Thursday, August 17, 2017

Like Some Grave Mighty Thought Threading a Dream

Shelley, Leigh Hunt, and Keats once held a sonnet-writing competition in which the goal was to write a sonnet about the Nile in fifteen minutes. Hunt's was the only one published in their lifetimes. All three, interestingly, are explicitly allegorical; very difficult to do well in short space, and I think Hunt is the only one who quite pulled it off. I would give first prize to Hunt, second to Keats, and third to Shelley; Hunt is easily the least talented of the three in general, but in poetry it is the poem and not the reputation or ability that gives the laurels.

To the Nile
by Percy Bysshe Shelley


Month after month the gathered rains descend
Drenching yon secret Aethiopian dells,
And from the desert’s ice-girt pinnacles
Where Frost and Heat in strange embraces blend
On Atlas, fields of moist snow half depend.
Girt there with blasts and meteors Tempest dwells
By Nile’s aereal urn, with rapid spells
Urging those waters to their mighty end.
O’er Egypt’s land of Memory floods are level
And they are thine, O Nile--and well thou knowest
That soul-sustaining airs and blasts of evil
And fruits and poisons spring where’er thou flowest.
Beware, O Man--for knowledge must to thee,
Like the great flood to Egypt, ever be.

A Thought of the Nile
by Leigh Hunt


It flows through old hushed Egypt and its sands,
Like some grave mighty thought threading a dream,
And times and things, as in that vision, seem
Keeping along it their eternal stands,—
Caves, pillars, pyramids, the shepherd bands
That roamed through the young world, the glory extreme
Of high Sesostris, and that southern beam,
The laughing queen that caught the world's great hands.
Then comes a mightier silence, stern and strong,
As of a world left empty of its throng,
And the void weighs on us; and then we wake,
And hear the fruitful stream lapsing along
Twixt villages, and think how we shall take
Our own calm journey on for human sake.

To the Nile
by John Keats


Son of the old moon-mountains African!
Stream of the Pyramid and Crocodile!
We call thee fruitful, and, that very while,
A desert fills our seeing's inward span;
Nurse of swart nations since the world began,
Art thou so fruitful? or dost thou beguile
Such men to honour thee, who, worn with toil,
Rest them a space 'twist Cairo and Decan?
O may dark fancies err!—they surely do;
'Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste
Of all beyond itself. Thou dost bedew
Green rushes like our rivers, and dost taste
The pleasant sun-rise; green isles hast thou too,
And to the sea as happily dost haste.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Maria Assumpta

Rubens's Assumption of the Virgin:

Baroque Rubens Assumption-of-Virgin-3

Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary

Surely the Lord raises up the lowly,
giving goodness to those who seek His ways,
for He has mercy upon all nations
from generation to generation.
From Mary the Sun of justice has dawned:
He has showered His Mother with graces,
filling us with spiritual praises,
on this her feast of exaltation.

Surely the Lord raises up the lowly,
and blessed is His Mother for all ages,
fountain of blessings, holy treasure-ship,
pure Mother of God and leaven of life,
sanctified censer and fragrant rose,
vessel of the forgiving ember,
shining temple of the Holy Spirit,
bridal chamber of the heavenly King.

Surely the Lord raises up the lowly,
so that You, O Mary, may pray for us:
beseech the Lord who has appeared from you
for pardon for sins, peace for our churches,
contemplation for our monasteries,
strength for the aged and wisdom for the young,
good education for all our children,
O fair Mother of the salvific Word.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A Mighty Word There Came

A Word
by G. K. Chesterton


A word came forth in Galilee, a word like to a star;
It climbed and rang and blessed and burnt wherever brave hearts are;
A word of sudden secret hope, of trial and increase
Of wrath and pity fused in fire, and passion kissing peace.
A star that o'er the citied world beckoned, a sword of flame;
A star with myriad thunders tongued: a mighty word there came.

The wedge's dart passed into it, the groan of timber wains,
The ringing of the river nails, the shrieking of the planes;
The hammering on the roofs at morn, the busy workshop roar;
The hiss of shavings drifted deep along the windy floor;
The heat browned toiler's crooning song, the hum of human worth
Mingled of all the noise of crafts, the ringing word went forth.

The splash of nets passed into it, the grind of sand and shell,
The boat-hook's clash, the boas-oars' jar, the cries to buy and sell,
The flapping of the landed shoals, the canvas crackling free,
And through all varied notes and cries, the roaring of the sea,
The noise of little lives and brave, of needy lives and high;
In gathering all the throes of earth, the living word went by.

