30 November 2010

Phaedrus [1]

After a recent discussion in which I was challenged to distinguish between sophistry and philosophic dialectic, I found myself compelled to reread Plato's Phaedrus.  The following are some reflections that I had upon reading the dialogue.

The fundamental Socratic distinction between what seems to be and what is is mirrored in the difference between sophistry and dialectic.  What is immediately suggestive of their relation is that sophistry and dialectic seem almost identical to the untrained ear.  Lysias' lying speech that one ought to favour the one who does not love you reaches what appears to be precisely the sort of bizarre conclusion that philosophers are popularly thought to reach.  Both proceed through linguistic inquiry that appears to start from basic and generally accepted principles.  But sophistry is not dialectic--it is its diabolical double.  Dialectic attempts to clarify the principle under discussion, moving upward like the freed prisoner in the allegory towards an apprehension of the beautiful.  As such, the purpose of philosophy is to bring us into a loving relationship with the "transcendental" ideals.

The sophist also feels drawn to the beautiful, but instead of undertaking the purifying process of dialectic, he seeks to master the beautiful.  Language for the philosopher is not a tool to be used to catch the elusive creature wisdom; language, rather, is the gift in which the revelation of the beautiful takes place.  The sophist tries to use language (which is of course ultimately impossible, though often temporarily quite successful) for the purposes of acquiring power.  Of course, the sophist must understand in his heart that this whole enterprise is as useless as it is self-destructive; Socrates observes the deception inherent in sophistry when he states that the "cunning" sophistical rhetor is attempting to persuade the youth that he does not love him, though "he really loved him all the same."  The philosopher also often seems dishonest, but this dishonesty is always resulting from the dishonesty of the situation in which he has been placed and undertaken expressly to dispel the underlying lie.  Socrates (masked) imitates Lysias' speech precisely precisely to show how flawed it is...

16 July 2010

new aphorisms

1. Rather than thinking that the Ideas are questionable, perhaps we should instead learn to understand how the Ideas call us into question.

2. What is most hidden away is one's own face.

3. Dialectic is the mirror of the soul.

4. We think in images, but the ideas are not images--not exactly.  But when we come face-to-face with the ideal, we can only speak of it in images.  This is the origin of all poetry.

5. The essential defect of philosophy is that it has often failed to be poetry.  The essential defect of poetry is that poets often confuse art and narcissism.

6. Very few things should be taken seriously, and those things that should most often turn out to be what no one any longer takes seriously.

7. Nothing lasts forever.

13 July 2010


Idea means—what something looks like.  Appearances are never deceiving, insofar as an appearance is an appearance of and not an appearance to.  But this is out of balance.  If the difference between appearance and essence is a function of perception, then we end up with Hegel and Nietzsche and oblivion.  The difference that appears between appearance and reality must belong in some way both to perception and appearance.

05 July 2010

America is rhetoric

Political documents from the ancient and medieval world generally seem to be articulations of a certain set of political decisions and, in a broader sense, of the political order that created the document. The Declaration of Independence is the first document to imply a political order that did not yet exist. Though many of the liberties the Declaration sought to establish were existing liberties that had been abridged by the tyranny of the British crown, these liberties were asserted in the name of citizens of a state that had not yet come into being. The essence of this state was created by the Declaration itself: a true city in speech. At its foundation American political existence was rooted in rhetoric. Instead of political symbols arising from a long process of national self-identification, people identified themselves as Americans in virtue of the symbols established by the Declaration.

What makes a society created by rhetoric great is that its essential existence is ideal. The great danger of a society created by rhetoric is that people will lose touch with language, and thereby lose touch with everything that makes them who they are. The mystery of a society created by rhetoric, which can be its salvation and its destruction, is the distance that usually seems to exist between what is ideal and what is "actual."

01 July 2010

Why space does not exist [1]

It is a great (and highly practical) illusion that something called space exists. This is not a mystical utterance (at least not in the typical sense of mystical); it is meant quite literally. For context, I would recommend the series of posts beginning here and continuing with the next two in December of 2009. In those posts I attempted to show that the concept of space demands to be thought as a field (sort of a cubic Cartesian plane) composed of discrete units. This point was proved more or less to my satisfaction and to the satisfaction of some others (who, I suspect, were privy to the secret we are about to discuss).

We begin by considering the manifold meanings of the word space. In common parlance we might ask someone to give us space. We might ask how much space is in a room, or how much space a certain object takes up. We speak of outer space and space travel. Things are spaced, words on the page no less than the pickets of a fence. Americans (we are told) like their space.

We can divide these meanings into the following definitions:

1) The area surrounding an object that is, in some sense, part of the object
2) The purported vacuum that composes most of the universe
3) Empty space between objects that place the objects into a certain order
4) Distance conceived in light of an abstract field composed of mathematically functional units

The fourth underlies all the other definitions, though it underlies the first the least. The existence of some sort of field (called space) in which objects exist at a certain space from each other (the 4th definition) is certainly necessary before we can begin to conceive of the universe as a series of planets with in space with space between them. Indeed, this concept seems self-evident and unquestionable.

But who among us has seen space? And do we ever actually mean space when we say space? If asked to say what we mean when we say space, we probably imagine a sort of map grid extended into all three dimensions. Is that actually how things are? For the reasons outlined in the previous post (linked to above), if such a field exists, it must be segmented in a discrete manner. This deduction was an analytic one from the very concept of space. But look around you.! The room I'm in now (messy again, unfortunately) is filled with all sorts of things all over the place. Now I imagine our cubic Cartesian plane extended around the room. Every object is located somewhere on this cubic plane. Is this actually my room? The fact that I can imagine it hardly means it is the case.

What we wish to show (and will hopefully continue to show) is that "space" is an abstraction. It is not real. There is no such thing as space anywhere. And yet science depends upon the concept of space: and this should tell us something about science...

27 June 2010

Whether or not anything is permanent might not matter.

15 June 2010

Option pricing

The Nobel prize-winning Black-Scholes option pricing formula is generally advanced by financial academics as the best possible way to value options. This may be true, but that doesn't mean it is any good.

