Saturday, July 20, 2019

Footsteps on the Moon

All human hearts rise up, exulting,
Reach out to the welcoming sky,
Moonlight on our soul-wings,
Seeking more and higher than we are.
Trust it takes, and valiant heart;
Reason it takes, and imagination
Open to what has never been,
Never faltering in difficulty.
Glory glides down on eagle's wings.

All tranquility, sea-deep and bright,
Lasts as a moment still in time;
Deep in the heart, joy is stirring,
Remembering the Cross and its grace,
Inside the heart, in eternity calm,
Near to magnificent desolation.

Clear and bold, our hearts rise high,
Over the land cast a humorous eye,
No obstacle fearing nor dreading.
Riddling the world to draw the mind,
All truths making known under veil,
Dreams may reach to moonlit seas.

Bright are the colors the human mind
Educes from the barren landscape;
Ascension transforms the seeing eye --
Nature seems now angelic in splendor.

Serenity lies at the end of long roads,
Hard by a sea drenched with light,
Earthshine and sunshine intermingled.
Paths through the heavens endure for ages.
Amaranthine footsteps mark the way.
Reason alone can navigate that journey;
Dreams alone can sustain the heart in it.

Millions of miles away, the Earth is small;
In the void it hangs, fragile droplet.
Time drops away, the mind goes out to all things,
Cascade of an infinite breath.
Hopes are serene, spirit is calm,
Eternity hints at itself in all things.
Long roads make great transformations;
Life is renewed and heart rediscovered.

Sweetly the rains of sunlight fall,
Combusting the kindling of the mind,
Ordering its thoughts in curious design.
Thought is an active thing, a force,
Taking the spheres of the world in hand.

In the quiets of space the power of God
Reaches into the mind with thundering force,
Waking the heart to sublime adventure,
Instilling a sense of the Presence within;
Nigh to eternity is the human soul.

Yesterday's mountains, hard as stone,
Over long eons to dust erode.
Unknown and mysterious, time is a riddle;
Nothing but the mind can resolve it,
Great with courage, great with thought.

Destiny begins with one foot;
Under the high Earth it begins with a step.
Kick off the chains that bind the feet;
Earth is more fair when bright in the sky.

Challenges shape the course of destiny,
Exalting the minds that rise to them.
Reason finds hope in overcoming.
Never does the road to heaven perish;
Always it is there, a shining path.
Night skies sing of those who walked in them.

Spaces grand enough for spirit to grow
Call to the human mind at night,
Herald a morning on new spheres,
Mix our mortal thoughts with dreams of more,
Inspire us to travel beyond horizon's bound.
Truth is a treasure within our mental reach;
Transcended, Earth gives way to the stars.

Oscar Wilde, The Plays of Oscar Wilde; De Profundis


Opening Passages: I'll just take one from the tragedies and one from the comedies (ignoring stage directions), and then De Profundis. From Salomé:

THE YOUNG SYRIAN: How beautiful is the Princess Salomé tonight!
THE PAGE OF HERODIAS: Look at the moon! How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. You would fancy she was looking for dead things.

From The Importance of Being Earnest:

ALGERNON: Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?
LANE: I didn't think it polite to listen, sir.
ALGERNON: I'm sorry for that, for your sake. I don't play accurately -- anyone can play accurately -- but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for life.

From De Profundis:

H. M. Prison,

Dear Bosie,--After long and fruitless waiting I have determined to write to you myself, as much for your sake as for mine, as I would not like to think that I had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever having received a single line from you, or any news or message even, except such as gave me pain.

Summary: In Wilde's first play, Vera, or, The Nihilists, Vera (loosely inspired by the Russian revolutionary Vera Ivanovna Zasulich) becomes deeply involved in the plots against the Czar after the death of her brother due to the Czar's men. She becomes involved with another conspirator, Alexis, who turns out to be himself the son of the Czar. When the Czar is in fact killed, Alexis ascends to the throne, thus violating his oath as a nihilist, and Vera, as the nihilists' best assassin has the mission to assassinate him.

The Duchess of Padua is much more melodramatic, but also revolves around an assassination plot. Guido Ferranti is seeking vengeance against Simone Gesso, the Duke of Padua, a rather nasty and malicious man. In attempting to infiltrate the Duke's inner circle, however, he falls in love with Beatrice, the Duchess of Padua. She returns his love, and Guido decides not to kill the Duke, but when Beatrice herself kills him, this will lead to a terrible estrangement that will lead only to death. The play is fast-moving, but suffers from the fact that everybody's motivations change every few pages. The shifts make sense in the abstract, but it's a lot of whiplash in a relatively short space.

In Salomé, the title character has an intense sexual desire for the prophet Iokanaan, who, however, is wholly devoted to his holy mission. Iokanaan is feared and admired by Herod, but hated by Herod's wife Herodias due to Iokanaan's condemnations of their relationship and of Herodias herself. This is only background, however; the focus is on Salomé herself, who will use the skill and beauty of her dance to have Iokanaan's head. The tale, of course, is that of the death of John the Baptist; Wilde's is a rather fanciful take. But it's perhaps the preeminent example of how Wilde approaches his plays; all of his plays are more like paintings or tableaux than like dramas. They are moving pictures, and have something of the structure of a painting. In the case of the tragedies, and this is especially true of Salomé, it is a very lush and textured depiction; in the case of the comedies, it is light in stroke and brush. As Wilde himself somewhere says, he likes his comedies modern and his tragedies robed in purple. Salomé thus works mostly as a dramatic poem depicting twisted desire, desire pitched to the point of a sort of lunatic madness.

