Saturday, February 09, 2019

The 90s Internet

I'm not expecting the Captain Marvel movie to be particularly great, but some of the marketing for it is pretty impressive. The movie takes place in the 1990s, so for the movie website, they did a 90s-style website, which is hilarious. It is so very, very true to what the internet was in the 90s, when design options were limited, websites were set up as if they were bulletin boards with effects, and everybody was just making things up as they went along....

Poem Retrospective IX

The Blue Flower is found in Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen, one of the central works of German Romanticism:

"It is not the treasures," said he to himself, "that have awakened in me such unutterable longings. Far from me is all avarice; but I long to behold the blue flower. It is constantly in my mind, and I can think and compose of nothing else. I have never been in such a mood. It seems as if I had hitherto been dreaming, or slumbering into another world; for in the world, in which hitherto I have lived, who would trouble himself about a flower?--I never have heard of such a strange passion for a flower here. I wonder, too, whence the stranger comes? None of our people have ever seen his like; still I know not why I should be so fascinated by his conversation. Others have listened to it, but none are moved by it as I am. Would that I could explain my feelings in words! I am often full of rapture, and it is only when the blue flower is out of my mind, that this deep, heart-felt longing overwhelms me...."

It came to symbolize a kind of longing for the infinite or the beyond, the point where ideal and real are no longer separate, that is most naturally expressed in poetic speech, and yet in some way also exceeds even such expression. Tapio is the old Finnish forest spirit; he is, through his wife Mielikki associated with bears (mead-paws).


The blue flower grows in the realm of Tapio,
where tree-roots deeper than any mountain's grow,
where forest-tops are marching like the sea,
an endless and everlasting sea,
and mead-paws dance in fields untouched by snow
where blossoms flourish whose names nobody knows
on a hill whose name nobody knows.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Dashed Off III

To think of the finite is nothing special; to think of the finite qua finite requires the idea of the infinite.

Every 'ontological argument' can be taken formally or finally.

the welfare state as inherently anti-Stoic (note that 'welfare state' is not the same as 'welfare programs/policies/projects'; a Stoic forming these things would not do so in a welfare-state form)

"There is not a single doctrine of natural religion which when it enters into the content of the Christian faith, remains what it was outside Christianity." John Caird
"Christianity, whilst it explains the latent significance of all that was true in the imperfect religions, at the same time transcends, and in transcending, transmutes and annuls or supersedes them."

Cantor's Actual Infinite as the mathematical as such; mathematics as an inconsistent multiplicity

"The power that represses infinite power cannot be itself less than infinite. The notion of the self-limitation of an omnipotent Being is one which dissolves in the very attempt to grasp it." John Caird

the corporate immortality of the Church

"The real and the useful are, for us, an incentive towards the True, the Beautiful and the Good." Boutroux

objects posited as divine (Paterson)
A. THINGS (sensible objects)
....(1) Inanimate: Fetishism, Nature-worship, (Religious) Materialism
........(a) Artificial
........(b) Natural
....(2) Animate: Plant/Animal Worship, Organic Pantheism
B. FORCES (invisible energies)
....(1) Sporadic: Mana, Natural Forces, NAturistic Polytheism, Dynamic Pantheism
....(2) Universal: Principle of the Universe, Spiritual Pantheism
....(1) Human & Subhuman (souls, ghosts, demons): Animism, Polydaemonism
....(2) Superhuman (gods): Humanistic Polytheism, Dualism
....(3) Infinite (God): monotheism
D. MYSTERIES (The Unknown Deity): (Religious) Agnosticism

"The general position for which the consensus gentium may be claimed is that man is entitled to the defence and the furtherance of his highest interests, and that for this he is dependent on the favour and the protection of a Divine Being." Paterson

non-generic resemblance & the synthetic a priori

modes of reason: free play, social, suppositional, suppositional-social, limitative

'encrypted' evidence -- i.e., evidence that only becomes usable as such with a key -- an interesting question is whether all evidence is in fact 'encrypted', requiring some key to be recognized as evidence: either there is unencrypted evidence, or a key that is not evidence.

Renaissance sculpting and painting as the creation of a pictorial vulgata

imperation // assertion

Contractualism requires a prior moral reasonableness.

Human beings assess reasons in part as members of, and on behalf of, groups of which they are part, because reasons are assessed according to what is common.

