Thursday, December 22, 2005

Temptation and virtue

Of those of us who spend this time of year grading furiously, I imagine that most are tempted to share with the rest various amusing examples of student fancy which appear on exams or in papers. I don't really feel comfortable doing this, but I can't really condemn those who do (if it's all in good fun). However, virtue lies in a mean, doesn't it? So if I don't reveal any such examples, then isn't that a defect? (Okay, that's sophistry ("If I don't murder anyone, isn't that a defect?"), but let's pretend it isn't.) So I'll just settle for this one: asked on the exam for Zeno's paradoxes, one of my students related the story of "Achilles and the hare." Somehow, that one seems less paradoxical than the one I'm more familiar with.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

'Tis the season

Another Philosophers' Carnival already! How time flies. (Actually I think the last one was a little later than usual, so maybe that explains it.) Go, enjoy yourselves! Fa la la la la la la la la la okay, that's enough la's for now. Thanks Max!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

More is less (spoilers, like it matters)

Well, class is over for the semester (except for the bushel of final papers and exams to be received next week and marked in a frenzy), so perhaps blogging may increase in tempo (although of course there are other things that have been neglected as well!). Sorry for the delay.

I did see a movie on DVD the other day. As Pink Floyd fans know, More is a 1969 hippie movie for which our band did the soundtrack (naturally it says this prominently on the cover). As not all Pink Floyd fans know (many, even most such prefer the band's later work, esp. Dark Side of the Moon), More has some of their best material, like the prototypically spacy "Quicksilver," the lyrically spacy "Cirrus Minor," and the shredding-guitar-ly spacy "Ibiza Bar" (which, although most of the film does indeed take place in Ibiza, we hear, in the film, in what I believe is a Paris bar). As an even smaller set of Pink Floyd fans know, the movie is a waste of time, even by informative-time-capsule standards. Two disagreeable hippies (he German, she American) hang out in Ibiza; they get hooked on heroin; they kick heroin by dropping acid (!); they get hooked on heroin again; it turns out she's been sleeping with her old ex-Nazi "friend of the family" after all; he overdoses (perhaps on purpose, like we care) and dies. Feh. (She is cute though.)

The all-knowing site informs us that this film, director Barbet Schroeder's debut, was first entitled Mehr – immer mehr, but then later they changed it to Gier nach Lust (Desire for Pleasure), which seems about right. As I may already have known, Herr Schroeder was the same one to hire the band three years later, for La Vallée, a.k.a. Obscured by Clouds, which resulted in another underappreciated (if not quite as good) Pink Floyd record. I had thought that there was some Schroeder film that I had seen and liked, but all I see on his filmography is stuff like Murder by Numbers (excuse me, Murd3r 8y Num8ers), Single White Female, and (yikes) the 1995 Kiss of Death remake (with David Caruso; an imbd commenter remarks: "a kiss of death to his career"). My guess is that I was thinking of Volker Schlöndorff (oops!). Oh wait, Reversal of Fortune was okay (the Claus von Bülow docudrama with Ron Silver and Jeremy Irons).

One amusing moment occurs 81 minutes into the film. How do I know when it was, you ask? Well, at the beginning there was a title card which informs us that the authorities required that a few seconds of dialogue be muted at that point (replaced by subtitles in this version). The scene is this: they're making up a potion of some kind (either it's after they've kicked heroin but before relapsing, or before they kick but also before they're really hooked - I don't remember and I'm not going back to check!), and he's calling out the ingredients as he grinds them up with his mortar and pestle: "[a few other things first]; pot! ibogaine! Benzedrine! banana peel!" From this list, the authorities of our moral health decided that it was best that we not hear him call for a) Benzedrine and b) banana peel (which of course we see when he scrapes it off into the bowl). How weird is that?

Sunday, November 27, 2005


We're all grateful for food, family, and friends; but let us also give thanks (to Ian this time) for the latest Philosopher's Carnival! A bountiful harvest indeed – check it out!

Saturday, November 19, 2005


Well, Aristotle hell is over, only to be replaced by Hellenistic hell. (Is Stoic hell even possible? After all, that pain is bad is a pathos, a mistaken value judgment about that to which we should be indifferent. Stoic Schultz: "I feel nossinkk!") Looks like substantive philblogging must wait until the post-Augustinian era. In the meantime, here's something I saw in the latest issue of Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, which sometimes runs obituaries ("Memorial Minutes") of departed philosophers, often with anecdotes documenting our man's cleverness. Craig Staudenbaur, previously unknown to me, "was an expert on the Cambridge Platonists, especially Henry More" (also previously unknown to me, as it happens). Let me turn the floor over to Professor Staudenbaur's Michigan State colleagues Charles McCracken and Ronald Suter:
[W]hen he wrote a review of a book by a French scholar that purported to show strong affinities between theosophy and Henry More's philosophy (a thesis Craig thought without merit), he began the review by saying, "This book fills a much-needed gap."
Oh, that's good. (I had to read that twice.) It seems that Professor Staudenbaur had many talents, having written a novel called Cosmos Lycanthropos: Planet of the Man-Wolf. I'm afraid I won't have time for that one any time soon (see above).

Friday, November 04, 2005

Goobernatorial cornucopia

Election Day will soon be upon us, and with it, I hope and pray, blessed respite from those insufferable campaign ads (“In 1970, my opponent kicked a cute, helpless puppy; oh, and, uh, he’ll raise your taxes” and so forth). Recently New Jersey residents received our ballot facsimiles, complete with official statements from ten candidates for governor. And a wonderfully diverse lot they are. Leading off we have the two major-party candidates. One tells us that
it’s time to take back New Jersey from the politicians and power brokers who have raised our taxes and turned a blind eye to corruption, and return New Jersey to the people.
(This candidate’s party is not currently in the statehouse.) From the other one, we have this:
I pledge to cut waste, increase efficiency, and reform the budget process. Common sense tells us that we should grow our economy, instead of increasing taxes. We must replace the failed practice of ‘tax, borrow, and spend’ with a new strategy of ‘invest, grow, and prosper.’
At the moment, he’s ahead in the polls.

Judging by these two, you might think that all New Jerseyans are boring. Not so! For instance, we have not one but two Socialist candidates. The Socialist Workers Party candidate is a traditional socialist, with the traditional socialist love for the imperative mood (“fight cop brutality”), capital letters (“IT’S NOT WHO YOU’RE AGAINST. IT’S WHAT YOU’RE FOR!”), and exclamation points (“U.S. hands off Venezuela!”). The Socialist Party USA candidate, on the other hand, is more lyrical: “We need to dawn a new day; we must usher in a era of new hoe and restored aspirations.” He also has a laundry list, but by the end of it he’s just as concerned with taking digs at other parties as with explaining himself:
A lottery similar to Spain’s Christmas Lottery and Japans Quarterly (High Annuity). The Green agenda and way of life is only a ad-hoc liberal come socialist program. Socialist achieved world wide which the Greens credit themselves for. The Socialist Parties are the Parties whom people in many lands turn to for change. In the Socialist Party USA we stand on our History and Accomplishments. We where once America’s Alternative, Third Party and will be again.
Moving on. The Green Party candidate is either oblivious to the slight from his SPUSA opponent, or he takes the high road, asking simply “When will we, the people, say ‘ENOUGH!’?” Similarly, the One New Jersey candidate concentrates his fire on the major parties:
My fellow New Jerseyan’s, you DO have a choice.
You can waste your vote on the Democrat or Republican, or vote for me.
So when your tax bill goes up again, remember, you made that choice.
The bottom line is we’re ALL New Jerseyan’s FIRST.
I assume the ambiguity in the third line is unintentional. (If not, he’s a sly one.)

Skipping over Libertarian, Independent, and Education Not Corruption candidates, each of whom is more boring than the other ones (and you thought the more-boring-than relation did not allow this!), let us turn at last to the cream of the crop: the Legalize Marijuana candidate. I’m tempted to reproduce his entire statement, but I will content myself here with some of the choicer excerpts. He is running, he tells us, not to win (demonstrating his sure grasp of political reality), but instead
to give the “FINGER” state-wide to our Demo-publican party politicians who wage their LIE based “WAR on US”. […] I personally chose to use the “GOD GROWN HERB MARIJUANA” so I fight our governments war on it’s “POT-FRONT”. The fact that I can obtain marijuana any day of the week I chose is testimate to the failure of our governments racist war on drugs.
You see, it’s a free speech and free-exercise issue:
In our Governments 21st century drug war ‘RASTAFARI’ is as illegal a religion to practice in America as Quakerism was in England in 1690, or Faluan Gong is in China or Christianity is in Saudi Arabia today.
Naturally, he’s not simply speaking in the abstract; it has affected him personally:
While I’ve also denied the Right to change my own name to NJWEEDMAN.COM.
After a ringing peroration (“we in America today have more reason to revolt than the colonist did in 1776”), he leaves us with:
(Quotes in original.) So I’m to bring a bag to the polls with me. Not sure what the point of that would be. It’s too bad he’s not running to win – if he did win I’d be sure to read the paper more often. I can just see it now:
Governor NJWEEDMAN.COM Blows Smoke at Legislature

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Ooooh - that's scary!

Philosophers carnivalling, that is. Chill your bones here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Ancient and modern

Aristotle hell continues, but I have to say I'm learning, or re-learning, quite a bit about our friend the Stagirite. I may even have to gird my noetic loins and check out Metaphysics Zeta sometime. Some time in the future, that is. When I return to the land of the living, among those not concerned with how, if the unmoved mover is immaterial it can move physical objects (answer: by being an ideal object of desire for the outer heavenly bodies, which are, as you know, ensouled), I hope to respond, or at least react, in some way to this post (hat tip: Leiter, or his recent guest blogger - I forget) about the "fogbank" of Postmodernism by Keith DeRose at the epistemology blog, Certain Doubts. (Spoiler: he's agin it.) It's pretty long, so start now. (On the other hand, you've got time.)

