Friday, February 12, 2021

Shankara and Idealism

 Shankara is often labeled as an idealist. This is more than slightly puzzling, since he is famous for arguing against the idealism of Buddhists. My suspicion is that this is a byproduct of shift in meanings. If you look at the history of calling Shankara an idealist, it goes back to the nineteenth century; but 'idealism' has a lot of meanings in the nineteenth century, and even into the twentieth. I'm reminded of Norman Kemp Smith's influential discussions of whether Hume is a Naturalist or a Skeptic. What is often forgotten is that these two are part of a triad, which Kemp Smith also uses elsewhere, and 'Idealism' is the third branch (which Kemp Smith, of course, takes Hume clearly to oppose). But 'Idealism' in this sense means more or less the metaphysical view that mind or minds are fundamental to reality; almost all theists count as Idealists in this sense, for instance, and, indeed, Shankara is undeniably a kind of Idealist in that sense, if that's your definition of the word. Over time, however, the term has narrowed, but labels for philosophical positions have a certain sort of inertia, and change only slowly.

There are things that Shankara and other Advaitins say that can be suggestive of idealism; for instance, the claim that things are related to Brahman as an illusion is to the magician sustaining it. But Shankara uses a lot of analogies to describe the relation between the world and Brahman, and a certain art is required to navigate them. For instance he uses material analogies (e.g., the world is to Brahman as shape of a ring of gold to the gold of the ring) when discussing Brahman as principle of origination, but he is also very clear that Brahman itself is changeless and has no modifications; a naive treatment of the analogy without the negations would have Brahman changing and modified. What the rejection of change and modification does is show that the analogy is picking out not modification of a changeable substance, but some other aspect of the shape-gold relation -- Brahman is a reason for the coming-to-be of the world that has some features like those we find when we consider gold as a reason for the coming-to-be of shape, but this does not mean that the world is the shape of Brahman-stuff. When talking about Brahman as principle of subsistence, he often uses non-material analogies, like the illusion-magician one. But Shankara is again very clear that external objects really exist -- as he concisely puts it, and defends at length, the nonexistence of external things cannot be maintained because we are conscious of them. The point is not that the world is fictional but that it only subsists wholly in the action, if we may so speak, of Brahman, as an illusion only subsists in the action of the magician. It's the same with dream analogies: the claim is not about the nature of the world or the nature of Brahman, but about the nature of the relation between them, as the dream exists wholly and in every way because of the dreamer, so the world, despite not being a dream, exists wholly and in every way because of Brahman: this is possible wholly because that is actual. And these kinds of analogies are in fact not very different from analogies that are often used by Neoplatonism (reflection, shadow, participation=parceling-out), which is certainly not an idealism in the more modern and narrower sense.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

For Thou Art but a Fragile Thing

by William H. Cranston

Life's but a dreary waste, at best,
O'ercast with clouds of gloom,
And storms attack the bravest hearts,
Sojourning to the tomb;
The sunshine of this cheerless world
But seldom gilds our road,
And all must meekly bear the weight
Of Sorrow's heavy load.

We need each other's sympathy,
A kind and cheering look;
But oh! a brother's bitter word
We cannot calmly brook;
Judge gently of his actions here,
Nor frown without a cause,
This is the Charity we learn
From God's unerring laws.

He can protect an injured one,
From His high throne above,
And clothe him in the spotless garb
Of His all matchless love;
Oh, surely, then, should mortal man
No wiser claim to be
Than He who rules our destinies
Through all eternity.

Seek not to crush thy fellow man
By Slander's pois'nous breath,
For thou art but a fragile thing,
A victim, too, for death;
However high thy station be,
Thy motives good and pure,
A damning breath may blast thy fame,
For thou art not secure.

Deal kindly with thy fellow man
In all the walks of life,
And God will give us strength to bear
Our burden in the strife;
"Judge not, lest ye be judged,” he says,
So all thine anger check,
And think,—to-morrow's sun may sink
Upon thy mournful wreck!

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Evening Note for Wednesday, February 10

Thought for the Evening: A Jacob's Ladder of Triads

Let us begin with the doctrine of the Trinity. The Father is the principle of the Son and the Spirit; the Son proceeds from the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. This is a perfect procession: no separation, no division, no loss. Principle and proceeding are one God, and the procession has neither beginning nor ending nor spatiotemporal measure.

