Friday, July 21, 2017

Evening Note for Friday, July 21

Thought for the Evening: 'The Normative Jinx'

Christoph Kletzer has a very interesting, although ultimately baffling, paper on what he calls "the normative jinx." The argument in its barebones is that two positions, normative monism and legal/moral incompatibilism are inconsistent with each other, although there is good reason to think both true, and therefore, as he says in the abstract,

if we take law to be valid, then there is no moral point of view from which to assess the law; if we consider morality to be valid, there cannot possibly be valid law that could be the object of moral assessment.

Needless to say, this is a somewhat surprising claim, deserving a closer look. Without being too rigorous, here are some issues I have with the argument as Kletzer lays it out.

(1) Normative monism is the opposite of normative pluralism, and normative pluralism is the claim that one can have two or more normative systems that have their validity independent of each other. He then concludes that for a normative pluralist, it must be true that there could be independent normative systems with no normative relation to each other. I am not convinced that this a good inference. Whether normative systems can have no normative relation to each other is distinct from the question of whether the sources of their validity as normative systems are independent, and the two positions should not be conflated even if they tend to go together.

(2) Kletzer opens his argument that we have good reason to be normative monists by looking at legal monism -- a legal monist denies that you can have legal norms that do not stand in some kind of legal relation to each other. He recognizes that this at first seems to be an odd claim; Imperial Chinese law seems to be quite independent of Imperial Roman law, being separated geographically and having no overlapping jurisdiction or even jurisdictional claim, and one could posit that they operated in perfect ignorance of each other without any obvious contradiction. Kletzer seems to take this to mean that in Imperial Roman law, Imperial Chinese law is not law, and vice versa, but this is an odd interpretation. Ex hypothesi, the two simply have no judgment one way or another about the other; it's not that the Chinese legal system has a legal norm that what the Romans call law is not a law -- it has no legal norm with respect to it at all. This is not fatal to Kletzer's argument, since he actually is interested in the claim that they are simultaneously valid, but it is an odd move nonetheless.

Kletzer then goes on to claim that if we say that Roman law only applies in the geographical area of Rome, and Chinese law only applies in the geographical area of China, that this implies that "legally the applicability of certain norms is limited to certain regions" (my emphasis). This seems to assume that the only limitations for the applicability of the law are legal, but this is certainly false. American law doesn't apply to the interstellar dust of the Andromeda galaxy, but this has nothing to do with a legal limitation; it's just a combination of a spatial limitation (instruments of American law have no presence in Andromeda galaxy) and a technical limitation (no one has ever worked out a way to apply American law in Andromeda galaxy) and a psychological limitation (it doesn't occur to anyone to treat American law as applying in Andromeda galaxy, so that there are no American legal norms whatsoever about interstellar dust in the Andromeda galaxy). American law doesn't apply to thirteenth century Australia because Americans don't have a time machine; it doesn't apply past the extinction of the human race or the end of the world because there won't be any Americans then -- and, indeed, its temporal limitation is likely to be far closer to our time than to the extinction of the human race. In the Roman-Chinese case, the limitations of legal norms are spatial (far apart) and epistemic (ignorant of each other), not legal.

Kletzer doesn't consider temporal, epistemic, technical, or psychological limitations, but he does consider the spatial limitation, and argues that this cannot be a limitation of law unless it is given legal significance because different parts of the Roman empire are also far apart. Thus mere distance doesn't work to limit law. But this seems to me to miss the point (beside the fact that it doesn't address the other limitations that are operative in the separation); Germania Inferia and Arabia Petraea are separted by distance, but their legal systems aren't -- Roman law exists in both. The problem raised by spatial limitation is that legal systems do not appear to be the kind of thing that we could say is diffused over the entire universe. Roman law exists and is operative in Germania Inferia and Arabia Petraea; it is neither existent nor operative in the Qing province of Han China. American law doesn't just legally restrict itself from being in Andromeda; it doesn't exist or operate there at all. American legal norms are not present in Andromeda. If we held that American law were something like a Platonic Form, perhaps we could say that it doesn't itself have a spatial presence anywhere, but legal platonism is bound to be a somewhat controversial metaphysics.

One can, of course, have an overarching law that governs both the Roman and the Chinese whether they know about each other or not -- every natural law theorist holds that there is such a thing. But without some such position, I don't see that Kletzer has actually established what he set out to establish.

(3) Kletzer then moves to argue normative monism by dropping the 'legal' from his argument for legal monism. Ironically, I think this ends up being vastly more plausible simply because moral platonism is a more plausible position than platonism about positive law. However, I still don't see how the applicability argument is supposed to work here -- that is, the position itself has quite a bit of plausibility, but it doesn't seem to have it because of the applicability argument.

Kletzer considers moral norms and norms in the games of chess. Then, on analogy with what he said about laws, there has to be "some kind of allocation of applicability", and that this would have be a rule, and that this would then unite the two normative systems. But, again, not every limitation of the rules of chess is a rule of chess. (It's an interesting, and I think difficult, question, whether every limitation of the rules of morality is a rule of morality. 'Ought implies can' probably gives us the limitation of morality that is most plausibly not a rule of morality; but it is not actually clear that it is not a rule of morality. The reason is that, unlike the rules of chess or American law, we typically take moral law to be a pure, ideal, eternal thing.)

