Saturday, November 21, 2020

Richard Adams, Watership Down


 Opening Passage:

The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog's mercury and oak-tree roots. On the other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit holes. In places the grass was gone altogether and everywhere there were clusters of dry droppings, through which nothing but the ragwort would grow. A hundred yards away, at the bottom of the slope, ran the brook, no more than three feet wide, half choked with kingcups, watercress and blue brooklime. The cart track crossed by a brick culvert and climbed the opposite slope to a five-barred gate in the thorn hedge. The gate led into the lane. (p. 3)

Summary: Hazel and Fiver are rabbits in the Sandleford Warren, but Fiver has a vision of terrible death coming on the warren. Unable to convince Chief Rabbit, they head out with a number of others to find a safer place to live. The way is long and perilous, and they are nearly destroyed in a treacherous warren where death continually looms, but eventually the come to Watership Down, an excellent place for a warren, and settle down to address their next problem: they have no does. They manage to liberate some hutch rabbits, but they still need more. With the help of a seagull that they befriend, Kehaar, they learn of a large warren to the east with plenty of does. An embassy fails miserably, and they discover that the warren, Efrafa, is a terrible place under the iron rule of a mighty warlord, General Woundwort. With ingenuity and a lot of luck they pull off an extraordinary doe raid, but Woundwort is not the kind of rabbit who simply gives up.

I cannot recall who said it, but someone said that the twentieth century gave us two great prose epics in English: The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down, and I think the latter certainly is a legitimate candidate for such a role. Everything in it is epic in scope, and the work has repeated echoes of the Odyssey and the Iliad. The fact that its characters are rabbits does not harm this at all. We in fact get an excellent sense of the characters and temperaments of the different rabbits: quiet and unassuming Hazel, with that extraordinary talent for cooperation with others that in a difficult situation becomes leadership; Fiver, a runt who lives half in this world and half in another; Bigwig, stalwart, an extraordinary fighter as long as someone else is developing the strategy; brilliant Blackberry, his mind always running quickly down another track; all-around rabbit Dandelion, very swift and the one to whom you go when you want the old rabbit folktales told right; timid but passionately loyal Pipkin; ever-joking Bluebell. In some ways it's very much like the story of a military unit, a bunch of disparate people welded together by adversity, able to accomplish more together than any of them could achieve alone, in some ways very ordinary and in some ways the stuff of legend.

There are many passages throughout the work that are brilliantly done. Coming to Cowslip's warren, we are quickly struck, as are the characters, with the creepy, eerie, unrabbity air of the rabbits there. The great doe raid on Efrafa is as exciting as a battle in an epic should be, and the constraints of rabbit life, far from dragging this down, makes the solutions seems all the more cunning and triumphant. Woundwort is a well-rounded villain, and both of his face-offs with Bigwig are extraordinarily painted. But the scene that I think most consummately captures the skill with which it is all done is the one of which I've put part below, when little runt of a rabbit Fiver, as unimposing a rabbit as you could ever find, faces down Vervain, one of Woundwort's toughest and most ruthless captains, and the latter breaks and flees at a quiet comment from Fiver -- and it is, given everything we've been following in the story up to that point, entirely plausible that he would, because Efrafa has been outmaneuvered so many times in ways that have often seemed practically supernatural, and here is a rabbit that everyone had thought dead a few moments ago quietly telling him, "I am sorry for your death," in a voice that cannot be disbelieved. It's a beautiful weaving of plotlines that brings us into the climax of the story.

I also watched the classic 1978 animated movie, which has John Hurt as the voice of Hazel. The movie is one of the great animated movies of all time, and deservedly so. One thing that was very noticeable is that it moves very, very quickly; there are certainly many parts of the book that are shortchanged in the movie. Yet the movie works. The abridgements are in general extremely well-chosen. And I think another reason it works is something for which the movie was actually harshly criticized: it does not shy away from the violence of the book. In a very short time we see rabbits killed in all sorts of ways, and rabbits keep dying. But the result is that it makes every victory really and truly significant. For after all, this is a story about rabbits in an epic adventure, doing heroic things. But rabbits live in a world of danger; it is not for nothing that their folk hero is El-ahrairah, the Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And how do you present rabbits as heroes, whether to children or to adults? In the same way you present men as heroes, and in the way the book presents them: as facing, with courage and cleverness, a world of woe while never being conquered by it.

