Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Anti-Gingrich Linguist Speaks Well. But Is He Smart?

"Gingrich's patterns of speech are largely analytically acute, and sometimes aesthetically interesting, but substantively, they are very often lacking," the linguist John McWhorter opines in the New Republic ("Words, Mere Words: Newt Gingrich Speaks Well. But Is He Smart?") Why does McWhorter say that Gingrich's patterns of speech" are "very often" lacking? Why not simply "often"? I am suspicious of a linguist whose use of "very" is so manifestly hackish.

And just what does it mean for speech patterns to be "substantively lacking"? An assertion or claim can be "substantively lacking" in several ways. A partial catalogue: (1) The claim is a tautology; (2) The claim cannot be falsified; (3) The claim involves circular reasoning; (4) The claim asserts that something is the case, when it is patently not the case; (5) The claim is a contradiction. But in what sense are "patterns of speech" substantively lacking? Speech patterns can be annoying, confusing, pedestrian, varied, pretentious, repetitive, etc. But "substantively lacking"? What's substantively lacking is that which is being patterned, not the pattern itself. (Here I'm speaking with McWhorter, granting him his distinction between "substance" and "package," or what would more standardly be called "content" and "form." In fact, the distinction's meaning and application is far from clear.) 

McWhorter continues: "Gingrich is sometimes so pleased with his uninterrupted stream of words, that he mistakes it for an actual flow of ideas." That one can use many words to say little is evident. But does Gingrich characteristically say nothing? Or is it that he says plenty of things, many of them objectionable? Does he have no ideas? Or does he have bad ones? I suspect that McWhorter wants to have it both ways. 

McWhorter is right to say that slangy talk may contain "sober reasoning." But the example that he gives (taken from W. Labov) does not establish the point. Far from containing "clear formal lines of logic," it's a morass. Consider the reconstruction:  

1. Everyone has a different idea of what God is like.
2. Therefore nobody knows that God really exists.
3. If there is heaven, it was made by God.
4. If God doesn’t exist, he couldn’t have made heaven.
5. Therefore heaven does not exist.
6. Therefore you can’t go to heaven.

(1) is questionable on two grounds: (a) That "everyone" has a different idea of what God is like is not plausible. Suppose there are multiple ideas.  But one per person ("everyone")? There are 6.8 billion people on the planet; there are not 6.8 billion ideas of God; (b) It's not even clear that there are multiple "ideas of God." There may be ideas that purport to represent God. But are they actually ideas of God? Or are they ideas of something which is taken to be God, but which is not God (rather, some idol)? I am inclined to say that properly speaking, there are no "ideas of God."

(2) is a gross non sequitur. To begin a sentence with "Therefore" has no tendency to ensure that it follows logically from the prior sentence. Even if (1) were true, (2) would not follow. Why should everyone having the same idea of God be a condition of knowing that God exists? Not everyone has the same idea of Newt Gingrich, but we know that he exists. In fact, there are plenty of people who have no idea of Newt Gingrich at all.

(3) is problematic, since it assumes that heaven is a "thing," something akin to an artifact. More seriously defective is the antecedent of (4). The claim "God doesn't exist" is flown in, as it were, with no justification at all. Even if (1) were true, and (2) were to follow from (1), the claim "God doesn't exist" is independent of (2). Why? Because (2) is a claim about the status of our knowledge, not about existence. What's needed is an additional claim about existence. Something like:

 (4a) God doesn't exist.

If (and only if) this is granted, then what follows from (4) and (4a) is (by modus ponens):

 (4b) God couldn't have made heaven.

Now we can use (4b) or an implication thereof, e.g. (4c) "heaven wasn't made by God" to perform modus tollens on (3), proving (5). But (4a) is crucial. Its gratuitous assumption shows that the argument does not operate along the "clear formal lines of logic." It is not, as it stands, an instance of "sober reasoning." On the contrary, it is both unsound and invalid. 

Back to McWhorter. He is clearly upset about Gingrich's disparaging comments on bilingual education. That Gingrich's comments on this topic might be unsubtle or ill-informed is entirely possible. I suspend judgment, at least for now; McWhorter himself acknowledges there is room for critique ("bilingual ed programs in the United States have not always been good"). But what explains McWhorter's willingness to perform induction on a sample of one? Suppose Gingrich is wrong about the particular issue of bilingual education. Does that establish that he generally "interprets his academic training as a way primarily to burnish his own ego—to confuse supporters into following him, rather than to clarify matters of importance"? It does not. My impression is that Gingrich commands an impressive amount of substantive knowledge in a range of policy domains, foreign and domestic. In my own observation, he's deployed that knowledge in attempts to clarify matters of importance, more so than most politicians. Do his attempts succeed? That's another question. But how should we react when a writer who uses his academic training to make a name for himself in popular journals of opinion presumes to accuse another person of using his academic training to "burnish his own ego"? My own reaction: laughter.

Laughter aside, a serious question remains. Is Gingrich ultimately just another ego-ridden demagogue who cares nothing for truth? Perhaps. I've been depressed about the leading lights of the GOP for some time now. But McWhorter's smug hit piece is poor evidence for the claim that Gingrich is "not smart."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review of a new biography of Nietzsche

Young, Julian. Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, xxxii + 649 pp.

A massive effort that combines biographical narrative with textual interpretation, Julian Young's new work on Nietzsche demands attention. This is due partly to the importance of its subject, and partly to the impression of thoroughness conveyed by the book's length. Though not without its flaws, Young's biography is worth reading for anyone who wants to enter more deeply into Nietzsche's life and work.

