Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Think me a river

Philosophers' Carnival #40 at The Brooks blog.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Whaddya mean, "six"?!

Interesting post on honor here. Not having anything substantial to contribute to the discussion there, I will limit myself to the following empty but diverting pedantry.

Verdi's opera Falstaff takes its plot pretty much from The Merry Wives of Windsor, but there's also some stuff from Henry IV, Part 1, in which the rotund one also appears. This latter includes the famous rant about honor (cut and pasted from here):
Why, thou owest God a death.


'Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.
What's interesting is that in the original context this is a soliloquy, delivered on the morn of battle, as our doughty doughy knight ponders his fate -- and how possibly to cheat it. Indeed, later on he escapes death by feigning mortal injury, explaining (when once again alone; this is scene 4):
'Sblood,'twas time to counterfeit, or
that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot too.
Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit: to die,
is to be a counterfeit; for he is but the
counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man:
but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby
liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and
perfect image of life indeed. The better part of
valour is discretion; in the which better part I
have saved my life.
Actually, he's not alone, if you count Hotspur's lifeless body (killed by Hal) lying beside him:
'Zounds, I am afraid of this
gunpowder Percy, though he be dead: how, if he
should counterfeit too and rise? by my faith, I am
afraid he would prove the better counterfeit.
Therefore I'll make him sure; yea, and I'll swear I
killed him. Why may not he rise as well as I?
Nothing confutes me but eyes, and nobody sees me.
Therefore, sirrah, [stabbing him]
with a new wound in your thigh, come you along with me.
So indeed, no honor here. Anyway, what I was going to say was that when Verdi's librettist Arrigo Boïto lifts the honor soliloquy, he sticks it into an entirely different context. Here's Wikipedia's summary of the scene (Act I, Scene 1):
A room at the Garter Inn. Falstaff is surrounded by his servants Bardolph, Pistol and the innkeeper, when Dr. Caius arrives and accuses him of robbery, but the excited doctor is soon ejected. Falstaff hands letters to his servants for delivery to Mistress Ford and to Mistress Page. The letters, which purport of Falstaff's love for the respectable women, are intended to seduce them (although he is really seducing them for the money). Bardolph and Pistol refuse, however, claiming that 'honor' prevents them from obeying his orders. Sending the letters by a page instead, Falstaff confronts his servants ('Che dunque l'onore? Una parola!' -- 'What, then, is honor? A word!') and chases them out of his sight.
That's not quite right (and no, I didn't correct it at Wikipedia); here's how it really goes (the last part anyway):
Il vostro Onor! Che onore?! che onor? che onor! che ciancia!
Che baia! - Può l'onore riempirvi la pancia?
No. Può l'onor rimettervi uno stinco? Non può.
Né un piede? No. Né un dito? Né un capello? No.
L'onor non è chirurgo. Che è dunque? Una parola.
Che c'è in questa parola? C'è dell'aria che vola.
Bel costrutto! L'onore lo può sentire chi è morto?
No. Vive sol coi vivi?... Neppure: perché a torto
Lo gonfian le lusinghe, lo corrompe l'orgoglio,
L'ammorban le calunnie; e per me non ne voglio!
... ending, as I recall, on a triumphantly rebellious high G. So the tone is quite different: while there he was the morally dubious coward and braggart, here he's the jowly rogue looking to fill his purse and/or warm his bed, scolding his pathetic servants and giving them a cynical lesson in real roguery. I note also that Boïto might have been inspired by this "catechism" in his previous collab with Verdi, i.e., Otello, in which, in a soul-baring "Credo" which has no analogue in Othello that I know of, Iago declares, among other things:
Credo che il guisto è un istrion beffardo,
e nel viso e nel cuor,
che tutto è in lui bugiardo:
lagrima, bacio, sguardo,
sacrificio ed onor.
Although he hasn't picked out honor for specific abuse, as Falstaff does (interestingly, after acknowledging that it "pricks him on"), Iago does echo, a few lines earlier, Falstaff's reference to "catechism": "Si, questa è la mia fè." Anywho, the thing that set me off today was having the line from the aria run through my head ("Che è dunque? Una parola. Che c'è in questa parola? C'è dell'aria che vola"), followed closely by the memory of looking at a score which included an English translation in a near-enough meter to the original that it could be sung (as I indeed saw it so performed in Santa Fe, a performance memorable for, among other things, the size of Thomas Stewart's feet as he soaked them in a tub of hot water after his character's midadventure in the preceding scene). But this metrical constraint often means you can't translate literally, and here is a fine example. "Una parola" is five syllables long; but "a word" is only two. So the translator did the best he could, rendering it "a word of six letters," which has an extra syllable at the beginning (harmless given the melody). Now of course Santa Fe is in New Mexico, in the United States of America, where "honor" has five letters, and the point of singing in English is to sing in the local language, which is American English; but Sir John is a Brit, and he's mentioning the word as well as using it, and that's how he spells it, so the translation is appropriate after all. Aren't you glad we figured this out?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Pop Potus quiz

Today's Week in Review section of the New York Times has an article, which I did not read, about how there have only been white male presidents up to now, and how this affects the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigns (should there be such). Making this point with characteristic subtlety, the article features a "facebook" of the 43 white males in question, each labeled "White Male" (but no name). So it's a quiz, with pictorial hints: who are these guys? We did pretty well, forgetting only one name and fudging some dates/elections (some lucky guessing though). And here I thought, after having suffered through this, that I would never forget that guy (Nigel Hawthorne, that is, not Anthony Hopkins). Well, never again.

I cannot tell a lie

On the other hand, I don't believe it:

How evil are you?

HT: Pharyngula (who is eeevil, surprise, surprise)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Systrum Sistum

I don't think I've mentioned this before, but if I have, then I repeat myself. If you need regular infusions of bleeding-edge IDM (i.e. arty techno) then check out this site, which streams the stuff virtually 24/7. Some cool features (beyond the fab trax): most tracks are open source, and the playlist links to the relevant netlabels, so if you hear something you like, you can gratify your urge for more virtually instantaneously, or just download the track for later. Also, there's a meter indicating the number of listeners currently plugged in: there's a limit of 36 (up from 24, or was it 12?), and down below, they're listed, in order of time connected, with little flags indicating country of origin. It's weirdly gratifying to see your little flag advance up the list as people tune out, plus the sense of global community is heartening. Check it out!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Northeast

Judging by how you talk you are probably from north Jersey, New York City, Connecticut or Rhode Island. Chances are, if you are from New York City (and not those other places) people would probably be able to tell if they actually heard you speak.

The Inland North
The Midland
The South
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Take More Quizzes

[Update: not sure why it's not working, at least for me right now, but there are supposed to be red bars of varying lengths in the above chart. Just FYI, they should apparently be of lengths 87%, 85%, 60%, 54%, 44%, 18%, and 2% respectively.)

I am indeed from north NEW Jersey, and I was indeed born in Philadelphia (or Fluffya, as natives call it). However (due most likely to my social class, which is solidly bourgeois), I do not have the classic Fluffyan accent, of which my favorite orthographic representation is the following. At breakfast, Fluffyans drink either cwuffy or wurringe juice, and they complain about how wuffle things are (usually someone's bad attytood, or perhaps the fate of their beloved Iggles). Okay, now I'm homesick.

HT: Majikthise

Monday, November 27, 2006

PhilCarn 39

New Philosophers' Carnival at A Brood Comb (which means what, exactly?).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman RIP

From the Film Society of Lincoln Center website:
On the night of November 20th, the cinema lost one of its finest, a fiercely independent spirit who made movies that lived, breathed and inspired a unique devotion in movie lovers all around the world. Robert Altman’s camera eye was a remarkably delicate and sensitive instrument, seeking out and illuminating the most fleeting beauties and mysteries of being human. Altman gave us images and sounds and sensations we’d never experienced before – think of the sustained euphoria of California Split, the glorious interchanges between Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall in 3 Women, or the heartbreaking snowbound ending of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Altman’s greatest films are uplifting in the best possible way: they open our eyes and ears to the wonders of everyday life.
Those in the NYC area can attend a tribute here (not sure what it involves except a showing of his last film, A Prairie Home Companion).

Notes on Bérubé

Over at the Valve, there has been a continuing month-long pile-up on Michael Bérubé's latest opus on literature and politics. Most of the commenters there are literature and politics types, so their comments are more germane to his ultimate ends than will be the following ill-mannered philosophical gripes; but hey, he's a big boy, and besides, he brought it up. In a nutshell: in one sense, Bérubé is too postmodern, while in another he isn't postmodern enough. It is only fair to note that this post will feature an irresponsibly large ratio of flat assertion to careful argument. You have been warned.