If we take a less fraught example, we might take the rules of chess and the rules of Tổ tôm, which is a Vietnamese card game, neither of which seems to have anything to do with each other. It is not a rule of chess that it is not Tổ tôm; it is not a rule of Tổ tôm that it is not chess; neither game has any rules that address either; the two are not typically played together, and at least at some point in their history the players of each could be said to be always wholly ignorant of the other. They are normatively related, since they are both governed by norms of practical reason -- this is essentially like being a legal monist because you are a natural law theorist. But this has nothing to do with their spheres of applicability.

(4) As I am both a legal monist and a normative monist in Kletzer's sense(s), the more interesting question for me is the supposed legal/moral incompatibility. The crux is here:

What distinguishes law from chess is that whilst chess, just as morality, is a static normative system, the law is a dynamic normative system. This means that the law has a different mode of individuating or applying its content: whilst the content of rules of morality and chess are individuated or applied by way of thought or reflection, the law’s content is individuated and applied by way of decisions, or acts of will.

I don't like this terminology, but let's keep it. The normative system of chess is 'static' not in the sense that it doesn't change but that there are no rules for changing the rules of chess; but 'law' is 'dynamic' because it involves legal norms about changing legal norms. And morality, Kletzer argues, is static.

Let us assume that law is dynamic. There is good reason to argue that neither chess nor morality are static in Kletzer's sense. If we're talking about standard tournament chess, the rules are determined by the FIDE Rules Commission, and the normativity of FIDE decisions about the rules is just part of tournament play. The rules of tournament chess are highly stable, but the regular norms involved include norms governing rule changes. And there are at least two cases of normative systems that are treated in some moral theories as moral norms but which are known to undergo change, and appear to do so due to pressure from higher moral norms -- etiquette ("lesser morality", as Hume calls it) and law itself.

Etiquette is an interesting case here, because the norms of etiquette seem to get their validity from moral norms, but it is typically part of the norms of etiquette to adapt etiquette to the situation, and therefore its norms are dynamic in Kletzer's sense. Emily Post tells us, for instance, that "a first rule for behavior in company is 'Try to do and say only that which will be agreeable to others' (Emily Post, Etiquette, Funk & Wagnalls, [New York: 1945] p. 41). Given how it is interpreted, this is quite clearly a rule for modifying, making, and discarding etiquette norms according to the company in which one finds oneself. Likewise, she says, "Not to attract attention to oneself in public is one of the fundamental rules of good-breeding" (p. 49), but this also functions as a rule for shifting norms of etiquette when one counts as being conspicuous changes. Similarly, Post notes that the head of the table is always the hostess; thus all norms governing seating are relative to where the hostess chooses to seat, and are modified according to this choice, and likewise, the direction of service is determined by the hostess in accordance with what is practical given the layout of the room and the nature of the table -- and her choice becomes a norm for that dinner party. But Post also takes etiquette to be an ethical system, containing social ethics (the moral code of gentlemen and ladies) as an immutable governing part. Thus if Post is right about etiquette, it is a dynamic system involving moral norms, and it does not seem far-fetched to call it a dynamic system of moral norms. Kletzer's argument, if sound, would make this impossible.

(5) I don't really follow Kletzer's attempt to neutralize the natural law objection to his claim that law and morality are incompatible normative systems; the argument seems to require a legal positivist account of law, which is precisely one of the things a natural law theorist would deny. He holds that the doctrine of legal force implies that as soon as morality allows law, it allows the violation of morality. But I don't see why this is so, and nothing that he says clarifies how this is supposed to work. It's true that in law faulty and erroneous laws can be laws; these are handled in natural law theory, for instance, by the doctrines of tolerance and of scandal. What natural law theory denies is that positive law can both be law and directly require (not just allow) that moral law be violated, no matter how much we call it law. But (1) at least as it is laid out, Kletzer's argument seems to involve the assumption that any kind of wrongness of law would be enough to generate a violation of morality, which is false on any view; and (2) Kletzer's argument seems to take only legal appearances into account -- i.e., that we still call these things laws and that people sometimes try to treat them as such.

(6) Kletzer doesn't consider any cases, as far as I can see, where there are plausible overlaps. It's a plausible moral norm that we ought to obey laws when we can do so without deliberately violating moral norms; some legal norms seem to make direct appeal to moral norms (norms about moral turpitude, for instance, or about the need for good moral character to become a U.S. citizen, or in the conflict of interest law governing the U.S. civil service, or in the constitutional norm that the President should execute the laws 'faithfully' -- which certainly sounds like a moral term). This is surely relevant to the claim that the two are incompatible.

(7) And perhaps worst of all, Kletzer makes the mistake so many philosophers of law make: he does not consider how legislative deliberation works. This is a very serious flaw that seems to run throughout most of philosophy of law, which tends to take the law as just given rather than something deliberated over and then deliberately constructed for political and moral ends.

Various Links of Interest

* A lost version of the Analects of Confucius has been discovered in a Chinese tomb. The standard version of the Lun yu was made during the Han dynasty by Zhang Yu, who is known to have had at least two distinct versions before him -- that of Qi and that of Lu. He used Lu as a template and then added Qi material to it, and this is the version that was preserved. What they've discovered appears to be the original Qi text, although perhaps it is a variation of it. It was actually unearthed a while ago, but it was reported then as a 'possible' Qi manuscript, and seems to have come into the news again due to confirmation.

