Saturday, December 01, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #9: Aventures de trois Russes et de trois Anglais

On the 27th of January, 1854, two men lay stretched at the foot of an immense weeping willow, chatting, and at the same time watching most attentively the waters of the Orange River. This river, the Groote of the Dutch, and the Gariep of the Hottentots, may well vie with the other three great arteries of Africa—the Nile, the Niger, and the Zambesi. Like those, it has its periodical risings, its rapids and cataracts. Travellers whose names are known over part of its course, Thompson, Alexander, and Burchell, have each in their turn praised the clearness of its waters, and the beauty of its shores.

It is perhaps not surprising that Jules Verne has a novel about the metric system. As scientific correspondence became more common, it became clear to physicists and others that there was a need for a standard length measurement based on some common reference point. The two early suggestions for how to do this were to take some particular distance relative to the Equater and the Poles, or to use a pendulum set-up. The former eventually became the preferred option because it became clear that the pendular method was not giving sufficiently equivalent results (due to differences in gravity). So the French Academy of Sciences in 1790 defined the mètre as one ten-millionth the difference between the Equater and the North Pole. However, measuring a distance of this magnitude is an extraordinarily complicated undertaking, because it requires not just a measurement but an expedition of measurements -- and Verne, from his fascination with geography loves stories about scientific expeditions. It probably came to mind because in 1867 there was a big movement to regularize geodetic measurements across countries.

Not every nation, of course, joined the metric system bandwagon; the two major holdouts in Europe were England and Russia. And that gives us the background of the tale, The Adventures of Three Englishmen and Three Russians in South Africa (also called Meridiana or Measuring a Meridian; note that the English translations always put the Englishmen first despite the French putting the Russians first). The essential conceit of the work is that the English and the Russians are considering joining the meter club, but they are unwilling to do anything public without establishing their own measurements. So they send a joint expedition to South Africa to measure the 24th meridian east. Three Englishmen -- William Emery, Sir John Murray, and Colonel Everest -- meet up with three Russians -- Matthew Strux, Nicholas Palander, and Michael Zorn -- and together with a half-English, half-San guide, Makoum, they set out to make their measurements and calculations. They are in dangerous territory, however. There are wild beasts a-plenty, and hostile tribes, and, perhaps worst of all, in the middle of their expedition England and Russia go to war with each other (the Crimean War), thus splitting the two groups. Forced together by necessity, however, they will fight through, and learn something about the power of scientific friendship to cross national boundaries.


Today is the memorial of St. Edmund Campion, S.J., martyr. Born in 1540, he was an extraordinarily talented student, winning prizes and honors throughout his education, the culmination of which was perhaps in 1568, when he was charged with delivering Oxford University's welcoming speech to Queen Elizabeth, and to be one of the parties in a public debate before her. As he was both scholarly and had caught the attention of the Queen, people began to say he was likely to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. However, he became Catholic, and eventually joined the Jesuits. When in 1580 the Jesuits began their English mission, he volunteered, sneaking into England in the guise of a jewel merchant, and issued the "Challenge to Privy Council", also known as "Campion's Brag", in which he challenged Protestants to a debate. He was arrested. According to some, he was questioned by Queen Elizabeth herself, who remembered him from his welcoming speech; when asked if he regarded her as Queen of England, he answered that he did. He was offered a position if he would repudiate Catholicism, but he refused, and thus was put on trial and was executed at Tyburn on December 1, 1581, at the age of 41.

From Evelyn Waugh's Edmund Campion: A Life:

He was one of a host of martyrs, each, in their several ways, gallant and venerable; some performed more sensational feats of adventure, some sacrificed more conspicuous positions in the world, many suffered crueller tortures, but to his own, and to each succeeding generation, Campion's fame has burned with unique warmth and brilliance; it was his genius to express, in sentences that have resounded across the centuries, the spirit of chivalry in which they suffered, to typify in his zeal, his innocence, his inflexible purpose, the pattern which they followed.

It was an age replete with examples of astounding physical courage. Judged by the exploits of the great adventurers of his time, the sea-dogs and explorers, Campion's brief achievement may appear modest enough; but these were tough men, ruthlessly hardened by upbringing, gross in their recreations. Campion stands out from even his most gallant and chivalrous contemporaries, from Philip Sidney and Don John of Austria, not as they stand above Hawkins and Stukeley by finer human temper, but by the supernatural grace that was in him. That the gentle scholar, trained all his life for the pulpit and the lecture room, was able at the word of command to step straight into a world of violence, and acquit himself nobly; that the man, capable of the strenuous heroism of that last year and a half, was able, without any complaint,to pursue the sombre routine of the pedagogue and contemplate without impatience a lifetime so employed--there lies the mystery which sets Campion's triumph apart from the ordinary achievements of human strength; a mystery whose solution lies in the busy, uneventful years at Brunn and Prague, in the profound and accurate piety of the Jesuit rule.

