Saturday, June 10, 2023

Charles Dickens, Bleak House


Opening Passage: 

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest. 

 Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Summary: Bleak House is definitely an ensemble-cast story; there are many characters and Dickens gives us time with most of them. There are also three distinct, although regularly interrelating, stories. 

The first, and despite its superficially dry legal aspect, in many ways the most memorable, is the devastation caused by the case before Chancery, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a case that has been going on for decades; is concerned with a confusion about wills, in which there are conflicting wills to a very large estate and it is not certain which will takes precedence. The heirs are the same in both wills, but the proportions are different; according to one will, the greater share of the estate goes to John Jarndyce, currently residing in Bleak House, with a lesser amount going to his cousins (who are also distant cousins to each other), Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Richard and Ada will eventually marry, but Richard will become obsessed with the possibility of eventually becoming rich if only Jarndyce and Jarndyce will be resolved. The older John Jarndyce repeatedly warns him against this hope, but the tendrils of the case, which is perpetually bound up in procedural and legal technicalities, will begin choking out everything else. The Jarndyce and Jarndyce storyline is, interestingly enough, a kind of Gothic storyline. Jarndyce and Jarndyce serves as a non-supernatural counterpart of a a family curse -- John Jarndyce explicitly calls it that, in fact -- as it systematically destroys members of the family. The foggy miasma of it pervades everything. John Jarndyce only survives it because he became convinced that it will never end and will never pay out, and therefore is immune to any temptation that hope in it might otherwise induce. The story repeatedly depicts the case as having something evil and maddening about it, and (notoriously) Dickens at one point has someone loosely associated with the case (named, in Dickensian fashion, 'Krook') spontaneously combust in a stench of sulfur and the narrator explicitly states that his death is symbolic of the ultimate fate of unjust courts and judges. Prophesying damnation on Chancery might be thought a bit melodramatic, but it fits with the quasi-Gothic character of this storyline.

The second major storyline is a mystery story -- indeed, one that would hold up reasonably well as a bit of detective fiction. Sir Leicester Dedley, Baronet, and his wife, Lady Dedley, are loosely connected to Jarndyce and Jarndyce by the fact that Lady Dedley is a beneficiary in at least one of the wills, but of course can't actually inherit anything from it until everything is settled. unlike John, Richard, and Ada, it's not a matter of immediate interest to either or importance to either of them. However, Sir Leicester's lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn, has to keep them apprised of the course of the case. In reading them a new set of affidavits, Lady Dedley is suddenly overcome with emotion and almost faints; she covers for it, but Mr. Tulkinghorn notices it, and, being quite astute, guesses that she recognized the handwriting. Sensing a secret somewhere, Mr. Tulkinghorn hires Inspector Bucket to look into the mystery. This will start of a slow chain reaction of events that will lead to Mr. Tulkinghorn's death, with Lady Dedley as one of the chief suspects. Inspector Bucket will have to solve the question of who murdered Mr. Tulkinghorn and resolve the overall problem created by Lady Dedley's secret -- as well as a messy human situation can be resolved.

The third major storyline, and the one that most ties the other two together, is the personal narrative of Esther Summerson, who does not know her mother. She becomes a ward of John Jarndyce, and comes to live with him at Bleak House. There she meets Richard and Ada, and quite a few others, in a truly Dickensian cavalcade of memorable minor characters. Always willing to help others, she accidentally contracts a serious disease -- we are never quite told what it is, but it seems to be something like smallpox -- and is disfigured by it. However, she is in some ways very irrepressible person -- easily the most likable character in the story -- and she will find love through a doctor she meets through her acquaintance with Richard.

A major theme of the story is the Means that Devours the End. We see this very obviously with Chancery and the legal profession, which exist to serve justice but is in fact are just making work for laws and endless deferring justice as if the point were not to resolve testamentary questions but to have Chancery cases. We see it in Richard's deterioration, in which resolving the case, which is supposed to be a means to the end of improving his and Ada's life together, becomes an all-consuming obsession that pushes everything else out. We see this very memorably in a character Esther meets, Mrs. Jellyby, a devoted philanthropist who spends all her time ignoring the needs of the people around her in order to help the people of a distant tribe -- or, rather, 'help', because her work in this regard seems to involve almost nothing but an endless pile of correspondence. This 'telescopic philanthropy' is purportedly for love of mankind, but always only through a telescope and in fact merely symbolically. We see it in another character Esther meets, Mr. Turveytop, who is famous for his Deportment, which he treats as if it were an end in itself, to the detriment of his family. When the means begins to devour the end, everything becomes foggy and confused, everything becomes muddy and stuck, and eventually the means begins devouring the means, as well, so that everything one does violates the very point of doing it in the first place and makes the doing itself pointless as well.

