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Updated: 2014-10-05T01:37:09.479-07:00

 



Fourth Impressions of Toronto: Inscrutable Grates and Giant Snowballs. Uncut, Unedited, and Imperfectly Spell-checked!

2008-01-05T18:18:06.604-08:00

Hello everyone, nippers and scholars and hardy pensioners and handsome middle-aged people, I write from my little bit of warmth in the fridge of Toronto. As of fourteen minutes ago, it was three degrees celsius at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, according to a reputable-looking website (ie. one without those insane flickering ads that have led to many psychedelic deaths among the epileptic and the elderly, and much psychedelic cursing among everyone else). Not very impressive, I know. But mark! Three days ago the said source said that, at the said location, it was -11 degrees celsius, excluding the wind-chill, which was -16! Mark! This is only two degrees higher than the safe temperature of your average home freezer, according to HRDS recommendations! What's this like to live in? Well, I have to say that I was a bit disappointed. Walking around in that weather* is not really that much more punishing than biking to the University of Canterbury on a frosty Christchurch morning in June**, or climbing Mount Roy on a cool day in Wanaka .*** Notwithstanding all of the above and more besides, it is easy to be caught out by freezer-weather, which is why I have barely left my room for the last two days, suffering as I am from three different kinds of head-cold and an internal thermostat that is broken but still very lively, making sudden shifts and spasms every so often. This is not helped at all by the temperature in my room, which is governed by the Inscrutable Grate in the Ceiling. The Inscrutable Grate is a very fickle Grate, by turns breathing fire and breathing nothing. If only it would average itself out, then I would be perfectly cosy and fine. But it is Inscrutable, you see, and no amount of love or persuasion will change its ways. As it is, the changes in room temperature are perfectly modulated so as to set up a kind of resonance pattern with my internal temperature, so that the superposition of the two is more vicious and variable than you would imagine, if you took each one on its own.However, I have company. I have a snowdrift of tissues, Schubert in my laptop, and a book called Trilby by someone called du Maurier. The first thing is good for resting upon, the second is restful, and the third is also restful, but in a charming and invigorating way. (It's all about love and artists, and has just the right amount of levity for those topics – not so much as to demean them, but not so little as to take the fun out of them). Trilby is partly for fun, but partly for scholarship. (By contrast, Silas Marner was entirely for scholarship). You see, I have this thing called a semester. It starts on Monday and inside it there's a whole bunch of "papers." One of them is called "The Victorian Unconscious", and du Maurier is on the reading list. This may seem a weird course for a student of the History and Philosophy of Science. But it is perfectly normal for a weird student of History and Philosophy of Science, so everything's OK. My positive reason for going into this subject (yes, there were negative ones as well) was that I intended to "engage, broadly speaking, in an investigation of the connections between science and literature" (paraphrased from my statement of purpose, written almost exactly a year ago – ah, those innocent, broadly-speaking days!). And what better way of approaching this topic than through a study of Victorian ideas about the unconscious mind, as articulated in the novels of the time? Is that a rhetorical question? Does it matter? Regress threatens. Was that meant to be funny? QED? Believe it or not, graduate studies are designed to train the student in the clear articulation of complex ideas, and I was asked to do some of that last semester. However, much of my training was in other skills. In History of Physics, I worked on my ability to skim-read enormous and complicated books and try to review them in a way that was not only succinct but also did not betray my superficial understanding of the subject-matter (hint: when you're stuck, try paraphrasing [...]



More Pus and Decadence

2008-01-02T16:52:11.769-08:00

Nothing Like the Sun is as an autobiography of William Shakespeare, framed as a lecture given by Anthony Burgess (who is the author of the book). And the prose is just as you would expect from a collaboration between Shakespeare and Burgess:dense, witty, powerful, oozing with pus and legs and decadent prose. The easiest way into the book is through the plot, which tells the story of WS's rise to prominence and the loves and troubles he comes across along the way.There is, firstly, his early gift and thrill with words. “’Water hath a trick of drowning and, at best, is a wetter.’ And then the jingle ruled him, already a word-boy. ‘Water wetter water wetter water wetter.’” Then, his unusual appetite for love, or at least his unusual skill in rendering it. “He heard above the beating of his blood the rustling of linen, a gentle panting at the restraining fingers of tapes and laces that yielded all too slowly...” This is the young domesticated WS, writing a youthful sonnet in the middle of a house-hold night, the slops and greasy broth and father calling for work, a bickering sister.“And, childish, I am put to school of nightFor to seek light beyond the reach of light.”His father is sympathetic. “I have somewhere a piece of fine parchment. Copy the poem fair.” But the dark women is all bundled up with someone else. WS runs on fire from the happy rogering may-pole pagans, their “buttocks moon-besilvered,” and gets well drunk on sixpence of beer and the brimming talk of country rogues. A gap in the memory, a naked surprise in the morning, an accidental child and an accidental wife. How doth WS the married man? Well, “he had but half of that bed now, and the familiar rest he sought, in so great need, so worn, was less than one quarter what it had formerly been.” WS the married man goes not very well at all, and with not much hope of getting better. “For one line of verse,” he says to his new wife, “I would trade thirty such scolds as you.” Off he goes to teach words to little boys, and is fired for making lewd advances on his students. He leaves with his future all broken up, but his word-sense in tact, as ever. “I am going,” said WS. “I feel defiled.” (A good phrase, he saw that: a field defiled.)’ Back to the railing wife and her belly double-pumped with babies.Things really get going, the WS we know starts to really take over the plot, when he falls in with the Queens Men, who arrive in Stratford just as an old herbalist, “cat-queen, cartomancer”, is driven up the street by a mad cruel mob with their heads full of witchy jeers. There is more madness and cruelty in the book, of nature and of humans; but more on that later.In WS's adult career there are, on Burgess's account, a few key turning points. One is WS’s response to an attack from a fellow actor, an attack upon his talent and good-will. He is conceited, he is told, an upstart; indeed, he is an “upstart crow.” WS will not stand for this. He has always fancied words. With something to prove, fancy hardens into ambition. He will not sniffle along as a mediocrity, a “play-botcher, an excitor of groundlings, a poor stumbling actor. The time was come to show he was a poet.”Titus Andronichus is another key, because it starts a friendship that shapes the life and mind of WS. The play piques an audience of nobles, who call the playwright to dine. Wits parry, eyes discover. WS is commissioned by Essex to write a poem, Southhampton quips and glitters. WS is beguiled, and he knows this in a way you might expect, through speech: “the triple chime of his name’s homonym from that lordly and desirable mouth…the lip’s pout, the red tounge’s lifting lazily.” It is a short step to the beginning of a lush, difficult friendship, one that moves from infatuation to love, teacher to equal, affection to tension to bitterness and split. The career of the friendship helps to define the course of the book and of WS's creative life. WS goes passive and old as h[...]



