Saturday, February 23, 2013

Kant, God, and Disjunctive Judgment

It is an insufficiently remarked feature of Kant's discussion of God in the Critique of Pure Reason that the idea of God follows directly from our ability to make disjunctive judgments and reason using disjunctive syllogisms (or eliminative arguments). Deleuze talks about it somewhere (Logic of Sense, I'm thinking), and people will mention it when summarizing the Critique closely, but that's about it. I find this curious, because it is the foundation of Kant's entire discussion of the arguments for the existence of God, which is perhaps the most widely discussed portion of the Critique; and it's also a pity, because I think it's easier to understand what Kant's saying if you emphasize this aspect of Kant's discussion rather than passing over it quickly.

Some basic background: Kant holds that there are three basic kinds of judgment, each indicating a different kind of relation. There are categorical judgments, hypothetical or conditional judgments, and disjunctive judgments. These play a major role in CPR. For instance, Kant's discussion of substance is actually about predication (the relation in categorical judgments, which say that an attribute is in something); his discussion of causation is actually about ground and consequence (the relation in hypothetical or conditional judgments, which say that one thing follows from another), and his discussion of coexistence or reciprocity is actually about composition (the relation in disjunctive judgments, which say that a whole is divided into things that are opposed to but united with each other). One can easily misinterpret Kant if one ignores this.

Each of these judgments is associated with a particular kind of synthesis or unification that reason can exercise. In categorical judgment, reason thinks of things as belonging to a subject; in hypothetical judgment, reason thinks of things as belonging to a series; and in disjunctive judgment, reason thinks of things as belonging to a system. Likewise, each kind of judgment can be used as the major premise of a syllogism, giving three kinds of syllogism: categorical, hypothetical, and disjunctive. Disjunctive syllogisms are what we usually think of as eliminative arguments: We take a 'sphere of cognition', to use Kant's term, divide it up into options, and then limit or restrict the options in order to get a conclusion. The two functions, synthesis and syllogism, are necessarily related; it is our ability to form judgments that make possible both the interpretation of experience (as we might call it) and reasoning about experience, and by linking the two, Kant argues that he has established that our interpretation or synthesis of experience has a necessary foundation in human reason itself.

From our ability to make each of these three kinds of judgment come what Kant calls the transcendental ideas -- transcendental ideas are concepts of reason that have no sensible object (indeed, cannot possibly be an object of sense) but which provide a sort of ultimate or unconditional unity to our experience. We could only form such ideas by one of the three judgments, and so there are three key transcendental ideas. The first such idea is that of a subject that is never a predicate; the second is that of a ground or presupposition that requires no further ground or presupposition; and the third is that of a totality of distinct possibilities that requires nothing further in order to include all distinct possibilities. Each of these follows directly from our ability to make one of the kinds of judgment and reason using one of the kinds of syllogism. But when we look more closely at these three transcendental ideas, it becomes clear that they are quite familiar, and Kant's entire argument is that these familiar non-empirical concepts of reason are inevitable given our ability to form judgments and to reason. The transcendental idea that follows from our ability to form categorical judgments and reason with categorical syllogisms is, when represented as being something particular, that of thinking substance, the I or Ego, the undivided individual, the unifier of all experience. The transcendental idea that follows from our ability to form hypothetical judgments is (when represented as being something particular) that of freedom, the kind of thing that determines other things but requires nothing to determine it, the unconditional condition: a unifier of series that depends on no prior conditions. And the transcendental idea that follows from our ability to form disjunctive judgments is (when represented as being something particular) that of God, a being of beings, an undivided individual unifier of the entire system of possibilities.

Think of a disjunctive syllogism:

A or B
Not A
Therefore B.

The major premise here is the disjunction, A or B. A or B could be anything, and it can be as long as we please. What happens, however, when we push it to its limit, so that A, B, etc. include all possibilities? The ultimate major premise would be the whole system of possibility. If we posit a principle capable of unifying such a system we get a most-real being, an ens realissimum, whose possibility makes possible (so to speak) all other possibility, and whose possibility includes such a richness that other possibilities can be said only to approximate it. This is God considered transcendentally. He is the ideal (the hypostasis or ground) of the idea of a system of all possible being, which comes directly from the disjunctive judgment taken to its limit.

Kant being Kant, of course, he insists that this is only the idea and the ideal, not anything that can be asserted to be real. Disjunctive judgments according to Kant are only problematic; they cannot of themselves be assertoric. That is to say, disjunctive judgment only gives you possibility. What is more, in achieving the transcendental idea we are not even establishing the possibility of God, properly speaking: we are establishing that reason can formulate the idea of the possibility of an unconditional unifier of possibility, and can represent it as an ideal for reason's task of synthesizing experience, which reason increasingly approximates but which reason can never actually reach; this ideal is God. All we've reached is a principle organizing our concepts, not an object of a concept. And Kant is very insistent that we can only take things as real or actual when they are given to our sensibility, i.e., when we are actually affected by them. Because of this, Kant calls the representation of the idea in this particular principle, God, a 'dialectical illusion'; which is to say, that it depends entirely on the subjective tendency of our mind rather than any objective foundation. ('Illusion' here does not indicate that it is 'illusory' in our usual sense, but only that it is based not on our experience but on reason's natural progress in connecting things. That is, it's due not to any experience of God's actuality, but solely to the fact that if reason keeps doing what it does, God is the ideal limit of that.) We could put Kant's point another way. The concept of God is a need of reason, not a necessity of experience. But as a need of reason, it is inevitable, if reason is given its due and not arbitrarily or accidentally prevented from following out the implications of its task.