I found keeping track of the characters a considerable chore; I probably should have picked a time to read it when I had a somewhat more stable schedule. Nonetheless, once the basic components were in place, the story had an endless amount of interest to it -- there was comedy, there was drama, there was melodrama, there was romance, there was satire, and much more. And, of course, it is always difficult to beat Dickens's characterizations, which walk right up to the line of allegory without quite stepping over it.

Favorite Passage:

She bows her eyes rather than her head, the movement is so slight and curious, and he withdraws. Clear of the room he looks at his watch but is inclined to doubt it by a minute or thereabouts. There is a splendid clock upon the staircase, famous, as splendid clocks not often are, for its accuracy. "And what do YOU say," Mr. Tulkinghorn inquires, referring to it. "What do you say?" 

 If it said now, "Don't go home!" What a famous clock, hereafter, if it said to-night of all the nights that it has counted off, to this old man of all the young and old men who have ever stood before it, "Don't go home!" With its sharp clear bell it strikes three quarters after seven and ticks on again. "Why, you are worse than I thought you," says Mr. Tulkinghorn, muttering reproof to his watch. "Two minutes wrong? At this rate you won't last my time." What a watch to return good for evil if it ticked in answer, "Don't go home!" 

 He passes out into the streets and walks on, with his hands behind him, under the shadow of the lofty houses, many of whose mysteries, difficulties, mortgages, delicate affairs of all kinds, are treasured up within his old black satin waistcoat. He is in the confidence of the very bricks and mortar. The high chimney-stacks telegraph family secrets to him. Yet there is not a voice in a mile of them to whisper, "Don't go home!"

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

Friday, June 09, 2023

Harp of the Spirit, Crown of the Aramaeans

 Today is the feast of St. Ephrem of Syria, Doctor of the Church. From Hymn 12 on the Epiphany:

In Baptism Adam found again— that glory that was among the trees of Eden.— He went down, and received it out of the water — he put it on, and went up and was adorned therein.— Blessed be He that has mercy on all! 

Man fell in the midst of Paradise, — and in baptism compassion restored him:— he lost his comeliness through Satan's envy — and found it again by God's grace.— Blessed be He that has mercy on all! 

The wedded pair were adorned in Eden — but the serpent stole their crowns:— yet mercy crushed down the accursed one — and made the wedded pair goodly in their raiment.— Blessed be He that has mercy on all! 

They clothed themselves with leaves of necessity;— but the Merciful had pity on their beauty — and instead of leaves of trees — He clothed them with glory in the water.— Blessed be He that has mercy on all! 

Baptism is the well-spring of life — which the Son of God opened by His Life — and from His Side it has brought forth streams.— Come, all that thirst, come, rejoice!— Blessed be He that has mercy on all! 

The Father has sealed Baptism, to exalt it — and the Son has espoused it to glorify it — and the Spirit with threefold seal — has stamped it, and it has shone in holiness.— Blessed be He that has mercy on all!

The Trinity that is unsearchable — has laid up treasures in baptism.— Descend, you poor, to its fountain!— and be enriched from it, you needy!— Blessed be He that has mercy on all!

Thursday, June 08, 2023

Pat Robertson (1930-2023)

Broadcasting powerhouse Pat Robertson died today at the age of 93. He had originally intended to go into politics (his father was a Democratic Senator), but then had an evangelical conversion and told his startled wife Dede that God had told him to enter the ministry; after getting his degree to become a Southern Baptist minister, he bought a failing UHF television station, despite having almost no money, by wrangling up enough investors. From this, CBN was born as a religious non-profit organization in 1961; it is certainly a candidate for being one of the most influential events in the history of television broadcasting. Robertson pioneered dozens of new formats and modified others to the religious function of the network, which increased in popularity until it was making literally hundreds of millions a year. He was also the founder of the private college, Regent University, and of the entertainment componay IFE, whose flagship cable channel was The Family Channel. He was a major figure in the Protestant Charismatic movement in the 1980s. He also ran for President on the Republican ticket in 1988; while he never actually had a chance of winning (and didn't make it through the primaries), in his short campaign he again came up with a number of innovations (like church tours in Iowa leading up to the Iowa caucus) that ended up sticking -- Republican candidates, and occasionally Democratic candidates trying to shave off Republican support, still attempt to copy and adapt them every presidential election.