* Michael Gavin has a fascinating discussion of the problem of language diversification. Why do the tropics regularly have massively more languages than other areas? Why are Australian aboriginal languages much more diverse near the coast than they are in the interior?

* Ann-Sophie Barwich, Is Smell an Aesthetic Sense?

* Erik Hinton discusses Gershom Scholem.

Currently Reading

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Mary Astell, The Christian Religion, as Professed by a Daughter of the Church of England
John of St. Thomas, Outline of Formal Logic
Giambattista Vico, The New Science
Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson, eds., The Hobbit and Philosophy

Astell on Study

Speculation is one of the most refined and delicious pleasures, but it is not to be followed only as a pleasure, but as an exercise and duty. There is as great variety in understandings as in faces, they have not all the same beauties nor the same defects, but every genius has its particular turn, and therefore the same course of study is not equally fit for everyone. The business is, to learn the weakness and strength of our minds; to form our judgments, and to render them always just; to know how to discover false reasonings, and to disentangle truth from those mazes of error into which men have hunted her; and whatever method tends to this end ought to be pursued.

[Mary Astell, The Christian Religion, as Professed by a Daughter of the Church of England, Broad, ed. Iter Inc. & Center for Reformation and Renaissance Studies (Toronto: 2013) p. 202.]

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Islands of Miranda, Part V

This is the fifth part of a short story draft. I, II, III, IV.

Brother Andrew led Diego through a small side door to a small room that had an elevator locked with a key. As he took out the key and turned it in the lock, he said, "I have always felt a sort of cousinship with Miranda; the mercantile orders were approved by Leo Theodore, as well, and at the time it was an even more controversial decision than the founding of Miranda. And yet, like Miranda, here we still are." The elevator opened and he stepped in, with Diego. Brother Andrew pushed the button for the Mezzanine level, and as the elevator began its descent, said, "You have no idea how long the wait for someone like yourself sometimes has seemed." Then he inserted the key again and stopped the elevator between floors.

Diego tensed quickly, not understanding what was happening, wondering what Brother Andrew -- who seemed rather harmless to look at -- would do to him. But all Brother Andrew did was hold out the envelope he was carrying.

"In this envelope, you will find two things. The first is your Certificate of Confirmation. As of now, you are a member of the Board of the Miranda Organization. The second one -- perhaps you should see it for yourself first."

Slowly Diego opened the envelope. On top there was indeed the Certification of Confirmation of Appointment, signed and sealed by Augustine Cardinal Binaisa, President of the Pontifical Commission for the Insular State of Miranda. The second was a document in Latin. Diego had not had any formal study of Latin since high school, but in his lifetime he had had to sign more than a few Mirandan contracts, which often have both Spanish and Latin versions, both of which are legally binding, and the document was a crisp and straightforward legal Latin. He found he could follow much of it, and as he did, he frowned. He skimmed through the first page, and then the second, and then the third and last page and stared at the signature and seal at the end. Finally he looked at Brother Andrew.

"Is this authentic?"

"It is indeed. One of the things Papa Leo Teodoro did after the papal approval of the Antoninites was to put in our charge a number of time vaults. Most of them opened a long time ago -- items of historical interest, mostly, but occasionally legal arrangements or legal documents giving various institutions access to trusts he had squirreled away. One of them, however, was misplaced in inventory -- it was in storage, but misfiled, and was thought lost until we stumbled upon it again some years ago. It had a great many legal documents -- mostly backup copies, but it also had this, with a note saying, 'In case of an invasion of the Islands by the Venezuelan government.' And this was in triplicate." He said the latter in a tone indicating that he approved of this clerical propriety.


"Entirely true. The note is still in the Antoninites safe and was authenticated as being in Papa Leo Teodoro's own hand. How he foresaw it, I don't know, but that he did is beyond doubt."

Diego contemplated the document for a moment. "This cannot be binding, can it?"

"That is the thing of it. Miranda operates on the principle of self-governance within the framework provided by the Holy See. Constitutional changes require the joint approval of the Holy Father and the Council of Self-Governance. He signed this constitutional document, but it was not sent to the Council. Strictly speaking, Leo Theodore also has no authority to bind his successor, but the current Holy Father is always hesitant to put himself into direct conflict with his predecessors. He would never propose anything like this, and would oppose it if the Cardinal ever proposed such a thing, but under the circumstances, he would very likely uphold it if the Council accepted it and approved it.

"Thus the question becomes, 'Would the Council accept it and approve it?' Nothing would prevent them from ignoring it; the Council is the primary authority for the legitimacy of legal documents in Mirandan matters. They could simply rule that the Fundamental Law's requirement of papal approval is a requirement for approval by a pope living at the time of the Council's own approval. The Holy See would certainly support them in this. Then the document would be no more than a historical curiosity. But suppose they went the other way, and held that the papal approval holds as long as it is not later rescinded, and then approved the document. It would be fully legal, enacted by the appropriate authorities, and the moment the Council gave their official approval, it would become the new Fundamental Law of Miranda -- and all authority over the Miranda Organization would pass from the Board of the Organization to the direct control of the Council itself, with the Marshal of Los Roques as the primary executive officer. The Board might protest, but they have no authority except under the current Fundamental Law, which already indicates that they are purely instrumental to the Council. Human law is an artifact, Mr. Páez; it has the nature the artisans of law put into it. Do you think that the Council would accept it as legitimate?"

