28 November 2005

Monday Quote Frenzy

Which is authentic? The philosophy rooted in the true self? Or the self aligned towards true philosophy?

Taking the point is Goethe, quoted by Ernst Cassirer in the introduction to Kant’s Life and Thought:
The Stoic, the Platonist, the Epicurean, each must come to terms with the world in his own fashion; indeed, precisely that is the task of life from which no one is exempted, to whatever school he may belong. The philosophers, for their part, can offer us nothing but patterns of life. The strict moderation of Kant, for example, required a philosophy in accordance with his innate inclinations. Read his biography and you will soon discover how neatly he blunted the edge of his stoicism, which in fact constituted a striking obstacle to social relationships, adjusted it and brought it into balance with the world. Each individual, by virtue of his inclinations, has a right to principles which do not destroy his individuality. Probably the origin of all philosophy is to be sought for here or nowhere. Every system succeeds in coming to terms with the world in that moment when its true champion appears. Only the acquired part of human nature ordinarily founders on a contradiction; what is inborn in it finds its way anywhere and not infrequently even overcomes its contrary with the greatest success. We must first be in harmony with ourselves, and then we are in a position, if not to eliminate, at least in some way to counterbalance the discords pressing in on us from outside.
(conversation with J. D Falk, originally from Goethes Gespräche, ed. F. frhr. V. Biedermann, Leipzig, 1909-11, vol. 4, p. 468)

Taking the counterpoint is Cassirer himself:
He [Kant] molded his whole life with the strength and purity of an indomitable will and infused it with a single ruling idea; but this will, which in the formation of his philosophy proved itself to be a maximally positive and creative element, affects his personal life with a restrictive and negative cast. All the stirrings of subjective feeling and subjective emotion comprise for him only the material which he strives with ever-growing determination to subject to the authority of “reason” and of the objective dictates of duty.

If Kant’s life lost something of its richness and harmony in this struggle, on the other hand it was through this alone that it gained its genuinely heroic nature.

25 November 2005

Eating Healthy

The latest Nature (Nov. 24) highlights an interesting nutritional comparison found in an article by D. B. Fenolio et al. in Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B. A Big Mac is 23% protein and 33% fat. Bat guano, on the other hand, is 54% protein and only 1 % fat. This is good news for cave salamanders, which do not have access to fast food franchises.

23 November 2005

The Charge of the Blogger

In the November 2005 issue of Prospect, Michael Coveney laments that drama critics are no longer as they were in the days of his youth, when the likes of Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson stalked the British press. I wonder if this complaint could be tracked back to William Hazlitt lamenting the glory of Samuel Johnson? (Actually, I don’t think Hazlitt liked Johnson, but you get the point.) Still, Coveney has some ideas about what used to, and arguably always should, make the work of the critic important. I wanted to highlight several because I’m still trying to understand blogging, and I suspect that the persona of cultural critic is an essential part.

“A critic is there to set out the reasons for an artist's claim on our attention,” says Coveney, and yet
the notion of the critic as a campaigner of any sort has died a slow death over the years. In a recent interview in the Stage, the playwright David Hare remarked that, “Since the days when Ronald Bryden 'discovered' Tom Stoppard via Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on the Edinburgh fringe, there has not been a single critic whose name can be identified with a single writer in the way that Tynan championed Osborne and Harold Hobson supported Beckett.”

This recalls Aristotle’s characterization of perfect friendship (friendship of character) as the relationship in which one sees his friend’s virtues and strives to help express and fulfill them. Thus, the critic is supposed to be a friend of character to the artist. Having recognized his intellectual and moral qualities, he feels a responsibility to support him.

This advocacy of creative thinkers and their contributions is a function that the blogging community has taken up with vigor, as, for example, PZ Myers stands for Darwin against all comers. Bloggers go to bat for cherished intellectual endeavors that are poorly represented in the mainstream media. Who speaks for the virtues of Victorian literature? Miriam Burstein, for one. Chemistry? Michelle Francl. Medieval history? A Damned Medievalist.

Enthusiasm and affection for the subject is key. Coveney notes that, early in his career, Tynan described his writings as “enthusiasms, written by an aficionado, out of an almost limitless capacity for admiration.” And Orson Welles, in his introduction to Tynan’s 1950 book He That Plays the King, said “You, with your fine capacity for violent opinion, are solely needed out front… You know how to cheer, you are not afraid to hiss, you are audible (to put it mildly), and transparently in love.”