[Evelyn Waugh, Edmund Campion: A Life, Ignatius Press (San Francisco: 2005), pp. 200-201.]

Friday, November 30, 2018

Dashed Off XXVIII

All human relationships are infected by perversities, cravings, and self-blindings.

It is remarkable how unconvincing Feuerbach's criticism of Schleiermacher's account of prayer is (regardless of what you think of the latter); the sense of filial trust is not a universal feature of prayer, and cannot be by Feuerbach's own account of religion; and, what is more, the way he rejects a primary role for the sense of dependence is contrary to nearly universal phenomena, like prayer under desperation. It is a complete and utter failure as an account.

Love often commands.

The incoherence of Feuerbach, arising out of his perpetual picking-and-choosing, in a nutshell: "Did Christianity conquer a single philosopher, historian, or poet of the classical period? The philosophers who went over to Christianity were feeble, contemptible philosophers. All who had yet the classic spirit in them were hostile, or at least indifferent to Christianity." -- There were none in the classical period, and those that were, were bad philosophers, and they were not really classical-period philosophers even though they lived in the classical period, in three consecutive sentences. Nor is this, while egregious, an isolated case. I can give some allowance for the difficulty of arguing against something you think is a contradiction; I could admire a muddle arising from the desire to do justice to both sides; but some behaviors just show that you do not care about reasons.

trophic cascade

Note Feuerbach's claim that Protestantism 'confined the speciality of the Christian to the domain of faith'.

The dogmas of Christianity far exceed anything that natural desire can anticipate.

Interpreting set theory in a Cantorian way, arguments for the null set are arguments that at least some thought lacks a distinguishable, discrete object.

Most theories of analogical reasoning are too memory-intensive, being search-and-comparison theories of one sort or the other, and comprehensive rather than precisely directed. They are theories of brute-force approximation of analogical inference.

the vocabulary-extending function of analogical reasoning: e.g., there is a high-level abstract structure shared by water in channels and electricity in wires; by virtue of this, one can adapt water-vocabulary for use as electricity vocabulary

Human beings seem most easily to reason by analogy where function is involved. (Cp. Gentner's & Clement's 'Plant stems are drinking straws', which most peopleinterpret as describing conveyance of liquid rather than being long and thin.)

The meaning of a metaphor is not the same as the reasoning that leads to it, or by which it is constructed; we do not have to go through the work of building the meaning every time.

(1) What is potential cannot be actual except by what is actual.
(2) What is actual from another has its actuality as an action of that other.
(3) What is actual in what is actual from another must have an adequate reason in what is actual in that other.

complete actuality: Second Way
incomplete actuality: First Way
possible actuality: Scotus

the human heart, the tarnished mirror of the infinite

Nothing could be established to be a 'brute fact' except by ruling out all possible explanations.

we-mode and I-mode social agency
acting under the sign of with-ness
acting under the sign of for-ness
with-ness with structures of for-ness for the with-ness

The eucharistic presence is complete regardless of whether it is personally offered and accepted.

The notion that anyone ever found transfinalization or transsignification more intelligible than transubstantiation is absurd. Where the former do not exclude the latter, they may draw out this or that aspect of the Mystery in a clearer way, but that is all.

"Every fully constituted object is simultaneously a value object." Stein

"As God, He was the motivating [kinetic] principle of His own humanity, and as man He was the revelatory [ekphantic] principle of His own divinity." Maximus Confessor (Amb 5)

Part of faith is being silent when silence is appropriate.

existence arguments
(1) Given that A exists, B must also exist.
(2) In order that we may know, A exists.
(3) In order that we may act, A exists.
[one, true, good]

States grow along lines of easy taxation.

(1) explicit statement
(2) implication
(3) implicature
(4) evocation

"God is the implicit heaven; heaven is the explicit God." Feuerbach

Heaven can only be known by triplex via.

Empirical existence is never proven by the senses alone.

It is pretty clear that Feuerbach's reduction comes up short in the reduction of the Trinity (as also the theological virtues) -- to make the reduction work, he has to make up a Binitarian Christianity iwth only Faith and Love. When discussing the sacraments, eh can draw on the Protestant notion of there being only two sacraments, but on these two points, the Christianity reduced is a Christianity he has made up precisely for this purpose. The gap may be related to the fact that there is, for all practical purposes, no Church in the Christianity Feuerbach is 'reducing'.

In all his talk about alienation of our natures, Feuerbach never considers (as one would have to) the possibility that what he is describing is not alienation bu thte reintegration of what had already been alienated, a re-ligation of the bonds that had been broken.

