholes. Axioms 2, 3, and 4, then, allow for three kinds of mereological operation: joining part to part in order to get equal wholes (addition), removing parts from wholes in order to get equal parts (subtraction), and fitting part or whole on top of part or whole in order to get equals (superposition).

It should be noted that in none of these cases do the parts and wholes actually have to be spatial parts and wholes. For instance, here is a pretty straightforward case of something that can be fit to the same mereological principles: propositions (wholes) and terms (parts). If intersubstitutable terms are predicated of intersubstitutable terms (addition), the propositions are intersubstitutable; if intersubstitutable terms are removed from intersubstitutable propositions, the leftover terms are intersubstitutable; substitution is 'coinciding' or 'fitting on top of'; propositions include more than their terms; and things intersubstitutable with the same thing are themselves intersubstitutable.

We get something geometrical in our usual sense only when we add definitions and postulates. The definitions give us kinds of objects in space, and properties of those objects; the postulates are guidelines for accurately constructing those same objects (they are things you are asked to do when drawing diagrams -- for instance, the first postulate literally asks you to bring your strokes directly from marker to marker, while the fourth asks that all your upright corners be alike). Any Euclid-style approach to geometry, then, has three elements: definitions of kinds of spatial objects and their properties; a method for constructing spatial objects; and a mereology, or system for reasoning in terms of parts and wholes. We can get variations by changing any of these. We could change the definitions; and in a sense a part of Newtonian physics is Euclid where our definitions are not of kinds of spatial objects but kinds of locomotion. We could change the methods of construction, and this is where we get all sorts of different geometries, ranging from Euclidian geometry with neusis to Riemann and others. And we could also change the mereology.


Thinking more about this, there are famously three Books of Euclid's Elements that are independent of any other book: Book I, Book V, and Book VII. These all share the same common notions (mereology) and postulates (method of construction), but they differ according to their definitions. The geometry of Book I is a comparative mereology of dimensional constructions -- dimensional here being what I meant above by 'spatial', and meaning 'having to do with length, breadth, etc.'. The definitions of Book V have to do with measured magnitudes (a magnitude is part of another when it measures the other); and those of Book VII are concerned with measured numbers (a number is part of another when it measures the other). So even within Euclidean geometry we see the way in which definitions establish the objects that are reasoned about with a simple mereology and a method of construction, in order to get a geometrical theory.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Love Animates My Lyre

The Poet and the Caged Turtledove
by William Wordsworth

As often as I murmur here
My half-formed melodies,
Straight from her osier mansion near,
The Turtledove replies:
Though silent as a leaf before,
The captive promptly coos;
Is it to teach her own soft lore,
Or second my weak Muse?

I rather think, the gentle Dove
Is murmuring a reproof,
Displeased that I from lays of love
Have dared to keep aloof;
That I, a Bard of hill and dale,
Have carolled, fancy free,
As if nor dove nor nightingale,
Had heart or voice for me.

If such thy meaning, O forbear,
Sweet Bird! to do me wrong;
Love, blessed Love, is everywhere
The spirit of my song:
'Mid grove, and by the calm fireside,
Love animates my lyre--
That coo again!--'tis not to chide,
I feel, but to inspire.

The 'osier mansion' is a cage made from the pliable branches of a willow (osier) tree.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


It has been a while since I've had any quotations from this blog's namesake; here's a nice one.

The perceptions of sense are gross: but even in the senses there is a difference. Though harmony and proportion are not objects of sense, yet the eye and the ear are organs, which offer to the mind such materials, by means whereof she may apprehend both the one and the other. By experiments of sense we become acquainted with the lower faculties of the soul; and from them, whether by a gradual (a) evolution or ascent, we arrive at the highest. Sense supplies images to memory. These become subjects for fancy to work upon. Reason considers and judges of the imaginations. And these acts of reason become new objects to the understanding. In this scale, each lower faculty is a step that leads to one above it. And the uppermost naturally leads to the Deity, which is rather the object of intellectual knowledge than even of the discursive faculty, not to mention the sensitive. There runs a chain throughout the whole system of beings. In this chain one link drags another. The meanest things are connected with the highest. The calamity therefore is neither strange nor much to be complained of, if a low sensual reader shall, from mere love of the animal life, find himself drawn on, surprised, and betray'd into some curiosity concerning the intellectual.