Ahem. Michael Bérubé devotes chapter 6 of his recent book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? to a discussion of an undergraduate honors seminar he teaches called "Postmodernism and American Fiction." He's a literature professor, not a philosopher, but the course naturally includes a discussion of some properly philosophical topics. At a couple of spots in What's Liberal, Bérubé (hereinafter MB, so I don't have to keep making those accent marks) tells us what "many philosophy professors" do, to wit: "They complain that we literary types like to 'reduce' everything to texts and discourses, and we don't understand that they are searching for the immutable, nondiscursive truths of the universe." That is, most philosophy professors are what we call "metaphysical realists," who think that "literary types" are relativists and skeptics. It is true that philosophy harbors many such; but there are actual relativists and skeptics in English departments too, so, so there. I'm no realist, but that doesn't mean I agree 100% with MB's account of the matter, which MB rightly associates with that of Richard Rorty. Let me elaborate; first his views, then mine.

As an example of a realist, MB could have cited any number of people, from Roger Kimball to Jerry Fodor, but he actually turns to "philosopher Sam Harris" (he of the anti-religion polemic The End of Faith). Harris is actually a grad student in neuroscience, not a philosopher, but he apparently took a few courses with Rorty at Stanford, and feels he knows enough to set Rorty straight in his book, from which (specifically, a section entitled The Demon of Relativism) MB quotes (pp. 180-81): "In philosophical terms, [MB's text has "then," here] pragmatism can be directly opposed to realism," which Harris then goes on to defend in a predictably obtuse and table-thumping manner. We may put all that, such as it is, to one side for now, and turn to MB's response. Actually, I need Harris's punch line to set it up: "To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered—and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them."

So now MB responds.
The reason I disagree with Harris, the reason I am not what he calls an "ethical realist," is that I believe that gravity and slavery are different kinds of things, and that objective, observer-independent knowledge about gravity is possible but should not be taken as a model for knowledge about human affairs. I believe that there are mind-independent entities, and that you can check this for yourself by kicking a stone; but I do not understand how people like Harris, who are so stringently skeptical about religious belief [this – the supposed incongruity of Harris's objection given his other views – is MB's reason for citing Harris rather than, as he does immediately below, a realist philosopher like Thomas Nagel], can insist on the existence of mind-independent concepts. And this, as my students gradually come to understand, is an incommensurability. It is not an incommensurability about slavery itself; both the ethical realists and I are against it. It is an incommensurability with regard to how one justifies one's being against it (pp. 263-4).
Far be it from me to dispute the difference in kind between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften. And that difference may even be enough to license MB's actual practices re: liberalism. So I don't want to hit him too hard here, lest I be rightly accused of academic pedantry and/or turf-warring. On the other hand it did indeed seem as if the properly philosophical issues MB and Harris both bungle disagree with me about are indeed where the action is (as MB suspected when he brought them up in the first place).

In fact, MB has already received some heat on this point. At his blog he elaborates (comment #10):
Seriously, when I object to the idea of mind-independent concepts, I’m objecting to the notion that “in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered” (as Harris puts it): concepts that exist independently of any mind [as opposed to: ind. of my mind]. I think it’s a kinda quasireligious belief, which is why I find it so strange that Harris professes so strong a faith in it.
This helps, a bit. As it was, the notion of "mind-independence" was hopelessly ambiguous, and now it is somewhat less so (but only somewhat). And the idea of "truths waiting to be discovered" does indeed go down more smoothly w/r/t inquiry into facts (i.e. not just science) than to value determination, which it seems we hammer out among ourselves in a way unlike that of physics (that is, the hammering-out seems more constitutive of the content of the result, where in physics it concerns the epistemic justification for believing what we take to have been "already true"); and again, maybe that will be enough to licence MB's actual practice (or theoretical practice). But once the philosophical idea of metaphysical realism has been brought up, we absolutely cannot leave it at that. This is especially true in MB's explicitly Rortyan context. To his credit, he realizes this (and I support 100% his pedagogical decision to turn to literature at this point in the course, given its aims):
I wrapped up this part of the course by telling my students that if they wanted to pursue this further, with real philosophers, they should consult Richard Rorty for (most of) my end of the discussion, and Thomas Nagel—in The View From Nowhere, for a start—for one of the most salient responses to Rorty (p. 264)
As it happens I am very much like MB in one respect: my most profound philosophical influence has been Rorty, a fact which my many serious and fundamental differences with him sometimes make me forget. But it's true. Before Rorty, no-one was talking about bringing together Quine, Sellars, and Davidson, on the one hand, with Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and phenomenological hermeneutics on the other, let alone in the context of a revival of Deweyan pragmatism. Unfortunately, Rorty messes up the execution of this project; however, it is in an instructive and helpful way that he does so. So I totally get where MB is coming from w/r/t anti-foundationalism and all that. These remarks are this "real philosopher's" suggestions about where to go from here. If they are phrased in terms of criticism of what MB has actually written, let that not be taken to imply that he has misled his students unnecessarily, or that his postmodernism course, as described in the book, is anything less than terrific.

Enough! Here, then, are my worries:

My first gripe concerns the cutting of philosophical corners. It's understandable that people, especially non-philosophers, try to deal with the issue of realism and relativism in the moral/political context without first deciding what to say about scientific or commonsense facts. After all, that's what MB is interested in, ultimately: moral disagreement (e.g. about the rights of the disabled). This, plus, again, the acknowledged difference in kind between the Natur- and Geisteswissenschaften, makes it tempting to split the difference, defending anti-realism about morality by conceding realism about commonsense facts (e.g. Searle's version). But on my view resistance to realism must be global. If we don't see how a proper account of belief and meaning and truth and whatnot requires the rejection of realism in the *latter* case, then we can't see how it does so in the former case either, once the pernicious metaphysics has gotten a foothold. It takes more work (*much* more work) to do it the long way, but it's worth it. Maybe this will come out as I continue. But that's my most general worry – cutting corners in this sense.

Let's turn to Rorty, who does not cut corners in this way, but is admirably consistent in his rejection of realism. Unfortunately, this single-mindedness can result in some carelessness on his part. Rorty rightly pegs realism as a Cartesian position, committed to a metaphysical dualism of subject and object. And he is right again to reject the (rather silly, but remarkably persistent) idea that one avoids this dualism simply by rejecting its substance-dualistic manifestation and embracing materialism instead (a mistake Rorty himself seemed to be making even as late as chapter 2 of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature). And he does some other things right, which we'll get to. But he fails to understand how a conceptual dualism works -- and thus how easy it is to throw it out the window only to let it in through the back door (as materialists do). So in a sense he cuts corners as well, but in a different way.

In particular, Rorty has trouble keeping in mind that our primary target is not realism, but dualism, of which realism is but a symptom. The way he sees it, the problem with realism is its obsession with a "non-human authority" (i.e. a transcendent "real world"), which he sees (in Nietzschean fashion, or so he thinks) as a secular substitute for a transcendent deity. And now of course the pragmatist solution is to turn from metaphysical fantasy to practical reality. So while Rorty sometimes insists that he wants to reject the traditional philosophical oppositions (the "made" vs. the "found," etc.), what he actually ends up doing, a lot of the time, is rejecting them not by overcoming the dualism (which is hard), but instead by leaving it in place and simply erasing the transcendent disjunct (here, the "found"). Just as materialism does: in each case, the move is not from two distinct types of thing to one, as promised, but from two full boxes to ... two boxes, one full and one empty. This does not help.

Here's an example. Rorty has always insisted that the traditional problem of skepticism is of no interest once we see its roots in a pernicious conception of knowledge. And this is partly right: if we believe there is no transcendental gap between our internal states and what they "represent," then we are indeed not in the market for any philosophical bridges to cross that gap. However, that's only the beginning of that conversation, not the end. But I don't want to talk about the epistemological problem here. My point is this: since Rorty sees "skepticism" as essentially a problem for dogmatists (i.e., realists who hold we can bridge a transcendental gap between knower and known), we can avoid skepticism, on his view, by renouncing any desire to cross the gap in the first place. But this just is skepticism, of the Pyrrhonian variety. Again Rorty leaves the dualism in place.

It does not help here to push the skeptical attitude to the metalevel. MB applauds Rorty for not claiming that what he says (about truth and knowledge) is true, but saying instead merely that it's useful to act as if it were true. MB says this on his own behalf in other places, seeing this as a virtuous consistency, necessary to foil the traditional realist accusation of self-refutation. (Is Rorty's pragmatism "really true"? If we answer "yes," the familiar thought goes, then we affirm and renounce its truth in the same breath, a contradiction; but if we answer "no," then, Rorty feels, there's no problem.) Again, this is skepticism; and the problem with skepticism is that it makes hash of the notion of belief (and with it of meaning; of this more below). It is true that in particular cases we may intelligibly advocate acting, for instrumental reasons, as if something were true that we do not in fact believe to be the case. But this cannot be our general attitude. It makes no sense to argue passionately for a particular view, and then, when familiar muddles cause the conversation to grind to a halt, or spin its wheels uselessly, to cut the Gordian knot by saying, "oh well, I wasn't saying my view is true." Of course you were. If you weren't, then I was wrong to take you as believing it, and now I am more confused than ever. After all, if at the beginning I had said the things you say, wouldn't you have agreed? You wouldn't have said, no, I don't believe that -- but I do think we should act as if that were the case. That qualification only shows up when disagreement threatens. But then it means -- once belief is off the table -- that "disagreement" can't be the proper description of our problem. Again, this leads not only into the epistemological issues I have postponed, but also into my own highly unpopular take on them. I'll just claim here, as below, that I may consistently speak of truth without committing myself to the dreaded transcendental gap, nor reducing truth to consensus. Let's move on.