Free will is the projected grace of God, the anticipation thereof.

mereological objections as common objections to transubstantiation -- i.e., it must still be bread because of its parts (atomic structure, etc.)

Arguments can only be used for persuasion because they have an intrinsic purpose that is not persuasion.

It is notable how vehemently Feuerbach has to attack celibacy.

Separation of Church and State inevitably leads to the attempts to separate Church and School, and Church and Hospital, and Church and Market, because states inevitably try to pervade all these things as sources of power.

'intrinsic good' understood as noninstrumental vs understood as good in se
-- Many discussions do not properly distinguish these.

Looking at history, it seems plausible to say that private revelations primarily serve to provide aesthetic vestment for the doctrines of the faith.

purgatory as convalescence

the quasi-representative function of civil service (common people in their common way making government work)

energy : length :: momentum : time
length : time :: momentum : energy

Descartes's Med IV as an argument that if the argument from evil is sound, our faculties cannot be trusted.

diachronic goods (e.g., improvement over time)

potential to the absent (change)
potential to the present (composition)

God as efficient cause
(1) producer
(2) conserver
(3) governor

exemplar causation & restoring/repairing causation

inward imitation, co-expression, complementary responsiveness

Politics being a social activity and not merely an activity of pure intellect, social coherence will exert pressure on political views quite independently of intellectual consistency; nor is there anyone of which this is not true, which is why academics so often seem to go stupid when they get into full partisan mode. It is nonetheless the case that there are means for reducing the chances that social coherence and intellectual consistency work at cross-purposes -- for instance, on the consistency side, taking a more pragmatic stance (focusing on the feasible), opening discussion to compromise, thinking through positions more fully; and, on the coherence side, allowing oneself some distance from party concerns, keeping open an attempt at rational dialogue with opponents, choosing party and political association reflectively and carefully.

Our thoughts are partly defined by the communities in which we actively take part.

aphoristic coalescence -> aphoristic interaction -> dialectic -> system

finitum/finiens -- finite/infinite
exceeded/exceeding -- exceeded/unexceeded
caused/causing -- caused/uncaused
exemplate/exemplar -- exemplate/unexemplate
measured/measuring -- measured/unmeasured
changed/change-causing -- changed/unchanged
-- These quadruples hang together because they involve an identifiable act admitting of nesting.
-- One can get from left to right by rejection of infinite regress in the nesting of the act.

A competent commander, with sufficient time and resources, can usually outmaneuver anything he can foresee. Because of this, most military success arises from denying the opponent time or resources, since one cannot usually pick the opposing commander (and thus cannot affect their competence) and creating something new (thus blocking foresight) is difficult and not always guaranteed to succeed.

computer programming as a liberal art vs. computer programming as a servile art

prose as 'poetry interrupted' (Chesterton)

rhetoric & the maximization of apologetical utility

While people may be skeptical of ancient emphasis on music as character-building, even we use music to relax or to get 'pumped up', both of which can affect character-building.

The gospel is unconditional promise in the sense that it is addressed to all without condition; it is not unconditional in the sense of requiring nothing from us.

If we say 'It seems to S that P' we are saying that P or something that mimics it must be a reason for S's experiences to be P-identifiable experiences.

If a claim is indefeasible, there must be a reason it cannot be defeated; if it is defeasible, there must be a reason it can be defeated.

wrongdoing under titulus existimatus
wrongdoing under titulus coloratus
wrongdoing under false title
wrongdoing under no apparent title

fourfold aspect of episcopal jurisdiction
(1) sacramental stewardship of divine majesty, in upholding the sacramental economy
(2) prophetic stewardship of divine majesty, in preservation and preaching of Scripture
(3) tribunal authority
(4) medicinal authority

Separation of Church and State cannot be allowed to be a usurpation of the public realm by the State, and the Church cannot accept a version of it under this interpretation without mauling itself.

A government loses trust by weakness, by foolishness, or by wickedness, and thereby loses authority.

In politics, all good positions have at least one evil ape.

posterior authority -> prior authority -> first authority

argument from religious experience // argument from poetic inspiration

The prosperity of a society arises form coherent families with robust education and opportunity for, and expectation of, work; this is the normal wealth-creation of a society.

Modern schooling is ridiculously time-consuming for the result achieved.

Law is that which opposes temptation; temptation is unlaw.

We are outlaws in an actual kingdom of ends.

common good as happiness of the body politic (Eth V,1)

Law is concerned not with happiness as such but with the ordering of happiness.

The key to changing the world is to keep the right idea alive until things tip that way.

A remarkable amount of time in a remarkable number of service occupations is spent trying to cancel out the work of other service occupations; this follows from the nature of many service jobs in a context of competition. Thus I hire lawyers to cancel out your lawyers, advertisers to cancel out your advertisers, etc.