Each of the Persons of the Trinity is God, so what we attribute to divine nature, we attribute to all three. But our attributions are imperfect for designating God, so we use many such attributions. Some of these attributions fall naturally into patterns of three, and are easily understood in a way reminiscent of the Trinity itself. An obvious one is that of divine being, divine intellect, and divine will. Conceptually, being is prior to intellect, and both being and intellect are prior to will; that is, will is intellectual desire and both will and intellect conceptually presuppose being. In God, there can be no real priority; God is simple. Thus in God, being, intellect, and will are just describing one thing, namely, God Himself. But we better see how they can be describing one thing by considering their conceptual dependencies. This is the foundation of the theological principle of appropriation: divine attributes apply to all the Persons, but certain attributes are 'appropriated', treatable as if they were proper to, certain Persons. Thus being is appropriated to the Father, intellect to the Son, and will to the Spirit. What is more, the Trinity itself explains why these three attributes (or other similar triadic attributes) work especially well together for the purpose of talking about God; they have a conceptual relationship that is a sort of loose image of the more fundamental processions of the Persons of the Trinity.

We can, however, not only consider the divine nature in itself, but also the divine nature in light of the fact that God is Creator. And in so doing we find that each of the three attributes, being, intellect, and will, can be understood in that light, and that they still have the triadic structure, although the relation to creatures adds further complication. We can attribute to God as Creator divine essence, in the sense of the divine being insofar as creatures can be said in some way to imitate it by simply being; and divine ideas, insofar as creatures can imitate God as effects imitate their cause in a way like the products of the artisan imitate the artisan's ideas, so, in other words, insofar as creatures can be said in some way to imitate God by being what they are; and divine energies, or operations, if we prefer the Latin, insofar as creatures are related to God as effects. Because of all the references to creatures, this is more loosely related to the Trinitarian processions, and we see as well that while ideas and energies conceptually diversify, essence does not; but obviously we can relate essence to being, ideas to intellect, and energies to will. And being, intellect, and will being attributable to God,, when we recognize that God is Creator, explains why we can attribute essence, idea, and energy to God.

But when speaking of God as Creator, we can look at the relation between Creator and creature from the creature side. In particular, we can regard creatures insofar as they receiving being from God in the work of creation. And we can think of this in three ways. Creatures receive from God that they are; this reception we can call their emanation from God, or their production by God, or just creation. Creatures receive from God what they are; that is to say, God is the superabundant exemplar whose goodness and excellence creatures in various ways imitate by being what they are. This is exemplarity. But creatures do not have perfection or completeness necessarily and in themselves; their imitation is completed by their own actions and operations, which when done properly result in their most completely expressing the divine excellence from which they come. This is return to God. The whole of creation and every part exhibits these features: emanation, exemplarity, and return. And again, exemplarity and return  both come from emanation, and the return of creatures to God comes from emanation through the exemplarity that makes them what they are -- that is to say, the kind of return depends on the kind of thing the creature is as exemplate of the divine exemplar. Nor is this surprising, since each of these is the creature considered insofar as it is related to the divine essence, to the divine ideas, or to the divine energies. However, as this triad is found in imperfect, mutable, composite, occasionally errant beings, the processions or relations among them are less perfect than when we are speaking of God, and the triad is less unified.

We can go a step further, however, and speak of creatures insofar as they act on each other in being mutable, composite, etc. And we find that they here imitate the general pattern of creation. There is a source of change or composition, etc., which we call the efficient cause. There is a kind of thing that changing or composite things get in being caused by the efficient cause, which we call the formal cause. And there is something to which the action of the efficient cause and the formal cause tend, which specifies them as what they are, and this we call the final cause. These are clearly related to the attributes of creation, because when we trace these back, we eventually get to those attributes. That is, we can trace back efficient causes causing efficient causes to cause and we get to emanation, which we could think of as God in creation being first efficient cause. The formal cause is a bit more complicated, because formal causes are properly intrinsic, but forms can imitate other forms, and we can trace back these forms to the exemplarity of creation itself, and God as first exemplar cause. And we can trace final causes forward to the ultimate final cause, which is God as that to which creation returns. But this is all the work of creatures acting on other creatures as materials for change, composition, etc., sometimes in chancey rather than regular ways, and thus the triadic relationships are looser and more defective than the higher triads.

We could take this very Bonaventuran notion of descending triads and ascend instead; starting with creaturely causes we can just rise to the Creator and, by faith, to the Trinity, each triad in the ascent being more unified and more consistently related, and related more purely in and of itself, than the triad below. Each triad above in some sense explains the triad below by a kind of conceptual symmetry-breaking; each level down is the introduction of something that disrupts, as it were, the triad above. So likewise, ascending is returning to a higher perfection of unity and procession, a context within which the features of the triad below can be more clearly seen. The big divide and biggest disruption, of course, is between essence/ideas/energies and emanation/exemplarity/return, when we stop talking about God insofar as creatures are from Him and start talking about creatures insofar as they are from God.