Wait, one more thing about this. MB mentions that Sartre quote about how if the fascists take over then fascism will be "the truth of man," and then so much the worse for us, and admires the "humility" he sees in Rorty's version of/attitude toward it. Here again, one person's "humility" is another's craven (and pointless!) skepticism. How can you refer to fascism being the "truth" -- even in that counterfactual situation -- if you don't believe it yourself? Feh. Belief is belief true, and vice versa; and abjuring belief is skepticism; and skepticism -- even the pre-Cartesian kind, in our context anyway -- is a dualistic position.

Now. Here's why that little dance -- pushing skepticism to the metalevel in order to justify (i.e. pragmatically) "belief" at the object level -- looks attractive to Rorty. He hasn't forgotten his rejection of dualism; it's just (on my account) that his anti-dualist strategy is fubar. Rorty believes (or whatever) that we can overcome the realism-antirealism dualism by seeing both positions as committed to an unacceptable "representationalism." Instead of trying to represent the "real world" outside us (an irretrievably Cartesian notion, in his view), we should abandon such fantasies and turn toward each other ("other inquirers huddled together against the dark," or something; you know, "solidarity" in his sense). If we allowed any normative connection to the world (i.e. "getting it right," as beliefs attempt to do), then that would screw up his anti-dualist strategy and force a choice between realism and anti-realism, which is what he is trying to avoid. Again, this is partly right, and indeed inspiring. Realism and anti-realism (including, ironically, Rorty's own) are indeed dualistically opposed, and can indeed be disposed of together once we see what they share; but what that is is not "representationalism" -- like "correspondence," a perfectly innocuous idea, properly construed -- but a conception of objectivity as dualistically opposed to subjectivity, metaphysically speaking. (Yet even that promising slogan is empty without a lot of unpacking.)

This leads to another of Rorty's favorite shibboleths, one which MB picks up as well. Following Dewey (and his similar rejection of the Cartesian "spectator theory of knowledge"), Rorty puts great stock in rejecting the "correspondence theory of truth" in favor of a "coherence" view. Again, the reason "coherence" looks to Rorty like an improvement over "correspondence" is that it allows him to say that our justificatory obligations are not to the world but instead, on the one hand, to the rest of our beliefs (with which the new belief must fit), and on the other, to our fellow inquirers (our relations with the world being "merely causal"). But this cannot eliminate the (normative) relation to the world. For something to be a belief at all -- and, not coincidentally, for the concepts that make it up to mean what they do in expressing the belief in question -- it must be held to be true of the world.

In his fight against "correspondence," Rorty has appealed to Davidson, who at first seems to agree -- though Davidson's commitment to "coherence" is half-hearted in spots (see "A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge," anthologized here) -- but it is Davidsonian considerations that thwart him (and eventually Davidson himself; but that's another story). For a belief to have the content it does -- for it to be a belief that P -- it must be appropriately sensitive to evidence that P is actually the case. That is, in order for you to convince me that X is indeed saying what you say X is saying -- that your interpretation of his words is correct -- you must show that the beliefs you ascribe to him in so doing are (that is, that he is) appropriately sensitive (whatever that may mean in the context) to evidence that the world is not that way. Which way? The way he believes it to be, on your account of what "P" means in his mouth when he asserts it. Naturally you will use your own terms, and refer to the world as you believe it to be, when telling me this. But that's okay; I'm in the same position w/r/t your utterances as you are to his, so that's been taken into account. And so on. All this is thoroughly Davidsonian (see "Three Varieties of Knowledge, in that same collection); which is one reason why we critics accuse Rorty's pragmatism -- here, in accepting "coherence" as a substitute for "correspondence" -- of being not pragmatist enough by his own lights (let alone ours).

I have similar gripes about Rorty's (and MB's) appeal to "anti-foundationalism," and their retreat to epistemological fallibilism. Fallibilism, qua skepticism, is fool's gold; and "anti-foundationalism," like "solidarity," moves the focus toward epistemology and away from the more general problem of how to overcome dualism(s), where it needs to be for several consecutive moves if we are to get anywhere. Onward.

Another brief aside. One of my least favorite terms (along with "mind-(in)dependent") is "incommensurability." The massive ambiguity of this term is another reason why you risk disaster by going directly to the moral case, before the semantic (and epistemological, and metaphysical, and metaphilosophical) cases are aligned properly. [I started to go into it here, but it got unwieldy, so let's come back to that one in another post. Let's just say you need to be really careful with this term.]

Almost done. Here's a criticism which is no doubt unfair, but that, as I like to say, is how the bowling ball bounces. For a sixty-seven-page description of a course on postmodernism, one in the English department no less, there is surprisingly little in MB's chapter -- or the book as a whole -- about hermeneutics. In fact there's none at all: the index contains zero references to hermeneutics, zero to Gadamer, zero to Ricoeur, and one to Heidegger (an interesting point on p. 200, the chapter preceding that on postmodernism, about Gatsby's "new world" being uncanny in the Heideggerian sense, i.e. one in which he was "not at home" (unheimlich)). I suppose that's okay, given that it's not a philosophy course; but in my view, given what he ends up saying about it, the time MB spends on the Habermas-Lyotard debate might have been better spent on the Habermas-Gadamer debate.

Of course this may be because I suspect that Lyotard really is a relativist where Gadamer is not; but it's also because MB's final word on the subject in What's Liberal is, again, that maybe objects are "mind-independent" while concepts are not. But what are concepts, and what is it to say what their content is -- that is, what makes them the concepts they are? Answering this question, especially in an explicitly Rortyan context, puts us squarely in the territory Davidson (also zero refs in WL) shares with Gadamer. On the other hand, Habermas never really seems to get what Gadamer is doing, so as a debate maybe it's not as good as the one with Lyotard (with whom I am not that familiar). In any case, the best counter to Habermas's obsession with "universality" and the critical function of reason is to hold his feet to the Davidsonian (and Wittgensteinian) fire concerning the nature and practice of linguistic communication and interpretation; this, perhaps, could shake loose some of his more unacceptable realist/dogmatist commitments. More specifically, it is the Davidsonian focus on rejecting the scheme-content dualism that allows the right sort of connection to the world (which I would describe as "linguistically mediated" if the word "mediated" were not itself so fraught with theoretical peril). We might also note that at one point, in the context of trying to appropriate Davidson's work, MB's hero Rorty actually defines pragmatism as "something Davidson approves of: getting rid of the scheme-content distinction." (This allowed some hostile critic – possibly Susan Haack, I don't remember – to cite this quote, but just up to the colon, making Rorty look like a frivolous sycophant. Naughty, naughty!)

Also, the Gadamerian context provides a safe place to appropriate the healthy aspects of Heideggerian phenomenology -- the ones that insist that inquiry and reference and rationality are practices of engaged, embodied, situated individual agents -- without getting sucked, or geworfen, into the whole Heideggerian morass. Better yet is to emphasize the Davidson/Gadamer connection, which puts us onto drier land still. The downside of this, I must admit, is that most Davidson scholars (exceptions being Jeff Malpas and Bjorn Ramberg) take an incorrigibly analytic line, preferring to speak mostly of Tarskian truth-theories and anomalous monism (see this recent anthology, with articles by the usual analytic suspects such as Ernest Sosa and Jaegwon Kim; Gadamer doesn't make that index either, although there is an article by Samuel Wheeler which compares him to Derrida). Another downside is that phenomenologists tend to see Davidson as do most analytics, i.e., as just another analytic, committed, and I am not making this up, to metaphysical realism (see Charles Taylor, who explicitly contrasts Davidson with the "three H's", i.e. Hamann, Humboldt, and Herder -- although I must admit Taylor developed this attitude in the 70's, back when it was much more justified than it is 25 years later). Related to this, there is a continuing brouhaha, with much noise coming from that direction, over the issue of "non-conceptual content" and whatnot. So we'd have to deal with that (but we would eventually anyway).