Lady Windermere's Fan, A Play About a Good Woman depicts the marriage of Lord and Lady Windermere; but it goes wrong when Lady Windermere discovers that her husband has been spending large sums of money on another woman, Mrs. Erlynne, and this comes to a crisis when Lord Windermere insists that Lady Windermere should invite Mrs. Erlynne to a party, and, after her refusal, invites her himself. Mrs. Erlynne is indeed a coldly mercenary woman of the world, but there is one thing about her that Lady Windermere does not know; it does not make Mrs. Erlynne any less cold and worldly, but it makes her role in all these matters take a very different light.

A Woman of No Importance is something of an ensemble play; while there is a definite storyline, the play lets it build piecemeal through the actions of the characters rather than subordinating their actions to building the storyline. Briefly, Lord Illingworth, something of a lady's man, comes across a woman at a party, Mrs. Arbuthnot, and they discover that they both know each other. Lord Illingworth tries to take on her son, Gerald, as his secretary, but she opposes it; there is a secret in Mrs. Arbuthnot's past, one of those past secrets that by its nature does not stay in the past but always continues on into the present.

In An Ideal Husband, Sir Robert Chilton and his wife, Lady Chilton, are happily married; he is, indeed, an ideal husband, whose unimpeachable integrity Lady Chilton takes to be the cornerstone of their marriage. But he has a secret in his past -- one of those that tends to come back to haunt; when he was very young, he made his fortune by an unethical act violating a position of public trust. Chilton will be blackmailed, and it will strain their marriage to a breaking point, and it will only be by luck and the hard work of a friend that it will survive.

The Importance of Being Earnest, of course, is the most famous of Wilde's comedies; interestingly, it was early on one of those plays that the public liked but the critics thought a mixed bag; it's triviality was seen as being almost too ruthlessly trivial. Jack Worthing is engaged to Gwendolen, who thinks, however, that his name is Ernest -- she has always wanted to marry a man named Ernest. His friend, Algernon Macrieff, discovers his secret: Worthing is known as Jack in the country, where he is in charge of Cecily Cardew, but escapes to the city on occasion on the pretense that he has a rather libertine brother named Ernest there, and in the city, he is Ernest. Macrieff, who does the same to escape into the country, hatches a scheme to visit Worthing's estate and meet his ward, which he does under the name 'Ernest'. He and Cecily hit it off quite well, especially since she likes the name 'Ernest'. The schemes, of course, will be discovered, and there will have to be some quick thinking, and a lot of good fortune, to get out of the problem.

I also had a chance to listen to The Importance of Being Earnest episode from the radio show Favorite Story. Hosted by Ronald Colman, the gimmick of the series was that every week some notable figure in cinema or theater would pick a story to be presented. When they asked Margaret Webster, one of the great theater directors of the twentieth century, especially famous for her Shakespearean work, she picked this play as her favorite story.

The episode is only a bit more than twenty-five minutes long, so it is very heavily abridged, but it holds up to abridgement quite well. There are a few parts that are greatly missed though; in particular, we don't have the best scene in the play, the sweetly venomous showdown between Cecily and Gwendolen over tea and cake. But it is quite well done.

We also have two fragments, La Sainte Courtesaine and A Florentine Tragedy; as they stand, they are less dramatic pieces than poetic pieces with dramatic elements. The former depicts a Christian hermit, Honorius, who is tempted by the pagan Myrrhina; in the course of their interaction, Myrrhina converts to Christian asceticism and Honorius to pagan pursuit of pleasure. In the latter a husband and wife have lost interest in each other, but discovers a new interest when he finds his wife in the arms of another man; there is a duel, which ends up sparking the wife's interest in her husband again.

All of Wilde's comedies have an affectation of frivolousness, but in fact Wilde is able to make them so comic in part because certain moral principles in the background remain constant no matter how foolish, how sinful, or how trivial men and women turn out to be. In particular, they stress that the goodness of all good people is partly social presentation, and the badness partly social recoil, and that all good people have blemishes and all bad people may have an element that makes them at least not intolerable, and on which point they may excel those with a better representation. Our sins find us all out; so we only harm ourselves when we refuse to forgive.

Of the complete plays, the tragedies all have to do with assassinations and the comedies all have to do with marriage in one way or another, which is certainly classical. But despite the sharp stylistic differences, there is perhaps more in common between a marriage and an assassination plot than might at first leap to the eye. Assassination plots are conspiracies of many; engagements and marriages and adulteries are all themselves conspiracies of two. Successful assassination conspiracies aim at freedom from an oppressor, or some such; marriage conspiracies are also aiming at a kind of freedom, one based on love rather than politics. But they both can get twisted quite up, to general disaster. The real link, of course, is that Wilde sees the real interest in human affairs not to be the style and fashion for which he is famous but the relation of person to person, concrete, particular, and sometimes very, very personal.

