Archive for the Notes Category

Blueprints and butterflies

Posted in Notes with tags , , on 18 March 2010 by Brendan

Today was chapter 12 in my slow plod through the Greek text of Romans, and after the lexical wilderness of chapter 11, this was land burgeoning with milk and honey. The most interesting vocabulary is in verse 2: “μὴ συσχηματίζεσθε τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ” (do not be conformed to this age). The verb that tickled me was “suschematizo.” (I still don’t know the proper way to distinguish between long and short o’s and e’s, which in Greek are represented respectively by the omega and eta, and the omicron and epsilon.) This delightful word touches down in contemporary English diction in interesting ways: a quite literal translation might be, “do not be pressed into the schema of the world,” or even, “do not let yourself be mapped out in accordance with this age.” Aristotle uses this verb to suggest shaping something to fit within delineated boundaries: it is a shop-word, taken from the language of manufacture. This present age molds us according to its intentions and aims: the powers of the world stamp us out like so many tennis shoes or sugar cookies.

By contrast, Paul enjoins Christians: “μεταμορφοῦσθε τῇ ἀνακαινώσει τοῦ νοός,” (be transformed in the renewal of the mind). The verb here—“metamorpho-o”—suggests the literal translation of being “re-made,” in the sense especially of being given a new face or appearance. A metamorphosis occurs among the living, and it is a unique, unrepeatable event, the literal creation of new life out of the wreckage of the old (picture butterflies). Against the sterile schematics of the Empire, Paul opposes the possibility of a catechesis that does not efface difference.


Why the IDF reads Deleuze

Posted in Notes with tags , , , , , , , on 19 January 2010 by Brendan

(h/t to Joe Carter at First Thoughts)

In 2006, Eyal Weizman, Professor of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, authored “Lethal Theory,” an article discussing the self-conscious appropriation of poststructuralist theories of language and society by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in articulating a new array of tactics for urban warfare: in an assault on the Palestinian city of Nablus in 2002, the IDF “used none of the streets, roads, alleys, or courtyards that constitute the syntax of the city,” but rather “moved horizontally through party walls, and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors,” literally carving out a maze of interior tunnels pervading private residences so as to bypass the sniper-ridden and bomb-laden thoroughfares of the city. The soldiers swarmed through the city in small, independent units, improvising an overall strategy in response to new developments.

Though the tactic is innovative (probably not so innovative as Weizman suggests), still more remarkable is the army’s own interpretation of it. Weizman interviewed the commander of the attack on Nablus, Brigadier General Aviv Kokhavi, who described the strategy:

The space that you look at in this room is nothing but your interpretation of it […] The question is, how do you interpret the alley? […] A weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the door. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey his interpretation and fall into his traps […] From now on, we all walk through walls!

 Weizman writes that many IDF officers are university trained (Kokhavi has a degree in philosophy), and that “the reading lists of contemporary military institutions include works from around 1968 (with a special emphasis on the writings of Deleuze, Guattari, and Debord).” The influence of postmodern thought on Israeli military strategy is largely due, Weizman suggests, to Shimon Naveh, who “directs the Operational Theory Research Institute,” and who explained the importance of Deleuze and Guattari to his work:

Several of the concepts in A Thousand Plateaus became instrumental for us…Most important was the distinction they have pointed out between the concepts of “smooth” and “striated” space…In the IDF we now often use the term “to smooth out space” when we want to refer to operation in a space as if it had no borders…We want to confront the “striated” space of traditional, old-fashioned military practice with smoothness that allows for movement through space that crosses any borders and barriers. 