Nothing, of course, requires that this is the only Jacob's Ladder of triads linking Trinity and creaturely things, although all the triads here are quite general.

Various Links of Interest

* Henry Hopwood-Philips, Rise and Fall of the West

* Boudry, Vlerick, and Edis, Demystifying mysteries: How metaphors and analogies extend the reach of the human mind (PDF)

* Noah Smith interviews Liam Kofi Bright

* Courtney Rubin, The Shocking Meltdown of Ample Hills -- Brooklyn's Hottest Ice Cream Company

* A society, not a monolith: What the Catholic Church is, and is not

* Freddie Sayers looks into the irrational absurdities of the 'Zero Covid' campaign

* Joshua P. Hochschild, Piety without Metaphysics: The Moral Pedagogy of Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (PDF)

* The Hungarian Philosophical Review 2020/4 issue has become available. I particularly recommend Gyula Klima's article, "Words and What Is Beyond Words".

Currently Reading

Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla
Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Pentecostal Manifestations

It is the business of education to wait upon Pentecost. Unhappily, there is something about educational syllabuses, and especially about examination papers, which seems to be rather out of harmony with Pentecostal manifestations. The Energy of Ideas does not seem to descend into the receptive mind with quite that rush of cloven fire which we ought to expect. Possibly there is something lacking in our Idea of education; possibly something inhibiting has happened to the Energy. But Pentecost will happen, whether within or without official education. From some quarter or other, the Power will descend, to flame or to smolder until it is ready to issue in a new revelation. We need not suppose that, because the mind of the reader is inert to Plato, it will therefore be inert to Nietzsche or Karl Marx. Failing those, it may respond to Wilhelmina Stitch or to Hollywood. No incarnate Idea is altogether devoid of Power; if the Idea is feeble, the Energy is dispersed, and the Power dim, the indwelling spirit will be dim, dispersed and feeble -- but such as it is, so its response will be and such will be its manifestation in the world.

Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, HarperCollins (New York: 1987) pp. 112-113.

Monday, February 08, 2021

Literal and Metaphorical Extensions of Meaning

 Daniel Nolan has a discussion of the term 'marriage'. The look at various things that get described as marriage in various cultures is interesting, but the argument of the paper suffers greatly, I think, from some false assumptions about how language works, and the most serious of these is a conflation of two things, extension of a term by analogy and metaphorical use of a term. These are not the same.

If I call you a 'pig' because of your sloppy eating, that is a metaphor, assuming, of course, that I am not simply deluded and actually think you porcine. We can explain my metaphorical use of the term by analogy: as a pig is supposed to be careless about eating, so are you with your eating. So we could consider the metaphorical use to be an extension by analogy in this sense. However, not all extensions of terms by analogy are metaphorical. If a German comes across an armadillo, not knowing what it was, and needs to refer to it, he may in the German way call it an 'armor-pig'. Is the use of 'pig' here a metaphor? The German language calls a lot of animals 'pig'; and the fact that an armadillo becomes a Panzerschwein is just an ordinary case of this. The idea is that this weird animal is classifiable as a pig-for-certain-practical-purposes. It could, of course, have begun as a metaphor and died, but using 'Panzerschwein' for an armadillo is certainly not a metaphor to later speakers; it is the name of the animal. Another example: when people in English call pandas 'panda bears' and koalas 'koala bears', are they speaking metaphorically? Neither of these animals is actually in any way a bear. But it's also the case that lots of people who use the phrases 'panda bear' and 'koala bear' have no inkling that they are completely different animals, so they are using it literally. If you press them on this, a lot of people will (rightly, as far as language goes) say, "Well, they're close enough," and won't be bothered by it, just as nobody is bothered by the fact that we call 'pandas' both giant pandas and red pandas, which are two different kinds of animal, and nobody is bothered by the fact that we call 'jade' both jadeite and nephrite, which are two different kinds of mineral. These are in fact all literal uses of the terms. We have to extend words; sometimes in extending the words, we are not actually engaging in metaphor, but are extending the term in a way that is literal. 