Earth's giants bowed down to it, in Empire's huge eclipse,
When darkness sat above the thrones, seven thunders on her lips,
The woes of cities entered it, the clang of idols' falls,
The scream of filthy Caesars stabbed high in their brazen halls,
The dim hoarse floods of naked men, the world-realms' snapping girth,
The trumpets of Apocalypse, the darkness of the earth:
The wrath that brake the eternal lamp and hid the eternal hill,

A world's destruction loading, the word went onward still--
The blaze of creeds passed into it, the hiss of horrid fires,
The headlong spear, the scarlet cross, the hair-shirt and the briars,
The cloistered brethren's thunderous chaunt, the errant champion's song,
The shifting of the crowns and thrones, the tangle of the strong.

The shattering fall of crest and crown and shield and cross and cope,
The tearing of the gauds of time, the blight of prince and pope,
The reign of ragged millions leagued to wrench a loaded debt,
Loud with the many-throated roar, the word went forward yet.
The song of wheels passed into it, the roaring and the smoke,
The riddle of the want and wage, the fogs that burn and choke.

The breaking of the girths of gold, the needs that creep and swell,
The strengthening hope, the dazing light, the deafening evangel,
Through kingdoms dead and empires damned, through changes without cease,
With earthquake, chaos, born and fed, rose,--and the word was "Peace."

Hutcheson and the Sense of Beauty

Michael Spicher has a nice article on aesthetic taste at the IEP. It's a very large and complex topic, and I think article does a good job of getting much of it under control for the purposes of an introduction, but I think the handling of Hutcheson ends up being a bit odd, although perhaps the reason is that conciseness is creating a misleading impression of the intended meaning. For instance, he says that Hutcheson does not clearly define the internal sense. However, Hutcheson does, I think, clearly define it:

Those Ideas which are rais’d in the Mind upon the presence of external Objects, and their acting upon our Bodys, are call’d Sensations. We find that the Mind in such Cases is passive, and has not Power directly to prevent the Perception or Idea, or to vary it at its Reception, as long as we continue our Bodys in a state fit to be acted upon by the external Object.

Families of these sensations linked by resemblance, he goes on to say, are attributed to unified powers of receiving them, which we call 'senses'. The distinction between external and internal senses, Hutcheson takes to be a non-essential issue; it is based on a point that Spicher notes, namely, that they seem in some way linked to senses like sight and hearing, although not reducible to them because they can generate the relevant ideas in matters not involving them.

Thus Hutcheson's definition of a sense is a power that originates an idea to the reception of which the mind is passive, and the distinction between internal and external senses is a matter of convenience based on the relations of senses to each other. The idea of beauty is the kind of idea that designates a sense, and it is distinguishable from senses like sight, hearing, etc.; and this idea of beauty applies to things exhibiting Uniformity amidst Variety. Nothing here seems obscure. Conceivably Spicher could mean that Hutcheson does not give a mechanism for it, but this is not the natural way to read the claim.

Later he says, in discussing Gerard:

Gerard divided up his study into seven principles of the internal sense (or powers of the imagination), not only a sense of beauty like Hutcheson. The seven principles are novelty, sublimity, beauty, imitation, harmony, oddity (humorousness), and virtue.

But Hutcheson himself distinguishes the senses of grandeur (=sublimity) and novelty from the sense of beauty; he has another treatise on the sense of virtue. Harmony is a more borderline case, since Hutcheson sometimes speaks of the 'sense of beauty and harmony' as if it were one thing, and sometimes speaks of the sense of beauty and the sense of harmony as if they were distinguishable. Perhaps the idea is that Hutcheson's study focuses only on beauty (so that, for instance, grandeur and novelty are mentioned only to be set aside as not the topic under discussion)? But this seems a misleading way to put it.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Fortnightly Book, August 13

The next fortnightly book will be The Tale of Genji, by Murusaki Shikibu. Since it's a long work, it might end up being a three-week 'fortnight'.