This is all presupposed in Kant's discussion of the arguments for the existence of God. Were it just a matter of heuristic supposition, human beings would not (necessarily) put much weight on it, but there are other relevant factors. We have what might be called a restlessness to get to this end-of-the-road for reason's task, and therefore, on the basis of actual experience, we tend to try to get to find something in experience that will be both necessary and a ground for all these disjunctive possibilities. This leads to something like the cosmological argument, which attempts to argue on the basis of experience of the contingent for some necessary being. Once this necessary something-or-other is established, reason has to find some concept that fits it, and it does so by elimination, ruling out all concepts that are inappropriate for a necessary being. This is why Kant insists that we have to show that the necessary being is the ens realissimum; every argument for the existence of God requires a two-step process: an argument to something and an identification of that something with ens realissimum, the being of beings. Thus the argument is guided by this prior ideal of reason. The ontological argument is the argument that attempts to argue that because we have this ideal of reason, it must have some corresponding object; however, this argument won't work for the reasons given in the previous paragraph. The reason Kant argues that the cosmological argument (from contingency) and physico-theological argument (from design) presuppose the ontological argument is that their improvements over the ontological argument consist entirely in the first step of the argument, to something's being necessary. Whether this is God, however, depends entirely on whether it is also the object of the idea of ens realissimum; but we have only reached necessary being conceptually as the possible completion of the task of reason, which means that we haven't actually reached an object that is the necessary being; so in order to come to an object that is necessary being and thus ens realissimum, we must get to the object by way of concluding that the idea of the ens realissimum requires that its object be the necessary being -- which is just the ontological argument. Neither the cosmological nor the physico-theological argument, on this account, can get around the fact that it cannot prove that the ideal of reason is anything more than just a supposed possible completion of reason's task, except by the ontological argument (which concludes directly from the ideal to positing its object).

The idea of God is implicit in reason itself, namely, in its ability to form disjunctive judgments, thereby making it possible for us to think of a being of beings as grounding the limit case of these judgments. The very fact that we are capable of reasoning with disjunctive syllogisms or eliminative arguments guarantees our ability to have this idea, and, indeed, the necessity of developing it if we are taking reason seriously. But we can never reach an object of this idea. In a sense, it's the very absoluteness of the idea, its position as the goal and end of the capacity to make disjunctive judgments, that guarantees the failure of all speculative arguments for the existence of God. The idea is the posited expectation, so to speak, of the end of the road of looking at the world in terms of systems, the one that would ground the system of all possibilities; but this is the limit of an ongoing task of reason that can never be completed by experience, which supplies objects for our concepts; and therefore the only way of getting an object for this idea of God, and thus saying that God exists, is by assuming somewhere that you are at some point allowed to get the object immediately from the ideal.

The moral argument, on the other hand, is able to escape this problem because it does not rely entirely on the same task of reason as the ontological argument, but depends on an entirely different tendency of reason. This is the only kind of argument Kant allows. This does not mean -- and it is important to understand this -- that every other argument for God's existence is useless; it does mean that the most it could ever serve is a heuristic function. It also does not mean that the atheist is better off than the theist, even if we ignore moral arguments; given Kant's argument, the atheist can no more prove that God does not exist with speculative arguments than the theist can prove that God does, but the theist at least has the excuse that reason's overeagerness to conclude that God exists is based on a natural illusion. This illusion arises directly from the natural ability of reason to judge and reason with disjunctions, combined with the natural tendency of reason to try to achieve the greatest unity it can in understanding the world. It is, if you will allow the expression, a reasonable illusion; the ideal of God is itself something that must be posited by anyone who genuinely takes reason seriously. It is rationally faultless, and has to be, because it is just the positing as an ideal of the limit case of reason's own task. We just can't find anything that can genuinely guarantee that it has an object, at least if we are dealing with pure reason or proofs that lead to knowledge.

Such is Kant, anyway. There are obviously a number of questions that this account raises, but it's an interesting one that hangs well together. (My own view, in case you are wondering, is that it's sound in terms of its structural principles; any problems lie with Kant's assumptions about the nature of experience, which I think are often problematic and sometimes egregiously wrong. But that's a complicated issue.)

J. Harvey Howells, The Big Company Look


Opening Passage:

Jackson Pollett came out of the employees' entrance of the supermarket, walked past hte platforms where two stock boys were unloading crates fo vegetables form a giant truck, and strode across the parking lot. The initals on his sample case matched the iniitals ont he door of the car toward which he was headed--U.S.G.C. in yellow on a red diamond. These letters represented the "United States Grocery Company--Food Locker of the Nation"; 20,000 employees; gross sales in 1941, $229,000,000; net profit after taxes, $16,000,000; annual dividend, $4.30 (up 35¢ over 1940).

Summary: Almost everyone has seen the Company look at one time or another. It's the bland, lofty, distant, officious look people get when they call you in to fire you or lay you off or reprimand you. It's the look that says, "It's nothing personal, just business. We have to think of the good of the Company." It may actually be personal, or not. It may be that the good of the company has nothing to do with it, or that it has everything to do with it. The Company look is not itself a look of sincerity or honesty; motivations are irrelevant to it. The Company look is the look of someone who is handing you bad consequences from an impregnable position, themselves immune, at the moment, at least, to anyone doing the same to them.