We find both of these themes, forgiveness and the emphasis on person to person interaction, in his long letter to Douglas from prison, which was published as De Profundis (the title was given to it by his executor, Robbie Ross). If anything, Wilde's career is a narrowing down to these themes, both coming to a bright, sharp point due to his time in prison. In the first part of the letter, Wilde recounts various facets of his relationship with Douglas, and it becomes clear as it goes on that much of the problem in the relationship he sees as summed up in a comment Douglas made to him when he was sick: "When you are not on your pedestal, you are not interesting." The letter can in fact be seen as an argument that this is fundamentally shallow and wrong: off their pedestals, people are more intensely and purely themselves, and only insofar as they are themselves are people interesting. The accusations against Douglas can sometimes seem like nothing more than an anguished rant, but there is more going on here; by recounting Douglas's faults and failings, he is showing the shallowness of Douglas's view. Douglas is a sentimentalist -- he does not see people as people, but only as experiences. But Wilde even at his most superficial was always motivated by something deeper, which is inimical to sentimentalism, namely, Art, and his tribulations have intensified this into something that covers the whole of his life.

This leads into the second part of the letter, which is primarily concerned with two related themes: Christ as the summation in one person of the whole of romantic art and approach to life, and the relation of the life of art to conduct. Christ, of course, represents the very opposite of Douglas's comment: Jesus was deeply interested in the poor and sick, and he pitied the rich people on their pedestals, and he saw people as people, not as things for the purpose of entertainment or anything else. Wilde conceives this aspect of the life of Christ artistically. It expressed a vividness of imagination that could see the interest of people off their pedestals. An artist brings out the interest of a medium, but Christ's medium as an artist was people themselves, and he brought out the beauty in their lives, even if they were grave sinners. Likewise, the life of art is one that requires learning how to face oneself, one's true self rather than the masked presentation on pedestal. With this Wilde returns to Douglas, forgiving him for his failings, at least as best he can, and asking him to write -- so that they can finally and really begin to know each other.

Favorite Passages: There are obviously quite a few quotable passages; just a selection here. From The Duchess of Padua:

DUCHESS: Oh, I have been
Guilty beyond all women, and indeed,
Beyond all women punished. Do you think --
No, that could not be -- Oh, do you think that love
Can wipe the bloody stain from off my hands,
Pour balm into my wounds, heal up my hurts,
And wash my scarlet sins as white as snow?
For I have sinned.

GUIDO: They do not sin at all
Who sin for love.

DUCHESS: No, I have sinned, and yet
Perchance my sin will be forgiven me.
I have loved much.

From The Importance of Being Earnest:

CECILY (sweetly): Sugar?
GWENDOLEN (superciliously): No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more.

CECILY looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs, and puts four lumps of sugar into the cup.

CECILY (severely): Cake or bread and butter?

GWENDOLEN (in a bored manner): Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.

CECILY (cuts a very large slice of cake and puts it on the tray): Hand that to Miss Fairfax.

From De Profundis:

I bore up against everything with some stubbornness of will and much rebellion of nature, till I had absolutely nothing left in the world but one thing. I had lost my name, my position, my happiness, my freedom, my wealth. I was a prisoner and a pauper. But I still had my children left. Suddenly they were taken away from me by the law. It was a blow so appalling that I did not know what to do, so I flung myself on my knees, and bowed my head, and wept, and said, 'The body of a child is as the body of the Lord: I am not worthy of either.' That moment seemed to save me. I saw then that the only thing for me was to accept everything. Since then -- curious as it will no doubt sound -- I have been happier. It was of course my soul in its ultimate essence that I had reached. In many ways I had been its enemy, but I found it waiting from me as a friend. When one comes in contact with the soul it makes one simple as a child, as Christ said one should be.

It is tragic how few people ever 'possess their souls' before they die. 'Nothing is more rare in any man,' says Emerson, 'than an act of his own.' It is quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation....

Recommendation: The tragedies are Recommended, and the comedies and De Profundis (which I found more profound than I expected under the circumstances) Highly Recommended.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Practical Reasons, Belief, and Suspension of Judgment

Selim Berker, in "A Combinatorial Argument against Practical Reasons for Belief" (Analytic Philosophy [2018] 59: 427–70; a preprint of it is available here), argues (as you would expect from the title) that there are no practical reasons for or against believing. There are reasons to doubt the tenability of such a claim. The most obvious is that pretty much all reasonable people occasionally give as reasons for or against belief things that are most easily characterized as practical reasons (simplicity, fruitfulness for theory, experimental falsifiability or confirmability, usefulness in practice). A much more subtle and controversial one is that it's at least not clear that 'practical reasons' and 'epistemic reasons' are non-overlapping categories; that is, despite the tendency to talk as if they were different kinds of reasons, there is room on the evidence to consider them instead different kinds of functions for reasons. The most obvious example of something that seems to function simultaneously as an epistemic reason and a practical reason is the principle of noncontradiction. But I think Berker is quite right that his argument is founded on things that are widely believed by people studying reasons; I don't think it suffices to establish that there are no practical reasons for or against believing, but that's because I am inclined to go tollens where he goes ponens. That is, the argument is based on things widely believed that I think shouldn't be widely believed. And it's valuable to look at some features of his argument (I can't do full justice to it here) to highlight what those things are, and why they are problematic.