Now, I’m certainly no military historian (and Weizman does acknowledge that “many of the procedures and processes described above have been part and parcel of urban operations throughout history”), but, the postmodern jargon aside, the tactics set out in this article—the reinterpretation of space, the decentralization of forces—is surely familiar to anyone moderately well versed in children’s science fiction: in Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s wonderful novel about an orbiting school for military cadets engaged in an interstellar war, the action revolves around the students’ mock wars in the Battle Room, a zero-gravity playing field in which opposing armies seek to disable one another with laser guns and tactical formations. A crucial insight that allows Ender to become the most successful commander in Battle School is that the orientation one ascribes to the gravity-less Battle Room is simply arbitrary. Rather than approach the enemy across the room, leaving his body exposed, Ender chooses to fall towards the opponent: “The enemy’s gate is down.”

The most striking aspect of Weizman’s article is his suggestion that the IDF is misappropriating critical theory “as an instrument in the power struggle against the Palestinians,” turning it to ends that surely would have been repugnant to the authors themselves (the classic example here being Derrida’s insistence that “justice” is the “undeconstructible” element on whose behalf all deconstruction is undertaken). Naveh insists, “The disruptive capacity in theory [elsewhere Naveh uses the term nihilist] is the aspect of theory that we like and use … This theory is not married to its socialist ideals.” As Weizman relates, the concepts deployed by the IDF were originally conceived as “part of a general strategy to challenge the built hierarchy o the capitalist city and break down distinctions between private and public”: “The ‘micropolitics’ of the time represented in many ways an attempt to constitute a mental and affective guerrilla fighter at the intimate levels of the body, sexuality, and intersubjectivity” (68). For such practices to be appropriated by the very institutions they were meant to subvert is an irony of history at best. 

However, I think such a development more than ironic, but to some extent fated: John Milbank and David Hart have each persuasively argued that postmodern writers share an “ontology of violence,” which results in their conceiving social relations as inevitably productive of strife. In such conditions, the best that can be hoped for is that violence can be marshaled to the aid of the “marginalized” by transgression, subversion, disruption, or deconstruction: the protection of the helpless justifies violence of a new sort, and policing in new areas; “Intolerance will not be tolerated.”

It’s redundant at best, but if all modes of speech conceal the will to power, then by definition, every act of political or military or social discourse conceals the will power: Nietzsche at least was honest enough to realize that historical self-consciousness is not a Get Out of Jail Free card from the prison of nihilism.

PMN Chapter Two – Persons Without Minds

Posted in Books, Notes, Second Paradise projects with tags , on 29 December 2009 by William Brafford

Rorty begins Chapter II with an imaginative account of the Antipodeans, a distant race that is like us in almost every way except that they are more advanced in neurology and they have no notion of the mind. Rorty wonders what would happen if we encountered such a race, and what we would have to say about them if we tried to apply the notions of contemporary philosophy of mind. Clearly, the Antipodeans are a vision of what discourse could be like on Earth once our neurobiology become sufficiently advanced.

The main way that the Antipodeans resist Terran philosophy is that they don’t understand the notion of an incorrigibly knowable entity. While they believe that persons can make incorrigible reports of how things seem to be, they don’t think that this report causally requires some sort of entity or special property. Contemporary dualists, on the other hand, take the opposite stance. (Rorty sides with the Antipodeans.)

Does it count as begging the question for Rorty to simply describe a race of people that have no conception of the mind? How do we know such a race is even possible? It certainly puts his opponents on the defensive, for they have to offer some compelling reason that such a race couldn’t exist. And I think Rorty laid enough ground in the first chapter to call into question the kinds of anti-Antipodean arguments that we might reach for first. And from what I can tell these thought experiments are pretty common in analytic philosophy.

While the first half of the chapter consists of this careful account of how an encounter with the Antipodeans would stymie dualists, the second half shows how Rorty’s position is different from other common anti-dualist positions. He discusses behaviorism, skepticism about other minds, and versions of materialism.

I don’t have a great deal to say about this chapter. While I got some pleasure from winding through the arguments, I can’t say I have much of a stake in them. Had I read more philosophy, I’m sure I would have been better prepared. Over the next few years, I’ll have to get through some of the thinkers Rorty talks about to see whether he really does justice to their positions here. As things are, I am willing to go along with Rorty’s materialism, if only provisionally. I can accept that very little hinges on the ontological status or existence of “raw feels,” etc.