But substance is also needed.
I am not suggesting that today's broadsheet - let alone tabloid – press should come over all high-toned and learned when confronted with a new Alan Ayckbourn comedy or the latest drug-fuelled shocker at the Bush Theatre. But let's hear it once more for experience, knowledge and seriousness. What is sorely needed is a new group of younger critics who will combine the enthusiasm of the aficionado with the rigour of the informed taskmaster.

There is more ventured here than a display of erudition. Coveney cites Tynan, complaining to Hobson shortly before his death: “The trouble with our successors is that nothing seems at stake for them.” And Coveney embraces the larger import of the critical mission.
For it is surely the critic's task to funnel discussion of big issues through the mediating experience of the work of art itself.

Indeed, to think about it as largely as possible, Coveney quotes Australian Peter Conrad:
Critics are the means whereby society becomes conscious of itself, aware of the direction it is taking. There can be no culture without them.

In carrying this over from critic to blogger, I would also draw on the clear and invigorating vision in Edward Said’s analysis of the role of the public intellectual, in his 1993 Reith Lectures, Representations of the Intellectual:
[T]he intellectual is an individual with a specific public role in society that cannot be reduced simply to being a faceless professional, a competent member of a class just going about her/his business. The central fact for me is, I think, that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.

This does not mean opposition for opposition’s sake. But it does mean asking questions, making distinctions, restoring to memory all those things that tend to be overlooked or walked past in the rush to collective judgment and action.

This is heady stuff. For myself, I’m just striving for piquancy. I have been ever since I tried to refer to a correlation that I found in my thesis work as ‘piquant’. My advisor told me that ‘piquant’ was not a word for a scientific paper. I tried to substitute the dictionary definition – ‘engagingly provocative’ – but he wasn’t having that either. The old saying is that we often regret our speech, but never our silence. Yet I have always regretted that particular silence.

I think that ‘provocative’ is the easy part; ‘engaging’ is hard work, especially as it must not seem to be so. Edward Said again:
Witnessing a sorry state of affairs when one is not in power is by no means a monotonous, monochromatic activity. It involves what Foucault once called ‘a relentless erudition,’ scouring alternative sources, exhuming buried documents, reviving forgotten (or abandoned) histories. It involves a sense of the dramatic and of the insurgent, making a great deal of one’s rare opportunities to speak, catching the audience’s attention, being better at wit and debate than one’s opponents.

And Michael Coveney:
My generation harked back to Tynan so often not only because of his brilliance but because his best work was so supremely the best writing about any art form at the time. Tynan was our man, not because he was necessarily “right” about anything - though he was, and far more often than Hobson (the characteristic sound of a Sunday morning, said Penelope Gilliatt, was of Harold Hobson barking up the wrong tree) - but because he wrote so scintillatingly well and “into” our times and culture, and indeed age group. He made theatre matter, and he made it sexy.

Ah, sexy. Maybe I can do that.

21 November 2005

Monday Quote - John Dewey

The fundamental defect in the present state of democracy is the assumption that political and economic freedom can be achieved without first freeing the mind. Freedom of mind is not something that spontaneously happens. It is not achieved by the mere absence of obvious restraints. It is a product of constant, unremitting nurture of right habits of observation and reflection.

Until the taboos that hedge social topics from contact with thought are removed, scientific method and results in subjects far removed from social themes will make little impression upon the public mind. Prejudice, fervor of emotion, bunkum, opinion and irrelevant argument will weigh as heavily as fact and knowledge. Intellectual confusion will continue to encourage the men who are intolerant and who fake their beliefs in the interests of their feelings and fancies…

There is a considerable class of influential persons, enlightened and liberal in technical, scientific and religious matters, who are only too ready to make use of appeal to authority, prejudice, emotion and ignorance to serve their purposes in political and economic affairs. Having done whatever they can do to debauch the habit of the public mind in these respects, they then sit back in amazed sorrow when this same habit of mind displays itself violently with regard, say, to the use of established methods of historic and literary interpretations of the scriptures or with regard to the animal origin of man.

"Fundamentalism" might have been revived even if the Great War had not occurred. But it is reasonable to suppose that it would have not assumed such an intolerant and vituperative form, if so many educated men, in positions of leadership, had not deliberately cultivated resort to bitter intolerance and to coercive suppression of disliked opinions during the war...Until highly respectable and cultivated classes of men cease to suppose that in economic and political matters the importance of the end of social stability and security justifies the use of means other than those of reason, the intellectual habit of the public will continue to be corrupted at the root, and by those from whom enlightenment should be expected.

