Saturday, September 29, 2012

James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer


Opening Passage:

On the human imagination events produce the effects of time. Thus, he who has travelled far and seen much is apt to fancy that he has lived long; and the history that most abounds in important incidents soonest assumes the aspect of antiquity. In no other way can we account for the venerable air that is already gathering around American annals. When the mind reverts to the earliest days of colonial history, the period seems remote and obscure, the thousand changes that thicken along the links of recollections, throwing back the origin of the nation to a day so distant as seemingly to reach the mists of time; and yet four lives of ordinary duration would suffice to transmit, from mouth to mouth, in the form of tradition, all that civilized man has achieved within the limits of the republic. Although New York alone possesses a population materially exceeding that of either of the four smallest kingdoms of Europe, or materially exceeding that of the entire Swiss Confederation, it is little more than two centuries since the Dutch commenced their settlement, rescuing the region from the savage state. Thus, what seems venerable by an accumulation of changes is reduced to familiarity when we come seriously to consider it solely in connection with time.

Summary: The shadow cast by the past looms over practically the whole of The Deerslayer, despite the fact that much of the story is told in a vivid and present detail. We ourselves are made by the narrator to look back at the story as a distant thing, half-obscured by forgetfulness and legend; this is the very first thing the narrator does in the book, and the very last, and repeatedly through the story we are reminded that the narrator is conveying a story that has long since happened. All of the major characters in the story have a past, too, and are bound by that past, which is their gift and their limitation; except possibly for Hetty, whose simplicity intimates eternity, no character breaks free of the boundaries set by a past established long before. This is an interesting feature of the book, given that the plot itself requires none of this entanglement of past and present. The plot is all about the immediacy of friendship and youthful adventure, and the mix of the two gives the book a somewhat melancholy and nostalgic tone, perpetually suggesting might-have-beens that in reality could never be.

The story opens in the early 1740s on Otsego Lake in New York. Natty Bumppo, a.k.a. Deerslayer, is travelling with Harry March, a.k.a. Hurry Harry, who is serving as a sort of guide. Deerslayer is bound to meet his Indian friend Chingachgook, the Great Serpent of the Mohicans; the two young men will be on their first warpath together. The mission is quite important: Chingachgook's bride-to-be, Wah-ta-Wah, a.k.a. Hist, has been kidnapped by a group of Hurons who have come out of French Canada to collect white scalps. As it happens Hurry Harry is himself bound to meet up with Thomas Hutter, a man with a mysterious past, precisely to take Huron scalps. We are not quite to the French and Indian War, but things are beginning to heat up as the British and the French each pay for blood. Thomas Hutter turns out to live in a castle of logs in the middle of the lake, and to travel around in a sort of houseboat called the 'ark'; a very striking setting. He also has two daughters, Judith and Hetty. Beyond that the story ends up being somewhat less than straightforward as each side tries to outmaneuver the other. The chase scenes in particular are quite good, and, interestingly, I think Cooper's leisurely style contributes to this. Cooper's books are notorious for being slow-moving when nothing is happening; but precisely this makes it possible for him to pack every adventure and chase scene with an extraordinary amount of action and detail, without any shift of style. It is not the solution to the problem of action that most people would take today, but it deserves a bit more respect than it usually gets. Cooper can do things with chase scenes that almost no one else ever manages, precisely because of his quirks.

Cooper also often takes a lot of flak for his women, and one can hardly get through a chapter here without some comment about feminine sentiment or the feelings of the more gentle sex, but the female characters themselves are done very well. Almost half of the major characters are women; they each are noticeably different personalities but are each in their own way unflinching in the face of danger. Wah-ta-Wah, the Delaware girl, is quite impressive. She is the original damsel in distress, and is quiet and reserved, but she easily has the most astute mind in the book; her quick thinking saves people several times. Judith and Hetty are as brave as their Biblical namesakes. For a brief moment they all shine. Every character, in fact, is interesting in his or her own right, and, despite their many faults, one ends up sympathizing with most of them, even the Hurons, who, however cruel, have their own kind of honor. They all shine.

And then they are gone. We know something of the fate of some of the characters -- Hetty here and Chingachgook, Natty Bumppo, and Wah-ta-Wah from the other books in the series. Much of it is harsh. Of Judith's final fate we never learn, and as the narrator coolly reminds us, no matter how curious we are, in the end it is none of our business nor anyone else's. All that remains is the story.

Favorite Passage: In this passage, Judith and Hetty are trying to escape from the Hurons by canoe.

As yet the Indians had not been able to get nearer to the girls than two hundred yards, though they were what seamen would term "in their wake"; or in a direct line behind them, passing over the same track of water. This made the pursuit what is technically called a "stern chase", which is proverbially a "long chase": the meaning of which is that, in consequence of the relative positions of the parties, no change becomes apparent except that which is a direct gain in the nearest possible approach. "Long" as this species of chase is admitted to be, however, Judith was enabled to perceive that the Hurons were sensibly drawing nearer and nearer, before she had gained the centre of the lake. She was not a girl to despair, but there was an instant when she thought of yielding, with the wish of being carried to the camp where she knew the Deerslayer to be a captive; but the considerations connected with the means she hoped to be able to employ in order to procure his release immediately interposed, in order to stimulate her to renewed exertions. Had there been any one there to note the progress of the two canoes, he would have seen that of Judith flying swiftly away from its pursuers, as the girl gave it freshly impelled speed, while her mind was thus dwelling on her own ardent and generous schemes. So material, indeed, was the difference in the rate of going between the two canoes for the next five minutes, that the Hurons began to be convinced all their powers must be exerted or they would suffer the disgrace of being baffled by women. Making a furious effort under the mortification of such a conviction, one of the strongest of their party broke his paddle at the very moment when he had taken it from the hand of a comrade to relieve him. This at once decided the matter, a canoe containing three men and having but one paddle being utterly unable to overtake fugitives like the daughters of Thomas Hutter.

Recommendation: It's not a book for swift reading, and it builds slowly, but it becomes more and more interesting as it goes. Highly recommended.