Favorite Passage:

"Blame you?" answered Vervain. "Blame you for what?"

"For your death. Believe me, I am sorry for your death."

Vervain in his time had encountered any number of prisoners who, before they died, had cursed or threatened him, not uncommonly with supernatural vengeance, much as Bigwig had cursed Woundwort in the storm. If such thing shad been liable to have any effect on him, he would not have been head of the Owslafa. Indeed, for almost any utterance that a rabbit in this dreadful situation could find to make, Vervain was unthinkingly ready with one or other of a stock of jeering rejoinders. Now, as he continued to meet the eyes of this unaccountable enemy -- the only one he had faced in all the long night's search for bloodshed -- horror came upon him and he was filled with a sudden fear of his words, gentle and inexorable as the falling of bitter snow in a land without refuge. The shadowy recesses of the strange burrow seemed full of whispering malignant ghosts and he recognized the forgotten voices of rabbits done to death months since in the ditches of Efrafa. (pp. 452-453)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Richard Adams, Watership Down: A Novel, Scribner (New York: 2005).

Friday, November 20, 2020

Evening Note for Friday, November 20

Thought for the Evening: St. Paul at the Areopagus

In his most famous speech, in Acts 17, St. Paul speaks to the people gathered at the Areopagus in Athens, apparently at the behest of the Stoics and the Epicureans. He begins his speech by saying that the Athenians were in everything divinity-fearing (deisidaimonesterous). When passing through he looked at the things worshiped (sebasmata), he had seen an altar inscribed to the Unknown God (Agnosto Theo). What they unknowingly (agnoountes) worship, Paul proclaims. The proclamation involves several claims:

(1) The God who made the cosmos and all in it does not inhabit hand-made temples;

(2) as He gives all life, breath, and everything, he is not cared-for (therapeuetai) by human hands as if he needed things from us;

(It's worth noting that this is precisely one of the issues that comes up in Plato's Euthyphro, which raises the problem that piety (eusebeia) cannot be caring (therapeia) for the gods because that would mean that it it would consist in giving the gods things they need.)

(3) God made from one every nation of the world, determining their times and bounds

(4) so as to seek God (zetein ton theon), that they might grope after (pselepheseian) Him and find Him (heuroien);

(5) and indeed He is not far from us, 'for in Him we live and move and are'

(The quotation is from Epimenides' Cretica, which is not extant, but which Paul also quotes in the letter to Titus. The likely context would have been the Cretan claim that the tomb of Zeus was in Crete, a claim that the ancient world found as thoroughly mind-boggling and impudent as we would if someone tried to sell tickets to God's grave. But Zeus, contrary to the lying Cretans, lives everlastingly, for in Him we live and move and are.

It is not an accident that Paul would be quoting Epimenides. From Diogenes Laertius's Life of Epimenides:

And when he was recognized he was considered by the Greeks as a person especially beloved by the Gods, on which account when the Athenians were afflicted by a plague, and the priestess at Delphi enjoined them to purify their city; they sent a ship and Nicias the son of Niceratus to Crete, to invite Epimenides to Athens; and he, coming there in the forty-sixth Olympiad, purified the city and eradicated the plague for that time; he took some black sheep and some white ones and led them up to the Areopagus, and from thence he let them go wherever they chose, having ordered the attendants to follow them, and wherever any one of them lay down they were to sacrifice him to the God who was the patron of the spot, and so the evil was stayed; and owing to this one may even now find in the different boroughs of the Athenians altars without names, which are a sort of memorial of the propitiation of the Gods that then took place.

Thus the altars to the unknown god(s) near the Areopagus were due to Epimenides.)

(6) and as some of your poets say, 'We are His offspring.'