John Dewey, 1924, Science, Belief, and the Public

16 November 2005

Stealing Fire from Prometheus

At A Photon in the Darkness, Prometheus has posted on legal, ethical, and practical issues arising from the decision of the Kansas State Board of Education to redefine “science” in a way that allows inclusion of supernatural influences (such as the hypothetical Intelligent Designer) in K-12 science classes. One section particularly caught my eye.

Another part of the ethical problem is the ethics of teachers lying to children. Even if the actual classroom teachers "believe" in "Intelligent Design", there are teachers or administrators somewhere in the system who know that it is a lie to tell children that "Intelligent Design" is in any way a scientific "theory", let alone one comparable in support or predictive power to evolution.

And lying to children isn't just an abstract issue of ethics. Once they find out that they've been lied to (and they will find out - ask any parent), children are not as forgiving as adults. Adults expect to be lied to; children still manage to be shocked and offended by it - that's one of the things that marks them as children. Once they find out that they've been lied to about "Intelligent Design", they will doubt everything else their teachers (and parents) have taught them. This is a process that currently occurs somewhere in the latter years of college (we hope) - do we really want to see this happening in secondary school?

I have made this argument myself, focusing on the fact that, when we teach concepts like evolution in such classes, we are implicitly saying that this is the explanation accepted by most scientists working in the field. Thus, “merely” teaching that there is a body of evidence that conflicts with standard evolutionary theory – as used to justify “teaching the controversy” – would be lying to the kids. Most (indeed, nearly all) scientists working in the field would not say that such a body of evidence exists.

This “mainstream” presumption is hardly unique to K-12 science. It holds in all courses – history, literature, etc. What is unique about the Kansas case, of course, is the decision to mandate that all science teachers must lie.

14 November 2005

Monday Quote

"Vocations which we wanted to pursue, but didn't, bleed, like colors, on the whole of our existence. "

- Honore de Balzac

11 November 2005

The Threefold Critic

In the October 7 issue of Eurozine, Ieva Lešinska reports an interview with Harold Bloom, which she conducted for the Latvian cultural journal Rīgas Laiks last year on the occasion of the publication of his book Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? Bloom is arguably the fastest typist since Isaac Asimov, and shares the amazing ability to apparently remember everything he ever read. Yet, where Asimov was the encyclopédist, Bloom seems more like an alchemist, brooding in solitude over the texts of the masters, searching for some deep power that explains the transmutation of the reader.

No surprise, perhaps, that he is a Kabbalist.

The book had a mixed reception, generally because it returns to questions he has raised many times since The Western Canon and, perhaps because the problems are now familiar or perhaps because the format was intentionally brief, gives answers so shorn of argumentation that they strike the reader as fiats. Perhaps I am more attuned to his obsession, but I think that it is always worth returning to this mystery, even if we have learned little since the last time we approached it. I have a hard enough time properly understanding how the creatures around me can have internal states that resemble my own consciousness. The fact that some of their artifacts have the power to affect me so profoundly is a problem worthy of devotion.

One remark in the interview struck me in particular.
I remark in this new book that I have only three criteria for whether a work should be read and reread and taught to others, and they are: aesthetic splendour, cognitive power, and wisdom.

Of course, it is the wisdom that is his subject, and he says that he never really talked about it before. It may well be that he has focused more deeply on the other criteria in the past, under the rubric of ‘genius’. But seeing the trinity set out like this was a startling coincidence to my just having finished reading Dorothy Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker.

Sayers is best known as a mystery novelist these days, which is a shame, as her translation of, and notes on, Dante’s Divine Comedy is a rewarding experience, and her explorations of Christian doctrine are deep and passionate. Written in 1941, The Mind of the Maker is an attempt to explore the relation of man and God through the insight of the creative artist.
How then can [man] be said to resemble God? Is it his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the ‘image’ of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, ‘God created.’ The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.

This is just one metaphor by which we attempt to understand the nature of God through experience – a king, a father, a creative artist. But Sayers has thought deeply about why one writes and how one writes and how one’s writing becomes meaningful to the reader – just the question of interest – and she is very good at explaining her thinking.