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Excess and defect

Again I must apologize for the lack of postage. I am in the midst of Aristotle hell (in a good way though!). I hope to return to the virtuous mean soon. In the meantime, here's a veritable excess of philosophical revelry (i.e., another Philosophers' Carnival) -- thanks Gillian!

Thursday, October 06, 2005

A Stitch in time

Lest anyone get the silly idea that the only movies reviewed here (if that's what's happening) are artistically respectable ones, I should reveal that one recent viewing was of Stitch: The Movie, a straight-to-video number not to be confused with the forthcoming Lilo & Stitch 2, also s-t-v, I believe, which depicts events occurring after the first L&S, obviously, but before this earlier film. Not content simply to extend the franchise to video sequels, S:TM stoops to setting up the premise to the Lilo & Stitch TV show. (I know this, alas, because I have actually seen an episode of said TV show, which was, not surprisingly, not worth the time.) I liked the original movie a lot – Stitch (a.k.a. Experiment 626) is the most entertaining Disney character since, well, I don't really know Disney that well so never mind. Anyway, he's great. (I love it when he tries to speak English – and when he doesn't even try.)

The premise of this one, if you care, is that a previously unknown Evil Genius (Dr. Hämsterviel, who seems to be channeling John Cleese's abusive French knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which makes sense given the latter's taunt that "your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries," or was it the other way around) is determined to capture all 626 experiments for himself, and sends the put-upon Captain Gantu to Hawaii to track them down, with predictable and not particularly well-drawn results. Although Stitch's antics never really take off this time, there are a few laughs to be found among the film's 64 minutes: the clueless but game Pleakley (voiced by Kevin McDonald of Kids in the Hall fame) attempts to locate the kidnapped Jumba by whipping out a galactic phone directory and calling each planet, in alphabetical order ("Planet Aaaaaaa? Is Jumba there?" "Do you know what time it is??" "Sorry!" ... "Planet Aaaaaab? Is Jumba there?"), and it's still funny to hear the galactics regularly refer to our planet as "Eeyarth." Anyway, the other 625 (actually, 623) experiments get loose, and in the TV show each episode is concerned with recapturing a particular one of them, with even more predictable and even less well-drawn results. I'll probably watch L&S 2 too (sigh).

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A first

Nicholas White's Plato on Knowledge and Reality is a barn-burner, even if it is 30 years old. In a chapter on the Phaedo, he relates Plato's use of an odd example in his argument for the reality of transcendent Forms. At 74a9ff, Socrates contrasts the equality (in size, presumably) of pieces of wood or stone with "the idea of abstract equality, which is different from them" (F. J. Church translation). Pieces of wood are only qualifiedly equal (e.g. to this but not to that), but the Equal is equal without qualification and therefore metaphysically prior. As White remarks (p. 69), Plato "does not see ... that it makes dubious sense to say that any object is equal unqualifiedly (i.e., without being equal to anything)." A little later, he adds (p. 70):
Some will be inclined to think that the view just now described is too clearly mistaken, and even bizarre, to be rightly ascribed to Plato. Such an impression, I think, is the result of an overexposure to contemporary philosophical discussions, in which such logical and quasi-logical matters as relational predication are so thoroughly and unremittingly scrutinized. Even Aristotle, who criticized this aspect of Plato's doctrine, himself had no very clear understanding of relations (as a glance at Categories 7 and Metaphysics V. 15 will show), and perhaps nobody did until late in the last century.
At first I didn't understand; but then I realized: he means the nineteenth century. This is the first, for me, of what will surely be a long series of such double-takes in coming years.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Petit is beautiful; grand, not so much

So my grand jury duty is over (as of 9/1, to be precise). Just in time, because it was starting to get old, what with getting up well before noon to truck (bus) down to the county courthouse and all. Also, of course, most of the cases they presented took no thought at all on our part. Again, grand juries hand down (or "up," actually) indictments, not verdicts, and all we hear is the prosecution side. And naturally the cases they are most likely to pursue are the ones where the guy clearly did it, and probably won't ever go to trial, having pleaded it out once we indict.

So a lot of the time it goes like this (drug cases are the worst), reminding one uncannily of a Socratic dialogue:
Prosecutor: You were on duty on the afternoon of March 22, 2005, correct?
Witness [invariably a police officer]: Yes, that's right.
P: And you pulled over a car which was going 80mph in a 50mph zone?
W: Yes.
P: You asked the driver for his license and registration?
W: That's correct.
P: And then you noticed a glassine bag filled with a greenish-brown vegetation which you took to be marijuana?
W: Yes.
P: ... and which was later tested at the police lab and determined actually to be marijuana?
W: Yes, that's correct.
P: And it was determined to weigh 8.26 grams?
W: Yes.
P: And you also saw another glassine bag with a whitish powdery substance?
W: I did indeed.
P: ... which was later tested at the police lab and determined to be cocaine?
W: It is as you say, o madam prosecutor.
P: And cocaine is a derivative of the coca leaf?
W: Only children and fools would disagree.
You might be wondering why this isn't "leading the witness." The answer is that the prosecutor has the police report in front of her and she's picking out the key facts that show what happened to be the particular crime she says it is (we don't want to hear every insignificant detail). It gets to be testimony because every few phrases the witness puts in a "that's correct." I bet police officers hate grand jury appearances. And yes, most of the prosecutors were women (real ones, though, not impossibly cute ones like on Law & Order).

By the way, they have to say that part about the coca leaf every time because the law in question doesn't actually mention "cocaine," just "derivatives of the coca leaf." One prosecutor told us (after the case) that there's one law which was on the books for some time before they corrected it (I think they corrected it!), where the legislature had made a mistake, and the law read "process" where it should have said "proceeds" -- so each time, the prosecutor had to get the witness to talk about "process" instead of "proceeds." So by now that's a fairly well established way of talking. Interesting method of language change.

Sometimes it goes like this:
Prosecutor: After making the buy, you then engaged in a drug-related conversation with the suspect?
Witness: Yes, I did.
P: ... during which he affirmed that the drugs were of a particularly high quality?
W: Yes.
I always wanted to know (you're allowed to ask questions, and they're actually very patient at repeating or explaining things, but I didn't feel like I could mess with them for my own amusement) if the witness could remember the actual words of the "drug-related conversation." After all, the suspect surely didn't say "I hereby affirm that the drugs which I have sold you are of a particularly high quality." I swear I saw a hint of a smile on one detective's face at this point, as if amused by the incongruous legal language.

And yes, over the course of 9 weeks and some 75 cases with several hundred charges, we indicted Every. Single. Time. Exceptions: a couple of times they asked us not to indict (the decision not to prosecute came so late in the process that we had to not-indict in order to clear the case from the system). Not all votes were unanimous though. I guess it's worthwhile, if it keeps flimsy cases from going to trial. Plus I got paid $5 per day (check to arrive in 6 to 8 weeks), plus coffee vouchers (I saved them up and got an egg sandwich on week 7) and a Certificate of Appreciation!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The third what now?

Tonight on the news there was a woman from San Francisco, or at least California, who said that a while back (before 9/11) there was a FEMA drill or simulation that dealt with three scenarios: a terrorist attack on NYC, a hurricane in NO, and an earthquake in SF, and what with the first two having come to pass, she was "waiting for the third shoe to drop." It's clear what she means, of course, but that struck me funny.

Oh, and there's a new Philosophers' Carnival.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Feat of Clay

I had seen the blog 3 Quarks Daily listed on a blogroll or two, but I didn't go there until last month, when I discovered that it rocks, although it overwhelms one with material (more like 3 kazillion quarks per second if you ask me). A natural comparison is Arts & Letters Daily, rather than a proper blog, and more geared toward science and global culture than the latter site. Check it out!

I also discovered that it's run by a friend of mine from grad school whom I had lost touch with. How about that! In a post last month, Abbas tells us of his great admiration for Muhammad Ali (i.e., "The Greatest," as opposed to "the Great One," who is someone else entirely), and urges us to see the documentary film When We Were Kings, the story of the 1974 Ali-George Foreman fight known as "the Rumble in the Jungle" (the Zaïrean jungle, to be specific).

So I did that, and I was very impressed. I had forgotten the details – I was a mere lad at the time, and I have to confess that, although, or perhaps because, I was not a boxing fan then, I was rooting for Foreman, because I thought Ali was kind of a hot dog (true enough, but as they say, it ain't bragging if you can do it), and Foreman was the highly favored champion (which seems more like a reason to root against him, but there it is). The fight was promoter Don King's doing, and it was a big pan-African extravaganza, with lots of publicity and concerts and Ali mouthing off and Foreman glowering. The music footage is great, with James Brown in fine form, but the best part is Ali riffing on black pride and African unity and (on) stomping on Foreman's defeated body. And then, finally, the fight itself, with Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, of all people, giving their reminiscences (and there are some great stills with Plimpton and Don King). At the end there's an amazing sequence of photographs of Ali with everyone from Malcolm X to the Beatles.

I missed my favorite piece of historical footage though. In an interview which must have been after the first Liston fight, though I'm not sure, Ali is exultant, naturally, and yells: "I'm pretty! I'm a baaad maaan!" Classic Ali – I wonder why they left it out.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Long time no blog. Sorry about that - I really do mean to make it worthwhile for people to stop by now and then. I'm teaching a class this semester in an area of philosophy that is (*cough*) not my specialty, so it's taking a lot of work to overprepare for it. MavPhil has a saying: nulla dies sine blogposta (with a macron on that last "a", I suppose, to mark the ablative), but that's going to be a non possum. Let's try for every week.

Here's something you will have missed if you don't read the ridiculously short New Yorker letters page. In the 8/22/05 issue, Jim Holt, who clearly has some background in philosophy, though it's not clear how much, reviewed that old Frankfurt article (I mean "new book"), as well as Simon Blackburn's new popular effort, Truth: A Guide. I like Holt's work, but sometimes he's in over his head. (Hell, I think Blackburn's in over his head too, but these are particularly deep and treacherous waters.) In the article Nietzsche plays his standard role as proto-pomo looney tune; I'm surprised Brian Leiter didn't blow a gasket, given what he said the other day about that relatively innocuous Times book review about Curtis Cate's Nietzsche biography.