"They might," said Diego slowly. "Anyone else proposing such a sweeping constitutional change would probably be resisted, even if he were the Pope himself -- but if it could be proven to come directly from the hand of Pope Leo Theodore, that is a very different thing. To Mirandans, he is not just a Pope, he was the Pope, and his name, even from the grave, still has power. I don't know that they would accept it. But they might."

"'Might' is not good enough for us. I will be quite frank with you in saying that the current Holy Father would not be at all pleased at Cardinal Binaisa's action in giving this to you. The Mirandan Support may be a symbolic token of allegiance in Mirandan terms, but it constitutes fully a third of the yearly revenues of the Holy See, and all of that is in the hands of the Board, which in principle operates by authority of the Council. The Board is required to provide the Support according to a formula approved by the Council; the Council can't deny the Holy See the Support, but it can make it arbitrarily small, to devastating effect. It would be a financial crisis not seen in centuries."

"And nothing could compensate for it? Not the mercantile orders?"

"No," said Brother Andrew, with some severity. "The mercantile orders exist to support the works of mercy, making them more sustainable and increasing their scope. We would have to divert funds from hospitals, schools, parishes in distress, all to keep afloat institutions whose reason for existence is to further those hospitals, schools, and parishes. Nor can the gap be budgeted around; we have run the numbers many times, and no matter what assumptions we introduce into the models, the result is always the same. Church expenses only increase over time; everyone always demands more while expecting more to be free, simply because it is the Church. The Holy See is in a position in which it cannot endanger the Support. Any disturbance to the status quo distresses the Holy Father. By giving this to you, the Cardinal is deliberately creating a situation in which his hand may be forced. But failure comes with a cost. And that is where you come in."

"What do you mean?"

"Cardinal Binaisa -- and not just him -- has been increasingly worried about the self-assertion of the Board at the expense of both the Council and the Pontifical Commission. But we do not have the inside information we need in order to determine when and under what circumstances to give it to the Council. Doing it incorrectly could create an immense set of problems. So we need someone who might be able to determine that. But in point of the fact, it probably requires a member of the Board itself. The Cardinal has interviewed every candidate for the Board in order to find one who could be trusted to put Mirandan interest over his or her own. He is gambling on you. You will be in a position to decide whether it should be done now, or, if not, find the right time later. Or it may be that we are already too late, and there will never be a time for it. That is a possibility as well -- but to determine whether it is true requires the same kind of inside information. And so we put the fate of Miranda into your hands, Mr. Páez."

"And what if I make a mistake and cause this financial disaster for the Church?"

"Well," said Brother Andrew philosophically, turning the key and starting the elevator again, "perhaps it will be reminder that while men work by bureaucracies, God does not. The instruments of the Church rise and fall, and are ever-changing, but the Church goes on and on."

The elevator stopped at the Mezzanine level and Diego got off. Brother Andrew said, "I second the Cardinal's recommendation that you see the man himself before you leave. A remarkable man, Papa Leo Teodoro, to have had a plan for countering the corruption of the Board. It makes me wonder, really, what his plan for countering any corruption of the mercantile orders might have been." The elevator doors closed, and Diego went to find Pacelli.

On their way back to the hotel, they took the long way around and walked to the Pontifical Church of San Tommasso de Villanova, just outside Castel Gandolfo City State, to see the burial place of Leo Theodore; it took some time because it was all uphill. The church itself was relatively plain and clean-lined and white, with an unassuming dome and rather antique-looking lampposts out front; but inside it was splendid, with intricate carved detail from the hand of Bernini. The monument for Leo Theodore, much newer although in a Neo-Baroque style, was off to the side, a raised platform on which rested a lion and a lamb.

Diego had seen pictures of the monument all his life, but the monument was far more detailed than pictures ever showed. On the base there was a plaque that read:

Nemo est qui reliquerit domum,
aut fratres, aut sorores, aut patrem,
aut matrem, aut filios, aut agros
propter me et propter Evangelium,
qui non accipiat centies tantum,
nunc in tempore hoc:
domos, et fratres, et sorores,
et matres, et filios, et agros,
cum persecutionibus,
et in sæculo futuro vitam æternam.

It was framed by four little ovals with pictures Diego supposed were allegorical, labeled Opibus Firma, Copiis Locuples, Gloria Amplia, and Virtute Honesta, respectively; Diego had no idea what the point of them was, or if there was some allusion he was supposed to be getting from them.

From the pictures, Diego had always supposed that the lion, by whose side the lamb was curled up, asleep, was also sleeping; but seen in person it was clear that the lion, while resting its head on its paw, had its eyes open, vigilant, keeping guard.