Poem a Day XXIX


The golden crown upon my head I give,
or would if golden crown I had to give,
and with it all the life I have to live,
if life were something such as I could give;
for when and where you dwell true love shall live,
and there I too must wish to love and live,
and though it cost me dear, I dearly love
to love your life and give to you my love.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Some Thoughts Toward a Philosophy Video Game III

(10) Continued. Philosophical movements and schools do not exist in a void. One cannot fully understand the influence of Stoicism in the Roman Imperial period without some notion of the interaction between Stoic ideas and the ideas of governance carried forward by the senatorial families; it is this interaction that gives us Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and, later, and with much influence from elsewhere, Boethius. Likewise, Thomism in Europe and the Americas has benefitted from its association with the Catholic Church, and Sadrianism still plays a role in the thought of Iran due to the relation of Sadrianism to Persian forms of Islam. And, thirdly, philosophical movements are not all in direct opposition all the time. Hellenistic philosophy in practice occasionally divided into three schools and one, with the Epicureans being the odd school out; for all their differences, the other major philosophical schools tended to agree that the Epicureans were perversely wrong, and union against a common foe is a great, even though limited, uniter. Some philosophical movements get along relatively well with each other, because they share major things in common; some do not and cannot, because their differences are too great.

(11) In order to simulate the interaction of different philosophical movements in a toy-model environment like a video game, we already have Debates, but not all relations between different philosophical movements are antagonistic. Further, not all real philosophical debates are binary; sometimes philosophically distinguishable groups join forces. So I would suggest that philosophical movements that share traits -- an AIRT and an AIRG, for instance -- can, if they share doctrines and have no bad blood, ally, either in a sort of informal nonaggression pact -- they will only skim philosophers off each other passively, through the ordinary operation of influence, not actively by Debates and Critical Texts -- or by uniting together for Debates against philosophical movements that share fewer traits with each and lack Doctrines in common with them. This is somewhat artificial, but in the long run I think it gives a better sense of the way in which philosophical movements interact -- it's not all disagreement, but sometimes a rather complicated interaction of different agreements and disagreements.

Philosophical movements, however, are as human as anything else, and bad blood is possible -- whatever their agreements people in two philosophical movements may not like each other very much. Thus refusal to ally and even dogged attack due more to history than immediate circumstances should be part of any sandbox version of how the history of philosophy works. Habits of opposition endure; old oppositions are remembered. Opposition between Thomists and Scotists is still often on auto-pilot after all these centuries, despite the fact that the commonalities between the two, in comparison with other philosophical movements they interact with, make them natural allies in everything beyond some relatively technical details. Some things that could create bad blood between otherwise similar philosophical movements within the context of the video game: extensive use of Debates and Critical Texts against each other, above some critical threshold, in the past several centuries; disparity with regard to government power (e.g., one philosophical movement having good relations with the government during the same period that the other is an object of harrassment); religious division where the religions themselves are particularly in opposition.

There are a number of quirks with regard to this that would have to be worked out. Randall Collins in his work The Sociology of Philosophies suggests that philosophical movements are more likely to ally where they are at some shared disadvantage -- philosophical movements in positions of power tend to be less likely to think it necessary or important, whereas philosophical movements at a disadvantage tend to make common cause. How generally true this is, is an interesting question, but it does seem to be a phenomenon we see -- Hindu philosophy before and after British dominance shows a very different set of relations among philosophical groups on each side of the divide; philosophically, at least, Hindu irenicism and eclecticism is an effect of colonization by a foreign power -- Hindu philosophical movements that previously were at each other's throats, figuratively speaking, start seeing themselves as sharing the common trait of being genuinely Indian. So that's one thing that might come about. A second, historically related, quirk that would have to be taken account is the tendency of allied philosophies to become more similar through their allied interaction, sometimes leading to the complete assimilation of one by the other, or their fusion into a new kind of philosophical movement. A third quirk is the opposite -- sometimes philosophical movements exhibit sharp breaks, splitting into two or more movements.

(12) The interaction of philosophical movements with religions gets very complicated. Religious institutions and hierarchies can have very complicated and tangled relations with both governments and populaces. But religions have an undeniable influence on philosophical history -- including how long it endures, what troubles it has, and what resources are available to it. Christian Neoplatonisms outlasted pagan Neoplatonisms in part because the latter were more dependent on the Imperial government than the former -- the Christians had their own institutions, which could operate more or less independently of the government, and, indeed, which extended outside the bounds of the Roman Empire entirely, into the northern European tribes and the Persian Empire. Thus, despite the Emperor Julian, once the government started favoring Christianity, there was very little else pagan Neoplatonism could do. So the interaction of a philosophical movement with a religious one -- alliance or opposition -- can shape its influence.

In addition, religions are not philosophically neutral -- even where they do not absolutely rule something out, they may not favor it, and even where they do not insist on something, they still may approve. Christianity, for instance, having practically been born under Middle Platonism, and having taken the Middle Platonism of its Hellenistic Jewish governments as its earliest philosophical vocabulary, has always been less favorable to materialistic views of human beings than Islam, whose early development was in a context to which Platonism of any sort was foreign, and, indeed, originally met with in Christians. One occasionally finds forms of Christianity in which human beings are viewed as being simply material compositions, with no incorruptible part, but this has tended to be rare and to be regarded suspiciously. On the other hand, different religions play out their philosophical alliances in different ways, in great measure due to the fact that they differ in institutional structure. All the major monotheistic religions are actually fairly philosophy-friendly (it is difficult to be major without association with a major civilization, and it is difficult to associate with a major civilization without at least having a fairly generous tolerance for at least certain kinds of philosophical thought), but Christianity, especially in the West, has been much more promiscuous in its philosophical alliances than is the norm. In addition, some religions tend to view themselves as quasi-philosophical already, while others make sharp distinctions between themselves and any philosophical movement that comes along. But, of course, all this varies considerably depending on details of context.

Even if one prefers to avoid the extraordinary complexities of this sort of thing, religions tend to collect resources -- institutions, money, land -- that sometimes they share with philosophical movements; this certainly is an important feature of much history of philosophy, and should be a part of this sort of toy-model.

Alliances with religions would be either implicit or explicit: religions will tend naturally to favor philosophically movements with similar doctrines or traits, regardless of what one does. On the other hand, explicit alliances are also possible, although doing so might under certain circumstances make the religious authorities in the game look on you with suspicion more than friendliness.