Regulation is a remarkably poor instrument of policy; its biggest successes are always when it helps clarify other driving forces that do the actual work.

Political alliances are never wholly ideological; they are always affected by the question, "With whom are you comfortable working at this time?"

Solidarity does not arise by mere gestures but by common-good-building.

Modern historians have had difficulty distinguishing biased scholarship from solidary scholarship, in both directions, probably because the difference is ethical rather than one of method.

For every argument from evil there is a corresponding kind of skepticism.

(1) Evil requires the existence of good.
(2) Good is either good in itself or good from another (derivatively good).
(3) The latter cannot trace back infinitely, so there must be something good in itself.
(4) Good-in-itself admits of more and less.

privation theory of error

That is most possible which is most necessary.

Intelligibility admits of more and less.

Bazin's analogy: 'a poet is almost a priest'

If your ethics does not describe how to live a whole life, it is hardly an ethics at all.

As we are distracted from real good by pleasure, so too we are distracted from genuine understanding by the feeling of being clever.

It is quite obviously often inconvenient to the tribe that the pious character ends up being encouraged and preserved, because the pious character does not pick and choose according to the convenience of the tribe. History is filled with the difficulties that have arisen from pious insistence on what is inconvenient.

The middle term of a practical syllogism is a measure of action, a criterion for discerning what is worth doing.

We clearly have a lot of evidence that the unobserved can diverge considerably from the observed, in every sense in which we can have evidence of the unobserved.

"The heroes of declining nations are always the same -- the athlete, the singer, or the actor." Sir John Glubb

The eucharist, our supersubstantiation, is for the Church the daily bread, the needed bread, the bread for the coming day, the lasting and perpetual bread, the royal bread, all at once.

type specimen method of sorting philosophical positions

possible responses to fine-tuning arguments
(1) merely apparent
-- (1a) not really contingent
-- (1b) not really a precise target
(2) freak happening (chance in a small lottery, the improbable happens)
(3) chance in a sufficiently large lottery to make probable
(4) design

Gospel and Church cannot be pried apart.

One can make no sense of chance without a framework for what is chancy.

Words on a page are dead. Words read are alive. In writing a book, thought dies and is laid in the tomb so that it may rise again. Every book is a Holy Saturday tomb for the word. Every reading is Easter Sunday, when the word, which is not then dead, appears, living, to those who wait.

Scripture is prologue to Sacrament, which is the first foreshadowing part of the book of glory.

Eric Chien's Fism Act

Eric Chien's Fism Grand Prix close-up magic act is well worth seeing. It's all sleight of hand, no camera tricks:

It's also a really good example of communication without words: he tells a story, one with clear underlying rules and plot, without saying anything at all.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Perlocutionary Force of Arguments

Speech act theory holds that speech acts generally can be analyzed into three acts (or aspects of the act): the locutionary, the illocutionary, and the perlocutionary. The locutionary act is the linguistic utterance itself; the illocutionary act is what you are trying to do in it; and the perlocutionary is the act of using it for a further end beyond it.*

For instance, if I say, "Let me pay your bill," in a successful attempt to persuade you that I am kind, the locutionary act is the actual utterance as understandable to an English-speaker. The illocutionary force is the offering to pay -- I'm not merely saying the words, I am saying the words as an offer of payment -- and the perlocutionary force is persuasion -- I'm not merely saying the words, nor merely offering to pay, I am also succeeding in the attempt to use the offer of payment to persuade you of my kindness. You can think of them as the layers of our use of language: we communicate with words (locutionary), those words are said as a kind of act (illocutionary), and in the attempt to achieve further results by means of that act (perlocutionary).

When people discuss this, they generally stick to talking about particular statements, but there are other kinds of speech acts, including speech acts that have statements as component parts. A formal speech, for instance, is itself a speech act, and has its locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary aspects, just as much as its component statements do. And the same is true for arguments. An argument has a locutionary aspect (the words and syntax that mean something); the argument is communicated in an act of a certain kind (e.g., as something argued for the sake of argument, or as a suggestion, or the like); and the argument is communicated in that kind of act in the attempt to achieve a result (e.g., to persuade you to agree with the conclusion, or to enlighten you as to someone's view, or to impress you with the sophistication of the argument, etc.). Historically, the illocutionary aspect has sometimes been called the dialectical part and the perlocutionary the rhetorical part.

It's very important not to confuse the illocutionary and the perlocutionary aspects of the argument, the dialectical and the rhetorical, although both can be important. The perlocutionary force -- like persuasion -- is not part of the immediate act itself but of a larger act subsuming it. You can succeed illocutionarily in the act itself, but perlocutionary success requires other things that are beyond the argument. In statements, I can promise by saying, 'I promise to do it'; I can't persuade you by saying, 'I persuade you to do it'. (That sounds like a punchline for a joke.) Arguments are no different. You can refute someone just by building an argument of the right structure on the right premises; you can't persuade someone just by building an argument, because even if you are trying to persuade someone, persuasion is a further effect in another person that you are trying to achieve by the refutation. The success conditions are entirely different.