I sent in as short a letter as I could manage, "leaving the hash Holt makes of Nietzsche to the outraged Nietzsche scholars," but they didn't print it. In today's issue (9/18), though, there is a letter from a Michael Stern of Eugene, Oregon:
Jim Holt, in his discussion of Simon Blackburn's new book, "Truth: A Guide," says that Blackburn "accuses Nietzsche of sloppy thinking" (A Critic at Large, August 22nd). Holt argues that Blackburn's protest arises from Nietzsche's claim that we are limited by our perspectives. However, this is to ignore the Nietzschean "will to power," which interprets, and seeks to engage with, as many perspectives as possible. Nietzsche sought to describe the complex relations between perspectives and how we organize the multiplicity of existence as knowledge. Simplifying Nietzschean perspectivism in this way effectively pulls the teeth of a complex argument in order to declare in the next moment that it has no bite.
Well said! In fact, that's the best short explanation of the connection between will to power and perspectivism in Nietzsche that I've seen. W.t.p. engages other perspectives in order to dominate them (naturally). It sees (we see) difference as disagreement (that is, as someone else's error), and it attempts, Borg-style, to assimilate the truth available from other perspectives into our own while quashing the error, and thereby showing/manifesting its own superiority. Of course that's not always possible (but tell that to the w.t.p.). Note Stern's cognitivist, rather than skeptical or relativist, account of perspectivism: our (re-) organization of the multiplicity of existence results in knowledge. And if "describing the complex relations between perspectives" is what perspectivists do, then I need not feel self-conscious in appealing to Davidson and Wittgenstein in pursuing a "perspectivist" project (for which I have taken some guff).

This was much better than my own letter, which basically said:
Jim Holt has Sidney Morgenbesser saying "The trouble with pragmatism is that it's completely useless." I heard it this way: playing off the supposedly pragmatist claim that "truth is what works," he said "Pragmatism is true, but it doesn't work." This is quite different (look again at that first part).
Come to think of it, I may even have heard him utter those very words (recalling his remark for us, that is, not making it for the first time).

Saturday, September 03, 2005

I have arrived

I got my first comment spam today (see below). I'm so proud! Let's see if Blogger's word verification thingy works. (Let me know if it doesn't.)

For all x, x ≠ love, you = Baby, I cannot give you x

Watching [name of movie revealed below] recently, I was reminded of my intemperate comments a while back about Bringing Up Baby, a movie which left me cold, so I went back just now and added a second thought or two, moderating the intemperance a bit (only a bit though).

So what movie was it that brought BuB to mind? Was it The Philadelphia Story, or maybe His Girl Friday? No and no (good guesses though). No, it was the only other movie I know of in which a character sings the song "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby" – not as a musical performance but rather for some extra-musical reason. In BuB Kate and Cary sing it in order to pacify/retrieve Baby the leopard; here nightclub owner Cosmo Vitelli, away from the club on the desperate errand of the film's title, phones to check in on how his somewhat erratic troupe of entertainers is faring in his absence. Unfortunately the bartender to whom he is speaking is little help – he doesn't even know the songs they sing, even after seven years in Cosmo's employ – so Cosmo sings the song in question to remind him which number it is (it doesn't help).

Yes, I refer here to John Cassavetes's The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, with the inimitable Ben Gazzara in a tremendous performance. The Criterion Collection has several Cassavetes releases out, but this is the first one I've seen (I think the only other Cassavetes film I've seen at all is Gloria, which for some reason was remade recently with Sharon Stone, iirc). I will be checking the others out for sure, because KCB was really something. I'm not sure it's a great film, but wow, what a compelling time capsule. The CC release has two discs, one with the original 1976 version, which apparently bombed, and a 1978 reissue which is half an hour shorter. I watched the latter, and it's hard to imagine that the edit didn't improve the film substantially. It's bursting the seams of the narrative as it is – any more scenes with the performers, say, or his girlfriend's family (interesting as they were), would definitely overload it, resulting in the flabby mess the critics undoubtedly said the first one was. On the other hand, now I would like to go back and check the other one out (but it was due back at the library). Kudos to CC for giving us the different versions complete, rather than only the latter plus "deleted scenes."

Anyway, Gazzara is terrific as the reflective would-be big shot in over his head, who still manages, somehow, to hold his own (or so it seems ...). The atmosphere is pure '70's: besides the surreal dialogue (love those gangsters) and perversely ruminative pacing, there's lots of underlit scenes (in the nightclub and out), casual showgirl nudity, and intimate handheld shots. Of course if this is your idea of heaven, you're already way ahead of me. It's not mine, exactly, but I'm certainly looking forward to more. Although KCB is supposedly atypical (the blurb says that JC "engages film noir in his own inimitable style," which makes it sound like a one-off deal), I hear A Woman Under the Influence is pretty good.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Summer's almost gone ...

... but there's still time for one more Philosopher's Carnival! Thanks CK!

By the way, philosophers, CK says that there weren't too many entries this time. So let's get thinking!

Monday, August 29, 2005

Too many cooks spoil the brouhaha

Which is one reason why I didn't join in the Theory's Empire dustup (now in remission) over at The Valve and other related sites. (Another is that I didn't have the book.) I did follow along, though, and I was struck by how defensive some people were about the very idea of such a collection. Isn't it obvious that taking a critical view of Theory isn't the same as (in increasing order of horrificness) 1) embracing bad old theories of literary meaning; 2) duh, being a troglodyte; 3) voting Republican?

However, I recently picked up the volume, and I have to admit that my first impression of it was that such viscerally negative reactions are perfectly understandable (if not particularly constructive). Like many other defenses of culture against Theory, the overall tone here seems – so far, anyway – to be not of level-headed engagement with esteemed but misguided colleagues, but instead of pouring boiling oil onto the barbarians at the gates (or on those already inside, raping and pillaging defenseless literature). I have still only skimmed it, but I've already run across some seriously snarky rhetoric: words like "glut" and "parrot" and "gospel" and "otiose" and "pervasive" and "gurus" and "bizarre" and "labyrinthine" and "obsessive." (No naked emperors yet, though; could we really have seen the last of that one??) The introduction sets the tone to which I refer; I was struck, for example, by this poisonous patch of purple prose, the peroration of the piece:
[I]t is evident that today's theoretical vocabulary has led to an intellectual void at the core of our educational endeavors, scarcely masked by all the posturing, political zealotry, pretentiousness[,] general lack of seriousness, and the massive opportunism that is particularly glaring in the extraordinary indifference to or outright attacks on logic and consistency (p.13).
Holy smoke! Not surprisingly, the most common digs at Theorists, here as elsewhere, are the ones attributing to them not simply some intellectual failing, but also some moral vice, usually hypocrisy: they reject all dogmatism – except their own! They claim to be working for the downtrodden – but they're self-absorbed fatcats! They claim to be doing new and exciting things – but they're unoriginal conformists, just putting new labels on the same tired old crap! Et cetera!

Now I would be the last to deny that this old shoe can find plenty of feet to fill it. (I actually have no clue as to the extent of the problem, as described. I last took an English course in 1980 (which was perfectly fine), and I haven't really run into it that much myself. On the other hand, there is a vaguely analogous doctrinal divide in philosophy between "analytic" and "continental" philosophy; but it's not the same – even though Hegel, for example, is making a half-hearted comeback, no-one's getting rich and famous touting Hegelian Theory, and stacking whole departments with ambitious acolytes. It did get ugly a while back, though, I understand, with power grabs at the annual convention, etc. But nothing like the Theory wars, since no-one cares about philosophy anyway.) The more worthless the material in question, though, the less informative it is to hear that we need to rouse the troops to combat it. Politically motivated sophomoric-relativist nonsense? Sounds ghastly; let's get rid of it. But 700 pages of abuse is not going to get us there, so I sincerely hope this isn't all there is to the book.

Of course the editors are as concerned to deny personal animus as they are to disavow regressive tendencies (i.e., "the predictable charges hurled against critics of Theory"). No,
what is particularly noticeably in our authors' writings is the general lack of ad hominem attacks, even when confronting some of the more preposterous and unreadably convoluted theories. They concentrate not on personality—as central an issue as Theory's stars have made this in cultivating their public personae—but instead on logic, reason, and evidence, concepts without which [oh, thanks so much for pointing this out] it is impossible to have any sort of fruitful intellectual exchange. They are mindful [...] that the habit of many theorists to make claims without showing any awareness of the highly contentious nature of their premises and reasoning is a symptom of the poor standard of argumentation prevailing in modern literary theory (p.7).
Amazing. An ad hominem attack right in the middle of a passage trumpeting the virtuous lack of same. Not promising. However, Morris Dickstein, a contributor to the book and the editor of a decent anthology on pragmatism, assures us that "Theory’s Empire confines itself to serious academic critiques," so I suppose I should keep reading.