We don't actually know the author's name; 'Shikibu' is derived from her father's official title, and 'Murasaki' appears to be a nickname borrowed from one of her characters. We do know that she was a lady-in-waiting of Empress Shoshi. Her education was unusual; women were not usually taught literary arts, but she helped her brother study and turned out to be have more talent than he did. According to a common literary story, she first conceived of the tale of Genji while watching the moon at Ishiyama Temple; we do not know if this is really true, but it is a scene that has often been depicted, as in this painting by Hiroshige III, from the 1880s:

Murasaki Shikibu by Hiroshige

Two other works are attributed to her, her court diary and a collection of poetry, but it is easily The Tale of Genji that has most inspired imaginations since the eleventh century when it was written.

The work is a long fictional prose narrative, probably written in installments, that is unified not by plot but by character. Famously, almost no one is named in it; most of the time people are referred to by their official title. Given that the narrative of the book spans a very long period of time, people's titles change over time, leading to complications in keeping track of the characters. The reason for this peculiarity was Japanese court custom at the time, the same court custom leaving us uncertain what Shikibu's personal name was: to use a person's personal name in a public matter was considered very rude and excessively familiar. Readers have often made up the gap by supplying their own nicknames. The work was also written in a very high literary diction, already archaic in its time; annotated editions have existed at least since the twelfth century.

Hikaru Genji is the son of the Emperor and a low-born concubine; his father, however, removed him from the line of succession, and so he is forced to make his way through the world as an Imperial official. A handsome playboy, he has a long string of affairs which will eventually lead to him being exiled -- and then to being pardoned and raised to a very high rank in the Imperial court. His story ends very abruptly, and scholars argue back and forth whether this abruptness of ending was intentional or not.

I will be reading Royall Tyler's unabridged translation, which seems to have good reviews. The entire work is 1120 pages, not counting the supplementary appendices, although it also is fairly generously supplied with illustrations and footnotes.

Katharine Burdekin, Swastika Night

Introduction

Opening Passage:

The Knight turned towards the Holy Hitler chapel which in the orientation of this church lay in the western arm of the Swastika, and with the customary loud impressive chords on the organ and a long roll on the sacred drums, the Creed began. Hermann was sitting in the Goebbels chapel in the northern arm, whence he could conveniently watch the handsome boy with the long fair silky hair, who had been singing the solos. He had to turn towards the west when the Knight turned. He could no longer see the boy except with a side-long glance, and though gazing at lovely youths in church was not even conventionally condemned, any position during the singing of the Creed except that of attention-eyes-front was sacrilegious. (p. 5)

Summary: Centuries into the Third Reich, the triumph of Nazi ideology seems to be complete. Its enemies are almost all crushed; the subject races have converted to the Hitlerian religion, which proclaims that Hitler, not born of woman, exploded from the head of God the Thunderer. Society has become highly stratified according to a creed of blood: the Fuehrer on top, the Knights who are the quasi-priestly military aristocracy next, then the ordinary German Nazis, then foreign Hitlerians, then, lowest of all, the outcast Christians refusing to recognize Hitler as God, without the right to buy or sell. The whole society has been reduced to a principle found in the Hitlerian Creed:

And I believe in pride, in courage, in violence, in brutality, in bloodshed, in ruthlessness, and all other soldierly and heroic virtues. (p. 6)

And 'reduced' is the right term. The emphasis on brutal heroism led to a movement, under a man named von Wied, to eliminate records of prior civilizations and reduce women to nothing but subservience to men, a movement that also ultimately succeeded. Women are property who cannot refuse a man. It is a great shame to give birth to a girl, and boys are taken from their mothers at a year and a half. The result is that the population of the German Empire is dwindling; too few girls are born, which leads to too few boys being born, and there is no way to counter the trend.

At the beginning of the rise of von Wied's movement, a century and some decades into the Reich, he had alone been opposed by a Knight named von Hess. Realizing that his opposition was futile, von Hess submitted publicly, thus allowing himself to be branded as a coward in a society in which that was one of the most shameful things, and instead turned to preserving the truth about the history that was systematically being eradicated. In a time of endless bookburning, at great risk to his own life, he wrote a book, and this book passed from father to son, in continual danger, until the time of the story, when the last von Hess, whose sons have all died, must decide what to do with it to preserve the one surviving candle-glimmer of the past through the centuries-long night.