* There is a strain of speech act theory, due to Searle, that tries to replace Austin's three-act theory with a two-act theory, involving only the illocutionary and the perlocutionary. As with much of Searle's work in speech act theory, this is interesting but, I think, ultimately to the detriment of the theory, due to Searle's tendency to change the general theory in order to address problems that are domain-specific. For instance, Searle in a famous paper argued that the distinction of illocutionary and locutionary act was otiose because in a case like "I hereby promise to do it" the sense-and-reference meaning of the statement is such that it includes the illocutionary force: the serious and literary meaning includes that it is itself a promise. But this is false as a general matter. For instance, in a purely verbal conversation, if I say "I hereby promise to do it" and then, in response to someone asking what I said, you say, "'I hereby promise to do it'", we have performed the same type of locutionary act, and we have to be, since your action can't make any sense unless you are saying what I said. But in terms of the illocutionary act there has to be a significant difference, because in using these words you are not making any kind of promise at all, but simply reporting on my promise. Searle's condition -- that we are talking about the serious and literal meaning -- is also glossing over an important area of language in which it becomes necessary not to collapse the locutionary and illocutionary aspects of language into each other, namely figurative and poetic speech, including many of the ceremonial kinds of speech that Austin had in mind when building parts of his theory. In general, I find Austin's instincts about language are superior by magnitudes to Searle's, who tends to be at his best when looking at specific problems rather than fiddling with the overall theory.

One reason for keeping the three-act theory is that it is essential to Austin's notion that communicating with language is a practical activity, and therefore has the structure of a practical activity. Throughout discussions of practical activities one finds analogues of a three-act theory. For instance, in moral theory, if you hit someone in the face, there is the act itself (the 'locutionary' aspect), the object in the act (the 'illocutionary' aspect), and the intent of the act, that is our use of it for further ends (the 'perlocutionary' aspect, or at least the perlocutionary aspect it will have if it is successful). For instance, you might be hitting them in the face as retaliation for the fact that they look better than you in the attempt to harm their face; or you might be hitting them in the face as a form of self-defense in the attempt to deter them from doing something bad. It matters greatly that you can in some sense do the same action with a different object; entire ethical theories, like Kantianism, are built on the point.


The state of Catholic catechesis in modern America can be captured in concise form by the fact that this passage from the Jesuit magazine, America, was not intended to be parody on it:

Unfortunately, the muscles of learning have long been neglected in the study of theology as seen in the high-school curriculum provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The core curriculum, “Who Is Jesus Christ?,”dives into the dual persons of Jesus and floods students with the incredibly complex teachings of Nestorianism and monophysitism. But the curriculum does little to promote critical thinking and moral development. How can we foster faith in students with merely rote memorization and inaccessible vocabulary?

'The dual persons of Jesus'! That this establishes that Meaghan and Shea are not competent for providing advice on catechesis goes without saying, but the real garnish on the dish is that no editor caught the problem.

One gets tired, incidentally, of 'critical thinking' being used as an excuse for lazy people not to teach the actual subjects that they are supposed to be teaching. Nobody can do critical thinking in physics except to the extent they already know physics; nobody can do critical thinking in literature except to the extent they are familiar with literature; nobody can do critical thinking when faced with a problem requiring integrals if they haven't learned what an integral is and how it works. Critical thinking is about using what you have learned in order to select the right approach to a problem and the right way to evaluate your thinking about it.

I had this problem with a lot of approaches to confirmation classes, back when I was helping out with confirmation classes. People talk grandly about teaching teenagers to have a 'living faith' and 'lifelong practice' and, as Meaghan and Shea do, things like 'critical thinking and moral development'. And certainly, if you have in hand a way to teach the subject that does this, it is infinitely better than using a way that doesn't do it. But your job in a confirmation class is not actually to do any of these things, it is to make sure everyone has the minimal level of knowledge required to understand confirmation and its prerequisites. If you aren't even doing that, it is dishonest to talk about giving them a 'living faith' and 'lifelong practice' or contributing to their 'moral development'; it's nothing but words being used to hide the fact that you are not doing the task you were supposed to be doing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Moral Deference

Julia Markovits has a nice paper, "Saints, heroes, sages, and villains", that touches on, among other things, the question of moral deference (which I've talked about before) and has clarified in my mind one of the problems with common skeptical positions about it. In the course of discussing moral deference issues, she says,

But as others of McGrath’s examples make clear, the problems with moral deference seem to persist in non-­‐controversial cases as well: there’s something “odd”, as she says, about someone’s basing his belief in the wrongness of slavery purely on the testimony of a reliable authority (despite being in possession of all the relevant non-­‐moral facts). In cases like this, however, we might well question whether someone who doesn't know on his own that slavery is wrong can be relied upon to identify a moral expert worth deferring to. As McGrath and Hills both point out, in the case of moral experts (unlike the case of medical or tax experts), it often takes one to know one.