Of particular interest to me are the selections making up the section entitled "Restoring Reason," which discusses the science-wars aspect of the matter (with perhaps predictably heavy emphasis on the Sokal affair). I turned to these first, because that's where the stuff about truth and objectivity is (our barbarians are relativists, after all, when they're not being dogmatic). I have mixed feelings about the results, but that's a topic for another post.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Now that's acting

Olivier Gourmet (nice name) won the Best Actor award at Cannes in 2002 for his performance in the Dardennes' The Son, and having finished up viewing the film last night (I shouldn't watch movies in installments, and I'm sure this one lost a little impact because of it, but as it turned out there was plenty left), I can see why. He plays a carpentry instructor at a trade school, who for reasons I will not go into (we ourselves only find out half an hour in), is torn between two opposing emotions and corresponding courses of action, both compatible with what we actually see him do. In an interview included on the DVD, Gourmet (looking quite different) explains that it was very hard to play "I don't know" – a single motivation, even a complex one, can be signaled in any number of conventional ways, but how do you show one emotion "canceled out" (I would rather say "held in check") by another, so that neither is manifested overtly during the struggle? We find ourselves noticing any clue, however small – a tic, a frown, a snappy remark. Gourmet's control over his body is remarkable; check out his gait for example, or his brisk, efficient movements when washing his hands or doing carpentry. The camera, most if not all handheld, is in his face (or on the back of his neck) throughout – there's one shot where he sends a student to get something from across the room and the camera remains on Gourmet's staring face the whole time. There's also an amazing, apparently continuous shot where someone in the passenger seat of a car (shot from the back seat) steps into the back seat to lie down, which must have required some serious acrobatics by the cameraman (who of course ends up in the passenger seat). Very intense film. Now I have to see La Promesse (same actor, same directors, same Cannes result).

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Duck days indeed

Some odds and ends for these hot summer days:

Here's a handsome lad.

And in other news, those philosophers are carnivaling again. Thanks Gracchi! I particularly liked the post from TAR about non-philosophers' ideas of what we do; some great stories there, plus some interesting reflections. Check it out!

Coincidentally, today's Dilbert addresses the same issue, believe it or not. Dilbert is out on a date, and addresses his companion thus:
Dilbert: No one ever wants to take more than half of what's left of the last doughnut. That's why I call it Xeno's [sic] doughnut. Hee hee!

Dinner companion drains glass.

Passing waitress, to dinner companion: I heard some of that. Do you want to switch to hard liquor?

Dinner companion, holding out glass: Hurry.
Sigh. Of course, that's Zeno of Elea he's talking about, not Zeno of Citium! Zeno of Citium's doughnut would remain untouched on the plate! Ha ha! (Oog.)

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Cinema of war

The other night I watched a movie about a ragged but plucky band of comrades and their valiant resistance against the oppressive force occupying their country. I am of course perfectly capable of telling the difference between this and that; but I have to say it was a just a bit creepy being encouraged to cheer when our heroes carry out a roadside ambush against the occupying army's passing vehicles. The film was Roberto Rossellini's Roma, città aperta (a.k.a. Open City), made amazingly soon after the war (in 1945, in fact). It's a very effective example of its type (which of course was new at the time). Two things stood out for me: first, in the screen time she's allotted Anna Magnani is a force of nature (see her also, equally forceful if not more so, in Pasolini's Mamma Roma); and second, the gripping ending -- not only the final scene, but the scene before that, especially the spectacular shot of the tortured prisoner and the priest's reaction to it. You absolutely cannot get away with that kind of thing anymore, but in the days before our (in this sense) jaded age, it would have worked perfectly (exercise for the reader: how would Bresson have done it, or Renoir?). Oh, and another spectacular shot (of a different kind): when the Nazi soldier peers out the door and looks toward the camera, with a fleeing resistance fighter still visible, pausing, in the background behind him. Wow.

One problem, though: the subtitlers are frustratingly chary with their aid, sometimes rendering no more than every third line. Luckily my (operatic) Italian is serviceable, so I didn't miss too much, but be warned.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Body beautiful?

Maybe you heard about that museum in Vienna that let you in free to see their exhibit of early 1900's erotic art if you showed up (as the Times puts it in today's Arts section) "nude or scantily clad." My attitude: whatever. But they need to get their story straight. The Times quotes the museum's Elisabeth Leopold as explaining: "We find a naked body every bit as beautiful as a clothed one." Fair enough, depending perhaps on which body we're talking about (Henry Kissinger: keep your clothes on). But the museum isn't showing Raphael or even Bernini; they're showing Klimt and that twisted perv (and I mean that in a good way) Egon Schiele (one of my faves). This is presumably why director Peter Weinhaupt says that he hoped to (again in the Times's words) "create a mini-scandal reminiscent of the one that first surrounded the paintings." Again: whatever. But if "mini-scandal" is the point, the idea that nudity is no big deal makes no sense. And of course if you know Schiele at all, you know: it ain't the nudity. What is interesting about Schiele, and what makes him great, is that the self-portraits are just as twisted, and, seemingly, in the same way, as the erotic ones. And that's the scandal.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Probably guilty, probably guilty, probably guilty!

Here's what grand jury duty is like. First, a joke:
A physics professor is lecturing. At one point he points to a formula on the board and says "And now, it's obvious that from this formula, this one follows" (writing another one). Then he stops, and says "Hold on a minute," and covers the board with equations while the students wait in silence. Finally he nods, and says "Yes, I was right! It is obvious that this follows from that."
What does this have to do with grand jury duty? I'll tell you. I don't know how things are in other states, but in New Jersey whenever they want to try someone for a felony (or, in NJ-speak, an "indictable offense"), they have to bring their evidence to a grand jury to show they have a chance for a conviction, that they're not grasping at straws (or railroading some poor schmuck or political opponent). The idea is that if they can't get a) a simple majority of 23 people to agree, even when b) unopposed by defense lawyers, that c) there is a prima facie case for guilt, then they would just be wasting everyone's time at trial, where they need a) unanimity among 12 people, b) in the face of a vigorous defense, c) that the guy is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Makes sense, I guess. It's just weird when there are disagreements about whether there is a prima facie case for something. It's like you can't give too careful an argument or it's not prima facie anymore, like in the joke (tertia facie?). Plus it's weird using a term like prima facie in non-philosophical contexts (of course, everyone else says "probable cause").

It's also funny hearing them read the law, where legislators have tried to cover all the bases in their definition (often this means lots of disjunctions, which for some reason can confuse people). "Knowing" that P turns out to mean being "aware" that P; while to do something "purposefully" is to do it "consciously." Glad we cleared that up.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Oh boy, another list!

As you may already be aware (see here and here and here, and links therefrom), the BBC has polled us all, philosophers and laity alike, in order to elect the Greatest Philosopher of All Time (so far).

Here is the resulting ranking:
1. Karl Marx [in a walk, apparently]
2. David Hume
3. Ludwig Wittgenstein
4. Friedrich Nietzsche
5. Plato
6. Immanuel Kant
7. St. Thomas Aquinas
8. Socrates
9. Aristotle
10. Karl Popper
Except for #s 1 and 10, this is a decent list, better than one might expect. It's not particularly informative, though, given the vagueness of "greatest." In coming up with my own list, I used more specific, if also subjective, criteria: points were awarded for influence (on me, past or current), present usefulness (again, for me), general importance, and other assorted intangibles.
1. Wittgenstein
2. Donald Davidson
3. John McDowell
4. Kant
5. Nietzsche
6. Dewey
7. Gilles Deleuze
8. Aristotle
9. J. L. Austin
10. Stanley Cavell
Honorable mention [points awarded for: same as above, plus (if the philosopher is relatively new to me at present) estimated future usefulness]: Putnam, Rorty, Peirce, James, Isaac Levi, Robert Brandom, Dennett, Danto, Anscombe, Frege, Heraclitus, Zhuangzi, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Gadamer, Schleiermacher, Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, Jennifer Hornsby, Charles Taylor, John Haugeland, D. Z. Phillips. Okay, I'll stop now.

Bottom five [using analogously subjective criteria]:
1. Colin McGinn
2. Jerry Fodor
3. Ayn Rand [but see Dr. P's comments here]
4. David Stove
5. Jean Baudrillard
Also: Kripke, Husserl, Michael Devitt, Churchland(s)

Opponents; that is, very good philosophers who are, in some important way, wrong, wrong, wrong, and helpful despite/because of their errors (see my earlier post about this phenomenon):
1. Barry Stroud
2. John Searle
3. Roger Scruton
4. Crispin Sartwell
5. W. V. O. Quine
6. Philip Kitcher (or Dennett in his specifically naturalistic moods)
7. Plato et seq.
8. P. F. Strawson (on some subjects)
9, 10. Descartes and his contemporary minion Thomas Nagel
For Sartwell's own idiosyncratic likes and dislikes, see here.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Symposium alert

Blogging has been light here recently, and it may continue to be so for a bit, as other obligations become more pressing. Bear with us!

On the other hand, one of those obligations is to contribute to a bloggy roundtable about Wittgenstein and literature over at the Valve, some or all of which (my contributions, that is) may end up here too. Incidentally, that site is currently running a similar event about a book called Theory's Empire (link to an early post; see subsequent posts for more). Not being a Theoretical duck, I don't have much to add to this one....

In the meantime, word comes of yet another Philosopher's Carnival. Check it out here. That should hold you.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Okay, it's later now

I had jury duty again today (it's one day a week for 8 or 9 weeks). We spent the day hearing about all manner of (apparent) miscreants and their (presumably) naughty behavior, and we settled their hash but good, or at least made it a bit less unsettled (it is for the petit jury to settle it completely). Of course I can't tell you anything specific, as that would require your imminent death. But I can disclose some aspects of the particular hash-settling procedure we employed, which might be amusing. Or not.

Here's what I was going to say last week. They give you a written intro to grand jury procedure (and then show a video with a judge reading it out loud to you). At one point the intention is to impress upon you that you, the individual juror, lack the powers of the jury as a whole; but that's not exactly what it says:
You must bear in mind that a Grand Jury exists only as an entity, [...]
Well, I'm glad we cleared that up. But is it identical with its essence?

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Maybe later

Today I got up at an ungodly pre-noon hour and took the bus to Hackensack, New Jersey, where I spent several hours serving on a Grand Jury. I had heard a few comments about London (in the context of increased security), but I thought the reference was to the Olympics; it wasn't until I got home and turned on Macneil-Lehrer (uh, I mean the Lehrer News Hour) that I heard about what they were really talking about.