One last thing. MB points his realist student "Stan" (or wishes he had so pointed him, in a pang of l'esprit de l'escalier) to Wittgenstein's "private language argument." But while (the later) Wittgenstein seems to be the very opposite of a systematic thinker, it is very difficult to pull specific arguments out of the context of his thought. Not to say that MB is wrong here -- a turn in that direction is what I also would recommend -- but we would need to say much more here, as I don't think the PLA can do that much on its own in this context. In my unpublished and still being worked out view, Wittgenstein provides the key piece to the puzzle; but we can't see this unless the other pieces are ready to go -- the catch being that this precondition can itself require that the Wittgensteinian vision has been already grasped. This catch (not catch-22, that's something else) is part of what accounts for Wittgenstein's unusual writing style -- why he feels he must "travel criss-cross" over the same territory over and over in different directions. But that is yet another story for yet another day.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Belle W on Mark S

Here's a classic putdown, courtesy of Crooked Timber:
It’s a refreshing frappe of ignorance, suspicion, and homophobia topped with whipped misogyny and dusted with grated stupid!
A delightful concoction indeed! As they say, go read the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


A new Philosophers' Carnival! Check out the neato rides here.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Today is of course Halloween, and all the kiddies were out in force (still are, some of 'em). On my way to the library, I saw Batman, and Supergirl I guess that was, and some pirates, and Darth Vader, and Richard Dawkins (just kidding), and some angels, and A Person Who Seemed to Be Under the Impression that it was St. Patrick's Day (now that's scary!). Naturally the little ones were accompanied by a parent, and the custom around here now seems to be that the parents dress up too. One such parent was attempting to corral her youngster ("Michael! Get over here!"), and I felt like advising Michael to heed the woman with the purple hair and witch hat, lest she turn him into a newt.

On that note (the Halloween one), a commenter at Pharyngula today had a good zombie joke:
Q: What do vegan zombies eat?

A: Graaaains!
Heh heh.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Come on out

3QD points us to The Nation's appreciation of composer Steve Reich on his 70th birthday, which includes the following description of the early (1966) tape piece Come Out:
The voice of Daniel Hamm, a 19-year-old member of the Harlem Six--five of whom, including Hamm, were later acquitted--is first heard clearly saying, "I wanted to come out and show them." The phrase "Come out and show them" is then transformed through phasing to become an evolving series of rhythms, timbres and pitches. These early works remain fascinating, but their politics is troubling. They seem to spring directly from the civil rights struggle, and yet the phasing process calls attention away from the meaning of words to their sounds.
This provoked your hot-tempered blogger to fire off the following peevish missive in the general direction of the Nation website:
Re: David Schiff's description of Steve Reich's "Come Out" ("A Rebel in Defense of Tradition"):

For gosh sakes, it's "Come out TO show them," as anyone who's actually heard this piece can tell you. As Schiff mentions, what happens when the loops overlap is that you no longer hear repeating loops of text but instead the repeating sounds of one or two phonemes. So you hear "mm-mm-mm-mm-mm" at the same time as "o-o-o-o-o," as well as the more percussive "tsh-tsh-tsh-tsh-tsh" (from "To SHow them"). Hard to forget.

Not only that, it's not even "I wanted to come out (and/to) show them," as if Hamm were explaining why he was there in the first place. Here's Wikipedia on the matter:

"The voice Reich eventually used for the work was that of Daniel Hamm, then nineteen, one of the boys involved who was not guilty of the murder, saying: "I had to open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them." Hamm had punctured a bruise on his own body to convince police that he had been beaten; they had not previously wanted to treat Hamm's injuries, as he had not appeared sufficiently wounded."

So yes, "the phasing process calls attention away from the meaning of words to their sounds" - that's why the piece works at all, a point analogous to one Schiff explains very well w/r/t "Clapping Music": these pieces concern the relation between rhythm and sound ("the ordinary became magic"). But the idea that this makes the "politics" of these pieces "troubling" is just silly. It's actually the ham-handed didacticism of some of Reich's later works which is politically troubling, as if he were losing faith in his art - as if magic were somehow insufficient - and felt he needed to preach instead. Still, he is (was) a titan, and "Music for 18 Musicians", at least, will live forever.
Of course The Nation is a political magazine, not a music magazine, so it's not surprising that their writer frets about music that seems content to produce magic rather than advance the revolution. And I'm certainly not waving the flag for "aestheticism" or "formalism," whatever the commissars of political correctness may say. I just don't see how self-consciously "political" art, which is invariably crap, can even do what it's supposed to do, let alone what it should be doing.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

More banditry

The local library (next town over actually) had its semiannual book sale again (see my last haul here), and yesterday I went over and checked it out. Good news: the following cost around five bucks total. Bad news: this means I will continue to put off my promised account of that one last book (*** **** *****) from the other time. Starting off, we have:

1. Steven Pinker – The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (1994)

As I think I mentioned last time, when I picked up his Words and Rules, I'm not a big fan of the rosy one, but he's a least worth keeping an eye on. This book is more substantive, though, so it may be more likely than the other to be thrown across the room. (Non-philosophers talking about language, esp. scientists getting all chomsky, as Dennett would say, can provoke this response in me.) I better be careful, as it is a hefty hardcover and could really do some damage if propelled in the wrong direction. For example, I see a chapter called "Mentalese" – better go down into the basement to read that one.

2. C. E. M. Joad – Philosophical Aspects of Modern Science (1964; orig. ed. 1932)
3. H. Feigl and G. Maxwell – Current Issues in the Philosophy of Science (1959)

I bet these two came from the same source, but there's no name in either, so who knows. Professor Joad is worried that "modern physics" (he means quantum mechanics), as interpreted by such as A. S. Eddington and James Jeans, will seduce the young into Idealism or worse. These views, the back cover tells us, "are ... subjected to criticism on the ground that they rest on a faulty theory of knowledge, which ignores the Realist movement which is the distinctive feature of twentieth century philosophy." Russell's "Neutral-Monism" will not do either. This book seems not to have been cracked. Perhaps I shall be the first. Or not.

The Feigl & Maxwell is the Proceedings of Section L of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Chicago on December 27-30, 1959. Lots of big names (of the time): "Is there a Logic of Discovery?" by Hanson, comments by Feyerabend, reply by Hanson; "The Language of Theories" by Sellars, comments by Hanson, Feyerabend and Richard Rudner; "Law and Convention in Physical Theory" by Grünbaum, comments by Feyerabend, reply by Grünbaum. Also appearing: Rescher, Salmon, Michael Polanyi. Hanson and Feyerabend are in every other session, it seems. Time capsule city!

4. Mortimer Adler – Ten Philosophical Mistakes (1985)

Finally, truth in advertising? But no, he means mistakes made by people other than himself. (Anyway, it would be tough limiting the mistakes in here to ten, unless you consolidated them into general groups.) Here's a taste:
This [an unholy conglomeration of Hobbes, Russell, and Frege – don't ask] has led to the fatuous injunction "Don't look for the meaning; look for the use," as if it were possible to discover the use of a word without first ascertaining its meaning as used, a meaning that it must have had before it was used in order to be used in one certain way rather than another. Language does not control thought, as contemporary linguistic philosophers appear to believe. It is the other way around.
This is worse than useless. If it were simply false, then it would at least be something to argue against. But it's just a muddle of Colbertan truthiness (avant la lettre, I suppose). Adler doesn't mention Wittgenstein, the apparent target here, but it's just as well, considering the hash he makes of it. If you've never heard of him, Adler was the 50's equivalent of William Bennett, pushing upper-middlebrow quasi-Aristotelian pop moralizing as a tonic for midcentury modernistic ennui. (10 P. M. is subtitled "Basic Errors in Modern Thought - How They Came About [neglect of Aquinas], Their Consequences [Communism and hedonism], and How to Avoid Them [Take a Guess].") In the bio-blurb, the publisher (MacMillan) blithely refers to the author as "America's foremost philosopher." I think that's because he's the one who's been on TV (he had a PBS series on the Great Books or something).

5. Allan Bloom – The Closing of the American Mind (1987)

Hmmm, a mini-trend; more right-wing snark from a Chicago fossil. Actually, Bloom was a real philosopher, if an odd bird, and this has some interesting material about Plato and Rousseau. (Doesn't get Nietzsche though.) This book was a huge best seller but it is universally suspected that no-one read it. Lefties mocked it at the time (he does make a fool of himself in spots), but compared to contemporary Kulturkampf stuff (*cough* Dinesh D'Souza *cough*) this is Isaiah Berlin. Incidentally, the index contains precisely one reference to Leo Strauss.