All religious by nature require some living question-answering authority, and any religion with a sacred text requires a primary authority of such a kind, whether it be more like an imam or more like a Panth.

The problem of the external world is bound up with the problem of the origin of the idea of the potential.

Perception is intrinsically teleological in structure.

The fundamental error of American politics is its tendency to subordinate organic civil society to the state, as if the former were but the instrument of the latter in the pursuit of certain abstract ideals.

unary overlap, Oa: a is such as to be a thing tha toverlaps something, a is an overlapping thing

axioms as answers to fundamental questions

genius : talent : competence :: simple apprehension : judgment : ratiocination

Judgment of verisimilitude is synthetic a priori judgment.

"Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel." Chesterton

Trusting to merit alone never merited anything.

A people disarmed is a people easily placed under the boot of tyranny.

Personal views and personal political policies never entirely coincide; the latter are generally stabilized for ease of use, and simplified for ease of communication, and qualified to take into account expected disagreements, and adapted to what is thought to be more proximately feasible, and all of this is long before we get to anything like hypocrisy or inconsistency. Happy is the one whose private and public views are closely connected; stupid is the one who cannot distinguish them.

Intellectualism is more a matter of interest than talent; that's the ism of it.

Just as plants sometimes do better far from their native region, since they are not suppressed by pests and predators used to them, so too with ideas.

Human beings have to feel their way to justice.

When politicians are high-minded and idealistic, look for the people whose punishment they are trying to justify.

The human body is by nature a musical instrument.

dancing : puppetry :: singing : playing an instrument

Anne of Green Gables as an argument for the intrinsic value of the imagination

transcendentals can be qualified by causation (first), by eminence (most), by remotion (pure)

dancing and the difficult that is apparently effortless

material signs of common good (Declaration of Independence, Stone of Destiny, etc.)

The future is never a straight road.

One of Nietzsche's errors was not recognizing that ressentiment is a perpetual feature of extensive social interaction, regardless of details of ideology.

One's sense of another's state of mind is prior to any explicit belief about their state of mind.

fellow-feeling : magnetism of the good in human animality :: sense of rightness : magnetism of teh good in human rationality

Religious Controversy, considered as a field of thought, is one of the great achievements of the human race: massive numbers of ordinary people *reasoning through* deep ideas and fundamental questions. Yes, the arguments are sometimes crude (but they sometimes are not) and sometimes foolish (but one should not underestimate the plain good sense of ordinary people doing their best), but the overall effect is truly remarkable, and it is one of the important mechanisms for the diffusion of serious philosophical thought.

"If the Church is independent of the nation, she can protest and denounce freely; if she is knit closely to the nation, such rebuke is almost impossible." Benson

narrative meditation -> allusive meditation -> simple contemplation

the three aspects of conversion
(1) clarification of intellectual difficulties
(2) resolution of moral obstacles
(3) communal consolidation

A philosophical system is not closed; it involves resources for repair (in response to objections not yet encountered) and extension.

Box/Diamond for each kind of measurement: count (∀, ∃), order (time, location), intensity

archive as civilizational intermediary

Every proposition can be analyzed into at least one question and answer pair.

distributive vs commutative largesse

(1) In real life basic goods may be found in more and less pure forms.
(2) One must distinguish between an instance of a basic good being a terminal reason and the basic good itself being a terminal reason.
(3) While basic goods are incommensurable, they are not incomparable.
(4) The coextensive transcendentals are all basic goods in teh respect in which human life is oriented to them; thus goodness itself is a basic good.
(5) Human life is a basic good insofar as it is a capacity to be oriented to basic goods.

Pleasure and pain are not reasons in abstraction from what pleases and what pains.

guild as economic (trade union)
guild as juridical (licensing)
guild as social (fraternity)
guild as aesthetic (pageantry)

The sincere smile of a woman gives her a kind of timelessness.

universality as a moral postulate
the life appropriate to immortal freedom under God (immortal freedom participating providence)
law of nature : providence :: end in itself : freedom and immortality :: kingdom of ends : messianic community

The diversity of views in liberal societies leads not (as Mill thought) to extensive engagement with the content of different views but to the attempt to find ways to dismiss views without regard for content.

