Saturday, December 22, 2018

Radio Greats: Roswell's a Guest for Christmas (The Life of Riley)

The Life of Riley is a formula sitcom whose formula has become common: a comedy centered on a well-meaning but bumbling father of a family. It was one of the most successful pioneers of this particular comedy formula, however; William Bendix's Chester A. Riley, with his endless malapropisms delivered with perfect seriousness, and his catchphrase, "What a revoltin' development this is!" became a very well known figure. The radio series ran from 1944 to 1951, and inspired a 1949 film (and, as was common, a radio adaptation of the film on Lux Radio Theater) and two television series.

"Roswell's a Guest for Christmas" is a solid Christmas episode. Roswell, the son of Riley's boss at the factory, is suddenly staying for Christmas -- although his father has not told him yet, his mother is in the hospital and it's uncertain whether she will make it. He doesn't want to be there, and he is intolerably self-important even on his best days. Nobody likes him. But Christmas is Christmas, and everybody has to find a way to get through while not sacrificing the Christmas spirit.

You can listen to "Roswell's a Guest for Christmas" at the Internet Archive (#29).

Friday, December 21, 2018

Dashed Off XXX

"actus intellectus est imago objecti" Thomas Carleton Compton
"Libertas quadruplex est: a miseria, a peccato, a coactione, & a necessitate."

The apparent conservatism of old age generally consists in three thigns: more experience (and thus less surprise), more consistency (and thus less mutability), more caution (and thus a reluctance to venture without reason).

the kind of person who, without writing anything, generates a literature -- Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus
-- Note that there are several way sin which Jesus does this more completely than the others do -- a life, like Socrates, a doctrine, like Gautama, a form of teaching, like Confucius, but integrated together and placed in a larger context (Israel) that is not negated but absorbed, and (perhaps as significantly) contributes to organizing a literature-making community in myriad different ways.

"...though the fact of Selection does not make it harder to believe in design, it makes it easier to believe in accident...." Balfour

Things seem intelligent to the extent that they seem to set their own ends.

Metaphors mutually attract and repel, naturally organize into systems, mutate to produce other metaphors, die off to provide materials for other metaphors.

transworld, transtemporal, translocal identiy -- what is the analogue for deontic, epistemic, doxastic, provability?

Metaphors and the like sometimes arise out of slips of language, sometimes out of dreams, sometimes out of aesthetic experience, sometimes out of constructed analogy, sometimes out of social associations, sometimes out of the attempt to speak of something while avoiding direct speech about it.

Where some organ of government O properly belongs to government G and by nature exists for some end E that is required for G's ability to govern well, then it is a corruption for G to use O in a manner inconsistent with E.

Repentance is intrinsically ascetic.

Malebranche as giving a traditionary argument for the external world

Music is not just heard; it acts within us.

"the Christian is at one and the same time inseparably person and member" Maritain
-- all of Maritain's discussion on this is good for theology of redundantia.

The modern world continually tries to treat Limbo as higher than Purgatory.

Philosophy functions best when wisdom is seen as a divine gift in which we may participate.

To be a person is to be an echo of 'the Absolute'.

Luck is interest-relative.

Pfleiderer: We get the idea of causation from will as the corresponding original experience, and by analogical inference reason about causation in the world. "But our thinking is as essentially teleological as causal; both are grounded on the same original experience."

The Church does not get its identity through time either memoratively or by self-identification.

Athanasius's criticism of talk of the Holy Spirit as bond: Contra Arianos 3.24 (note that this is literally against the Eusebian notion of binding)

Note that there is a very wide variety of views on which there has to be some due process of public opinion (e.g., Mill's harm principle).

Human beings do not easily distinguish the historical and the normative, because it is not natural to distinguish them in narrative. This is not to say that the link between the two in narrative is straightforward, but in fact human beings tend to do better at tracking complicated and atypical linkages (irony, satire, etc.) than at making a sharp distinction.

Natural languages are term classifications with precedential templates for usage.

Any present- or future-tensed assertion with a subject term in second person address has an imperatival counterpart ('You are going to the store' can be an assertion or an imperative, sometimes indifferently).

"Where sexual morality is rooted in nothing but consent, sexual mores will be decided by nothing but power." C.C. Pecknold

Modern representative government is an attempt to have aristocracy based on artificial rather than natural relations.

Note that Pfleiderer interprets the Reformation as breaking away from the remnants of primitive Christianity, particularly its ascetic supernaturalism, in its break with Catholic Monasticism.

I wrote a word
and like a seed
the word from bounding husk was freed.

Blame is the most fluid thing in the world.

Spontaneous excellence arises from extensive preparation.

Every question proceeds from a division of possibilities.
Diamond and Question are related b division, but they seem to handle it differently.

Do X! Therefore, possibly there is an action X.
Do X! Therefore, there is a possible action X.
Do X! Therefore, possibly X can be done.
This shall be done. Therefore, this is possible.
This cannot be done. Therefore, do not do it.