The key to my frisson is Sayers’ explication of the Trinitarian form of the creative act. Sayers works in the tradition of St. Augustine, who likens the threefold nature of God to vision:
[T]hese three things, although diverse in nature, are tempered together into a kind of unity; that is, the form of the body which is seen, and the image of it impressed on the sense, which is vision or sense informed, and the will of the mind which applies the sense to the sensible thing, and retains the vision itself in it. (On the Trinity, Book XI, chapter 2)

Her trinity of creative activity is the Idea (in some sense outside of time, beholding the whole work in its complete form), the Energy (the activity within time that results in the work), and the Power (the meaning of the work, the response that it generates in the soul of the reader – including, indeed especially, the author). These correspond, respectively, to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. They also correspond, I would claim directly, to Bloom’s cognitive power, aesthetic splendor, and wisdom.

The difficulty of defining the wisdom of the work – Bloom himself says that he has no good definition, and flippantly settles for William James’ aphorism that “Wisdom is in learning what to overlook.” – is apparent in Sayers’ difficulty in explaining the Power of the book as read.
This is a very difficult thing to examine and analyze, because our own perception of the thing is precisely what we are trying to perceive. We can, as it were, note various detached aspects of it: what we cannot pin down and look at is the movement of our own mind. In the same way, we cannot follow the movement of our own eyes in a mirror… The eye is the instrument by which we see everything, and for that reason it is the one thing we cannot see with truth. The same thing is true of our Power of response to a book, or to anything else.

Later, Sayers explores how failures of these aspects of the creative act are manifested, and we may get a better sense of her meaning. Failure of the Power, the ghost, is worse than failure of the other aspects, because it is a failure of the medium by which Thought (the Idea) and Action (the Energy) are creative. The unghosted are not unintelligent, nor are they unskilled. It’s just that there are things that they seem incapable of knowing, and those are the things that bring the reader fully into the world of the artist’s creation. They are the unliterary writers and inartistic artists who are complacent to the deadness of their creations. “[F]ailure in the ghost is a failure in Wisdom – not the wisdom of the brain but the wisdom of the heart and bowels.”

Bloom’s perspective is not Christian, although it is informed by a full appreciation of the Yahwist as author and of St. Augustine as, he says, “the inventor of reading as we know it.” Yet, the strong resonance of Sayers’ analysis with Bloom’s suggests that there may indeed be in this some deep power engaged in the transmutation of the reader. If not the philosopher’s stone, then something wonderfully like it.

03 November 2005

Walking Back

Sometimes what you are is what you aren’t; thus, Plato famously defined man as a featherless biped. But Aristotle was the one who first put serious effort into understanding bipeds. In Part 4 of his On the Gait of Animals, he considered the question of why animals had tops & bottoms, fronts & backs, lefts & rights. He related them to activities. Top/bottom comes from eating – you eat with the top part and excrete with the bottom. (Plants, he noted, are upside down, in that they eat with the bottom.) Front/back comes from sensing – you have your sense organs on the front. Left/right comes from motion – whether you walk or slither, you always have to push off with one side and move the other.

Aristotle must have been right-handed, though. Consider:
That the beginning of movement is on the right is indicated by the fact that all men carry burdens on the left shoulder; in this way they set free the side which initiates movement and enable the side which bears the weight to be moved. And so men hop easier on the left leg; for the nature of the right is to initiate movement, that of the left to be moved.

And later:
As all animals then start movement from the right, and the right moves in the same direction as the whole, it is necessary for all to be alike right-handed. And man has the left limbs detached more than any other animal because he is natural in a higher degree than the other animals; now the right is naturally both better than the left and separate from it, and so in man the right is more especially the right, more dextrous that is, than in other animals.

He also says that you can tell a biped by whether the top and the front are or are not identically situated. Thus, a bird is a biped, but an octopus isn’t. Or at least isn’t most of the time, as this video from UC Berkeley will attest. In a paper published in the March 25 issue of Science, Crissy Huffard and Robert Full reported that the Indonesian coconut octopus will occasionally wrap 6 of its arms around its body and lope ahead on the remaining two, at speeds as fast as 400 m per hour. (Science is a subscription journal, but there’s a lengthy Berkeley press release that’s free.) Apparently, walking this way preserves the camouflage illusion that would have to be shed if the octopus were to go into traditional jet mode. The unanswered question: Is the octopus right-tentacled or left-tentacled?