I once tried an experiment in my Ethics course, in which I would relate the general approaches to actual historical cases where ethical reasoning played a significant role -- women's rights, slavery, civil rights, and so forth. As is so very often the case with experiments in teaching, it was something of a disaster. The students didn't have much of a sense of ethical reasons that historically contributed to progress in these areas, which is probably not surprising, but the questions were almost impossible to discuss. For instance, on the subject of slavery,

(1) Students agreed it was wrong and that it was better for a society not to have it.
(2) Their primary reason for saying it was wrong was that everybody thought so.
(3) Pressed on that, they said that in our culture it was taught as wrong.
(4) Pressed on why it was better for a culture not to have slavery, most of the reasons were either based on religious principles or on a principle of what goes around comes around ('karma' was usually the term they used, although they were very hazy about it and it had no connection to Indian thought for most of them).
(5) They were not very impressed by philosophical reasons for the wrongness of slavery unless they could be assimilated to one of the above reasons; they thought them complicated, silly things that were either just weird or attempting to say something that really boiled down to religious principles, or karma, or culture.

And so it was with other topics, with some variations. My point is that the situation being called 'odd' here seems in fact to be the normal situation of normal people in most situations: their moral views are generally views to which they have been accustomed by upbringing that are reinforced by other people apparently sharing the same views. Custom, tradition, and the agreement of others are the primary reasons for taking things to be right or wrong. Nor do I think that this is something from which anyone is wholly free; articulation of further reasons is difficult. I have seen professional ethicists break down into incoherence when trying to explain something they thought was ethically obvious to people who did not take it to be so; faced with the mind-boggling breakdown of the principle 'everybody thinks that' they couldn't come up with a way to argue for the position. (Although, it is true, part of the problem may be the tendency of ethicists to overestimate the extent to which people outside of philosophy have any idea what they are talking about, or any interest in it when they figure it out.) Think of how our moral vocabulary develops. Why do we treat a word as being morally charged? Because other people treat it as morally charged. We are deferring to people around us in taking 'hypocrite' or 'racist' to mark a bad thing. We might then come up with reasons why this is a reasonable evaluation. But we deferred first.

Nor does there seem anything wrong with this, as such. The chances are very good that any argument you make up on your own about why slavery is gravely wrong is more fragile and less reasonable as a basis for the belief than the testimony of Frederick Douglass that it is gravely wrong. If you ask ethicists why slavery is wrong, some are going to be 'everyone thinks that' ethicists; those that don't may come up with a number of arguments, but some of the reasons are arguably going to be more stupid than "Because Frederick Douglass says so." And as Phillip Hallie notes in "From Cruelty to Goodness", in order to get a good sense of how to describe cruelty accurately, you need to give some deference to the victims of it; they are the ones who actually know the harm. It doesn't follow that they are infallible; it does suggest that you need to avoid trying to base your moral views on nothing more than arguments in your head, and maybe ask how someone else sees things.

But the argument above suggests that this causes problems for identification of moral experts. This seems, I think, too quick. Suppose someone really and truly cannot figure out why slavery is morally wrong. It seems irrelevant that he cannot 'be relied upon to identify a moral expert'; he would, by the very assumptions of the argument, be better off deferring to practically anyone, moral expert or not. It's obviously nonsensical to say that you can only defer to experts; you don't have to assess your father-in-law as an expert to defer to his tax advice, you just need to recognize that he has more experience than you, or has more relevant familiarity than you, or, for that matter, just seems to know what he's talking about. Maybe you'll be burned by your father-in-law's con man ways, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a reasonable thing to do. And by the very assumptions of the argument quoted above, almost everyone should be able to figure out why slavery is wrong, so almost everyone would be a reasonable authority to defer to. This is going to be a common problem with arguments like this, on points that are not controversial: if it's so obvious that most people should be able to get it, it's not actually crucial to identify a moral expert, just as if you are completely helpless with your taxes in comparison with everyone else, you are already going to be better off getting any advice.

Likewise, there are many, many areas of taxation and medicine where ordinary people cannot certainly recognize the experts -- they have to rely on testimony from other people to find them at all. Sometimes people genuinely end up with quacks and charlatans. Perhaps there are more quacks and charlatans in moral matters than medical matters, but even if so, the posited asymmetry simply doesn't seem to exist, and could hardly exist given the apparent importance of testimony for moral education.