"Since what is brought from nonbeing into being must also decay, whatever has a beginning will also have an end." St. Cyril of Alexandria
"Whatever falls short of being God by nature is surely originate, and whatever escapes the condition of being made is surely within the limits of divinity."
"The originate and created nature has no riches from its own resources. Whatever it does have is certainly from God who bestows both being and how each one ought to be."

To try to have love without faith and hope is to develop disordered loves.

Revelation is not something wholly external; it structures faith itself.

That from which one draws one's premises is as important to arguments as the premises themselves.

A just society, to exist, must be founded on truths and aimed toward goods.

The nature of insight is known by causation, remotion, and eminence.

People are reluctant to retract because others take retraction as evidence of a general flaw; when one retracts, one has to do so while showing that it was due to a local or nonstandard problem, or one's entire credibility receives a question mark.

the decency structures, the honor structures, and the interest structures of a society

philosophy as the cultivation of wisdom as virtue
philosophy as the honorable work of reason
philosophy as a career or an interest

Poem Retrospective VIII


The garden hidden off the way
was glistening in the dewy day
as sun, new-wakened, rose to play
in blue, unburdened sky.
A threefold wall laid thick with vine
was raised around it, ivy twined
upon the gate in tendrilled line
through which the breezes sighed.

Within, in centermost estate,
a fountain rose in joy elate;
it rose and did not dissipate,
but lived with laughing smile.
Beside its pool, where lilies slept
a mournful maiden softly wept;
she hid her face but tears surrept
fell gently down the while.

A song she sang of sorrow's dreams,
of griefs revived where sadness teemed:
how sad it sounded in the gleams
that morning cast on dew!
I saw her eyes once; softest green,
not emerald but ocean-sheen
before the gray grows sharp and keen,
leaped out with wisdom true.

Long grief indeed will make one wise.
I saw that wisdom in her eyes,
the memory that never dies
but gives the heart a weight.
They saw, but did not see, my face,
attention by her grief erased;
tear on tear with hurry raced,
on pool-glass to abate.

She turned away, and yet my thought
has by her been enchanted, caught;
I found her, though I had not sought.
She haunts my inner mind.
And like an illness sorrow spread
to tinge her image in my head;
at times I stare as were I dead
and weep with eyes turned blind.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Evening Note for Thursday, February 7

Thought for the Evening: Doxastic Synousia

When people speak of support for beliefs, they often are thinking in particular of evidential support and grounding -- something implies or else directly affects the probability of another belief. Part of the reason for this is, no doubt, that this is the easiest kind of support to make some kind of model for. There is also, I think, good reason to take this kind of support as being able, under the right conditions, to dominate other kinds of support. But any significant examination of how beliefs are confirmed shows that there do seem to be kinds of support that don't fit the standard models; that is, they don't involve any sort of strict logical implication, and at the very least we have no clear answer as to how they would directly affect the probability -- and yet the assessments of everyone, and I mean everyone, are constantly affected by them. There is, broadly speaking, a way in which beliefs support beliefs not directly but by fitting each other in other ways. Call this relationship confirmation by synousia -- the beliefs support each other just by going well with each other, without even considering strictly evidential relations. Some examples, all of which I would suggest are capable of being entirely rational and none of which can, I think, be reduced to one belief making another belief more probable in any definitely specifiable way. (I don't think these are the only examples.)

(1) If you start with a well supported universal claim, and then find that you have reason to make an exception, it becomes easier to allow the possibility of exceptions. That is, our having good reason beforehand to think the universal claim was true gives us a sense that any exceptions are probably merely apparent exceptions; but once we know that there is an exception in some particular kind of case, this does not seem so sure -- an exception in one case suggests there could be exceptions in other case. Now, this is not a matter of entailment; nor does it seem to be implied when we combine this with other general assumptions that we commonly make. Nor can we specify any definite way in which this is evidence that affects probabilities -- given a well supported universal claim and one well supported exception, we simply don't usually know what the probability of another exception is. Rather, what seems to have shifted is what we take to be a plausible candidate for evidence against the claim -- note, not what we take as evidence against the claim, but what kind of thing we take as seeming like evidence against the claim.