Jackson Pollett is an ambitious, highly driven golden boy trying to make it in marketing in the rising age of advertisement. He has intelligence, will, good looks, and charm. And he's willing to do what it takes. We see this early on, when Pollett, in training and secretly alerted by a secretary that his higher-up will be coming along with him to see how he is doing, sets up what is known as a "milk run" -- he simply erases the previous day's sales and gets the supermarkets and grocery stores to pretend they haven't already bought the things that they already have, so that Pollett's supervisor can see him sell. The whole reason why the supervision run had been kept secret even to Pollett himself was to prevent precisely this kind of thing. But he does it, and is successful with it -- the grocery store and supermarket owners not only have no problem with it, they buy even more and give him special display space just to 'stick it to the brass'.

It's a subtle thing, but it's worth stopping a moment to think about the situation. Successful dishonesty doesn't tend to be found out. Given how easy it is for Pollett to set up the milk run, it seems that you would only get caught if you were stupid or extremely unlucky. And yet getting caught is common enough that there is a well-known term for the particular kind of dishonesty involved, and company policies to prevent it. It must happen a lot. We see throughout these subtle indications that dishonesty or at least not-quite-complete-honesty is everywhere.

Howells also shows the inevitable result of this: the perpetual corrosion of loyalty. In principle sales and marketing are all about loyalty: loyalty of employees to the Company, loyalty of customers to the brand. But the former easily slides into the Company look, a mask that can hide any motivation, and the latter easily becomes nothing more than a way to make money. Real loyalty cannot survive in a climate that depends entirely on appearance and timing. The novel's timespan is from about 1941 to 1957, so it includes the World War and the Korean War. Jackson, from his perspective, lucks out with the former, since after working to get an exemption and failing, he gets a 4-F rating on a technicality, and therefore is able to spend the war years ascending the ladder of business while most of his competition is off risking their lives. His attitude in this regard is contrasted with that of Dick Wainwright, his childhood friend, who actually volunteers, and who assumes that Pollett wasn't trying to get out of service because he can't imagine anyone being that unpatriotic. But Dick is really loyal -- there are times in the novel when his loyalty reaches the point of being ridiculous. Pollett is not, and it's a Jackson Pollett world. When the War ends he is perfectly situated to take advantage of the post-war relief of the late forties and early fifties, in which people, tired of rationing, fighting, sacrificing, allow themselves to play and indulge; it was the perfect time to be up-and-coming in marketing. World War II, the Korean War: they mostly affect Pollett's life as business opportunities. There's some stumbling along the way, most due to jealousies and petty rivalries (one of the interesting constants through the novel is that when people insist that it's only business, it's guaranteed to be partly personal). Nonetheless, he manages to overcome each one, in one case leveraging being fired into getting a better job at another company. He can do it because he has no loyalty.

This is not a comeuppance novel. Given how swiftly Pollett's star rises, I don't think it gives away anything to say that he is eventually outmaneuvered by someone who can play the game even better than he can, at precisely the moment he thought he would have complete success. But he never gets what's coming to him; he never really has to pay for what's coming. The Jackson Polletts of the world, who aren't evil people, who are even quite decent in some ways, are dishonest, disloyal, and hypocritical, because the world doesn't actually punish people for these things, and may even reward them, if they are done in just the right way. We might not even notice the dishonesty, disloyalty, or hypocrisy; that would require digging into the personal, and because the personal is not business, it's not our business. Of course Jackson Pollett lives his life with a mask. We expect the Jackson Polletts to wear that mask. That's the Company look.

Favorite Passage:

The old man's eyes narrowed, and he reached int the paper bag. He pulled out a package of P. F. Gingerbread Mix. With a big hand he tore the top off the package and poured the dry powder in a mound on the table. "You think this is gingerbread mix?" he asked coyly, head on one side. He slapped the table, and the water glasses jumped. "It's not! It's pap! Tasteless pap!"

"Market research showed we could reduce the spice content," said Gregory, Ph.D., nervously defensive. "The average consumer can't detect the flavor difference, and we saved twelve cents a case---"

"The average consumer can't detect the difference," Crowther mimicked with heavy sarcasm and exploded. "Yer a goddam fool! What d'you know aobut food? You think you know mor'n I do? You send yer silly women around four hundred doors askin' questions. Then you feed the answers they give you into a stinkin' codin' machine that tells you sixty per cent o' the people think the product's all right. You forget the other forty per cent. You know the product's pap. You wouldn't eat it yerself, but you think you can sell it---"

Recommendation: More interesting than I thought it would be. You probably can do without it, but if you like novels about business, you might want to see if you can find it. The overall story is somewhat basic, but many of the smaller stories are truly interesting.

Lent X

For our fast does not consist chiefly of mere abstinence from food, nor are dainties withdrawn from our bodily appetites with profit, unless the mind is recalled from wrong-doing and the tongue restrained from slandering. This is a time of gentleness and long-suffering, of peace and tranquillity: when all the pollutions of vice are to be eradicated and continuance of virtue is to be attained by us. Now let godly minds boldly accustom themselves to forgive faults, to pass over insults, and to forget wrongs. Now let the faithful spirit train himself with the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, that through honour and dishonour, through ill repute and good repute, the conscience may be undisturbed in unwavering uprightness, not puffed up by praise and not wearied out by revilings.