What makes Young's biography worth reading? It is written in an unpretentious style, refreshingly free from academic jargon. It contains a wealth of small but telling details about Nietzsche's life that, while not unattested by previous biographies, deserve to be better known than they are. For instance, after winning in 1885 a court settlement against his publisher and paying off his debts to bookstores, Nietzsche purchased and designed his father's tombstone, with a verse from 1 Corinthians inscribed on it ("Love never faileth") (9). This happened thirty-six years after his father died. Young admirably brings out Nietzsche's dedication to teaching his students, his determination to become (as he put it in a letter to Erwin Rohde) a "really practical teacher" (68). We learn that he even offered them five-course dinners at the end of the semester (102). One imagines that he cooked well; in 1876 or 1877, while living in Sorrento, he learned how to make risotto (293). Despite the blasts in his autobiography against coffee, he apparently frequented the Venetian open-air cafés in St. Mark's Square, where he "discovered Italian coffee to be the best in the world" (291). Writing from Sils Maria, Nietzsche asked his mother to send him a needle and thread, implying, as Young says, that he could "sew as well as cook" (317). Neither his disdain for the English nor his experimentalism stopped him from being brand-loyal to Horniman's English tea (454). He appears to have delighted in fan mail sent to him from Baltimore (322). In company he read aloud short stories by Mark Twain (166), whose "craziness" he professed to love "more than German cleverness" (236). Young's book is rich in such details. They serve to humanize the alternately forbidding and buffoonish figure that emerges from Nietzsche's autobiography.

Another primary strength of Young's book is its attention to the role of music in Nietzsche's life. Nietzsche loved music—to hear it, to compose it, to improvise at his piano. Months after his collapse, he continued to play beautifully, according to his friend Heinrich Köselitz (551-52). Though Nietzsche is often considered a poor composer, Young shows that the truth of this evaluation is hardly self-evident. It derives, he argues, in no small part from Hans von Bülow's graceless conjecture that Nietzsche's music was a joke, perhaps intended as a parody of "so-called music of the future" (154). Was von Bülow right about Nietzsche's lack of compositional talent? The reader can judge for himself, since Young provides not only his own assessment, but also links to recordings of Nietzsche's music on the book's Web site. While devoting appropriate attention to Nietzsche's conflicted relations with Wagner, Young shows that his musical horizons extended further. Nietzsche thought highly not only of Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, and Mendelssohn, but also of his contemporary Brahms. As Young shows, he sought (fruitlessly) to convince Wagner of his validity and sent Brahms a copy of his "Hymn to Life." Brahms did not reciprocate Nietzsche's interest. Despite the extension of his interests beyond Wagner, Young concludes that Nietzsche was dominated by an "innate musical conservatism" (37, 496). Only a handful of composers were able to give him what he sought from music, "the experience of self-transcendence" (459).

The chapter on "Nietzsche's Circle of Women" is among the most valuable in the book. Young spends due time on his problematic relationships with his mother, his sister, and Lou Salomé. Going beyond these well-known figures in his life, Young shows that despite his anti-feminism, Nietzsche surrounded himself with a number of "feminist friends." To one such friend, Resa von Schirnhofer, he chose to communicate orally, in a manner she found "alien" and "terrifying," the doctrine of the eternal return, before resuming (as she says) "his normal way of speaking and usual self" (389). Beyond its amusement value, the vignette shows that in spite of his more notorious remarks, Nietzsche's emotions toward women were not confined to fear, anger and contempt. Well after he was rejected by Lou Salomé, Nietzsche actively sought women as interlocutors. Young shows in admirable detail the importance of von Schirnhofer, Malwida von Meysenbug, Helen Zimmern, Meta von Salis, and Helene Druskowicz for Nietzsche's life. Perhaps most important, Young concludes, is Cosima Wagner, his "ideal woman" with whom "four-handed piano playing and long metaphysical conversations were major elements in their relationship" (399). Given Nietzsche's love for Cosima to the very end, what explains his later tendency to emphasize his anti-feminist side? Young concludes that while Nietzsche treasured the company of educated, intelligent women, "what terrified him was women's access to power" (400). But why? Young's explanation seems less to solve the problem than to reinforce its difficulty.

As a guide to the events and people in Nietzsche's life, Young's book is reliable. Its interpretations of Nietzsche's texts are necessarily more controversial. Some of its attempts to describe and adjudicate controversies in Nietzsche interpretation are valuable. For instance, Young's assessment of Nietzsche's "perspectivism" and what it implies—and does not imply—is clear and balanced (473-76). Even if it unlikely to convince readers inclined to the "postmodern Nietzsche," it stands as a worthy contribution. Occasionally, however, the book proposes summaries that will leave serious readers unsatisfied, regardless of where they fall in the usual interpretive divides. Understandably enough, Young wants to give the reader new to Nietzsche an idea of each of his published works. Yet if there is any author whose writing defies brief summary, it is Nietzsche. This is particularly true of the middle period works, dominated by the aphorism. Young proposes to reduce the "central argument" of The Gay Science to "three stages" (327). The first stage Young describes as a "general theory of cultural 'health.'" Ought we to assume that such a general theory is possible? In Aphorism 120 of The Gay Science Nietzsche claims "there is no health as such, and all attempts to define a thing that way have been wretched failures." A reconstruction that begins with an assumption explicitly rejected in the very text under reconstruction is not promising. Perhaps one can point to other loci where Nietzsche accepts, or appears to accept, the assumption. Yet it remains antecedently improbable that the 383 aphorisms of the Gay Science, bookended on each side by a beguiling collection of rhymes, can be reduced to a tidy three-stage argument.