An erotetic ontological argument: If one can ask whether God exists, God exists. One can ask, therefore etc.

possible lines in erotetic theistic argument:
(1) Idea of God (cp. Cartesians)
(2) division (cp Kant on disjunction)
(3) capacity to question

Definitions are always normative. The question is, for what?

loaded question // begging the question

raising questions as part of conclusion-construction

the method of imbrication: distinct but overlapping arguments in response to objections

the Zenonian argument (attributed to Zeno by Sextus Empiricus M9.133-6)
(1) One may with good reason honor the gods.
(2) One may not honor with good reason what does not exist.
(3) Therefore the gods exist.
-- The parabole in response places gods with sages, thus intersecting Stoic pessimism about the existence of sages.
-- note that the parabole does not really address the key point of the argument, that anything making reasonable the honoring of the gods ipso facto makes it reasonable to accept that they exist.

The ugly in a greater context is often beautiful; and genuinely understanding the ugly is itself beautiful.

The possibility of something ugly is not itself ugly.

an ecclesiological commentary on the book of Proverbs
-- already extensive discussion on Wisdom's house and the strong woman (Caesarius, Augustine, Albert)
-- the carrying on of tradition and exhortations to listen to father and mother
-- harlotry and the deviations from the faith (heresy, idolatry)

There is a story told of the greatest goldsmith in all of ancient Greece. He was a devotee of Aphrodite and once spent thirteen years making a necklace of extraordinary intricacy and beauty to dedicate to her temple. After he had done so, he had a dream in which the goddess herself appeared, stunning in her beauty, wearing her necklace.
     "I am pleased with your gift," she said, "and in return I grant you one wish. You may ask of me anything, and if it is in my power, I will grant it. But think well; mortal men often do not choose their wishes well."
     "O most beautiful of the gods," said the goldsmith, "I am no longer a young man, but I have never known love. Grant me this: to be sure not to die before I have been able to know a love that is pure and true."
     "As you have asked, so shall it be," said the goddess. "You shall not die until you have known a true and pure love."
     The goldsmith lived a very, very long time.

assertion-completing questions vs assertion-using questions

cooperative assertion

self-evident principles taken as self-evident
taken as guidelines for what is always reasonable to believe
taken as heuristic structures (topoi) for hypotheses

Baptism proper reflects death; baptism by blood, by desire, and by vicarious desire are all themselves kinds of death with Christ.

eternity in our hearts and never enough time for it

trustworthiness of testimony as part of common good

A world of thought comes together out of little bits, just as the physical world does.

The justification of scientific inquiry by its working well or working best is a folk-reasoning justification.

The Holy Church is the notary of grace.

One of the important discoveries of dadaism is that you get meaningful patterns just by pulling random words out of a hat.

Speculative truth does not necessarily lie in a mean, but a mean is relevant to it, namely the mean constituting reasonableness in the consideration of evidences and reasons.

the miracles of the saints as emblems of the properties of the Church

Knowing Canisius

Today is the feast of St. Peter Canisius, Doctor of the Church. Here is a re-post of a post from 2011 discussing one of the things he is most famous for: catechisms.


Catechetical instruction goes back to the earliest beginnings of Christian history; in its basic character it is simply the instruction of those being baptized. Several of the Church Fathers had catechetical lectures that were preserved; the most notable of these were those of Cyril of Jerusalem, whose Catechetical Lectures is one of the great theological classics of the fourth century. Likewise, Augustine wrote a manual on the subject of how to catechize. None of the catechetical works of the Church Fathers includes anything clearly and definitely identifiable as a catechism in our sense of the term, although some do occasionally approach it; but they are worth mentioning, because catechisms were an early modern attempt to get back to the patristic emphasis on catechesis in a form suitable for the day; both Cyril and Augustine, as well as some other Church Fathers, were highly influential for the development of the catechism.

One can find catechism-like fragments throughout Church history simply because catechesis is found throughout Church history. If you want a convenient point from which to identify the beginning of the catechism in the proper sense of the term, though, that is, a writing not consisting of lectures that systematically and topically arranges the foundational doctrines of the faith to serve as a guide to catechesis, it's useful to start with the fourteenth century, in which things recognizably what we would call a catechism appear. There tend to be two kinds, one in a simple question-and-answer format for the laity to learn, and another, more detailed, to assist the catechist, and both kinds continue until today.

What really makes the catechism take off, however, is the Protestant Reformation. Well before Luther, as early as the fourteenth century, it had regularly been recognized that catechesis was essential to reform of the Church. The Reformers carried this idea forward, and with them we find the beginnings of a process of refinement; taking the idea of a catechism, which had already developed, they began to improve upon it. This resulted in at least four major classic works, two of which were Luther's Small Catechism and his Large Catechism, both published in 1529. Luther placed extraordinary emphasis on the importance of catechesis, and devoted himself to it with a will; his exhortation at the beginning of the Large Catechism is well worth the reading. Starting with Calvin the Reformed tradition also produced catechisms regularly; the most notable in English were developed in the seventeenth century (1647-1648), namely, the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Westminster Longer Catechism. The beginning of the Westminster Shorter Catechism has achieved almost legendary status:

Q. Quis hominis finis est præcipuus? (What is the chief end of man?)
A. Præcipuus hominis finis est, Deum glorificare, eodemque frui in æternum. (The chief end of man is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.)