6. Culture Wars (1999)

This book, the back cover informs us, is part of the "highly acclaimed Opposing Viewpoints series" of what seem to be high-school civics readers (tagline: "Those who do not know their opponent's arguments do not completely understand their own." Too true.) It consists of brief snippets of pro vs. con about this and that ("Belief in God is Necessary for a Moral Society" followed by, you guessed it, "Belief in God is Not Necessary for a Moral Society"). They're all like that. Now, I understand the appeal of the agonistic approach, but as a moderate I would prefer a little, well, moderation. The way it is, all you get is fair-to-good negative arguments (often against straw opponents) and bad positive arguments. Just for fun, here's a snippet from "Belief in God is Necessary ...":
Moral values are rather strange. We cannot see them, hear them, or feel them, but we cannot doubt they exist. A witness to a crime sees the criminal and the victim, but what is perhaps most important remains invisible—the moral evil of the act.
Yet evil is unquestionably there [....] Good and bad are unseen but real, much as God is said to be. Does that suggest a close tie between two mysteries, moral values and God?
Much predictable whining about naturalism and relativism later (okay, only a few paragraphs – these things are short), we get:
More important, we should consider the very nature of moral obligation. [Okay, fair enough: what is it?] We cannot be obligated to atoms, or gravity, or evolution, or time, or chance; we can be obligated only to persons. [So far, so good, I suppose; but it can't last ...] Indeed, we typically learn morality from our parents, and we stick to our standards at least partly out of loyalty to those we love. An absolute standard, one without exceptions, one that binds everybody, must be based on loyalty to a person great enough to deserve such respect. Only God meets that description.
Ow, my head. But the other guy – a philosopher, even – isn't much better. It's right, as far as it goes (he gives Leibniz's arguments against "Divine Command Theory"), but then he goes right to the conclusion:
Fundamentalists correctly perceive that universal moral standards are required for the proper functioning of society. But they erroneously believe that God is the only possible source of such standards. Philosophers as diverse as Plato, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, George Edward Moore [!], and John Rawls have demonstrated [!] that it is possible to have a universal morality without God.
Phew. Maybe this will be good blogfodder though.

7. Jonathan Rée – i see a voice: deafness, language, and the senses – a philosophical history (1999)

This seems to be a book for the general reader, but the author is a philosopher (I think I've heard of him, even, though I may be mixing him up with Paul Ree, the "English psychologist" whom Nietzsche mentions in the Genealogy). Think Oliver Sacks's Seeing Voices, only less neurology and more history (and less rah-rah Deaf Culture). The last part looks more philosophical; chapter 28 is entitled "Space, Time, and the aesthetic theory of art," and discusses Kant, Baumgarten, etc. Maybe I'll just jump to the end.

8. W. G. Muelder, C. K. Sears, and A. V. Schlabach – The Development of American Philosophy (1960; orig. ed. 1940)

I think I got a similar volume last time, but this one looks a bit more diverse: eight sections, including a long one called "The Idealist Tradition," with a whole slew of names. Interestingly, the sections the previous owner (a Miss M. W. of Mt. Holyoke College) has most marked up, in addition to Peirce and James, are the selections by Josiah Royce and the succeeding selection, "The Limits of Evolution" (1895), by one George H. Howison. And what a piece of purple prose is this latter essay! We'll have to get back to that one sometime. But now, forward!

9. Stephen Jones, ed. – The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror (2002)

Actually, the title page says it's the MBoBNH 13 (so they've been doing this for a while, then). 600 pp. of thrills and chills. One story ("Most of My Friends are Two-Thirds Water") is by one of my fave new discoveries, Kelly Link; but it seems also to be in her first collection (so get that instead, if you're torn between that and this). I haven't read this one, but she's great. Lots of unfamiliar names, but I'm not really into horror, so I can't tell what that means – they could all be stars for all I know.

In a similar vein, more or less, we have:

10. Goethe's Faust: The Prologue and Part One (1963; orig. 1831, or at least the whole thing)

Last time I got a German-only version of part two [actually, checking later, I see that it also was part one; no matter, I have that little yellow edition of part two somewhere]. This is a bilingual edition, and thank goodness for that, because the English part is dreadful – metered, rhymed, archaic, and absurdly literal. Check this out. First the German:
Faust: O selig der! dem er in Siegesglanze
die blut'gen Lorbeern um die Schläfe windet,
den er, nach rasch durchrastem Tanze,
in eines Mädchens Armen findet.
O wär' ich vor des hohen Geistes Kraft
entzückt, entseelt dahin gesunken!
Meph: Und doch hat jemand einen braunen Saft,
in jener Nacht, nicht ausgetrunken.
Faust: Das Spionieren, scheint's, is deine Lust.
Meph: Allwissend bin ich nicht; doch viel ist mir bewusst.
Romantic poetry, sure, but not ridiculous by any means. Here's the English:
Faust: O fortunate, for whom, when victory glances,
the bloody laurels on the brow he bindeth!
whom, after rapid, maddening dances,
in clasping maiden-arms he findeth!——
O would that I, before that Spirit's might,
ecstatic, reft of life, had sunken.
Meph: And yet, by someone, in that Easter night,
a certain liquid was not drunken.
Faust: Eavesdropping, ha! thy pleasure seems to be.
Meph: Omniscient am I not; yet much is known to me.
Glug. Well, at least it's got the German, and I've got a dictionary ready to hand (or is it present at hand?). By the way, there was a foreign-language section at the book sale, and most of it indeed seemed to be original language material. But there were some translations too, and it was pretty weird to see things like Racine: Werke and Isaac Asimov's Preludio alla Fondazione.

11. Jeff Danziger – Wreckage Begins with "W" (2004)

Finally, on the lighter side, we have a book of editorial cartoons. I always liked Danziger (especially his short-lived (I think) strip, McGonigle or something) – the drawings are good, and there are often several gags in one frame – but he seems to have gotten bitter over the years, and much of this collection is crudely partisan (and worse, unfunny). Here's one: little George, in cowboy hat with "W" on it, idly shaking the tail of a big mean dog (labeled WAR), who has turned around with slavering jaws to eye the lad threateningly. Oh, I get it: wag the dog, with blowback imminent. Heh. Or this one. The book explains that Bush had asked Henry Kissinger "to head a panel looking into the causes of terrorism." In the picture, a grotesquely cadaverous Kissinger looks on as Bush, at an absurdly small desk (with an absurdly small chair) says to Rove or whoever, "Henry says he'll do it as long as he can bomb a few villages afterwards...." See, Kissinger is bad: he likes bombing things for fun. Other cartoons are better, but overall this is already a disappointment.

The sale continues tomorrow, and I'm tempted to go back and pick up a few of those math textbooks, which I need as I do a lacuna in my skull. But they're cheeeap!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Anyone up for a little carpal tunnel syndrome?

Jason at Evolutionblog linked to this game, and I've tried it a few times. You move your knight around the board, trying to land on all the designated squares before time runs out. Unfortunately, you're not allowed to land on any undesignated squares. So sometimes you have to stop and figure out how to get where you're supposed to go. It's kind of fun, but I think I would need a mouse to build up any real speed (it's a bit harder on a trackpad). One feature I liked: when you finish a level on time, you get bonus points (no surprise there); but you also get a rousing cheer from the crowd. I think I'd almost rather hear the cheer than get the points. Is that sad or what?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Mission accomplished

We now return to the status quo ante ALDS, in which only the original Tigers are Tigers. Good work everyone! Carry on.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Get yer philosophy dissertations here!

Or, if you've written one yourself, you can make it available to others. (I'm thinking about it...). Here's the link.

HT: Leiter

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

We are all Tigers now

I owe this observation to Michael Berube (hmmm, can't make acute accents for some reason). Anyway, see here for more playoff ruminations.

Monday, September 25, 2006

What is it like to be a Philosophers' Carnival?

Find out here.

I've got children? How about that

Another one of those damn quizzes. I don't have time for this, dammit! Now where did I put my glasses?

[HT: Siris]

You scored as Commander William Adama. You have risen to your position by being damn good at what you do. Not only that, you have the deepest respect for the people under your command. You may be a little grumpy and unapproachable, but every commander needs to distance himself. Shame that you apply that to your children too.

Commander William Adama


President Laura Roslin


Capt. Lee Adama (Apollo)


Dr Gaius Baltar


CPO Galen Tyrol


Tom Zarek


Col. Saul Tigh


Number 6


Lt. Sharon Valerii (Boomer)


Lt. Kara Thrace (Starbuck)


What New Battlestar Galactica character are you?
created with QuizFarm.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

And now ...

... the graphic-novel edition of the latest work by the ever-dangerous Michael Bérubé. Strike a socialist-realist pose, and check it out!

HT: Crooked Timber, Pharyngula, etc.

Friday, September 08, 2006

I can't win

According to this test, I am "definitely a nerd but low on the totem pole of nerds." Story of my life.

HT: Ed B, who is apparently not a nerd at all. To see the Sciencebloggers ranked by nerdiness, see here.

I am nerdier than 68% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!

Cinematic travails [some spoilers; but come on, these aren't whodunits]

On Monday, which was Labor Day, I watched a DVD of Laurent Cantet's 1999 film Human Resources, which I had not selected specially, but which turned out to be very appropriate to the day. Young Jalil Lespert is hired as a management trainee at the factory where his father has worked for 30 years. (You can just see it coming, but trust me: there's nothing you can do.) Eager to please, he suggests (not a union-busting but more like) a union-outmaneuvering tactic to his superiors -- but alas, he has overestimated their moral scruples, and they use it to justify layoffs. (I didn't exactly understand this part -- something to do with the 35-hour work week, which was apparently a big deal in France at the time.) Naturally Papa is one of those laid off. This leads to some soul-searching and ultimately drastic measures. Toward the end there is an emotional confrontation during which some long-buried feelings are unearthed. Not an amusing scene, but I couldn't help noticing the characteristically Gallic subtlety of the emotions in question -- not just pride or shame, but the same at second- and third-order (possibly even fourth). For the pinnacle of work-related anxiety, check out Cantet's follow-up Time Out, loosely based on the book which was more faithfully rendered here (haven't seen this but the book is great).