(1) Berker holds that there is nothing corresponding in matters of action to suspension of judgment in matters of belief. This, however, I think is certainly false. Suspension of judgment is committed neutrality on whether p is true or not true; the corresponding state in action is committed neutrality on whether an action is to be done or not done, suspension of decision. It is a common feature in plan-designing and decision-making.

(2) Suspension of judgment is not a thing that just happens; it is a practical action, not an epistemic status. (Committed neutrality requires actually committing, unlike neither believing p nor disbelieving p.) Thus, if practical reasons and epistemic reasons are taken to be distinct kinds of reasons, the reasons that are relevant to suspension of judgment are practical reasons, not epistemic reasons. Significant portions of Berker's argument, however, depend on the assumptions, first, that we have three alternatives, believing, disbelieving, suspending judgment, and, second, that epistemic reasons balance to suspension of judgment. These are both quite common assumptions. But, if anything, it is practical reasons that should balance to suspension; epistemic reasons, if not also practical reasons, should just -- balance. Isosthenia, equal strength of arguments, is not itself suspension of judgment, and nothing about isosthenia on its own strictly requires committed neutrality; we have to decide to suspend judgment, as a practical matter. The old Pyrrhonists, for instance, had very practical reasons for suspending judgment in cases of isosthenia.

(3) This has bearing on a more fundamental point. It is widely held that practical reasons for action exhibit what Berker calls 'permissive balancing': if I have no practical reason to do anything but A or B, which conflict, and I have good reason for A and equally good reason for B, then it is allowable to do either A or B. It is also widely held that epistemic reasons for belief exhibit what Berker calls 'prohibitive balancing': if I have no reason to think that anything is true but A or B, which conflict, and I have goo reason for A and equally good reason for B, then it is not allowable to believe either A or B.

The metaphor of balancing reasons (or arguments, or justifications, etc.) is one that should probably not be taken over-seriously; for one thing, we do not compare reasons (or arguments...) in only one way, which means that it's harder to find a genuine balancing of reasons, rather than balancing-if-we-only-focus-on-this-aspect, than applications of metaphor usually make it sound. (And, in fact, we do not only suspend judgment in matters of isosthenia, which in practice would make it a very rare phenomenon for most people, but for all sorts of close cases, limited contexts, and partial inquiries. Suspending judgment in response to isosthenia itself is not, as it is often presented, the paradigmatic case of suspending judgment. If anything, the paradigmatic case of suspending judgment is doing so on recognition that there is more information coming, as in the case of the committed neutrality of a scientist waiting for the experiment to finish.) But even if we consider cases in which we are only considering one aspect, the norms in question, while perhaps common, do not seem to be universal. There are practical situations in which you should not be acting without a definite preponderance of reason, however that is defined. If, for instance, we have practical reason to use a weapon and practical reason not to use it, it's not generally true that equality means you can make whichever decision you please; one can equally say that you are, stuck in a practical quandary that prevents you from making a decision until something changes (suspension of decision). Similarly, I think one should resist the notion that epistemic reasons always and everywhere exhibit prohibitive balancing; from isosthenia alone no conclusions about one should not believe follow. And there are cases where assuming permissive balancing would seem at least to be coherent -- for instance, if the reasons underdetermine whether A or B is true, tentatively picking a side to assume doesn't make the mind explode or anything. It seems that practical and epistemic reasons could each have either permissive balancing or prohibitive balancing, even if each tends to favor one over the other.

(4) Berker addresses the idea that the norms could be rejected in considering a different position -- the view that all reasons are practical -- and mostly just insists that "we" are very strongly inclined to believe them. But it is worth pointing out that even if there is a sharp distinction between epistemic and practical reasons, the only reasons that could be given for believing that epistemic reasons should exhibit prohibitive balancing are practical reasons. Prohibitive balancing is normative; the reasons for accepting norms are recognizably practical on most accounts of norms.

(5) The usual reason for insisting that we need practical reasons as well as epistemic reasons is that the former sometimes seem to serve as an 'epistemic tie-breaker'. Berker considers this at some length, but his response, I think, makes the serious (although I think common) assumption that if practical reasons aren't breaking the tie independently of the epistemic reasons, they aren't breaking the tie. But this is certainly too strong. Consider a case in which the epistemic reasons balance between two theories, A and B, which can't both be true; a hypothetical scientist, faced with this, accepts A because it allows further experiment and B doesn't, so A is more beneficial in the pursuit of scientific discovery. That is very definitely a practical reason; it's definitely being used to break the tie. But the whole point of the practical reason is that it takes into account the epistemic reasons -- it has to do so in order to take into account their practical implications if accepted. What is relevant, though, is that the epistemic reasons do not yield the result, 'accept A', without the additional practical reason.