It is further worth noting that the formula (often used for dynamic hedging) models security prices as follows:

dS = mSdt + sSdW

Where S is security price, mS is the average rate of change of the security (drift rate), t is time, sS is standard deviation of the security, and W is a geometric Brownian function.

The problem here is that stock prices generally can be modeled using geometric Brownian motion. However, there is (more or less) a hard stop to trading at market close. Despite this fact, orders can be placed after market close, to be executed immediately upon the opening of the market. For this reason, we will rarely find extreme jumps between the underlying security price at closing and opening. The possibility of what is effectively discrete motion should make us realize that using the geometric Brownian without at least including some fudge factor for the possibility of discontinuous motion (though approximating the Brownian with a discrete probability distribution such as the binomial would be preferable) will occasionally but decisively give us bad pricing information.

Against those who would suggest that the error in the formula will be relatively minor, we advance the anecdotal but highly compelling evidence that the year after Mr. Scholes won his Nobel prize, the hedge fund he was helping to run (Long Term Capital Management) imploded in a multibillion dollar disaster that left financial markets reeling.

26 May 2010


I'm in a place with a television this week and I decided to turn on the news as I was eating breakfast. I was amused/disturbed to notice that Fox News (which was, in its defense, the only "news" network not running stories about cute puppies or things of a similar nature) was running non-stop advertisements for gold investment services in between its news stories about how the sky was falling. In between wondering whether or not gold was likely to be a particularly good investment, since its convertibility into local currency presupposes some demand for the commodity (a demand that is dampened and not heightened by economic instability), I was struck by something I had written about some time ago in the context of a discussion of Beowulf. What exactly is the value of gold? And why do dragons dwell on buried gold-hoards? There is something perverse about burying refined gold-work back in the earth from which it came. Gold should be seen in the sunlight, not placed back into the earth.

As the advertisement correctly observed, gold has always held some value. This value is not "conventional" in the way that the value of our currency is conventional, nor is it derived from its practical utility in industrial applications. In the alchemical symbolism, gold is the perfection of nature subsumed by the spiritual. In Beowulf, gold is a physical manifestation of the virtue of a people personified in their hero. When the people are no more, the burial of the gold calls dragons to its glitter. This image is one the most intriguing of the poem (which is partially a reflection upon gold) and rewards careful attention and reflection. The proper meaning of gold is almost entirely erased when it is viewed as a means to stabilize one's IRA against fluctuations in equity prices; and it is highly significant that in these situations the person purchasing the gold generally does not take physical possession of the gold but controls it through shares in a mutual fund or through an ETF. Yet even in this utterly etherealized form there is still something mysterious about the manner in which gold eludes mathematization, as fluctuations of gold prices are highly difficult to model for any practical financial purpose.

"there laid within it his lordly heirlooms
and heaped hoard of heavy gold."
Beowulf XXXII

15 May 2010


Political society of any kind requires that discourse be engaged in with pure intentions. The moment that the choice of words becomes subjugated to a preordained ideological outcome, political speech is no longer discourse. The purpose of political speech is to establish a course of action in harmony with the principles of society and the needs of the given circumstance. None of us can engage in political speech without preconceptions of some kind (preconceptions are what make us all "individuals"), but we can attempt to conform our speech to the truth of the matter under discussion and not conform speech to some extrinsic standard or conclusion provided in advance. Such action denigrates speech and makes real discourse impossible; it removes political speech even further from truth itself and pushes it deeper into the realm of opinion, feeling, and unreality.

These reflections are prompted by an article I saw today on an American news service that referred to persons illegally present in the US as "undocumented immigrants" instead of "illegal immigrants." I hadn't seen that phrase before so I attempted to ascertain its origin. As it turns out, certain persons had decided that the phrase "illegal immigrant" was too negatively charged and needed to be changed. Let us leave aside (for a moment) our views on the topic of illegal immigration, a topic of incredible complexity admits of no easy answers, and ask ourselves whether it is appropriate to try and modify discourse in this manner. The phrase "illegal immigrant" has a specific political meaning. Insofar as the people under question exist (politically) as immigrants, and insofar as the have not legally immigrated to this country, their being qua immigrant is qualified by its illegality. Contrary to the slew of bumper stickers that proclaim that "no person is illegal," the phrase "illegal immigrant" does not attempt to subject the fundamental personhood of anyone to a declaration of illegality. Rather, it simply states the (mutable) fact that the person's political existence as immigrant is illegal. This could be changed by amending immigration laws to allow such persons to legally immigrate, but as things stand now, the phrase "illegal immigrant" is objectively correct.

The phrase "undocumented immigrant" seems to suggest that the people in question merely are missing documentation. As such, it is a less precise description of what the political existence of these people actually are. While it is entirely true that they are undocumented, it is incomplete merely to say this. As a general rule we ought refer to things by their most important attribute to the matter at hand. The fact that these immigrants lack documentation is entirely predicated on the fact that they are not in the country legally. We aren't referring to people who came to the country legally and whose immigration papers were lost (a more accurate use of the phrase "undocumented immigrant").

Therefore, it seems clear to me that the appropriate phrase that ought to be used is "illegal immigrant" (again, note that we are making no judgments as to whether such immigration ought to be legal or illegal). To attempt to subordinate discourse towards a preconceived goal through altering the words that we use is horribly dangerous, even if employed towards good ends. It lowers the quality of our discourse and makes most of us less likely to think about what is actually being said. The corruption of discourse is the poison can undo any democracy, and I feel we are dangerously on the brink of this happening. The right calls politicians on the left variously "communists" and "nazis" (terms that are generally inaccurate) while the left calls politicians on the right "bigots" and "racists" (also terms that are generally inaccurate). The more that people believe these insults the less likely they are to listen to each other. And once no one is listening to anyone, democracy is no longer possible.

We should always insist on clarity and precision in our discourse, even when such clarity and precision work against the goal we wish to achieve.