One of the things that the book does very well is capturing the heroism of the characters. We tend to think of heroism as a pure and bright thing, untouched by any stain, but in the real world such heroes are rare indeed. The ordinary state of heroism is murky, flawed, as people entangled in error and wrong nonetheless recognize one truly good thing and sacrifice everything to preserve it. The men of the tale struggle to think outside a box that is all Reich and nothing but Reich, in which women are nothing and Hitler is all, and even with the help of the book, it is a difficult struggle, and one at which they are not always completely successful. The original von Hess was a firm believer in the importance of German ascendancy; but, an honest man, he burned his reputation and risked his life for the truth. The von Hess of the tale, far more a freethinker, does the same, as his fathers had done before him. Alfred, an Englishman who comes into contact, is part of a resistance movement that has no hope of any military victory against the all-dominant Germans who control the entire military infrastructure, and he still struggles with some of the ideas to which von Hess exposes him, particularly the recognition that women are part of the key. Heroism is not, in fact, a shiny and polished thing, any more than it is the brutal and savage thing of the Hitlerian Creed; it is a habit of doing some genuine good even at great risk to oneself. And whatever other flaw and fault men may have, it does not erase that habit, if they have it.

Burdekin's dystopia has more hope than most dystopias. By the end of the tale, the German Empire is as strong as ever, the Hitlerian Creed as ascendant. The night of barbarism is not overcome. Centuries of its dominance, at least, still remain. All that has been accomplished is that something of the truth about the past has been preserved for one more generation. But therein lies the hope.

Favorite Passage: The Hitlerian Creed has a line in which it speaks of Hitler as having crushed the four arch-devils, Roehm, Lenin, Stalin, and Karl Barth. The Knight is asked who Karl Barth was:

"Karl Barth is a mystery," said the Knight, sighing. "One we can never clear up. He may have been an ordinary man like Roehm, or a great leader such as Lenin and Stalin undoubtedly were, or he may have been another such great man as von Hess, a man of soul. On the other hand, he may have been a really evil fellow. I never say the Creed without wondering about Karl Barth." (p. 138)

Recommendation: Recommended.

******
Katharine Burdekin, Swastika Night, Feminist Press (New York: 1985).

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Baroness de Chantal

Today is the feast of St. Jeanne-Françoise Frémyot, Baronne de Chantal. She was born in 1572 to an important political family in Burgundy; she married the Baron of Chantal in 1592 and became active in helping him to manage his estate. He died in a hunting accident nine years later, and she took on the burden of managing the estate and raising their children as a widowed mother. A few years later, she met St. Francis de Sales and convinced him to become her spiritual director. They corresponded regularly, and St. Francis often shared parts of various treatises he was working on.

She eventually began working with St. Francis to build a new religious order, the Visitation of Holy Mary; it was a new kind of order, because the nuns were not intended to be cloistered, but active in the world, since part of the intent was for them to minister to people who could not leave their homes; unlike many religious orders, its rules were designed on the assumption that the elderly and the disabled might join. The problem, however, was that in an attempt to rein in the wild proliferation of religious orders, many of which were poorly thought out, the Counter-Reformation was cracking down on religious orders that did not have a clear structure and that deviated very far from the standard pattern. The Archbishop insisted on cloister; St. Jane Frances and the nuns protested; it went all the way up to the Pope, who sided with the Archbishop. So the nuns gave in. (It's a very good example of the trade-offs that inevitably arise in such matters; the rules being imposed on religious orders were very much needed, and yet St. Francis and St. Jane Frances were certainly right that there was a need for the religious order that they proposed. Two perfectly legitimate, perfectly reasonable lines of motivation, both of them truly concerned with the good of the Church, and both of them right in their way. But they were inconsistent with each other, and, as the ingenuity required to work around the inconsistency was lacking, one of them had to give.)

As superior general of the Visitationists, however, St. Jane Frances was active both in the order and in the convent by her correspondence, which became massive. We only have a tiny portion of it, but hundreds of her letters have survived, and they are virtually all very much worth reading. She was beatified in 1751 and canonized in 1767, and one of the reasons for it was her devotion through all states of life -- as a maiden, as a wife, as a mother, as a widow, as a nun.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Dashed Off XVI


If factual statements can tell us what is possibly and necessarily true, they can tell us what is permissibly and obligatorily true.

Exact resemblance is not an ontological free lunch; it requires conditions for possible comparison (e.g., to distinguish it both from mere identity and mere resemblance).

As field values in physics may be scalar, vectorial, or tensor, there seems reason to deny that 'field' is strictly univocal.