The publishing of catechisms was not a purely Protestant matter, however. And this brings us to the Jesuit, Peter Canisius, whose feastday is today. Canisius published three important Catholic catechisms: a long major form (1555), a very short minimus form (1556), and an intermediate minor form (1558). They quickly became the Catholic catechisms throughout the Catholic communities of Greater Germany, and then began to be translated into other languages all over Europe. "Knowing Canisius" became a common expression for being well-catechized, regardless of whether it was out of his books or not. Canisius's catechisms were a model for Bellarmine's catechisms at the end of the sixteenth century, and Bellarmine's catechisms in turn were raised up as a general model for Catholic catechisms.

Canisius was one of the most important theologians of his day. He attended the Council of Trent. He also attended the Diet of Worms and provided the primary Catholic responses to the arguments of Melanchthon -- and, indeed, it was his list of points that was actually under discussion when those attending discussed the Augsburg Confession. Canisius had the upper hand in the discussion, in part because (as he himself wrote in a letter to the Jesuit vicar in general) the Protestants were in complete disarray. One of Canisius's major points had been to note that there were divergences in the text of the Augsburg Confession, due to Melanchthon, who had both drawn up the original and also a later version that broadened the language of some of the clauses; and thus he and the other Catholic collocutors asked that the Protestants clarify what version they actually meant when they talked about it. The result was sheer confusion among the Protestants, who on the spur of the moment were unable to come to any agreement on the acceptability of Melanchthon's changes.

Nonetheless, Canisius was one of the more irenic voices of the Counter-Reformation, repeatedly insisting that polemical approaches should be avoided in dealing with Protestants; his letters to his superiors are full of complaints about the corruption of clergy, asking them to push for remedies, so he was well aware of the problems, and sympathetic to that extent. And he more than once insisted that the German people should be treated leniently because, decent and humble at heart, they could be brought about if treated with courtesy and if, instead of trying to force them into submission, someone just spoke honestly and plainly with them. A German himself (his name is Peter Kanis) he was very pro-German, a lover of German language and life. It is largely due to the work of Canisius, and his furthering of the Jesuits throughout the German provinces, that Bavarian and Austrian parts of greater Germany remained Catholic. His levelheadedness and generally irenic temper led him to be widely respected even by Protestants -- he was known as a man with whom, no matter how much you disagreed with him, you could always have a reasonable discussion. I say 'widely'; he was also criticized widely, in very sharp terms, because he was recognized as one of the major opponents of the Protestants, and his catechisms as a significant part of the Catholic response. But, opposed to polemic and ridicule to the very end, he refrained from attacking people and instead focused on arguments and claims. He stands as a testimony to the extraordinary power of intelligence combined with an ability not to take offense. Leo XIII described him as the Second Apostle to Germany, and Pius XI named him a Doctor of the Church. From one of his sermons:

It is not enough for the Gospel-teacher to please the people with his speaking. He must also be the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and so by his eloquence call many to the good life. He must not be a dumb dog, not even able to bark, as spoken of by the Prophet Isaiah. Yea, he should also burn in such a way that, equipped with good works and love, he may adorn his evangelical office, and follow the leadership of Paul....Those churchmen err who imagine that it is by brilliant preaching that they fulfil their office; rather, it is by holiness of life and all-embracing love.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #8: Une ville flottante

On the 18th of March, 1867, I arrived at Liverpool, it, tending to take a berth simply as an amateur traveller on board the "Great Eastern," which in a few days was to sail for New York. I had sometimes thought of paying a visit to North America, and was now tempted to cross the Atlantic on board this gigantic boat. First of all the "Great Eastern," then the country celebrated by Cooper.

This steam-ship is indeed a masterpiece of naval construction; more than a vessel, it is a floating city, part of the country, detached from English soil, which after having crossed the sea, unites itself to the American Continent. I pictured to myself this enormous bulk borne on the waves, her defiant struggle with the wind, her boldness before the powerless sea, her indifference to the billows, her stability in the midst of that element which tosses "Warriors" and "Solferinos" like ship's boats. But my imagination carried me no farther; all these things I did indeed see during the passage, and many others which do not exclusively belong to the maritime domain. If the "Great Eastern" is not merely a nautical engine, but rather a microcosm, and carries a small world with it, an observer will not be astonished to meet here, as on a larger theatre, all the instincts, follies, and passions of human nature.

The Great Eastern, launched in 1858, was a vast steamship, the largest of her day, designed to carry 4000 passengers from England to Australia without a stop. In that was her downfall; there really wasn't demand on the scale to make her original intended voyages to the East financially viable, and she was, really, too big for Atlantic routes where most of the money could be found. She made a number of voyages, but as steamship transportation became increasingly competitive, she could not compete, and she was so expensive to repair that she contributed heavily to the bankrupting of the company that owned her. She was bought, quite cheaply, and converted into a cable-laying ship, where she had what was perhaps her greatest success in helping to lay crucial telegraph cables. In the late 1860s and 1870s there were tentative attempts to see if she could be successful as a commercial liner, but none of it really amounted to much, and she was sold for scrap in 1888. Always stunningly impressive in idea, she never quite managed to fulfill that idea in practice.