05 May 2010

Beautiful changes

I've been thinking about the last lines from Richard Wilbur's marvelous poem "The Beautiful Changes" a lot recently. They are quoted below (I have probably misplaced the line breaks, for which I apologize):

"the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things' selves for a second finding,
to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to

There is the appearance of a Hegelian quality to the lines "wishing ever to sunder... for a second finding," but this image is dispelled by the suggestion that the sundering is not itself illusory but actually quite real, since it results in loss. We don't normally think of sundering and loss as "kind," but the poem suggests that the result (wonder) is worth the price, even though it is just "for a moment." Against the radical despair (indeed, despair beyond despair!) inherent in Hegelianism, we should find great comfort in the conclusion of the poem's second stanza:

"Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows."

Fewer phrases more hopeful than this have been placed into poetry.

26 April 2010

Short sale

People in our age seem to be gripped by the desire to find some human villain at the root of every calamity that strikes us. This is perhaps above all caused by the desire of "historical" peoples to shift their own responsibility for the state of the world on to others. In the case of the recent economic malaise that has afflicted large sections of the globe, we find the blame often placed on short sellers. The major banks (both nationally and internationally) blamed short sellers for the decline of their shares, leading the SEC to temporarily ban short selling in these issues -- an action they took without first discerning whether or not there was any truth to the accusation. More recently, Greece has taken to blaming the shorts for the rapid devaluation of their government debt.

For those without the dubious advantage of some financial knowledge, short selling consists in borrowing some sort of security with the intention of immediately selling it. The short seller is betting that the security will lose value so he can repurchase it later (whether a few seconds later or months later) and return it to the entity that loaned it to him. The entity loaning him the security is paid a fee by the short seller for the transaction, and since the entity (typically banks or investment firms) would be holding the security anyway, it is an excellent way for them to make extra money with little to no extra risk.

I feel the recent backlash against short sellers has two principal causes. First, there are considerably more "long" (that is, people who are betting securities will rise in price) investors than short sellers. Anyone who holds a stock or bond in an IRA, retirement plan, or other investment account is almost always long in that security. Since long positions and short positions are a zero sum game, whenever the shorts win, it means the longs are losing. Therefore, the majority is likely to dislike the shorts since the shorts are profiting precisely when the longs are losing. Secondly, there seems to be a confusion between cause and effect in the case of short selling. Given that the short side to the market is vastly smaller than the long side, the effect of the shorts selling shares of a security into the open market (thereby decreasing the value of that security) will be infinitesimal. There is a strong correlation between a lot of people shorting a stock and the stock declining in value, but the stock's decline is not caused by the people shorting it; rather, people are shorting it because they think it will decline in value.

The world is a terrifically complex place. Part of this terrific complexity is that there are in fact situations that are extremely black and white. Rarely do we find such a situation in the realm of economics, however, and the attempt by collapsing institutions to blame short pressure for their collapse is yet another manifestation of the desire to find a bad guy for something for which no one (and almost everyone) is to blame.

19 April 2010



Empiricists (I am told, though I'm not convinced I've ever really met one) believe that what is particularly disclosed in sense-experience is all that is objectively true. Universal affirmations and knowledge of essence are abstractions from sense-experience that do not specifically correspond to anything outside the mind, and are therefore untrue insofar as they cannot correspond to any physically "real" object. However, it is not clear that sense-experience is ever given directly in sense-experience. Indeed, it rather seems as though sense-experience is a universal. If this is so, then the belief that universals cannot correspond to particulars disclosed through sense-experience would appear to be a contradiction in terms, since it would immediately negate the possibility of its correspondence to anything objectively real.


It is not advisable to restrict possible evidence against one's position in advance. For as Socrates says in Republic to Thrasymachus, we cannot be certain in advance whether or not what we are seeking may lie within the area which we have closed off. Now, we can close off possible realms of evidence in two ways: a provisional way, and an absolute way. We close off evidence provisionally if the closure is temporary and methodological. The closure is absolute if a whole realm of phenomena are determined (extrinsically to the matter under consideration) to be off limits. It would seem that the absolute closure of the non-empirical in empiricism is problematic precisely because it is using an a priori concept (the empirical) to argue against the reality of a priori concepts.


It is not clear exactly what material means to empiricists. Dr. Johnson kicking the rock seems to be about as deep as the reflection on this point goes. There is a reason for this. If they deny that materiality has any objective meaning, then they open themselves up to the question of how they have decided to exclude immaterial objects. But if they admit that materiality does mean something, what could it mean but the essence of the material? And if material has essence, then their whole position seems to unravel rapidly.

13 April 2010

The Waste Land [part iii]

The Waste Land is often criticized as being "abstract" on the grounds that it is difficult to precisely decide on what is going on at any given point in the poem. We expect poems to either be lyrical or (at least in some rough sense) plot-driven and therefore at least tangentially inhabited by characters. The Waste Land fits in the later category, though the manner in which this is the case is not immediately apparent. Let me first suggest that there are several discrete "locations" identified in the poem. There is the "unreal city," which is largely coterminous with the desert "where the sun beats." There is the hyacinth garden, which is another image of the death by water that eventually overcomes Phlebas. There is the boudoir of the lady (Belladonna), called "rat's alley" by her companion, which is the same as the ruined space by the river where "a rat crept softly through the vegetation." Finally, there is the chapel in the mountains.

The majority of the action (more properly, inaction) that transpires in The Waste Land takes place in the unreal city. The poem's protagonist dwells in this city until he is freed by "death by water," at which point he is able to see the city from the outside as "the city over the mountains
/ [that] Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air / Falling towers." The poem is principally concerned with a journey out of The Waste Land, which is made possible by the recognition that no action or inaction one can undertake alone can free one from the wasteland. Rather, it is precisely the moment at which one recognizes one's inability to free oneself that the possibility that one might be freed takes place. Note well that this is where the poem's greatest terror and greatest uncertainty dwell, for even if one recognizes one's inability to free oneself one still may not be freed.

Many critics make a great deal of the supposed temporal or spatial fragmentation taking place in the poem, but I rather think a better way of talking about what they are trying to say is that the poem is dominated by a coming together of all things. Not the coming together that Eliot explores in Burnt Norton "at the still point of the turning world," but rather a coming together where nothing is different any longer form anything else. Distance is destroyed though the physically measurable remnants of what was distance may remain.