Fortunately, Young does not spend the bulk of his work trying to reduce labyrinthine works of aphorism to simple structures. Sometimes he attempts the course, potentially less hazardous, of interpreting a single aphorism. Though his comments are frequently insightful, he does not always escape the snares of superficial interpretation. Consider (for example) his handling of the difficult aphorism 344 of The Gay Science ("How we, too, are still pious"). Among the questions provoked by this aphorism are the following. If truth proves to be more harmful than useful, do we abandon truth, preferring what serves life? Or do we heroically strive after truth, whatever the disadvantages for life? Throughout his corpus Nietzsche raises this problem in a dozen ways. Does he resolve the problem? As far as I can tell, he does not draw any definitive conclusions. Yet Young finds in aphorism 344 of The Gay Science a neat solution to the problem. "Truth 'at any price' gives way to truth 'when the price is right'" (443). Truth only when the price is right? Surely this is more Bob Barker than Nietzsche.

Young performatively demonstrates the difficulty of interpreting Nietzsche's texts within the confines of a biography. He is typically on stronger ground when narrating Nietzsche's life, though not without making the occasional questionable inference. Addressing Nietzsche's descent into madness, Young admirably presents the traditional diagnosis of syphilis, along with a series of objections to the diagnosis. He then presents Leonard Sax's alternative diagnosis of a brain tumor on the right optic nerve, as well as some pointed objections to Sax. So far so good. But he proceeds to claim that since these two diagnoses are uncertain, "the most plausible conclusion appears to be that Nietzsche's madness was, in fact, a purely psychological condition" (562). Are no diagnoses other than these two possible? And just what would "purely psychological" mean to an author for whom the physiological and psychological are so deeply entwined? Of course Young is free to reject Nietzsche's own conception in favor of "pure psychology" divorced from anything bodily. But does this not amount to a rejection not only of Nietzsche, but of modern neuroscience? Certainly the latter would be puzzled by Young's idea that Nietzsche's condition, though plausibly described as "bipolar disorder with, in its later stages, psychotic features" (560), lacks any physiological basis.

That any book as long and ambitious as Young's would be entirely free from mistakes is unlikely. Many of these are minor, though the cumulative effect is one of annoyance. Some examples: misuse of the word "prevaricate" (258, 360); attribution of the words "adultery of the heart" to Jimmy Carter, as though Matthew 5:28 did not get there first (258); the "abolition of the metaphysical word" (242); the confusion of "venal sin" with "venial sin" (572). These small mistakes can be corrected in a second edition. Also requiring correction, as Young himself has acknowledged, is insufficient citation of a previous Nietzsche biography. Like many other biographers of well-known figures, Young depends on the work of writers before him. In a non-trivial number of places, Young's structure and wording are remarkably similar to passages in Curtis Cate's 2002 biography of Nietzsche, as Mark Anderson has documented in detail (Journal of Nietzsche Studies 42 [2011]). Young has replied to Anderson, admitting to "scholarly lapses" which he promises to correct in the next edition. Certainly Young's explanation of the lapses is plausible. Nonetheless the magnitude of his dependence on Cate's work, together with the lack of proper acknowledgment, must be noted as a defect of the book in its present state.

The complexities of Nietzsche's life and writings, not to mention the multiple relations between the life and the writings, render any biography of the man intensely problematic. Young's effort is no exception. It contains some superficial interpretations, questionable attempts to make Nietzsche timely, insufficient acknowledgment of a key source. Nonetheless, the book's virtues are sufficiently numerous and robust to make it well worth reading, despite its flaws. Any student of Nietzsche will want to own Young's book.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Some impertinent and irresponsible observations on the GOP debate

• Props to Rick Perry for giving Obama a sliver of credit in the death of Bin Laden. Except Perry doesn't know how to pronounce the word "props"! When he uttered the words "I give more props to those Navy Seals," he said "propes"—long o. The rest of the world says "props"—short o.

• The volume of applause for the large number of executions in Texas was just creepy. One need not be universally opposed to capital punishment to find the applause level weird.

• Speaking of weird, I think the prize must be given to Ron Paul, at least in terms of self-presentation. Did the stuff about the "fence" being used to "keep Americans in" come from left field? I'm inclined to think it came from no field at all. His performance confirmed that his candidacy is marginal and that he's a little nuts. (For what it's worth, I don't think one should judge libertarianism by Ron Paul.)

• Speaking of marginal candidates, there were no howlers from Michele Bachmann. I was hoping that she would say something comparable to her remark about our alleged fear of the "rise of the Soviet Union." I was disappointed.

• When I was in high school, I used to watch Newt Gingrich on C-SPAN give rousing speeches on economic policy to the camera. (Yes, that's the type of thing I did in high school, as those who knew me then can confirm.) I sort of miss old Newt. He ain't dumb. But he's not a serious candidate, though he is undeniably responsible for one of the best comic moments in contemporary politics. I mean, John Lithgow's ultra-dramatic reading of a press release from the Gingrich campaign.

• Jon Huntsman's experience with China is not trivial. I'm glad he brought it up. He struck me as sane, sober, reasonable. And he likes Captain Beefheart! Your mileage might vary, with both Huntsman and the Captain. (Though you can't really deny that the latter's a genius.)  