(The quotation is from Aratus's Phaenomena:

From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed; full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men; full is the sea and the havens thereof; always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; and he in his kindness unto men giveth favourable signs and wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood.

It cannot be an accident that, having begun with the reference to the Unknown God, Paul builds on Aratus's argument that we do not leave Zeus unnamed, i.e., uninvoked, and that He is not far from us. Recall Diogenes Laertius's description of the altars as 'altars without names'.)

(7) As we are the offspring of God, we ought not to confuse God with idols made by the skill and thought of man.

(8) God has overlooked times of unknowing (agnoias) but now commands everyone everywhere to repent,

(9) for He has set a day in which He is about to judge in justice,

(10) through a Man appointed, giving faith to all, having raised Him from the dead.

The Areopagus sermon sets a template for all Christian interaction with pagan philosophy, since these are the essential components on which a Christian must insist when interacting with pagan philosophy: first the three first steps that Christians have continually had to repeat in the face of opposition: God is the Creator (1), being Providence requires nothing from us (2), and all human beings are from Him and are one stock (3). Given this, we can recognize that God has made us to seek Him, and that pagan philosophy is a feeling after Him that can in a sense find Him because God is not far from us (4). Thus we must recognize the ways in which pagan philosophy is a groping after God, and ways in which it has found Him (which Paul does, 5-7). But here, of course, there is a break, because while pagan may find God in an unknowing way, Christians proclaim Him; the Age of Unknowing passes and God calls all to repent (8), for there is a final judgment (9) that has been set through a Man appointed to it, one in whom we believe because He was raised from the dead (10).

And, of course, the reaction people had to Paul is the reaction people always have to this. Hearing of the resurrection of the dead, some mock, but others want to hear more, and some join us and believe.

Various Links of Interest

* Samuel Moyn, You have misunderstood the relevance of Hannah Arendt

* Melas & Salis, On the Nature of Coincidental Events (PDF)

* Becca Rothfeld, At-will Employment is the Real "Cancel Culture"

* Taylor Patrick O'Neill, Doctor of Providence, discusses Julian of Norwich

* Ben Conroy interviews Jennifer Frey

* The Pink Trombone lets you play around with the sounds that a mouth can make.

* The town that was taken over by libertarians and then was taken over by bears. Bears always beat libertarians, I imagine; the perpetual flaw in libertarianism is not expecting bears.

* Alexander Rose on long-lived institutions.

* James Clark reviews Junius Johnson's The Father of Lights

Ashok on Descartes's comment about weak minds in the preface to the Meditations

Currently Reading

Richard Adams, Watership Down
Michael Flynn, Lodestar
David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature
Alasdair MacIntyre, Ethics and Politics

On Dembroff and Payton on Race and Gender

 Robin Dembroff and Dee Payton have an interesting argument for an asymmetry between transgenderism and transracialism. I don't see, however, how their argument is supposed to work the way they think it does. It's possible I'm missing something, but I think there are independent reasons to expect their argument to be untenable. Of course, if any of the following is right, we can't draw much conclusion from this untenability; this particular argument against transracialism will have failed and this particular argument that transracialism is significantly different from transgenderism will have faile, and that is all.

They consider an analogy: If we have a reparations program for indigenous people, we would not regard self-identification as an indigenous person to be sufficient for receiving reparations, "because the goal of the program is to concretely assist those who were harmed by a historical injustice." This is no doubt true, but what is very obvious is that this is so because of the teleology of a very specific program. Since Dembroff and Payton reject essentialist accounts of race and gender, it's utterly unclear what would be the analogue of this teleology in the racial case. And this problem with the analogy is exacerbated rather than alleviated by their main argument.

The argument is based on 'intergenerational accumulation of inequality':

Being Black in the United States is similar to being a person who qualifies for IRSSA reparations in at least one important respect: being Black isn’t simply a matter of internal identification; it is also a matter of how your community and ancestors have been treated by other people, institutions, and governments. Given this, we think that race classification should (continue to) track—as accurately as possible—intergenerationally inherited inequalities. 