(13) The third major kind of interaction that would need to be involved in the dynamics of any video game trying seriously to present a decent toy model of how philosophical movements actually work, is political. Since the major victory condition of the game (there might be other kinds of victory condition added, but here we are talking about the one that counts as complete victory) is to become the dominant philosophical movement by winning over a clear majority of the populace and getting the favor of the government, this is significant. Even if it weren't, no one doing work in the history of philosophy can afford to ignore all political matters; some of them have crucial significance for the course of philosophical history. We saw this clearly in the case of religion, but there are more direct implications. Practically the entire history of Chinese philosophy arose out of complex interactions between the government and various philosophical movements. The Qin dynasty, for instance, saw the interaction between a Confucianism that had been growing increasingly popular for centuries and a government-supported Legalism. (Neither were at the time actual schools or solidified movements; rather, 'Confucianism' is the label given to little philosophical movements with one set of traits -- idealistic in particular -- and certain political Doctrines and 'Legalism' the label given to those with other sets of traits -- pragmatic in particular -- and certain political Doctrines; that is, between ru movements and fa movements.) Then Confucianism became favored -- but different Confucianisms at different times -- until the transition from Imperial to the troubled period of Republican/Nationalist China, when San-min became briefly favored; San-min fell with the Maoist Revolution, when Communism became favored, although traces of its influence remained; Confucianism in particular tended to be regarded with disfavor under the Communist regime until relatively recently, but while still in a state of subordination it has recently begun to be regarded as being, so to speak, China's philosophical ambassador to the world. This is all highly simplified, of course. The point is that philosophical movements interact with politics; they clash with pet government projects; they change governments. This inevitably has to be any part of the toy model.

(14) Such are the basics. It's interesting to think through a project like this, regardless of whether anyone ever does anything with it, because it ends up touching on so many of the features of the history of philosophy that historians of philosophy have to deal with, even if only in a very simplified way.

Poem a Day XXVIII

Sunrise on the Sea

Fresh from his sleep, bright sun soars
up from the source of hopes and dreams,
out of the deep; with glory he pours
from endless stores the sea-wave-gleams.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Whewell on Newton's Laws I: Induction

"Science is his forte and omniscience is his foible," Sydney Smith famously said about William Whewell. And knowing a bit about everything was indeed Whewell's most obvious characteristic. Professor of mineralogy from 1828 to 1832, professor of moral theology and casuistical divinity from 1838 to 1855, Master of Trinity College in Cambridge thereafter, Whewell corresponded with many of the great scientific names of the day, including Faraday and Darwin. (Faraday, for instance, once wrote Whewell asking for advice in naming new scientific concepts; Faraday had thought of 'eastode' and 'westode', but Whewell suggested that he use 'anode' and 'cathode' instead, which Faraday did.) He was old college friends with John Herschel and Charles Babbage, and together with a number of other notable names of the day they had advocated reforms in mathematical education -- in particular, bringing a more continental approach to calculus to England. He wrote textbooks on mathematics and physics, advocated improvements in mineralogical classification, did extensive research on the tides, assisted other scientists (particularly George Airy) in their work, tanslated poetry from the German, got involved in major contemporary debates on political economy, contributed to the revival of Gothic architecture, and wrote his massive and influential History of the Inductive Sciences, which he followed with Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. He was a busy man, William Whewell, right up to the day he was thrown off his horse and died.

What I particularly want to look at is Whewell's assessment of Newtonian physics, because there are very few people who have ever looked in such detail at the philosophical implications of Newtonian physics. And perhaps the best way to do that is to focus in particular on how Whewell interprets Newton's famous three Laws. In order to do this, however, it's necessary to say a few things about Whewell's approach to two major preliminaries: science in general and causes. In this post I'll only look at the first.

The rough-and-ready summary people often give of the difference between deduction and induction is that in deduction we descend from general propositions to particulars and in induction we ascend from particulars to general propositions. There are any number of things wrong with this if we take it as rigorous, but it does raise the basic issue of how you can have scientific knowledge if you start with particular experiences. Whewell refers to this problem in a number of different ways; for our purposes it will be handy to have a single label for it, so I will call it the modal disparity problem. What we immediately learn from our experiences is particular, contingent, and approximate; in sciences like physics and chemistry, however, we draw conclusions that are clearly none of these things -- they are extraordinarily precise, indeed, sometimes far more precise than our prior experience could warrant, they are at least general and often universal, and at least sometimes they seem to be necessary. The modalities of our starting point and ending point are very different. The process by which we get one from the other is what Whewell generally has in mind when he talks about induction.

For most of his philosophical career, Whewell is fighting a very strong prejudgment in his contemporaries that the sciences work by accumulating facts and then through comparison ascending to general ideas; this is associated with Sir Francis Bacon, and it's a commonplace in England when Whewell comes on the scene that Bacon provided, at least more or less, the best account of scientific inquiry. Whewell will try to shake this up, and his approach is noticeably more 'German' in character. We cannot simply pull ideas from experiences, Whewell thinks, precisely because of the modal disparity. No number of particular cases will get you universal propositions; no number of contingent truths will get you necessary ones. Something else must be going on -- something must be added to the mix in order to make the process of induction possible. And Whewell's answer to what this extra element is, is in a sense straightforward: what you add is the mind itself, which formulates ideas and applies them to experience. We do not get the idea of Number from our experience; it is, so to speak, something in our minds already, that we just have to clarify and impose on the experiences so as to be able to make sense of them. Or to put it in other words, it is our way of looking at experience that imparts necessity, universality, and precision to our conclusions. This is not to say that there is no sense in which we get general propositions from particular experiences. As he often says, we superinduce the ideas on the facts we've discovered; we need both to come together for us to have knowledge. As he puts it in Of Induction, which is his critical response to Mill (who writes more in the Baconian tradition): "Induction is experience or observation consciously looked at in a general form. This consciousness and generality are necessary parts of that knowledge which is science" (p. 15). It is the particular facts we discover through experience that make our knowledge knowledge of something; and it is the mind's way of looking at it through ideas that organize these facts that make it knowledge at all. As he says (p. 13):

But the elements and materials of Science are necessary truths contemplated by the intellect. It is by consisting of such elements and such materials that Science *is* Science.