George Berkeley, Siris, section 303. The footnote (a) directs the reader to section 275, in which Berkeley summarizes the Neoplatonic doctrine of grades or degrees of being. 'Siris' itself, of course, is Berkeley's anglicization of an ancient Greek word for 'chain'.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Music on My Mind

Peter Hollens ft. The Swingle Singers, "Poor Wayfaring Stranger"

Civility in Argument

There is a very interesting but, I think, very incorrect article on civility in argument by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse at "3quarksdaily". The essential line of argument is essentially:

(1) Civility in argument is not conflict aversion.
(2) Civility in argument is not politeness or calmness of tone.
(3) "Argumentation is the process of articulating our reasons for holding our beliefs."
(4) Civility in argument is that set of tendencies enabling exchange of reasons among disputants.
(5) Civility in argument has three dimensions: Representation (actually engaging with each other's reasons); Reception (giving a proper hearing to one's opponent's reasons); and Reciprocity (presenting reasons that one's opponents can see the relevance of).
(6) Therefore civility in argument does not have to do with "being nice, calm, or even polite" but with being a sincere arguer.

In fact, I think it's clear that every single point here is wrong, although in general this is due to dropping qualifications rather than from any egregious error. It is true that civility in argument is not only conflict aversion and that it is not only about tone; it is true that one of the ends of argumentation is articulation of reasons for holding one's beliefs; it is true that one of the reasons for civility in argument is to enable exchange of reasons; Representation, Reception, and Reception are some of the things that are sometimes relevant to civility in argument; and sincerity in argument is conducive under some conditions to civility in argument. But the qualifications are all extraordinarily important. It's also the case that the account given of Reciprocity is inconsistent with the account given of argumentation; Reciprocity as Aikin and Talisse describe it cannot be a general dimension of civility in argument given how they describe argumentation, and argumentation as Aikin and Talisse describe it can be severely interfered with by Reciprocity as they describe it. In fact, it looks very much like they've rigged their account of Reciprocity in order to get a particular conclusion about democracy that they think good.

It is a mistake, I think, to think there is some special thing going under the name 'civility in argument'; rather there's just civility, and it can be relevant to argument, and when we look at cases where it is relevant to argument we find common patterns. One of the interesting failures of the argument of Aikin and Talisse, for instance, is in its lack of any good explanation for why we would call civility in argument 'civility' at all. Civility is the practice of maintaining civic good relations, where civic good relations are those relations that make society 'work' in some sense. (The old Aristotelian name for them would be civic friendships.) Society is a way in which we live together, and civic good relations are those relations among the people in society which make living together possible and viable, either because they are pleasant, or because they are useful, or because they are good for us. In this sense you can have civic good relations with people you don't really like at all; in such cases you simply recognize that, whatever problems you have with them, you have to live with them to achieve certain good things, and you act accordingly.

Civility in argument, then, involve approaching argument in such a way as to maintain good civic relations -- that's the only reason to call it civility in the first place. Thus conflict aversion is, right then and there, part of what civility in argument is about. Aikin and Talisse are right to the extent that civility is not just about conflict aversion -- it requires positive practices in addition to avoiding conflict -- and and it is not about just any kind of conflict aversion -- it is about avoiding conflicts detrimental to civic good relations. But dropping conflict aversion entirely, as they do, is an extreme move. There are also problems with their argument for it. They say:

On some accounts, civility is equivalent to conflict aversion; one is civil insofar as one is conciliatory and irenic in dealing with one’s political opponents. Civility in this sense seeks to deal with disagreement by disposing of it. Civility of this kind is little more than a call for compromise at the expense of one’s own commitments. Hence this kind of civility might be inconsistent with actually believing anything.