One problem is that we don't, in fact, track intergenerationally inherited inequalities in race in this way. We don't for most purposes make a clear separation between American descendants of slaves and later immigrants from Africa; we might for specific programs, but if you're an African who just arrived in the United States, there's nothing that makes you racially different. If anything, you'll just be deemed a member of the local Black community -- whom you may know nothing about, and with whom you may have no identifiable cultural commonalities -- because people will take you to be part of the Black community. And in practice for racial reparations, we don't make much of a distinction most of the time between people who are descendants of those who actually suffered the injustice and those who came later. Part of it is practical; in programs where we do try to keep track of these things, like specific programs for Native Americans, it's a never-ending headache, so unless there's some very specific reason not to do so, it's just easier to handle matters at a more coarse-grained level. But the argument given by Dembroff and Payton really does seem to need us to do the fine-grained analysis.

There is a further complication in talking about "community and ancestors" because these are not exactly the same thing. African immigrants who share no known ancestors with American descendants of slaves don't become part of the same ancestry, but they could be said to join the same community, although the community attribution clearly follows the racial classification and not vice versa as Dembroff and Payton would require. But it's unclear how 'community' is working here. If a baby of white ancestry is adopted by a Black family, it's unclear what we mean by saying that they aren't part of the same community as their Black family, unless you just mean that they don't change their ancestry or color of their skin. If someone discovers to their surprise that they have a black ancestor a few generations back, so that, for instance, they are 1/128th Black, they have the ancestry, but it's unclear what it would mean to say that they have, unbeknownst to them or anyone else, been part of the Black community all their lives -- or, indeed, what it would mean to say that they have suddenly become part of the Black community despite until yesterday having been assumed by themselves and everyone else not to be Black. If we take 'community' to be tied to ancestry, we don't get transracial identification for the adopted infant and the person who turns out to everyone's surprise to have a Black ancestor, but then it's pretty clear that what tracks "as accurately as possible" any intergenerational inequalities is not race but something much finer-grained. (Indeed, almost all of their actual argument on this point implies this.) If we take 'community' to be a matter of vested interest due to social classification, we get the descendants of American slaves and the later African immigrants in one group, but then it's not clear how we could hold that a baby with no Black ancestors who is adopted by a Black family inherits nothing of the family's intergenerational burden from inequality. And the problem with the community talk is that it isn't clear why people couldn't voluntarily join the community and, by participating in it for a long time, be affected by that same intergenerational burden. None of this is a significant problem for particular programs or organizations or the like, which often deal with matters from any boundary. But Dembroff and Payton are arguing that there is an impermeable boundary, and their characterization of it doesn't obviously rule out transracial identifications.

The other part of the argument given by Dembroff and Payton is that there is an asymmetry with transgenderism: women do not have inherited intergenerational inequalities as women: "Gender inequality, unlike racial inequality, does not primarily accumulate intergenerationally, if only for the obvious reason that the vast majority of households are multi-gendered." There are, of course, multiracial households that do not prevent people from being regarded by themselves and others as Black, and there doesn't seem any obvious reason why women can't be considered part of an intergenerational community (indeed, all the evidence seems to suggest that they can) that can as a community inherit burdens from prior generations, and individual women do seem at least sometimes to inherit the burdens  of prior inequalities between men and women, so the claim seems to reduce to individual women being at least usually unable to inherit the effects of inequality between men and women in a way that accumulates. And this seems to come down to the question of how 'inherit' is understood: "While parents often are responsible for ingraining patriarchal ideas and rigid gender norms in their children (it is extremely difficult to avoid!), this is not a 'passing down' of socioeconomic inequality itself but, rather, of a socialization that perpetuates gender inequality." So this requires that we understand the 'passing down' of socioeconomic inequality in racial matters as something other than a socialization that perpetuates racial inequality. I confess I'm not completely sure what this is supposed to mean. Given that their rejection of racial essentialism means they also can't essentialize racial inequality, I suppose it means that Dembroff and Payton want to say that the difference is whether you receive it as a community or individually; as they say, there are no universal truths about experiences of misogyny, but the experience of it is impacted "by socioeconomic class, race, age, ethnicity, ability, body type, and geographic location". No doubt there are differences between race and gender in this respect. I'm not sure how the necessary asymmetry is supposed to arise from this, though; experience of racism is certainly impacted by whether you are grew up dirt-poor in Alabama or in a wealthy Manhattan family, despite the fact that neither determines your race.