Nothing Like The Sun: Pus and Decadence

2008-01-02T09:18:14.534-08:00

The next post was meant to be a review of Anthony Burgess's Nothing Like the Sun, but really it is just an excuse to quote Anthony Burgess as he imitates Shakespeare. Here are some of the juicy bits, unspoiled by my ramblings:Was it, he wondered then, to be the way of the adventurer, mythical raker of carbuncles and diamonds from beneath the spicetrees, but first and last the hold’s stink and the foul water after the weeviled biscuit, men rent and filthy and reechy like their shirts of the hogo of earwax, the hap of wrack and piracy or, at best, spewing among rude and rough rascals made roaring lustful with salt beef and, a mere week at sea, cursing and raging in their fights over the ravaging of the soft white body of a boy, a boy refined and gentled with snippets of Ovid and maxims out of Seneca. A dark excitement came that guilt once pounced on in a rearing wave to wash away. Yet the names fired: America, Selenetide, Zanzibar, Terra Florida, Canaria, Palme Forro…Reechy! Hogo! Selenetide, Canaria! Mounched! (Mounched?) Frotting, spirochaete! Croshabell, oaklings, footsticks, cinques, moxibustion, dittany!He sat at the table on a three-legged stool, moving a greasy wash-clout from it first; the cheesy smell of curds rose at him like a small grey spirit. She mounched away at nothing, bringing cards. He knew these cards, though not the manner of telling them. Cartomancy. He thrilled at the word. These were not for an innocent game of trump or ruff; they were antique pictures, of towers crumbling to brick in a lightening-flash; of pope and empress; the moon all blood; Adam and Eve; the rising of the dead, sleepy and naked, at doomsday’s trumpet.Sail-trimmers at their work on the waist between poop and forecastle, where too were stowed pinnance and skiff. The gravel-ballast and cable tiers; the outboard-thrusting beakhead that cracked the seas as the ship plunged. The hold below the orlop where the rotten beer and crawling cheese were stored. Foresail and foretop sail on the foremast; square course and topsail on the mainmast; the mizen mast with its lanteen or mizen yard; the bonaventure mizen; drabler and bonnet. Calivers and arquebuses, the gunner with his linstock, the aft and forward slueing of the carriage, the quoin.Drink, then. Down it among the titbrained molligolliards of country copulatives, of a beastly sort, all, their browned pickers a-clutch of their spilliwilly potkins, filthy from the handling of spade and harrow, cheesy from udder new-milked, slashed mouths agape at some merry tale from that rogue with rat-skins around his middle, coneyskin cap on’s sconce. Robustious rothers in rural rivo rhapsodic. Swill thou among them, O London Will-to-be, gentleman-in-waiting, scrike thine ale’s laughter with Hodge and Tom and Dick and Blakc Jack the outlander from Long Compton…Hast a privy for a god, then, with the shit in’t. Sayest? Not one fart do I give, nay, for all thy great tally. Wouldst test it, then? Thou wouldst not, for thou art but a hulking snivelling codardo. I have been in the wars and do speak the tongues of the Low Countries. Ik om England soldado. U gif me to trinken. Who saith a liar? I will make his gnashers be all bloody. I will give him a fair crack, aye. You are but country cledge, all, that have seen naught of this world, and this one here, who is but new-wiped, he is a dizard. Thou yearling, thou, had I my hanger I would deal thee a great flankard. But I have my nief and I will mash thy fleering bubbibubkin lips withal…It was no wise congrued with her lying near-bare against him nor with that horrible steaming-out, some few minutes past, of a mouthful apter for a growling leching collier pumping his foul water into some giggling alley-mort up by the darkling wall of a stinking alehouse privy.[...]



Towards a Coherence Theory of Silliness

2007-12-28T16:19:27.650-08:00

Introduction:A number of recent papers have made considerable progress towards giving a full account of silliness. The concept of silliness is a sorely neglected topic in the history of philosophy, and none of the major philosophers have so far written treatises on the matter. Some people look back to Hegel and Jacques Derrida, whose collected works may be regarded as extended meditations on the topic, as pioneers in the field. But most people view it as unfair to regard these writers as “philosophers”; and there is some dispute, even among leading writers on silliness, about whether or not the writings of such people as Hegel and Derrida really do fall under the category of “silliness”; with some commentators regarding the related concepts of “artful nonsense” and “gibberish” as more appropriate in those cases. The merit of those views, however, is not the subject of this paper, and nor are any of the other new and interesting questions relating to the history of silliness in philosophical writings. Rather, I am concerned here with the concept of “silliness”, aloof from any historical considerations. In particular, I will elaborate upon a particular account of silliness, which I will call the “coherence theory of silliness,” and which I have mentioned briefly in an earlier paper. The core of the coherentist view is that the coherence of a potential silliness-set is a necessary condition for that silliness set to be an actual silliness set. This view may be contrasted with, and has been attacked by proponents of, the “cohesion” theory of silliness. This view holds that coherence is not a necessary condition for silliness, and proposes its own necessary condition in the place of coherence. The key difference between the replacement condition (“cohesion”), and the “coherence” condition, is that the former emphasises the intrinsic relations between silliness scenarios, while the former emphasises the extrinsic relations between silliness scenarios. In this paper I will first respond to some objections to this view that have been put forward by Jones (2006) and Andrews (2006); and will then use my comments upon those objections to motivate some refinements to my own view, which will include a distinction between local and global silliness.Silliness Sets and Silliness Scenarios It is almost unanimously agreed that the most useful unit of analysis for the concept of silliness is the “silliness scenario.” The canonical definition of the “silliness scenario” was given by Jones in his pioneering 2005 paper. Later papers have made some refinements upon Jones’ account, but they are of a highly technical nature, and the essence remains the same. For Jones, an event E is a silliness scenario if and only if the following conditions hold:(1)Interaction: E must be apprehended by at least two humans agents if the perpetrator of the scenario was a human; and at least one human if the perpetrator of the scenario was not a human. (Discussion about this condition has centred mainly around the problem of zombie perpetrators, solitary silliness, and delayed apprehension. All of these issues warrant further investigation, but they do not pose any real problems for the interaction condition).(2)Non-Cognition: the agents must apprehend the silliness of E without any cognitive engagement in that event. The agents may, of course, be engaged cognitively with aspects of E that do not actually give rise to any silliness; the agent may, for example, apprehend cognitively some of the intellectually involved parts of a joke, but still apprehend the silly parts without using the cognitive faculty. (This has proven to be the most troublesome condition. There has been considerable discussion about the kind of “cognitive engagement” that is appropriate to this condition, with some advising an abandonment of “cognition” altogether, and settling for a more mild condition; most of these accounts make some use [...]



Martin Amis, "The Information"

2007-12-24T22:36:33.755-08:00

Here's the first page of The Information, by Martin Amis.Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It's nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that... Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them. Women – and they can be wives, lovers, gaunt muses, fat nurses, obsessions, devourers, exes, nemeses – will wake and turn to these men and ask, with female need-to-know, “what is it?” And the men say, “Nothing. No it isn't anything really. Just sad dreams.”Richard Tull was crying in his sleep. The woman beside him, his wife Gina, woke and turned. She moved up on him from behind and laid hands on his pale and straining shoulders. There was a professionalism in her blinks and frowns and whispers: like the person at the poolside, trained in first-aid; like the figure surging in on the blood-smeared macadam, a striding Christ of mouth-to-mouth. She was a woman. She knew so much more about tears than he did. She didn't know about Swifts Juvenilia, or Wordsworth's senilia, or how Cressida had variously fared at the hands of Boccaccio, of Chaucer, of Robert Henryson, of Shakespeare; she didn't know Proust. But she knew tears. Gina had tears cold.Richard raised a bent arm to his brow. The sniff he gave was complicated, orchestral. And when he sighed you could hear the distant seagulls falling through his lungs.“Nothing. It isn't anything. Just sad dreams.”Forget the mild, straight-faced sexism, or the fact that women cry at night as well (let's not argue about all that) or the imprecise unhappiness that runs through the whole novel, and gets tiresome after while; forget the references to the outer universe, the frailty of a novelist who ventures into the details of phsyics, and the foolhardiness of anyone who does so with the aim of asking the tired question of “what are we in the eyes of the universe?”Forget the forgettable bits. But remember the bits that get stuck in the mind because they are strung with hooks of great prose. “Swing low on your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob-probes, and you will mark.” That line would look good, I think, at the start of a poem, let alone a novel. And the “distant seaguls falling through his lungs.” Where does this come from, and how does this strange image do its meaning-work? I don't know, but it works all right: empty sea, emptying sky. The striding Christ is superfluous, isn't it, as far as meaning goes? If anything it goes too far and upsets the solemnity of the occasion. But it doesn't matter, because it is a boastful, playful flourish, full of the joy of writing.For hunters of metaphors, Amis is a teeming plain.“Now in the dawn, through the window and through the rain, the streets of London looked like the insides of an old plug. Richard contemplated his sons, their motive bodies reluctantly arrested in their sleep, and reef-knotted in their bedware, and he thought, as an artist might: but the young sleep in another country, at once very dangerous and out of harm's way, perennially humid with innocuous libido – there are neutral eagles on the windowsill, waiting, offering protection and threat.”“Now came the boys – in what you would call a flurry if it didn't go on so long and involve so much inanely grooved detail, with Richard like the venerable though tacitly alcoholic pilot in the cockpit of the frayed shuttle...by the time he rounded the final half-landing the front door was opening – was closing – and with a whip of its tail the flurry of their life was gone.”But perhaps there is more to analysing a book than listing metaphors. Well.... perhaps. In a limited sense, on some days. I have to admit that there's a plot in The Information, something about sex and a well-read hitman and literary jealousy. There are themes as well. Ageing, the vastness of the physical universe, the power of art and the pu[...]