St. Leo I, Sermon 42.2

Friday, February 22, 2013

Three Poem Re-Drafts

Almost Half in Love

The snow on the field in the moonlight
was sparkling like pure diamond; it was so bright
that our eyes could hardly tell that it was midnight,
and I was almost half in love.

Your hand was on my arm; it felt so nice
that I wouldn't have removed it for the world's price.
And your eyes in light of moon had me so enticed
that I was almost half in love.

The memory of that night in mind replays,
now mingled with the ones in which we parted ways;
but who could ever lose the lessons of those days
when we were almost half in love?

Ghost Dance

On Milky Way in holy skies
now walk the souls that lived and died;
it bears them to the earth below,
the starlit mountains crowned with snow.
Now Christ has sent the winds of peace!
He bade the war and violence cease;
he brings to morning living rain
and brings the bison to the plain.
He bears the dead to earth below,
from evening stars to mountain snow.

But feel the darkness in the land!
Such venom in the heart of man!
How will the serpent treat the dove
who bears abroad these songs of love?
The prophet dances, agents lie,
in battlefields the people die
with bullets in their hearts and hands,
their blood poured out to wet the lands:
from mountains crowned with shining snow
their spirits flee this earth below.

A prophet once was crucified
and on the tree he bled and died
as jeers beneath the bloody cross
were mocking him for pain and loss.
He was the Christ; the Roman lance
had pierced him for his spirit dance.
There was a people, proud and tall,
with sun-like mien and worthy all;
for dancing in the winter snow
to bring the spirits here below
they fell beneath the flaming guns,
both score by score and one by one.

What thing may live may also die.
What heart may laugh may also cry.
But those who die may also rise
beneath the starlight in the skies
and hunt and dance and play the games
to which their fathers gave the names.
Thus Christ upon a path of light
will come again some starlit night
to bring the dead to earth below
for spirit dances in the snow.

In Luthany the Shadows Fall

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

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

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

Lent IX

We know indeed, dearly-beloved, your devotion to be so warm that in the fasting, which is the forerunner of the Lord's Easter, many of you will have forestalled our exhortations. But because the right practice of abstinence is needful not only to the mortification of the flesh but also to the purification of the mind, we desire your observance to be so complete that, as you cut down the pleasures that belong to the lusts of the flesh, so you should banish the errors that proceed from the imaginations of the heart. For he whose heart is polluted with no misbelief prepares himself with true and reasonable purification for the Paschal Feast, in which all the mysteries of our religion meet together....For the mind then only keeps holy and spiritual fast when it rejects the food of error and the poison of falsehood, which our crafty and wily foe plies us with more treacherously now, when by the very return of the venerable Festival, the whole church generally is admonished to understand the mysteries of its salvation.

St. Leo I, Sermon 46.1

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Little Half Measures and Austin Weirdness

The Austin City Council last year what they call a "single-use carryout bag ordinance" whose purpose is to encourage a shift to reusable bags. It won't really affect me much, although it will reduce my grocery purchases -- most of my purchases are done when I stop into the grocery store while walking about doing other things, and there's simply no possibility that I will go out every time with a bag on the off chance that I might stop by the grocery store, and equally no possibility that I will be buying the cheap not-really-much-better-than-single-use bags at the checkout. And I think that Austinites will adjust to it pretty easily. Reusable bags are a good way to get food poisoning if you don't wash them regularly, and most of the really cheap ones will inevitably end up in the landfill, anyway, but it probably will reduce some of the plastic going into the landfill, and probably won't hurt businesses all that much.

What I find interesting about it, though, is that it is in some way a symbol of the Austin approach to environmental issues, which is, frankly, entirely laughable. All the action is in little ways that don't address the actual problems. One of the real problems in Austin, for instance, is that its recycling programs are utterly pathetic; I have never lived in a city this size in which recycling was so badly managed. This is something that Austin is attempting to fix; they finally started doing something semi-competent on the matter in October, in a plan that won't be complete until 2015. The actual reason for the ban is that Austin doesn't do any plastic bag recycling, and the bag ban is estimated at about $900,000 cheaper each year than improving the recycling program. Nothing wrong with a little calculation in this way, but it would have been a lot easier to implement if the City had been handling environmental issues in a reasonable way over the past ten or twenty years instead of jawing mindlessly about how green city policy is due to its hippy roots while doing very little of significance. It reminds one of all the endless chatter of the importance of reducing one's carbon footprint combined with zoning that guarantees that nobody can reach anything without driving, resulting in the Austin version of sprawl -- things aren't really that far apart but you're not generally going to be able to get there except by car. I suppose I am spoiled a bit; both Portland and Toronto are wonderful places for pedestrians. They aren't perfect, but they do an excellent job. But large portions of Austin, despite its pretensions, are absurdly unwalkable, and very unfriendly to bicycling.