I was going to blog about something funny that happened today, but now I don't feel like it.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

A pledge to our readers

Word has reached us, via screaming headlines in the New York Times, among other sources, that there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court, which of course will lead to all sorts of breast-beating and other sorts of strenuous activity unsuitable for hot weather. Have no fear: we here at DR pledge to you, the reader, that during this time the only SCOTUS blogged about here will be the Subtle Doctor of legend. (If that.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Truth in advertising

Following up a tip from a commenter on a new philblog (hat tip: Mormon Metaphysics sidebar), I went to cog sci heavyweight Andy Clark's page of downloadable papers, and I snagged a few of them, including one called "The Extended Mind," which sounds promisingly anti-Cartesian in a post-phenomenological vein (but I haven't read it yet). At first I was a bit worried, seeing as it was cowritten with someone who, well, does not inspire me with as much confidence in this specific sense, viz., D. Chalmers; but on the first page we see, after the authors' names, a big asterisk leading the eye to a helpful disclaimer:
Authors are listed in order of degree of belief in the central thesis.
Got it.

Sunday, June 26, 2005


Jon Pareles is a fairly standard-issue rock critic, but in Saturday's Times he shows that he has the ability to put himself in other people's shoes (or hear with their ears, or whatever). Reviewing Robert Fripp's recent Soundscapes show at the Society for Ethical Culture (which I did not see, but I've heard more than my share of Soundscapes), he says:
Symphonic as the soundscapes were, longtime Fripp fans may have missed the sound of his guitar itself, with its searing liquid-nitrogen chill.
This is exactly right. I hereby authorize Mr. Pareles to strike that "may have." And well said!

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Abe and Aaron

Here's a neat line from Primer, a clever little no-budget film I saw recently, a line which shows exactly, and I do mean exactly, what sort of movie we have here:
Are you hungry? I haven't eaten since later this afternoon.
Yes, boys and girls (girls?), Primer is a time-travel movie. As experienced chronocinephiles know, there are two strategies for making a TTM. First, you can wink at the audience and say, no, it doesn't make sense, but at least it's a different kind of big-screen peril for our hero to get into – will he make it back to the future or get stuck in the past (or eaten by prehistoric monsters), will he "change the past" (with whatever consequences this is stipulated to have) or fail to do so, etc. Or you can make it as realistic as possible, tantalizing us with the idea that it might (be intended to) make sense after all. (Or there's the glorious La Jetée, which we've already discussed.)

Primer, the title of which I still have never heard pronounced (prymer or primmer?) is a TTM of the second kind, which I generally prefer (you may keep The Time Machine, which I haven't seen). The setup (act I) is very well done: they walk the line very carefully between too much explanation and not enough, and it has a great lo-tech hi-tech look, if you know what I mean. The continuation (act II) proceeds naturally out of what came before (so to speak), with a few subtle hints that not all is, or will be, what it seems. Particularly effective are the unnerving, half-understood suggestions of what might be about to have already gone wrong (oh, stop it). The concluding act is a little rushed, as if they were worried about making it too easy to follow (no danger here) and thus ruining the enigmatic mood they've built up (total running time = 77 minutes). I really don't think it would have hurt too much to make it a little clearer and drawn out the tension at the same time; but maybe the idea is for later viewings to make the right amount of sense. I certainly would like to take another look – maybe that will help tie up some of the loose beginnings. Check it out!

P.S. Here's a review from the above-linked page at
Did you like Pi? If so, go see this one.

By the way, the attention to detail in the beginning is great. Often in thrillers with technical content, if you have a technical education you have consciously ignore all the stupid movie crud that they pull to make it into a good story. But this movie pulls off an incredibly believable technical story, with only a few distracting gaffs. That is, the tech jargon is good enough that you don't get distracted and can focus on the story line.

Final comment: Yes, it is very hard to follow the story line in this movie.

Obviously I'm not going to spoil it, but I think the following fact will help when the movie gets kind of hairy towards the end: Aaron is the dark-haired guy, Abe is the blond-haired guy.

I agree: that last fact is very important. And Pi is the natural comparison (only less techno on the soundtrack).

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Strawson on totally awesome mistakes

An interesting feature at Mormon Metaphysics is the quotation appearing in a little box in the top right-hand corner of each page. It varies from page to page; I think they repeat, but I'm not sure how many there are, and I'm pretty sure it's random, in that there's no correlation between their content and the page they adorn. Maybe Clark will tell us someday.

I found the quotation below in the top right-hand corner of a page on which Clark discusses Taylor Carman's book on Heidegger. [In retrieving this url, I got a quote from Kafka this time; so I guess it is random.] A few years ago I sat in on the first half of Taylor's course on the Phenomenology of Spirit, until I got too far behind and I had to stop fooling around and finish up the damn dissertation. I have the book, and Clark says it's really good, so maybe I'll read it someday. Check back in 2013.

Anyway, here's the quotation, from P. F. Strawson:
One of the marks, though not a necessary mark, of a really great philosopher is to make a really great mistake: that is to say, to give a persuasive and lastingly influential form to one of those fundamental misconceptions to which the human intellect is prone when it concerns itself with the ultimate categories of thought.
I like that. For examples, my first thought was Descartes, then Plato (but something tells me Strawson's talking about Kant's "idealism"). People, like myself, who strive mightily against the all-too-pervasive misconceptions abounding in the wake of Plato and Descartes can forget the genius it requires to give these fundamental misconceptions a determinate form. Those who perpetuate the misconceptions -- our contemporary Cartesians and Platonists -- tend to see them (say, the conceptual self-sufficiency of subject and object) as the merest common sense, and the contribution of Descartes and Plato as on a par with other philosophers: i.e., as trying, and (ironically) failing, to establish their doctrines conclusively. The irony here, that is, is that it is on the basis of their (internalized) Cartesianism and Platonism that these people see the task of philosophy as trying to do what Descartes and Plato indeed failed to do, thus causing them to deny the label ("who, me? A Cartesian [Platonist]? But I reject skepticism [the Forms]!"). When we learn to see philosophy aright, though, we can see Plato's and Descartes's contributions, again ironically, as in line with Wittgenstein's ambition to (teach us to) "pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense" (PI §464). In other words, this is the flip side (the negative side) of what he is more usually seen as urging on us: to pass from failing "to notice something—because it is always before one's eyes" (§129) to, well, noticing it, and thus "command[ing] a clear view of the use of our words" (§122).

Actually, we don't have to see things Wittgenstein's way in order to appreciate Strawson's idea, which of course isn't simply that it's great that people have made big whopping spectacular mistakes so that we will know, at least, not to do that. In Hegelian terms as well, we are best able to make progress (say via an Aufhebung) when the dualism to be aufgehoben is explicitly and firmly established, so that we can really see the difference (so to speak) when (if!) the Aufhebung is performed properly. (So would Hegel agree that "it's always darkest just before dawn"? Is this the "night in which all cows are black"? Discuss.) Now of course Hegel made his own whoppers...

And even this way of taking the idea has a less fancy variant (that is, which still says more than the simple version), which is perhaps all that Strawson had in mind (I like my two versions better though). Refuting a silly error is hardly progress; it's more like retying your shoes after tripping over your laces. If we refute a deep, perennial error, now -- then we've made some progress. But that's only possible if that error has been rigorously distilled into a philosophical doctrine which we can argue against directly; and for that we owe a profound debt to the distiller. My problem with this is that on this conception of what's going on, the beast is felled, necessarily, only by an even meaner beast. It would be a type of skepticism to which I do not subscribe to claim that the new doctrine must be just as bad -- I've been known to advance, or at least endorse, a few doctrines myself -- but when the shiny new doctrine loses its luster, it can be all too easy to keep it around on the basis of its giant-killing abilities alone: for what if the giant, or his brother, comes back?

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The mind works in mysterious ways

Actually it doesn't. Or it may, but this isn't an instance of it really -- just normal association. But when you're mystified, things look mysterious. When I saw it, everything cleared up. What? I should get to the point? Okay, okay. Sheesh.

All day today I have found myself with "Bella figlia dell' amore," from Rigoletto, running through my head. What, you too? No? Okay, never mind. What? Get on with it? Right. Sorry. Anyway, I've been wondering: why should this be? I haven't heard Rigoletto lately, though I did read there's some reality show about would-be opera singers (American Diva? No? Well, that's what I'd call it), but I think they were women, so it would really be "Caro nome," then, not "Bella figlia dell' amore." Hmmmmmm.

The first line of "Bella figlia dell' amore," as you might have guessed, is:
Bella figlia dell' amore
which means "Beautiful child of love [or Cupid, anyway]". No help there. But the next line is:
Schiavo son de' vezzi tuoi
which means "I am a slave to your charms" -- but of course you don't care what it means, because your eyes are drawn, like mine were (metaphorically speaking) when I saw it (ditto), to that first word. Of course! There's been all this hoop-la in the last couple of days about the autopsy of that poor lady from Florida (you know the one I mean). Dr. P. posted on it here, and Ed B. here, with a follow-up here (Ed's comment: "Good Lord, what must it be to go through life thinking like these loonies?"). Apparently the wingnuts, instead of shutting up, given that the autopsy proves them wrong, are all atwitter because the doctors don't know what caused her brain damage in the first place (as if that mattered), except that it wasn't what the 'nuts had been darkly hinting that it might be (i.e., spousal abuse). At least they weren't making anything out of Michael's name meaning "slave" in Italian...

P. S. I just looked up the text in my handy copy of The Authentic Librettos of the Italian Operas (1939), because I wanted to make double darn sure it wasn't "dei vezzi tuoi," seeing as this is being posted on the Internet for everyone to see, but no, "de' vezzi tuoi" it is. But check out the translation! Instead of
Beautiful daughter of Eros
I am a slave to your charms;
With a single word
You can console my pains;
Come, and feel the rapid beating of my heart.
which is what I would say, they have:
Ah! of Venus the fairest daughter
The slave of your charms here behold;
One word from thy beautiful lips
My suffering alone can assuage;
Come, and my fond heart relieve
Of its anxious palpitations.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Philosophy in the schools?