• About Mitt Romney, it was often quite difficult to see his eyes when he was speaking. More often than not, Romney works hard to connect what he says with the question that is actually posed. I admire this.  I doubt it will play in Peoria. Perry is savvier, I think, in taking the question as an occasion to say whatever he wants to say, in the manner that he wants to say it. One might think that avoiding questions is cowardly. But machismo suffices to override the perception of cowardice, even as it confirms its reality.

• Perry understands little about the practice of natural science. There is a sense in which he is correct to say that with respect to global warming, the "science is not settled." Natural science is never settled in any absolute sense. It is fallibilist. It is perpetually open to new findings, new evidence, new results, no matter how certain present claims may appear. (As my old professor Alasdair MacIntyre once said in class, if you want to study something that is really conclusive, go with trinitarian theology or art appreciation.) Moreover, if the term "settled" is to have any meaning at all in natural science, it does not mean "absolute unanimity." Natural science neither has nor demands total agreement.  There should always be contrarians to raise questions and push inquiry further. The term can only mean "substantive or overwhelming consensus" among natural scientists who are currently at work on the topic(s). Is there such a consensus among current scientists about global warming? That's the question—an empirical question which Perry notably avoided. It has nothing to do with whether "the science is settled" according to some fantastic standard to which practicing scientists never appeal.

• Perry understands even less about the history of natural science. The appeal to Galileo was inept and ignorant. Was it an off-the-cuff remark? A scripted line? The fruit of Perry's reading about the Galileo episode? (OK, I think we can eliminate that last option.)

• Perry has not an inkling of what the word "philosophical" means. But neither do the moderators. On this point, they're just as bad, and perhaps more damnably, since they are (one presumes) better educated. They seem to think that "philosophical" is a synonym for "general." It was amusing to hear them bat the word around.

• Summary judgment: Perry did plenty well for himself in this debate, if the criterion is appeal to the base. Those who think Perry "performed poorly" are using a criterion in which Perry himself has no interest.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rick Perry: A Baconian Analysis

"Surely princes had need, in tender matters and ticklish times, to beware what they say; especially in these short speeches, which fly abroad like darts, and are thought to be shot out of their secret intentions.  For as for large discourses, they are flat things, and not so much noted."

These words come from Francis Bacon's "Of Seditions and Troubles" (thanks to M. for sharing them with me).  They seem apropos—stunningly apropos—in considering how to think about the "short speeches" that Rick Perry has been making.  Such speeches "fly abroad like darts."  Perry is quite an expert dart-tosser.  If Perry's darts about secession, treason, global warming, etc. are shot directly "out of his secret intentions," as Bacon suggests, they make him seem real, quite different from your usual scripted politician who cannot say anything until it has been tested on multiple focus-groups.  When Perry says that printing more money would be "treasonous," we should not be too quick to say, "Oh, that's just a rhetorical flourish, not to be taken literally."  On the contrary, it is a remarkably good guide to what he actually thinks.  Deep down, he probably believes that people whose ideas are different from his own are not merely misguided, but enemies worthy of being punished by death.  If he could get away with punishing his opponents—whom he seems to regard as his enemies—he probably would.

What of his "large discourses"?  There is his book, Fed Up, which I should probably read in order to form a fully responsible opinion about the man.  But I like Bacon's implication that the "short speeches" are not only as revealing as long discourses, but actually more revealing, of what the man actually thinks. One might object: perhaps there's far more to the man than what comes across in his "short speeches."  As a college student, he had the opportunity to cultivate the powers of his mind, developing habits of reading and reflection that inform his more nuanced assessments of the day's events.  Perhaps beneath Perry the dart-tosser lurks Perry the thoughtful contemplator.  But this would assume that he took his college education seriously.  Did he?  The evidence suggests that he did not.

Another objection: Aren't there people who perform poorly in school, but regret it later, wishing they'd made more of the opportunities they squandered?  I've known a few such people.  I admire them enormously. However lightly they took college, they grow up later.  They go back and read the authors they once ignored.  Their own experience has taught them the point of liberal education.  It's certainly possible that while Rick Perry did poorly as a student at Texas A&M, he proceeded to become an intellectual adult.  But did he?  Again, the evidence suggests that he did not.  Instead, he seems proudly to have carried the lack of respect for humane learning he had as an undergraduate into his later, "successful" years.

Near the beginning of the Ethics, Aristotle says that the "young" are not the chronologically young, but those who are habitually led by their emotions. Regarding the things studied at universities, Perry seems to have been led by one emotion in particular, that of disdain.  This is unfortunate, since as Bacon's example shows, some things studied at universities are quite important for politics.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Experience vs. non-experience: reading Montaigne in Scotland

That Montaigne engages in the protracted scrutiny of himself and his experiences is evident. "I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics, that is my physics," he claims in "Of Experience." To grasp what Montaigne means by "experience," it is useful to contrast it with things that might be confused with experience, but are actually pseudo-experience or non-experience. Suppose I read a novel quickly and carelessly. I can describe its plot, or say something about the life of its author. But none of its characters resonate with me; nothing in the book causes me to think or feel anything new. Since the book fails to stimulate any new internal experience, or alter my existing experience of myself, I do not "experience" it. Though I read it in some sense, it was "just words." Does this occur when we are taught books by the learned? Montaigne's answer: all the time. Words of the teacher strike the pupil's ear, but they do not activate any experience, other than the tedious one of memorization and repetition as required.