(2) Analogy certainly plays a role in confirming the beliefs of rational people, but attempts to reduce this confirmation entirely to making-more-probable clearly fail -- everything has an analogy to everything else, in varying degrees, and the degrees of analogy don't have any clear relation to any direct evidential assessment (for instance, it can depend on how important we regard the analogue). What is more, in many cases it is obviously only an analogy. Thus, for instance, the analogy of ideas with organisms leads many people to give greater importance to theories that treat ideas as undergoing a kind of natural selection. What seems to be happening is that a habit of thinking that has been found successful in one domain carries over, when evidence is not definitely against it, to other domains that have certain obvious similarities, even if there are also obvious differences. This carry-over by analogy often precedes any definite evidence; indeed, it is the carry-over that often leads us to search for whether there is any evidence.

(3) People often recognize that some theory about X is more credible when, if the theory is assumed to be true, we can get a clear sense of how to discover new things about X. Something can be more believable than something else because we believe it opens more possibilities for further inquiry into things we believe to be important. This doesn't seem to be a matter of one belief making another more probable; again, we don't seem to have enough information for the probabilities, and apparent importance is clearly playing a role. It's more like prioritizing than probabilizing.

(4) Our beliefs seem to be subject to a kind of social pressure that is not itself evidential. If we believe that someone we know leans one way, we can lean that way ourselves. While we could make an argument that this is (very indirect) evidence, all the arguments I have come across only are able to do this by assuming that all support of belief for belief is evidential. In practice, we often don't seem to be actually using it as evidence for why we should believe; it just makes something more salient for belief, by the ordinary course of human sympathy.

(5) We seem sometimes to find it easier to believe if we can easily fit it into a narrative or description we already have in place, even if it's not necessary for the narrative or description, and even if it, on its own, would not be a reason to believe the narrative or description -- the mere fact that we can put it in our already supported story or description without messing the story or description up, tells in its favor. It's consistent with our prior belief, but I suppose it's not just consistent, because it's consistent in a particular way: it's consistent with the narrative or description we already have reason to hold without making the narrative or description too cluttered or complicated to continue using it for what we use it for. It's also not just consistency with individual beliefs; it's about how easy it is to accommodate in an already existing structure of belief.

These kinds of cases are easily overlooked, in part, I think, because they aren't in most cases the kinds of things that "lead you to believe" something; rather, they make things more believable. They don't usually function as evidence, because they aren't so much evidence for what they support as things that make evidence more clear, or more plausible, or more accessible, or perhaps make us more open to something's being a thing that could be supported by the evidence. And in practice, probably what they contribute most (but not, I think, solely) to rational life is to help stabilize belief -- i.e., make it more resistant to change when there is a lot of noise in the evidence. My suspicion is that all the things that contribute to doxastic synousia are things that are already operative well before we've actually believed something -- that is, they are strengthening relations that are already working with guesses, suspicions, presumptions, hazy opinions, speculations, in short all sorts of cognitive states, and something's coming to be believed doesn't eliminate this influence; even though direct evidential support is obviously in many cases a more significant influence on belief, this doesn't mean that the background 'fit' with other beliefs, suspicions, etc., has a nonexistent role. And in all these cases the reason that the synousia seems irreducible to evidential support is that it's a regulative support, not a constitutive support like evidential support is -- that is, one belief's fit with another belief is not itself a fact about what is believed but a fact about how our minds work when we are inquiring rationally. This is why 'seeming' keeps coming up in describing how it works.

Various Links of Interest

* Jeremiah Lawson reviews Roger Scruton's Music as an Art

* Matthew T. Segall and Tam Hunt discuss Alfred North Whitehead.

* Darwin has a good post on the 'Problem of Susan'. I've never thought the Problem of Susan was any sort of problem at all; it seems usually to be pushed as a problem by either (1) people who like Susan for other reasons and (2) people who think they might be a bit like Susan. It's not particularly surprising that such people would prefer something different, but that's not really anything relevant to the story, particularly since what we are told is actually consistent with what we know of Susan directly from Prince Caspian and indirectly from Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Darwin's post got me thinking, however, about perspective, since we aren't told anything about Susan by the narrator but by the characters, and Darwin seems right that what the characters say about it seems affected by who they are. This is true also in the evaluation. Peter, the High King, seems harshest -- he answers "shortly and gravely", and doesn't say anything other than that she is no longer "a friend of Narnia". Eustace, however, seems mostly irritated at Susan treating Narnia as a child's game, while Jill and Polly seem from their different perspectives to see Susan's attitude as a sort of exasperating silliness associated with her age (and the sort of maturity that she thinks goes with it).