It's clear that Dembroff and Payton do need to be arguing that, whatever inequality is inherited by women, you can inherit it by self-identifying as a woman, whereas whatever inequality is inherited by blacks, you cannot inherit by self-identifying as black. The weight of this argument falls on the notion of intergenerational accumulation of inequality. But this does not appear adequate for creating the asymmetry, for two reasons:

 (1) This does not actually seem to give us a good criterion for race, because while there is undeniably intergenerational accumulation of inequality, the boundaries of race do not precisely track this and it does not precisely track the boundaries of race, despite the fact that the whole question here is exactly where the boundaries are. 

(2) While women don't inherit being a woman as a race, there's good reason to think that women do inherit, as women, inequality that accumulates over generations, and if it occasionally appears otherwise, it's only because we have been doing a lot of work in undoing the inequalities themselves, and probably have been rather more successful at it than we have been at undoing racial inequalities.

And we run further in to the problem, previously mentioned: inherited accumulation of inequality may be quite sufficient for making a major and important distinction for some purposes. But Dembroff and Payton need these to be the only relevant purposes, and it's not clear what teleology could force them to be so. Being Black and being a woman are not like being potential recipients of a precisely defined program; both of them affect your lives in uncountably many different ways.

There is a more general problem with trying to link the boundaries of race too closely to racial injustice. The reason is that it's not just any racial classifications that are linked to racial injustice; the racial classifications that are most closely linked to racial injustice are explicitly racist racial classifications. That's obviously going to be the case. And racist racial classifications are incoherent and ill-founded, and always have been, so if you start trying to trace the boundaries of race with considerations of racial injustice you are going to get boundaries that don't make sense and often have no basis in anything but a racist's fantasy. If you start with non-racist accounts of race, however, that is, with accounts of race that are not structured by any attempt to treat anyone as inferior, you are quickly going to find that racism won't track those boundaries exactly, because, again, racism is generally incoherent and is not noted for grounding itself in actual evidence. To take just the very obvious example, there have been people of white ancestry who have experienced racism directed against Blacks; the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, was notoriously promiscuous about whom they considered to be black, and caused Polish and Czech families no end of misery for generations on the ground that they were Europeans degenerating in a blackward direction. Racial injustice is heavily determined by extremely racist people, and extremely racist people are never going to be the people on whom you want to rely if you want rational distinctions and reasoned boundaries. Trying to build an account of race out of racial injustice is absolutely guaranteed to fail because racial injustice originates with stupid and inconsistent classifiers.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Electoral Trust

Lots of talk about "trust in elections" these days, some of which is defensible but has only very narrow application, and a lot of which is obvious nonsense. A few reminders:

(1) 'Public trust in elections' is not a magical quality adhering to election systems; indeed, it doesn't even concern any one particular thing, as all election systems have multiple working parts that have to come together. The only thing of any importance with regard to the term is whether people, as a whole or in large groups, think any concerns they have about illegalities are being at least fairly considered. There is one and only one way it can be undermined: by refusing to consider and address concerns that people have.

(2) Because of (1), the robustness of an election depends entirely on its welcoming any concerns people might have, for whatever reasons, and assessing them in as fair and impartial way as is possible. If your election system needs to be protected from people crying foul -- for whatever reason -- there are only two possibilities: either your election system is corrupt (and you are trying to protect its corruption from being exposed) or your entire society is on the verge of immediate and unavoidable collapse (and you are simply buying some time). There's not actually a third option here. An election system that cannot endure challenge, even extended challenge, is not robust and is already either corrupt or collapsing. The American election system is not even remotely in the vicinity of collapse at present; we haven't even finished counting the votes, all the problems so far are problems foreseen by statute or manageable by courts, and none of our constitutional back-up systems are even at present in danger of needing to be engaged. What is more, the American system is very, very robust; contrary to the way some of the chattering classes talk, we have recounts and litigations and accusations of unfair practices every single election, and the whole thing is still standing just fine. And the whole thing is still standing just fine because (unlike apparently some of the chattering class) elections are designed to weather these kinds of challenges, and this is how they establish their trustworthiness.