And a little later (p. 14): "Induction for us is general propositions, contemplated as such, derived from particulars." When we put it all together we get a fairly robust and multi-faceted view of scientific discovery (pp. 29-30):

And there is the same essential element in all Inductive discoveries. In all cases, facts, before detached and lawless, are bound together by a new thought. They are reduced to law, by being seen in a new point of view. To catch this new point of view, is an act of the mind, springing from its previous preparation and habits. The facts, in other discoveries, are brought together according to other relations, or, as I have called them, Ideas;--the Ideas of Time, of Force, of Number, of Resemblance, of Elementary Composition, of Polarity, and the like. But in all cases, the mind performs the operation by the apprehension of some such relations; by singling out the one true relation; by combining the apprehension of the true relation with the facts; by applying to them the Conception of such a relation.

In a very simplified example he gives at one point, he notes that ancient astronomers discovered that the planets had recurring periods; in discovering this they applied the idea of Time to astronomical phenomena. Later they began to organize them according to the idea of Space as well, which was refined by Kepler's use of extensive data and repeated attempts to come up with a clearer and more powerful organizing idea than had previously existed. Afterward, Newton was able to add an even greater degree of organization by organizing them by the idea of Force, as well, in his theory of gravitation. Inductive sciences like physics, then, require several different strands of inquiry to come together. We need to gather new facts; we need to clarify our ideas and conceptions; we need to think through the implications of these ideas for the possible ways in which the facts can be organized; we need to test and compare; and by this joint and simultaneous progress along two fronts, that of pure concept and definition and that of observation and experimental fact, we get progress in the sciences. We do not merely observe nature; we interpret her.

There are many Ideas that organize science, but arguably there are three that Whewell thinks particularly important: Space, Number, and Cause. It is the last that is the most important for our purposes, and we will look at Whewell's account of the Idea of Cause in the next post in this series.

Poem a Day XXVII

Psalm 138

With heartfelt praise I praise you, Lord;
though before gods I will sing praise,
bow down to your holy temple,
praise your name for its steadfastness,
for you have exalted your law
beyond mere fame.

When I called, you answered my call:
you gave me boldness of spirit.

May kings among nations praise you,
for you have ordained and they hear;
may they sing of the ways of God,
for his present glory is great:
though high, he looks well on the low --
he sees them all.

I walk in the midst of trouble;
the breath of my life you preserve.

Against wrath and against hatred
your hand stretches out to preserve,
against foes your right hand is strong.
His plans will be fulfilled for me,
his mercy endures forever --
forsake us not!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Certain Fundamental Ideas

An interesting summary passage from Whewell:

All exact knowledge supposes the mind to be able to apply, steadily and clearly, not only the processes of reasoning, but also certain fundamental ideas; and it is one main office of a liberal education to fix and develope these ideas. The ideas of Space and of Number are the subject matter of Geometry, of Arithmetic, and of Algebra in its character of Universal Arithmetic: and since all our knowledge, relative to the external world, must be subject to the conditions of space and number, the elementary portions of mathematics just mentioned are, rightly and necessarily, made the basis of all intellectual education. If we advance further in mathematical study, with the view of its thus serving as an intellectual discipline, what other ideas do we thus bring to activity and use? I reply, that the main general ideas which we have next to introduce, and which consequently should be the governing principles of the second stage of a liberal education, are the following:--the mechanical ideas of Force and Body, with their various modifications; the idea of the Symmetry of symbolical expressions;--the idea of the Universal Interpretation of symbols, including as an important branch of this, the Application of Algebra to Geometry;--and the idea of a Limit.

[William Whewell, The Doctrine of Limits, page viii.]

I hope to start a series on Whewell later this week, and, of course, the final section of the series on ideas for a video game based on philosophical movement-building, and also something on natural law theory, but I am not feeling well today, so they'll have to wait.

Poem a Day XXVI


The forest bright in morning is as busy as a town,
as rich in dewy freshness as a farm with fertile ground,
undecayed, untouched, pristine as the day it first was sown!

The farms have little fires burning in their hardy hearths,
with crops that dress the table with the finest fruits of earth;
but no farms grow forest pines that are ancient in their worth.

The cities have their markets full at once with all the world;
they shimmer with the colors of a thousand flags unfurled.
But which have laughing springs from which leaping brooks uncurl?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Some Thoughts Toward a Philosophy Video Game II

(6) Continued. So extensive and intensive influence on their own will vary inversely, but obviously this can't be the whole story, and would make for a very boring game -- philosophical movements would simply isolate themselves into little bubbles as their legacy becomes more esoteric and they become less and less in touch with the spirit of the times. In reality, much more than time is relevant here, which brings us to Institutions.

Every player starts with an Institution -- the player's Academy or Lyceum -- and over time develops the ability to found new ones. Institutions affect both extensive and intensive influence, although in what degree will depend on the particular Institution; in general, the more Institutions you have, the more rapidly your intensive influence develops, while at the same time an Institution serves as a platform for persuading others by improving the aesthetic and logical presentation of your arguments (even a very passive Institution can slightly increase the chances of persuading passers-by). They also contribute research points to the development of Doctrines. Over time Institutions can also be made more powerful: for instance, Schools can develop into Colleges, which can be joined together into Universities.

Very strong! However, there is an obvious drawback to Institutions: they require resources, and the more you have, the more they require, and the more powerful your Institution, the more it ties up resources. For the purposes of our toy model, we can consider two kinds of resources, land and money. At the City level of play, land is a limited resource -- due to external factors (i.e., population growth and chance) it can occasionally increase, but this can't be counted on. While some temporary Institutions (like Correspondence Networks or the Internet) do not require a physical location (at least any of any serious significance for our purposes), most major Institutions do, and there is only so much to go around. (It's an interesting question whether we should have a location effect. One can imagine designing the cities as centered around an Agora or Forum, the locus of city government, and Institutions in the pricier land near it giving a somewhat greater advantage in influencing the government, or Institutions closer to residential areas having greater weight with the populace. But we will set aside such things here.) Obviously land will be a greater issue at the City level of play than at the Empire level of play.

Far more important in general, however, is money, which represents (relatively) unlimited kinds of resources that have to be collected and then used. Institutions are a constant drain on such resources, and when those resources dry up, Institutions fail. (For practical purposes a game should probably make an unrealistic exception for the starting Institution.) In terms of the game, each player could receive a very small income, which can be augmented as more people join the philosophical movement and are thus able to support it. Bad relations with the city government can increase tax burdens on Institutions, and good relations can both decrease tax burdens and, if they become excellent, make possible occasional direct support from the government, just as the Hellenistic schools survived as long as they did in part because of support from cities and, eventually, the Roman Empire. Likewise good relations with a religion can increase the chances of occasional windfall, in which religious donations are used to support your Institutions. But stewarding this small stream is quite important: if you overextend yourself in Institutions, you may lose them all.