At the tail end of the chapter, Rorty provides a quick summary of the main points he wants the reader to get from the book so far. I don’t have a good reason to take issue with the second and third of these, though, at the risk of being repetitive, I will say again that I really like Plato and haven’t yet been convinced on the problem of universals:

“Unless we are willing to revive Platonic and Aristotelian notions about grasping universals, we shall not think that knowledge of general truths is made possible by some special, metaphysically distinctive, ingredient in human beings.

”Unless we wish to revive the seventeenth century’s somewhat awkward and inconsistent use of the Aristotelian notion of ‘substance’ we shall not make sense of the notion of two ontological realms—the mental and the physical.

“Unless we wish to affirm what I have called Principle (P)—roughly, the claim that a distinctive metaphysical property of ‘presence to consciousness’ grounds some of our noninferential reports of our states—we shall not be able to use the notion of ‘entities whose appearance exhausts their reality’ to bolster the mental-physical distinction.” (125-126)

I want to come back and do some short posts on specific passages in this section — specifically, the bit about inspired theists and uninspired atheists, and the bit about how infants feel pain — but I think this will do for now, as I have to go get ready to drive down to Florida for some guy’s wedding.

Newman and Tradition

Posted in Books, Notes with tags , , , on 22 December 2009 by Brendan

I spent some time earlier in the fall reading through John Henry Newman’s The Development of Christian Doctrine, an immense work written over the course of more than thirty years, during which time Newman crossed the Tiber. This is one of the most important works of theology I have ever read, and surely one of the most quotable (really on a level with Chesterton, though more by sheer force of intellect than by wit). The crucial insight of the work is that orthodox Christianity is a living creature (the corporeal metaphors of 1 Cor. 3 being particularly appropriate here, I suppose), whose development is dialectical, piecemeal, proceeding by opposition and by argument. He argues against what he terms the “Protestant” reading of Christianity, which abandons history for an abstract revelation of timeless truth, asserting instead the inescapably historical situation of the temporal community called by God to be a new humanity among and for the sake of the world. Historical development, for Newman, grounds and secures Christian doctrine, rather than vice versa. For instance, he writes,

It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent; it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often (1.7).

It seems to me that the Arian / Athanasian controversy is a good example of this sort of process: the New Testament provides some excellent source material for subordinationist doctrines (John 1 and Philippians 2 are particularly susceptible of this reading), with little clear grounding in the plain sense of the text for which hermeneutic is preferable. Rather, only the supra-biblical (in the qualified sense of “not present in the text”) insight that “Only God can bring us to God,” could finally overcome the existential threat of Arianism. And to assert that the Nicene doctrine was always “hidden” in the text is really no help, for the fact remains that it is a product of fourth century Christians employing a neo-Platonic philosophical grammar and engaging in specific pastoral and didactic controversies: we have no other history to which we might appeal, and so no clear grounds for insisting that other men in other (earlier?) ages could have equally well hit upon what we know today as orthodoxy.

PMN Chapter One – Our Glassy Essence

Posted in Books, Notes, Second Paradise projects with tags , on 18 December 2009 by William Brafford

In the first chapter of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty sets out his agenda for the rest of the book. He outlined the book’s subject matter and described its overall aim in the introduction, but it’s in this chapter that he explains the book’s argumentative structure. But before he gets to that, he begins in medias res, spending two subsections asking questions about the mind in the language of analytic philosophy.