11 April 2010

The Waste Land [part II]

The poem opens with the image of the Sybil of Cumae "hanging in a cage." The Sybil's immortality renders her unable to die, despite her intense desire to do so. In one sense, the Sybil symbolizes the fact that everyone in the wasteland is trapped in a cage that both is and is not of their own making, unable to die yet unable to live. In another sense, however, the Sybil is not like almost anyone in the wasteland since she "wants to die." An odd wish, given that men of every nation have sought out immortality for as long as we have recorded history. By death, the Sybil does not simply refer to the cessation of respiration in the "human animal." Rather, it is precisely the fact that death has become a biological event that makes the actual experience of death impossible from the outset! Furthermore, as the possibility of experiencing death is necessary to be human, men who can no longer experience death qua death are no longer exactly human. But they have not reached either deathlessness of the immortals or the eternal return of the animal. They are somewhere quite different.

The reason that Madame Sosostris does "not find / The Hanged Man" and cautions her querent to "fear death by water" is twofold. On one hand, she is a false prophet; precisely what is needed is "death by water," but as she is a sort of oracle of the wasteland itself, this is exactly what she will not counsel. On the other hand, her cards nonetheless speak the truth. All the forces and personages which are active in the wasteland are enumerated on her cards. The one that is absent - the Hanged Man - is the card that most directly deals with the possibility of properly dying.

07 April 2010

The Waste Land [part I]

It seems fitting with the onset of April and beautiful weather to offer some remarks about T.S. Eliot's extraordinary poem The Waste Land. The poem famously opens with the line "April is the cruellest month." The perversion implied in this declaration is often lost in the extreme confusion caused by reading the poem. Let us try and capture how this opening line articulates the essential nature of the curse that has hold over the wasteland. The cruelty of April is specified as follows: it "breed[s] / Lilacs out of the dead land," it "mix[es] / Memory and desire," it "stir[s] / Dull roots with spring rain." These three charges laid against April all relate to the awakening of life from death, the natural resurrection that cycles year after year. Miraculously, each year spring comes. What sort of a person prefers the warmth of "winter?" The paradox implied in this line is that there is something so objectionable to the inhabitants of the wasteland about new life that they would rather it not happen at all. What sort of a people clings to infertility and a perpetual, zombie-like existence instead of the exuberant risk of new things?

Usually the cause of these people's rejection of spring is interpreted as the fear of death. This reading, while somewhat correct, misses the reason why the people are so afraid of death. After all, (almost) everyone who has ever lived has feared death. But the wasteland is something new, something modern. So we are not just faced with the fear of death. We are faced, rather, with the fear of life! Rain, the life-giving force that the poem's parched soil screams for, is what everyone in the poem is trying to avoid (until the end). When the rain comes the inhabitants of the wasteland venture into the "colonnade" or the "closed car at four." If I may venture an explanation of why this is the case, I would suggest that it is precisely the incredible power to control (seemingly) everything, or at least potentially control, that has led the inhabitants of the wasteland into this darkness. Those things that they cannot control grip them with terror. In an image of a diabolical Pentecost, the sound of the "wind under the door" which betokens a divine manifestation possesses the lady in the chair (symbolized by Belladonna in Madame Sosostris' wicked pack of cards) with an overmastering fear instead of a life-giving spirit.

06 April 2010

Justice and medicine

"The soul and body being two, have two arts corresponding to them: there is the art of politics attending on the soul; and another art attending on the body, of which I know no single name, but which may be described as having two divisions, one of them gymnastic, and the other medicine. And in politics there is a legislative part, which answers to gymnastic, as justice does to medicine; and the two parts run into one another, justice having to do with the same subject as legislation, and medicine with the same subject as gymnastic, but with a difference." Plato, Gorgias

Socrates notes the close connection between justice and medicine because both justice and medicine are only necessary in a world that is already out of balance. Since I have previously suggested that the essential difference between dialectic and sophistry consists in the manner in which dialectic brings justice to discourse, I might also suggest the analogue, which is: if the city was ruled by philosophy, there would be no need for Socrates' habit of questioning everyone. Though Socrates identifies himself as a midwife, perhaps we may more appropriately say that he was a doctor who sought to cure the city of its ills. This would also explain the consistent contrast that Socrates draws in Gorgias between the relative strengths and weaknesses of the doctor and the sophist. Though Socrates as the spiritual doctor of the polis is the only person truly qualified to save Athens, the sophists' superior capacity to convince the ignorant that they have all the answers renders Socrates unable to stop them. While Socrates (as he demonstrates in Phaedrus and other places) is capable of using sophistic techniques of speechifying, he refuses to use them to save the city since such an action is inherently impossible, since the salvation of the city could not consist just in right action, but in right thinking. This is the one virtue that no rhetorician can properly teach his disciples.

30 March 2010

Some thoughts about the Iliad

The possibility of understanding the Iliad rests on the possibility of encountering death as (possibly) utterly annihilation. Only in this light does the full weight of what everyone wagers in battle become tangible, and only in this light is Achilles' decision to fight for revenge become fully intelligible. Thetis tempts him away from his destiny with images of the happy long life he will live if he turns from the fight and returns to his native land, but Achilles chooses to enter the fight, recognizing that this decision guarantees his death. Amidst the sea of blood that is spilled in the Iliad, we nonetheless must recognize that the work affirms the absolute value of what the heroes are fighting for precisely because they are willing to risk absolute destruction. It might seem as if a belief in immortality makes life weightier, since our actions in this world effect an eternal destiny. Yet I think that perhaps the contrary is true: for we are used to looking upon what is most rare as the most precious of all, and if every life is infinite, then moments of life as are common as grains of sand. But if every life is not infinite, then a decision to risk one's entire existence in battle is the hazarding of one's most precious possession. [as an addendum, I am advancing this argument principally for the purposes of helping us understand the Iliad, not as an answer to the question of the immortality of human life] Only with this realization does the tragic dimension of Achilles' decision come fully into relief, along with the strength of the affirmation of life harboured within his decision to kill Hector.