Laborwise, I also saw (though not on the Day itself) the recent Criterion Collection release of Harlan County USA (1976), a documentary about striking coal miners in Kentucky. It's all very Which Side Are You On -- and in fact we hear that stirring number performed several times. The music is very much part of the film -- lots of Hazel Dickens, for example. Emotional confrontations abound here too, not surprising given the circumstances. No higher-order angst here though, just good old American stubbornness. Interesting also to see traces of the 1970's seeping into more traditional, isolated areas.

For comparison we have yet another look at industrial management, this one from Denmark. Arven (a.k.a. The Inheritance) stars Ulrich Thomsen (whom you may know from Festen a.k.a. The Celebration) as a refugee from the family steel business who is browbeaten by his domineering mother into returning and taking it over after his father kills himself according to time-honored Scandinavian custom. This leads to resentment on all sides, and downhill we go from there. A bit melodramatic at times, but Thomsen is excellent. Can his stoic resignation survive the long-simmering resentment and heartbreak? Yes and no, obviously, or there wouldn't be a movie; but this battle, as played out on Thomsen's furrowed brow, maintains our interest throughout. Nice score in a Biosphere + orchestra vein (not actual Biosphere though; for that see the original Insomnia).

Monday, September 04, 2006

Back to school

Appropriately enough, the Back to School edition of the Philosophers' Carnival takes place in the Playground.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Anticipate the following April

There was no real reason for anyone to notice this after that memorable five-pack of games two weeks ago against the hated Yankees (a debacle some locals referred to as the Big Dig 2), but the other day the Boston Red Sox took the diamond without their leadoff hitter Coco Crisp, a man who seems to have it backwards (you're supposed to let them name the breakfast cereal after you, not the other way around). They were also missing their #3 hitter (MVP candidate David Ortiz, out with heart problems), their cleanup hitter (future Hall-of-Famer Manny Ramirez), their #5 hitter (catcher Jason Varitek), their #6 hitter (RF Trot Nixon), and their starting shortstop (Alex Gonzalez, whose nickname must surely be A-Gon). Wily Mo Pena (that's right, one L; what's his nickname, Wile E. Coyote?), who had been spelling Nixon, was also out. This left the team with three starters: 2B Mark Loretta (at DH), 1B Kevin Youkilis (in left), and the sole starter at his original position, 3B Mike Lowell, the usual #8 hitter, batting cleanup. They lost the game, one of 21 they lost in August.

The starting pitcher in that game, David Wells, had been doing well since returning from the DL, but he has since been dealt to the Padres for the proverbial player-to-be-indicated-later (presumably he already has a name; we just don't know what it is yet). Two other starters, Matt Clement and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, have yet to return, and it seems that closer Jonathan Papelbon (he of the microscopic 0.92 ERA) has joined them, not to mention Curt Schilling, who will miss a start due to a strained muscle. Not only that, rookie starter Jon Lester has been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Also, Josh Beckett was hexed by a practitioner of the dark arts, such that he would not be able to locate home plate even if it were to be painted bright red, with a spotlight directly above it. Okay, I made that last one up, but you have to wonder what made him walk NINE batters in that Yankee game (that is, that part of it that he pitched before they FINALLY took his ass out of it).

Of course, the Yankees themselves have had a number of injuries this year, but all they do is just go to the bench for another all-star – or, if absolutely necessary, pick one up from another team, with a decent starting pitcher to boot, for a handful of rookie leaguers. (How do they DO that??)

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The trolley problem

No, not the moral philosophy chestnut. We speak here of what we would call "shopping carts", and the problem of what to do with them when they end up in the river. Here's an attractive solution.

HT: 3 Quarks Daily

Friday, September 01, 2006

Le rouge et le noir

Last night I saw Samuel Fuller's 1953 noir Pickup on South Street on a fine-looking Criterion Collection DVD (although this library copy was scratched, making me miss the part from 33:03 to 33:25; anybody know what happens just before she leaves the shack?). Richard Widmark is in fine form as a pickpocket (or "cannon") who picks the wrong purse (in the opinion of some), obtaining for himself some curious microfilm. What was funny about it was the infusion of Red Scare attitudes into the noir form; our characters may be hardscrabble denizens of the demimonde, but they ain't no filthy commies, see? (On the other hand, our man would be willing to shake said commies down for $25K rather than, say, turning them over to the police.) See it on a double bill with Bresson's Pickpocket.

Iconic moment: Widmark offers Jean Peters a smoke; he lights it with his own half-smoked one; then he jams that one in her mouth and starts smoking the new one himself. Also Thelma Ritter and her neckties.

Another pairing for PoSS would be Kiss of Death, Widmark's 1947 debut, in which he plays the psycho killer Tommy Udo (love that insane grin). We also see an impossibly young Karl Malden in a bit part. This film was remade in 1995 with Nicholas Cage in the Widmark role and starring David Caruso, who had just quit NYPD Blue after one season in order to be a big movie star. This movie bombed, prompting much humor about the aptness of its title re: Mr. Caruso's career ... and then he went on to make Jade, a movie for which the phrase "godawful crap" is particularly apt. He seems to have found his place though, back on TV as the unflappable Lt. Horatio Caine on CSI: Miami, so we shall not weep for him.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Below average

90% True has a hot tip on forthcoming titles in the Politically Incorrect Guide to ... series. (I think this one registers something less than 90% on the old aletheiometer though.)

HT: Panda's Thumb

Monday, August 21, 2006

Free popcorn shrimp!

Figuratively speaking, that is. Philosophical Review has made part of their archive available free online, for, as the saying goes, a limited time only, so don't delay! And those book reviews sure are addictive - betcha can't download just one!

HT: Thoughts, Arguments, and Rants

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Icon war

What happens on the desktop when icons get bored? Check it out here.

HT: Crooked Timber, where the first two commenters simultaneously point us as well to this equally clever (and violent) episode [itself from boing boing].

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

There's hamburger all over the highway in Mystic, Connecticut

Lindsay gives us an inside look at the Connecticut senate primary here. (See surrounding posts.)

In related news, look out for penguins in Texas.

HT: Pharyngula (again)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Tome of horrible, yet cuddly, secrets

Available here. More such material, including campaign logos, here.

HT: Pharyngula

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Moussellini? No, Kitler!

Some of these guys are scary (but others are cute).

(HT: Evolutionblog)

R.I.P. D.Z.P.

Via Leiter, I hear that D.Z. Phillips has died. Professor Phillips was a major figure in Wittgenstein and the philosophy of religion. His book Philosophy's Cool Place is essential reading for those interested in the particular sense in which Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy was "quietist." Perhaps he is now in a cool place of his own. If so, cool!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Vielen Dank!

Apparently this installment of the Philosophers' Carnival takes place in Berlin. How about that.

Monday, July 17, 2006


Blogging from Beirut, featuring some intense drawings. (HT: Microsound list)

Monday, July 03, 2006


New Philosophers' Carnival here. Thanks Dr. F-R!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Tell us what you really think

More reading than writing going on at the moment here at DRHQ, I'm afraid. For now here are someone else's thoughts (Ed B. at Dispatches, on the recent brouhaha about the Times's disclosure of government anti-terror activities):
Every single side of the story is represented by people who are, frankly, completely full of shit. The New York Times is full of shit, their critics are full of shit, and the right wingers calling for treason charges are completely full of shit. Every single facet of this thing just screams hypocrisy on the part of every single person involved.
Plenty more here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

My language, right or wrong

As is well known, grammarians (and other non-philosophers) fall into two types: prescriptivists and descriptivists. The former feel free to tell everyone else how to talk, and the latter tell the former to lighten up and go with the flow. (The novelist David Foster Wallace has an amusing, characteristically footnote-ridden piece about his own membership in the prescriptivist marching society, for which body he has an equally amusing but alas unmemorable neologistic acronym - "floot"? "froot"? "snoot?")

This is a non-issue, or should be anyway, for philosophers. Language changes, at a speed and in a manner to be determined by its users on a case by case basis. In the face of perceived linguistic anarchy, prescriptivists are right that there are indeed objective "linguistic facts" -- that word X means "y" and not "z", or that string W is not well-formed -- but any imperatives (prescriptions) we may derive from same are what you might call "hypothetical" rather than "categorical." That is, while it is (as they say) a true fact that "dog" means "one of those [indicating Fido]" and not "one of those [indicating Garfield]", the only sense we can ultimately make of this sort of "semantic normativity" is that IF you wish to speak in the way that English speakers (as a matter of empirical fact) typically do, THEN (and now comes the normativity) you must say "dog" when speaking of Fido and his canine kin, and "assassinated U. S. President" when speaking of Garfield, Lincoln, et al. (A related point is that IF you wish to be understood by English speakers (or perhaps to keep from annoying them), THEN you must speak in the way that they typically do, or at least refrain from improvising freely.)