The first subsection concerns the “criteria of the mental.” Rorty observes that discussions of the mind-body problem tend to assume the division between mental and physical, framing the question as one of the possible identity of certain mental and physical states. But by virtue of what feature or features does something count as mental? Rorty quickly examines a few possibilities. Some dualists will say that mental events such as pains or sudden thoughts are not spatial, and therefore must lie on the other side of an “ontological gap,” which is to say that anything we know to be non-spatial necessarily cannot be identical with something spatial. Rorty explains that Kant and Strawson have shown that mental states must be states of spatial beings, and so this line of reasoning would explain the mental as non-spatial states of spatial beings. Furthermore, we have to show that this is a different kind of non-spatiality than we get from functional (relational) states such as beauty or fame. If this seems confusing, that’s because it is, and it should be confusing enough for us to suspect that non-spatiality cannot be the criterion of the mental.

At this point in the argument, Rorty pauses to tell us something crucial to his whole approach: he wants us to suspect that “our so-called intuition about what is mental may be merely our readiness to fall in with a specifically philosophical language-game … this so-called intuition is no mare than the ability to command a certain technical vocabulary…” (22). Later parts of the chapter explain the origins of this vocabulary.

Rorty examines another criterion of the mental in the second subsection. Perhaps the mental is that which is either intentional or phenomenal or both. Something is intentional if it is “about something” whereas it’s phenomenal if it is an immediate and indubitable appearance in the mind. Beliefs are intentional but not phenomenal, and pains are phenomenal but not intentional. Other parts of the mental are both intentional and phenomenal. If this definition works, then we may get non-materiality while excluding properties such as beauty or fame, which gave us trouble in the last section. But we have to ask two questions first.

Why is the intentional nonmaterial? According to Wittgenstein and Sellars, meaning is derived from context in a language-game, so immateriality is trivial. The relationship of a belief to the brain is the same as the relationship of a proposition to words on a page, so we can only get a non-trivial immateriality by returning to a Lockean view of meaning in which the words on the page actually encode a non-spatial invisible idea. Such Lockean ideas are actually phenomenal, so it looks like the only way to get the kind of immateriality that has any philosophical consequences is to move on to the second question.

Why is the phenomenal nonmaterial? A phenomenal property is what it seems to be and nothing more — we cannot be mistaken about whether or not we are in pain. Feelings are “pure seemings” (29). But this transforms phenomenal properties (“feeling pains”) into subjects of predication (“an entity called pain”), and when we look at it this way we can see that we’re back to constructing Platonic ideals. If we refuse to construct these ideals, then nominalism dissolves the problem. “The mind-body problem, we can now say, was merely a result of Locke’s unfortunate mistake about how words get meaning, combined with his and Plato’s muddled attempt to talk about adjectives as if they were nouns” (32-33).

Rorty stands by this way of dissolving the contemporary mind-body problem, but contends that more is needed. Specifically, there has to be an account of why we think there’s a mind-body problem in the first place. In the third subsection, Rorty argues that the mind-body problem is composed of three separate problems, and the most commonly proposed criteria of the mental fall under one of these three problems. The “problem of consciousness” involves the connection between intentional states and neural states, and has to do with the brain. The “problem of reason” is whether man’s ability to know is what separates him from animals and has to do with language and knowledge. The “problem of personhood” is that of whether a human being is more than matter, and has to do with freedom and morality. Rorty’s plan of attack is to deal with these problems separately. We now have the logical underpinnings of the subject outline from the introduction. After the third subsection, the book begins in earnest. (You can tell by how the increasing frequency of footnotes.)

The fourth subsection looks at how philosophers from the Greeks through the Scholastics used the metaphor of the mind’s eye. The upshot is that the insofar as the Greek conception of the mind was rooted in perception of universals. The “mind’s eye” was that part of the mind which could “see” abstractions, just as the physical eye saw particulars. They left sensation of particulars to the body. If we take our ability to manipulate mathematical and logical truths as grounds for dualism, we’re continuing a Greek line of thought, not a modern one.

The ancient theory Rorty spends the most talking about is Aristotle’s “hylomorphic” epistemology, in which the part of a person that perceived a universal actually recreated the essential substance of that universal. The emphasis here is on how different a hylomorphic theory is from the representational theories that we’re familiar with, where the mind looks at the image of a thing, not the actual essence.