When Yellow Leaves, or None, or Few, Do Hang

Sonnet 73
by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang;
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self that seals up all in rest;
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by;
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Episodic Nature of Man

The sexual revolution is arguably the most extreme manifestation of the episodic nature of man. To surrender one's life to sexual pleasure meant once and for all abandoning any attempt to give one's existence a unifying meaning; this pleasure is, like no other, related to what is short-lived and ephemeral. Many wise men in the history of European thought consistently warned against the effects of the uncontrolled reign of pleasures over human life. In classical ethics pleasures were feared because they not only do not have a self-mitigating measures. These warnings were not treated with the seriousness they deserved by modern utilitarians. With the growth of consumerism this fear evaporated.

Ryszard Legutko, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, Adelson, tr. Encounter Books (New York: 2018), p. 109.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Arguments and Persuasion (Re-Post)

The following post from 2014 references an old discussion, but the theme is perennial and I've seen a number of people making the mistake it criticizes in the past few months, so I thought I would put it up again as a PSA.


John Holbo has an interesting post on the difficulty of teaching students to build arguments. He rightly recognizes that the difficulty is actually not related to the intelligence of the students; and rightly recognizes that what gets called 'informal logic' is useless for addressing the problem when it occurs; and interestingly suggests that students are using the "makessense" stopping rule -- they judge whether everything's good in argument-land by glancing over things and seeing that everything 'makes sense', and then stopping. And it's certainly the case that whenever I ask students what makes something a good argument, they will explicitly say that it makes sense -- I ask it every term I teach Intro, and every term it is both one of the first and one of the most popular answers. In practice they are judging things by plausibility of content, not by structure or technique; the standard is not quality of argument but quality of interpretation of experience. This sort of thing is not exclusive to students; in fact, if you read the comments thread on Holbo's post with a sharp eye, you'll see instances of people who clearly think they are building arguments doing exactly the sort of thing Holbo's students are doing. Argument-building is not an instinctive practice, and cannot be a continual one, but is instead an occasional and deliberate one, and it requires even then a habit of seeing one's reasoning as something crafted as well as expressed.

In any case, one of my pet peeves arises in the comments: the view that the primary purpose of argument is to persuade. This is a useless response to the problem Holbo himself is considering (as Holbo himself briefly notes in the comments), because what most typically persuades people is exactly what the students are doing, and this is probably partly why the students are doing it. If anything the problem is that students are shortcircuiting argument-building in favor of what they think has more effect. But more than that, it is simply false. There are legions of purposes that arguments in practice fulfill -- clarify points, state reasons, raise ideas or questions or problems, provide occasions for refutation, show that one has a possible answer to a refutation, show that there are alternative approaches, and so forth -- and most arguments simply don't persuade. What is more, persuasion is clearly an extrinsic feature of argument that depends less on the features of the argument than on the attitudes and assumptions of the people dealing with it; whether any given argument persuades will depend utterly on the context, so it is not and cannot be a stable feature of argument. It's not even clear that persuasion can be an end of argument at all, as opposed to an end (sometimes) of communicating an argument, which is a distinct matter.

This is not new. There is in philosophy a very old name for the view that the point of argument is to persuade; it's 'sophistry'. One of the old Platonic points is that if you take argument to be primarily for the purpose of persuading people to its conclusion, what you are really saying is that reasoning is primarily a way to impose one's will. Someone who has this view is taking their own reason to be merely an instrument for gaining power and manipulating people. In healthy argument, the ends of argument are many, and persuasion is at best merely one of them, or, perhaps, at best merely one of the reasons why you might put arguments forward to someone else.

It's not surprising that it's such a common view. As social creatures we are very invested in persuading people. Further, a lot of our vocabulary and first approximations for handling even technical features of arguments comes from experience in building cases in forensic contexts, where persuasion is certainly a goal. We are also naturally invested in our own reasoning capabilities, so I don't think we can rule out the motivation of liking the taste of victory that comes when someone else ends up having to agree with us because we outmaneuvered them. It is an experience that has considerable salience, making it easy to overlook much quieter purposes of argument.

But I think it is, in fact, one of the most dangerous possible views. It never fails to lead people astray.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Fortnightly Book, November 25

I've been doing a number of Jules Verne's Voyages Extraordinaires, but Verne has a number of works that are not part of the Voyages Extraordinaires that he published, even though they are connected. Two of these are particularly interesting, and they will be the next fortnightly books.