Signpost [last number] +1

2007-10-16T17:39:53.848-07:00

There are many different kinds of charm, more than I have described below.

The charm of Lolita is aloof, childish, sarcastic. It is full of mockery and hard-to-reach places. It also has a sort of breathless resignation to the pleasures of adulthood.

The charm of Catherine Moorland is quiet and prudent. It is unthreatening but it also provocative, and it has hard questions for older people.

Elizabeth Bennet has a similar charm, in my opinion. But it is more penetrating and more intelligent and it is capable of anger. I could not imagine Catherine Moorland being really angry.

Dora Copperfield has a different kind of charm altogether. She is all candyfloss and icing. You need to be gentle with her or she will break apart, but in return she will give you pleasures of the gentlest kind.

Imagine each of these charms separately. Then imagine them all together, combined in one person. This person will be sensual and puzzling. She will be sharp and full of youth and full of an intense girlish vexing energy.

And imagine the kind of response this person would get when they took their vexing youthful affection and bestowed it on another person. I venture that the response would be strong and erratic. By turns the person would be calm, complacent, condescending, aloof, suspicious, guarded, amused, surprised, alarmed, affronted, insecure, defensive, thoughtful, warm, admiring, tender, tantalised, wary, adventurous, calm.

These responses would not follow each other in a graded sequence. They would jump around a lot, start again from scratch, repeat themselves. After a while they will settle down into a wary excitement, but even then they will be prone to sudden changes.

All of this may explain why I have not written much on this blog recently. Another explanation is that I have been reading a lot of History of Science; but that explanation is not very interesting. I don't know what I will write on this blog in the upcoming weeks, but I hope it is something.




Hey My Droogs and Little Malchikiwicks

2008-01-05T18:18:06.604-08:00

Well well for your Michael Trevor yes the time's been going fastly, O my far-away friends, and many sunny happenings have been going on over this-here little point of action, no mistaking that my friends. I went to Ottawa. Yes! I went to Ottawa my mates and I was tolchocked on the groodies, yes I was, by the goodness growing there, the goodness and the multi-pleasurableness of this fun-sponging place. The trees were bleeding all over the city, o the ruby-water flowed and the leaves were dead on the ground and it was just like old times, o my foreign droogies in your happy summer full of oily skin and little lambs being carried off in trucks, o yes. And the things that they have built there, in Ottawa! So much building, you must see it some time before somone knocks you over, yes you mustly very soonish or there will be sorry things to say about it, notwithstanding. Buildings made of rock and buildings made of glass, all in glass, you could make a thousand knives if your inclinations lay that way my pleasing droogies, from these buildings. And a parliament, a parliament just like the jolly big thing in London-city, all brown and spiky like a very serious fence, very serious indeed. And there were happy sunny houses in the happy suburbs, with the leaves lying sunny on the ground like money. And so much richness in these places there was, so much leafy money, that there were no footpaths at all, yes they had been killed off long ago my friends, quite some time ago when you were just a little droog with jelly fingers, o yes. And the cars went past like shiny bullets, very big and not see-through at all, not a little look-see even once. And I went also to another place of much delight and belly-tumbling too. This was Quebec, not so far from Ottawa as you may know from school or some such thing. And there was as much leafiness and tree-falling sussuration and so forth as I had ever seen or ever wanted or needed to see in my short hooray. And the hills were all dressed up in it, o my comrades, in the heigth of Roman fashion so they say. And I scurried up a hill on my little scuttlers and I saw a little way ahead, where the hills were going bloody all the way along, poor things. And that was all. I just went down after that and was carried past the shiny lakes and people swimming and drowning happily all along the shore, like little babies fat with little arms ha ha. O yes, it was not too bad really, and me only two months from home.And the journey then, o my droogs! A big bus with bolshy big windows black and wrapped around like darkened glasses, not unlike the road-machines back home I venture. It was not bad at all, not so bad at all I say. I say it was not so bad as you might think, and I say you catch my little meaning here and so I journey on.And all this and many more besides, o my readers in your ugly chairs! Glad enough I was, I say, to catch a game of batter-ball. So much in the happening, and so little to see! A game of batter-ball, with all the pyjama-panted players and so much happy throwing and a little teeny bit of hitting it was not enough for me I think. Not a thing to recommend to a friend, though a foe is something different, except you may say if the friend has a beautiful companion, or some such thing, to make the time go past with greater snappishness, o my droogs.All that to one side and the rest to another, I should say I found a friend or two while working round my itty way the city. And all are nicely set in place o my well-proportioned people, as is in the nature of things so to say. One for tennis and tennis on the table and under the table and other sizzling racquet-sports ha ha. Another then for other things, like study-work and such. And then some more for lighter times, for eating jugs of briny browny bubble-juice. But mostly study-work I think, o Michael Trevor knows the inside-outs of this and that when study-work is ra[...]



Mapping out Science and Literature

2007-09-05T10:35:54.128-07:00

I want to study the intersection of science and literature. But what does this mean? There are a few basic divisions to make here, and they help to map out this odd and interesting field of study. Some of the following divisions are interdependent (it would be nice to get rid of this interdependency; in the meantime, richness takes priority over clarity).Method and matterWhat happens when scientists apply the scientific method* to the phenomenon of literature, and vice versa? Scientists, especially psychologists, can study the cognitive processes that go on in an poet's head. Less interestingly, they can analyse handwriting and manuscripts as physical phenomena (eg. to date old scrolls). Likewise, there are novels about science and its social etc. implications (though usually about the implications of science, not science itself. I don't know any works of laboratory fiction, expect perhaps the writings of some sociologists).*Here I've interpreted "method" broadly, to span discovery, justification and method of presentation (ie. language).A study of the above kind will provide "weak" answers to the question of how each discipline contributes the other. I say "weak" because the answers do not tell us whether or not literature types are doing the same sort of things as science types. Science can give us insights into the workings of the literary mind; but it can also give us insights into the workings of the solar system. "Strong" questions about science and literature will reveal similarities and differences between the scientific and literary methods. For example, some people think that imagination is the link between physics and poetry: is it really, and what do we mean by "imagination"? And where do metaphors fit into all of this?Parallel cases and the restA good way to examine the respective methods of science and literature is to look at cases where they are applied to the same subject matter. For example, large parts of psychology are not relevant to the method of science or of literature. But these parts of psychology are part of the subject matter of both disciplines. Finding this sort of common ground helps to eliminate unwanted variables, giving better grounds for comparison. Foreground and background questionsWe can think of science and literature as consisting in their respective subject matter and their respective methods of inquiry and expression. A naive view would clearly separate these spheres from the rest of the world. But an awful lot happens outside of these two spheres, and a lot of it is relevant to the spheres themselves. People possess values and make statements about those values; they have social lives and form political parties. They have rich psychological lives. In a lot of cases these happenings will be effected by what goes on in the two spheres; in some cases (certainly in the realm of literature) the causal arrow will run in the other direction. One way to illuminate the connection between science and literature is to look at how they interact in the background world of daydreams and social lives and politics.Historical and philosophical questionsThis division is more straightforward for some people than for others. The problem is that some philosophers of science reckon they need historical examples to verify their claims about ideal scientific methods (eg. Popper can't be right, because that's not how Newton did it). And some historians reckon they need the philosophy of science to decide whether or not they are studying science (as opposed to superstition or popular rubbish).Still, there are some straightforward mistakes that one can make in this area. To avoid controversy, perhaps it is better to talk about general questions, about all known science, and questions about specific historical fields. It is known, for example, that the Roman poet Lucretius wrote a poem that theo[...]