(7) Institutions are powerful, but they are relatively passive pieces on the board. More active are Texts. Texts come in two kinds: stand-alone and critical. Stand-alone Texts increase your extensive influence, both passively (people are more likely to come to your side on your own) and actively (they give you advantage in Debate); they also contribute to your intensive influence. However, in real life, texts form networks and chains as one text criticizes and refutes another. Lady Mary Shepherd's book on causation, for instance, cannot be understood at all without reference to Hume's work. Critical Texts allow you to nullify the influence of an opposing movement's Texts (each Text being able to be linked to a specific opposing Text), reducing the ability of those texts to have an effect (how much they reduce it will be randomly determined when the Text is created); Critical Texts can nullify other Critical Texts, allowing for some complicated interaction.

Texts require resources in order to be created, but unlike Institutions, Texts are not in themselves constant drains on resources, nor do they require any land. They do, however, depend on a kind of resource which we might call iterability. One of the more important material constraints on philosophical arguments in real life is their ability to be carried through time -- some arguments ceased to be used and some positions cease to be held not because they were ever refuted but just because they stopped being repeated. This is most clearly the case with philosophical texts. Whether you think Lady Mary Shepherd was a complete refutation of David Hume as a matter of rational argument, in some sense it doesn't really matter: even if she was, Hume's works were continually reprinted, and Shepherd's works were not, so that eventually there were generations who had read Hume but had never even heard of Shepherd. The Stoic Chrysippus was a famously prolific author in his day; but we have not a single one of his works, so the effect of his having written them all has long since ceased to be significant. In other words: Texts do not last forever on their own. As time goes on, the chances of losing the Text increase. With certain Institutions -- Libraries, Scriptoria, Publishing Houses -- you can increase the iterability of your Texts, and possibly even keep your Texts going indefinitely, but Institutions, again, require land and money. (I think there's a good case for arguing that Stand-alone Texts should have their interability increased slightly by Critical Texts attaching to them, which would add an interesting quirk to game play, since under certain circumstances using a Text to criticize a Text may increase the length of time it has an effect.)

(8) While more active than Institutions, Texts are still fairly passive, and both Institutions and Texts are relatively slow in how they work. If you really want to dominate the city, you need to get out and convince people! And this brings us to Debates, one-time events by which you can increase the number of people who are persuaded by you and perhaps steal followers from other philosophical movements -- or even, if you're very lucky, capture certain kinds of Institution from them! As the number of people in your philosophical movement grows, you will be able to assign limited portions of them to engage with other growing philosophical movements in a Debate. Through Institutions, Texts, and Doctrines, and by developing extensive influence generally, you develop points that allow you to outmaneuver others in Debate.

Debates basically have two targets: the general populace and the opposing movement. The general populace, of course, follows the Atmosphere of the city, whereas the philosophical movement has its own traits. This is important for their effects: if you do very well in an argument, you are more likely to convince people who share more traits with you. A second factor relevant to how effective a Debate will be (if you win) is intensive influence: opposing philosophers are much harder to convince than the general population, due to their greater intensive influence; and it is easier to pull away people from a movement that has relatively little intensive influence than to do so from one that has considerable intensive influence.

(9) Every so often in history a philosophical movement benefits from extraordinary talent; it's not a predictable thing, although perhaps education and the like can increase the chances. So it makes sense to have a Great Mind feature. Great Minds show up quasi-randomly; they can found Institutions and create Texts at cheaper prices, help you develop Doctrines, and participate in Debates. All other things being equal they are more powerful Debaters than you'd get simply by selecting part of your population, but I think for our purposes we can divide Great Minds according to approach: some are Traditional (call them Sages), others Encyclopedic (call them Researchers), some are Genealogical (call them Critics). Which you get is affected partly by chance, partly by the Institutions and Doctrines you have, partly by the Atmosphere of the city, and partly by the traits of your own movement. In Debates, Sages will do best against other Traditional movements, Researchers against other Encyclopedic movements, and Critics against other Genealogical movements. In terms of the rest, each kind of Great Mind has the most effect for the society that shares its primary trait.

(10) All these give the basic elements of play, but there are more complicated dynamics to consider, and three in particular: interaction with the city government, interaction with religion, and general interaction (and especially alliance and bad blood) with other philosophical movements. More on this in a later post.

Some Thoughts Toward a Philosophy Video Game I

Strategy games for the computer are sophisticated enough these days that they could potentially be used for more kinds of things than they usually are. I was thinking the other day of how a Philosophy-based computer game might work, with particular emphasis on giving a sort of sandbox/toy-model version of the sorts of things historians of philosophy actually consider, and I think you could go quite far. Here is an outline of one possible version, based loosely on a Civilization-style form of play.

(1) The goal of the game is to build a philosophical movement that dominates the level of play.

There are three different levels of play: City, Nation, and Empire, each of which increase the complication by increasing the infrastructural complexity. In City, you stay at the level of one City, and thus the development of your philosophical movement is only a matter of internal growth, interaction with opposing philosophical movements, and city politics. With the Nation level, you deal with a number of different cities, each with their own internal politics and character, jointly creating a national politics; the complexity is also increased by the fact that the spread of philosophical movements is affected by features of communication networks (trade routes, quality of roads, etc.). With the Empire level, you deal with a situation in which a number of nations are joined in a single political unit, and therefore you have all the complexity of the previous levels, plus the complications that arise from having distinct ethnic and cultural regions. For what follows, I will assume only the City level of play.

(2) There are two mechanisms of influence by which a city may be dominated philosophically: direct persuasion of citizens and influence of the city leadership; both are required for domination. They aren't completely disconnected -- if you persuade virtually everyone in the city, you will inevitably have the leverage to become at least the semi-officially supported philosophical approach and the guiding philosophy of the city. But they aren't in lockstep, either -- the city government may be more conservative than the populace, and vice versa. (Both often happen in the history of philosophy: Enlightenment despotism, for instance, is an example of the way in which leadership can shift its philosophical approach despite and even actively against the conservatism of the populace; while, of course, governments, often bound by precedent, can often be slower to change the underlying principles of their approaches than their people are.)