The antidote to this, Montaigne says, is to teach in a manner that induces genuine experience. From the start, according to the capacity of the mind he has in hand, the teacher should "begin putting it through its paces, making it taste things, choose them, and discern them by itself; sometimes clearing the way for him, sometimes letting him clear his own way" ("Of the Education of Children"). Only when the student begins to apply the words to herself and her own tasting, choosing, and discerning, does she experience something, as distinct from merely hearing about it. That one has grasped the thing, made it her own, assimilated and digested it—this is the reliable sign of experience in its proper sense, as distinct from non-experience or pseudo-experience.

Though we can do or undergo many things, we experience little in the sense sketched above, unless we follow Montaigne's example of actively studying ourselves. The language of self-study risks being misunderstood by modern readers, who tend to regard study as a rather tame activity, something done in a leisurely and casual fashion. For Montaigne, however, self-study is a courageous enterprise, one that involves risk and requires putting oneself to the test—"essaying" oneself. For purposes of analysis, we may regard self-essaying as a process with several related yet distinct moments. These may be set out schematically as follows:

1. Exposing oneself to a range of experiences. These may occur spontaneously, or they may be deliberately sought out.

2. Reflecting on one's experiences, attending to them as closely as possible, scrutinzing them.

3. Articulating the experience by "translating" the scrutinized experience into the alien medium of language, preserving some fidelity to the experience and one's reflection on it.

4. Repeating the process as continually as possible, since only the accumulation of many experiences, along with constant scrutiny and translation will yield knowledge of the self (or selves) which has (or have) the experiences.

I think Montaigne gives us insight into each of these four steps.  I do confess to feeling a bit guilty about schematizing someone so deliberately, beautifully, gloriously unsystematic as Montaigne.  My only excuse is that the scheme occurred to me here in Scotland, as I was listening to Don Garrett give a paper on Hume's concept on probability.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Letters of C.S. Lewis

I love reading the correspondence of authors who are better known for their published works. In my experience, it's often no less illuminating than the works themselves. Yesterday morning I read some letters of C.S. Lewis, transcribing the bits that struck me.

The letters remind me that Lewis is more subtle and complicated than his reputation might indicate. Here are a few selections (about a fifth of what I transcribed), arranged by date:

"My own frequent uneasiness comes from another's source—the fact that apologetic work is so dangerous to one's own faith. A doctrine never seems dimmer to me than when I have just successfully defended it" (2 August 1946, to Dorothy Sayers).

"'Regular but cool' in Church attendance is no bad symptom. Obedience is the key to all doors: feelings come (or don't come) and go as God pleases. We can't produce them at will, and mustn't try" (7 December 1950 to "Mrs Arnold").

"I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him" (19 April 1951 to "Mrs Breckenridge").

"All that Calvanist question—Free-will and Predestination—is to my mind indiscussible, insoluble. Of course (we say) if a man repents God will accept him. Ah yes (they say), but the fact of his repenting shows that God has already moved him to do so. This at any rate leaves us with the fact that in any concrete case the question never arises as a practical one. But I suspect it is really a meaningless question (20 October 1952 to "Mrs Arnold").

"It's not essential to believe in the Devil: and I'm sure a man can get to Heaven without being accurate about Methuselah's age. Also, as Macdonald says 'the time for saying comes seldom, the time for being is always here'. What we practise, not (save at rare intervals) what we preach is usually our great contribution to the conversion of others" (2 February 1955 to "Mrs. Ashton").

"I feel the whole of one's youth to be immensely important and even of immense length. The gradual reading of one's own life, seeing the pattern emerge, is a great illumination at our age. And partly, I hope, getting freed from the past as past by apprehending it as structure.

"... By the way, that business of having to look up the same word ten times in one evening is no proof of failing powers. You have simply forgotten that it was exactly like that when we began Latin or even French" (8 February 1956 to Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B.).

"My model here is the behaviour of the congregation at a 'Russian Orthodox' service, where some sit, some lie on their faces, some stand, some kneel, some walk about, and no one takes the slightest notice of what anyone else is doing. That is good sense, good manners, and good Christianity. 'Mind one's own business' is a good rule in religion as in other things" (23 March 1956 to "Mrs Ashton").

"No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism: either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all" (15 May 1959 to Charles Moorman).

"... I sometimes wonder if an interest in liturgiology is not rather a snare. Some people talk as if it were itself the Christian faith" (4 August 1962 to Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B.).

Saturday, July 2, 2011

An implausible diagnosis

A person writing under the name "Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio" claims:

"We who oppose same-sex marriage are not callous to the very real longings for friendship, affection and belonging that proponents of this legislation espouse. We have, in part, failed as the proponents of the historical understanding of marriage as that between a man and a woman precisely because we have sought to be sensitive to those who have same-sex attractions."

This is the problem? Ecclesial officials have been too sensitive to the predicament of gay people? They've spent too much time considering the possibility that "many LGBT youth can't picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can't imagine a future for themselves"? Because--or should that be "precisely because"?--the bishops care so much, they've lost the capacity to argue for the "historical understanding of marriage."

How much does this particular diagnosis say about the problem? What does it reveal about the diagnostician?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Two Stories about Women

I’ve just finished reading two stories about brave women, with the courage to defy centuries of tradition. They are quite different stories, and I am sure that at least one of the women would resist the comparison.