When I think of Austin on environmental issues, I can't help but be reminded by the bike path near my apartment. It was one of those shovel-ready projects, apparently, because the City got stimulus money for it, and it still has the your-tax-dollars-at-work sign up, even though nothing has been done on it for at least nine months now. The result of this extraordinary project, meant to improve our City and stimulate our economy, was a sidewalk that starts out in the middle of a field, turns under MoPac (= Loop 1, the main artery of Austin), stops before it gets to the other side, and right before the original path really needed a sidewalk (it is thick mud for a good part of the year, and apparently will continue to be thick mud rather than hard sidewalk), starts up again on the other side of the frontage road, wanders around a bit in the middle of nowhere, and ends abruptly in the middle of nowhere. Nobody uses it because (1) given where it starts and stops (more than once), most people would never know it was there, and (2) it's an obstacle course, not a bike path. The entire city is like this. All the time. On everything.

Gun Non-policy

I've said before that I'm actually pretty OK with most gun policies on either side of the aisle, as long as they are implemented constitutionally and with regard for actual evidence. What is immediately noticeable at this editorial at America, however, is that it is not really a gun policy at all; it's a non-policy with a gesture at what they think might conceivably give us a viable gun policy at some point in the future. There is not a single proposal in the editorial that could in any way directly affect gun violence; the one thing proposed, the repeal of the second amendment, is consistent with nothing else being changed at all. This is what I mean about it being a non-policy: it's not even a policy proposal, and despite the rhetoric has no actual relevance to serious gun control advocacy. Merely repealing the second amendment will do nothing at all. What is more, constitutions are not the sorts of things one arbitrarily amends in the hope of some better possibility later; when you repeal a part of the Constitution, you had better have a specific reason. Give us an actual proposal, step one of which is repeal of the second amendment, and then we have a way to judge whether it makes sense to go through step one to get to the other parts of your proposal. If you're just going to say that we need to repeal a part of the Constitution, though, you have something that will do less to eliminate gun violence than if your proposal for handling gun violence is just for people voluntarily to stop using guns -- which would actually be far more of a serious gun control policy, since one can have reasonably good, practical, specific programs working to curb gun violence by voluntary means. There is, in fact, a very small but active voluntary gun control movement, focused on better self-regulation among hunters and other gun owners (the idea being that, in something like the way active hunters are one of the best resources for reducing poaching, gun owners could be a better-used resource for reducing gun abuse, and for the same reason), property-rights-based gun control requirements like private-property gun bans, and encouraging more active citizen involvement in helping to shut down firearm black markets. These people have a far more robust gun control proposal than the America magazine editors do.

I was amused at this, though:

This does not require an absolute ban on firearms. In the post-repeal world that we envision, some people will possess guns: hunters and sportsmen, law enforcement officers, the military, those who require firearms for morally reasonable purposes. Make no mistake, however: The world we envision is a world with far fewer guns, a world in which no one has a right to own one.

In other words, all the most powerful and dangerous guns will still be available to those willing to put up with the cost and complications of getting them, or willing to bypass these complications through the black market. This is the America gun control proposal: Make gun control laws easier, while not doing anything practical about guns.

It should be noted, incidentally, that the editors are mistaken if they think repealing the second amendment will lead to "a world in which no one has a right to own" a gun. The government can't arbitrarily alienate property, so guns already out and about will fall under standard property rights. What is more, forty-three states have gun right provisions in their constitutions: mere repeal of the second amendment will leave these unaffected and still operative. Repeal of the second amendment would make some stricter gun-sale laws possible in a limited way under the interstate commerce clause, but that's about it.


Penance is a special virtue not merely because it sorrows for evil done (since charity would suffice for that), but also because the penitent grieves for the sin he has committed, inasmuch as it is an offense against God, and purposes to amend. Now amendment for an offense committed against anyone is not made by merely ceasing to offend, but it is necessary to make some kind of compensation, which obtains in offenses committed against another, just as retribution does, only that compensation is on the part of the offender, as when he makes satisfaction, whereas retribution is on the part of the person offended against. Each of these belongs to the matter of justice, because each is a kind of commutation. Wherefore it is evident that penance, as a virtue, is a part of justice.

It must be observed, however, that according to the Philosopher (Ethic. v, 6) a thing is said to be just in two ways, simply and relatively. A thing is just simply when it is between equals, since justice is a kind of equality, and he calls this the politic or civil just, because all citizens are equal, in the point of being immediately under the ruler, retaining their freedom. But a thing is just relatively when it is between parties of whom one is subject to the other, as a servant under his master, a son under his father, a wife under her husband. It is this kind of just that we consider in penance. Wherefore the penitent has recourse to God with a purpose of amendment, as a servant to his master, according to Psalm 122:2: "Behold, as the eyes of servants are on the hands of their masters . . . so are our eyes unto the Lord our God, until He have mercy on us"; and as a son to his father, according to Luke 15:21: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee"; and as a wife to her husband, according to Jeremiah 3:1: "Thou hast prostituted thyself to many lovers; nevertheless return to Me, saith the Lord."

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 3.85.3

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Music on My Mind

Kate Miller-Heidke, "The Devil Wears a Suit". It sort of follows along with the last 'Music on My Mind' post.

Lent VII

by John Henry Newman

O Holy Lord, who with the Children Three
Didst walk the piercing flame,
Help, in those trial-hours, which, save to Thee,
I dare not name;
Nor let these quivering eyes and sickening heart
Crumble to dust beneath the Tempter's dart.