19 March 2010

Why I think congress should not pass the health care bill

This is out of place, but I am going to weigh in on the issue nonetheless. I believe that the current health care bill facing Congress should not be passed for the following reasons:

1) It mistakes the fundamental problem with American health care. The problem with health care in America is not that people don't have insurance, it is the very insurance system itself. Just as one would not expect to use one's car insurance to cover routine maintenance on one's vehicle, the fact that we use insurance to pay for routine preventative health care creates a massive inefficiency in the American health system. Health insurance should only be allowed to cover major expenses; as a matter of economic fact this will force down prices for routine procedures. Instead, by putting even more money into the picture, the bill will necessarily drive up health care prices.

2) The rhetoric with which the current legislation is being pushed suggests that the insurance companies are some sort of evil force. While I think ideally health insurance should be severely curtailed or abolished, the rhetoric is misplaced populism of the most dangerous variety: the average profit margin range for a large insurance company is somewhere between 3.8 (Aetna) to 7.3 (Wellpoint). These are not unreasonably large profits; consider that in the case of Aetna a relatively small increase in expenses could easily turn the profit into a loss. The biggest problem with the rhetoric is that it blinds the public to the truth of the matter, which is that the bill simply cannot do anything to drive down insurance premiums. Again, this is a matter of economic fact - if we increase the demand for health care services by some 30 million persons without instantaneously increasing the supply (impossible given the lengthy schooling doctors require), the result must be either an increase in price or a shortage of health care.

3) The bill's proposed 3.8% investment income "medicare" tax is ill-conceived. First of all, it is not actually a medicare tax; it is instead compensating for the fact that the bill is raiding the already underfunded medicare fund to decrease its overall effect on the federal deficit. Secondly, the price will encourage persons subject to the tax (higher-income taxpayers) to invest and save less, which is precisely the opposite of what the government should be doing to encourage job growth. In my view it would be much better for the economy if they raised taxes on ordinary income instead of on capital gains and dividends.

4) The bill requires all taxpayers to purchase health insurance. Something about the federal government requiring all citizens to give money to private corporations does not seem right to me. I'm not really sure where in the constitution we can detect this right; and while I'm hardly a strict constructionist, I do not think it is a good precedent to be setting. Consider how completely new it is - while the government necessarily spends tax proceeds to purchase services from private entities, it has never required its citizenry to patronize some particular class of business.

For these reasons, I do not believe that the health care bill should pass congress. It does not address the actual problem (the perpetually rising cost of health care); in fact, by throwing more money at the problem it is explicitly exacerbating the problem since it is removing the incentive for anyone to find a cheaper way of doing things. While it seems increasingly likely that it will pass, I do not think even five years from now anyone will think it was a very good idea.

08 March 2010

"A City in Speech"

My attempts at interpreting T.S. Eliot have been temporarily derailed, so I thought I might return to Republic and make some more comments about the meaning of Socrates' statement that he will "watch a city coming into being in speech."

The great danger of reading Plato (a danger that Socrates is keenly aware of) is that we assume that we already know what he is talking about. What makes Socratic philosophy so glorious is that this danger is itself the very subject-matter of all the dialogues. Thus the question "what is justice," which is ostensibly motivating the entire dialogue, both presumes that we already have some idea what we are looking for (that is, we have some correct opinion about the nature of justice) and that we nonetheless do not know what we are looking for (since we cannot look for what we already have). Thus Socrates dismantles the fine arguments of Cephalus and Polemarchus, arguments that are not incorrect (after all, we do generally say that it is just to "speak the truth and give back what we take"). Yet their definitions are incomplete, and they must be dismantled if they are to be properly reassembled into the appropriate dialectical whole.

The above sounds rather Hegelian, so we should point out the manner in which Socrates is engaging in something completely opposite from Hegel. One way of seeing the difference is to observe Socrates' deep reverence for the divine. We find in Phaedrus, for instance, Socrates expressing a fear of inadvertently offending the gods by speaking unjustly of the nature of love. Hegel interprets the daemon that speaks to Socrates as the voice of reason; we should not make this mistake as Hegel is purposely (but necessarily) misreading the dialogues. The practice of dialectic will lead to the knowledge of justice, not the creation of justice.

05 March 2010

Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors

Amos has presented an amazing poem by Yeats in an article on his blog Philosophy KTL (I wonder what the KTL stands for?) He raises some questions about the poem that I will now seek to answer. First, the poem:

Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

We are in the presence of something magnificent and dark. There is unquestionably an echo of the scaffold with "undertook" and "hang" and "blade." Amos sees in this poem "the cold, unpitying savor of tragic joy." Yeats is never one to ignore the tragic dimension that is (almost) inextricably bound up in human life, but I wonder whether there may not be another dimension to this poem that runs deeper than tragedy. The phrase "bring to pass" has scriptural echoes; aside from its literal usage in the gospels the "pass" brings to mind both Passover and the Passion. With a diamond-like degree of compression Yeats is evoking the profound mystery of death and rebirth that lies at the heart of all human activity. Any "action / is a step to the block;" a reality reflected in the dual meaning of the word "undertake." Despite the distinct possibility (and for most instructors high probability) of their eventual effacement, teaching, like all genuinely humane activity, maintains an inner necessity that is not rendered less compelling or less noble by the possibility of passing into nothingness.

"All things hang like a drop of dew." It is connected to the main sentence by a semicolon. Semicolons are generally used to connect what grammarians call independent clauses. The clauses connected, however, should be related (otherwise a full period or even line break would be appropriate). Therefore we must question the manner in which the hanging upon the blade of grass and the bringing to pass are related. Because of the passion reference I would be inclined to say that Yeats is specifically invoking the image of the dying god hanging upon his tree (albeit in a diminished form: his "tree" is but a "blade of grass"); but here, "all things" are consigned to this fate. The manner of this hanging is like "a drop of dew:" radically contingent and yet utterly necessary. For no doubt the presence of any dewdrop on any blade of grass is a matter of what we call chance; yet that there will be some dewdrops on some blades of grass in an absolute necessity. The unknown instructors have precisely this manner of existence. Their personality is obliterated but what is most proper to their being as instructors is preserved in their instruction, as it must be for their to be any instructors now.