(I also find it interesting that when Peter says she's not a friend of Narnia, he is not saying it as a general claim, but explicitly giving it as the reason why she's not there with everyone else -- that was the question Tirian had raised. The reason that Susan is not there is that she's the only one who's not yet dead; the others died in a railway accident. They were not all in the same part of the railway accident -- Peter, Edmund, and Lucy were on the train platform, while Eustace, Jill, Digory, and Polly were on the train coming into the station, and it is clearly implied that they were all meeting together as 'friends of Narnia', which they occasionally did. It's not a claim, as some loons try to make it, that Susan is 'shut out of heaven'; what would Peter know about that, since at this point in the story he like everyone else hardly knows what's going on? It's why Susan isn't among those who were at the railway station: she no longer meets with the rest to talk about Narnia.)

* Richard Marshall interviews Elisa Freschi on Indian philosophy.

* Simon Newcomb's science fiction novel, His Wisdom the Defender. Newcomb is best known for his impressive work in applied mathematics, for being a good friend of Benjamin Peirce, and for (possibly) deliberately torpedoing the career of Benjamin Peirce's son, C. S. Peirce, with whom he had many disagreements.

* Stephen Boulter, The aporetic method and the defence of immodest metaphysics.

* John G. Brungardt, World Enough and Form: Why Cosmology Needs Hylomorphism (PDF)

* William Newton on a recent exhibition of Tolkien's paintings at the Morgan Library in New York.

* P. D. Magnus, Risk and Efficacy in 'The Will to Believe' (PDF)

Currently Reading

Charles Williams, War in Heaven
Plotinus, The Enneads
Xiong Shili, New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness

Poem Retrospective VII

An adaptation of part of Euripides' The Bacchae.


Mountained is my love,
wearing holy fawn-skin,
singing as he slays the goat,
delighting in the flesh.

Mountained in Phrygia is my love,
Bromios, who dancing leads
by milk-rich, wine-flowing streams,
by nectar-wine of bees.


With incense-fume of pine torch,
fragrant on the fennel rod;
running, dancing, hair-streaming,
band-rousing, ever shouting:


Booming timbrels hymn the Bacchic god;
the Phrygian flute of Mother Rhea,
satyr-stolen, it blends with revel,
sweet-graced and most holy,

antheming the wild troops;
mounting up they band and revel,
mountained, they are light of foot,
gambolling like wild foals.


Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Hypothetical and Categorical Proposals of Arguments (Re-Post)

(This is a re-post of a post from 2008.)

Thomas Aquinas:

Some have understood God to work in every agent in such a way that no created power has any effect in things, but that God alone is the ultimate cause of everything wrought; for instance, that it is not fire that gives heat, but God in the fire, and so forth. But this is impossible.

First, because the order of cause and effect would be taken away from created things: and this would imply lack of power in the Creator: for it is due to the power of the cause, that it bestows active power on its effect.

David Hume:

Thus, according to these philosophers, every thing is full of God. Not content with the principle, that nothing exists but by his will, that nothing possesses any power but by his concession: they rob nature, and all created beings, of every power, in order to render their dependence on the Deity still more sensible and immediate. They consider not that, by this theory, they diminish, instead of magnifying, the grandeur of those attributes, which they affect so much to celebrate. It argues surely more power in the Deity to delegate a certain degree of power to inferior creatures than to produce every thing by his own immediate volition.

These two passages give some sense of the importance in distinguishing hypothetical and categorical proposals of a particular type of argument. The arguments are in one sense very similar. There are some minor differences, due to different contexts (Aquinas is arguing against al-Ghazali, Hume is arguing against Malebranche) that would need to be considered in a full interpretation, but we can abstract from these for our purposes here. They both make the same basic criticism of occasionalism: that, while it is trying to exalt divine power, it really detracts from it, because giving power to the effect is more indicative of power in the cause. But there is another sense in which they are very different arguments. Aquinas's argument is a categorical argument: he is committed to each step of the argument, and thus the argument is an argument to a conclusion he thinks true, on the basis of premises he thinks true. It is an argument for what everyone should believe. Not so Hume's. We don't quite know Hume's actual position on these matters, but it is clear from the context that Hume is not committed to anything said in this argument. His argument is hypothetical: he may or may not believe any particular element of the argument, but his point is that occasionalists should believe this, or at least consider it more plausible than what they do believe. That is, it's not an attempt to lay out the serious philosophical reason for rejecting occasionalism (indeed, he goes on to offer what he calls "a more philosophical confutation of this theory" -- it is difficult to imagine Aquinas doing that, since on Aquinas's view the argument is as philosophical a confutation as could possibly be); it's an attempt to give occasionalists pause, to force them to ask themselves whether they are really being consistent. So very similar arguments, structurally and thematically speaking: but very different arguments, functionally speaking.