One thing I can't get enough of in the blogosphere is the endless uproar about "intelligent design." There are various debates in there somewhere as well, but it's the uproar that I find particularly fascinating. Non-philosophers discussing philosophical issues are always good for a laugh (or fit of despair, as the mood strikes you), and even after the tears, of whichever sort, have been wiped away, there's always something to think about. I have a couple of posts (or papers, if they get that far) in the works about substantive issues, so stay tuned (or tune in again; you know what I mean).

Today's topic, however, is what we should teach the kiddies. You will probably have noticed that whenever someone objects to discussing, in public school classes, the existence, or not, of an intelligent non-human designer, they always say: not in science class! Save that stuff for philosophy class! My first reaction to this is: Philosophy class?? In public high school? Bwah hah hah hah hah! Where do think you are -- France?

Of course, I'm sure some school district somewhere has a philosophy elective, or even more than one (school district, that is, not philosophy elective). What's funny here is that this is the only time the idea of philosophy for high-schoolers ever comes up -- when it's a question of what's not appropriate material for some normal class like Science, where we teach proven facts instead of batting around unanswerable questions in a heady rap session to entertain the weird kids.

Related to this is the assumption that in philosophy class we would of course be discussing the Existence Of God, along with the other Central Questions of the discipline, such as the Meaning of Life, How Do You Know You're Not Dreaming Right Now and Whether, When a Tree Falls in the Forest and No-one Hears it, it Makes any Sound. (This being the modern era, philosophers have finally abandoned such earlier head-scratchers as Whether the World is Made of Fire or Water or Both and How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin.) On the other hand, I have to admit that HDYKYNDRN, while not exactly a live philosophical question, can at least serve as a catchy intro to one if you do it right. But the EOG? Please. ("So you see, class, if God is defined as that most perfect entity, which instantiates all predicates essentially, then that God exists is a necessary truth!")

Of course it would be nice if there were philosophy classes in high school. But what should be discussed (that is, taught) in philosophy class, should there be one, are such things as what is an argument and what is it to believe something and what's the connection between agency and normativity and rationality and objectivity (okay, maybe that one's a little advanced, but we could make a start on it) and why "metaphysical" doesn't mean "supernatural" and why all non-philosophers, and most philosophers too for that matter, who say anything at all, pro or con, about "postmodernism" or "relativism" are hopelessly confused.

Some of this does intersect with the question of what counts as "science," and is thus relevant to the issue of evolution vs. design. But I don't see why addressing that issue in science classes would be inappropriate simply because it is not itself to be determined scientifically. (Of course, even some philosophers think every philosophical question should be reduced to empirical investigation. For some reason which I do not understand, this view is not known as "nihilism.") Why should it be irrelevant to the study of science to think about what science is? For that matter, and here we do approach a substantive issue I claimed to be putting off, I don't see what's wrong with addressing, again in science class of course, the particular issue of how, if life (or the cell, or the wombat, or whatever) had been the result of design, it would be possible to tell this.

Here's what's ironic. Biologists say: Intelligent Design isn't science, because it's just unverifiable speculation about ultimate origins, where what science is concerned with is verifiable facts about nature. One standard anti-evolution reply is: that's right, science can't tell us with certainty what really happened, or if there is anything beyond nature, so it's all a matter of blind faith, which means you can't teach naturalistic evolution as The Truth (indoctrinating those impressionable minds with atheism, etc.). Playing the "fairness" card, this reply invites us to see the "two sides" of the question as equally valid. But that's not enough for ID-ers, who after all, like the "Creation Scientists" before them, see naturalistic evolution as not merely "unprovable" but in fact provably false. That's why they take such pains to detach the question of design from the identity of the Designer (uh, better make that a small d): so that the idea of detecting design cannot be ruled out of court as essentially non-naturalistic and thus beyond the bounds of science.

Quite right; but now the argument for time in the classroom is no longer based on claims about the symmetry of unprovable assumptions about ultimate origins, but instead on the viability of the "design inference" as science. But (here's the irony, finally) the pro-evolution side is still arguing that ID isn't science, so we shouldn't discuss it (because to mention it at all, even to dismiss it, would give those people credibility). But if it is admitted that the issue is not one of unprovable assumptions after all, then we get to examine it scientifically. And although I won't argue the point here, I think it is indeed instructive for the young 'uns to see the result -- which includes places where we have to shrug and say, well, here we don't yet know exactly how it went; that's an issue for further research (something you might want to do, perhaps?). After all, that's true; and, as my own teacher liked to say, you shouldn't deny facts.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

On the other hand, maybe I am simply a humorless clod

As you get older, there are more and more cultural phenomena that you are simply too old and out of it to understand. I'm not complaining, mind you; it's just a fact of life. So it was interesting to encounter one recently that I am apparently too young to understand. Here's how it happened. I've already mentioned here how impressed I've been with the work, especially w/r/t Wittgenstein, of Stanley Cavell. Cavell also writes on other things, of course, including cinema, and one of his books is about Hollywood comedies of a certain time, including Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938), which features Cary Grant as a geeky paleontologist and Katharine Hepburn as what the back cover of the DVD calls "a scatterbrained heiress." Not only that, Dan at Doing Things With Words recently posted on this film (it's a paper on Kant, but his examples come from this film), so I thought I better check it out.

After having viewed the film, which btw ranks at #141 of's viewer-selected top 250 films of all time, I am even more curious to know what Cavell (and Dan) have to say about it, seeing as I am utterly baffled as to how anyone could possibly have found it even remotely funny or charming. I know what they called "screwball comedies" are supposed to be silly and contrived, and this film certainly was that, but they're supposed to be funny too, and this film certainly was not. I smiled precisely once, when they're holding onto Baby (a leopard -- don't ask) by the tail to prevent him from escaping out the back seat of the car (I told you not to ask), and they burst into "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby," because, as has already been established, he likes that song. The rest of it was painfully unfunny, annoying, and, yes, just stupid, worse than It Happened One Night (#119 at imdb). The scene in the jail is just excruciating (I keep telling you: don't ask). Of course there may still be interesting things to say about this film; but does this mean that the philosophers of the future will extract profound truths from 50 First Dates and Monster-in-Law?

[Update (9/3): In retrospect, I seem to have been a little harsh. The 50 First Dates line was uncalled for. However, to be honest, I must reluctantly stand by my recollection of this film as "painfully unfunny."]

Friday, June 10, 2005

More from the Six Duchies

Last month I disclosed, perhaps rashly, that I had been reading the second book in a fantasy trilogy (recommended, incidentally, by philosopher Crispin Sartwell -- thanks for the tip!), about FitzChivalry the Witted Bastard and his Wit-bonded wolf companion Nighteyes. Well, I just finished the third volume, Assassin's Quest, and, while this is not a review exactly, I do have a few thoughts. My intent will be to avoid spoilers, but on the other hand I can't help revealing a few things (if you don't want to know anything, stop reading this now and go find a post about Spinoza or something).

Overall, the trilogy is very accomplished (the blurbs on the back cover, describing the first two books, say things like "intriguing, controlled, and remarkably assured," "built of patient detail, believable characters, and mature plotting," "And beneath all, that wise, deeply involved, humanity." All this is right; but I have a few minor gripes as well. Royal Assassin, the second book, worked because it takes place pretty much within the walls of Buckkeep Castle (with a few excursions here and there, including engagements with the Red Ships), so there was a focus on castle intrigue, where author Robin Hobb's careful plotting unfolds effectively. This time, as the title suggests, Fitz hits the road (out of necessity, given the ending of the second book), so there's more temptation, which Hobb does not resist, to have him face certain death and escape to someplace else and face certain death and escape again and face certain death and escape once more, which gets a bit tiresome. So it takes a while to get going.

Next, we inherit a few problems from the other books. Fitz is a rash and immature lad who keeps acting like a jerk and never learns, so often you just want to smack him. It doesn't help that Hobb underlines this with lines like "It was the worst thing I could have said" or "I knew it was a mistake even as I did it" or whatever. The usurper Regal is a cartoon villain, and making him even more pathologically cruel doesn't make him any more interesting. The Red Ship Raiders are nameless baddies (and the creepy "white ship" angle is dropped like a stone, except for a brief paragraph of explanation at the very end). The romance angle is PG-rated and adolescent, and of course Fitz's beloved Molly, while undoubtedly spunky, remains the cipher she was last time.

This is partly because we don't see a lot of her. And this is because we see everything through Fitz's eyes, and he's off questing while she stays behind (never mind why). The only reason we see her at all, in fact, is that Fitz uses the Skill, often involuntarily (e.g. when asleep, in Skill-dreams), to see what his distant friends are up to, not to mention the Red Ships whose invasion we were so concerned with in the last book. This must have seemed like a good device -- we are witness to a few key scenes we might otherwise never even have heard about -- but Hobb goes to the well too often here. It's as if, like Fitz himself, she couldn't bear to make the clean break with the investment she made in Molly, as well as (especially, given their importance in the other books) the more interesting characters Chade, Patience, and Burrich; plus of course she needs to remind us now and then that the war (remember the war?) is going badly (duh). It's both too much and not enough.

However, by the second half of the book the quest is on in earnest (although Fitz continues to face death, etc., with alarming regularity), a few key characters (guess who) are re-met in the flesh, and the narrative picks up as the question is joined as to where exactly Verity is and what exactly he's doing and will he succeed in time and who these mysterious Elderlings are, anyway. Here the Skill factor is well handled, as with the powerful Skill coterie controlled by the dastardly and ruthless Regal. That's really the best part of these books: the Skill, and of course the Wit, each of which takes on new strategic and tactical significance in this installment. The Elderling factor in particular is as well done, given all that buildup, as one could reasonably hope (though if you want a semi-spoiler, you could do worse than look at the cover of the book).