In 1867, however, Jules Verne and his brother Paul had taken one of the trips that the owners were using to test out whether she could be succeed as a liner, and while aware of her difficulties, Verne was fully taken with her idea -- she was not so much a ship, he thought, as a floating city that had broken off from England and landed on the American shore. The Vernes used their trip to America for a brief visit to Niagara Falls and then returned. Given Verne's interest in the power of technology to expand our geographical experience of the world, it is perhaps inevitable that the trip would inform some of the Voyages Extraordinaires. One sees traces of the experience in a number of Verne's novels, but, of course, one sees it most in A Floating City, in which the narrator takes a trip across the Atlantic on the Great Eastern and visits Niagara Falls.

The story is a straightforward story, much taken with life aboard the 'floating city'. We become acquainted with various interesting characters, like the pessimistic yet constantly joking Doctor, or the romantic young man Fabian, or the strange weeping woman Emily and her ruthless husband. A centerpiece of the tale, in classic Verne melodramatic style, is a duel aboard ship. But all goes well in the end, even if it is only with the help of a bit of lightning.

Abyss & Sea 3

The house inside was a mess, as if a major brawl had broken out. A woman, old but far from frail, was sprawled out on the kitchen floor, broken crockery all around her and a massive wound on her head. Near the table an old man and a young man were gripping each other as if in a struggle; the young man had a knife in his side and and an eye gouged out, his hand gripped around the old man's throat. In the midst of it all, incongruously, the table was set as if for a family breakfast, which had apparently just been eaten; there were flies everywhere. The young man, clearly the son, favored his father but had his mother's chin. Baia shuddered a bit, and then, followed by a guard, went out the kitchen door; the pigsty was across a small yard. It was a less murderous, but more disturbing, since it was clear that this young man had been tearing apart the pigs with his bare hands -- and had been attacked in turn. He, and the dead pigs had been partly eaten. The dog, which she saw next, had clearly been attacked by the wolves.

"I still do not understand it," said Sosan. "Wolves are not friendly even under the pacts and covenants, but they would usually avoid people."

"I think they came after there were no more people to avoid," said Baia. "Attracted to the blood, perhaps; I do not know."

They returned to the kitchen. Baia looked at the scene soberly.

"It looks as if it all happened suddenly," she said, and walked around the table, avoiding the supine figures as much as she could, waving away the flies in order to look at each item on it. She stopped at an open honeypot, which she gingerly picked up and smelled. It smelled of honey, and of something almost too sweet that tingled in her nose. She put the lid on it and handed it to Sosan.

"There is something very wrong with this honey," she said.

"You think it was poisoned?"

"Perhaps," she said. "They would have eaten breakfast; one of the sons went out to feed the pigs; and then the effects began. Have you ever heard of anything like it?"

Sosan thought a moment. "I remember as a boy once hearing a story about a bandits in ancient days who had had difficulty finding food; they came upon trees, near a field of rhododendrons, filled with wild honey-hives. They ate the honey and became intoxicated and very ill. I cannot recall it causing any violent madness. And it is rare for honey to be poisonous; it is one of the safest things to eat. Surely anything that could end up in the honey and have such drastic effects would be more likely to kill the bees themselves."

"Perhaps," said Baia again. "Regardless, I would like you to make inquiries to find out whatever you can about where the people here get their honey."

"Certainly," said Sosan, "but I do not know how much we will learn."

"There has to be something; a situation this wrong cannot be an isolated event."


The High Porter met Disan and his guards at the gate. "The signal towers sent word of the coming of Your Highness," he said, "and I have been asked to bring you directly to the High King, once your horses and men have been given their proper care." The horses were taken to the stables, the men to their accommodations, and Disan was led through mazy passageways and half a dozen halls of the Khalkythra Palace. Pictures of extraordinary skill and craft were on every wall, in every vault, some painted, some in mosaic. Here was Castalan son of Atalan, fighting the khalkythra; there was Emdalan flying on the wooden horse, loaded with the gifts of blessing: the lotus and the honeybee, the rose and the silkworm. There Emdalan and Renan, one of Disan's ancestors, brought back the thousand vanished people from the night-world by threatening to hang a mouse. Here was a band of heroes Disan did not recognize, fighting a dragon; there was the dispute of Beran and Balan over the Stone of Night; here were the Powers of the world bestowing upon Atalan the rule of the realm. In one long hall, Castalan's son Ardalan performed the forty impossible tasks by which he won the hand of the beautiful Asaria, all forty laid out in one view along the walls and ceiling. Fountains plashed in the halls, the water running in artificial streams through rooms sheathed in finest marble, polished and white; the columns and pillars were highlighted with gold leaf in endless profusion; fresco and stucco and ivory veneer, semi-precious stones by the thousands, silk curtains draping around exedras filled with statues of cunning workmanship, round arches and great doors of mahogany and bronze framed by lampstands of finest gold; wonders met the eye in every direction.

The High King was at last found in a room plainer than the others, although still kingly by any standard, a practice or training hall for fighters. Weapons hung on the wall and on a side table; the floor was covered in bamboo mats. The High King's golden eyes lit up under his unruly blond hair on seeing him.