Some info. on my blogging

2008-01-02T09:09:34.831-08:00

Below is a bit of information about the topics I favour on this blog. (There is also a general welcome lying around somewhere).The idea is to say why I find these topics interesting and what I will do with them. If the summaries below are not enough to persuade you of the overwhelming value of any particular topic, try the linked posts in the sub-heading. If they do nothing else, these linked posts (I like to call them "Introductions") will bore you intoagreement.Travel (as literature; as philosophy)Writing is not just a way of expressing the world, but also of sensing the world. Travel-writing is easier than creative writing, because it places fewer demands on the imagination. It is easier than philosophy because you don't have to think too much. When I am traveling, this suits me. Frequently when I am not traveling it also suits me.MetaphorI would like to think that metaphor is the one true link between the crafts of the intellect and the arts of the imagination, the fibre in the knot that binds the threads of science and poetry. There is a faint possibility that this view is a bit fanciful. But I like metaphors anyway. I also like to collect them - here's a sample. I deny that this hobby makes me in any way odd, obsessive or eccentric. EducationI would like to say that I am deeply enthusiastic about education. But really I am deeply enthusiastic about the idea of education. I like to say that good education is rich and empowering and full of wit and wisdom, that good education is key to human flourishing, that we should all become school teachers. I probably should think about these claims a little more. I should also admit that I am not really as keen as I might be on the idea of being a school-teacher. I wrote a series of three essays on education; it is called "Education as an Ideal."Philosophy (and here and here)In the first of the linked posts I wrote: "I do not have the will or the ability to live a life of philosophy, but I do wish to life a philosophical life." On reflection, this is really just a way of saying that I'm a pretty amateur philosopher. The things I do write on this topic are just as likely to be stimulated by a book or an abstracted idea, as by a real-life event. I am not equipped to say anything really interesting about ethics, education, politics, aesthetics or science; and I am not equipped to say anything at all about logic, metaphysics or semantics. But I like to exercise my mind and I like to reward my curiosity. I aspire to asking interesting questions. Failing that, I hope to make some interesting errors.CreativeEveryone likes a good yarn. A lot of people also like words. Some people like writing books. Some people like writing poems. Some people like sticking a bunch of words together to see what happens. A poem is a good way of decorating a thought that would otherwise be uninteresting. It is also a good excuse for bad arguments. I like writing poems that rhyme, especially sonnets.DiablogThere are lots of good-sounding reasons for people to write dialogues. However, it is easier to write about writing dialogues than to write dialogues. Watch this space (intermittently).BooksDoes this need an introduction? People read books, and then they write about them. I write about them because it enriches the experience of reading. Reviews can be long and ponderous or little more than a quote. Often they are just a way of making one's blog look better by including the prose of people who get published.MiscellanyStories About Cows[...]



Signpost 4: More Odds and Ends

2007-09-11T13:58:22.394-07:00


[Update: by the looks of things, graduate life is a constant scramble to meet yesterday's deadlines. Probably I will not have much time over the next few months to post on this blog, except on topics directly related to my studies.]

Subject-wise, the writing on this blog over the next little while will be the same as it has been over the last little while ie. odds and ends. Style-wise, it may change: I'll make an effort towards brevity. Or rather, I will yield to the temptation of failing to spend hours writing long and ponderous essays on obscure topics.

This is not as easy a decision as it looks; but nor is it very hard. On the one hand, I quite like the idea of being an earnest long-winded scholar who shuns worldly delights in service of the wordy exposition of minutiae. On other hand, I would like people to read this blog. (And worldly delights are, after all, delightful).

My first act of popularist summarizing is to condense all of my bloated introductions into a single easy-to-read no-nonsense pocket of information. And here it is.

The jury is out on the merit, readership-wise, of writing odds and ends. I've heard that success in blogging is impossible without a fairly narrow and consistent subject matter. But surely there is something to gain from appealing to a wide audience. At any rate, I'll give top priority to what appeals to me. Thanks to the people who have left comments behind so far.




"It's What Makes Us Human"

2007-09-04T12:12:51.588-07:00

Sometimes, when one person is gaily expounding the virtues of her chosen course of life or study, or two people are hotly expounding the shortcomings of eachothers', someone will reach for the "it's what makes us human" defense. The idea seems to be that there is an intrinsic value in doing the things that make humans distinctive. This kind of argument is especially common with respect to cognition: we should value thought, the argument runs, because it is what separates us from mere beasts.Sometimes the word "human" is meant to pick out a set of stand-alone goods (eg. a rich emotional life; concern for others), and the speaker furnishes independent grounds for thinking that these really are goods. But sometimes the claim really seems to be that a trait possesses value solely in virtue of it making humans different from other species.* Is this claim reasonable?*And sometimes people will exploit the ambiguity for rhetorical effect, trying to benefit both from the validity of the first claim, and advantage of the second claim (which consists in not obviously requiring any additional justification).At first glance it looks a bit fishy. Suppose that a highly intelligent race landed on the moon and started interacting with us. Surely the presence of this race would not persuade us that cognitive excellence was no longer important, and that we should aim for the newly-distinctive trait of cognitive mediocrity. It seems odd that the presence or otherwise of another race could impact on our value system in this way.However, of there is fishiness here I don't think it is a very solid fishiness. Most of us can appreciate the reasonableness of a country taking pride in its distinctiveness. Distinctiveness means standing out; it is a step away from anonymity. People value their "sense of identity."Sure, distinctive national traits (superb cuisine, great landscapes etc.) are valued in themselves, because they guarantee citizens a good meal in that country, or a great view. And it would be easy to conflate this kind of value with the value of distinctiveness. But people are not just proud of their national excellences. They are also proud of their national quirks, their eccentricities, things that are hard to see as excellencies in themselves. For example, in New Zealand we are proud of the Kiwi, a small flightless bird with a silly beak. If we found out that some other country also had a kiwi, we would feel uncomfortable. And if someone were to come along and kill off all our Kiwi, we would feel this to be a crime not just against Kiwis but also against New Zealanders.****Is this a reasonable feeling? For the sake of argument, let's say that it is. But it would be great to hear anyone else's thoughts on this.The situation is more complicated than the above paragraph suggests. After all, a "sense of national identity" would not mean much if it were held by only one person. Our instinct to form groups is just as strong as our instinct to demonstrate the uniqueness of our own group. But it remains true that distinctiveness is a strong impulse. If the instinct is reasonable, then distinctiveness can constitute a reason for a country to favour a trait. Whether or not, in the final weigh-up, the value of distinctiveness overrides the value of togetherness, is something to work out carefully in particular cases.But why should the same lines of argument carry over to the case of an entire race of people? Well, why not? They arguments seem to apply as well to the case of a family as to the case of a nation. In this case, I think, the onus is on the skeptic to show that there is a salient difference between countries and races, such that the blithe assumption of continuity is unwarranted.In saying that, it's worth emphasising the relative weakness o[...]