It is clear that any type of argument may be put forward either categorically or hypothetically. It is also clear, I would suggest, that categorically proposed arguments are stronger arguments than their hypothetically proposed counterparts; but hypothetically proposed arguments are safer, in the sense of committing the arguer to less, than their categorically proposed counterparts.

Thus in interpreting an argument we must consider not merely the concepts and logical structures involved; we must consider also how the argument is being put forward.

Poem Retrospective VI

Sometimes poems just come to you, for no discernible reason, and then only need minor tweaking at most. This one's always said pretty much what it was supposed to say, and has never needed more than a little smoothing out to say it. No doubt you could have a better poem on the general theme, but, beyond possible slight tweaking, further revision of this poem would end up essentially turning it into a different kind of poem. Whether a poem has reached its final state is not purely a question of quality; sometimes you've just done as much as you yourself can do with those kinds of materials. Perhaps it's a grand masterpiece, and perhaps it's just a minor still life, but with poems as with everything else in life, there's always a point at which you've basically done what you were doing with it.

Shaded Isles

Alas, no more the morning light
will catch the eye and spark to sight
the verdant earth, the azure blue,
and every other rainbow hue
that vests the world to make it bright;

alas, no more the morning light
will understanding's power fire
with vision and with heart's desire,
with waking thought and morning grace
as sunlight gladdens loving face;

instead the darkness, old and deep,
shall turn your eye and heart to sleep
and dreams no more shall haunt your brain,
nor tragic hopes, nor sorrow's pain,
but somewhere, lost in shaded isles,
your thought will stop to rest a while.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Something Elusive, yet Supremely Fair

The Ideal
by Florence Earle Coates

"Not the treasures is it that have awakened in me so-unspeakable a desire, but the Blue Flower is what I long to behold."—Novalis.

Something I may not win attracts me ever,—
⁠Something elusive, yet supremely fair,
Thrills me with gladness, but contents me never,
⁠Fills me with sadness, yet forbids despair.

It blossoms just beyond the paths I follow,
⁠It shines beyond the farthest stars I see,
It echoes faint from ocean caverns hollow,
⁠And from the land of dreams it beckons me.

It calls, and all my best, with joyful feeling,
⁠Essays to reach it as I make reply;
I feel its sweetness o'er my spirit stealing,
⁠Yet know ere I attain it I must die!

Poem Retrospective V

Dhruvasimha means 'steadfast lion'; in some Buddhist traditions it is the name of the lion-headed buddha, the buddha of the animal world. He is often shown with a book, and is associated with the power of language to ask questions. The beast asks no questions; to ask questions is to overcome bestial ignorance. Only by asking questions can one recognize that one's assumptions are not true answers.


Sacred text in hand, the lion waits;
teaching is the path through golden gates
reaching other realms the mind has sought,
byssal depths of light beyond all thought.
Flawless question given, answers dissipate.

Past the first awareness is the seed,
source untouched by any craving need,
spark forever steadfast in its light,
constant in reflection and in fight:
thinker is but thought, and doer deed.

Lion for reflection on the plains,
Free of deep delusion, in the rains
sees the golden grasses and the sky;
golden eyes outlook all things that die.
Thoughts devoid of craving know no pain:
self once overcome, no self remains.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Surnames and Academic Etiquette

David Benatar recently published an article in the Times Higher Education, of which a longer version was recently posted at "What's Wrong?":

Why do academics, in their professional writings, refer to their scholarly predecessors and one another by their surnames only? It may be tempting to answer that that is the convention – “everybody does it”. However, while that is a compelling explanation, it does not constitute a good justification.

Yet it seems that the practice does require a justification because, on the face of it, it appears impolite to refer to people in this way.