"Disan!" he shouted, coming forward and clasping Disan's arms, somewhat awkwardly since the High King was short and stocky, as Talans tend to be, and so was a good head and a half shorter than the tall Sorean king. "You are welcome, O Disan, son of Rezan, son of Belan, to all of my hospitality."

"I thank you, O Antaran, son of Emberan, son of Ardaran, and I account myself blessed to receive your hospitality."

"Disan," said the High King again, "world traveler. It has been so long as you have been touring the world."

"'Touring' is a generous term for it."

"What was it like, being across the sea, fighting barbarians?"

"Mostly muddy," said Disan. "Entire days of tramping through the mud."

Antaran laughed, and with a look of mischief in his eyes, went over to the table and picked out a waster, which he threw to Disan. Disan waved it, catching a scent of linseed oil. It felt too light and oddly balanced in his hand. Antaran selected his own waster.

"A bit of child's play after barbarian-battles," said Antaran, "but let's see if you've learned any new tricks."

They swung-and-parried a few times, moving in a semicircle, then Antaran began in earnest. The High King was well practiced, and had had the best teachers in the Great Realm, but Disan had been taught by real battle, a far more serious teacher. Disan's strokes were less pretty than the High King's, but far more efficient, and his natural reach was considerably greater than Antaran's, to his unassailable advantage. It was not long before Disan had scored his third hit on the High King, so suddenly that the High King fell backward.

Antaran looked annoyed and then laughed. "You are my best teacher, Disan; none of the others would dare to make such a fool of me." He rose smoothly to his feet, waving off Disan's outstretched hand. He clasped Disan's shoulder.

"Everywhere in the Palace," he said, "you can see murals of the great deeds of our ancestors, forming the Great Realm. Our grandfathers went abroad to war against the Court of Night. But since then we have done nothing. You alone, of all the living kings, have seen the world and done the kind of great deed that is our birthright." He removed his hand. "I will let you make sure that your men are settled in and give you time to rest for your journey. All of the formal affairs we will have tomorrow, but this evening you and I should talk. I will send a guide to you after dinner."

"I will need a guide, I am sure; I wouldn't want to get lost."

Antaran laughed again. "Do you remember that time after we raided the kitchen when we threw the entire Palace into a panic because we got lost for almost two whole days?"

"It was a good thing we had just raided the kitchen. We eventually found that room with the shrine to Fath and the aeolian harp that was playing despite there being no wind. And we went through the door to which the statue of Fath was pointing and found our way back."

"Yes," said Antaran thoughtfully. "And you know, I have never found that room again. If it weren't for the fact that you remember it as well, I would have thought that I just imagined it."

"There are a great many strange things in the Mountain."

Antaran smiled a knowing smile. "Stranger than you know, my friend. Stranger than you know."

Disan made sure his men were properly cared for, and also made arrangements with the Palace steward to have a crate of strawberries sent to his men on the ship. He visited some of the rooms he remembered from his last stay in the Palace and then ate dinner. A servant came to take him to see the High King again. They went through a number of mazy passages and up several stairs, and finally came to sunlight and open breeze. It was an exedra opening to a balcony on the side of the Mountain, with an impluvium in the middle, half under the semi-dome and half beyond it in the open. The balcony looked over a breathtaking view. In the distance one could see the great gold-plated dome of the Oracle of the Sun, gleaming in the last sun rays of the day, and farther beyond it the orikhalh walls. Off to the right there were fountains and gardens down below, and an artificial creek with its musical waters plashing here and there across artfully laid stones. And if you moved to the balcony rail and looked over to the left, you could see in the distance a volor gliding down from the Khalad Mountains with supplies and docking at one of the Mountain towers. As Disan watched, one of the volors gave a long, low cry. Samaras falling down from some tree up above, went spinning and winding like keys through the air.

Antaran came out soon after. "I see you did not get lost," he said cheerfully. "We are waiting for one other."

As if almost on cue, the other came out. She was Tavran, and quite beautiful, pale of skin, with golden hair and bright blue eyes that were accentuated by the shimmering blue of her dress. She wore jewelry around her neck, almost too much, and a wide golden belt decorated with flowers. Disan knew her as Elea, Princess of Tavra; he had met her before, when they were both children, and although he had not seen her since, there was still a suggestion of the girl he had known in her woman's face. She gave a kind of curtsy toward him. "Your Highness," she said.

"Princess," he said in return. "How is your father?"

"As well as can be hoped," she said. "His mind is not well, but his body is whole."

Antaran gestured impatiently. "Let us get started."

Elea moved to the balcony rail and there held one of the pendants around her neck in both hands, lifting it high, muttering something under her breath. It was of strange and foreign make, and Disan thought for a moment that it glowed softly while she held it high. And suddenly the world became odd.

It was subtle. Perhaps there was a slight change in the quality of the sunlight, but the primary difference was not visible. The world just seemed unsettling, and it took Disan a moment to discover what it was: the breeze had died and so had all the sound from the waters below or the volors in the distance. The world became too quiet, as if everything outside the exedra and balcony had ceased to exist as more than a mirage.

"Now we can speak without eavesdropping," said Antaran. "Not even the Powers can hear us."