Thou, who didst once Thy life from Mary's breast
Renew from day to day,
Oh, might her smile, severely sweet, but rest
On this frail clay!
Till I am Thine with my whole soul; and fear,
Not feel a secret joy, that Hell is near.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Matters of Tone

Frege famously distinguished the meaning of a proposition or sentence into its sense, its force, and its tone. Crudely and roughly, force is what distinguishes (for example) a statement from a question; sense is the thought or content expressed and thus what makes it possible to talk of true and false for the sentence; and tone is whatever else is involved in the meaning. Actually, we should say that Michael Dummett distinguished meaning in this way. 'Tone', for instance, is Dummett's coinage; Frege uses Färbung, coloring, and Beleuchtung, illumination or shading. In any case, this tends to be taken for granted. I am skeptical of the idea that we can draw the line between force and content very clearly at all (partly for reasons discussed by P. W. Hanks here in PDF). But I also think 'tone' is a problematic category, as well.

Consider the most common example of difference in tone: 'and' and 'but'. 'And' and 'but' are both truth-functionally conjunctions -- 'but' doesn't handle true and false any differently than 'and' does -- and thus the difference between them is only a matter of tone. But it is clear that this is not always true of 'but'; sometimes 'but' is not truth-functionally equivalent to 'and'. For instance, sometimes if I say, A but B, whatever the letters stand for, I am saying that B is actually a defeater of some sort for A. In this case 'but' is not a logical conjunction (by definition). Thus the example really boils down to saying that a logical conjunction maintains its properties regardless of whatever the rest of the meaning is. This is undeniably true, and is important. But it doesn't tell us much about conjunction and it doesn't tell us anything about the tone or rest of the meaning. It is entirely consistent with the possibility that 'tone' and 'sense' are unstable, so that the very same thing that is sometimes 'sense' will at other times be 'tone', and vice versa.

Consider another example, which is sometimes used: 'cur' and 'dog'. Suppose I were to say, "There's a cur at the back door." You go out and find a well-behaved, well-groomed, pure-bred spaniel. There are only two ways of taking my claim, assuming that I knew what I was talking about. In one way, my claim is simply false: what is at the back door is not a cur. But I could just be the sort of crotchety person who hates dogs and so can't talk about them without insulting them, in which case we can say that my claim is true, although insultingly expressed. But this appears to depend entirely on what parts of the meaning I take to be 'sense' (i.e., to be relevant to the actual truth and falsehood) and which I take to be 'tone' (i.e., independent of actual truth and falsehood).

This is all a consequence of the way 'tone' is characterized: it's just the residue, whatever happens to be left when you've taken everything you need in order to determine truth values. But there's no reason thus far to think that there's anything that counts as tone that always counts as tone. Fregean examples are very disparate. So, for instance, Frege takes the difference between active and passive voice to be one of tone. This is unsurprising, since his logical system can't distinguish the two, but it's unclear that active and passive voice are consistently irrelevant to whether a claim is true or false. Active and passive voice do at least two things: indicate the complementary aspects of one action and indicate attempt and success in an action. The former guarantees that active and passive voice stand or fall together, but the latter splits their fortunes. Roxane loves Christian, but it does not follow immediately that Christian is loved by Roxane or vice versa, and much of the story of Cyrano de Bergerac builds on the tension between the complementarity of loving and being loved and its disparity with attempt-success understandings of how love works. Even in the former case, there are cases in which the complementarity between the active and passive might break down -- God, on some theological views, for instance, or spontaneous uncaused actions, on other views. If these can even be formulated coherently, there is no way to hold that the active/passive distinction is always a matter of tone.

In any case, I was thinking about tone today, and considering the question of how one might analyze this residue of meaning. Analytic philosophers are next door to useless for getting any idea about it. But I had an idea for how one might have something like Laban Effort graphs (typically used to represent the force and control of movements in dance) to represent tonal differences. The graphic results would not be easy to put here, but a textual proxy certainly can. Suppose we have a (nonexhaustive) list of common (alleged examples of) tonal contrasts, and give them symbols. For instance:

^ light
| serious

x contrastive
~ conformal

< passive/nonactive
> active

, unordered
; ordered

! sure/certain
? unsure/uncertain

+ positive-valued/good
- negative-valued/bad

We could then represent different kinds of conjunction. & [|~<,!] would be something like our usual 'and', whereas & [|x<,!] would be more like 'but', and & [|~>;!] would indicate that we are taking 'and' to mean adding something to something already there.

Likewise, we can get subtle variations. Take the sentence, "He believes in a bearded man in the sky." In ordinary conversation this could have many subtleties. The following would indicate a plain statement of (at least supposed) fact:

He believes in a {bearded man in the sky [|!]}.

But this would be contrasted with the non-literal and more derisive:

He believes in a {bearded man in the sky [^!-]}.

Which in turn would be contrasted with the more baffled (but still non-literal):

He believes in a {bearded man in the sky [^?-]}.

Which in turn is different from the mere puzzled literal statement:

He believes in a {bearded man in the sky [|?]}.

These sorts of things do make a difference. (I do not claim, however, that the 'tone' here necessarily does not affect truth-values; rather, these are just things that are often not taken into account when analyzing statements even though they are analyzable in some sense -- by contrast, if nothing else.)

Lent VI

by Bl. John Henry Newman

Mortal! if e'er thy spirits faint,
By grief or pain opprest,
Seek not vain hope, or sour complaint,
To cheer or ease thy breast:

But view thy bitterest pangs as sent
A shadow of that doom,
Which is the soul's just punishment
In its own guilt's true home.