This argument seems to consist entirely of leaps, however. Being conciliatory and irenic in dealing with one's opponents is not the same as dealing with disagreement by disposing of it; in fact, it may sometimes be quite the opposite -- it's consistent with letting a disagreement go on longer than it has to by not trying to force the matter here and now, or with taking the time to argue in part on your opponent's own principles, just for the sake of argument, not because you are disposing of the disagreement but because you are prioritizing sub-disagreements and thus only focusing on the most essential matters. Likewise, neither being conciliatory nor disposing of disagreements is the same as compromise at the expense of one's own commitments. Obviously it will depend on your commitments, since it may well be that the disagreement in question is genuinely not very important, or that a live-and-let-live approach will allow you to be both conciliatory and to dispose of the disagreement by rendering the whole point moot. And even if it did involve a call for compromise at the expense of one's own commitments, it wouldn't follow that it could be inconsistent with actually believing anything; it would be consistent with believing in things consistent with such compromises, for instance.

Likewise, we can see that civility in argument can't just be about tone because civility itself isn't just about tone. And it's true that tone might sometimes not be even relevant, precisely because tone is sometimes not the big issue for civility itself. But it does not follow that tone is irrelevant. Maintaining civic good relations requires approaching people in particular ways, and it is a simple fact of human nature that, where there is a choice of relevant tones available, some tones will be more conducive to this than others. As the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Further, a lot of practices that are themselves designed in part to maintain civility -- practices of professionalism, for instance -- themselves require that tones be kept within a certain range. A professor being nasty in an argument with a graduate student is being unprofessional and uncivil in argument, and it simply does not matter how sincere, or how well-reasoned the professor's argument is: the professor has a special professional involvement in the society between professors and graduate students. A large number of circumstantial factors, including the power difference between professors and graduate students, the effect of professor-student interaction not just on the two parties but on the whole department, and others, converge to make it absolutely essential to professors to avoid using hostile and antagonistic language toward graduate students to the extent humanly possible. Professors who speak nastily to graduate students are abusing their position, and harming civic good relations in their profession. Whether and to what degree tone is relevant will depend on circumstances; but while it sometimes will not be important, it will sometimes be essential.

As with their rejection of conflict aversion, there are problems with the argument given for this point. They say:

Argument is a form of confrontation, one with words instead of weapons, and any norm that prevents argument from displaying the critical edges of disagreements undercuts what inspires the argument to begin with. Furthermore, it is possible to fail at proper argumentation and yet maintain a calm and respectful tone of voice. In fact, under certain circumstances, one patronizes one’s interlocutor precisely by sustaining one’s composure.

This argument, however, involves a completely different account of argumentation from the one they will later go on to give; if argumentation is a process of articulating reasons for holding one's beliefs, then its most common and natural outcome will not be arguments in the sense of disagreements and confrontations, but arguments simply in the sense conclusions-and-reasons-for-them. And even if we restrict our considerations to cases where we are presenting our conclusions-and-reasons to someone, and to actual arguments, not all arguments are disagreements -- it is possible to play devil's advocate or just argue just in order to be arguing (for fun, perhaps), for instance. And even if we restrict our consideration to disagreements, not all disagreements are confrontations, nor are all disagreements (or, for that matter, confrontations) inspired by things that would be undercut by anything preventing argument "from displaying the critical edges of disagreements". Even more than this, there is nothing about restrictions of tone per se that eliminate confrontations or disagreements, nor do they necessarily prevent argument "from displaying the critical edges of disagreements". And the suggestion that you can patronize someone by sustaining one's composure borders on complete nonsense: there are lots of different ways of sustaining one's composure, and patronizing people will always at the very least require more than merely sustaining one's composure.