The first was a wonderfully readable study of George Eliot’s life through her writings: George Eliot, by Jenny Uglow. Eliot, of course, adopted the masculine pseudonym as a way of having her writing taken more seriously during a time—the mid-nineteenth century—when even a woman of profound native brilliance and stunning self-discipline would work for free as an assistant editor of a prestigious journal and then apologize to the editor for not being a sufficient “help-mate.” She managed to lead an extraordinarily life and leave behind a body of work as admirable as much for its reflective erudition as its beauty. But the struggle this cost her is evident in her own personal story as well as in her work. We see a flash of her frustration with this in a passage from the first edition of Middlemarch, about the insights that the locals did not have into the heroine’s character: “it was never said in the neighbourhood of Middlemarch that such mistakes could not have happened if the society into which she was born had not smiled on propositions of marriage from a sickly man to a girl less than half his own age—on modes of education which make a woman’s knowledge another name for motley ignorance—on rules of conduct which are in flat contradiction with its own loudly-asserted beliefs.”

It is the first of these hypocrisies that calls to mind the other brave woman: Nujood Ali, an amazing Yemeni who in 2008, at age 10, ran away from the man 20 or more years her senior to whom she had been forcibly married. Although her husband had agreed to postpone sexual relations until the child was older, he instead forced her to have sex the first night of their marriage, with the approval of his mother and sister. Nujood defied her rapist, her parents, and her extended family by running away, showing up at a city courthouse alone, and demanding a divorce. She is still a child in some sense, but after her childhood was robbed from her, she proved herself more mature than far too many so-called adults.

You can read Nujood’s story here, in an article by Cynthia Gorney in National Geographic on the disturbingly common practice of forcing young girls to marry boys and grown men: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/child-brides/gorney-text . The youngest bride in Gorney’s story is 5 years old. One is but little comforted by the knowledge that the groom in this case is only 10.

Despite George Eliot’s courage in the face of persecution, I think she would be the first to protest a comparison between her own situation and that of these terribly abused young women. We trivialize the horror of abuse when we apply the term too widely. But I don’t intend to suggest that all of these persecutions are on a level. Instead, I think Eliot might have something to teach us about how to work towards bringing these horrors to an end.

Eliot wrote long, intricate novels, attempting to show not just how a person’s character can be her salvation or her downfall, but also how that character develops in the first place. Only by sympathetic attention to this development can we possibly hope to understand another person, let alone judge her behavior.

Among the most helpful things about Gorney’s story is the way in which she explains how the practice of child brides supports and is supported by local communities. These webs of support make the “outsider’s impulse”—to which Gorney herself confesses—to rush in, “Snatch up the girl, punch out the nearby adults, and run,” at best futile and at worse catastrophic for the child we would like to save. The suggestion is not that we should sit idly by and let these practices continue, but that the Indiana Jones approach just will not fix them. This story should therefore by required reading for any outsider who feels inclined to blame women from such cultures for “submitting” to such treatment. That there is even one Nujood Ali suggests a profound wellspring of intelligence and courage among these women. We must learn the patience to listen to her story, as well as that of the hundreds of other girls and women who do not escape. This kind of listening is only a beginning, but it is an absolutely necessary beginning. And it is a small part of what George Eliot was trying to teach us.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The telltale sign of an ideologue

I'm after a general point, but I'll start with an example. Take someone who constantly criticizes Barack Obama. Economic proposals, immigration policy, Supreme Court nominees: one failure after another.  Especially lacking, our critic tells us, was his approach to the "war on terrorism." If Obama weren't such a professorial wimp, he'd do more to get Bin Laden. Or so our critic repeatedly suggests, in conversation and a barrage of forwarded e-mails.

But then, the world learns that Barack launched and supervised a plan that issued in Osama's death. For two weeks, the e-mails stop. Our critic is silent.

What should we call such a critic—that is, one who constantly speaks against a person or cause, but then says nothing when the person or cause achieves something that is worthy by the critic's own standards? I suggest the "critic-gone-silent."

The critic-gone-silent has a close cousin. Call him the "booster-gone-silent." For months and years, we can count on our booster to tell us (for example) just how wonderful the Catholic Church is. Its liturgy is incomparable, its saints inspiring, its culture unsurpassed, its theology the best. It puts other expressions of Christian faith to shame.

But then, news of the latest scandal breaks. The deeds are unspeakable, the cover-up deplorable. For two weeks, we hear nothing about the Church. Our booster is silent.

In such cases, our commentator (whether critic or booster) exposes his character less by what he says, than by what he does not say, and (perhaps most importantly) when he does not say it. What shows him to be an inveterate ideologue, indeed a fanatic, is precisely his silence. Our critic-gone-silent is not interested in judging accurately when Obama falls short, and when he gets something right. Our booster-gone-silent does not care about honestly assessing the glories of the Catholic Church (and they are many) and weighing them against its failures (and they are many). Whether critic or booster, the silence of each, and particularly its timing, is no less revealing than anything said.

Given the sheer number of voices that compete for our attention, I have a modest proposal. Simply ignore, or at least do not prioritize, anyone whose timed silence reveals him to be an ideologue or fanatic. Rather than waste time on somebody who cannot say anything positive about Obama, why not prefer the critic who points out Obama's errors when necessary, but is unafraid to give him credit when he deserves it? If you want truthful information about the Catholic Church, should you really listen to an apologist whose primary interest lies in convincing you to join the Church? Someone who speaks learnedly about the Church's virtues, but suddenly falls silent when the latest scandal breaks, is a propagandist, not to be taken seriously about matters ecclesial.