If walking invertebrates threaten your Aristotelian nature, then avoid skin diving. One of the rare (but common enough for pictures) pleasures of reef diving is catching a crinoid on walkabout. Crinoids look more like flowers than animals, but they are among the few of our most ancient ancestors that persist in modern seas. (They even made it through the Permian extinction.) They are usually quite slow, but a report in an issue of Science News last month includes a video of a crinoid off Grand Bahama Island that is racing along at 140 m per hour. Chasing an octopus, no doubt. (Science News is also a subscription journal; here’s the press release from the Geological Society of America.) Clearly, the crinoid is a biped without Aristotelian asymmetry.

01 November 2005

A Good Walk Spoiled

To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities then before the evil days come.

And that is why I blog, to share the shiny things that I’ve found. Thoreau was not, however, talking to future bloggers, but to walkers faced with the partitioning of the landscape into private property, and thus the possibility that their sauntering might become trespassing. It is an interesting story in itself, as the Concord of his day still retained the memory of an enclosure movement similar to that of Tudor England.

When Concord was settled, the colonists attempted to reproduce the common field system, in which some land was communally ploughed, and other land left open for communal grazing. The English custom was already in decline, as landowners discovered the joy and profit of raising sheep, and began to fence them in. As access declined, food prices rose, increasing the value of the landowners’ holding, and thus accelerating enclosure. The process was blamed for depopulating the countryside and increasing poverty and crime. Thus, Sir Thomas More, in Utopia (1516):
The increase of pasture …by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men, and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men the abbots, not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them. As if forests and parks had swallowed up too little of the land, those worthy countrymen turn the best inhabited places into solitudes, for when an insatiable wretch, who is a plague to his country, resolves to enclose many thousand acres of ground, the owners as well as tenants are turned out of their possessions, by tricks, or by main force, or being wearied out with ill-usage, they are forced to sell them.

Karl Polanyi (The Great Transformation, 1957) called it “a revolution of the rich against the poor.” Not like anything like that would happen these days…

The colonists fenced off part of the land for individual ownership (initially about 25%), and tried to use the remaining commons for the combination of farming and cattle grazing that they had used in England. Soil and weather conspired against them, though, and as early as 1653, they began fencing off additional land for farms. The commons was gone by 1778, but the Great Meadow – the floodplain along the Concord River – continued as communal hayfields until 1862.

There’s a full treatment of the Concord situation in a recent book by Brian Donahue - The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord (New London: Yale University Press, 2004).

From the standpoint of the blogger, indeed of the online community in general, the enclosure of the commons is an analog for the modern problem of intellectual property (freeware vs patent, free e-text vs copyright, etc.) James Boyle has a lengthy treatment of the historical lesson of enclosure for the electronic public domain in the Winter/Spring 2003 issue of Law and Contemporary Problems. He notes in particular that the mere fact of referring to a wide variety of issues (exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum, downloading music files, reposting journal articles, etc.) under the single rubric of ‘public domain’ lends them a certain moral dimension, highlights their interconnections, and emphasizes the difficulty of treating them by market methods alone.

Boyle focuses on property issues. It would be interesting to look at other aspects of the problem. One recurring concern of the blogosphere is credentialing and professionalization; when does the self-identified expert attain the rights of the journalist (such as access to official sources), as well as the responsibilities (commitment to accuracy)? Another is the danger of professionalization, which leads to the enclosure of subject areas and thwarts the rambling essence of the blog.

But I wander afield. Indeed,
I wander afield, thriving in sturdy thought,
Through unpathed haunts of the Pierides,
Trodden by step of none before.
(Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book I)

One should recall, of course, that philosophizing by aimless wandering is as old as Aristotle.

It requires a direct dispensation from heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of the Walkers. Ambulator nascitur, non fit.

Thoreau again. But he was wrong. Walkers can be made. In a report in Physical Review Letters (sorry, expensive subscription only), Ludwig Bartels and friends (University of California at Riverside), working with Talat Rahman (Kansas State University), have fabricated a walking molecule.

9,10-dithioanthracene – also known as DTA – looks vaguely like a skateboard with two fat ‘feet’ on either side of the narrow dimension. Poised on a copper substrate and poked with the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope, the DTA molecule starts to walk. Well, not so much walk as waddle. One foot goes up, the other goes down, the body of the molecule swings from side to side, and the whole thing moves in a straight line – for more than 10,000 steps in one test. There’s a movie on the UCR website that shows a simulation of DTA waddling across a surface.

Bartels says that DTA could be used to guide molecular motion for molecule-based information storage or computation. IBM proposed such an application in the 1990s, using molecules positioned along lines like an abacus.