"How is that even possible?" asked Disan.

Elea pointed at the pendant. "My grandfather brought this back from the war against the Court of Night. It is a useful thing at times."

Disan looked at the High King. "That seems a great deal of trouble for an informal conversation."

"And all of it necessary. You and I and Elea -- today we are going to begin to change everything."

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

No, Kindness Is Not Everything

In every practical field, human beings have a craving for panaceas and a taste for nostrums; it satisfies both our desire to know and our desire to be in the know. Ethics is not any different in this respect; there are many ethical quackeries, and an endless number of people falling for ethical quackery in the attempt to have a simple answer. 'At least I'm not a hypocrite' is a perennial favorite, due to giving all the benefits of hypocrisy while passive-aggressively holding oneself to a minimal standard and putting everyone else on the defensive. There is a never-ending task in having to explain, as patiently as possible, to yet another person that 'consent' is not on its own a serious standard for ethical matters because it is met even by a bar brawl taken outside or a murder-suicide pact. And the form of ethical quackery that currently seems popular is boiling all of ethics down to kindness, as summed up in the advertising slogans (today, even ethical scams have them) Just Be Kind or Kindness Is Everything.

It's a clever scam because kindness is obviously good in its own way -- who is going to go around saying that kindness is bad? -- and because it tells people what they want to hear. There are endless numbers of reasons why kindness, important as it is, is nonetheless a secondary, and not a primary element of ethics, that it is a seal of excellence for an already substantive goodness and not the substantive goodness itself. We could go through Frederick Douglass's argument showing that kindness among slave owners actually made things worse for slaves, gilding the chain, or Philip Hallie's argument in "From Cruelty to Goodness" that kindness, despite superficial appearances, is not even the right kind of thing to nullify and oppose cruelty. These would be all correct. But they wouldn't deal with the essential problem, which is that people have an incentive to ignore such arguments.

'Kindness', etymologically, is the kind of affectionate good will you have toward family, and as used in modern English the word always concerns sympathy -- sympathetic generosity, sympathetic forbearance, warmth indicative of sympathy. There are all sorts of reasons why someone would want this to be the moral standard in everything that signal that it can't be the moral standard in everything.

(1) Kindness is mostly a matter of attitude, and thus can easily be faked. There is no particular form of action that is especially associated with kindness, because it's about the way you do things; when we say that someone is kind, we are saying that it is the sort of thing a kind person might do, done in the way a kind person might do it, and we see no reason why someone should not get credit for having done it in the right spirit rather than passive-aggressively or in a spirit of hypocrisy. This means that anything that involves any kind of benefit to anyone can be spun as kindness, and you can often convince people to give you the benefit of the doubt for it, because even if it went very bad, they will usually not have definite proof that your intentions weren't kind. Kind intentions can easily be faked because, while we sometimes have direct evidence of them (e.g., people seeming kind even at harm to themselves) and sometimes have indirect evidence of them (e.g., people doing things that seem kind consistently across time), most of the time we are just assuming that it was done with kind intentions. There are lots of good reasons why we do this, but it's a red flag when what is being proposed as a fundamental moral standard is a standard that can easily be faked.

(2) Kindness is mostly a matter of attitude, and thus can easily be ignored. On the other side, the fact that our inference that other people are being kind is only probable means that if you really want to be stubborn, you can treat someone as being unkind regardless of the evidence -- after all, we know they could always be faking. So if you're offended at what someone has done, you can easily brush off any attempt on their part to try to assure you that they meant it kindly. And what's more, since you can stubbornly treat anyone who offends you as being unkind, just by not giving them the benefit of the doubt, if you take kindness as the moral standard, you can treat their failure to accommodate you not just as a deficiency or error in moral action but as the gravest moral failing. Another warning sign: a proposed fundamental standard that can be used as a wax nose.

(3) Even when sincere, kindness is not a high standard. Being kind can be difficult, if it's a matter of being kind in a situation that is already morally difficult; this is why kindness can be seen as a sort of seal of excellence. But this is not true of kindness in general. Kindness has no particular action associated with it; being about the way you do things, it can cover all sorts of things. And because it is a matter of attitude, you can be kind even when you are obviously not really doing anything but having the right attitude. You can face a moral problem, make no serious effort to solve the problem, and still be kind. (This is precisely one of the things noted by both Douglass and Hallie.) And kindness often has immediate reward for yourself; people often talk about how doing something kind made them feel good. Another warning sign: a proposed fundamental standard that you can usually fulfill just by doing some minor token action in the right frame of mind, feeling good about yourself.