There are a great many people who have what can only be called a visceral and vituperative hatred of Pat Robertson, in great measure occasioned by things he said over his more than half-century as host of the very popular talk show, The 700 Club, but the hatred itself often arises not from the things he has said but from the fact that they couldn't be treated as insignificant: many of his projects were extremely effective, and over the course of a sixty-year career, the creativity with which he developed them repeatedly led to successes, sometimes extraordinary, sometimes modest, that took people completely by surprise. At the height of his career, you certainly could not ignore him as fringe regardless of what he said or did, because he was too obviously not at the fringe at all. Even after his peak, his pull could still be quite considerable; to take just one example, he was certainly one of the reasons for the weakening of the Evangelical resistance to the legalization of marijuana after he started arguing in favor the latter. We often say that someone's death is the end of an era, but it is certainly true in the case of Robertson, who was perhaps the most astounding juggernaut of the broadcast television era and probably the most successful televangelist in history.

Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Two Loves

 For there are two loves from which proceed all wishes, as different in quality as they are different in their sources. For the reasonable soul, which cannot exist without love, is the lover either of God or the world. In the love of God there is no excess, but in the love of the world all is hurtful. And therefore we must cling inseparably to eternal treasures, but things temporal we must use like passers-by, that as we are sojourners hastening to return to our own land, all the good things of this world which meet us may be as aids on the way, not snares to detain us. Therefore the blessed Apostle makes this proclamation, the time is short: it remains that those who have wives be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they wept not; and those who rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and those who buy, as though they possessed not; and those that use this world, as though they used it not. For the fashion of this world passes away. But as the world attracts us with its appearance, and abundance and variety, it is not easy to turn away from it unless in the beauty of things visible the Creator rather than the creature is loved; for, when He says, you shall love the Lord your God from all your heart, and from all your mind, and from all your strength, He wishes us in [no way] to loosen ourselves from the bonds of His love. And when He links the love of our neighbour also to this command, He enjoins on us the imitation of His own goodness, that we should love what He loves and do what He does.

Leo I, Sermon 90. (The words I've substituted in square brackets are certainly the correct phrase, rather than 'noticing', which seems to be a typo.)

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Evening Note for Tuesday, June 6

 Thought for the Evening: Kinds of Account of Causation

Causation is a kind of dependency, so a cause must be prior to its effect, it must have some relevance to the effect, and that relevance has to have some kind of strong modality associated with it. These are the key elements that any account of causation requires, and which are generally recognized as essential to causation: priority, relevance, and modality. ('Modality' is sometimes called 'regularity'.)

There are two kinds of priority that come up in accounts of causation: logical and temporal. Logical priority (L) has, in the West, at least, been historically dominant; Plato, Aristotle, Lady Mary Shepherd, William Whewell are all examples of L-theorists. Temporal priority comes into its own with Hume. Hume faced the problem that his basic empirical theses made an L-account impossible, but he still needed to have some way to distinguish cause and effect. This requires some kind of asymmetry between the two. The only relation in Hume's empiricism that had an asymmetry that would work was temporal priority (T). (It's an interesting question whether there is a non-logical, non-temporal relation of asymmetry that a very different philosophical view might allow, but for our purposes it's moot, because all of the major accounts seem to be either L-accounts or T-accounts.) T-accounts slowly spread through the nineteenth century, and then quickly spread through the twentieth century, to such an extent that an entire generation of philosophers seem to have just assumed that all accounts of causation have to be T-accounts; but over the past fifty years there has been a slow and growing push-back against this dominance of the field by temporal priority.