The fifth subsection looks at how Descartes changed the notion of the mind and thereby created the problem of consciousness. Descartes changed the definition of “thought” to mean anything that appears before the mind — whether sensation or idea. Where the Greeks had no problem attributing pains to the body, now Descartes and those who followed him had to ask whether a pain in the mind truly indicated a pain in the body. And though Descartes himself tried to preserve some of the scholastic framework, it was a futile effort. With the lines all redrawn, Locke’s empiricism turned out to be the more popular theory.

Philosophy after Descartes had to take epistemology as its first, foundational task. In Rorty’s words, “The Cartesian change from mind-as-reason to mind-as-inner-arena was not the triumph of the prideful individual freed from scholastic shackles so much as the triumph of the quest for certainty over the quest for wisdom … Science, rather than the living, became philosophy’s subject, and epistemology its center” (61). The changed notion of the mind set the course of philosophy.

The final subsection looks at how modern dualism differs from Cartesian dualism. We have, since Kant, moved on from even Descartes’s version of “substance.” Our “category of things which cannot [exist in space]” is not the same as Descartes’s mind-substance (65). Modern dualists concede that beliefs and desires should be considered as brain-states, and, in a strange inversion, they cling to pains and other sudden mental events as grounds for their dualism, rather than universals. “For the ancients, the mind was most obviously capable of separate existence when it contemplated the unchanging and was itself unchanging. For the moderns, it is most obviously so capable when it is a blooming, buzzing collection of raw feels” (67-68).

Descartes updated the ghost-like conception of the soul to make it more respectable. But Rorty concludes that modern philosophy, by reducing the mind-body problem to stray thoughts and raw feels, has made it (i.e., the mind-body problem) totally irrelevant to real life — dualism doesn’t commit you to religion or bar you from being respectably scientific.


After reading this chapter, I’m left with a few thoughts.

First of all, the obvious audience for the book is analytic philosophers who have spent a great deal of time reading Kant in the dusty library stacks and are up to date with the arguments of Ryle and Strawson. But I wonder if Rorty anticipated the effect of diving right into contemporary arguments on someone like me, who has read a little of Kant’s Groundwork and a few articles by Chisholm and Nagel on the mind-body problem. Trying to figure out what the terms mean, who’s on which team, and how each move in the argument works — the whole thing does seem to be a language game, the rules of which I have to figure out as I go. Whether or not it was deliberate, the effect is to prepare the non-philosopher to accept the assertion that intuition is just familiarity with some language-game.

Second, I’m an amateur mathematician, and I’m very fond of Plato. Rorty’s not too fond of Plato, and treats him as a wild thinker whose best ideas had to be made reasonable by Aristotle. I’ve spent enough time playing with functions and mathematical objects that my intuition’s a little split. On the one hand, math does seem to be “out there” somewhere. On the other, my small exposure to non-Euclidean geometry and modern algebra does point to mathematical objects as things that we construct, not ones that we find. But my whole aesthetic sense is affected by my mathematical bent, and I find certain Christian interpretations of Plato — a cascading plenitude of The Good, illuminating and filling and driving the universe despite its fallen-ness — powerfully attractive.

Third, the sections that gave me the most trouble were the ones that dealt with Descartes. I’m not totally clear on how the analogy between colors and ideas drove Descartes, or on why he couldn’t be explicit about this analogy without putting Galilean metaphysics in jeopardy. I may need to pull out my copy of the Meditations and think this one over.

Finally, it was a little frustrating that Rorty kept saying that an argument from Kant, Wittgenstein, or Strawson convinced most philosophers that something or other had to be the case, and I just had no idea which arguments he’s talking about. I get the feeling that this problem won’t go away. But that’s just the kind of thing you have to deal with when you’re reading beyond your pay grade.

Do you guys think I missed anything important in my summary? How does it compare to your notes?