(6) This is not to say that I am not sympathetic to some of the features of Berker's argument; I have only touched on points where it is true both (a) that I think Berker is right that he is building on things widely held; and (b) that I think there is positive reason to doubt these things.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Postures of Inquiry vs. Positions (Repost)

There's an ambiguity, at least as it is often used, that I've always find interesting in the English phrase 'questioning (something)': an ambiguity between asking questions of or about something and putting it into question. They are two different things; for instance, you can do the former without ever doubting what you are asking questions about, but the latter precisely means to put something in doubt. This is an ambiguity between a posture of inquiry -- in this case, asking questions -- and a position -- in this case, that whatever is talked about is questionable. People in casual conversation will often conflate the two, despite the fact that they are very different.

A more sophisticated version of this often occurs with philosophical skepticism. Many common arguments for skepticism quite clearly collapse the distinction between a posture of inquiry and a position. If you look at Pyrrhonism, for instance, as we find in the Ten Modes and the Five Modes, they are consistingly cases of a specific posture of inquiry -- finding balancing appearances or arguments -- and treating it as if it were in contrast to Dogmatism. But insofar as they are things you can do in investigation, they are all things a Dogmatist can do, without any suspension of judgment, while still being a Dogmatist. To be sure, they are all things that you can do suspending judgment, and it is entirely reasonable to argue that suspending judgment is more appropriate; but it has to be argued, not assumed, because the posture of inquiry in which we collect various kinds of equipollent appearances or arguments is not the position we take in suspending judgment because of them. A Dogmatist can perfectly well collect the appearance of a tower being round and a tower being square while believing it to be square in floorplan; he can look into exactly the same appearances as a Pyrrhonist without ceasing to be a Dogmatist about it. Nor does moving to arguments change anything. The Dogmatist can perfectly well collect the arguments 'The tower seems round [at a distance], so it is round' and the 'The tower seems square [up close], so it is square'. He can't accept them both simultaneously and in the same way in the same context, to be sure, but the Pyrrhonist doesn't accept either of the arguments at all. As a posture of inquiry, you can entertain both arguments regardless of whether you have a definite belief or are suspending judgment. But some of the plausibility of Pyrrhonism comes from a convenient failure to recognize that the Dogmatist can handle appearances and arguments in the way a Pyrrhonist does while not going on to the further step of suspending judgment.

Ironically, it is the Pyrrhonists who have come closest to recognizing this distinction between a posture of inquiry and a position, because they have at least since Sextus Empiricus used something like such a distinction as part of a defensive maneuver. (Arne Naess has perhaps some of the clearest discussion of this.) Thinking of themselves as 'skeptics' or 'zetetics' -- i.e., examiners or seekers -- is precisely taking up a posture of inquiry. Thus you can deny that you are just another Dogmatist by saying that you are really an Inquirer -- you'd be interested in finding the truth, if you could, but you are still in the process of looking for it, and have not, it seems to you, found it. But nothing about this in itself is inconsistent with Dogmatism; Dogmatists too may be Inquirers -- they can be interested in finding the truth, if they can, and can still be in the process of looking for it, but have, it seems to them, found part of it. The Skeptics are right that you can take this as a posture of inquiry rather than as a position; but qua posture of inquiry it is not inconsistent with any Dogmatist position at all. I mean, we can take a posture of inquiry, entirely from curiosity, about something we regard as a per impossibile hypothetical. Merely inquiring a certain way does not, itself and on its own, rule out any position whatsoever.

To be sure, Pyrrhonists, ever cautious, have tended to treat the suspension of judgment as coming on one when dealing with equipollence of arguments, etc., and so they can perfectly well say that there is no rigorous link, but only something that seems at times to be natural. But if they answered in this way, they seem only to be describing the history of their minds engaged in the error of conflating distinct things. And the Dogmatist in the face of this is free to accept all the arguments of the Skeptic as pertaining to inquiry, without making the assumption that this automatically requires accepting the result of suspending judgment.

There are other cases in which posture of inquiry is confused with position. What I've previously called the -ism mistake seems to be a particular version of the same confusion -- people thinking that the posture of inquiry of examining consequences is the position that is consequentialism, or people thinking that the posture of inquiry of trying to explain natural effects by natural causes is the position that is naturalism. As with the above, you could possibly get from one to the other by arguing with the help of additional assumptions, but you can't in fact directly get from one to the other, however much people may reason as if you could.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019


I was looking at Isidore's Etymologiae today and had an insight into the medieval practice of etymologia. I've noted before that it's a mistake to overhistoricize what the medievals were doing with their etymologies. For us, etymology is a historical reconstruction, but while the medievals thought there was some kind of rough historical connection, the medievals aren't trying to reconstruct the history. For them, etymologia is not a historical origin, per se, but an imperfect definition -- it is a definition-like thing, not a history-like thing, that falls short of the full conditions for a good definition. In particular, if you are giving the etymologia of a word, you are defining it in terms of similar words.

Now, this is to us an odd thing to take seriously; why would there be any particular importance in using similar words? If we were doing it in English, it would usually be a game. Nonetheless, you still can find cases here and there where it's obviously relevant. I've noted before it's actually essential to understanding 'parameter' that people in colloquial English take parameters to establish perimeters, even though the only reason for this is that 'parameter' and 'perimeter' are similar words. English is blocky language, so it's even easier to see in common phrases than in particular words: the common misuse of the original technical term 'begging the question' is inevitable, and even people who insist on keeping the technical meaning will often, if you ask what the phrase means, try to fit the 'begging' in somehow, even though it's only there due to an oddly strong and overliteral translation of the Latin petitio.