Of course, to most people it does not "on the face of it" appear impolite to do this; it's generally regarded as a polite act, which is why people do it. The whole argument is flawed because whether something is polite is in fact a matter of convention; if it's a genuine convention, it's not impolite to do it. If there's a further moral problem, there might be a reason to change the etiquette. But it's utterly, utterly absurd to say that some common practice appears to violate etiquette while refusing to listen to people who point out that, in fact, the etiquette currently involves an expectation of, by and large, engaging in that practice. If everybody does it, it's not rude to do it -- it may be any number of other things, but it is not impolite.

He goes on to say:

Of course there are contexts in which people do address one another in precisely this fashion. The military, as well as traditional British public schools come to mind. However, while these are environments of formality (which explains the more respectful ways in which “superiors” are addressed in those contexts), they are also de-individualising and harsh cultures. They are thus not the touchstone of politeness.

Whether anyone thinks the lives of an entire segment of the population is "de-individualising and harsh" is, of course, utterly irrelevant to whether something is polite and courteous in an entirely different domain. Courtesies are not something any one person can arbitrarily dictate to other people; they are something we are doing together, and thus they are culture-relative. The culture within which you are operating matters. Academia is a culture in which the expectation for politeness is that you will, by and large, refer to living people by last name in formal writing, and in informal writing where reputational or professional concerns are relevant. Using first names in a journal article, for instance, will often be read as patronizing or condescending. Using professional titles in such a case is usually acceptable, but in most situations not regarded as necessary for showing professional respect, and contrary to the argument given at the link, people do often find a consistent use of titles distracting, as overformalizing the discussion; you would usually only do it when you had reason to emphasize their credentials explicitly. Something like that is the usual practice, although people are not usually bothered by occasional deviations and different contexts may allow wider and more common deviations; but, regardless of what is usual, the usual practice is the standard by which we assess whether something is too informal or overly formal.

It was just last year that I discussed a fairly widely shared post that insisted that Princess Elisabeth should be referred to by her last name because referring to her by her first name was disrespectful, and that referring to her by her title made it sound like she wasn't a real philosopher; as I noted then, neither was true of actual practice, and making these things a general rule for historical figures would be insufficiently flexible. Some philosophers have a tendency, one fears, to try to universalize their private preferences; here we have two people universalizing their preferences in different directions, and both absurdly. What we learn from the article is that David Benatar has an opinion, and not really anything more; what we learn from the usual practice is that most people do not in fact share that opinion. And it is frankly a bit arrogant for him to think that everyone does. I'm from an area of the U.S., for instance, in which his preferred practices, using someone's first and last name, or their title and their last name, in a context in which you are criticizing them often sounds like you regard yourself as having a right to reprimand them -- the former is what parents do when their children are in trouble and what teachers do when students misbehave, and the latter is what you do when regard yourself as having the right to rebuke someone over whom you don't have authority. (It's not usually a problem where there's no criticism at all, although it will sometimes sound stilted.) If there are situations where it's obviously the custom, that custom overrides in those situations. On an individual basis, you can come to a mutually accepted result, and people will usually try to accommodate revealed preferences if they aren't too troublesome to accommodate. And, of course, different customs prevail elsewhere. Probably no one would have a problem with David Benatar doing it if they knew why, regardless of their usual way of doing things. But it's not an a priori truth that his preferred way of doing things is more polite than what other people actually do, and he doesn't really have the right just to assume that it is.

It's entirely right, of course, that we could do things differently. We could do things any number of ways differently. That's why no one is likely to be very bothered by Dr. Benatar's highly presumptuous way of arguing -- we could indeed do it his way, and one could very well be of his opinion that it would be a better way. But the possibility of having a different etiquette is not relevant to determining what the etiquette is. As I pointed out above, we may have reason to think that some other way of expressing courtesy and politeness would be better for some more fundamental moral reason, but if you want to know what's polite, you ask what people of good will usually in fact do, and when you know that, your question is answered. And if you feel that it is impolite, if you mean that literally and not as shorthand for simply saying that it would be regarded as impolite in a morally better system, you are provably wrong. If you want to know whether something is legal, you look at the code and precedent; if you want to know whether something is polite, you look at common rules of thumb and customs. It's a very serious error to confuse what's legal with what you think should be legal, and it's at least something of an error to confuse what's actually polite with what you would prefer to be counted as polite.