Argumentation is certainly about articulation of reasons, and can certainly be for articulating reasons for beliefs you hold, but argumentation as such has nothing to do with beliefs. In many ways, in fact, the most interesting kind of argumentation occurs when people are not articulating reasons for beliefs they hold but for positions that none of them hold but that they find intriguing; and part of the reason this kind of argumentation can be so interesting is that it can lead to new positions that were simply not on the table to be believed or not in the first place -- things people hadn't even had a chance to think of before. Likewise, Aikin and Talisse claim that the point of articulating reasons is "to put them on display so that they may be examined and evaluated"; but this is certianly not true. The point of articulating reasons is to have available reasons. It may be true that the point of having available reasons is so that they may be examined and evaluated, but this is not at all the only reason why one would articulate your reasons for your beliefs. You might do it because you think it's important to have reasons for beliefs. You might do it just from habit. You might do it just to let people know what they are; sometimes people argue not to evaluate reasons but simply to clarify what they are in the first place. This actually is a matter of some importance. Aikin and Talisse claim, "When we argue specifically in response to disagreement, we supply our reasons for the purpose of demonstrating to our interlocutor their strength, and the comparative weakness of the reasons that support opposing views." But this, while very often true, is by no means universal. When we argue specifically in response to disagreement, we may not be trying to demonstrate the strengths of our reasons and the comparative weakness of opposing reasons, we may be simply trying to show that we have relevant reasons at all, that in taking the position we are, we are not being arbitrary or stupid. Thus its simply false to say that argumentation has within it the idea that you should believe only what the strongest reasons support; this may well be true, but it has nothing to do with argumentation, which isn't necessarily about what one believes, and even when it is, it isn't necessarily about giving the strongest reasons. Likewise, they are simply wrong to say that if argumentation lacks the background commitment to possibly revising one's views, it is pointless. Such a background commitment may often be very important to broader considerations of rationality, but argumentation is quite capable of having many points. In fact, such a claim doesn't even follow from the account of argumentation given by Aikin and Talisse: in their account it is reasons, not beliefs, that are put forward to be evaluated, and thus argumentation will still have a point if one intends to keep one's beliefs but wants to have the strongest reasons for them.

Given this we can see that many tendencies enabling exchange of reasons among disputants will be relevant to civility much of the time, but that, depending on circumstances, some of those tendencies won't always be relevant to civility. An interesting question is whether all civility in argument requires tendencies enabling exchange of reasons among disputants. This will obviously usually be the case. And I think there's a strong argument that civic good relations require the general possibility of exchange of reasons among disputants. I'm not convinced, though, that civility in a particular argument will always require tendencies enabling the exchange of reasons among disputants in that particular argument. There is, I think, a great deal to be said for the idea that sometimes civility in argument requires giving the argument a rest for a while. I think even more than this, there are situations where, due to some asymmetry, exchanges of reasons may not even be the point of argumentation. In philosophy conferences, for instance, one may argue on a new topic with new arguments in your paper; but while you are communicating reasons in a philosophy paper, you are not exchanging reasons unless you make the paper part of an exchange of some sort; if you are the first person you know ever to have talked about a subject, you are just giving your arguments. Philosophy conferences typically have question-and-answer right after the paper, and in those cases there will sometimes be an exchange of reasons (although many questions in a Q&A are purely clarificatory). There are reasons why these Q&A sessions are added, and they all have to do with the fact that delivering a paper, considered in itself, is an asymmetric situation: you are simply telling people what your argument is. This doesn't mean there's no argumentation; it doesn't even necessarily mean there is no exchange of reasons (people usually craft philosophy papers in order to take part in exchanges of reasons); but it does mean that there might not be any exchange of reasons at all, since it might be completely one-sided argumentation, and for good reason.

It follows from this that none of the three dimensions of civility in argument mentioned by Aikin and Talisse are either necessary or sufficient. I do agree that they are commonly needed for civility in argument. But one can be civil in argument without them, depending on the circumstances, and civility in argument will often require other things.

Of the three dimensions Aikin and Talisse note, I don't have much to say about Representation and Reception. I probably wouldn't have much to say about Reciprocity, either, except that Aikin and Talisse, by their own argument, shouldn't be including it. They had originally said that argumentation was a matter of articulating reasons for one's beliefs, and that one does so in order to test and evaluate them. Reciprocity as they gloss it, however, requires that sometimes one not be allowed to articulate one's reasons for one's beliefs or put them forward to be examined and evaluated; Reciprocity is therefore not a tendency enabling exchange of reasons among disputants and cannot be a form of civility in argument on their account. (I suspect that Aikin and Talisse insist on Reciprocity for reasons of Rawlsian liberalism, or something similar; but Rawlsian liberalism is inherently inconsistent with the idea that public argumentation is about articulating reasons for one's beliefs or necessarily tied to testing the quality of one's reasons. It's consistent with it sometimes being so, of course; but the thesis of public reasons requires that public argumentation not be primarily about reasons for belief, but at least primarily about (1) reasons for action that (2) will be accepted by other people as being of at least the right kind.) Since argumentation in fact does not necessarily involve articulating one's beliefs, or putting forward such articulations to test one's reasons, this means that it is in fact true that Reciprocity is a common pattern in civil argumentation. But since Aikin and Talisse's problem is not being egregiously wrong but mostly treating things that are often true as if they were always true, it's clear that Reciprocity will sometimes not be required for civility in argument.