And so, in answer to the question that Amos poses - "can we be grateful for nothing?" - I would answer "yes," so long as we have the humility to recognize that what lies in oblivion is what we owe everything to. Despite the extremes to which Yeats took his quest for otherworldly knowledge, I would like to think he maintained even in his darkest moments a deep piety towards that greatest of the Athenian deities: the unknown god.

02 March 2010


Since the Four Quartets has reduced me to (what I hope will be temporary) speechlessness, I would like to offer the following digression, which is a short meditation on a quote from Schopenhauer:

"[We] know not a sun, and not an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth... the world that surounds [us] exists only as idea - that is, only in relation to something else, the one who conceives the idea."

taken from The World as Will and Idea, paragraph 1.

This is a well-distilled articulation of the essence of modern philosophy. The human spirit is transformed into the human subject. Subjectivity becomes an acceptable term under which to describe feeling, sensing, thinking, and knowing. Man therefore ceases to be a "thing" defined in advance as a rigidly fixed entity dwelling amidst other entities. But instead of freeing philosophy to reflect on the essence of man, such an action instead transforms man from noun into verb instead of restoring the human essence to the non-grammatical. "Subject," as the new name denoting human essence, becomes "the support of the world," and "the condition of all phenomenon." Philosophy therefore becomes the examination of the contents and structures of subjectivity - that is to say, epistemology and ultimately psychology. Nevertheless, philosophy remains metaphysics within these transformations. It continues the errant identification of a mode of being (subjectivity) with being itself that has always characterized metaphysics. In the case of Hegel, we even see all the old metaphysical categories restored, but precisely as modes of being of the subject instead of modes of being of objects.

Thus modern philosophy persists in its metaphysical (and therefore Greek) roots precisely as it attempts to differentiate itself more and more form its origin. Even when it declares itself the completion of philosophy and declares its Greek origin unnecessary and flawed it still remains rooted to its origin, for it is still concerned with the same questions as the Greeks and can only claim completeness in virtue of its incomplete foundation.

17 February 2010

Burnt Norton, part 2 [i]

We now will consider the second section of Burnt Norton. The previous section we considered was sung in the bass voice (a cello); it brought out the darker side of the earthly solidity that characterizes such a voice, though at its end it faded away into something quite different. Now we are faced with a section that is expressed through a soprano tone (violin); of all the parts of Burnt Norton it is the fieriest and bears (along with part 4) the closest resemblance to what might be immediately understood as poetry. Because of the density of this section this analysis will be divided into several parts.

Formally, this division of the poem is divided into three sections. The first, from "Garlic and sapphires" to "reconciled among the stars," is a carefully crafted incantation that attempts to distill and conjure up the essence of "Burnt Norton" in a single, spell-like saying. The second section consists in a commentary on the sentence "reconciled among the stars," written in verse form. The third section repeats the main theme of the relation that prevails between moments in time which we considered in the first divisions, though transformed by what has transpired in this division.

Writing any sort of commentary on the first section of this division is virtually impossible. It is one of the most tightly wound pieces of poetry I've ever seen; while much of Eliot's poetry has many handholds for the critic to use in his ascent, this section is like a sheer wall of glass or diamond. Nonetheless, I will make a few comments; they will be necessarily relatively more wrong than the majority of what I will write about the poem but hopefully they will still be at least helpful in some manner.

The pairing of "garlic and sapphires" in the section's opening stanza suggests the admixture of the common (garlic) and the precious (sapphire). Garlic and a carved gemstone would look rather similar if their forms were shrouded by mud. The mixture of peasant's food and the noble's rare jewels in the terrestrial mud (and of course both garlic and sapphires come from the earth) is a most fitting symbols for human life. For our lives are an admixture of both the most common "animal" functions (though the poem hardly makes the mistake of conceiving of them in this manner) which we share with other members of our race and with the lower animals and the divine fire which informs our human character. On earth these two poles are mixed together constantly; be wary of he who thinks he has left behind one or the other, or who thinks he can separate them in a clear and distinct manner.

The axle-tree bedded in the mud presumably belongs to some sort of wagon or cart. I've often imagined that it is a series of wagons or a caravan of some sort, carrying all sorts of wares, which might go some way towards explaining the actual presence of the garlic and sapphires in the mud; but such an interpretation is not necessary. The use of the word "clot" plays with the next line, where "the trilling wire in the blood" names that explosive (but musical) force that makes living things live. It trills; why it is not at peace is forgotten, but until the debt of the "long-forgotten wars" has been "appeas[ed]" the trilling goes on. This pattern is hardly simply human or simply "biological" or even simply earthly, however. All the manifestations of this pattern are "figured in the drift of stars." The phrase suggests that even the timelessly eternal stars, the forces which in the form of the Zodiac (the "circle of animals") were thought to control the world, are themselves not timelessly eternal but mutable. Now a command: "ascend to summer in the tree." It was clear (to me) that we were already on a muddy path, at night after a day of rain when the clouds have cleared; now the trees are explicitly invoked and are presented as the place of our ascension. Trees stretch their arms to the very heavens yet always remain rooted in the earth (which is why I find trees to be one of the most fitting symbols for human life). Summer, the season in which this section is transpiring (and which recurs in a later section), is a timeless season (like winter) in that it represents the zenith of the sun's ascension in the sky. It is the season in which the life that sprouted in the spring comes to fruition. Summer is traditionally associated with the southerly direction and with fire.

Now that we have raised ourselves above the trees, floating like the ghosts of the first division of "Burnt Norton" (but over a "sodden floor" instead of "dry leaves"), a great mystery is revealed to us: though the "boar" and the "boarhound" continue their serious play, they now have been "reconciled" among the stars. I shall steel myself against the temptation to pronounce this reconciliation as either "subjective" or "objective" and steadfastly state that it is at once both and neither, for reasons that will become clearer at a later point.