The fundamental reason for this is that whether a term is being used literally or metaphorically is a matter of how you are actually using the term in a particular case relative to usual expectations about that term's use. Extension by analogy is entirely about how one kind of use of a term is related to another kind of use of a term, in terms of which is originary. If, knowing about human marriage, I come to think that mountains are actually formed by rocks marrying each other in pretty much the same way, I am extending a term that originally concerned a relationship between human beings to a relationship between rocks. This means that the term now covers more than it did. But, ex hypothesi, I am using the analogically extended term literally. Thus we have a term whose meaning is being extended by analogy to an unexpected use. But I'm not introducing any 'twist' into that use, no 'trope', and thus no metaphor. I'm just extending it to a new case on the basis of what I think I've learned about rocks, using the original paradigm (between humans) as a model for handling the new case (between rocks).

This plays a significant role in a number of areas of life. When we say that a body of people is a 'juridical person' or a 'moral person', the term 'person' is not usually being used as a metaphor; the whole point of the term is that this is classifiable as a person for certain legal or moral purposes. The term 'person' applies literally to corporations in those contexts (it's just what they're called in those contexts); but corporations are so only by analogical extension of the term. This contrasts with natural persons, which are literally persons and are person in the primary and most proper sense of the term. Both are necessary for the functioning of the term as it is supposed to function.

Let's take two examples Nolan uses: nuns marrying God and worshippers marrying gods. The case of nuns being married to God is without any question an extension of the term 'marriage' to a new kind of case by analogy. It's a very robust analogy, in fact; there are many similarities, many more than you might expect at first glance. It is also typically a metaphorical expression. But what makes it a metaphorical expression is not that it is an analogical extension, but that the term in its original use is fixed by the paradigm (Catholic sacramental marriage between man and woman) in such a way that to use it as a model for the relationship of a nun and God requires unfixing it -- there is no way to stretch the meaning so that it now includes the new extension. You just have to shift the word over to a new category, guided by the original case but not co-classifying them. It is a legitimate use (the Church approves of it, and it is commonly used), but it is a tropic use, a figurative use. But as Nolan in passing recognizes, you could have someone who did not realize that this was how everyone else was using the term; and this person might, by confusion, be using the term literally. In so doing, they would be using the term in one sense correctly (it does apply by extension) but in another sense not (the way in which they take it apply is not the one approved by authority and custom). But they would be both extending it by analogy and taking it literally. It would be like 'common law marriage', which is both undeniably a literal use of the term 'marriage' and very clearly an extension by analogy from formal marriage (which is how we got the term and why we would often qualify it with 'common law').

Now consider the case of religious rites in which worshippers marry their gods. Nolan is very concerned to argue, and rightly, that we should not assume that this is a metaphor. That will be a question of how the relevant word for 'marriage' typically functions in their language. But this is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether this is an analogical extension of the term 'marriage'. In many cases, the use of the term 'marriage' might well be literal, but we have excellent reason to think that the term in these cases is an analogical extension of the term's meaning. We have no evidence that the sacred marriages are the primary case; we have plenty of evidence that how a society with sacred marriage conceives of human marriage serves as a sort of template for how they think of sacred marriage, and that this is ongoing; it is not going to be the most common use of the term; we have no reason, given differences in rites and expectations, to think that they thought it was exactly the same as marriage between human beings. All of this points to its being an extension of the term by analogy even if the extended sense is a literal sense.

Nolan's conflation of the two has the effect of massively flattening the actual language we use with respect to just about everything. In reality, we can use a term metaphorically; we can extend it by analogy but use the extended term literally; we can extend it by analogy and use the extended term metaphorically; we can extend an extended term further and use it either literally or metaphorically; we can use a former metaphor literally but in such a way as to maintain the analogy with the original use of the term that was the root that became the metaphor. There's a lot of structure and scaffolding in most naming, and analogy is a lot of that, whether in any given case we are speaking literally or metaphorically.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Two Poem Drafts

The first is a rough paraphrase of Wang Wei's "Deer Park", and the second is loosely based on Hopi mythology.

Wang Wei's Deer Park

Empty mountain, no one seen,
yet heard are human echoes:
Glints rebound in dark woods,
ascending the green moss.

Ancient People

I. The Sun Radiant
Bright is the sun, and beautiful,
glorious in light and in life;
its splendor shines in endless space.
As curling mist in darkness moves,
deep, before the holy daybreak,
the world in breathless patience waits;
and then the golden, rosy glow
makes bright with being all that is,
excited with existence,
pregnant with promise of life.

II. The Spider-Realms
What wonders breed in the earth's womb,
click-clicking in darkness of cave,
eyes grasping phosphorescent glints,
thousands of eyes, cold and thoughtful,
and, click-click, legs beyond count,
on the cold water-surfaces skating,
the watching and wispy-legged things
on moistured walls and monuments!
No pleasure, no passion, no pain,
just cold thought and clicking on walls
in a darkness without a dawn.
But the sun sees all things in all;
on a slender thread from the sky
descended the Spider-spirit
with wisdom in her netted webs,
and salvation from self she spun,
a way to new life and new world.