Tropes always make more sense as part of a theory of the phenomenal than as a theory of the real or mind-independent.

compresence as teleological

tropes : terms :: compresence : syntax

the Transfiguration as the emblem for iconography (it raises the question of whether similar emblem-isms are possible for other sacred artforms; it seems plausible to take the Ascension as emblem for music, for instance,and Annunciation or Nativity for painting or sculpture)

The sacredness of art in any medium is directly related to its suitability for public prayer.

the internalization of honor as converging on virtue

The central concept of honor is victory in the sense of overcoming.

"The word of God is addressed to all people, in every age and in every part of the world, and the human being is by nature a philosopher." John Paul II

It is an error to treat philosophy of language as if it were epistemology.

The final end of things is a convergence of equitable justice, restoring grace, ordering providence, and sovereign creation.

Church Militant : Tabernacle :: Church Triumphant : Temple

Law should favor widespread ownership: (1) universal destination of goods; (2) subsidiarity; (3) human dignity.

the inherent tendency of philosophical inquiry to universal community
the inherent tendency of philosophical inquiry to reason-based morality

sequential vs. spiraling curricula of philosophy

Antiquities are preserved through long ages by accident or by tradition.

Democracy is most attractive to those who cannot imagine any reasonable and honest person disagreeing with their most cherished beliefs.

anticipatory trial and error as a mark of skill

the Eightfold Path and knowing happiness by remotion

Nobody starts with experience; experience must be built on a basis of prior capacities and resources, which themselves only come to be known in learning other things.

ceremony & the principle that one should do good things on receiving good things

Medicine is of all areas of human life the one in which everyone is most naturally inclined to think in ways leading to superstition. (Indeed, one sees this even in religion itself -- superstitious practices are most likely to grow up where religion meets matters of health and sickness.)

Etiological accounts of function only give us a species-function -- to wit, the function of the thing in preventing the traited population from going extinct.

Given a function, one can always distinguish esse from bene esse with respect to that function.

The wetness of water is not just 'there'; it is an internal activity of water, composed of interacting smaller internal activities, involving the causal capacities of water-components.

Life functionally incorporates drift and chance.

luck as a component of inquiry

Truth is sign of itself.

the intrinsically deontic character of truth -- the true as partially characterizable in terms of what ought not to be regarded as false

the obligatory character of the principle of noncontradiction

Zwinglianism is implicit liberal Christianity.

In a fully democratic society, checks and balances mean nothing more than people stopping other people.

Anything can look epiphenomenal to one who has only a partial causal explanation.

Anticipation of nature can distort our experimental reasoning, but it is our capacity to anticipate nature that makes experiment possible.

language (vestment of thought) // clothing (vestment of body)
sincerity of speech // modesty of clothing

The background of every experiment is an abstract classification of possibilities.

shared beauty as the root of the importance of fine art

"Symbolic figures are a valuable adjunct to philosophy: they help men to integrate and bear in mind the essential meaning of complex issues." Rand

component strictly necessary for function (esse)
component quasi-necessary for function (bene esse)
component redundant under strict necessity
component redundant under quasi-necessity
component incidental for function
-- is quasi-necessity indirect strict necessity? (i.e., the result of strict necessity for a related function)

Newton's argument against vortices
(1) Celestial motions are (a) more regular than if they arose from vortices and (b) observe other laws so that vortices do not regulate but would disturb celestial motions.
(2) All phenomena of the heavens and the sea follow precisely from gravity acting in accordance with the laws of gravity.
(3) Nature is simple.
Therefore: (4) Other causes than the laws of gravity are to be rejected.
Therefore (5) The heavens are to be considered without matter as far as possible, lest the celestial motions be impeded or rendered irregular.

Descartes's discussion of gravitas can be turned upside down to form an analogical argument for final causes.

Arguments tend to have a certain symmetry -- ponens can be tollensed, apparent demonstration parallels apparent reductio, etc. Truth breaks the symmetry. But even abstracting from truth, asymmetries can arise through differences in generality or in circumstances. Genus-species introduces a privileged direction of relation, and circumstances can introduce exceptions (the things that do not fall under 'for the most part'). (Perhaps there are also asymmetries linked to the privilege of First Figure and analogously of modus ponens?)

change as a precondition of testing
actuality and potentiality as preconditions of testing

Statistical sampling is used to cross modal differences: different times & places, counterfactual possibilities

one-or-many as a transcendental disjunction (ST 1.30.3)

icons as memorials of real presence and anticipations of sacramental presence

structural works of mercy (hospital, school, recovery house, hospice) -- the infrastructure of alms

a mereotopological analysis of food entering a city from outside its circumference and distributing over its area

"he who prefers the common good before what is proper to himself is above all acceptable to God." Josephus

To translate well into English requires that English be able to bear what is translated, and this cannot always be guaranteed. Sometimes one must wait centuries for the right fashion, the right consensus, , the rediscovery that builds the right vocabulary to translate some aspect of a text. And sometimes, having had it, one loses it and must endure the inadequate again.