But, of course, the medievals were not thinking in terms of English but in terms of Latin and sometimes Greek. And, structurally, what is Latin like? It consists of roots, prefixes, suffixes, case endings, and the like, and shortened forms are actually fairly common. So what St. Isidore is doing is just rationally extrapolating this to the limit, and proceeding on the assumption that every non-basic Latin word consists of further roots. All Latin words break up into little bits anyway; lots of those little bits obviously contribute to the meaning; it at least raises the question what the other little bits might be doing.

So, for instance, Isidore's etymology for gladius, sword, is gulam dividere, splitting the throat. What is his reasoning? He's not merely playing a word game. As he sees it, gladius breaks up into smaller elements:


The component g(*)la is shared with gula; the component di is shared with dividere -- and, indeed, it is found in lots of Latin words that have something to do with dividing. So we get gulam dividere; and since it makes sense to think of a sword as a throat-splitter, he takes that we have here come up with a plausible candidate for more basic words using the same components that capture the meaning of gladius at least roughly. (And Isidore is never really dogmatic about his etymologies, often willing to propose alternatives, although some of his proposals are so catchy that once he proposes them they become how people think of the original words anyway.)

A bigger stretch is spes, which he explains as pes progrediendi. Spes and pes obviously share a component; so to make sense of how this component in 'foot' can apply to 'hope' as well, we need to ask, "What hope-like things does a foot do?" And Isidore's answer is the obvious one: it moves forward.

Apollo in Real Time

This is a neat website celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission:

It follows the mission second-by-second, so you can check in on what the astronauts would be doing if the exact same mission were going on today.

Also worth noting, CBS's original broadcast of the Apollo 11 launch:

Seven Slight or Minor Sins

In his Letter 17 to a nobleman of Ravenna, St. Peter Damian has an argument that everyone should pray the seven hours of the Divine Office every day (although he later makes a few qualifications, e.g., the illiterate can substitute the Lord's Prayer for each hour). In the course of the argument he has the following interesting passage:

As we know, there are seven principal vices from which all other infectious forms of vice derive, namely: pride, avarice, vainglory, anger, envy, lust, spiritual torpor. These, moreover, since they are the cause and origin of all evils, are known to have the same number of effects, namely, the seven mortal sins, that is, adultery, murder, theft, perjury, false witness, plunder, and blasphemy. in each of these the death of the soul is so clear and certain that if anyone should die guilty of any of them, he could not possibly avoid the sentence of eternal damnation. There are also seven slight or minor sins into which not only the sinner but also every upright man falls daily, even though he might appear to stand at the very peak of perfection. These, accordingly, are sins of thought, ignorance, inconstancy, necessity, infirmity, forgetfulness, surprise. Because of these, surely we always fail our everyday living, and so against the wounds of sin we need some daily remedy for their cure.
[Peter Damian, The Letters of Peter Damian, 1-30, Blum, tr., The Fathers of the Church: Medieval Continuation, Catholic University Press (Washington, DC: 1989) p. 146.]

The seven principal vices, of course, are as the capital vices usually are. The 'seven mortal sins' are (I take it) a condensation of the Ten Commandments. I don't think I've come across the list of 'seven slight or minor sins', but from the list, this could be just because this is an unusual way of expressing the subject -- what the list is really describing are circumstances that can often make a grave sin a venial one, so they aren't really specific sins, but seven ways any sin could become 'slight or minor', and thus a form of wrongdoing that we find even in just persons.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Two Poem Drafts

The Catullus is not a great translation, but one with a particular purpose; Catullus is doing a number of interesting things with idea-rhyme in the poem (the repeated self-exhortation to endure, the repeated ending of a line on a negative, etc.), and I wanted a version that took that seriously, even if it sacrificed other things.

Sky and Sea

Freedom is a joy
like a sky blue and clear,
nothing to restrain,
no boundaries to fear,

but in the sky none can drown.
At times we tumble down

to where freedom is a sorrow
like a sea on every side,
no land to the horizon,
no place to flee or hide,

water, water, wave upon wave,
no boat to help, no hand to save.

Catullus 8

Wretched Catullus, cease being a fool;
what you see as lost, as lost take.
Once there shone for you white suns,
as you went where the girl took,
one loved so that loved more will be none,
where those many foolings were done
that you willed and she did not nill,
truly there shone for you white suns.
Now she wills not, you, powerless, want not;
follow not she who flees, nor wretchedly live,
but carry on with resolute mind, hold out.
Farewell, girl, now Catullus holds out!
He needs you not, nor asks you out unwilling,
but you will grieve -- who asks you out? Nobody.
Villainous girl, woe to you, what life is left you?
Who will visit you now? Who will see you as pretty?
Whom will you love now? With whom will you be?
Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you press?
But you, Catullus, firmly hold out.