And this actually makes a lot of sense in general. One thing that Aikin and Talisse don't seem to grasp in their discussion of Reciprocity is that how one answers the question, "Is this reason relevant to that position?" can be heavily path-dependent. But in fact it is so: A may be relevant to B in a non-obvious way that can only be seen if one accepts C, for instance. Because of this people can disagree about whether reasons are actually relevant, due to larger background disagreements, and merely because other people don't think a reason relevant doesn't mean it isn't. And while there are cases where the reasons for disagreement are known by everyone, there will be many cases in which it will simply be up in the air whether the reasons in question maintain Reciprocity. This, so far from being a problem, is often not even remotely important; argument goes on without it. We've already seen that argumentation does not necessarily involve an exchange of reasons, but even when it involves an exchange of reasons, when you are giving reasons to each other, it's sometimes just not important whether the other person thinks they are good reasons.

Much of the argument given by Aikin and Talisse seems to be geared not to understanding civility in argument as such but to defending a particular conception of democracy. "Democratic politics," they say, "is all about argument." This is manifestly not true about actual democratic politics. I don't think it can even be defended in this unqualified way for most democratic politics in an ideal democracy. Democratic politics will sometimes be about avoiding arguments in the first place, for instance; and lots of politics of any kind has nothing whatsoever to do with argument. That arguments are important to democratic politics is certainly true, but I'm not, for instance, really sure that the success of democratic politics "depends upon our ability as a citizenry to reliably make the distinction between argument and sophistry"; I simply don't think it's that fragile. There are other desirable things in politics that do depend on the citizenry being able to make such a distinction reliably, but democratic politics itself doesn't depend on it. All the mechanisms of democratic politics depend for their success on reliable venues for rhetorical communication; good rhetorical communication will often require argument. But you can have a pretty successful democratic politics based less on argument than on human sympathy, and one finds in fact in democratic politics that resolution of serious disputes is very often achieved not by argument but by compromise or by mutual sympathy or by a live-and-let-live approach. We should certainly be thankful for that; otherwise our societies would have failed long ago.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Catholic Corporation

There's been some discussion around about this Economist article on the financial state of the Catholic Church in the United States. As lots of people have noted, it's somewhat confused, given that it treats the Catholic-Church-in-the-U.S. as a single economic institution, which it most certainly is not, and grumbles about its lack of central financial accounting. One might as well do a report on Latino Culture or Atlantic Fishing and grumble about how, instead of sensibly releasing a clear unified report on its finances, its "finances look poorly co-ordinated considering (or perhaps because of) their complexity." The Catholic Church, if taken to include parishes, dioceses, religious orders, schools, hospitals, charitable organizations, and the like, is quite obviously more like a cultural affiliation than a well-defined economic entity; the corporate character of the Church is radically different from the corporate character of an incorporated business. Anything can become part of the Catholic Church in this way; practically all you need is the permission of the local bishop to call it Catholic. I'm pretty sure The Economist doesn't usually work under the assumption that everything of the same sort should be completely centralized in a single governing body; but I look forward to some future article in The Economist expressing bafflement at the fact that Evangelicalism or Islam in the United States doesn't have a Chief Financial Officer. It has also been noted that it gets some things wrong, beyond confusing a system of distinct but affiliated institutions with a single economically corporate institution -- for instance it overestimates parish donations by misreading donations per household as donations per individual. The CARA research blog has some discussion of the problems with the approach in the article.