A common (but not inevitable) issue distinguishing L-accounts and T-accounts is simultaneous causation; L-theorists often argue against T-theorists by arguing that at least some causes are simultaneous with their effects. Strictly speaking, L-theorists, just as L-theorists, are not committed to any position about simultaneous causation; since the distinctive feature of L-theory is holding that the priority of cause is logical, the position doesn't require any particular view about how causes and effects are related in time -- indeed, you can have an L-theory that takes there to be causes and effects that have no temporal relation to each other at all, you can have one in which there are no causes simultaneous with their effects, you can have one in which all causes are simultaneous with their effects, etc. However, if there are any causes simultaneous with their effects, this causes a serious problem for T-theories, which use non-simultaneity to distinguish causes from effects. (Historically, this issue has been greatly complicated by the fact that even very intelligent people keep confusing simultaneity -- which is a relation of overlap -- with instantaneity -- which is not a relation at all and thus not any kind of overlap -- and thus assuming, falsely, that simultaneity of cause and effect requires that the effect instantaneously result from the cause.) However, it may be possible for a T-theorist to allow simultaneity if they can somehow get the temporal asymmetry in a more indirect fashion; simultaneity of causes and effects gives one a reason to prefer L-theories to T-theories, but might not strictly refute T-theories.

There seem to be two kinds of relevance of cause and effect. One kind takes the relevance to be intrinsic to the cause and/or effect; an example of a common kind of proposed intrinsic relevance is the idea that causation consists in an action of the cause in the effect or on which the effect depends for being an effect. Again, historically most accounts of causation have been intrinsic relevance (I) accounts. The opposite view is that the relevance of cause and effect to each other is due to something other than the cause and effect themselves. This is extrinsic relevance (E). Again, the best known version of an E-theory is that of Hume, who takes the relevance of cause and effect to be a matter of custom or habit of mind.

In general, L-theorists have tended to be I-theorists and E-theorists have tended to be T-theorists.  (The reverse is not, I think, strictly true; that is, it's at least unclear that I-theory pushes one toward L-theory or that T-theory pushes one toward E-theory. There are a lot of TI-theorists. There are relatively few clear examples of LE-theorists, although it isn't a logically impossible position; if you held that 'cause' and 'effect' were simple roles in a model, that would be an E-theory, and while most such accounts have assumed that causes are temporally prior to effects, nothing seems to prevent holding for logical priority instead.) 

Modality is in many ways the most unruly element. There are many kinds of modality: alethic (necessary), epistemic (known), doxastic (believed), deontic (obligatory), temporal (always), locative (everywhere), etc., and you could in principle have an account of causation that thought about the modality of causation in any of these ways. Possibly one way to make this jungle more orderly is to divide modalities into mind-independent modalities (N) and mind-dependent modalities (D); that's imperfect and sits awkwardly across the categories (e.g., you can ave mind-independent and mind-dependent accounts of most modalities); also, it's possible that you could have a view in which some cases are N and some cases are D. But it's at least something that one can have some handle on. Historically, most accounts of causation are N-theories; Hume, of course, gives a D-theory.

Assuming all this, the full possible set of options for giving an account of causation is:

LIN -- LID -- LEN -- LED -- TIN -- TID -- TEN -- TED

Aristotle is LIN; Hume is TED. Everybody is on a spectrum more or less somewhere between them.

Various Links of Interest

* Thomas Johansen, From Craft to Nature: The Emergence of Natural Teleology (PDF)

* Alex Byrne, The origin of "gender identity"(PDF)

* Nathan Rothschild, On Why Thumos Will Rule by Force (PDF)

* Elizabeth S. Radcliffe, Hume on the Psychology of Public Persuasion (PDF)

* Samuel McIlhagga, Britain is Dead

* David Polansky, A Brief History of the Bourgeoisie, or We Are All Bourgeois Now

* Thomas H. Lee, The Judicial Power -- Admiralty Clause (PDF)

* Tobias Hansson Wahlberg, The Truth about Social Entities (PDF) -- I am wholly unconvinced by this account, in which there are in a sense no social entities, but it's a nice way of trying to make it plausible.

* Sharri Irvin, The art of rules, on conceptual art, at "".

* Brendan Hodge, For Joan of Arc, history 'bent' toward justice, at "The Pillar"

* William E. Carroll, The Condemnations of Paris and the Christian origins of modern science, at "Catholic World Report"

* Steve Schale, Anatomy of a Murder: How the Democratic Party Crashed in Florida -- I suspect the problem discussed in this article is one that will be with us a long time, and will keep tripping up both parties, with minor variations.

* G. M. Trujillo, Jr., Aristotle on Friendship, at "1000-Word Philosophy".