In some of the reader reviews at Amazon (I didn't read all 216 of them, just the few on the front page), there was some griping about the ending. In part, I think, this is because once the Elderlings get involved (which of course they do -- no spoiler there!), the war is over in a page or two, making it look anticlimactic. This didn't bother me, although it might indeed have gone that way, i.e., that we get 100 more pages (making 800 in all) of exciting battles with Raiders, Regal, etc. As it is, the climactic issue concerns how exactly the E's are enlisted -- and no, it doesn't go like this, thank goodness:
[Verity]: Please, Mr. Elderling, won't you help us save the Six Duchies?
[Elderling]: No.
[Fitz and Verity together]: Pleeeeease??
[Elderling]: (rolling his eyes) Oh, okay, if it'll get you off my back. Might enjoy kicking Raider butt.
[Fitz and Verity together]: Yaay!

Once it does happen, it's fine for the war (which, again, we haven't really been following except for a few unpleasant Skill-visions) to be over in an eyeblink. In general, everything happens that needs to happen, some bittersweet losses and partings occur, virtue triumphs and evil is vanquished. It's as well-crafted as it is disappointingly generic.

As I mentioned before, Hobb has written two more trilogies taking place in the same world, the next one about trade ships (presumably before the Red Ship war, with no apparent character overlap with the Farseer trilogy), and the third one with Fitz et al. some years later (these are the ones with "Fool" in the title, so we can assume that the Fool returns as well). I enjoyed the Farseer trilogy, especially Royal Assassin, but I have to say I'm in no hurry to go back to the Six Duchies any time soon.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Divine identity

In a comment on this post over at dadahead, one Christopher S. expresses a common opinion:
Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews do. They don't worship some different deity whose name is "Allah" -- "Allah" MEANS "God." Arabic-speaking Christians refer to "Allah" just like Muslims do. The Catholic Maltese (who speak a language directly related to Moghrabi Arabic) say "Allah" as well.

Didn't know that about the Catholic Maltese. Didn't know there were Catholic Maltese. (I do know where Malta is, though. I think.) The Maltese, however, Catholic or no, are not our subject today, but instead the identity of God Himself.

Remember a while back, when the President was explaining how he was ticked off, not at Muslims per se, but instead at the small minority thereof who did mean things like blow people up? Not surprisingly, in so doing he said something very much like the first sentence in the above quotation. As I recall, he was immediately challenged on this point by (I think) Richard Land, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, who said (paraphrasing freely here) "No, they don't either, you big dummy!" So, which is right?

In this sense, I believe, God and/or Allah is not unlike a certain twice-baked yummy Italian cookie. Don't click that link yet! Let me explain first. Provoked by a claim about biscotti (i.e., that they aren't really biscotti until they've been cooked twice), in the linked post (after some dithering) I ended up saying, pretty much along Austinian and/or Wittgensteinian lines, that it doesn't matter which we say, as long as we don't get confused. It's not true, as some people claim, that the ontological facts of the matter swing completely free of our linguistic practices (that is, what we actually say), such that when speaking normally we might get (what we like to call) the appearances right (thus allowing for ordinary mistakes) but the underlying metaphysics wrong.

In our case, my immediate sympathies, ontologically speaking, were with the President (and Christopher S.) rather than Rev. Land (if that's indeed who it was). Here's why. A lot of people don't know the first thing about Islam (for some reason they don't teach this in school), and it is indeed worth pointing out that Islam is what we call an Abrahamic faith. Briefly and crudely, the Muslim story is that the God they worship ("Allah") is the God of Abraham the patriarch and Moses the lawgiver, as discussed in the Hebrew scriptures. Like Mohammed (peace be upon him), Jesus of Nazareth was a human being; a prophet (rasul), in contact (of some sort) with the divine, but apart from that, a human being like any other. Unlike pagans, Jews and Christians are "people of the book" (the Bible), and deserve at least that much respect. So when Muslims say (pardon my transliteration) La allahu ill' Allah ("there is no god but God"), they are agreeing with Jews and Christians that the God of Abraham is the only deity.

Naturally, about the nature of this entity, there remains some disagreement, which can get quite heated at times. So on this (Kripkean?) view what we should say is this: that the three faiths worship the same (i.e., numerically identical) entity, about Whom they believe different things (such that the three objects of devotion are qualitatively distinct). But now, as upon further reflection I have come to see, we run into the same issue as we did in the kitchen (with the cookies). Rev. Land's point was that the President was being silly to imply that the shared heritage, which of course he does not dispute, means that Muslims are somehow okay, theologically speaking. (Again I paraphrase.) The heart of the matter is this: Muslims reject the divinity of Christ. So what if Allah is numerically identical with the God of Abraham? In a way that makes it worse: Muslims aren't simply pagans (worshiping some entirely other, presumably non-existent, god), but heretics and blasphemers (worshiping God, supposedly, but getting his nature completely wrong: worse than Protestants (if you're Catholic) and worse than Catholics (if you're Protestant).)

In other words, the God Muslims worship is not triune, and did not send his Son to save us, which sounds like a different God indeed from the Christian God. Given this, it seems like the only reason to insist on marking the difference by referring to the two as numerically identical entities with different properties is the Kripkean one, that when the Prophet recited the Qur'an he referred to its ultimate source, naturally enough, with the Arabic name ("Allah") with which the God of Abraham had already been "baptized" (in the Kripkean sense; see Naming and Necessity for the whole story). But as far as I'm concerned the Kripkean story is entirely optional, best suited for hardcore metaphysical realists and their benighted ilk. For English speakers (and Arabic speakers), on the other hand, it seems perfectly natural to speak as Rev. Land does -- that is, to make the point about the difference between Muslims and Christians by speaking of the respective objects of devotion as (numerically) distinct entities. For Muslims, while Christians are indeed "people of the book," their "triune" God (whatever that means) doesn't exist; that would be blasphemy (or it would if it made any sense). La allahu, in other words, ill' Allah.

My point here, obviously, is metaphysical cum semantic rather than theological; on both (semantic) accounts the theological differences are the same, mutatis mutandis. On the other hand, however, particular differences may indeed only emerge on one way of speaking rather than the other: are Muslims firing their prayers into the void, or instead at a God against whom they blaspheme? What it is right to say, I claim (again putting the "facts of the matter" -- i.e., whether Islam or Christianity is the one true faith -- to one side), does not depend on an underlying ontology. The reason this is not idealism is that what it is right to say does depend, in part, on how things are (i.e., construed without the metaphysical appearance/reality dualism). If you want to hear more about cookies, or Austin, you can click that link now.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

I got your "elucidation and moderation" right here, Jack

I finally finished the Spinoza bio I've been reading (spoiler: he dies at the end). Here's one last quotation. One of the few works published in Spinoza's lifetime was the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, for which he caught holy hell, so to speak, on account of the (supposedly) impious and (actually) heretical doctrines to be found therein. Naturally most if not all of the attacks were from people who didn't understand it. On the other hand, this doesn't mean they would have liked it any better if they did. His friends believed him when he said he had been misunderstood, so they urged him to clear things up so he wouldn't get into any more trouble. Here's Henry Oldenburg, one of his oldest friends and the Secretary of the Royal Society of England, writing in 1675:
I cannot but approve your purpose in signifying your willingness to elucidate and moderate those passages in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus which have proved a stumbling-block to readers. I refer in particular to those which appear to treat in an ambiguous way of God and Nature, which many people consider you have confused with each other. In addition, many are of the opinion that you take away the authority and validity of miracles, which almost all Christians are convinced form the sole basis on which the certainty of Divine Revelation can rest. Furthermore, they say that you are concealing your opinion with regard to Jesus Christ, Redeemer of the World, sole Mediator for mankind, and of his Incarnation and Atonement, and they request you to disclose your attitude clearly on these three heads. If you do so, and in this matter satisfy reasonable and intelligent Christians, I think your position will be secure.

Nadler's comment: "Spinoza must have wondered, indeed, how closely Oldenburg had read the Treatise" (p. 331).

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The innocence of youth (or: careful with that hammer, Eugene)

I was out to-day on my late-afternoon constitutional, and I happened to pass a small group of children playing by the side of the road. As I passed, a lad of about eight years remarked to his fellows, in the wonder-filled tone in which you might expect a child to say something like "Aren't butterflies beautiful?", the following charming observation:
Isn't it fun to smash things?
I would make some remark here about the times we live in, except children have been saying this to each other from the beginning of time -- and besides, he's right. Ah, to be a kid again!

Monday, May 30, 2005

They're at it again

Another Philosopher's Carnival! Will the madness never end??

Freakonomy indeed

In addition to the usual load of more arcane material, lately I've been reading a Best Seller (Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner), which spends a chapter examining the question of whether people are held back if they have weird and/or self-evidently minority (esp. black) names. The answer, when one controls for other factors, seems to be no; but on the way to this conclusion our authors throw out a bunch of titillating tidbits (that's how you get to be Best-Selling Authors).
A great many black names today are unique to blacks. More than 40 percent of the black girls born in California in a given year receive a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 baby white girls received that year. Even more remarkably, nearly 30 percent of the black girls are given a name that is unique among every baby, white and black, born that year in California. (There were also 228 babies named Unique during the 1990's alone, and 1 each of Uneek, Uneque, and Uneqqee.)

I don't have a problem with unusual names in general; there are some great names in sports, like Peerless Price (and remember I. M. Hipp?). But Uneqqee?? Yeeqqee. And here's a story that suggests that the warnings on certain medications should be extended to read: do not drive, operate machinery, or name your child while taking this product.
Roland G. Fryer Jr., while discussing his names research on a radio show, took a call from a black woman who was upset with the name just given to her baby niece. It was pronounced shuh-TEED but was in fact spelled "Shithead."

That definitely trumps the story my dad likes to tell (but here it is anyway) about the family who wanted to name their daughter yoo-REEN (sp: Urine). (Beautiful, but not a biblical name, said the preacher; how about Rachel instead?)
Or consider the twin boys OrangeJello and LemonJello, also black, whose parents further dignified their choice by instituting the pronunciations a-RON-zhello and le-MON-zhello.