Or so we Davidsonians say (locus classicus: "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," now available in Truth, Language, and History). This means that in particular cases the issue is not whether there are linguistic facts, but whether our purposes are best served in this case by speaking this way or that. In general, useful distinctions are retained while useless ones fade away. The problem arises when some people let distinctions become obscured while others are still using them (and hoping to do so in the same way they had been doing up to now, by saying this and not that). The proper philosophical attitude to take here is again that it'll all come out in the wash (which is often, I find, the proper philosophical attitude to take).

So we should be neither hard-line prescriptivists nor hard-line descriptivists (as neither position is coherent). The sympathy I have for either is limited to the empirical fact that proponents of the other can be annoyingly dense. If language currently allows a useful distinction, then let's not just let it go out of sheer carelessness. Common courtesy suggests that if someone is using something, you don't just throw it out just because you can't be bothered not to (and maybe you'd like to use it too - try it and see). We all have our favorites, but I appreciate the semantic distinction between "jealous" and "envious", and of course I have a professional interest in keeping "imply" and "infer" straight. And some things are just eyesores (quotation marks for emphasis, possessive "it's"; again, we all have our favorites).

On the other hand, there's nothing quite like doctrinaire prescriptivists for cluelessness. They make me appreciate the existentialist notion of "bad faith": I don't have to use my judgment, there's a rule I can follow (and berate others sanctimoniously for not following)! It's like (and indeed I imagine in some cases this really is it) they want to be able to feel justified in inferring social class (and thus ultimate worth) directly and reliably from forms of speech - how can we distinguish Us from Them if you insist on talking in a way in which (even if there is no other reason not to do so) They do and We do not?

What's particularly galling is the (not at all unusual) cases in which prescriptivists are (ironically enough) just wrong. Again we all have favorite examples (mine is the ridiculous kneejerk rejection of singular "they," which is just fine, thank you). I ran across another today, which I don't think I'd ever seen before. Baldo is perhaps the most annoying and reliably unfunny comic strip I've ever seen, but I can't help sparing the 2 seconds it takes every day to read it. Today's jape features the pretentious Anglo (naturally) English teacher upbraiding car-parts shop employee Baldo:
Baldo: Can I help you?
PAET (snarkily): I don't know – can you?
... the point being, of course, that what B. "should" have said was "May I help you?" Now of course this latter is a traditional greeting and perfectly idiomatic, employing a locution that people do in fact abuse in the form our man no doubt usually hears it (his response here is, verbatim, that my 4th-grade math teacher regularly gave to "Can I go to the bathroom?"). But Baldo's actual question makes perfect sense on its own terms. For if he were to return snark for snark, we might hear:
Baldo: I don't know either – tell me what you want, and I'll see if ... (wait for it) ... I can help you.
At least that's better than "Whom should I say is calling?"

Thursday, June 15, 2006

UK agrees to jail Charles Taylor

It's childish, I know, but my philosophy-nerd sense of humor is tickled by such headlines (see here). I know Taylor's phenomenology-based criticism of McDowell's conceptualism is a little harsh, but the same could be said of Dreyfus, and nobody's throwing him in jail. (Cue Emily Litella.)

Monday, June 12, 2006

Hot off the presses

As of 10:20 P.M. EDT, when I clicked on it, this edition of the Philosophers' Carnival had been up for all of ten minutes. Watch it, it's still hot! (Thanks Kenny!)

Friday, June 09, 2006

Gimme some truth

Many people nowadays, including or even especially philosophers, seem to think it important that we acknowledge the value of truth. I was reminded of this by the recent release of Ophelia Benson's and Jeremy Stangroom's Why Truth Matters, but this is a familiar theme not only in the works of the usual pomo-phobic culture warriors, but also those of philosophers such as Michael Lynch and Simon Blackburn. In his 2004 book, itself called True to Life: Why Truth Matters, Lynch compares philosophic indifference or hostility to truth with complacent acceptance of the Bush administration's alleged blithe rationalization of insufficiently justified claims of Iraqi WMD as instrumentally valuable (e.g. for fostering consensus). As George Will would say (and it is not often that I quote the man, so listen up):
Should we indeed make a point of valuing truth? Not surprisingly, that depends on what we mean. Sometimes "truth" is used (usually – but not only, alas – by non-philosophers) as a name for a kind of commodity or stuff, like knowledge is, rather than for a property that a proposition has, or not, in virtue of the relation between its content (meaning) and the way the world is. Although this usage can be innocent (as in the pragmatist motto "seek truth, avoid error"), it can also blur the very real conceptual difference between truth and knowledge, thus making the following points more controversial than they should be. (It can also lead to confusing talk about "kinds of truth," which would be better thought of as domains of inquiry or discourse.)

First, perhaps it is too obvious to mention, but it can't be that what is to be valued is that there is such a thing as truth, i.e., that there are truths. All that would mean is that we are speaking a language; but while I suppose I'm glad we're discursive creatures, that can't be what truth-valuers value. What use is it to me, for example, that "Eto ne moy plotok" correctly denotes a certain state of affairs if I don't know which state of affairs that is? In order for truths to be valuable, or for truth to be a goal, I need to have access to them somehow, and it is that that must be the locus of value, not the truths themselves; so maybe it is the value of knowledge that we are meant to affirm.

However, this doesn't seem right either. The value of knowledge, while more easily debated, is a fairly straightforward matter, philosophically speaking. Naturally we can think of plenty of things we are better off knowing than not knowing (or being deceived about). But clearly not every particular thing is worth knowing; indeed, the vast majority of truths are entirely worthless as knowledge. It is presumably either true or false (pace verificationists) that the word "marble" was used at least once on October 12, 1977 within a six-meter radius centered at a particular spot in the Fulton Fish Market. But who cares? (Of course we could make up a story in which we might need to know this. But so what.) Some knowledge is even downright dangerous. On the other hand, we can hardly make sense of a choice between knowledge and ignorance in general. Believing only falsehoods – having no knowledge at all – isn't even conceptually possible. Even Thomas Anderson (Neo pre-red pill in The Matrix) has plenty of true beliefs (but let's not go there today).

If the value of knowledge in this (uninteresting) sense is the value of belief (that P) given the truth of P, maybe we can do better switching it around: what is the value of the truth of P given belief that P? This keeps the focus on the value of truth, while preserving the connection to belief without which, as we saw up top, the question makes no sense.

So, do we really want our beliefs to be true? This too is ambiguous. In one sense, it's not an issue about truth at all, but about our desires. Given that you believe the world to be a certain way, do you really prefer (what you see as) the actual state of affairs to, say, this other one? I believe that the hurricane was devastating, but I would be happy to be wrong about that; I would prefer that my belief be false (but it isn't, alas). In another sense, this reverts to the question about knowledge – the value of true belief. If my beliefs are true, then, just as when truths are believed, the epistemic connection to the world is made; but we've already seen that this may or may not be valuable.

A third sense must be what is intended. As the aletheiaphiles present the matter, the issue is one of the threat of instrumentalism, or skepticism, or nihilism, or all at once. Richard Rorty famously denies that justification-transcendent truth is a goal of inquiry, or even that there is any such thing in the first place; and this will never do. The question is this: given that you believe something (i.e., because it pays to do so, and has established its value already, say in terms of prediction and control), do you place an additional value on its being true as well as useful? Rorty claims that he cannot see what point there could possibly be to this. But if you do not go beyond valuing utility, we are encouraged to complain, you are (if I may borrow a phrase from elsewhere) an epistemic "free rider": belief without ontological commitment, that is, has all the advantages of doxastic theft over honest ontological toil. But does this accusation, and the accompanying apotheosis of truth, get at our real interest here?

Now I agree with the truth-lovers in a certain limited sense: we should indeed reject instrumentalism, skepticism, and nihilism. This may not seem to be a limited sense, but as we shall see, it amounts to somewhat less than they suggest. Again, our claim cannot be that there is no such thing as a useful fiction (or even a pious fraud); clearly there is. Rather, it must be that we should not elevate this fact into a general attitude toward truth, like that what matters in inquiry is the consequences of believing P, rather than that P is true. But this – rightly claimed as a "truism" by Lynch, but brandished as if it were a substantive result – is simply a condition of having beliefs at all. (In fact, Lynch's "truism" is that "truth is a worthy goal of inquiry," which is confused – it's like saying that "arriving at the solution is a worthy goal of doing a puzzle." If you're not trying to get the solution, you're not "doing the puzzle" at all.) It makes no sense to deny the "value of truth" in inquiry; but by the same token it makes no sense to affirm it either (i.e., as something that transcends what is normally available to us as the result of inquiry). One inquires, and forms beliefs, or one does not; and one cannot not believe.