Currently Reading

Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Pope Leo I, Sermons

Monday, June 05, 2023

Two Poem Drafts

 Aiming for Love Enduring

Even the overwhelming sun shall die,
but not my love, which shall ever endure,
and remain in its youth while stars end in sigh;
my love shall last, for it is pure.
You scoff? I tell you, you see only in part;
your equations cannot be stretched so far;
you have no experiments in the ways of the heart
and have never actually measured love against star.
Your scoffing is just that, scoffing,
bare assertion that no evidence has known,
but if you are right, then at your death-coughing
you will have only a scoff and be wholly alone.
But if I am wrong, you and I are on even plane,
and if I am right, I have aimed high above;
and if I am right, my love shall always remain,
and if I am wrong, I shall have ventured in love.

On Reading Some Poems by Anne Hänninen

Little pawprints on the stairs
trace a history in the frost:
the little squirrel, like a cat
that leapt beneath the snowflakes.
On an angel's shoulders
sits the churchyard snow;
the winter flows forth
from the poet's throat.
Ice is around me; I am luminous
beneath the barely starlit sky;
I am luminous in the forest,
winter-barren branches leaping up.
My words are words of snow;
the chill wind is in my eyes.
But one day soon, like little pawprints,
only traces of me will remain
on the flowing borders of winter,
ever melting and boundless.

Sunday, June 04, 2023

Philosophy as Transformative Experience

 A 'transformative experience' is, according to Rebecca Chan's recent SEP article on it, is an experience that transforms you epistemically and personally; that is to say, in the experience you learn 'what it is like' in at least way that you could not have known before, and your values and perspective shift in a major life-guiding way. Currently the idea is a hot topic in certain sectors of philosophy, largely because of L. A. Paul's arguments that rationality, in the sense used in decision theory, cannot apply to transformative experiences; this would be very significant, because it seems that transformative experiences are extremely common, and, indeed, it may well be the case that any experience is potentially transformative in this way. Part of this may be the inevitable looseness of the characterization -- on the epistemic side, every experience is generally held in these sectors of philosophy to have a 'what it is like', and there is a general problem with knowing 'what an experience is like' without the experience; on the personal side, any experience could in principle touch on some core features of one's view of the world. In any case, I actually want to use a much stricter account of 'transformative experience' here, although having the same structure. By 'transformative experience' I mean an experience that

A) transforms you epistemically in the sense that you understand things that you could not understand at all without it;


B) transforms you personally in the sense that you receive new life-guiding values and perspective that you could not have at all without it.

In this very strict sense of 'transformative experience', it is fairly easy to argue that the Platonist account of philosophy takes it to be a transformative experience.

We see this in the Allegory of the Cave, which depicts a philosophical moral education. We all start in the Cave, watching shadows on the wall. But then we stand up and look around and begin to make sense of those shadows in terms of something much more fundamental. This continues as we go out of the Cave toward even more fundamental things, until we hit the Sun, which is the Good, on which all else is based. In this picture, philosophy is portrayed as an epistemically transformative experience. Not only does the person who leaves the Cave learn new things, he discovers when he comes back into the Cave and tries to talk to the cavedwellers that they literally cannot understand what he is talking about. No matter what words he uses, they relate those words to shadows on the wall; when he describes his experience, he cannot use any words that they don't relate to shadows on the wall, and therefore he seems to them to be speaking near-gibberish about the shadows, or else to be using words in a way in which they take as not meaning anything at all, or else to be making up fictions about shadows that aren't the shadows that they all see. To stand up and see the puppets making the shadows, to leave the Cave, creates an epistemic divide that the cavedwellers cannot traverse unless they, too, stand up and look around and leave the Cave.

Moreover, the Allegory of the Cave depicts philosophy as a personally transformative experience. The purpose of the Allegory is not to talk about reality in general (although it has implications for reality in general), but about moral education in particular. To stand up and look around changes your values from focus on sensible goods (pleasures and pains and the like) to focus on something more fundamental (civil or social goods, perhaps); to leave the Cave involves a shift in values to goods that are more fundamental (virtues) and ultimately to the Good, at the edge of what we can actually know. To leave the Cave is to become a changed person. And Plato actually emphasizes this by suggesting that the cavedwellers are like the dead. They live in a moral underworld, and Socrates borrows a saying from Homer about the shades in the underworld (which he had previously criticized if used about the actual underworld), "Better to be the poor slave of a poor master than to live as they do." The one who has left the Cave can no longer play their shadow-games about value, on which depends the only standard of success that they prize, because they are mere shadows to him. The mismatch between their values, i.e., what appears good to them, and real good, is too great for him to take seriously or even think of things only in terms of the former.