From San Tommasso, they walked in leisurely fashion back to their hotel, drinking in the restful sight of Lake Albano. Diego was thoughtful through the entire walk.

to be continued

The Three Institutions

We observe that all nations, barbarous as well as civilized, though separately founded because remote from each other in time and space, keep these three human customs: all have some religion, all contract solemn marriages, all bury their dead. And in no nation, however savage and crude, are any human actions performed with more elaborate ceremonies and more sacred solemnity than the rites of religion, marriage, and burial. For, by the axiom that "uniform ideas, born among peoples unknown to each other, must have a common ground of truth" [144], it must have been dictated to all nations that from these three institutions humanity began among them all, and therefore they must be devoutly guarded by them all, so that the world should not again become a bestial wilderness.

[Giambattista Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, Bergin & Fisch, trs., Cornell (Ithaca, NY: 1976) p. 97, section 333.]

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Teacher

Today is the feast of St. Macrina the Younger, Neoplatonist philosopher, sister of St. Basil the Great, St. Naucratius, St. Peter of Sebaste, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, daughter of St. Basil the Elder and the St. Emmilia, granddaughter of St. Macrina the Elder. By one of those occasional happy happenstances, I am teaching Macrina today as part of a short section on Neoplatonism. From St. Gregory of Nyssa's On the Soul and the Resurrection, an account of Gregory's conversation with Macrina on her deathbed, here is an excerpt giving a Neoplatonist diagnosis of Epicurus's philosophy:

The framework of things was to his mind a fortuitous and mechanical affair, without a Providence penetrating its operations; and, as a piece with this, he thought that human life was like a bubble, existing only as long as the breath within was held in by the enveloping substance , inasmuch as our body was a mere membrane, as it were, encompassing a breath; and that on the collapse of the inflation the imprisoned essence was extinguished. To him the visible was the limit of existence; he made our senses the only means of our apprehension of things; he completely closed the eyes of his soul, and was incapable of seeing anything in the intelligible and immaterial world, just as a man, who is imprisoned in a cabin whose walls and roof obstruct the view outside, remains without a glimpse of all the wonders of the sky. Verily, everything in the universe that is seen to be an object of sense is as an earthen wall, forming in itself a barrier between the narrower souls and that intelligible world which is ready for their contemplation; and it is the earth and water and fire alone that such behold; whence comes each of these elements, in what and by what they are encompassed, such souls because of their narrowness cannot detect. While the sight of a garment suggests to any one the weaver of it, and the thought of the shipwright comes at the sight of the ship, and the hand of the builder is brought to the mind of him who sees the building, these little souls gaze upon the world, but their eyes are blind to Him whom all this that we see around us makes manifest; and so they propound their clever and pungent doctrines about the soul's evanishment;— body from elements, and elements from body, and, besides, the impossibility of the soul's self-existence (if it is not to be one of these elements, or lodged in one)....

Delightful Bathed with Slow-Ascending Dews

by William Lisle Bowles

As one who, long by wasting sickness worn,
Weary has watched the lingering night, and heard
Unmoved the carol of the matin bird
Salute his lonely porch; now first at morn
Goes forth, leaving his melancholy bed;
He the green slope and level meadow views,
Delightful bathed with slow-ascending dews;
Or marks the clouds, that o'er the mountain's head
In varying forms fantastic wander white;
Or turns his ear to every random song,
Heard the green river's winding marge along,
The whilst each sense is steeped in still delight.
So o'er my breast young Summer's breath I feel,
Sweet Hope! thy fragrance pure and healing incense steal!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817. From one of the three surviving prayers composed by Jane Austen for Austen family devotions:

Father of Heaven! whose goodness has brought us in safety to the close of this day, dispose our hearts in fervent prayer. Another day is now gone, and added to those, for which we were before accountable. Teach us almighty father, to consider this solemn truth, as we should do, that we may feel the importance of every day, and every hour as it passes, and earnestly strive to make a better use of what thy goodness may yet bestow on us, than we have done of the time past.

Give us grace to endeavour after a truly Christian Spirit to seek to attain that temper of Forbearance and Patience, of which our Blessed Saviour has set us the highest Example and which, while it prepares us for the spiritual happiness of the life to come, will secure to us the best enjoyment of what this World can give. Incline us Oh God! to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves.

Bruce Stovel discusses the background of these prayers here.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Vowel Harmony

One of the things that's difficult about Finnish is that it is a language with vowel harmony -- your vowels have to match up (Finnish has eight vowels in two overlapping groups). There are rules governing how this works, and they aren't at all complicated or difficult (if you have ä or ö, you have to continue with ä or ö, for instance). But the problem is that it's not the sort of thing you actually should be doing by rule at all, even by simple and easy rule. The rule identifies what is correct, but if you are speaking, you shouldn't be stopping to check the rule; you should just automatically be harmonizing your vowels as you go. And that's a bit tricky.

However, for the second half of the summer I am taking a Turkish course, and we had our first class tonight. (My last Urdu class is later this week.) And Turkish is also a language with vowel harmony, which I hadn't known. So, for instance, Bizim means 'our', and there are suffixes you do to match that grammatically just as you would in a Romance language. But if your suffix has vowels, they need (usually) to match the last vowel of the word to which you are adding it. Let's take s℩n℩f, which means 'class'. (℩ is to first approximation like the English 'ih'; 'i' in Turkish is always more like the English 'ee'.) If I want to say 'my class' and 'our class', I get:

benim s℩n℩f℩m : my class
bizim s℩n℩f℩m℩z : our class

But if we pick a different word with different vowels, like gül ('rose', the vowels have to change to correspond (ü is a strong 'oo' sound, like the 'u' in 'duke'):

benim gülüm : my rose
bizim gülümüz : our rose

And as with Finnish it works mostly according to rules and the rules themselves are relatively simple -- for instance, Turkish has eight vowels that fall into two groups, hard and soft, and hard has to go with hard and soft has to go with soft.