The Good Hedonist

2007-09-05T08:10:20.072-07:00

Imagine the life of a moral hedonist: one who performs good acts because they are good, but for purely selfish reasons. His greatest pleasure is performing good acts for others, but he couldn't care less about the people he helps. For the moral hedonist, charity is orgasmic. He strolls down the street joyously handing out money to beggars. He sends bulging food parcels to the local mission, he volunteers for UNICEF on weekends, he spends his evenings plotting the good health of his neighbour. And this gives him a very great thrill. But when his neighbour comes down with cancer or chilblains, his only regret is that there was never any chance for him to perform the good deed of saving the victim.How do we assess this person morally, and how should we assess him? My suspicion is that society is disposed to be unfairly harsh on the moral hedonist. We tend to be more forgiving to the conventional hedonist (sex and chocolate, etc.) than the person who takes a selfish pleasure in helping others. (Possibly I am wrong here, and it's just me who is unfair. But there's nothing wrong with self-correction. And possibly the error is rather leniancy towards the conventional hedonist than harshness towards the moral hedonist. But possibly not...) So here are three small points in favour of the character just described.1) Helpful deeds are (in general) still helpful when they are done selfishly. The beggar doesn't care if you don't care: he's got something to eat when he had nothing before. In many cases, the benefactor of a good act will not be in a position even to know whether we care or not. This is pretty clear in the UNICEF case. It's less clear in the beggar's case, but probably still true. At any rate, the true moral hedonist will make every attempt to suppress any signs of insincerity that might hurt the benefactor.Granted, this strategy is unlikely to work for long in the case of a close friendship. In principle, I'm not sure that the perfectly skilled and dedicated moral hedonist would ever give himself away (we would need a situation in which revealing the deceit would not hurt the feelings of the so-called-friend). But in practice, the skill and dedication would have to be superhuman to have the right effect in the long-term. (And perhaps the imperfectly skilled moral hedonist would not form any friendships at all, given the hurt that the inevitable exposure would cause).Nevertheless, it is still true that the moral hedonist can do an awful lot of good. If we think otherwise, it may be because intuitions tell us that an uncaring person is a nuisance. And of course this is true in the case of those misanthropes who take no selfish pleasure in doing good to others. But clearly the moral hedonist is a different kettle of fish.2) The moral hedonist is not (necessarily) a hypocrite. Sure, if he sincerely professes to act selflessly, then the moral hedonist is certainly mistaken. But this is primarily an epistemic mistake, not a moral one. There need not be any deliberate duplicity involved.This is important because our (unwarranted) harshness towards the moral hedonist (if it exists) is probably due to our (warranted) harshness towards genuine hypocrites. We routinely despise people who profess that their good deeds spring from selfless intentions, when the opposite is the case. And often this judgment is justified. Perhaps the judgment is directed at the charitable politician who has both eyes on winning votes. Perhaps it's the rockstar who promotes third-world welfare just because it makes him or her more famous; or the businessman who puts money into the same third-world country to get a better chance of exploiting that country in the future.These people necessarily deserve our contempt (because their[...]



Diablogging

2008-01-02T09:16:29.307-08:00

There are many good reasons to write dialogues. They let an author pursue a topic easily when she is in two minds about it. They encourage a reader to "see both sides of the story." The let an author distance himself from his opinions, which is useful when the opinions are tentative, embarrassing or invidious. They train a writer in the tough art of imitating human speech.

Most importantly, though, dialogues put thought in context, showing how it interacts with social and political and emotional factors. Sometimes this contextuality can a bit of a drag (arguments can be complex enough without being messed up by human emotions). But often it is a virtue: besides being entertaining, it can instruct us on the purpose, duties and difficulties of real-life discussion. Arguments always seem more urgent when they are presented by real-life actor (rather than the aloof and anonymous voice of, say, an academic). And when putting together an essay, it is easy (even obligatory) to polish away all the dead-ends and confusions that went into the final product; on the other hand, a good dialogue will "show its construction lines", giving a running lesson in the art of inquiry.

So dialogues are both performative and a performance. They are also an interesting point of contact between philosophy and literature. Interesting, because these two forms of inquiry tend to use dialogues as a means to quite different ends. For philosophy, dialogues help to balance out the life of the mind with the life of ordinary human activities. For literature, dialogue helps to balance out the life of ordinary activity with the life of conscious thought; the latter gains expression through dialogue.

The point of all this is to introduce a new category of writing on this blog. Or at least, to introduce the idea of a new category: for I have not done any diablogging so far. But I hope to do some soon, and I will aim to bring out the good and wholesome qualities that are inherent in dialogues, and to make my negligible but enthusiastic contribution to the world of the dialogue, a world that has a past and a present that is of course too lustrous and huge for any sub-servant of the genre to contemplate without embarrassment.




Second Impressions of Toronto

2008-01-05T18:18:06.605-08:00

I had some first impressions but they didn’t last. I only managed to recover one or two of them, and I put them up over here just in case they were interesting. But now they’re outdated by at least a week, and useless except for research purposes.The first of my second impressions was of getting out of bed in my hostel and discovering a) the lounge smelt more like a cheese-factory than ever b) the fridge was luke-warm inside and had done strange things to my milk c) there were no spoons in the kitchen and d) I would not stay sane for much longer if I did not leave this soap-forsaken place and do something fresh.I went to St. Lawrence Market. There was a buskers’ festival on. It was a glorious day filled with ice-cream and sweat. Small children chased birds around the water-fountain. A small child chased a bird into the water-fountain, whereupon the bird flew away, chuckling to himself.A man stood on top of a twelve-foot pole and juggled five meat cleavers while balancing on his nose a double-edged meat cleaver that span around on a small stick. At the end he said “Over at the Scotiabank tent you can nominate your favourite busker. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, it’s up to you. But my name’s Al….” And he said: “I do this for a living: if you don’t know how much to give, I’ll help you out. And for the Americans in the audience, the five-dollar bill is the big pink one.”Another man juggled five balls while moving around in circles doing the splits on two skateboards with metal spikes all around their edges. He jumped through a flaming star on his skateboard, and then he said: “Over at the Scotiabank tent you can nominate your favourite busker. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, it’s up to you. But my name’s Sam, and you’ve been watching the Flaming Skating Phenomenon..” And he said: “I do this for a living: if you don’t know how much to give, I’ll help you out. And for the Americans in the audience, the five-dollar bill is the big pink one.”To be fair. he also said, “I love children – couldn’t eat a whole one though,” and “I’ve the heart of a child – at home in a jar.” The whole audience laughed like children.I went down to the waterfront, but it smelt like old bread and so I left.A band played at the market. It was a rock band with a lead man who played the electric violin. He played so that he shaved hairs off his bow, and by the end of the gig his bow was trailing a whole mane of hair, and he threw it into the crowd. He was very thin and moved like a whip. When he played he scrunched up his face in ecstasy and went bright red.The songs were big, operatic songs. The main idea was to start off slow and surprise the audience by rising to a thrilling climax, and then to repeat the process. After a while the audience was not surprised any more, but they were thrilled the whole time.In the evening I went home through the business district, where the streets are clean and the glass buildings rise up like glaciers.I had a long interview with a homeless person. She doesn’t do too badly. She said: “the lawyers who come down the street are not too bad. They give me a bit of this, a bit of that, some food.” Sounding immensely pleased, she said: “They give me loads and loads of chalk!” She had been off crack for six months, she said, and hadn’t touch alcohol for eight months. I said I’ld bring her some blankets and socks, but have not done so yet.Further up the street there were tables piled up with books, and boxes filled with books piled up between the houses. Prices were 25cents for soft-copies and a dollar for hard. A guy had a go-cart and he was piling i[...]



Listening Closely to Small Sounds

2007-12-28T17:29:47.350-08:00

Big ups to writers who describe highly dramatic events in a highly un-dramatic manner.

Here is a passage from Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist.

Suddenly, Roberta cried out, and was sitting on the pavement, cradling a bloody mess that, Alice reasoned, could only be Faye. Yes, she could see an arm, white, pretty, whole, with a tangle of coloured bandages on the wrist.

Faye is one of the novel’s key characters, and the bomb blast that kills her is the climax of the novel. What a temptation it must have been to write this event as a climax, to puff it up with paragraphs of lush description. And what a joy it is for the reader to read it as a climax, to witness this narrative blast without seeing the author strain towards it with unnecessary words. (Words that would give a false account of the event anyway, since they would swell an abrupt experience into a slow-motion contemplation.)

Here are some other passages in the same style:

Faye lay on her back. Propped slightly up on embroidered and frilled cushions, ghastly pale, her mouth slightly open, and her cut wrists rested on her thighs. Blood soaked everything.
Alice stood screaming.

The smell on this floor was strong. It came from upstairs. More slowly they went up generously wide stairs, and confronted a stench which made Jasper briefly retch. Alice’s face was stern and proud. She flung open a door on to a scene of plastic buckets, topped with shit. But this room had been deemed sufficiently full, and the one next to it had started. Ten or so red, yellow and orange buckets stood in a group, waiting.