III. The Forest Wild
Tall are the trees, and terrible;
looming high above are their limbs.
Their shadows cover shrubs and bushes,
rustle and rush of running wolves,
the growling bear sniffing out bees.
Desire, hunger, craving, and care,
yearning, fury, fierce passion's ache,
wild force like hard wind through the trees.
Deep in darkness, in despair's dens,
they love, they hate, they weep and howl,
they tremble in terror and fear.
But the sun sees all things in all;
the woods became a spider's web,
the trails and ways its tangled threads,
and thence a strand like starlight wound
the Spider-spirit's spinning made,
salvation from the world she spun,
a way to new life and new world.

IV. The Firemaking
Human faces and human hands,
both cunning, are taught to create;
the Spider teaches how to spin,
to pattern clay into bright pots,
and most of all the fearsome flame,
the turning of tinder to fire.
Great skills then spark to vivid life
and spread like fire through human lands.
But flame alters and turns to ash,
and human hearts may burn to black.
Skills that move the world can move men
and bring them to darkness and death.
Cruelty grew in cunning mind,
wicked became the human way.
But the sun sees all things in all,
to save the kind, those who still cared,
the Spider reaped the river reeds,
drove reed tunnels deep into earth,
escape from dark depravity,
a way to new life and new world.

V. The Reed Path
Through deep cracks, through cuts of the earth,
the reed tunnels through hard rock,
makes a great chasm, a canyon,
in dusty desertlands of wind,
with prayer the people came forth,
and climbed out of the canyon deep.
The spirit of the dead stands watch;
this is the domain of the door,
the path to the portal of death.
Kind of heart, the people knew peace,
they learned the funereal lore,
with sacred tablets they were taught.
And in that time new teachers came,
bringing arts of power and peace.

VI. The Wisdom People
Wiser than men in the earth's ways,
spirits of subtle sympathy,
sowers and reapers of sweet rain,
cunning in herb that aids and cures,
who have roamed the underworld's roads,
who bow to sun and bring heaven,
makers of music and story,
they taught wisdom with yucca whip,
with flute and dance, with bright feather,
with sabre and with changing shape.
But human hearts may lose their kindness,
great men may beget fools that mock,
and kindness fail from lack of care.
The scoffers spoke with biting scorn;
the teacher's left by long-lost trails.
Alone, alone, we are alone,
but a few young men were faithful,
as clowns took care to remember,
preserving shreds of shared wisdom
until kindness may cure all things,
with reconstructed rites we pray --
with power, but we pray alone,
heart-burdened to help each other,
for we are alone, all alone.

King Forever of Norway

 St. Olaf's Day is in July, but reading the Saint Olaf's Saga has me thinking about customs associated with devotion to St. Olaf, including this hymn, which handily hits the major points in the hagiographical Life of Saint Olaf:

The title of Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae, King Forever of Norway, is first mentioned in the twelfth century, although the attribution seems to have been fairly widespread. Here is the explanation of it given in Saint Olaf's Saga in the Heimskringla, Chapter 18:

Thereupon King Óláf proceeded with his fleet west into Karlsá [Harbor], harried there and had a battle. Now when King Óláf lay in Karlsá [Harbor] waiting for a favorable breeze to sail to Norva Sound [the Strait of Gibraltar] and thence to Jerusalem, he dreamed a remarkable dream--that a man of commanding appearance, handsome but also terror-inspiring, approached him and spoke to him, bidding him give up his intention of proceeding further out into the world. "Return to your own possessions, because you shall be king of Norway forever." He understood this dream to mean that he would be king in the land, and his descendants kings after him for a long time.

[Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Hollander, tr., University of Texas Press (Austin: 2018), p. 258.]

In reality, the only descendant of St. Olaf to be king of Norway was his illegitimate son, Magnus the Good. The kings of Norway since have generally been descended -- in one way or another -- from Harald Hardrada, Olaf's half-brother who tried to seize the throne from Magnus, but was forestalled by Magnus offering him co-regency; as it turns out, a very good deal for Harald, since Magnus died accidentally (and it seems to have been a genuine accident, not your usual royal-line-of-succession 'accident') the next year, leaving only an illegitimate daughter, Ragnhild. But St. Olaf has been the Eternal King of Norway ever since.

The lion-with-axe on the Coat of Arms of Norway (gules, a lion rampant or, crowned or, holding axe or with blade argent) represents St. Olaf as martyr and perpetual king.