With Many a Break and Flaw

Vita Nuova
by Oscar Wilde

I stood by the unvintageable sea
Till the wet waves drenched face and hair with spray,
The long red fires of the dying day
Burned in the west; the wind piped drearily
And to the land the clamorous gulls did flee:
'Alas!' I cried,'my life is full of pain,
And who can garner fruit or golden grain
From these waste fields which travail ceaselessly!'
My nets gaped wide with many a break and flaw,
Nathless I threw them as my final cast
Into the sea, and waited for the end.
When lo! a sudden glory! and I saw
From the black waters of my tortured past
The argent splendour of white limbs ascend!

Monday, July 15, 2019

Even *You* Can't Be Caught Unawares!

I don't particularly plan on seeing the new version of The Lion King, but all of the advertisement has left me humming the best villain song in the entire Disney franchise -- not a minor achievement given that it competes with the likes of "Poor, Unfortunate Souls" and "Hellfire". So, "Be Prepared":

One of the things I like is that it actually shows some real insight into the underworkings of political manipulation, and it doesn't hurt that Jeremy Irons and Jim Cummings (who share Scar's vocals, since the former's voice started giving out during recording) get just about everything right in the delivery.

O buona ventura!

Today is the feast of St. Bonaventura of Bagnoregio. His name was Giovanni di Fidanza; we don't know for sure why he was instead always called 'Lucky', but the usual story is that when his parents took him to St. Francis of Assisi when he was sick as a boy (which he himself tells us happened), St. Francis took him in his arms, and said, "O buona ventura!"

From the Breviloquium:

Not only is Wisdom capable of knowing [all things]: it is the very principle of knowing. Therefore, it is called 'light,' as being the principle of knowing all that is known; 'mirror,' as being the principle of knowing all that is seen and approved; 'exemplar,' as being the principle of knowing all that is foreseen and disposed; 'book of life,' as being the principle of knowing all that is predestined and reprobated. For divine Wisdom is the 'book of life', considering things insofar as they return to God; the 'exemplar,' considering things as they proceed from God'; 'the mirror,' considering things as they follow their course; and the 'light,' from all these perspectives simultaneously. Now under teh concept of 'exemplar,' we also sue other terms, such as 'idea,' 'word,' 'art,' and 'reason.' 'Idea' refers to the act of foreseeing; 'word,' to the act of proposing; 'art,' to the act of accomplishing; and 'reason,' to the act of perfecting, for it adds the idea of a goal. Since all of these acts are in God, one is often taken for another.
[Bonaventure, Breviloquium, Monti, ed., The Franciscan Institute (Saint Bonaventure, NY: 2005), p. 50.]

Here's a joke by St. Bonaventure:

The King of Anglia asked a certain bishop what the two horns on his mitre signified. He responded, and well, that they signified the Two Testaments, which bishops ought to know. "And what do those two hanging things (pendicula), which hang behind the back, signify?" He responded that they signified ignorance of both, 'because we know neither one nor the other, but throw both behind the back.'" And in this he spoke badly.
[Bonaventure, Collationes de Septem Donis Spiritus Sancti, Collatio IV de dono scientiae, 17.]

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Evening Note for Sunday, July 14

Thought for the Evening: Hayes on Liquids

One of the most interesting works in what could be called analytic philosophy in the twentieth century was not a work in analytic philosophy but in computer science. Pat Hayes in 1979 wrote a work called "The Naive Physics Manifesto", which criticized a great deal of artificial intelligence research for playing around with toy models built simply to be toy models. He proposed that researchers instead should be focused on the formal representation of actual common-sense knowledge. No more theories made for artificial models made for theories; rather, deal with the real world, the everyday world. Hayes himself gave a demonstration of how this might work, using common-sense knowledge about liquids, "Naive Physics I: Ontology for Liquids", and the result is, I think, far superior to most work in analytic philosophy. How can you represent, in a formal, logical way (Hayes prefers to use just ordinary first-order logic with an occasional bell or whistle), the way we reason about liquids?

Standard first-order logic works as well as it does because it tracks relations between individuals. Liquids obviously pose something of an initial puzzle for this, because liquid, as we find it in everyday life, does not come in obvious discrete units. It's difficult to pin down what a piece of liquid would be (although Hayes eventually does so). But liquids can have a spatiotemporal continuity, a unified history, and we can and do make sense of this in terms of contained quantities of liquid: water in a lake, tea in a cup, and even a raindrop is contained by its own surface cohesion. So we can think of containers (it doesn't matter what kind), which we can call c, and then talking about the inside of them, inside(c), and this contained space can harbor an amount of a liquid, amount(l,s). Even with just this much we can represent quite a few things. Amounts are partially ordered; there is a zero amount, which we can call none. For instance, we only need this much and 'greater than' to say that there is tea in the cup:

amount(tea,inside(cup)) > none

There are plenty of other things that we might want to add: a way to compare the capacities of different containers, metric units, definitions for things like 'full' or 'channel'. Some of this can potentially be complicated, and requires hard thinking about things like measurement or surfaces, as well as the kinds of activities or processes liquids undergo.