But I had an epiphany while we were going over this in class. Essentially, the appropriate suffix to add when saying 'our' is always a -*m*z suffix; it reflects the pronoun you use, or would use if you drop the pronoun -- -*m*z is a sort of reflection onto the noun of the pronoun bizim. But the vowels are carrying through the prior sound in the words to which the suffix belongs.

To call it 'vowel harmony', then, is potentially misleading. That makes it sound like I have a vowel and then I have to select another vowel that fits with it. But really that's not what's going on; what's going on is that the vowel sound is continuing across the consonant, sometimes directly and sometimes with modification, but it is a vowel continuation -- in essence, how you are framing the vowel in your mouth just continues on through the suffix. If I say adlar℩ (their name), the second 'a' shape continues through the generic -a/e and -℩/-i sounds of the suffix, and that gives us the ℩. With a word like defterleri (their notebook), the second 'e' shape continues on through the same generic sounds to give us e and i. It's exactly the same suffix; you just don't reshape your mouth for it, so that modifies the sound.

This is true in Finnish as well. If you look at a Finnish grammar, it always looks like Finnish has a jillion times a jillion suffixes; in reality it only has a jillion suffixes, because the variants for vowel harmony are actually just the same suffix while carrying over the framing of the vowel from previously in the word. In English, and generally in Romance languages, we start over with each syllable; but in vowel harmony languages, the vowel-sounds in a sense flow through the word rather than existing entirely as discrete units.

And this is exactly why there are relatively nice rules for them that are pretty much completely useless for conversation and of only limited value for writing. If you do it right, you'll fit the rule, but if you are using the rule, you will have difficulty doing it right. Because, although in some sense your vowels have to match, you don't get that effect easily and consistently by matching your vowels; you get the effect by learning how not to unmatch them, by just letting them continue on through into the next syllable or syllables.


Incidentally, this seems to me to be something of an analogy for the difference between a deontological and a virtue-ethical approach to rules in ethics; in deontology, you apply rules, while in virtue ethics, you try to learn how to harmonize, to carry the relevant moral quality through, and, lo, there's a rule that shows that you did it right even though you weren't applying the rule. That's why phronesis, prudence, is so important in Aristotelian ethics: it is the virtue of harmonizing your actions to the moral qualities of the circumstances.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Fortnightly Book, July 16

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

For a number of scheduling reasons I wanted either an easier read or a re-read for the fortnightly book, so it will be J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Published in September of 1937, it was immediately popular, and has never been out of print, although it had a revised second edition (changing the famous riddle scene to be more in conformity with The Lord of the Rings) in 1951.

I just have an ordinary paperback version of it, but it's worth noting that Tolkien put an immense amount of effort into the design of the original -- he provided illustrations, did the dust jacket, and ultimately was responsible for most of the binding design.

This seems like an excellent time to remind us all of this astounding adaptation, thrown together in 1966 so that William Snyder would not lose the movie rights he had bought:

Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Series


Opening Passage: From Foundation (p. 4):

His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before. That is, not in real life. He had seen it many times in the hyper-video, and occasionally in tremendous three-dimensional newscasts covering an Imperial Coronation or the opening of a Galactic Council. Even though he had lived all his life on the world of Synnax, which circled a star at the edges of the Blue Drift, he was not cut off from civilization, you see. At that time, no place in the Galaxy was.

There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said.

Summary: Using the mathematics of psychohistory to predict the future, Hari Seldon foresaw the imminent collapse of the Galactic Empire into thirty thousand years of war and barbarism. To reduce that Interregnum to a thousand years, he established two Foundations at opposite ends of the Galaxy, of which the First, on the most distant habitable planet, Terminus, a concentrated bit of civilization with almost no resources that alone preserved a momentum of scientific progress, and around which, in accordance with the secret Seldon Plan, the Second Galactic Empire would form, being forced along that path by a series of Seldon Crises in which a significant set of dangers to the Foundation narrow down all options to one.

Foundation gives the early years of the First Foundation, being in a sense a look at the three formative heroes of the First Foundation: Hari Seldon, seen in his declining years as he manipulates the delicate Imperial situation in order to found a society that will preserve civilization; Salvor Hardin, the first Mayor of Terminus, who realizes earlier than anyone else what Seldon was really doing and guides the fledgling Foundation through its first two Seldon Crises, using first the balance of power and then religious dominance to secure Terminus a position of importance among the local breakaway kingdoms, and whose ideas after his death begin to make possible the economic spread of Foundation influence; and Hobert Mallow, whose consolidation of this economic sphere of influence makes him the first Merchant Prince and begins to set the Foundation in earnest on a path of ever-expanding influence. Hardin's first Seldon Crisis occurs fifty years after the founding of the Foundation, the Hardin's second occurs thirty years later, and Mallow's about seventy-five years later.