Whewell on Austen

I recently quoted a passage by Viriginia Woolf in which she mentions William Whewell's opinion of Jane Austen's Persuasion. I like finding nonstandard traces of philosophers I study, so I wondered if I could trace down the source, and I have (I was afraid it would be difficult, but it turned out to be quite easy). It's from A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew, J.E. Austen-Leigh; Chapter IX to be precise:

My brother-in-law, Sir Denis Le Marchant, has supplied me with the following anecdotes from his own recollections:

When I was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, Mr Whewell, then a Fellow and afterwards Master of the College, often spoke to me with admiration of Miss Austen's novels. On one occasion I said that I had found Persuasion rather dull. He quite fired up in defence of it, insisting that it was the most beautiful of her works. This accomplished philosopher was deeply versed in works of fiction. I recollect his writing to me from Caernarvon, where he had the charge of some pupils, that he was weary of his stay, for he had read the circulating library twice through.

Poem Retrospective IV

Mahershalalhashbaz is, of course, the name of the (probably) second son of the prophet Isaiah:

Moreover the Lord said unto me, Take thee a great roll, and write in it with a man's pen concerning Mahershalalhashbaz. And I took unto me faithful witnesses to record, Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah. And I went unto the prophetess; and she conceived, and bare a son. Then said the Lord to me, Call his name Mahershalalhashbaz. For before the child shall have knowledge to cry, My father, and my mother, the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be taken away before the king of Assyria.

The name is a hendiadys: both the first half (mahershalal) and the second (hasbaz) indicate swift plunder. Mene mene tekel upharsin, of course, is the writing on the wall that Daniel interpreted for Belshazzar as meaning that Babylon was weighed and found wanting, and would be given to the Medes and Persians; each word has a double meaning -- numbered and finished, weighed and lacking, divided and Persian:

And this is the writing that was written, Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. This is the interpretation of the thing: Mene; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. Tekel; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. Peres; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.

If I recall correctly, the image of the horse's hoof has its root in the prophet Nahum, where he talks about the fall of Nineveh.


An angel in heaven was flying
to and fro o'er all the earth;
an angel in loud voice crying,
"How many, O sons of men?"

In starlit skies, bright-shining,
Mars has wandered to work his will;
the wolves on the plain are howling,
carrion-vultures take their fill.

How many men are fallen, sons of men,
how many dead and dying
in great Ascalon and Tyre?
How many widows crying,
where blood flows down like water
from a horse's smashing hoof?

How many youths lie dead, O sons of men?
How many in graves unwed,
where roses grow, and poppies,
on bloody fields of war?
How many, O ye nations?
How many slip to darkness,
each face to be seen no more?
How many men are fallen, sons of men?

The formless hand its word has written;
mene, mene, tekel and parsin,
no longer is it hidden.
With fire you have shown it, sons of men,
branded it on the children's faces
as they laugh and as they play,
new names to them have given, sons of men:
"Quick pickings, easy prey".

An angel in heaven was soaring
o'er sea and all the earth,
an angel in heaven roaring,
"How many, O sons of men?"

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Fortnightly Book, February 3

I decided I'd do the novels of Charles Williams this year; it won't be very difficult. I've already done Many Dimensions (1931), so that just leaves six novels, and I'll start off with War in Heaven (1930) and The Place of the Lion (1931).

Each of the novels has a gimmick. War in Heaven has the Holy Graal, as Williams spells it, which serves as the locus for a battle against good and evil, as a dark conspiracy discovers that the Graal has been hidden in an English village church. The Place of the Lion, which in college was one of my favorite books, uses the Platonic Ideas -- archetypal manifestations (Virtues and Angelicals are the terms he uses) of Ideas like Beauty, Subtlety, Strength, Mercy, and Knowledge, begin bleeding into the mundane world, and thus threaten it with destruction, because all things tend toward union with their archetype.

Poem Retrospective III

I've occasionally toyed with end-alliteration. It gives more options than rhyme usually does, but it's also rather difficult to make it sound natural while also making the alliteration genuinely significant for the effect of the poem. I think this is far and away my most successful attempt.

A Poem of St. Agnes

The little lambs on heaven's field
remind me of a girl who fought
against the darkness, for the fair,
whose heart was free from trembling fear,
who would not falter, did not fail,
but held her ground against the foe.
"I faithful stay to Spouse and Friend,
my Jesus; I am truly free
with him," she said, her voice not faint.
And then she bent her head, with faith
exposed her neck. The death-stroke fell.