Be thine own judge; hate thy proud heart;
And while the sad drops flow,
E'en let thy will attend the smart,
And sanctify thy woe.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Gerard on Taste and Genius III: The Psychology of Taste

Having discussed the sources of taste itself and the cultivation of good taste, Gerard continues his Essay on Taste with a discussion of the ways in which taste is related to various other principles of the mind. This is partly in order to clarify the nature of taste even further, but looking at how taste affects and is affected by other aspects of our mental life also serves to show the extraordinary importance of developing good taste.

I. Relation of Taste to Imagination. Taste is usually associated with imagination, which is usually understood as something midway between external senses and our rational and moral abilities. Gerard is not inclined to put much weight on this usual understanding of what taste or imagination are; while our mental operations are present to us, he thinks they are hard to pin down -- they appear and disappear swiftly and seem to blend into each other. He does think, however, that this common understanding captures something genuine. There are two basic elements of this.

The first is that taste is a kind of sensation. It is an original source of ideas that cannot be reduced to other senses or to the mere act of reflection; it makes us aware of features and qualities of objects, both internal and external, but does so in a way distinct from the way in which this is done by external senses or the mere consciousness of our own thoughts. The perceptions of taste are as simple, immediate, and regular as any other sensations, and have the same kinds of effects as any other sensations. For instance, in general, when an object of sense comes before our minds, "the mind conforms itself to its nature and appearance, feels an emotion, and is put in a frame suitable and analogous" (ET 149). Our mind adapts itself to the objects of taste, like novelty, sublimity, and beauty, in the same way that it adapts itself to the objects of the external senses.

On the other hand, taste involves imaginative association. It has layers to it that are not found in the external senses, and these are built up by the ordinary operations associated with the imagination. Many of the rules and regularities governing taste are nothing other than these associative regularities of imagination; Gerard lists resemblance, contrarieity, and vicinity, as well as custom, co-existence, causation, and order (as in design or organization). This associative structure gives a complexity to taste that is lacking to the external senses. For instance, because imaginative associations, especially when close, allow the mind to move very quickly from one idea to another, this associative character of all but the most basic kinds of taste means that taste can link radically different things as if they went naturally together, or even as if they were one thing. This gives taste some of its je ne sais quoi character -- something may be beautiful, for instance, but the full account of this beauty might require extraordinary analytic precision combined with an ability to perceive accurately how a large number of features are related to each other. The full force of its beauty might be obvious to the mind rushing along associative tracks, but it might well take philosophers an immense amount of study to unravel exactly why it has this force of beauty. Likewise, this associative character is the reason why so much of our art is concerned with metaphor and symbolism.

II. Relation of Taste to Genius. Of all the questions of how taste fits into broader human psychology, the relation of taste to genius is perhaps the most interesting. Taste observes beauties; genius makes them. Is there a relation between the two that goes beyond that connection? For instance, is (to use James Beattie's terms) taste a kind of passive genius and genius a kind of active taste, so that they are complementaries? Or might it be the case that genius is just a particular kind of taste ("talent is taste exercised," as I think James McCosh will say later)? Gerard gives two very different roles to genius and taste.

The key feature of genius is its inventiveness, which Gerard links to imaginative association: "from a confused heap of materials, collected by fancy, genius, after repeated reviews and transpositions, designs a regular and well-proportioned whole" (ET 164). When we are dealing with genius in the fine arts, we need to add to this an ability to express this imaginative construct in appropriate materials. This is why poetic genius and pictorial genius can be distinguished, however; they can have a close similarity at the imaginative level, but the results are appropriate to very different kinds of materials.

Genius builds, forms, makes. Taste, however, is needed in order to impose the proper restraints on genius:

Thus genius is the grand architect that not only chuses the materials, but disposes them into a regular structure. But it is not able to finish it by itself. It needs the assistance of taste, to guide and moderate its exertions. Though the different relations of the parts, in some measure, determine the form and position of each, we acquire much ampler assurance of its rectitude, when taste has reviewed and examined both the design and the execution. It serves as a check on mere fancy; it interposes its judgment, either approving or condemning; and rejects many things which unassisted genius would have allowed. (ET 166-167)

We might put it this way: Genius is the drafting power; taste is the revising power. They both are rooted in the imagination, but they are different expressions of the same imaginative principles. You can't have one without something of the other, because they operate on the same associative principles and are cultivated in at least some of the same ways, but at the same time a given person may have more of one than the other. Bold genius might accompany poor taste; excellent taste might go with mediocre genius. In a sense, every artist is in pursuit of the perfect blending of the two, powerful genius with a taste adequate to it, and it is something that is very difficult to achieve. At the same time, it is something well worth achieving: "Taste, united to genius, renders the effects of the latter like to diamonds, which have as great solidity as splendour" (ET 168). Nonetheless, we can have good taste even where genius is lacking, because even if we do not have the dazzling spontaneous ability to order a massive number of imaginative connections into a tightly unified whole, we may still have some narrower or weaker analogue of this ability. I think we can see what Gerard has in mind here by thinking of a common experience in reading. When reading one of the great authors, like Dante, or Shakespeare, or Austen, people regularly find that they discover more every time they go back to read -- that is one of the reasons why such authors endure. The reader may not be able to grasp all the imaginative connections in a work by Austen in a way that makes for a perfectly unified experience, a sort of sheer contemplation of the whole of (say) Emma all at once, with all its parts and their appropriateness seen together, but he or she may well be able to take in (and enjoy!) a portion of them at one time, and the richness of the experience will be linked to the ability to take in all these associations together, in something at least analogous to the way in which Austen herself arranged them.