The anti-skeptical point, as shown for example by Myles Burnyeat some time ago re: ancient skepticism, is that it is incoherent to take a third-person point of view on your own beliefs (although Burnyeat himself did not press the matter any farther). If you believe something, inquiry is over: the issue is settled. This doesn't mean you're stuck with your beliefs, as you may always reopen the matter. But to do so is to remove the proposition in question from your beliefs and put it into doubt; and doubt is only intelligible against a background of settled belief. So (at least on the pragmatist cum Davidsonian view I recommend) we never say: this belief of mine might be false; for to say of something that it might be false is to regard the issue of its truth as no longer settled – and thus no longer a belief at all.

Making a similar (but not identical) point (and ironically providing Rorty, who is otherwise not a big fan, with pragmatist cover), Peirce claimed that the goal of inquiry is not truth but belief: you may think you want truth, but once you believe, you find that that is sufficient (I can look up the quote if you want). The thought is right, but the conclusion is not – because once you believe, you thereby ipso facto believe that you know the truth; so of course fixation of belief is sufficient. What would be superfluous would be a purported philosophical demonstration that our beliefs are true, either individually or collectively. If you really do believe, you feel no need for such a "demonstration"; and if you don't believe, then such a demonstration wouldn't apply (as it applies only to beliefs).

As may be evident by now, an important confusion (or systematic conflation) that can cause trouble here is between "belief" as a) a proposition qua believed (never mind by whom), and b) a proposition actually believed by the agent in question. These must be kept distinct. Again: take a belief of mine, any belief. If I cease to believe it, now I see it as possibly false. So the belief is possibly false? No, the proposition is possibly false as far as I'm concerned: I'm in doubt. Once I give it up, it's not a "belief" at all. Maybe someone else believes it; then it's a belief of theirs.

Once the anti-skeptical point is in place, the anti-instrumental and anti-nihilist points follow quickly (or are superfluous; on the other hand, this is not to say that related metaphysical and methodological unconfusing – of realist and anti-realist alike – isn't necessary to keep the anti-skeptical point in place, as skepticism naturally reactivates in the presence of dogmatism). So, to sum up: the value of truth has to mean the value of true belief, lest it mean the value of there being truths at all; but it turns out to be impossible to isolate the truth component of true belief as the object of value – the value of true belief ends up being either 1) the value of the world's being a certain way, or 2) of our knowing that the world is the way it is (either for the informative value of true belief or for the instrumental value of lacking false belief), or 3) of our believing what we believe given that we believe it (or something). The first two aren't what we were after, and the third doesn't make any sense. Our concern is really with belief and inquiry properly construed; but that noble goal is remarkably poorly advanced with such slogans as "truth matters."

I was going to run through Lynch's WMD example, but there are so many conflations and confusions in there that we better save it. Next time.

New (home for) science blogs

Totally awesome science blogs The Loom, Mixing Memory, and Evolving Thoughts are moving to (how about that) scienceblogs.com. There are other new additions as well: check out the home page here. Must ... update ... blogroll ...

Spanish castle magic

Here's another optical illusion - a nice variation on an oldie but goodie. (Make sure your mouse is off to the side.) Bonus: this one's free! (HT: Unfogged.)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

That's four hears

At Dispatches, Ed gives us a long excerpt from a recent speech by Judge Jones (yes, that Judge Jones), explaining the concept of judicial independence. Ed's comment: "hear, hear." To which I add: hear, hear. The entire speech is here. (Ooh, almost had five.)

Friday, June 02, 2006

For the time, being

If you have too much of the one and/or not enough of the other: beware. See you there! (Maybe.)

(HT: Mormon Metaphysics)


I'm not sure I've mentioned this fine site yet. Now I have.

It's a streaming web radio show (one per week, *no archives*), featuring (as our host puts it) "Experimental / Ambient / Electronic / Ethereal" music, all from netlabels. I listen even now, to a very tasty track from an artist (Gyges, as in "ring of") previously unknown to me (as they usually are). Check it out!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

You are getting sleepy, too

Check out this optical illusion. You won't believe your eyes! (Obviously.) Then, you will send me a check for a great deal of money. (HT: Mixing Memory).

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible (redux)

Remember that one? Ah, corporate disingenuousness; is there anything more heartwarming than that hardy perennial? Today, however, is a different day, so here is more of the same, uh, material. Our source, Truth Tables, is a new blog which displays a taxonomist's love for the logical fallacy. Check it out!

Ah, I see they got it from Wonkette, so it's already out there, making this post somewhat redundant. But I wanted to plug the new blog.

Friday semi-random ten (recently retrieved edition)

Okay, it's Saturday now, but I won't tell if you won't.

1. Eleni Kairandrou – Ulysses' Gaze (ECM New Series)
2. Bill Laswell/Terre Thaemlitz – Web (Subharmonic)
3. Jeff Pearce – Vestiges (Hypnos)
4. Francis Bacon in conversation with Melvyn Bragg (Sooj)
5. Hal Willner et al – Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus (Columbia)
6. Sheila Chandra – ABoneCroneDrone (Realworld)
7. The Hafler Trio – Walk Gently Through the Gates of Joy (Touch)
8. Astor Piazzolla – Tango: Zero Hour (IRS reissue (!))
9. Maeror Tri – emotional engramm (i-Light)
10. Hiroki Okano – Heaven in the Koo (Brain-Food-Music)

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Canon or cannon?

The painters have been here for the last couple of days, and for much of this time their besplattered boombox has been tuned to a "classic rock" station. Listening involuntarily with half an ear, I have identified (in rough order of descending frequency): Pink Floyd, Who, Led Zeppelin, Dylan (birthday tribute), Beatles, Eagles, Tull, Clapton, Springsteen, Stones, Queen, Clash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Bowie, Ramones, Yes, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steely Dan, AC/DC, Styx, Creedence, Green Day, the Dead, Blondie, the Doobie Brothers, and Janis Joplin, plus a few (otherwise unremarkable) things I didn't recognize.

At one time that would have looked like a relatively diverse list, and that a popular radio station would play all of them might have seemed a triumph of pluralism (if not quality exactly) over narrowcasting. Yet now it takes an act of imagination not to see it as exactly the opposite. It doesn't help that in each case the tracks selected were utterly predictable. I understand the motivation, and even the appeal, behind the "canonical" approach (thus the name, "classic rock"), but Aqualung is not the only Tull album (nor the best one, but that's another story), and I don't think we really need to hear The Wall twice daily (double album though it be, and much as I liked it in 1979). If I had to hear this every day I would surely go mad.

Yet sometimes I'm glad there are such stations. One chilly day we were out at the storage locker moving some furniture around, and a car with radio cranked came by long enough for us to hear two things -- "New Year's Day" and "Rock 'n' Roll" -- and it was just the thing for energizing weary limbs (mine anyway). Small doses at opportune moments: that's the key.

So while part of me thinks it would be great to have, say, an Atom Heart-only radio station (not least for its potentially infinite playlist), I really would not appreciate the sinking feeling I might come to have on hearing even the glorious opening digital stutters of "Supertropical" for the umpteenth time.

This is so illegal

But it won't last. Behold the glory here -- until you can't. (HT: Unfogged)

Monday, May 22, 2006

OPC IV plus PC XXX = my brain hurts

The Online Philosophy Conference continues here, while the latest Philosophers' Carnival convenes here (and note considerable cat-blogging at the latter site, featuring multiple kitties).

Sunday, May 21, 2006

DVC smackdown x 2

On Thursday film critic A. O. Scott of the local broadsheet took aim at, as he put it, "Ron Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's best-selling primer on how not to write an English sentence," and he gets off a few good ones, which I reproduce here for your amusement. Since director Howard is merely a hack and not an outright disgrace, Mr. Scott's best lines concern neither him nor Tom Hanks's hair ("long, and so is the movie"), but the source material. The screenwriters, he says,
have streamlined Mr. Brown's story and refrained from trying to capture his, um, prose style. "Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino with long white hair." Such language — note the exquisite "almost" and the fastidious tucking of the "which" after the preposition — can live only on the page.
Later he notes that said albino – neither enormous nor long-haired on the screen – "may be the first character in the history of motion pictures to speak Latin into a cellphone" (I wouldn't be so sure about that, actually ...). The best line does concern our cast, however:
Through it all Mr. Hanks and Ms. Tautou stand around looking puzzled, leaving their reservoirs of charm scrupulously untapped.
Also weighing in on this celluloid marvel is the American public, as canvassed by The Onion. Here's Matt Medsker, Dramaturge:
I've been waiting my whole life to hear, 'Oh, no, Jesus ditn't!' shouted in a movie theater. Perhaps now that dream may come true.
So say we all.

P.S. For more about DB's inimitable (Deo volente, he said into his cellphone) prose stylings, check out the posts collected here (scroll down).