Gregory of Nyssa against the Materialists

Posted in Books, Notes, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 16 December 2009 by Brendan

Today, I read perhaps the first third of Gregory’s On the Soul and the Resurrection (an embarrassing admission: I’m not reading from an even remotely respectable edition, just the online version hosted at New Advent). He composed this really touching treatise as a dialogue between his sister, Macrina (called simply “The Teacher” or “the Virgin”) and himself, upon the death of their brother, Basil (as in “Basil the Great”—these two, along with Gregory of Nazianzus are the Cappadocian Fathers). The Gregory of the dialogue comes to Macrina seeking solace at his loss (this brilliant man was humble enough to cast himself as a bumbling foil to his talented sister); she persuades him of the existence, simplicity, and immortality of the soul, and of the truth of bodily resurrection.

So far, the dialogue has only covered arguments for and against the existence of the soul; these are fascinating principally for their tone: dialogue-Gregory tentatively offers a materialist account of the soul (the “soul” must be a composite of the body’s elements, because if not, reason could not suggest a location for it, and “if a thing can be found nowhere, plainly it has no existence”). At this, 

the Teacher sighed gently […] and then said […] “I hear Epicurus carried his theories in this very direction. The framework of things was to his mind a fortuitous and mechanical affair, without a Providence penetrating its operations […] To him the visible was the limit of existence; he made our senses the only mans of our apprehension of things. 

She calls such materialism, a “narrow-minded, groveling view of the world, ” which blinds its advocate to realms of spiritual truth hidden by the “earthen wall” of sensible objects: “while the sight of a garment suggests to any one the weaver of it, and the thought of the shipwright comes at the sight of the ship […] these little souls gaze upon the world, but their eyes are blind to Him whom all this that we see around us makes manifest,” even as “the Creation proclaims outright the Creator, for the very heavens, as the Prophet says, declare the glory of God with their unutterable words.”  

This made me chuckle, because much contemporary writing from a materialist perspective adopts a similar tone of dismissive disbelief: in Godel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hoftstadter dismisses the Christian doctrine of the soul out of hand, referring to its proponents as “soulists”; Daniel Dennett insists upon referring to his atheist cohort as “Brights.” Here it is appropriate to quote David Bentley Hart (the first author of my acquaintance who discussed Gregory):

The experience of the delightful needlessness of the beautiful awakens us to the needlessness of the existence of things, to their ontological contingency, to the failure of their essences (conceived statically) to account for their existence. In this moment, we are aware—not always reflectively or speculatively, admittedly—of the difference between being and beings; and so long as we dwell in that apprehension, we cannot fall prey to that excruciating confusion that makes someone like, say, Richard Dawkins incapable of grasping the difference between the mystery of existence and the question of origins. The philistine hath said in his heart . . . 

Hart is onto something profound in this paragraph: it seems that the most fundamental difference between a materialist and a “soulist” is not one of competing truth claims, but rather of incompatible aesthetics. Per my discussion of Rorty last night, the materialist is not so much unconvinced by Christian reflection on being as he is bored by it, repelled by its seeming lack of elegance, while the Christian has not so much a chain of argument to defend the existence of God as an overwhelming artistic impression sparked by (to borrow Hart’s phrase once more) “the ontological mystery,” the starkly wondrous fact that anything comes to be in the first place. 

This part of the treatise culminates in Gregory’s offering one of the most captivating descriptions of God I have ever read: 

A Divine power, working with skill and method, is manifesting itself in this actual world, and, penetrating each portion, combines those portions with the whole and completes the whole by the portions, and encompasses the universe with a single all-controlling force, self-centred and self-contained, never ceasing from its motion, yet never altering the position which it holds.

This is not a description that can be “founded” by the elements of pure reason; that is, a person may consistently affirm the non-existence of any rational ordering principle pervading the cosmos. However, the costs of such a denial are very high: as Macrina suggests, “If it is not possible for the soul to exist after death, though the elements do, then, I say, according to this teaching our life as well is proved to be nothing else but death.”