It's actually interesting, though, that it shows that the network of institutions that constitute the Catholic Church in the United States is not, despite its visibility and the sheer number of things it does, a high-money-flow network. The article estimates that what we usually think of as 'the Church' -- local parishes and dioceses -- account for about 6% of the money in the entire system. Most of the identifiable money flow is in hospitals (estimated at about 57%) and in colleges and universities (estimated at about 28%), which, while undeniably part of the Church in some straightforward sense, are for all economic, administrative, and legal purposes separate institutions affiliated by little more than name and general principles, and in them the money is doing exactly what it does in other hospitals and colleges.

There was actually the potential for a good article here, namely, looking in detail at financial accountability problems in parishes and dioceses, and how they relate to structural problems, both in terms of Church governance and canon law and in terms of the necessarily very heavy reliance of these institutions on volunteers with limited or no training responding to immediate problems or issues as they arise. That would actually be quite interesting. For instance, it's widely recognized that there need to be reforms in how the finances of many parishes are handled, but very little information on what the real underlying problems are. Likewise, there's a good argument that greater financial accountability would improve the effectiveness of churches, but, if so, it's at present difficult to do anything about it because it's not wholly clear what's working and what's not.

C. E. M. Joad

Some recent posts on Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad have come up recently.

Mr Joad's 'Buzzing Bluebottle' at "Nigeness"

Joad of Joad Hall at "Philosophy, lit, etc."

I happen to have a copy of Joad's Guide to the Philosophy of Morals and Politics, which is a pretty decent, if occasionally plodding and occasionally glib, undergraduate-level work. One occasionally sees it quoted. Rather remarkably, it is quoted rather extensively in Wilson's concurrence in the notorious abortion case R. v. Morgentaler brought before the Supreme Court of Canada, in order to argue that the state's neutrality on the subject of abortion (and thus the state's refraining from giving it any criminal penalty) is necessary for freedom of conscience. Joad, or, at least, the young Joad, would be pleased; it fits well with his activism in the thirties (during which he explicitly argued for precisely this). I'm not sure if the older Joad would have agreed; he became more conservative, and more pessimistic about what he saw as the decadence and decay of modern society, as he grew older.

It's also briefly mentioned in Olaf Stapledon's Philosophy and Living, although as an appendix to an appendix because the two books came out the same year; but even a brief glance at Stapledon's reading list for beginners in philosophy shows a notable enthusiasm for Joad: "Readers will find that I have made use of Joad's treatment of several subjects. He has a surprising gift for expounding difficult ideas in such a manner that we are left wondering why people say philosophy is obscure." (Stapledon is most famous for his science fiction, most notably Sirius, Odd John, and Starmaker, but, of course, he started out as a philosophy lecturer; he gave it up when he began to think that science fiction might be more lucrative and a more influential venue for his philosophical ideas -- and on both points he was surely right.) So, despite his controversial character, he had his fans, even among philosophers.

ADDED LATER: Paul Raymont discusses some other connections between Joad and the law.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Fortnightly Book, August 19

I've enjoyed the book-a-week for the summer, but it's not really going to be feasible for the Fall term. I have plenty of other books on the shelf that I've not read or haven't read in agens, though, so as a compromise I've decided to do the same thing but with a biweekly format. Since 'biweekly' is potentially confusing (it means every two weeks, but in some dialects it can also mean twice a week), we'll go with 'fortnightly', which has no such ambiguities. Besides, we need to use the word 'fortnight' and its cognates more often. Every two weeks should be more manageable. (The book-a-week is not the only reading I do in a week -- in the past week, for instance, besides Lilith I re-read Dark Lord of Derkholm, finished re-reading Corfield's Philosophy of Real Mathematics, read extensive parts of Mansfield Park and Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England and The Tolkien Reader, which have been recent ongoing re-reads and all of which I expect to finish at some point this week or next, and re-read a good half of Asimov's Caves of Steel, which will probably be finished tomorrow; and this is all not counting the reading I do for research. During the term this load lightens a bit but not as much as you might think. So the more systematic book-a-week already has to compete with other things even when I'm not teaching. Since this unsystematic reading is much more my natural style, simply substituting the more systematic approach for it won't work in the long run; it has to be tailored to make it so it can fit in with the rest. But I do want to keep it; it's been a good way to get through a lot of books I've been meaning to read or re-read but just have never gotten around to.)