(3) Again, again, people, the American presidential election is a multistage election that has not been completed yet. It's inappropriate for presidential candidates to assume that they've won an election that isn't over, yes, but whether it's Trump claiming that Democrats are trying to steal the election he actually won or Biden flat-out lying about being President-elect of an election that literally can't have actually elected him yet, it isn't a 'threat to democracy'. It's not all in grave danger just because politicians play to their supporters with over-the-top rhetoric; it is, crass though it may be, exactly what one would expect them to do.

(4) Concessions are not a part of the actual election election process, for the obvious reason that it would be moronic to make voluntary concession a part of your election system. It was a polite courtesy that developed to show good sportsmanship and, eventually, a way to address one's supporters when it became clear that one had lost, and that is it. It is a campaign signaling a step down, and that is all. Whether a candidate concedes or not has no bearing on the election whatsoever; whether and when and how to concede is purely a matter of political calculation on the part of a campaign.

(5) Some people have been worrying about 'the transition'; this seems to me to be an example of how the chattering classes can talk themselves into irrational priorities. The transition serves the election, not the election the transition. Before the Electoral College votes, the statutory transition phase begins when the General Service Administrations recognizes a candidate as likely enough to be elected to be given certain administrative accommodations to facilitate the actual transition when the President takes office. As of yet, Biden has not been designated probably President-elect by the GSA, and it doesn't really matter what the reason is, because it doesn't really matter. Biden is an ordinary citizen until he takes office and is not entitled to anything; 'President-elect' is not an office of the United States, and the only constitutional responsibility a President-elect has is to show up to be sworn in. There are obvious reasons why it's convenient to start preparing for a transition as early as one can; the Office of President will not collapse if the transition period is shorter. A competent campaign will have most things ready to go in any situation that might arise, and if they don't, it doesn't affect anything but themselves.

People are, of course, perfectly free to complain about lack of courtesy, or lack of honesty, or lack of good will, or inconvenience, or the absurdity of some of the accusations, or what have you; there's certainly plenty to complain about in politics even in the best of times, and there surely is much to complain about here. But none of these things have much to do with trust in the election system, and none of them have any bearing on its course at all. People need to get a grip and stop jumping immediately to the most hysterical rhetoric they can; it makes them sound delusional. If there are any legal issues anyone wishes to raise, they need to be assessed and addressed, and it doesn't matter what grounds they raise them on; if people demand recounts and audits, it's not a threat to democracy to have recounts and audits; if people litigate, it's not a violation of 'democratic norms' for courts to assess whether officials actually followed election law as they were required to do; it's not a constitutional crisis that Trump refuses to concede, nor that Biden (like Trump and Obama before him) goes around claiming to be the occupant of the entirely fictional 'Office of the President-elect'; no matter how much states that are efficient are to be praised, it's not a problem that it takes a while sometimes to get the tally on votes, because the American election system has literally been designed to handle even worse and more controversial delays than this; and we still have two major steps in the election to go.