My examples are drawn from religion and politics. (N.B. I might just as easily have picked on fanatical anti-Republicans and rabid secularists.) But the principle extends well beyond these domains. To take an example from my own field: once I spoke to a prominent academic who expressed a strong opinion on a recent book about Heidegger. After hearing my interlocutor's criticisms, I said, "That's very persuasive." (It was, in fact.) "But what of the book's good points?" He looked at me as though I had said something quite unreasonable. I pressed: "I happen to have read another book by this author. Not everything he does is wrong, I'm sure. Please tell me one good thing about the book." His spoken reply: "The typeface." His substantive reply: silence.

The point has wide application. Perhaps it can be formulated as a general rule: Invariable silence about the defects of a cause that one treasures, as well as persistent silence about the good points of a cause that one detests, are telltale signs of ideology. By ideology, I mean a mode of chatter that might entertain us now and then, perhaps even instruct us, but that we should not confuse with actual thinking. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Down with "utilize"!

Some years ago, George Orwell took aim at the needless multiplication of syllables. His essay on the topic, "Politics and the English Language", is part diagnosis and part cure.  "Silly words and expressions have often disappeared," he writes, "not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority."

One silly word that Orwell mentions, under the heading "pretentious diction," is "utilize."  In his spirit, I propose its total elimination.  I've noticed that "utilize" rarely occurs in isolation; it almost always precedes or follows other gobbledygook.  Asked why his company is more profitable than the competition, a mid-level manager caught in the grip of "utilize" might say:

"We utilize results-driven methodologies" (13 syllables). 

Were the same person to speak English, he would say:

"We do what works" (4 syllables).

Does "utilize" ever accomplish anything that "use" does not, other than tripling the syllable count? If it did, a case could be made for its preservation. But I'm hard pressed to think of a single example where "use" would not do just as well as "utilize."  And I can think of instances where substituting "utilize" for "use" leads to nonsense: "Excuse me, I have to utilize the bathroom."

Many occurrences of "utilize" are not so obviously silly.  But they do, I think, illustrate Orwell's point about the decadence of our language.

Why worry about such things?  Rather than reproduce Orwell's analysis, I will simply quote a positive benefit that he mentions: "If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.  You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself."  

I've picked on "utilize."  What other words or phrases strike you as prime candidates for elimination?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Aristotle, Montaigne, and Friendship: A Piano Lesson

It is always great fun (for me, anyway) to teach Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to first-year students. It contains a deceptively simple recipe for rearing children, or reforming oneself. One does not follow a list of rules; rather, one becomes the sort of person for whom the rules are no longer necessary. The virtous avoid injustice not out of fear of punishment, but out of horror of dishonor. They refrain from drinking too much not with an eye to law enforcement or the waistline, but because the thought of over-indulgence strikes them as disgusting. It is not difficult, once one has achieved these heights, to be good. It is a pleasant, joyful, noble life.

How does one achieve such a life? This is the good part: you simply thoughtfully imitate those who are already there. You confront a fear, refrain from manipulating your colleagues and friends, give generously even when you have needs of your own. But there are some painful caveats. Among them is this: the way that you acquire vice is the same as the way that you acquire virtue. In other words, if you become excellent by behaving well, you become morally lost by behaving badly.

And so it is with your fingers.

Suppose you are learning to play the piano. You attempt to play Vivaldi’s "Spring"—and since you are just learning, you follow dutifully the fingering markings placed above some of the notes. They tell you that after you play 3 (the middle finger) of your left hand, all you have to do next is place the 2 (index) on the key next to the one that you just played. But 1 (the thumb) will have none of it. The thumb remembers the piece you were practicing last week, or the scale that you used to warm up, where it pulled that neat trick in which it slides gracefully under those impertinent fingers and catches a key behind. It wants to move.

Unfortunately, when it moves, number 2 is no longer in place to make the easy move to the next key. You fumble and mess up—and play on. The next time, the thumb’s presumption has not been corrected, and so it tries again to move. The next time too. Congratulations. You have now engraved in your hand the memory of how not to play the piece.

When one of your fingers chooses to rebel in this manner, the punishment must be swift and proportionate. A mediocre, sloppy performance of a piece will remain mediocre and sloppy as long as you continue to play it through over and over again. In fact—such a method is an excellent way to train yourself to play the piece very badly indeed. Your fingers, like the soul, develop habit in resemblance to action. The only way to escape is through slow, precise, and dedicated attention to the action that has become difficult.

Now we come across another problem: when you first begin to play a piece of any complexity whatsoever, the whole thing is difficult. Here, the above corrective technique will not work. You cannot stop at every measure and learn it by itself. Or I cannot, at least. Besides the profound tediousness of such a procedure, it ensures that you will never learn to connect the measures to one another.

The trick is to know when one has played the piece through enough times to discern where the genuine difficulties are. Do you see how delicate this will be? Playing through the rough places too many times will train you in the habit of playing them badly. Stopping at every moment where the piece becomes difficult will train you to play haltingly and hate the piece. And in my experience, there is no predicting when you will reach the horizon between one ocean and the other.

If it is this difficult to identify the problems in a piece of music, consider how much more difficult it must be to find the problems in that infinitely more complicated instrument—the human soul. Its mysteries have no notation, and we have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to look at the sheet music at all.

Here, Montaigne insists, is why we need friends—of the right sort. These are not—as we may be tempted to think—those who insist that our most feeble, awkward efforts are dulcet, lilting tones. They are rather those who can tell us where our faults lie. He identifies as a crucial disadvantage of greatness the lack of fellows who are willing to challenge a ruler. This lamentable condition does not really honor the ruler; it insults and stultifies him. By yielding every point to those in power over us, “we confirm and authorize the defects and vices they have.”