The book for this round is Johnann Wyss's The Swiss Family Robinson, which I've read but not in a while. When Daniel Defoe published The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in 1719, he didn't just write a classic, he touched off an entire genre, the robinsonades, all of which followed the same very general formula, but in hundreds of different ways. It was, one might say, the same to its day as science fiction is to ours. There's actually even an overlap -- Jules Verne loved the genre and wrote more than one robinsonade himself (L'Île mysterieuse, which is perhaps the most famous because Captain Nemo and the Nautilus make an appearance, and we actually finally get his backstory; L'École des Robinsons, which is probably his purest robinsonade; and Deux ans de vacances, in which a group of resourceful and ingenious children are the castaways; and others, of which we'll get to one before the end).

The single most successful robinsonade after the original, however, began as some stories told by a Swiss pastor, Johann David Wyss, to his children. These were eventually put together into a book, which went by the title, The Swiss Family Robinson, or the Shipwrecked Swiss Clergyman and His Family: An Educational Book for Children and the Friends of Children in City and Country, which was published in 1812. The book is actually a joint effort: the originator of the stories was Johann David Wyss, but the book as we have it was heavily edited by his son, Johann Rudolf Wyss (who, incidentally, also wrote the poem that was the Swiss national anthem prior to the 1960s). One of the book's readers was a French woman Baroness de Montolieu, who loved the book, but thought it needed a better ending, one that was not so abrupt. She encouraged Johann Rudolf Wyss to fix the problem, but Wyss declined; instead, he suggested that she do it, which she did when she translated the book from German to French. Her French edition and continuation was an instant hit. When a new German edition of the book came out, however, it reissued the original but seems to have added many of the Baroness's French additions, translating them into German. However, it seems that Johann Rudolf Wyss did eventually re-write the ending, and (I think, although by this point I am getting very confused) this is the ending we usually get -- in every language except for French, which has tended to keep Montolieu's ending. The English version that everyone read in the nineteenth century, was a translation by William Godwin (father of Mary Shelley) of the new German edition, at which point the full count of authors would be Johann David Wyss, Johann Rudolf Wyss, Isabelle de Montolieu, whoever it was who translated the Baroness's French editions into German, and then William Godwin as the English translator.

Somehow this extraordinary paternity fits the book perfectly. Johann David Wyss's great idea, to have a robinsonade about a family, and, what is more, a family in which everyone pretty much acts like real people in a family would, was a new twist, and allowed for a much richer and more varied kind of story than the lonely-castaway robinsonades did. And while other robinsonades tended to strive for realism, that's all thrown to the wind in this story, which is just about the awesomeness of an awesome family having an awesome adventure on an awesome island. The island itself is entirely impossible -- the flora and fauna of radically different climate zones are mixed together with wild abandon. The island, in fact, while it has some hardships, is also a superabundant paradise: it has everything you could possibly imagine, as if it were God's toychest. And this leads to the second element by which this story completely repudiates any possible realism. Robinson Crusoe, stuck on an island, does various things necessary for survival. The Swiss family ('Robinson', of course, is not the family name, as indeed one can gather from the lack of Swissness about it, but a reference to the genre), not at all satisfied with mere survival, use giant sea turtles to make motor boats, make porcelain dinnerware, and construct musical instruments out of materials they happen to find growing on the island. And that's part of what has made the story last: the sheer, unadulterated whimsy with which it grasps the basic idea of a robinsonade -- having to rebuild civilization from scratch -- and does with it anything that seems like it would be fun. It was the nineteenth century version of steampunk.

The edition I'll be reading is the Heritage Press (New York) edition with wood engravings and with endpapers in which the illustrator, David Gentleman, has given what he thinks a map of the island would look like. It doesn't give the translator, but, without having checked up on it, I think it's the Godwin edition. It's a bit more worn than the other Heritage Press editions I received from my grandfather; must have been read often at some point in its history.

I mentioned above another robinsonade by Jules Verne. Verne, with his usual excellent taste in good stories, loved the book, and late in life wrote a two-part sequel to The Swiss Family Robinson as part of his series of extraordinary voyages, which he called Seconde patrie. I've never actually read it -- while I enjoy Verne quite a bit, there's a lot of Verne out there, and this one is especially hard to find. It would be interesting to read it at some point, though.