(3) Every city has an Atmosphere, which constitutes its basic intellectual sympathies. (These basic sympathies are very hard to change but can be slowly changed over time by external events or internal philosophical debate.) Every city will have some combination of the following features (this is obviously something that could be done in very different ways):

Abstract or Concrete
Pragmatic or Idealistic
Worldly or Religious
Traditional or Encyclopedic or Genealogical

A city will tend to favor philosophical movements with traits similar to its own. Something along the lines of Neo-Confucianism, for instance would do very well (all other things being equal) in an Abstract Idealistic Worldly Traditional (AIWT) society, whereas it would be at a serious disadvantage in a Concrete Pragmatic Religious Genealogical (CPRG) society. I'm not really sure what would thrive in CPRG society, but something like Taoism, for instance, would certainly do better than Neo-Confucianism in such an atmosphere.

Abstract philosophical movements will tend to build speculative systems, whereas concrete ones will tend to focus on particular problems; idealistic movements will tend to be more focused on ethics than pragmatic ones; religious movements will ally with some religious movement while worldly movements will remain aloof from such things. These traits are easily changed by change of Doctrine, which I'll get to in a moment -- every player will start out with a randomly assigned set of traits, but if he or she builds up a philosophical system that is contrary to those traits, they will slowly change to match the overall character of the system. (This would be one of the tricky things in the system, and for practical purposes it might be easier simply to take them as set.) Traditional, Encyclopedic, and Genealogical indicate different approaches, and I think should for the purposes of a toy-model be taken as constants; they will directly affect how easy certain kinds of Doctrines are to develop, and will also affect intensive and extensive influence of the movement.

(4) The counterpart of 'researching tech' is developing Doctrines. It makes sense to put them in the old German layout of Logical, Aesthetic, Political, Ethical, and Metaphysical. Logical and Aesthetic Doctrines are the closest things to 'military technologies' in a game like Civilization; they give direct advantages in terms of influence -- i.e., make it easier to persuade people in Debates, and also make it harder for other movements to skim off your students. Ethical and Political Doctrines primarily affect how your movement interacts with the city government and populace, and Metaphysical Doctrines will tangle with the Atmosphere of the city in a more general way.

Although technically you can build your Doctrine any way you please, in practice the building depends crucially on your traits: a CPWG movement can very easily research the Will to Power, let's say, whereas this would require a very long research line for someone who starts out as AIRT. It's not impossible that you could have some variation of a Will to Power idea that was friendly to theory, values, and religion, and was consistent with a strong respect for tradition, but it would take some doing to develop such an anti-Nietzschean variation of the idea. Likewise, there are relative path-dependencies between Doctrines -- much easier to get a Doctrine of Perpetual Peace if you have a Categorical Imperative than if you have a form of Realpolitik, massively harder to reconcile a Categorical Imperative with a Principle of Utility. This makes the dynamics a little more complicated than your typical technology tree in a video game.

(5) You develop your philosophical movement not merely by developing Doctrines but by establishing extensive and intensive influence. In practical terms, intensive influence is how persuasive your philosophical approach is to people who already accept it while extensive influence is how persuasive your philosophical approach is to strangers, or, in other words, extensive influence reaches people and intensive influence keeps them. The two do not fit easily together: the kinds of things that contribute to intensive influence are more likely to be things that pay off only if you invest a great deal of time and effort in them, whereas the things that pay off in extensive influence are things that, in the main, can't require such an investment. Take, for instance, the difference between two Aristotelian variations, Thomism and Objectivism. Thomism (roughly an AIRT) has extraordinary intensive influence developed over centuries; for practically any subject you name you can find some Thomist somewhere in its centuries-long history who has discussed something like it, it has a close relationship with art and literature and religion, and its arguments are relatively sophisticated and not easily discounted when properly understood. However, precisely these features constantly trip it up: its good qualities are investment-intensive: for the most part you really have to put in a lot of work to figure out what's going on. This is not an absolute thing -- we'll get to this in a moment -- but it's a standing problem. Objectivism, on the other hand (an AIWE if there ever was one), as a relatively young philosophical movement largely developed by one person largely working on her own, is relatively weak in terms of intensive influence. But this is not actually a disadvantage for it in terms of extensive influence; no matter how much academic philosophers may complain about its simplistic approach (an intensive influence matter, which academics tend to concern themselves with), it is well-suited to being communicated to others without requiring them to invest a great deal, extending the number of people who can seriously be reached by it, and thus increasing the chances of finding people who can be persuaded by it. Its sheer simplicity is an advantage on this front, and it doesn't hurt the movement at all that that Ayn Rand was quite savvy about aesthetic presentation and presented things in novelistic form rather than academic treatises -- it allows her to tap into a shared cultural legacy of the striking tones and postures of leading men and ladies in Golden Age cinema. It is simply not a mystery why Objectivism has spread so well; just as it is not a mystery why academic philosophers respect Thomism more than Objectivism, or why internet debates over this or that facet of Thomism typically end with the Thomist throwing up his hands in exasperation and saying, "No, you've misunderstood; we have start at the beginning again." Likewise, analytic philosophers can be analytic as much as they please, and to good effect in terms of rigor of argument, but most analytic philosophy is in formats that simply don't translate well into extensive influence.

(6) Simply hanging around for a long time will slowly increase intensive influence and decrease extensive influence -- if you can get even moderately intelligent people talking about topics in the same general way for decades you'll develop a body of increasingly sophsticated work; and on the other hand, times change and the investment that it takes to learn Ancient Greek is much greater than the investment to learn contemporary English, etc. To fare better takes serious work, which gets us into Institutions, Texts, and Debates. But this post is getting long, and I have to run for now. More later.

Poem a Day XXV

Exoteric and Esoteric

All of the world is a page
rich in age, written with lives
hoping to find something true;
all most do is learn to strive,

but at the end of the day
we may say that they have learned
most truly to speak the sooth
who for truth have come to burn

with an ardor that remains
despite pains until the end;
no truth descends like a dove,
but they love truth as a friend.