III. Relation of Taste to Criticism. Taste is the completion of the work of the artist, artisan, or author; it is the starting-point of the critic, and in the critic it must be completed by reflective judgment. As Gerard puts it, the critic must not only feel but accurately reflect so as to be able to identify the feelings and explain them. We can, in a sense, think of criticism as the opposing complement of art, since art starts with genius and improves it by taste, whereas criticism starts with taste and improves it by genius. The particular genius required for criticism is a philosophical genius, able to take a mass of thing and "subject these materials to a regular induction, reduce them into classes, and determine the general rules which govern them" (ET 171). The great critic does not merely appreciate; he or she classifies, sets in order, identifies the underlying principles, and, more than that, with extraordinary ingenuity finds ways to go beyond the obvious in doing these things. As Gerard says (ET 174),

If taste is wanting, our conclusions must be defective, faulty, or precarious; if philosophical genius, our observations will be trifling, superficial, unconnected, and perplexed with too great particularity.

Gerard has some very harsh things to say about critics through the ages on this point, so he obviously regards the relevant philosophical genius as rare. People try to substitute mechanical systems or simplistic rules for true critical genius. Real critics, however, plumb the depths of human life, tracing back the entire aesthetic experience, just as it really is, to its fundamental roots in human nature.

IV. Relation of Taste to the Provinces of Life. Gerard suggests that taste can be looked at in a very different light. How does taste relate to major areas of human life, like nature, art, and science?

With regard to nature, which is the common subject of the other two, taste and reason are employed in conjunction. In art, taste is the ultimate judge, and reason but its minister. In science, reason is supreme, but may sometimes reap advantage from using taste as an auxiliary. (ET 176)

Reason investigates the laws of nature, but taste uncovers the beauty of nature; both of them are essential features of our experience of the world. On the side of art, every art, however humble, has its own beauties and and excellences, and these are the primary point, reason serving in an instrumental capacity to taste, which sets the practical ends. And while matters of knowledge are primarily the province of reason, it is also obvious that taste plays a role. It would be foolish to draw conclusions solely on the basis of what is elegant or beautiful and take those conclusions to be certain; but it is clear that the elegance and beauty of conclusions is relevant to knowledge, when they are in their proper place. For one thing, while reason may discover, taste motivates us to discover. People are driven to understand because of the beauties they find when they do understand. Moreover, inquirers pursue not merely truths but beautiful truths -- people are dissatisfied with explanations that are clumsy and inelegant, for instance, thinking that they must at least be incomplete, whereas the beauty of a well-supported explanation strengthens our sense that it must be true. Gerard uses Newtonian physics as an example. It was accepted as it was because it was founded on good reasoning, yes; but the full explanation of why Newtonian physics was so satisfying to the understanding has to reckon with its aesthetic side, its excellence in terms of taste. It was elegant, beautiful, simple -- and on Gerard's reflex-sense account of taste, these aren't arbitrary judgments or mere expressions of preference but real properties that can actually be perceived in the system.

In these four areas Gerard has covered briefly the relation between taste and various aspects of human life. In later editions of the Essay on Taste he goes on to discuss the important question of the standard of taste. But before we look at that, I think we will take a detour and look more closely at Gerard's account of genius, as laid out in his (much later) Essay on Genius.

Lent V

From the earliest times down to this day, these weeks before Easter have been set apart every year, for the particular remembrance and confession of our sins. From the first age downward, not a year has passed but Christians have been exhorted to reflect how far they have let go their birthright, as a preparation for their claiming the blessing. At Christmas we are born again with Christ; at Easter we keep the Eucharistic Feast. In Lent, by penance, we join the two great sacraments together. Are you, my brethren, prepared to say,—is there any single Christian alive who will dare to profess,—that he has not in greater or less degree sinned against God's free mercies as bestowed on him in Baptism without, or rather against his deserts? Who will say that he has so improved his birthright that the blessing is his fit reward, without either sin to confess, or wrath to deprecate? See, then, the Church offers you this season for the purpose. "Now is the accepted time, now the day of salvation." Now it is that, God being your helper, you are to attempt to throw off from you the heavy burden of past transgression, to reconcile yourselves to Him who has once already imparted to you His atoning merits, and you have profaned them.

Bl. John Henry Newman, Life the Season of Repentance

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Ends of Education

Adam Kotsko has an interesting post on views of what education is for:

I’m not sure that we really have an answer to that other than something like “personal enrichment” — which someone in a cynical mood could translate into economic terms by saying that we’re insisting that education contribute to leisure time as well as work time. If that’s the narrative, then I think we’re doomed to lose the argument, because then the non-work-oriented education becomes a bona fide luxury that is not going to be “worth the investment” for most people....

As I’ve been teaching Plato and Aristotle, I’m struck by how impoverished our best other answer — “responsible citizenship” — is than the classical ideal. For us, it seems that we’re thinking that people won’t be easily hoodwinked by politicians and will vote more “correctly” (presumably for Democrats). For them, education for citizenship meant being able to step in and govern, and that necessarily meant having a broad enough range of interest that governing wasn’t considered an end in itself....