Philo on the doctrine of the mean: Migr xxvi.147; Immut. xxiv.163-164

"What is commonly asserted by all, cannot wholly be false." Aquinas (De etern 2.34)

It is an error to assume that mind and body are only related in one way.

Aquinas's probable arguments against the eternity of the world:SCG 2.38; SCG 1.3; SCG 2.31

Hume and Malebranche on pride

Chrysostom's contrasts between the apostles and the Cynics (in Ep I Cor 35.4)

academia and the collection of career-tokens

It makes little sense to treat the human body the way Kant treats the physical world; the body is, as it were, not mere phenomenon, but already in some fashion transcendental subject.

"the church is the primary work of the Holy Trinity" Turretin

colors as actions (flavors would also obviously be analogous)

It seems there has to be a level of authority between individual bishops and the college of bishops; this is synodal, and in particular is a local gathering of bishops representing, formally and functionally, the whole college. This contrasts with (for instance) episcopal conferences, which do not have this representation of the whole, being administrative conveniences for the parts.

Rights of conscience are indirect rights of God.

(1) Heaven and earth are finite.
(2) What is finite cannot have infinite force.
(3) Infinite force is required for infinite duration.
(4) Therefore heaven and earth have beginning and end.
(Saadia Gaon)

The greater the love, the less changeable it is.

A republic, more than any other government, must insist on the value of deliberation if it is to avoid fatal corruption.

"Comedy is music. It has a rhythm and a melody." Sid Caesar

All love strives toward impassibility. (Thus the lover's emphasis on stability, purity, eternity, certainty, the impossiblity of lessening; thus also the attributes of I Cor 13.)

Grace is our personhood reflecting divine personhood.

Family always suggests something of the eternal.

Reasons for polytheistic competition naturally drive polytheism toward henotheism; reasons for polytheistic cooperation naturally drive polytheism toward theomonism (although the latter tendency seems weaker, or at least slower, than the former).

the conditions for interpretatio graeca

the analogue of the Euthyphro dilemma for mathematical necessity
-- Note that there are several strong modalities (Always, Everywhere) in which it would make sense to say that they are so because God makes them so.
-- Note that we can even find such for ourselves (Proven, which is so because we have made it so). - Cartesian creation of eternal truths as constructivism at the limit.

love is makrothymei (cp Ex 34:6; Nm 14:18)
love is chresteuta
love is not zeloi or perpereuetai, nor physioutai
aschemonei, paroxyneta ou logizetai to kakon (It does not log/inventory what is bad)
sygchairei te aletheia (it celebrates the right)
panta stegei (it is restrained with all)
panta pisteuei (it has faith in all)
panta epizei (it has hope in all)
panta hypomenei (it endures all)

Literacy can be partly domain-specific because part of reading a text is recognizing its rhetorical features, which can often vary from domain to domain.

To think of belief entirely in terms of external action is to lose sight of the functioning of belief under conditions of abeyance of action.

Arguments usually convince only by clarification.

the responsibility for mutually beneficial discussion

mereological fusion and transcendental unity

shared humanity and the right to ask for reasons

Love hopes because the one who loves treats those he loves aspirationally.

Exchanges are externalizations of reasoning.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Fallacy of Special Pleading