Part of the problem, of course, is that we all have difficulty dealing with the politics that actually is, which is tedious and boring and sometimes takes forever and takes some focus, and we all find it much easier to freak out about wild fantasies in our heads, whether about what we fantasize our opponents will do (no matter how many endless numbers of times our predictions fail), or about what our opponents are doing behind the scene (no matter how many times we show that we actually haven't the faintest clue what our opponents are actually thinking), or about that thing that Betty said Tom heard that Joe whispered had been evilly done. But our fantasies are irrelevant to how the election system is going, and it is still going, quite as it is supposed to, right down to the challenges that people have every right to bring if they think it will give them a fairer shake to do so. The election system is only strengthened by challenges, and it's not going to be toppled by opinions or rhetorical posturing, no matter how stupid you think the challenges or opinions or rhetorical posturing are.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Quasi Tertium Quid

 When discussing arguments for and against the existence of God, it is often assumed that the options are always to reject them or to accept them, and, holding certain other things constant, this is often true. But in reality here, as with other arguments, there is also room for a distinguo, and some discussions of the subject would be greatly improved for considering it. A handy example of what is meant by this is found in the atheist Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity.

I've talked before about the general features of Feuerbach's view of religion. Feuerbach takes religion to be an expression of a necessary alienation from ourselves. To know ourselves, we have to take our nature as object; religion is taking our nature as object simply. Thus theology on his view reduces the anthropology; what people are doing in religion is treating pictorial representations of human nature as if they were independently existing things. The divine attributes are really human attributes, considered abstractly as if they existed independently of any human being. The divine infinity is a projected reflection of the infinity of human understanding, for instance, treated as if it were standing alone in actual existence. Feuerbach takes the alienation to be necessary for human self-understanding, but the recognition of it as self-alienation to be part of the natural trajectory of human progress. He thus takes his reduction of God to man as a next step up from Protestantism. We see this in a number of ways. For instance, in the Catholic Mass, man is sacrificed to God as real sacrifice to God; in the Protestant Lord's Supper, God gives a gift to man, and it is seen ever more symbolically until we get to Zwingli; the natural next, and Feuerbachian, step is for it to become a gift of man to man, eating and recognizing the work of human hands for human life. So with everything else.

It's clear that on this kind of view evaluation of arguments for the existence of God will have to be split. If we are talking of God as an alienated object separate from human nature, all such arguments would fail. However, since God is alienated human nature, such arguments also succeed when recognized as being about human nature alienated as an object:

At the same time, however, their result is to prove the nature of man. The various proofs of the existence of God are nothing else than various highly interesting forms in which the human nature affirms itself. Thus, for example, the physico-theological proof (or proof from design) is the self-affirmation of the calculated activity of the understanding. Every philosophical system is, in this sense, a proof of the existence of God. (p. 199)

Feuerbach does not, as far as I recall, explicitly recognize it, but the same in reverse would have to go for arguments against the existence of God; they may work against God conceived as separate, but they also show a failure to recognize the features of human nature being alienated into a God so conceived. There's a straightforward sense in which this is an atheistic assessment of the arguments, but it's also not a simple rejection.

We can find similar sorts of distinction on other grounds -- e.g., Iris Murdoch on the ontological argument. They will arise generally on broadly Kantian grounds (due to the division of noumena and phenomena) and on positions that allow some distinction between appearance and reality. And, of course, the reversals are also possible -- one can have a 'reverse Feuerbach' in which all arguments for features of human nature  in general are really describing forms of the human reflection of God and so are indirect arguments for the existence of God. Then every philosophical system is indeed, and not just in a sense, a proof of the existence of God. Indeed, it's not difficult to imagine such a thing, given that Feuerbach's own position is often a reversal of Christianity. The closest overall 'reverse Feuerbach' in actual existence would probably be something like a 'High Church' (Evangelical Catholic) Lutheranism, but on the question of the existence of God in particular, the direct reversal would be something a lot like an approach more commonly associated with Reformed Protestantism (Calvinism), namely, presuppositionalism.

How stable all of these distinction-based evaluations are is another question, and probably a complicated one. And, as the previous paragraph might well suggest, they will tend to emphasize one side of the distinction over the other. But this suffices to make clear that they actually exist. And it is worthwhile, even for those who (like myself) take a more straightforward evaluation for such arguments, to remember that they exist.

[Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, George Eliot, tr., Harper (New York: 1957).]