Yet as gods walked in disguise
to surprise the mortal mind,
so in pursuing their task
truth in mask they may yet find.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Poem a Day XXIV


How fierce the sun, which beats down on the head,
like wearing fire for a crown;
merciless, it heats the town

to oven-heat, and bakes it like day's bread --
arrows formed of gilded rays,
the sun Niobe's sons slays.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hume on Degeneracy in Free Governments

The source of degeneracy, which may be remarked in free governments, consists in the practice of contracting debt, and mortgaging the public revenues, by which taxes may, in time, become altogether intolerable, and all the property of the state be brought into the hands of the public. This practice is of modern date....Absolute princes have also contracted debt; but as an absolute prince may make a bankruptcy when he pleases, his people can never be oppressed by his debts. In popular governments, the people, and chiefly those who have the highest offices, being commonly the public creditors, it is difficult for the state to make use of this remedy, which, however it may sometimes be necessary, is always cruel and barbarous. This, therefore seems to be an inconvenience, which nearly threatens all free governments; especially our own, at the present juncture of affairs. And what a strong motive is this, to encrease our frugality of public money; lest for want of it, we be reduced, by the multiplicity of taxes, or what is worse, by our public impotence and inability for defence, to curse our very liberty, and wish ourselves in the same state of servitude with all the nations that surround us?

David Hume, "Of Civil Liberty". Hume worries about this elsewhere, as well, most notably in "Of Public Credit," where he makes the famous claim, "either the nation must destroy public credit, or public credit will destroy the nation." The passage there is quite interesting, and perhaps worth quoting in full.

I must confess, that there is a strange supineness, from long custom, creeped into all ranks of men, with regard to public debts, not unlike what divines so vehemently complain of with regard to their religious doctrines. We all own, that the most sanguine imagination cannot hope, either that this or any future ministry will be possessed of such rigid and steady frugality, as to make a considerable progress in the payment of our debts; or that the situation of foreign affairs will, for any long time, allow them leisure and tranquillity for such an undertaking.j What then is to become of us? Were we ever so good Christians, and ever so resigned to Providence; this, methinks, were a curious question, even considered as a speculative one, and what it might not be altogether impossible to form some conjectural solution of. The events here will depend little upon the contingencies of battles, negociations, intrigues, and factions. There seems to be a natural progress of things, which may guide our reasoning. As it would have required but a moderate share of prudence, when we first began this practice of mortgaging, to have foretold, from the nature of men and of ministers, that things would necessarily be carried to the length we see; so now, that they have at last happily reached it, it may not be difficult to guess at the consequences. It must, indeed, be one of these two events; either the nation must destroy public credit, or public credit will destroy the nation. It is impossible that they can both subsist, after the manner they have been hitherto managed, in this, as well as in some other countries.

I was reminded of this because Carl Wennerlind has an interesting article in the most recent Hume Studies, "The Role of Political Economy in Hume's Moral Philosophy." It is an important topic. In a sense, all the major thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment saw philosophy as (we might say) civilization engineering, the design and production of civilized life. And the interest of David Hume and Adam Smith in political economy is very much an important part of this.

Rating Party Platforms on Things Other than Politics

It's now time for our third quadrennial rating of party platforms on things other than actual politics. In the first bout, eight years ago, the Libertarians managed to win with spartan simplicity; in the second, four years ago, the Republicans barely squeaked by with flashy-and-glossy. Who will triumph this year? Will the Democrats finally have figured out how to write a party platform preamble? Will the Republicans manage to say something coherent? Who will have the prettiest cover page? All the important questions of this election will be answered.

The Democratic Party Platform: Moving America Forward

The Republican Party Platform: We Believe in America

Libertarian Party Platform

Green Party Platform

Preliminaries: Both the Republicans and the Democrats have party platform titles. So, which is better? The Democrats have "Moving America Forward," which reminds everyone of Kang's famous debate speech in that episode of The Simpsons:

My fellow Americans. As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball; but tonight I say, we must move forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!

The Republicans have "We Believe in America," which sounds a little desperate. Neither gets points for originality or memorability, so I judge them to be an unimpressive tie. Since it's better to have no title than a stupid title, victory on this point goes to the Libertarians and the Greens.

Organization: As always, the Libertarians dominate the organization category, so the real question is who loses worst. The Greens are going with their usual front-filler/ values / details organization -- a bit messy, but everything is in nice outline form. They are obviously in second place. Both the Republicans and the Democrats are going with the usual major-party format of lots-of-random-topics-thrown-together-in-loose-family-groups. However, I give the bare edge to the Republicans because they at least put a table of contents in the PDF version of their platform. It's a useless table of contents, but it shows at least a vague recognition that a party platform should be presented in such a way that if some weird person wanted to look something up, and had printed out the PDF, they could actually look somewhere to get an idea of where it might be. This is a step backwards for the Democrats, who have usually been better with tables of contents than Republicans.

Preamble: And here we are at the big glamor category of our contest. Let's take them each in turn.

The Republicans helpfully start out their party platform preamble with the claim, "The 2012 Republican Platform is a statement of who we are and what we believe as a Party and our vision for a stronger and freer America," thus confirming that, whether or not they know what needs to be done, they know what a party platform is. We are told that our nation faces "unprecedented uncertainty." You might think that perhaps there were other times of uncertainty that could serve as some precedent, in the Great Depression, or before the World Wars, or during the Civil War, but no. In general, however, the Republicans do a good job of walking that fine line between pandering enough to look sympathetic and not looking like they are pandering as much as they are. They have also helpfully clarified any lingering issues about Romney's Mormonism by taking the Mormon position that the Constitution is a "sacred document" as part of the party platform. They quote Reagan and Washington but not Lincoln. Disappointing, Party of Lincoln (TM); surely mentioning Lincoln is one of the things Elephants are never supposed to forget?

The Democrats begin their party platform, which, again, is called, "Moving America Forward," by reminding us that we intended to move forward four years ago. The whole Democratic project, then, is not in some vague realm of projects and plans, like that of the Republicans, but is in fact still on our to-do list. We also see the usual difference between Republican and Democratic party platforms, regardless of which party is in power: the Republicans tell us how great they are, and the Democrats tell us how bad the Republicans are. This joint effort to insist that every election is all about the Republican Party is one of the clear proofs that bipartisan cooperation is not dead in this country. There are some odd claims here. "We believe America can succeed because the American people have never failed and there is nothing that together we cannot accomplish." 'Never failed' seems a little strong to cover our entire history. Also, saying that "there is nothing that together we cannot accomplish" would be more heartening if the whole preamble were not about how we are severely divided as a nation. I do give the Donkeys props for actually trying to build an argument in their preamble, though; with this preamble they've broken out of their usual preamble-writing category of 'obviously awful', so it's a good preamble year for Democrats.