'Special pleading' was a system used in British common law by which the precise point of dispute would be established for a trial. In other systems, this is done by the court, which looks at the arguments on both sides, filters out the irrelevant, looks at how one side's arguments relate to each other, and takes into account what has already been established by the evidence, as opposed to requiring the determination of the court. In special pleading, this was done by the plaintiff and defendant themselves through a very rigid and complicated process. The plaintiff would declare his complaint; then the defendant would plead; then the plaintiff would respond; then the defendant would respond; all according to special rules. This would continue until one of the parties could not proceed under the rules, and the point at which it stopped was the issue of special pleading, and the point that particularly needed to be considered by the court. A clever system -- it forces the parties to be precise without having to rely on the critical capacities of the judge to identify correctly what the parties are, in fact, actually arguing about. But it was also liable to abuses; the rules governing it grew to an extraordinary degree of complexity; you had to hire a special pleader to navigate it all and even then your plea might be dropped for very strange legal technicalities; and through much of the nineteenth century, when the vocabulary often used to talk about fallacies consolidated, it was a point of intense controversy whether the system should be abolished. It is thus perhaps not surprising that special pleading, often being associated with reasoning that often gets by on mere technicalities rather than substance, is often mentioned in association with fallacy, and ended up giving a term to the fallacy lists, although the process of how this happened is very difficult to trace.

The theory of fallacies is merely partially systematized folklore; as one would expect from folklore, it is a weird brew of logical tidbits, practical advice, ethical admonition, historical detritus of exploded or doubtful theories, things people thought clever or neat at some point, and misunderstandings. I've given a number of examples over the years. A very obvious example is that of faulty analogy; the 'fallacy of faulty analogy' was put on fallacy lists by utilitarians, to whom it meant 'you are using an analogy that would suggest that utilitarianism is wrong', given a somewhat more rigorous, and less obviously tendentious, account by Mill on the basis of a theory of analogy almost nobody has ever accepted, and from there was copied from text to text, most often uncritically and sometimes with mutations when you get to an author of a critical thinking text who actually engages in critical thinking and starts wondering what explains this being on a list of fallacies. The 'fallacy of special pleading' is another good example of this mess. If you look at serious work in informal logic over the past forty or fifty years, one gets a farcical comedy of baffled intelligent people trying to make sense of its status as a fallacy. Giving an account of it that fits the examples to which it is typically applied seems to make inexplicable why it is treated as a fallacy; giving an account of it that makes it definitely a fallacy suddenly leaves it orphaned, since almost nothing to which it has ever applied then turns out to be an example of it.

As one might expect in these circumstances, there are quite a few different things called 'special pleading', and which one a person is using typically depends on whatever third-rate informal logic manual they got the concept from, or even on a person's vague impression of how the term is used in ordinary conversation.

A very common way of trying to make sense of it is by treating it as a form of double standard: an exception to a general rule is given and not justified. At this level of generality, it's useless; we need more precision about this 'general rule'. For instance, is it a generally accepted rule or a rule that the person in question is accepted. If the latter, that could possibly be a case of someone reasoning fallaciously, but then it just seems to be ordinary contradiction put inexplicably in fancy dress, since the actual fallacy is just self-contradiction. If the former, that would suggest reasons to have a particular category called 'special pleading', but also makes it not a fallacy -- it cannot be an error of reasoning to insist that there is an exception to a rule that only people other than oneself take to be general. The fact that justification is required also seems to suggest that it has to be the person's own rule; but if that's the case, and you are not just contradicting itself, it seems like the only other possibility is that the other party is mistaken in thinking that the rule is in fact a relevantly general rule -- perhaps it is only a rule for a specific domain and was never formulated for the domain of the exception, or perhaps it is a crude rule of thumb, or the like.

Older books often classify it as a particular form of fallacy of accent, which notoriously makes no sense whatsoever and has baffled logicians ever since -- fallacy of accent is an ambiguity arising through prosody (for instance, change of stress), but the older authors seem to be treating it as a confusion of aspects. As near as we can tell today, it seems that the idea was that they were taking it to cover any kind of difference in emphasis. Out of this line of thought comes the account on which special pleading is one-sided argument. Thus if you only give the reasons for something and not the reasons against it, you are special pleading. This actually has an advantage of making sense of the label itself, but as has been pointed out for years and years now, this is not a fallacy, it's just ordinary argument.

As usual, the mess becomes even more obvious when one looks at examples. Here is Nizkor's best example:

The person committing Special Pleading is claiming that he is exempt from certain principles or standards yet he provides no good reason for his exemption. That this sort of reasoning is fallacious is shown by the following extreme example:

Barbara accepts that all murderers should be punished for their crimes.
Although she murdered Bill, Barbara claims she is an exception because she really would not like going to prison.
Therefore, the standard of punishing murderers should not be applied to her.

This is obviously a blatant case of special pleading. Since no one likes going to prison, this cannot justify the claim that Barbara alone should be exempt from punishment.