Here it is not the revelation itself but the events surrounding it that give force to the former. Drama is indicated by its effects, like the smell of shit diffusing through the house.




Gigantic Consumption of Empty Whimsies

2007-08-28T08:54:40.874-07:00


Below, a future historian looks back on the popular culture of (presumably) the early-mid twentieth century. (From The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse, first published 1943)

We must confess that we cannot provide an unequivocal definition of those products from which the age takes its name, the feuilletons. They seem to have formed an uncommonly popular section of the daily newspapers, were produced by the millions, and were a major source of mental pabulum for the reader in want of culture. They reported on, or rather “chatted” about, a thousand-and-one items of knowledge. It would seem, moreover, that the cleverer among the writers of them poked fun at their own work. Ziegenhalss, at any rate, contends that many such pieces are so incomprehensible that they can only be viewed as self-persiflage on the part of the authors. Quite possibly those manufactured articles do indeed contain a quantity of irony and self-mockery which cannot be understood until the key is found again. The producers of these trivia were in some cases attached to the staffs of the newspapers; in other cases they were free-lance scriveners. Frequently they enjoyed the high-sounding title of “writer,” but a great many of them seemed to have belonged to the scholar class. Quite a few were celebrated university professors.
Among the favorite subjects of such essays were anecdotes taken from the lives or correspondence of famous men and women. They bore titles such as “Friedrich Nietzsche and Women’s Fashion of 1870,” or “the Composer Rossini’s Favourite Dishes,” or “the Role of the Lapdog in the Lives of the Great Courtisans,” and so on. Another popular type of article was the historical background piece on what was currently being talked about among the well-to-do, such as “The Dream of Casting Gold Through the Centuries,” or “Physico-chemical Experiments in Influencing the Weather,” and hundreds of similar subjects. When we look at the titles that Ziegenhalss cites, we feel surprise that there should have been such people who devoured such chit-chat for their daily reading; but what astonishes us far more is that authors of repute and decent education should have helped to “service” this gigantic consumption of empty whimsies. Significantly, “service” was the expression used; it was also the word donating the relationship of man to the machine at that time.

I wonder what Herman Hesse would have thought of blogging.

Interestingly, the titles quoted in the passage look a lot like the articles published by the scholarly elite of the historian’s time (which is supposedly a apex of intellectual skill and purity). Eg. “The Pronunciation of Latin in the Universities of southern Italy toward the End of the Twelfth Century”.




Political Correctness Gone Mad

2007-08-29T17:58:32.540-07:00

As a member of Amnesty International, I clench my stomach in annoyance whenever someone writes off this organisation (or any similar organisation) as "politically correct." There is some truth in this kind of dismissal, but there is so much error that it is not at all misleading to ignore the truth completely and concentrate on the mistake. And the mistake here is not just a factual mistake (thought it is often that). These dismissals have their root in a broader and more dangerous mistake, one that we should cut out of our thought before it does too much damage.Writing off AI etc. as "politically correct" is a double insult. It suggests that the cause is inauthentic, that it serves no worthy end. But it also suggests that the members of the organisation are motivated by desires that are unadmirable, even blameworthy. "Politically correct" brings to mind groups of well-meaning but mean-minded beaurocrats, all getting smugly together in the spirit of middle-class righteousness. The conclusion is that these are not the sort of organisations you should connect with, or even what you would want to associate with.Now it just so happens that AI and many other organisations like it do contain many people who do worthwhile work for the best possible motives. Even if this were not the case, however, the source of the "politically correct" mistake would be worth talking about. In general, the mistake is to have an emaciated conceptual and explanatory life, and hence to apply the most fashionable phrases in the most unsuitable contexts.In this particular case, the mistake is to call AI etc."politically correct" not because one knows it to be so, but because one knows it to bear an accidental resemblance to pursuits that are "politically correct" (insofar as the phrase has a clear meaning). The mistake is also to attribute "politically correct" motives to AI members not because they evidently possess such motives, but because people who possessed such motives would act similarly. Occasionally these fashionable phrases will result in true statements. But this hardly gets around the problem: for those statements are likely to have such indeterminate meanings that they cause more confusion than otherwise; and the speaker is likely to use them without thinking, which is not a good habit to get into. At any rate, the consequence of applying "politically correct" falsely are enough to urge caution in all cases. The consequence is the denigration of causes that society would be well-advised to support, and which have little enough support as it is (what with complacency, ignorance, etc.) without adding intellectual carelessness to the list of deterrents. Sometimes the problem seems not only that phrases like "PC" are applied vaguely and unthinkingly. It is also that "political correctness" is regarded with such loathing that there is (somehow) no need to do anything more that apply the label to a person or practice. Simply calling a thing "politically correct", without actually showing that it fits this description, is enough to discredit the thing. (I seem to remember that mere accusations of "witchcraft" were enough to blot forever the reputation of a member of certain past societies, regardless of any evidence for or against the accusation. Accusations of "political correctness" seem to have a similar power to them, and a similar absurdity).Moreover, the vagueness of the term tends to disarm any objections to its use. How does a person respond to a statement that carries a strong tone of disgust but no clear meaning? One response is to differentiate the various meanings of the term, and a[...]



Why Must Scientists Be Poor?

2007-08-28T13:20:03.948-07:00

[Update: The University of Toronto has increased the profitability of working with the institution to bring inventions into the marketplace. Clearly this blog has some high-powered readers.]According to a talk I heard at a recent conference, it is the view of orthodox scholarship that scientific discoveries should not be eligible for patents. (By “patent” I mean an agreement by which the discoverer is entitled to a financial reward from those who make use of the discovery).This seems odd to me. Is there any good reason to deny scientists (and academic researchers in general) to benefit financially from lucrative applications of their work? A few reasons jump to mind, but they don’t seem very convincing. I wonder if I am missing something here, or if scientists (and academic researchers in general) oppose patenting just on the grounds of scholarly purity.The first temptation is to reach for the “discovery”/”invention” distinction. How can a person claim ownership of some pre-existing thing that they just happen to stumble upon, like a wallet in the street? Quite easily, I should think, if the thing in question is not already owned by someone else, and if the process of discovery was long and difficult.Why would we think otherwise, except by relying on the misleading analogy with found physical objects, like wallets? Certainly we have no problem with the practice of rewarding people for their discoveries (Nobel Prize, anyone?) Why should we baulk at making this reward financial?Perhaps we have a problem with rewarding ideas, as opposed to objects or practices. But is this distinction tenable? Patents for ideas would only ever apply to ideas that have been somehow realized in practice, in which case they are objects and practices. In this case, surely at least some of the credit should go towards the author of the idea, without whom the objects or practices could not have existed. It seems inconsistent to reward a person who designs and builds a particular kind of fridge, but not the person who formulated the theories of thermodynamics that the designer relied upon.Of course, it would be a tiny bit impracticable to patent the laws of thermodynamics(so many different uses, with such a complex and sometimes distant relationship with the original laws). But surely not all scientific discoveries are of such a general kind.(It is possible that the distinction between ideas and objects/practices is sometimes conflated with the distinction between thoughts and statements, or between notions and thoughts. Of course one cannot patent an unexpressed idea. And it would be hard to justify the patenting of a vague idea or notion, as opposed to a clearly formulated idea. But obviously a scientific discovery can take the form of a clearly formulated statement.)What about the “communal effort” objection? Granted, scientific discoveries are the result of many people’s work, stretching back for many decades. But so are new drugs, and new tennis racquet designs. And if it’s impossible to grant a patent to an individual scientist, why not try the research team who did the important work on a particular discovery?This pretty much exhausts the plausible objections to scientific patents, as least that I can think of. Am I wrong to think that scientists are currently denied the right to patenting their work? Or are scientists that concerned about the integrity of their work that they are unwilling to accept direct financial rewards (or perhaps their employers are unwilling to let them)?[...]



First Impressions of Toronto

2008-01-05T18:18:06.605-08:00

It's big. Flying over the city at night it was bigger than Lake Ontario, all red and orange and sequined.