One of the things he makes in order to try to make the work easier is a taxonomy, an 'ontology', of liquids. In everyday reasoning there are features of liquids that have a particularly important role to play in distinguishing different kinds of liquid situations. Some liquid is bulk, some finely divided into drops. Some is lazy (normal behavior of water on its own), some is energetic (requires some activity to maintain). Some is supported, either inside a space or on a surface, some is unsupported. Some is moving, some is still. These have various relations that can be traced out; for instance, while not all lazy water is still (for instance, falling water is lazy and moving), all still water is lazy. And, Hayes says, "Of the 32 logical possibilities, only 15 are physically possible, even allowing souch outrè possibilities as mist being blown along a tube" (p. 86). These 15 can be put in a table that looks something like this, with examples:

wet surface liquid flowing down a sloping surface waves on a shore? SUPPORTED ON SURFACE BULK
liquid in a container river flowing along a channel liquid pumped through pipe SUPPORTED IN SPACE
falling column, as in a waterfall rising column, as in a waterspout UNSUPPORTED
mist in valley? mist rolling down valley? mist blown through tube? SUPPORTED IN SPACE
cloud of mist falling rain splashing spray UNSUPPORTED

I have sometimes wondered how Hayes came to his conclusion that there were only fifteen possible cases here. Hayes recognizes that there are other states for water -- he mentions liquid soaked up by something, liquid, suspended across a mesh, and free-floating bubbles -- but I take it that he thinks that the fifteen capture all the physical possible cases that we get if we only look at these possible features of liquid. Presumably it's right to rule out LAZY STILL UNSUPPORTED BULK, which we might perhaps get with blobs of liquid on a space station but not in any everyday circumstance. (I have somewhere a children's book from the space shuttle days in which liquid blobs floating in space are highlighted as a weird and new thing that astronauts deal with, which can be taken as evidence that there seems something fantastic rather than everyday about it.) Are there really no ordinary cases of LAZY MOVING SURFACE-SUPPORTED DIVIDED and ENERGETIC MOVING SURFACE-SUPPORTED DIVIDED? If drops on a surface are LAZY STILL, there seems an obvious possibility for ENERGETIC MOVING -- drops skittering on a hot surface. And if that would count, then LAZY MOVING would obviously be single drops rolling off a sloped surface. A single falling tear is LAZY MOVING, and it is DIVIDED, and it seems to be SURFACE-SUPPORTED.

In any case, the idea is that for each of these you can formalize some basic principles that govern common-sense reasoning about them; Hayes himself only looks at LAZY BULK, suggesting that at least a lot of the principles would carry over to the other cases. To do this he has to work through questions like, "How should you characterize a liquid's wetting something?" (obviously this requires looking at how surfaces work) and "How should you characterize change in the liquid?" (for which Hayes suggests we should consider not just the liquid at a time but the kinds of histories a liquid can have). It takes some work to come up with the principles, but it turns out that you can describe a lot of situations involving liquids with relatively few of them.

One of the important things that Hayes notes -- I think it is probably the single most important idea in an article full of important ideas -- is that the taxonomies are not a secondary matter. They do significant work in the reasoning. In many cases they are what make the axioms or formal principles even usable to begin with, and they also serve a function in ruling out possibilities, which lets you draw more conclusions from your formal principles than you otherwise would be able to draw. Classification is a central part of reasoning itself.

Hayes' work touched off an interest in 'ontologies' in computer science, some of which has been very worthwhile and interesting, and some of which has not been so, but it's an admirable bit of work. One could wish that more 'naive' work of the sort had been done in more fields.

[Patrick J. Hayes, "Naive Physics I: Ontology for Liquids", Formal Theories of the Commonsense World, Hobbs & Moore, eds., Ablex Publishing Corporation (Norwood, NJ: 1988) 71-107.]

Various Links of Interest

* Natalja Deng, What is temporal ontology? (PDF)

* Daniel A. Kaufman, Feeling Like a Man

* Richard Marshall interviews Christopher Shields on Aristotle and metaphysics at "3:16".

* Lisa Shapiro on the history of philosophy

* The Beast of Gévaudan

* Matthew Wills looks at Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, at the JSTOR blog.

* Ofra Magidor, Category Mistakes, at the SEP

* Brett T. Feger, The Importance of Good Posture, looks at what Aquinas says about the subject.

* Rob Alspaugh, Biblical Weaponry and Josiah's Failure

* Arend Smilde, Horrid Red Herrings: C. S. Lewis and the "Argument from Desire"

* Amy Olberding on the problem of incivility

* Eduard Habsburg on the dissolution of Austrian monasteries in the early modern period

* If you are an American wondering how to contribute to constructive handling of current immigration problems, I have heard very good things about both Annunciation House and CLINIC.

* Willis Renuart, In Praise of Religion's Dark Side

* Chateaubriand on the “Dangers Facing the United States” (1846)

* Bl. John Henry Newman is due to be canonized on October 13.

* Mark Spencer, Beauty, First and Last of All Transcendentals

* Merlin looks like an interesting approach to public philosophy

* Undergrads learn about humanity first-hand by studying philosophy with incarcerated individuals

* I have been spending way too much time watching the videos at the Townsends YouTube channel (there's an auto-play video). Here's one on how to make barley water:

Currently Reading

Oscar Wilde, The Complete Plays
Oscar Wilde, De Profundis (Unabridged)
St. Peter Damian, The Letters of Peter Damian, 1-30
St. Augustine, On the Trinity
Hegel, Philosophy of Right