Foundation and Empire, which story-wise is the strongest of the books, begins forty years later as the expanding Foundation comes into contact with the declining Empire which, however, is still the most powerful military force in the Galaxy. Under the brilliant general Bel Riose, the Empire begins re-conquering these outlying territories, including the Foundation, which has nothing that can stand against even the remnant of the military might of an Empire that once had total control over the Galaxy and that still controls the resources of a significant portion of it. However, brilliant Riose may be, however, he operates in social and economic that guarantee his defeat; it is the Empire that is destroying the Empire. Riose falls from glory and the Foundation begins its expansion again.

The defeat of Bel Riose is the high point of the Seldon Plan: it finally becomes wholly clear that the Foundation will certainly succeed not because of heroes like Hardin and Mallow but because it is socially and economically impossible for them not to do so.

It is said at this point that John Campbell suggested to Asimov that for the sake of interest something needed to put the Seldon Plan in danger. Thus the second half of Foundation and Empire sees the Foundation, about a hundred years later, gripped by corruption and on the verge of a civil war with the Independent Traders. However, the Traders throw in with the Foundation in the face of the uncannily swift rise of a new warlord, known only as The Mule. In one of the strongest scenes in the entire series, the government of the Foundation and some representatives of the Traders meet in the Time Vault on Terminus to hear the pre-recorded commentary of Seldon on the Seldon Crisis that the Mule seems to be creating -- and listen in shock as Seldon talks about the civil war between the Foundation and the Independent Traders. Hari Seldon did not foresee The Mule. The the power goes off as The Mule's fleet arrives.

Desperate, a small group of Foundationers journey to Trantor (which, having been sacked, is no longer the capital of the tiny remnant of the Empire) in the hopes of finding out whether the other Foundation is. Three crucial things are learned: that The Mule could not be foreseen by Seldon because he was a mutant capable of directly manipulating emotions; that the Second Foundation was a society of mental scientists, as the First Foundation was of physical scientists, whose entire reason for existing was to keep the Seldon Plan on track; and what Seldon meant when he said that the Second Foundation was located at Star's End. The latter information, however, they only narrowly prevent from falling into the hands of The Mule himself.

Five years later, in Second Foundation, The Mule is seeking the Second Foundation as the only thing in the Galaxy that could stop him, and the Second Foundation by a risky plan manages barely to win out. But win out they do, and turn to the difficult work of returning the Galaxy to the Seldon Plan. But the problem is that in order to stop The Mule, they had made it to obvious both that they really existed and that they had the power to stop a practically invincible man who could manipulate minds. The knowledge causes the reactions of the Foundation itself to deviate from what they need to be, and in particular creates an anti-Second-Foundation faction on the Foundation, resentful of what has become obvious, that they are going to do the difficult and dirty work of building the Second Empire, and that they are then going to be ruled by people like The Mule. Thus the Second Foundation, under its greatest leader must find a way to make the Foundation think that the Second Foundation has been destroyed. This he does, and 377 years after its founding, the Foundation is again on its way to building the Second Empire.

And so Asimov left it for about thirty years; the Foundation Trilogy became one of the staples of science fiction and fans kept pressuring for more. But what else is there to do? Asimov continued the series with Foundation's Edge, which opens 498 years after the founding of the Foundation, and things are going too well -- it is becoming clear to both the Second Foundation (which has the Plan) and to the Foundation (based on comments in the Time Vault after another Seldon Crisis) that things are going too well -- given the disruption created by The Mule, the Seldon Plan should not be as obviously on track as it is. Thus Golan Trevize of the Foundation is sent on a mission, under the cover of trying to find the planet on which human beings evolved, to try to draw out the Second Foundation and discover where they are; Stor Gendibal of the Second Foundation sets out to discover who beside the Second Foundation is managing the Galaxy. They discover Gaia, a unified conscious ecology, which is hoping to expand to a Galaxy-wide consciousness, and Trevize is put in the position of choosing which of the three visions -- a physical Empire under the Foundation, a psychohistorical Empire under the Second Foundation, or a galactic consciousness -- should be chosen. He makes his choice and then spends the next book, Foundation and Earth, trying to figure out why.

And at the halfway-point to the Second Empire, Asimov had no idea where to go next. So he went back instead and wrote Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, about how Hari Seldon invented psychohistory.

Thus the series. It's worth keeping the basic structure of the whole in mind, because this is one of the strengths of the series -- the endless play of ideas across the sweep of history. And the idea of psychohistory is an engaging one. But it's not surprising that Asimov ran out of things to do with it. By the 500-year mark of the thousand-year Interregnum, the Seldon Plan looks hopelessly flawed. Two assumptions of psychohistory are known from the beginning:

(1) It requires a sufficiently large population, being statistical.
(2) It requires that human reactions be relatively constant.

The Mule wrecks (2) completely by his ability to manipulate emotions, and it takes the next hundred twenty years and outside intervention to undo what a single man like The Mule did in five. What is more, it becomes clear that a third assumption has been made:

(3) Scientific advance will not radically change the structure and character of human society.

It is clear that this assumption is on shaky ground, as Foundation advances have gone beyond what anyone could possibly have imagined in Seldon's day. You can't predict the exact course of scientific progress in advance. The gamble was that, however much it would advance, it would advance along the same lines and in the same kinds of ways as before; but Foundation's Edge makes clear that this cannot be guaranteed. And by the end of Foundation and Earth, it is clear that there is a fourth assumption:

(4) Human beings are the only intelligence capable of affecting the course of human history.