The traffic lights have yellow backgrounds (not black, as from where I come from). The lights switches are upside down. The toilets are permanently flooded. Driving down the road is like cutting your own hair in a mirror.

In the main street there are stalls and beggars and men with blind sticks playing the flute. There are bits of cabbage in the gutters and the footpath suffers from a measles of bubblegum. In the windows of Asian eateries there are animal carcasses strung up for display. They are red and sunburnt and shiny with sweat, and the chickens have floppy necks.

In the hostel where I stay there are no teatowels in the kitchen. The hall smells like a fish-and-chip shop and the lounge like a butcher's. The air-conditioning works, but the air comes in from a back-alley filled with the smell of ancient grease. In the entrance there is a sign on the wall saying "No soliciting."

The hostel is in a place called Kensington. Kensignton is cramped and shabby and leans on a funny angle. The shabbiness is partly a fashion statement and partly a sign of poverty and neglect, but it is hard to know which is which.

Bills grow like bark on the lampposts. Some of the graffiti is neat and colourful, bordered with thick black lines. The rest of it is black and jagged and suggestive of social problems. Men with limps walk down the street talking to themselves. A thin man puts up small yellow posters and makes loud barking noises. I go up to one of the yellow posters: it is an advertisement for the Kensington community centre family weekend.

In the evening there are tramps in the shadows and shiny new Beetles in the street. Walk ten metres off the main street and you see a respectable neighbourhood with new cars rolling down the road and squirrels playing in the trees. It is strange that a city so big can be so compressed.

I have never thought of Universities as decadent places: all that studiousness is disarming. But compared to its surrounds, the University of Toronto is luxurious. It has wide green spaces. It has a football field with clean black gates and grass as bright as new beans. It has ivy and red bricks and spires. It has buildings with signs outside featuring short biographies of the architect. It is clean.




Historians: Working Towards a Better Past

2007-08-25T10:24:41.106-07:00

In two days I go to Canada to study the History and Philosophy of Science (many thanks to Toronto University.) So now is a good time to say something about History. Below is an excerpt from a History book. The passage was written by a Maori man called Horeta Te Taniwha, and it is about the arrival of the first Europeans on New Zealand soil. (These were not the first Europeans to find the country. Abel Tasman discovered New Zealand about a century earlier. But natives killed three of his men and he went home).I quote this passage because it illustrates some things I like about historical writing.There is the overall sense of nostalgia, of looking back on a rich and vital time from the past, a time that might have been more cruel and uncertain than our own, but which was at least as interesting as anything else we know. Historians are good at picking out the juicy bits from the past, and there are a lot of very juicy bits. Some people say that Historians make History. Mostly they are wrong. But Historians are witnesses to the making of History, and it’s a fine thing to witness.There is the sense also of getting only a partial account of something. So much from the past is lost. But everything that has been found is a gesture towards what has not been found. The importance of the things described starts to raise images into symbols (the kumara, the stick of charcoal). What completes the job is the incompleteness of the account: written History is filled with the meaning of undocumented events, like old photos.Then there are all the strange meetings. They are strange because they take place between people who come from different worlds. The story below is the story of two bubbles coming together and trembling. Philosophers of History write a lot about the strange things that happen when people from different backgrounds come together. Often they overbalance (usually by emphasising the problems, moral and epistemic, that accompany these meetings). But following passage sets them right: it strikes a wonderful balance between difference and likeness, confusion and understanding, awe and familiarity. There is the misunderstanding over the European “goblins.” The “knocking together of stones” (which goes unexplained in the end, even to the reader). The “hissing” tongue of Captain Cook, the “eyes in the back of the head.” These details, casting strange shadows on familiar things, are balanced by evidence of commonality between the two groups of people. The implied syllogism (“Goblins do not eat kumara and cockles; these men are eating kumara and cockles; therefore these men are not goblins.”) – this shows how the two peoples, oceans apart, share a common reason. They share an appreciation for food, too; and also a keen instinct for human kindness (note the attitude towards Captain Cook). Of all the symbols in the passage, the one I like best is that of the two peoples talking to eachother in their two languages, not understanding eachother in the least, but both of them laughing. My next favourite is the final scene, where communication begins.The passage is from a book called “Two Worlds: The First Meetings Between Maori and Europeans.” Not all History is the meeting of two worlds from the past. But all History is the meeting of two worlds, the world of the past and the world of the historian. And participating in the latter relation is as strange and rewarding as observing the former relation. On top of the above, there is the method of History. All that tiny detail[...]



Music and Poetry in English

2007-08-12T00:31:22.422-07:00

If I ever get around to teaching English at secondary level, I will make sure that I exploit the analogies between music and literature. I think the analogy is quite illuminating, with regards to the distinction between “form” and “content” and the relationship between them. More importantly, it is likely to interest students more than a lesson that stuck solely to poetry or prose. Most school students have musical interests of some kind, and with a bit of prodding most should recognise that the appeal of a piece of music is bound up closely with the relationship between its form and its content. In a song, of course, the relationship holds between the lyrical part of the work and the instrumental part. The distinction between form and content, when made out in this way, is easier to grasp than the same distinction as it is manifested in poetry. It is easy and natural to make a separation, even a physical separation, between the words and the music in a song; whereas it is not so easy to make the separation between the “message” of a poem and its “delivery” (Partly because a student needs to know about things like rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, metaphor etc., before they can give a full account of the distinction; and partly because the distinction is problematic in poetry anyway). As well as this pedagogically convenient difference between music and poetry, there are pedagogically convenient similarities. Much of the “form” of a poem comes from its sonic effects. Also, at least one thinker (Walter Pater) has held that it is the mark of a good poem that it gets close to the condition of music; and some interesting poetry has been written on the basis of this idea (eg. Gertrude Stein).Many of the ideas about the form-content distinction that one needs to learn in the poetry case, can be straightforwardly carried over to the music case. Here are some examples: That a good piece of art should achieve a match between form and content; and also that there may be some exceptions to this rule. That the same content, given a different form, can be given quite a different meaning. That form and content can match up in different respects: they might match in their mood, their tone, their pace, their degree of order and regularity. That the work can vary in these respects, and the artist take steps to ensure that form and content vary concurrently. That some elements of form are (for various reasons) quite rigid and non-negotiable, while others are easier to manipulate. That it is tempting to relax the more rigid elements to give the artist more “freedom of expression” (Radiohead, Walt Whitman); but that this relaxation can have its downfalls as well as its advantages.One of the dangers of doing this sort of thing, apart from annoying the class next door, is that students might resent this intrusion of school life upon their music life. Putting Nirvana in a classroom might “take all the fun out of it.” But I should think it more likely that a student would welcome the opportunity to discuss and explore their out-of-school interests during class time. And the idea that excessive analysis can destroy an artwork, or at least fail to illuminate its appeal, is an idea worthy exploring; and another of the useful analogies between music and literature.[...]