(4) If you are kind, people owe you. Kindness, to the extent that we can recognize it, has to be repaid with gratitude; failure to repay it is ingratitude. This is why doing something that could be regarded as kind is one of the standard ways confidence games are run. People are not easily persuaded just to give up things, so a con artist has to find a way to make them feel that they have to do it, that somehow they can't not do it. So a con game is usually ethical sophistry: I have done something obviously good for you, now you have to do something good for me, and I have arranged the terms so that it was easy for me to do that good thing but it's morally bad for you not to do the difficult thing I want you to do. So a con artist will trust you with secrets in order to get you to tell secrets -- after all, he gave you his trust, how can you not give him yours? Or he will do a purely symbolic goodness for you, out of the blue and as a pleasant surprise, in order to get you to do something substantial. One of the reasons ethics is a serious matter is that ethics is regularly used to manipulate people. It's not what it is for, to be sure, just as logic is not for the purpose of a sophist leading you to any conclusion he wants. But if someone wants to manipulate you, they will use something to do it that has an authority you recognize, whether that is logical principle or practical necessity or ethical obligation. Thus it is another red flag for quackery whenever you have a proposed fundamental standard that gives a significant set of advantages to the manipulative.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

In many ways, 'Be Kind' and 'Kindness Is Everything' are like 'Spiritual But Not Religious'; you could make perfect sense of them in a narrow area of human life, but 'Spiritual But Not Religious' usually means you are trying to have the benefits of being spiritual without the discipline and social burden that spirituality requires, and 'Kindness Is Everything' is an attempt to have the benefits of being moral without the hard-to-build, difficult-to-plan moral context that kindness really presupposes. (A recent "Pearls Before Swine" comic, I think, inadvertently gives away that parallel.) If you are boiling it all down to kindness, what that really means is that your standards are too low; you are jumping to the end, to a crowning virtue, and pretending that you don't need any of the completely different virtues that kindness is supposed to crown.

Of course, even ethical quackery in the Internet Age has to have a marketing website (as vague and inoffensive in patter as possible) and merchandising (and more merchandising). It's not for-profit, but fundraising for ethical and purportedly ethical causes is a natural context for ethical quackery. And I've no doubt that it is often quite sincere. Quackery of any kind only has sustainable success because it gives people something that is genuinely recognizable as good; that it is a good feeling or a good self-image doesn't change the fact that you can actually get something from it. And if just a small number of people are convinced that the good is substantial, you have real converts who will sincerely work to spread it. That's how health fads spread, for instance -- the kind that spread are always the kind that are easy but can deliver at least some apparent good for some small group of people by making them feel like they are making progress because of the fad. And it's how ethical fads spread, as well. Not all fads are bad or even wrong -- usually the only problem with them is that people are not recognizing their limits. But sometimes a fad is dangerous because it will look good to people while replacing things that are better. Kindness is a good thing indeed, but it presupposes a lot that you can't just will into existence. Kindness is a flourish that makes good things better, that takes other moral things and morally enriches them; it does not stand on its own and cannot substitute for these other things. You are better off recognizing that kindness is not enough, and that it certainly is not everything.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Leithart on Simplicity

I've talked before about Peter Leithart's incoherent comments on simplicity; I notice he's trying a slightly different tactic now:

But why can’t we say this: God is composite, but composite in a way that doesn’t conflict with His aseity or unity. We can’t conceive of such a composite being, but then we can’t conceive of a wholly simple being either.

I’m not claiming God is composite. The question I’m raising is about the “location” of the Creator-creature distinction. Do we have to draw it between the simple being of God as opposed to the composite being of creatures? Or might we draw it between two different sorts of composite beings, one divine and one human? What difference would it make?

The obvious answers that have been given for literally over a thousand years by Christians, Jews, and Muslims are, respectively, Yes (but you can also draw it between immutability and mutability, infinity and finitude, necessity and contingency, and the like, because these distinctions are interdefinable), No, and Because It Would Be Incoherent to Do the Latter (in part because of the previous point, that divine simplicity is interdefinable with a number of other doctrines) and Because It Would Also Be Pointless to Do the Latter (because it is natural and practically universal to point to composition as a reason for taking something to be created).

But Leithart is not giving up:

The claim is now that “composite” means the same thing for God as for creatures. It seems that simplicity is needed if we’re going to describe God in terms of a metaphysics that’s drawn from created being. But if divine metaphysics are unlike created metaphysics, why can’t “composite” be used, differently, of each. Why can’t we say God is “composite,” understood analogically?

No, this is not how analogical predication works. Analogical predication requires that the term in question have a unity of meaning in both cases, but involving the reference of one to the other (or of both to a third). To use the word 'composite' analogically, we would have to be able to refer to God as first and most composite being, so that 'composite' applied to creatures would have a built-in reference to Him. But this is not how 'composite' works in any language, including English; the more composite a thing is, the more multitudinous and divided its parts. The less divided its parts, the simpler a thing is. Simplex means not multipliable into many, which is true of God; compositus, its opposite in this context, means built out of multiple things. That 'composite' means that something is built is not itself a fatal problem (e.g., simply considering it on its own, it could be parallel to perfectus, which means completed), but removing the 'built' component makes it a metaphor in particular, and when we look at how it would have to apply to God, it's quite clear that God would have to be more one than creatures, and thus more simple, not more composite. Everything Leithart says about how the divine composition would have to differ from creaturely composition simply underscores this very point.

What Leithart is proposing is not analogical predication but equivocal predication. You could, certainly, use the word 'composite' of God; you can use words like 'fire' and 'rock' of God, too. But it's not going to be in any sense inconsistent with the doctrine of divine simplicity, because it's not what anyone means when they are talking about the doctrine of divine simplicity; and, in addition, it's obviously going to confuse people when you just shuffle around the words everyone has been using for centuries, for no good reason. Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set, Leithart.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Defective Concept of the 'Introduction to Philosophy' Course (Re-Post)

As I've been grading, grading, grading, grading, grading, grading, it has brought to mind this post from 2015.