It is no accident, I think, that Montaigne places this essay before “Of the art of discussion,” wherein he describes an excellent friend as one willing to oppose and contradict—“a strong, manly fellowship and familiarity, a friendship that delights in the sharpness and vigor of its intercourse, as does love in bites and scratches that draw blood.” “It is not vigorous and generous enough if it is not quarrelsome, if it is civilized and artful, if it fears knocks and moves without constraint.”

In action, as in music, it is far too easy to play the notes one has always played, however discordant the result. We need other ears to hear us, and to remind us that we are capable of more. I suspect Montaigne is right that harmony in life requires friendship open to the contrast of dissonance.

One final, important note: I am not saying that this is why I am here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

New Contributor to ES!

I am happy to announce that my wife, Dr. Margaret Watkins of Saint Vincent College, has formally applied for the position of co-contributor to this blog.  In arguing her suitability for the position, Dr. Watkins claims to have found "Elastic Steel" while searching online for her dean for some gossip about her local professional team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I suspect that Professor Watkins has a bridge to sell me too.  In fact, several of them, as you know if you've ever visited Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh is to bridges as Paris is to lights.  'Tis the City of Bridges.

Seriously, I'm delighted that Margaret will be contributing to the blog!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Smile: Dante, C.S. Lewis, Roxy Music

Three connected moments from Dante's Paradiso: (1) Beatrice warns Dante not to make an idol out of her beauty: "My eyes are not the only Paradise," she says in Canto 18 with a smile; (2) Three cantos later, she stops smiling, lest Dante find himself converted to ashes; (3) Beatrice smiles again.  What's happened to make this possible?  The triumph of Christ, as told by Canto 23.  Now Dante can bear the smile.

What smile is this?  Il santo riso, Dante says, the "holy smile."  True holiness and the joy expressed by a smile—these things somehow belong together.  In the holy smile they become one.  Were I a founding type, I would be tempted to found "The Church of the Holy Smile."  (Or so I told my students, as if they needed further grounds for suspecting that their instructor might be slightly mad.)

"The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance," says C.S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms.  You can smile without dancing, but you can't dance without a smile.  As David danced, some hint of the holy smile crossed his face.  Or so I should think. 

Another splendid expression of the delight of which Lewis speaks: the last four minutes or so of Roxy Music's 1973 "Psalm."  Some say the song goes on too long.  But I think it's a great build-up, the perfect closer of Stranded's first side.  Just let yourself get into it, as you wonder whether he's ironic, serious, or both.  Though I would ultimately recommend the studio version, featuring the London Welsh Male Voice Choir, the live version (posted below) is quite worthy.

When Bryan Ferry picks up that harmonica at 4:42, you too may want to smile.  Or dance.  Or read the Psalms.  Or all three.

Am I now a blogger? 'Fraid so.

Thinking of myself as a "blogger" is quite strange.  There's no small part of me that wants to say, "I'm not a blogger, I just happen to have started a blog, in order to ..." (insert whatever dubious justification comes to mind).  But surely the technical definition of "blogger" is "one who or that which blogs."  And I am blogging.  So I suppose I should just admit it.  I'm a blogger.

There.  That felt better.

It's natural to wonder, "Which audience am I writing for?"  But that raises a prior question ("raises," not "begs"—there is a difference!): "Is there an audience at all?"  That one does write, or should write, for an audience is not self-evident.  Once I fancied that writing should be a kind of pure self-expression, not necessarily "for" any audience.  Hearing a lecture by Bernard Williams when I was in graduate school persuaded me otherwise.  Ridiculing the concept of "pure enquiry," he suggested that philosophers who write are well advised to examine their motives for writing, and to direct their work to a specific audience.  Is the principle universal?  His answer, delivered in that Oxbridge accent that is really hard to argue with: "Ninety percent of those who say ‘I just have to write’ are stupid.  But more than 0% of them are geniuses."

My dissertation director once said: "We write for our friends."  I'm not sure I can do better than that.  At any rate, I suppose that as a blogger (I said it!), I am writing for my friends.  And myself.

Not every entry, I promise, will be a reflection on the act of blogging.  It's just something I've got to get out of my system.  I suppose I could imagine a blog about blogging.  But that would be a meta-blog.  While I'm doubtless some sort of metaphysician, to the very end, I simply can't handle being a meta-blogger.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Outstanding Student Writing

Just returned from an oral defense of an excellent senior thesis by Caleb Simone.  His topic: "Nietzsche as the first tragic philosopher."  Hats off to Caleb and his advisor Dwight Allman for an outstanding job.  As one committee member said, "Even the footnotes were a true pleasure to read."

It's a privilege to be part of these things.

Emerson's Essay on Montaigne

This blog is named in honor of Emerson, whose essays I've come to enjoy a great deal.  Particularly fine is his essay on Montaigne, the inventor of the form.  Here's a quote, taken almost at random, that intrigues me: "The studious class are their own victims: they are thin and pale, their feet are cold, their heads are hot, the night is without sleep, the day a fear of interruption,—pallor, squalor, hunger, and egotism."

Is the "studious class" like this in general?  There are exceptions.  It's been some time since anyone accused me of being thin, though I may be pale.  I don't think I have cold feet or a hot head.  As for the other stuff, I should probably just plead the Fifth.

I do love knowing people who are not of the studious class.


Welcome to this blog—as if we needed yet another blog.  I've been tempted to start a blog for a while, for reasons that might bear a passing resemblance to Montaigne's decision to write essays.

It looks like I've succumbed to temptation.