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Some One Person at Least

In all creatures, that prey not upon others, and are not agitated with violent passions, there appears a remarkable desire of company, which associates them together, without any advantages they can ever propose to reap from their union. This is still more conspicuous in man, as being the creature of the universe, who has the most ardent desire of society, and is fitted for it by the most advantages. We can form no wish, which has not a reference to society. A perfect solitude is, perhaps, the greatest punishment we can suffer. Every pleasure languishes when enjoy’d a-part from company, and every pain becomes more cruel and intolerable. Whatever other passions we may be actuated by; pride, ambition, avarice, curiosity, revenge or lust; the soul or animating principle of them all is sympathy; nor wou’d they have any force, were we to abstract entirely from the thoughts and sentiments of others. Let all the powers and elements of nature conspire to serve and obey one man: Let the sun rise and set at his command: The sea and rivers roll as he pleases, and the earth furnish spontaneously whatever may be useful or agreeable to him: He will still be miserable, till you give him some one person at least, with whom he may share his happiness, and whose esteem and friendship he may enjoy.

David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature 2.2.5 (SBN 363).

The Artless Art, the Untaught Dignity

by Maurice Baring

The sunshine, and the grace of falling rain,
The fluttering daffodil, the lilt of bees,
The blossom on the boughs of almond trees,
The waving of the wheat upon the plain—
And all that knows not effort, strife or strain,
And all that bears the signature of ease,
The plunge of ships that dance before the breeze
The flight across the twilight of the crane:
And all that joyous is, and young, and free,
That tastes of morning and the laughing surf;
The dawn, the dew, the newly turned-up turf,
The sudden smile, the unexpressive prayer,
The artless art, the untaught dignity,—
You speak them in the passage of an air.

Monday, November 16, 2020

A System of Teaching by Practical Jokes, Mostly Cruel

It is by surprises that experience teaches all she deigns to teach us.

In all the works of pedagogy that ever I read,--and they have been many, big, and heavy,--I don't remember that any one has advocated a system of teaching by practical jokes, mostly cruel. That, however, describes the method of our great teacher, Experience. She says,

Open your mouth and shut your eyes
And I'll give you something to make you wise;

and thereupon she keeps her promise, and seems to take her pay in the fun of tormenting us.

[C. S. Peirce, "On Phenomenology", The Essential Peirce, Volume 2 (1893-1915), Peirce Edition Project, ed. Indiana University Press (Indianapolis: 1998) p. 154.]

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Teacher of the Universe of Knowledge

Today is the feast of St. Albert of Lauingen, Doctor of the Church, most often called Albert the Great (an epithet he was given in his own lifetime), often called the Doctor Universalis or Universal Doctor. He is the patron saint of scientists and engineers, and his great gift to the Church is, perhaps more than anything else, an unabashed enthusiasm for the pursuit of knowledge. He studied everything -- the entire universe of knowledge that was available to him -- everything from falcons to ant lions, from minerals to morals, not just from books (although he commented on almost all of Aristotle's works) but by experiments. The experiments were often crude and unsystematic, and sometimes inconclusive (to test the common claim that ostriches ate rocks, he tried to feed an ostrich gravel, but reported that he couldn't get it to eat any), but they were part of a genuinely empirical approach to the world. He advanced embryology, for instance, by doing simple experiments on chicken eggs. He is also usually given credit for having been the first person to isolate the element arsenic, in the sense that he is the first person on record to isolate chemically what can be clearly identified as a pure form of arsenic. 

The Silent Rain-Drops Bend the Long Rank Grass

To November
by Charles Lloyd

Dismal November! me it sooths to view,
At parting day, the scanty foliage fall
From the wet fruit tree; or the grey stone wall;
Whose cold films glisten with unwholesome dew.
To watch the yellow mists from the dank earth
Enfold the neighbouring copse; while, as they pass,
The silent rain-drops bend the long rank grass,
Which wraps some blossom's unmatured birth.
And through my cot's lone lattice glimmering grey
Thy damp, chill evenings have a charm for me,
Dismal November! for strange vacancy
Summoneth then my very heart away!
'Till from mist-hidden spire comes the slow knell,
And says, that in the still air Death doth dwell!