And this is shown not only to be false but remarkably false, since there are at least three intelligences in the Galaxy that are not strictly human: Gaia, the hyper-individualistic and self-modifying Solarians, and the robots. And all of these are just nonhuman intelligences who arose out of human history -- the robots were made by ancient human beings, Gaia was made by the robots, and the Solarians are human beings who have genetically modified themselves so that they are hermaphroditic and telekinetic. All three are small factors -- but they are still distorting things, and if there are any alien intelligences, psychohistory can say nothing about them. Technically the Plan will be fulfilled because Gaia sees the Second Empire as a stepping-stone to Galaxia, but the more time has passed, the more things have arisen that the psychohistory cannot handle.

It is interesting to speculate, though, where Asimov could have gone, and, indeed, that is part of what makes the entire series interesting. The basic conceit of the series means that it begins by, very roughly, taking the Fall of the Roman Empire and stapling it to a Renaissance-era expansion from the periphery -- what if Britain, say, were going through the early Renaissance at the time the Western Roman Empire was falling apart? There is never at any point in the series an exact correspondence of events, only correspondences that build on loose allusions that are modified quite extensively, but Foundation expansion broadly parallels early colonialization, if we think of it as the Foundation colonizing not a New World but the old Empire. The Mule messes up the story by introducing something new, although, if it weren't for the fact that the Foundation is on a timetable, probably not much more than Napoleon messed up Europe. By Foundation's Edge it is clear that the Foundation is in the middle of undergoing a kind of technological revolution analogous to the changes in communication, transportation, and the like in the nineteenth century, and its colonializing analogously takes on a highly centralized empire-building character like that of the nineteenth century colonial powers. Not all of these may have been intentional, but we can follow it through, again taking our history rather loosely. The nineteenth century leads to ever-expanding war. The Foundation has no serious external military rivals, so any such war would have to be at least partly civil war. But this would work quite well. Foundation history began to go wrong when The Mule prevented a nascent civil war; what is more, despite the fact that galactic events get back on track, they do so, and are kept on track, by artificial means and not by erasing history. And thus the Foundation, contrary to the original Plan, has never faced a civil war that threatened to destroy it. Once its rise began, it never had to make concessions to survive, except to an invincible superhuman. This is a difference of substance that no external tweaking on its own could fix. And I think there's another assumption of the Plan lurking in the wings that was never quite explored: the assumption that the Second Foundation, as the guardian of the Plan, is not itself a threat to the Plan.

But the books as they exist are something of a closed circle. One of the things that leaped out at me on reading all seven together is that the narrative first and last, Prelude to Foundation and Foundation and Earth are quite parallel to each other. Prelude sees Hari Seldon going on a quest through the sectors of Trantor, which mirrors the Galaxy, in hopes of finding the way to build psychohistory, during which he discovers the Mycogenians, descendants of ancient Spacers from Aurora, and learns of Earth, the original homeworld of humanity, and finds that the Galaxy is in the hands of Daneel Olivaw, the humanoid robot who can manipulate minds. In Foundation and Earth, Golan Trevize goes on a quest through the Galaxy to find Earth, the original homeworld of humanity, in the hope that this will help him to discover the flaw in psychohistory, a quest that takes him to the ancient Spacer worlds, including Aurora, and to Earth, where he discovers that the fate of the Galaxy is in the hands of Daneel Olivaw, the humanoid robot who can manipulate minds. The parallelism is greatly to the disfavor of Foundation and Earth, which has less intrinsic interest, less interesting characters, and less of a story. (Its primary strength is playing around with new ideas, and its exploration of the ways in which the universe can be a very hostile place.) But given that it exists, perhaps we should just take it as calling it a day: psychohistory was an interesting idea with great promise, but like so many such ideas, it became obsolete before half of that promise was fulfilled.

Favorite Passage: He's a relatively minor character, but I think Mayor Indbur is my favorite character in the whole series. From Foundation and Empire:
So Mayor Indbur was the third of the name and the second to succeed by right of birth, and he was the least of the three, for he was neither brutal nor capable--but merely an excellent bookkeeper born wrong.

Indbur the Third was a peculiar combination of ersatz characteristics to all but himself.

To him, a stilted geometric love of arrangement was "system," an indefatigable and feverish interest in the pettiest facets of day-to-day bureaucracy was "industry," indecision when right was "caution," and blind stubbornness when wrong was, "determination."

And withal he wasted no money, killed no man needlessly, and meant extremely well. (p. 120)

Recommendation: The Trilogy are the best, with Foundation introducing the most interesting ideas and Foundation and Empire giving the strongest story; Second Foundation, I think, while quite good, is in some ways an aftermath-of-F&E novel. Of the other four, which are widely recognized as weaker, I personally like Prelude to Foundation best, although Foundation and Earth has the most interesting ideas. I really can't stand most of the characters (especially Golan Trevize) in the two Sequels, despite their many interesting elements, and Forward the Foundation seems to me never to quite find a way to cohere as a story in itself. But the whole series is worth reading, if only to get a sense of the scope and sweep, which is part of the interest.


Isaac Asimov, Foundation, Bantam (New York: 1991).

Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Empire, Bantam (New York: 1991).