Notably, both the Republicans and the Democrats mention "the American Dream" (they're for it, if you're wondering).

The Libertarians have their usual kind of short-and-to-the-point preamble; not to be outdone by the Republicans, they let us know that they, too, understand what a party platform is: "In the following pages we have set forth our basic principles and enumerated various policy stands derived from those principles." It's a cleaner statement than the Republican one, though. This is a preamble in the fine Libertarian minimalist tradition of preamble-writing, but it is also pretty much what they say every election year.

The Greens as always muddy the waters by first thinking that they need to call us to action before they get around to their preamble, as if the preamble were not a perfectly good place for calls to action. Their preamble starts out boldly, though: "Never has our country faced as many challenges and crises as we do now." You only thought the Civil War was hard. They, too, want to make clear that they know what a party platform is: "The Green Party Platform seeks to identify the most crucial problems facing our country and offers ideas for responsible action to solve them." But this is a fairly clean and informative preamble; we learn more than we do from the Libertarian preamble, for instance.

All in all the preamble quality is better than it has been. I think I rate the Greens first this year, followed by the Democrats, then the Libertarians, then the Republicans, but it's a close race all around.

An additional point of interest is worth mentioning.

From the Republican Party Platform Preamble: "Providence has put us at the fork in the road, and we must answer the question: If not us, who? If not now, when?"

From the Green Party Platform Preamble: "If not us, who? If not now, when? We are the ones we have been waiting for. Join us!"

So we have a nice little circular dialogue here: The Greens say, "If not us, who?", to which the Republicans shout "Us!" And the Republicans say, "If not us, who?", to which the Greens shout, "Us!" And what in the world does it mean to say "If not now, when?" Obviously it has to be now, because the election's this year. It makes much more sense for the Greens to say it than the Republicans, however, because "Next election" is an entirely reasonable answer to the question when the Republicans say it.

General Informativeness: The Greens do very well this year with general informativeness; we get a precise and clean layout of Green policies across a wide range of issues. They therefore manage to edge out the Libertarians, who usually are the most informative. This leaves us the major parties, who both suffer from the usual Major Party Disease, which is to write "Blah blah blah blah." However, the Republicans end many of their little sections with a sort of recap that says what their proposed policies are; a somewhat better strategy than the Democratic approach, which consists in ending several of their little sections with a sort of recap that says what the Republicans' proposed policies are.

Principles and Values: And here we see the real dividing lines between the parties: does the platform have a statement of principles or values? Libertarians have principles, but no values. Greens have values, but no principles. Democrats and Republicans have neither principles nor values. This is a step back for the Republicans, who in previous platforms would list values, even though they were somewhat random and had nothing to do with anything else in the platform.

Internet Accessibility: All platforms were easy to find by search engine. The Libertarians, as always, have the cleanest layout, and the Greens have a cleaner and nicer webpage than they have in the past, but the Democrats have by far the most internet-friendly webpage for their platform, with nice buttons and colors. The Greens have their platform page link clearly displayed on their main page; the Libertarian link, while relatively easy to find, is not obvious and requires some searching. As usual, you can't easily get to the Republican Party platform from the main page, but this is also true of the Democratic Party platform. The Greens don't have any easily accessible PDF of their platform on the Platform pages. So this is a mixed bag for all parties except the Republicans, who are, as usual, last in internet accessibility.


* The Republican Party platform has a dedication: "The platform is dedicated with appreciation and reverence for: The wisdom of the Framers of the United States Constitution, who gave us a Republic, as Benjamin Franklin cautioned, if we can keep it." It is only found in the PDF version, however. The Republicans have done this before; they seem to be the only party interested in doing it.
* The Republicans have the best cover sheet for the PDF version, but it was not a heavily competitive year for cover sheets -- the PDF for the Democrats has no cover sheet at all, the Greens have no easily accessible PDF, and the Libertarians, while jazzing things up with a little blue and gold, can't really compete. The Republican cover sheet is, however, very, very red.
* Of the major parties, the Republicans suffer most this year from Major Party Disease, that is, going on and on and on and on.
* The Republicans have the best page formatting for their PDF.

It's a conservative year for party platforms; nobody tried anything risky or daring, and in several cases have clearly restrained some prior experiments. The Libertarians are going with their standard strategy. The Greens are, too, but they have cleaned up their act on a number of fronts, which pushes them ahead of the Libertarians. The Republicans continue to have the most bells and whistles, but they are pretty minor. On the two most important categoires, the Preamble and Internet Accessibility, the Democrats have done far better than they have done in the past -- the Democratic Party Platform page is a very nice webpage, and I do give them credit for actually trying to lay out a serious argument in their preamble, however defective it is in parts. So it comes down to the Greens and the Democrats, and I think I will award it to the Democrats for the sheer extent of their improvement over past years.

Poem a Day XXIII

The Constancy of Virtue

The constancy of virtue, Fortune's wheel
cannot undo; like the axle-pole
around which all the heavens reel,
the star of north, which still and whole
will turn the world -- or else the rock
on which the earth is founded through its days,
the bedrock-base which is the dock
in which the world-ship harbors at the quay.

The constancy of virtue Fortune's wheel
will overturn; as Catherine's holy frame
unbroken by the wheel stood firm as steel
by power of the high undying Name:
against it Fortune's armies crash and fail,
a tide that, never ending, never wins;
against each breaker virtue will prevail,
each one's defeat set down as it begins.

The constancy of virtue, Fortune's wheel,
and all the world are governed by a law
that shall not falter, fade, or break its seal
until the True returns in day of awe:
no evil to the just will at the last accrue,
no goodness to the wicked shall endure
for evil is the seed of shame that rues
and virtue's constancy will keep the pure.

The constancy of virtue: Fortune's wheel,
O Prince, may spin, but you will never steal
a treasure half so fair, nor take away
from any peasant poor the strength of days!