There is an interesting exercise that I think is valuable for every philosophy professor at some point in his or her career to try: try to pin down exactly what an 'Introduction to Philosophy' course is, using the different standards to which we actually hold such courses. What can easily be found when one does this is that Intro courses are in reality jumbles. If you were to take typical Department-mandated objectives for Intro courses and design a course specifically to meet those objectives, then another standard, like the typical prerequisite structure of a philosophy major, and design a course specifically to contribute in an optimal way to preparing for the courses for which it is a prerequisite, then another standard, like actually introducing people to philosophy, and design a course specifically with that in view -- if, I say, you were to do this through all the different standards to which Introduction to Philosophy courses are held, I think you would quickly find that none of the courses would obviously be the same course.

There are a number of different functions an 'Introduction to Philosophy' course could have. It could be the kind of course that used to be called Philosophical Encyclopedia, which was basically what the title says: it was a tour of philosophy, involving a very brief historical survey, a look at some of the major positions of some of the major philosophical disciplines, and, often, a guide to students as to what might be worth reading on their own. Nothing about the course particularly required that students do philosophy, beyond what was required to follow the basic ideas in very broad outline, but it wasn't intended to do so: it was intended, like a logic course, to give students basic tools (distinctions, classifications, general concepts required for historical comparison), and perhaps also to give them a sense of where they might head next. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to have a course for. There's a perfectly straightforward sense in which, done properly, it would be a solid and useful 'Introduction to Philosophy' course. Intro courses tend not to fulfill this function particularly well, but if you look at a lot of course objectives for them, it's pretty clear that they are, at least in principle, supposed to fulfill it.

Another possible approach might be to treat it as a course in philosophical writing. That there is often a need for something like such a course is usually quite obvious to those who have to grade student papers. Philosophical writing takes certain skills of analysis and organization, and it is really not fair to students to expect that they will already have them or will just pick them up on the fly or will somehow gain them through 'feedback' from the professor, particularly since assignments and feedback are often not particularly well designed for doing this. (I could write another post entirely about peculiarities and defects in how people seem to think of and handle feedback to students, and the difficult problems of doing 'feedback' in a way that could seriously be considered useful for students themselves.) But most Intro courses are not set up with a focus on writing.

A different kind of approach might be to focus on philosophy majors, making the Intro course a gateway to the major. It is quite clear that Intro courses are often treated as fulfilling this function. To fulfill this function properly, however, the course should set students up to succeed in future philosophy courses. This is arguably the function that Intro courses usually fulfill best, but I would argue that they often don't fulfill it very well, either, not so much from lack of trying as from the limits on our ability to anticipate what students would actually find useful in future courses. Philosophy is an immense field; in one way or another it covers everything. And if you start asking specific questions about how these courses set students up for success, you often find that there is no obvious answer to the question. If, for instance, the Intro course is supposed to set up for courses like Ancient Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy, and so forth, why don't more Intro courses have extensive discussion of actual Stoic and Neoplatonist figures and ideas? If it is supposed to prepare for courses more focused on analytic-style problems, Philosophy of Mind, for instance, why don't more Intro courses have a significant logic component? There are lots that don't.

Many philosophy professors really want their Intro courses to be introductions to doing philosophy. Ich habe nicht die Absicht die Philosophie zu lehren sondern philosophiren zu lehren. But if you look at course descriptions, course objectives, prerequisite structures, and the like, it's often less than clear how these fit with how teachers often go about trying to get their students to think through philosophical issues in philosophical ways.

The list, of course, could be extended indefinitely, using things like actual methods of evaluating teaching, or departmental policies, or even the practical fact that Intro courses tend to function as 'advertising' by which departments recruit philosophy majors in the first place. The real point here, of course, is that it's difficult for Intro to be a good introduction because there are so many conflicting ways to be an introduction, all of which are on the table and none of which are easy to exclude given all the standard pressures that go into designing and teaching an Intro course in the first place. If you go through all the course objectives, department policies, things that come up in the evaluation process that professors need to show that they do in order to have a proper evaluation portfolio, there is too much expectation put on the table. No matter what anyone does, something is going to be shortchanged. You can get some amusing confirmations of this if you get a bunch of philosophy professors together to talk about Intro courses; they rarely have the same idea of what an Introduction to Philosophy course should be and are often aghast at how other philosophy professors run their Intro courses, despite the fact that those others can virtually always justify their approaches by one of the jillion different standards on the table.

Ideally, I think, there would be an Intro course qua Philosophical Encyclopedia, and an Intro course qua Philosophical Writing, and an Intro course qua teacher and students trying to think through philosophical questions together, and so forth. There's no obvious reason why all of this should be stuffed into the same course; when you try to do it, it's easy for one to crowd out the others. The problem, of course, is how to make something like this practicable given common administrative expectations and the sheer inertia in how faculty tend to handle basic courses in the first place.