This is a very odd example. Nizkor takes the fallacy to be one "in which a person applies standards, principles, rules, etc. to others while taking herself (or those she has a special interest in) to be exempt, without providing adequate justification for the exemption". 'Punishment' and 'going to prison' are not synonymous, so the 'exception' would not, strictly speaking, be an exception to this rule in particular. If you go with one or the other, though, Barbara has merely contradicted herself. If the rule is actually general, no exception could have justification; if we are considering whether there are exceptions, then it is an open question whether the rule is actually general, and therefore one should not simply be assuming that it is. Barbara explicitly gives a justification for her conclusion, so the final comment puts all the emphasis on the adequacy of her justification. But why is her justification inadequate? Only because it is irrelevant. But this means that to determine that this is special pleading, we had first to identify a different fallacy that is usually given a different name, and then we called that fallacy 'special pleading' for reasons that are unclear. This latter kind of thing would be possible if, for instance, 'special pleading' were a label for an ethical fallacy, since another fallacy could also be an ethical fallacy in a particular context, but that is not how the fallacy was characterized, and it is not how the example is set up.

Nizkor goes on to claim that the fallacy of special pleading is a violation of the principle of relevant difference -- things can only be treated as differently if they have a relevant difference -- (and this seems to be what FallacyFiles has in mind, as well, although since their primary example is not even a fallacy, it's less clear) but Barbara is identifying what she takes to be a relevant difference. So the problem must be that it's not actually relevant, which means that either she's really committing an ignoratio elenchi (which is a very plausible diagnosis here), or is just wrong -- and it's not a fallacy to be wrong. So, again, it seems that we determine that something is special pleading by first determining that it is, in fact, another fallacy, and then we call it 'special pleading'. A different example just confirms this:

Bill and Jill are married. Both Bill and Jill have put in a full day at the office. Their dog, Rover, has knocked over all the plants in one room and has strewn the dirt all over the carpet. When they return, Bill tells Jill that it is her job to clean up after the dog. When she protests, he says that he has put in a full day at the office and is too tired to clean up after the dog.

This is a very plausible violation of the principle of relevant difference. But while Bill's reason is relevant to why he should not clean up after the dog, it is not relevant to why Jill should do it, because Jill has the same reason. So again, we seem to have ignoratio elenchi.

Perhaps one could say that 'special pleading' is in fact an ignoratio elenchi applied to oneself? But it's not clear why applying to oneself would be an important classificatory factor here. It might be if 'special pleading' is, again, an ethical criticism. And this would explain some things. In practice people tend to use 'special pleading' like they use 'straw man' -- it looks like a neutral term but over and over again one finds that people use it to insinuate bad motives. You are treating yourself as special by not holding yourself to standards to which you hold others! It is always presented as a formal and objective criticism of the argument, but it gets its bite from being treated as if it were an ethical criticism of motivations. Perhaps, then, it's strictly speaking an ethical criticism presupposing a formal inconsistency; but it's difficult to find cases in which people actually use it this way -- the ethical criticism would require information beyond the argument, whereas people treat special pleading as diagnosable from the argument itself.

The IEP gets a much cleaner account at the cost of just making 'special pleading' another name for logical inconsistency, or perhaps for logical inconsistency on matters that interest the arguer, which seems pointless and useless.

If we attempt to think through fallacies critically rather than in the uncritical way most people do, a question that immediately comes to mind is, "How does one determine that something is an example of this particular fallacy and not something that merely looks like it?" If the answers you get amount to, "Prove that another fallacy is committed, or prove that it's wrong," this should be an immediate red flag: the former seems to reduce your fallacy to another fallacy, and the latter makes it not a fallacy, since merely being wrong is not a fallacy. This is exactly the situation with 'special pleading'; the answers are almost always, "Because the person contradicted themselves" or "Because their reason isn't relevant" or "Because they are wrong". If they are contradicting themselves, why not say that? If they are wrong, why not say that? On the other hand, if the complaint is that they are arguing dishonestly, why are you phrasing a complaint about their motives as if it were a complaint about their argument? It's not that you couldn't have good answers to these questions in particular cases; but they don't seem to apply generally. Likewise, maybe a particular instance of 'special pleading' is used meaningfully -- but it looks much like you can't assume that everyone will understand your use in the same way, and it will always be unclear how much of your use is just rhetorical flourish. The whole practice of classifying reasoning as 'special pleading' continues to be problematic.