Dignified? Tell that to their sisters Lih-MEE-zhello and Razba-REE-zhello [rimshot]. Actually I bet everyone's used to it by now; or they just go by Ron and Monj. Incidentally, they tell us that this story is considered an urban legend, but they stick by it nonetheless. (Note, however, the distancing move re: Shithead -- that's what the caller said, but who knows?) Lastly,
A young couple named Natalie Jeremijenko and Dalton Conley recently renamed their four-year-old son Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles Jeremijenko-Conley.

Oh, that's just great. Hyphenated names are a stretch to begin with, but then you have to exercise some restraint. I mean, Joe Jeremijenko-Conley is a halfway reasonable name; but Yo? If he lives in Philadelphia he'll think everyone's calling his name whenever he walks down the street. Xing and Heyno aren't any better, but at least they're in the middle. After that we have a stretch of relatively normal names -- but then, right before the finish, comes the final insult: Knuckles. Yo Knuckles: sounds like that character from Lilo and Stitch, Cobra Bubbles, the government agent, to whom is addressed my favorite line in that movie: "Oh good, my dog found the chain saw."

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Back to the bakery

The other day I voiced some dissatisfaction with Professor Littlejohn's discussion of biscotti, the twice-baked treat. In the light of his response, and further cogitation, I'd like to try again. I began there by defending one way of speaking as if it were the correct one and the other incorrect, and then later on I defended the idea that the right way of speaking depends on what we're talking about. This is confusing (bad duck! Bad!).

First let me change the example from cookies to a loaf of bread (this shouldn't matter). There are two ways of looking at what happens in the oven. First, we can say that we put something into the oven and when it -- that thing -- came out, it was quite different, qualitatively speaking, from how it was when it went in. In this sense nothing came into being or passed away. But we can also say that we put one thing into the oven and took another thing out. When we talk like this, we say: the loaf of bread came into being and the uncooked lump of dough no longer exists -- it has become something else which did not exist before. This latter is Clayton's view: as he put it, the [loaf of bread] is numerically distinct from the hunk of dough that went into the oven.

Is one of these ways of speaking the correct one and the other incorrect? That is, does one speak truly of what "really happened" while the other is loose or elliptical or downright wrong? If so, which is correct? If not, how can this be?

In my original post, I mangled the concept of substance, causing me to fail to see the point of Clayton's view (I called it "a mistake"). Leaving out at least three more definitions (isn't metaphysics grand?), let's distinguish between substance (1) = bearer of properties or substratum; substance (2) = entity or concrete individual; and substance (3) = type of stuff.

If concrete individuals can be the bearers of properties, which it seems they would have to be, then senses (1) and (2) of "substance" coincide. The only sense of (1) which is independent, is, I would think, is the extremely abstract one which we are not talking about here, so let's fold them together for now. The other one, (3), might seem simply colloquial, in that being (made up of) a type of stuff is a property, not a substance, which is the bearer of properties. On the other hand, some individual things are such that being made up of a particular type of stuff is essential to them, so that if they lost that property, they would thereby pass out of existence. In this case, we might say that senses (2) and (3) coincide, or at least overlap.

Here's the one view, then, in these terms. It is essential to [the substances (2) which are] loaves of bread that they are made up of [the substance (3)] bread; so if something is made up not of bread but of uncooked dough, then it is not (yet) a loaf of bread. At the (vague) point at which dough is cooked enough to be properly called bread (if still perhaps undercooked), then the lump of uncooked dough passes out of existence (because of course being made up of X is essential for something to be a "lump of X"), and a numerically distinct entity, the loaf of bread, comes into being. The thing which went into the oven underwent, as Clayton calls it, "substantial change" (and thereby passed out of existence).

Fair enough; I grant that this is a coherent way of speaking and not just the mistake I called it before. On the other hand, and this was my first point, I hardly need to be committed to the classical metaphysical notion of substance as pure substratum (an accusation, I should point out, has never been made, to my knowledge, here or elsewhere) in order to say instead, or as well, that something (some concrete individual) went into the oven, underwent a qualitative change therein (which it survived), and then emerged from the oven in a newly crusty state.

In other words:
I put the bread into the oven at 3:00, and when it came out at 5:00, it was done.

If that's not enough, here's a real example, not made up (although it's hard to imagine anyone doubting that people actually do say what I just did). My mom's been making bread in a bread machine, and in the manual it says the following:
For the French bread cycle you can expect the following things to happen as the timer counts down to zero.

To begin: The dough is kneaded for the first time. (18 minutes)

At 3:32: The dough begins to rise (40 minutes)

At 2:52: The dough is kneaded for the second time. (22 minutes)

At 2:30: The dough continues to rise. (20 minutes)

At 2:10: The dough is "punched down." (30 seconds)

At 2:10: The dough rises for the final time. (65 minutes)

At 1:05: The bread begins to bake. (65 minutes)

At 0:00: The bread is finished.

If at time = 1:05 to go, the bread machine contains either a lump of uncooked dough x-or a loaf of bread (which is just now beginning to bake), then these two accounts are at odds. Which is right? On one view of the matter, it doesn't matter what people actually say. All that matters is what is really the case, whether or not that's what we say in ordinary cases. If we are to get things right, as philosophers, we must discern the actual ontology and modify our (philosophical) language to track it. (Of course there's nothing wrong with speaking loosely "outside the study," as we say, or in the kitchen in this case.) If this is right, I have hardly helped my case by citing an actual example of what people say. Maybe that we do (sometimes) talk that way just means that (sometimes) we get things wrong (and need philosophers to help us out).

In this context consider two ways of understanding what has come to be known as "ordinary language philosophy." Obviously the "ordinary language philospher" (let's call him "Austin") wants us to take ordinary talk seriously. But does this mean that ordinary talk gets things right where "metaphysics" fails? That is, is the correct ontology picked out by ordinary talk while "metaphysics," in its misguided attempt at rigor, is simply false? Or is it rather that "metaphysical" talk and ordinary talk, although giving different accounts of the world for different purposes, are equally correct?

Neither of these sounds particularly attractive to the traditional ear. The first sounds like simple nihilism, as if there could be no point in speaking rigorously. This is worse than positivism, as while the positivists also rejected "metaphysics," they at least substituted a rigorous empiricism, where "Austin" just encourages the sort of loose talk we would engage in if there were no such thing as philosophical inquiry into the real. (This was Russell's attitude toward "ordinary language philosophy.") The second is no better. If both ways of talking are correct, then this implies that how things are depends in some way on how we talk; while if neither is correct, then this is a different sort of nihilism, of a skeptical sort, as if our language were essentially inadequate for describing reality.

Of course another possibility is that as it happens in this case, what we ordinarily say points us to the correct ontology, where another, more clearly "philosophical" account gets it wrong. If this were my view, I wouldn't have brought up ordinary language in the first place, seeing as I would need a traditional metaphysical argument anyway. (In my original post I left this possibility open. Oops.) Neither is the first conception of ordinary language philosophy my view. Ordinary language has no special ontological status, as if it were purer or uncontrived. This leaves the (two versions of) the second conception. I reject the latter version (that neither way of talking is correct) for the reasons suggested: this does indeed sound too skeptical (or non-cognitivist) for me. Our language is perfectly adequate for doing what it does. The former version -- that how things are depends in some way on how we talk -- gets the closest, I suppose. I do claim that in speaking normally we speak the literal truth; and I have also conceded to Clayton that his way of talking is not necessarily false, depending on what it is that one was thinking of doing in talking this way.

But that's not the same thing as saying, flatly, that "both are correct" (or, not so flatly but equally lamely, "... relative to our interest, or conceptual scheme, or whatever"). Clayton naturally denies that things change simply in being thought of differently for different purposes. Although he does not use these terms, in warning of the "untold havoc" that would result from this view, it sounds like he is defending "realism" against an "idealistic" threat to the idea of an independent reality. It is this that provoked me to deliver myself, neither for the first time nor the last, of my anti-dualistic rant (neither realism nor anti-realism is acceptable, etc.). I won't repeat it here, except once again to recommend Cavell, who I should point out doesn't necessarily put things in any way like I have here, or even in general for that matter; nor does Austin escape criticism. (Read Cavell.) On the other hand I can be provoked to talk this way in other contexts too (Nietzsche, Kant, Davidson, Hegel, or, well, anyone you like).

Naturally this settles nothing. All I've done, if that, is clear the space for a better account -- not of the bread, but of how we (should) speak of the bread, and of how we should speak of how we speak of the bread, and so on -- or in other words, of how we should speak. And of course for the most part we speak perfectly well. When we do philosophy we can lose sight of this, and fall into error. But that does not mean that doing philosophy -- moving out of the kitchen and into the study -- thereby amounts to falling into error, as some have claimed on behalf of (or in supposed response to) Austin and Wittgenstein alike. Nor does it mean that we are condemned to speaking not of the world but of language (another common complaint about linguistic philosophy). The two are inextricably linked -- that's the whole point, and one reason for bringing in Austin in the first place.

Let me finish with Austin's own words on the matter (from "A Plea for Excuses," p. 182):
When we examine what we should say when, what words we should use in what situations, we are looking again not merely at words (or 'meanings', whatever they may be) but also at the realities we use the words to talk about: we are using a sharpened awareness of words to sharpen our perception of, though not as the final arbiter of, the phenomena.

Again, though, this is not simply a defense against (accusations of) linguistic idealism. Taken together with what he actually says about our use of words -- what, that is, he takes this "sharpened awareness" to consist in -- the point cuts both ways (as does, again, Cavell's chapter title, in The Claim of Reason: "What a Thing Is (Called)"). That, after all, is what made this denial of idealism necessary in the first place. (Note, finally, the qualifier "though not as the final arbiter of" the phenomena; that's what rules out the dogmatically nihilist reading (Russell's, above) of his views.)