(1) In 1863, Five Weeks in a Balloon having recently been published and the prospects for it looking quite promising, Verne set out immediately to try to pull together another book that he could sell. The result was Paris in the Twentieth Century. When he submitted to Hetzel, his publisher, however, Hetzel was not impressed. He thought it was a considerable deterioration in quality from Five Weeks, and pessimistic in a way that would certainly put an end to Verne's burgeoning career. Nobody would believe its predictions of the future. In the face of a criticism like that, there wasn't much to say, so Verne simply put it aside and went on to other things. Paris was not published until 1994.

According to the story that is usually told, Verne's great-grandson happened to find the lost manuscript in a trunk or a safe, and Jules Verne's "lost novel" was again available to the world. In fact, the story seems to be a complete fiction, a way to gin up publicity; it was not 'newly rediscovered' but had been known to exist for quite some time before. But the strategy worked, and when it was published, the French edition became an instant bestseller.

Paris in the Twentieth Century takes us to 1960, a time of marvels, yes, but also a time in which the financial industry has taken over everything and everything has been subordinated to the drive for profit. Michel Dufrénoy, an impractical teenager, has just graduated, to everyone's derision, with a degree in Classics. It's not a promising beginning. It gets worse from there.

(2) At the other end of his career, in 1901, Verne wrote the first draft of The Lighthouse at the End of the World. He died in 1905 without having done much revision of it. Jules Verne's son Michel published it shortly afterward. In Verne's later years, Michel had often helped him with revisions, which is probably why Michel did not hesitate to revise the book. He would continue to do this with other manuscripts left by Verne, so The Lighthouse at the End of the World became the first in the series of 'Voyages Extraordinaires' that were not published by Verne, and in which Michel had a rather extensive hand. However, most of those were cases in which Verne had only completed a few chapters or an outline or the like; Lighthouse, however, is from a complete first draft, which means that, of the posthumous works, it is the one that still retains the most of Jules Verne, and many of Michel's revisions are clearly just his attempt to polish the first draft into (his conception of) a final draft. And while purists might be finicky about such things, since the book has so much of the original author in it, the fact that his son is partial redactor is not, I think, a serious problem. (An interesting comparison is The Silmarillion. Tolkien's conception of it was fairly clear, but many of the important parts had never been revised after a very early period. So Christopher Tolkien selected the best he could, made revisions to establish consistency, wrote short bridge passages, and so forth. Christopher Tolkien was a much more conscientious editor than Michel Verne, but there's at least as much of Christopher Tolkien in The Silmarillion as there is of Michel Verne in The Lighthouse at the End of the World.) Whatever Michel Verne did, Jules Verne is still the principal co-author.

The lighthouse at the end of the world was a real lighthouse: it was the San Juan de Salvamento Lighthouse on the far southern Argentine island, Isla de los Estados, which operated from 1884 to 1900. It's a perfect scene for a tale of lighthouse keepers trying to fend off murderous pirates with only their wits and what they have on hand.

ἡ Ἁγία Αἰκατερίνη ἡ Μεγαλομάρτυς

Today is Christ the King, but it is also the memorial of Queen St. Catherine of Alexandria, Great Martyr, patron saint of philosophers, female students, and unmarried women.

This is my favorite Renaissance painting of her, by Barbara Longhi (1552-1638):

St. Catherine of Alexandria, Barbara Longhi

She actually did quite a few in this vein; this is the one that I think works best. They are usually thought to be self-portraits,but although they are similar, they are also different enough that perhaps she was playing around a bit with technique rather than in every case doing a strict portraiture. (It could be though, that they are just from different stages of life, in different lights, etc.) One aspect of painting that I find fascinating is the relative ease with which it nests reference within reference: what we really have here is a painting of, presumably, Longhi (model-object) representing St. Catherine of Alexandria (the primary object, the painting-object) with the further theological levels that as a saint St. Catherine is representing Christ (as exemplar) who is representing God. Fully understanding the painting really does require understanding that all of the levels are available for its interpretation.

Barbara Longhi was the daughter of Luca Longhi and was practically raised in her father's workshop. She did extremely well as a portrait painter, but almost all of her portraits have been lost -- or are, perhaps, floating around as anonymous or misattributed paintings.

And If the Chemist, Naught but Man

The Silver Cup
by Clara Ophelia Bland

I sat before the white robed priest,
Within the church,
And all his words to me seemed trite,
To find some hidden word of light,
The while I search.

At last my wandering thoughts were fixed,
And looking up,
From priestly lips were falling words,
As beautiful as the song of birds,
About a cup.

Within a learned chemist's shop,
A careless youth,
Let fall a cup in silver wrought,
And in strong acid it was caught,
Dissolved in truth.

The chemist mild was undismayed,
And calmly brought
Another acid, mixed the two,
When lo! there slowly came to view,
The silver sought.

And if the chemist, naught but man,
Could reunite
Dissolved fragments, surely God
Can call our dust from 'neath the sod,
By His great might.