System, O My Darling

2007-08-12T00:07:17.804-07:00

Following on from this little thing about method and matter, here is a little thing about system. A fine thing, system, and worth talking about. From one direction, it looks like the value of system is unique to matter: system is all about taking objects and arranging them neatly. But it is important to method as well. Methods are not just processes, but systematic processes. And the best part about teaching matter is ontology, the part where students learn how a subject is made up of a system of parts. System is not a bangle on the wrist of learning, but the fibre in her cloth, the leather in her shoes. Praise her!Anyway, system makes things easier to remember, for the same reason that it is easier to remember Pascal’s triangle than phone numbers. But it also confers understanding. Indeed, arguably the pursuit of understanding just is the attempt to bring more system to our awareness of the world.I guess some disciplines are more amenable than others to a systematic approach to teaching. Mathematics, that powerhouse of systematicity, should surely be taught so as to bring its neatness to the fore. Currently students are taught two different ways of solving simultaneous equations (substitution and elimination) when really they are the same thing. Subtraction is analogous to division, but you would not know it from text books. A lot school-level of algebra is based on a handful of basic rules (associative, distributive, commutative etc.), but this tends to get lost. Rediscover this, and school maths would look more like University maths. And maths in general would at once become easier and more interesting.One senses that English might not work so well under a systematic tutor. Is there really a method for writing a poem? And would we want one? But still there are parts of that subject that make more sense when put in an ordered way. Like any other subject, it contains concepts and statements that can be illuminated by their interrelations. A simile is not something completely different from a metaphor, and pedagogy usually reflects this. A symbol is not completely different from a metaphor either, nor from an epitome or an image. And the following words all mean much the same thing: trait, characteristic, feature, quality, attribute. Pedagogy should reflect these things too.A plausible objection to all this system is that it makes everything too rigid. It would be to deny the variety of mathematics, the way in which there are often many different paths to the right answer. And it would suck all the creativity out of the study of literature.But there is no need for system to suppress the profuseness of mathematics. For most students the choice is usually between using a consistent and transparent method, and using either the wrong method or no method at all. And for those students who can see a variety of right methods, there is value in showing them how these are connected (eg. how geometric and algebraic methods are analogous to one-another). There is value, too, in showing them how some methods are better than others, in the sense of being more elegant or simple, or using less extraneous information (as in the case of simultaneous equations, mentioned above).It is also wrong to conflate system with over-authoritative teaching, at least in mathematics. The fact that different aspects of any subject are richly interlinked would surely make it easier for the teacher to take a passive, guiding role in the learning process. They c[...]



Method and Matter

2007-08-12T00:09:32.529-07:00

One complaint about current education is that it puts skills before facts. The nub of this distinction, as I see it, is the distinction between processes and results. Another way to express the complaint is to distinguish between method and matter. Here the underlying distinction is broader, since it is between processes and objects, where the latter includes results but other things as well.Both distinctions make good sense. But the first one can be misleading because it is narrow. Clearly there is a virtue in teaching students to master a systematic processes for reaching conclusions, rather than teaching them to memorise conclusions that others have reached. But there are things that are not skills or facts, and which are also valuable. I trust that the term “matter” has quite a lot of intuitive content. Think “subject-matter” and you are close enough. Roughly, it is the stuff that students apply their methods to. Only once the method has been fully applied will results appear – call this resulting stuff the end matter.Here are some reasons why students should be taught matter, so defined, as well as method.Methods are usually only applicable to certain classes of matter. Knowing these classes, and knowing how to match them up with the right methods, is an important part of the learning process. The methods of solving simultaneous equations are not much use for solving differential equations. Is this a trivial thing, this process of using knowledge of matter to make methods work? Once we have learnt the methods for solving simultaneous and differential equations, do we really need an extra lesson to tell us how to apply them to the right sort of matter? Sort of. I guess knowledge of matter tends to be smuggled in with knowledge of method. Because of this, it would be hard to neglect matter even if we never thought about teaching it. But it is worth making the point, in case of situations (which I can’t think of right now) where the marriage between the two kinds of learning is not so tight.End matter can also be useful as an examplar. One way to learn how to do something is to look at the end result and work backwards. This works partly because it is not always clear at the start what one wants to achieve (what does it mean to “solve this equation for x”? Showing a solution is a good way to answer this question). It works also because the end result usually contains information about its genesis (look closely at a finished building and you can get some idea of how they built). I don’t recommend that students check the answers to every maths question before solving them. As a general method, this is close to useless. But as a method for learning how and why the right method works, it is quite useful. Learning matter includes learning about the basic constituents of a subject, and how they differ from the basic constituents of another subject. In philosophy, questions about what is are at least as important as questions about how we know. Why not think the same of education?One reason why not is that ontology is not very useful. If we know how to get the right results, and we know why our method works, what’s the use in learning more about the things we applied our method to? Well, perhaps there is not much use, in an instrumental sense. But if this kind of usefulness is our aim, why not forget about justification as well? The reason one would teach students why a method works (a[...]



Envy, Part I

2007-08-11T21:30:43.858-07:00

CLIMBER: My friend, today we saw a flame ascend.
No, not that. No-one would, I think, offend
A sense or taste, to say they saw not one
But more, a whole sun of flames, a flaming sun,
Go burning round a solar ring tonight.
What skill! Unearthly skill, unearthly bright!
Hot eloquence and wit, and humour too,
A brave unswerving urge to say what’s true,
Deeply true and truly deep. And so clear!
A standard orbit stays in higher air:
Strange to enter depths as well, sending lights.
But what is this? For all the lofty heights
I saw today, my spirits are not lifted.
The heights of others bring me low. Gifted,
That’s the thing to be, brilliant. Enough
Is said of jealousy and greed, enough
To make my sickness plain. But what’s the cure?
How can one who knows, and knows for sure,
That every job his mind can slowly do
Is done with greater pace, in fewer moves,
By someone else – how happy can he be?
(The plight of normal minds, redundancy,
Is double-edged. A deficit of skill:
A surplus to demand. If books could kill..)
A mind like syrup, slow-poured and dense.
A lack of speed, but quite enough to sense
Its own slowness. It’s worse to know than have
A love of wisdom, but an arid love
Unfed by streams of running wit,
But earnestness and pride, mud and grit.
Dark sights, and these are what the suns reveal:
High lights, highlighting fog. But this appeal
Is not an aimless thing. I train my ills
On you, my friend, to claim whatever pills
You give and know or own, to lift my pain.

RAMBLER: Well, well. A fine speech, well-declaimed,
As lurid in the lows as in the peaks.
(And a strange speech indeed, from one who speaks
So well.) Now listen well, and soon you’ll find
More syrup in your words than in your mind...

to be continued…




Short, Sharp and Shallow

2007-08-11T20:44:29.426-07:00

The main lesson of working life is that there is no room for polish. There is never time to make a masterpiece instead of a sketch, and no-one would notice the difference anyway. Conclusions need only be as fine-grained as the choices that depend on them: if the choice is between walking and running, let’s not labour the difference between strolling and ambling. And because certainty will elude even the most prolonged and earnest study, let’s not quibble about justification: a few short reasons will do. The most profound investigation will only ever be useful in summary form. Profound investigations never get finished anyway: better a complete draft than a disjointed final.It is interesting to apply the same lessons to philosophy. At the very least, it frees up more time to write about stupidity and cows. More, it is good training in brevity. So here is a short Q&A on some philosophical topics that have been on my mind recently.What distinguishes excellence from mere prowess? A person who can tie their shoelaces very fast does, in one sense, excel at a task. But we would not say they have achieved the kind of excellence that a brilliant physicist achieves, or even a brilliant athlete. What’s the difference?Not very interesting, this one. Excellence requires prowess in a valued practice. The general question of where values come from is more interesting, but it is much too deep for this post.To what extent must the pursuit of excellence compromise a person’s relationships with other people? There is something selfish about pursuing excellence for its own sake. How bad is this form of selfishness?In general, the answer to the first question is “a moderate amount.” Excellence takes a lot of time, leaving less time to get involved with other people. Excellence leads to strong relationships with the few people who share our chosen excellence. But it weakens relationships with the large number of people who don’t. Particular forms of excellence may, however, make us more skilled at caring for other people (eg. excellence in social work).“Not too bad” is the answer to the other question. Reclusiveness does not harm other people, except those who long to know one better (this harm is heavily case-dependent). Excellence in a field creates problems for everyone else who wants to be the best in the field. But arguably people should not measure their success in relative terms. And excellence helps a person’s colleagues insofar as it inspires and instructs them to do better.Given that rationality causes everyone to think the same thing, how can rationality make us more autonomous?Rationality on its own gives us one kind of autonomy, the kind that comes from the deliberate pursuit of an excellence. Philosophers have this kind of autonomy, but so do mathematicians and bakers. Moral autonomy is a different thing. Rationality only gives us moral autonomy insofar as we apply general principles to the facts of our individual lives. Sometimes the facts are obvious, and the principles are the hard thing to know. Other times it is the other way round. In the latter cases, philosophy is not much use.There is value in living an examined life, and it has something to do with autonomy. But how much of this value can be gotten through philosophy?Not all of it. If autonomy is to mean anything at all, it must require autonomy of action as well as thought. And [...]