Thus we have quickly traversed the first section of this division of "Burnt Norton." Next comes the section that begins "at the still point of the turning world," which (as I indicated above) I take to be a commentary upon specifically upon the phrase "reconciled among the stars." More generally, it is a commentary upon the entire preceding section, but it specifically concerns itself with the essential nature of the reconciliation.

14 February 2010

Burnt Norton, part 1

We left off last with the resolution to carefully consider each section of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets with a view towards offering an interpretation of the poem as a whole. The limitations of the format in which I am writing will necessarily make this interpretation fragmented until we have finished going through the entirety of the poem; I only hope that it will nonetheless direct the reader back towards the poem and help bring them into confrontation with what it is trying to say.

"Burnt Norton," the first section of the poem, can be found at http://www.tristan.icom43.net/quartets/norton.html.

One aspect of the poem as a whole is its concern with the different modes in which time overtakes us. We say variously that time heals all wounds and that time destroys all things. The temporality of human existence is perhaps our greatest blessing and greatest curse. "Burnt Norton" revolves around several different considerations of the essence and meaning of time with respect to the possibility of freedom coexisting with determination. Let us begin to examine this problem in light of the first division of the poem.

This division begins (quite famously) "Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past." Many readers (myself for some time included) have difficulty form the outset reading this since it in no way resembles what we are expecting to find in a poem. Formally, it appears to be a sentential proposition concerning the nature of time. This is the sort of thing one may expect to find in a philosophical treatise. What is it doing in a poem? Is this the criticized "elitism" or "abstractness" of Eliot's poetry rearing its ugly head?

Such characterizations miss the possibility (here necessary) of the poet to speak philosophically in his poetry while still remaining essentially a poet. Like musical instruments, the voices in the Four Quartets do not possess the sort of personality that one typically expects from the speaker of a lyric poem. They do possess a certain characteristic tonality which consists in a fitting of the "concept" being "expressed" in the section with the manner of "expression" (such words are useful so long as we recognize that here expression and mode of expression are one). It may be useful to think of each section as corresponding either to one of the registers of the human voice or one of the instruments of a string quartet; here, we have a bass voice (or a cello from the quartet, if you prefer).

In fact, what we can almost correctly call the hopelessness of the first section of "Burnt Norton" is precisely suited to the sort of pedantic despair with which the poem begins. The meaning of the opening lines is clear: if everything that has happened is contained in the future, and if the future is contained in the past, then everything has already happened. As absurd (at the outset) as such a view may seem it is precisely the position of the sort of popular scientific materialism we still find floating about. If there are exact and binding laws in the physical universe, and if the physical universe is the only dimension in which anything exists, then everything that would ever happen is necessarily determined from the moment at which the universe explodes into being. Every chemical action and reaction in my brain, as I am writing this, is a necessary step from the previous set of circumstances that brought me to this moment. If this is the nature of the world, then it is beyond even hope or despair; it is at a place where hope is a meaningless word. All time, as the voice states, is "unredeemable." This question of the meaning of the redemption and its relation to time is one we will take up later; for now, I would suggest that one look to Prince Hal's "redeeming time" speech from Henry IV or alternatively the section from Ephesians where it is considered.

The voice goes on to proclaim that hope, which is necessarily tied up to what could be, never existed: "what might have been is an abstraction." As the voice introspectively travels back to a prior moment we first encounter one of the poem's key symbols, the rose. "Into the rose-garden" we go, even though such a journey is only "disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves." Here doubt begins to enter into the darkness in which we began: for though it proves nothing to this mechanistic speaker, he recognizes how strange it is that people would be drawn towards contemplation of the past if the past was necessary. What is being encountered in such contemplation? The voice "do[es] not know."

The garden is filled with what the speaker only hears as "echoes," the fact that these sounds are heard as echoes, perhaps like the "withered stumps of time" observed Eliot's Wasteland, may have less to do with the sound and more to do with the listener. A bird urgently calls out to him to follow the echoes, which the speaker proceeds to do. However, he is from the outset prejudiced against this calling, as he enters "our first world," he does so decrying the "deception of the thrush" that led him there. He enters the rose-garden when it is already autumn; the leaves have fallen off the trees; the garden is filled with what he perceives as ghosts moving "dignified" and "invisible" over the "dead leaves." Yet the bird apparently has a different view of things; it sings in response to "unheard music hidden in the shrubbery." Not only that, but the speaker recognizes that the ghostly beings in the garden must be able to see what is happening, for the roses in the garden, as he observes, "had the look of flowers that are being looked at."

The speaker and his ghostly cohort (and presumably the bird) move "in a formal pattern" into the "box circle." The importance of formal patterns will become more apparent when we enter the second section of "Burnt Norton;" the box circle, I believe, refers to the central section of the garden in which a circular pool is walled in (at some distance from the pool itself) by a very short hedgerow. Symbolically, it is a reference to "squaring the circle," a process that ancient geometers reportedly attempted and which certain alchemists claimed to have accomplished. While it is mathematically impossible to perform this function because of the transcendence of the number "pi," the alchemical meaning of the square circle pertains to the elevation of the material (lead) to its perfection in the spiritual (gold).

The pool appears "drained" and "dry" to the speaker. Yet all of a sudden, remarkable in the manner in which the speaker presents it as unremarkable, "the pool was filled with water out of sunlight." If such an event transpired in our lives we would no doubt find it noteworthy, yet the speaker only punctuates this event with a comma from the previous line that ended in "brown-edged." The surface of the water "glittered out of heart of light," a beautiful image that is reminiscent from the Wasteland, and the ghostly onlookers become visible by their reflections in the water. The lotus flower that floats in the pool, like the squared circle, symbolizes the transformation of the lesser into the greater. For the lotus (according to the interpretation in Hinduism) is planted deep in the mud of a pond, only to emerge and unfold as the most beautiful of flowers.

"Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty." What just happened? The symbols that we have just encountered all pertain to what we may generally and almost emptily call "transcendence." What a mighty word, and how low it has fallen now! We need now only understand by transcendence a shifting beyond the world in which one had previously lived; a shift that must be to some extent qualitative and not simply quantitative. The possibility of the existence of an undetermined realm in which freedom would be possible is not something that the speaker at the outset wished to admit. Yet even when he comes face-to-face with it, he seems completely unable to understand what he is looking at.

What Eliot is driving at here is an extremely important point to understand as the poem continues. While most of us believe that we are "free," none of us can easily explain what that means. Eliot is trying to force the reader in the whole of this first division precisely into the position where the tremendous tension that one must undergo to acknowledge the reality of freedom can come to pass. For there is no empirical evidence of any kind that human beings could possibly be "free;" the concept of free will cannot exist in a purely "physical" world, once "physical" has been understood in the light of the physical sciences. Yet though we cannot explain it readily, there are moments where we experience a sudden and fleeting vision and we seem to be actually capable of deciding our path for ourselves, beyond all the conditions and experiences that have made us who we are.

The section draws to a close as the bird exhorts the speaker to "go," for "the leaves are full of children." "Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality." These cryptic final words of the bird are its most profound utterance and possibly the solution to the riddle of freedom, a solution that is invisible to the section's speaker. Just as can only stare at the sun for brief moments before one's eyes are blasted, so it is with the experience of transcendental realities. The moment of ecstasy, like the statue by Bernini, pierces one with an unearthly ray of shining fire. Just as the man who goes to the surface in Plato's allegory and stays in the sunlight cannot with ease return to the cave, so too we who must live in this world cannot for long endure the experience of another world. This is the "reality" that the bird is speaking of. People usually read this as the bird suggesting some sort of flight to fancy and false imagination, but it is in fact making a quite true statement that we who (for better or for worse) must now live in a world of shadows simply cannot bear many glimpses of a higher sort of world.

The experience has in some ways changed the speaker, who concludes with a decisively different rephrasing of his opening lines:

"Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present."

The possibility (which will be considered in the next section) that the coming-together of past, present, and future is actually the precondition for the possibility of freedom instead of its destruction is hinted at in the conclusion. For instead of proclaiming that all time is "contained" in time past, he now suggests that time "point[s] to one end," a very different sort of proposition indeed. The "might have been," which was before an abstraction, is now coupled together directly with the highly concrete "what has been." The experience of the lotus in the rose-garden has brought some measure of enlightenment to the deep voice that preached despair beyond despair.

We will continue next time with an analysis of the second section "Burnt Norton." This next section corresponds to the soprano register of the voice, and has a much more melodic and complex structure.

11 February 2010

The Four Quartets: Introduction

This begins a series where I intend to go through the entirety of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and offer a section-by-section interpretation of the poem, as well as an overall interpretation of each section and the poem as a whole. We shall begin with a few short comments on the overall structure of the work.

The Four Quartets is divided into four main divisions, each bearing its own unique title and being further divided into five sections. Each quartet has its own distinctive character, though common thematic elements run throughout the course of the whole composition. Quartets are musical pieces for four instruments, and there certainly are some similarities between Eliot's quartets and the classical form; as it is appropriate we will discuss these similarities. However, it should be noted that the musical form itself most likely is derived from the natural divisions of human singing into four different voices (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass); thus in some ways creating a poetic work in quartet form can be seen as a more original sort of quartet than the musical variety.

The general theme of the work is a reflection on the nature of relation. Some of the key relationships pondered in the poem are form and matter, time and eternity, beginning and end, human and divine, silence and speech, motion and rest, separation and communion, and lamentation and exaltation. This is not an exhaustive list; but it should give us an idea of the monumental scope of the poem. It also should clue us in to the fact that the poem can be highly tricky to read; much like Eliot's Wasteland the poem's form and content are so superbly fused that trying to make a division between the two is neither useful nor correct. The poem is written in this fashion for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that interpreting the poem creates the possibility of a transformation in the character of the one interpreting it. While this is not principally why Eliot wrote the poem, it may be (at least initially) why we should want to read it.

The poem begins with two quotations from the enigmatic Heraclitus. Eliot gives them in the original Greek; we shall translate them as "Although logos is common to all, most people live as if they had a their own private logos" and "The way and the way down are the same." Logos is of course the Greek word we will translate as "language" (and the root of the word logic). Interpreting this quote separately from the rest of the poem would be fruitless; I will now only remark that the poem is profoundly concerned with the nature of language and the relation between humans and language. The second quote introduces the concept that opposition (in this case the "up" and the "down") is primally rooted in a fundamental sameness, without which opposition would be impossible. This concept will be explored at great length in the poem.

We shall begin next time to consider the first section of the first quartet, "Burnt Norton." Each quartet is associated (among many other things) with one of the four classical elements; the element that characterizes this quartet is earth.

09 February 2010

Ethics, part 3

A highly general conception of ethics is that it is the science by which men discover those rules which, when followed, will allow them to fulfill their end. The "end" we speak of here has classically been thought as the telos, that towards which man's nature inherently is ordered. Aristotle calls this end "happiness;" Aquinas says it is "the love of God;" Kant suggests it lies in the self-determination of the rational being according to the law of reason; the utilitarians suggest it is mass pleasure. What all these conceptions have in common is that they view the end as something to be achieved as the result or product of a series of temporal actions. Aristotle's happiness is only attainable through the habit of virtue (along with some other developments quite beyond the control of the individual) and Kant's rational self-determination is only possible after exercising one's reason, an exercise which is necessarily bounded by the sequential temporality of time as the condition of inner and outer experience. The maximization of pleasure that the utilitarians seek can only come about as the result of a series of sequential steps enacted in a communal setting.

What is decisive in these systems is a sense that the
telos is temporally ahead of man. What I would like to suggest now is that the end they seek may well stand behind them; as T.S. Eliot says in "Little Gidding,"

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

We should see how this saying does not essentially conflict with the conception of ethics as ordered towards a future teleological goal. It is not impossible that the end of man is both ahead of him and at the same time behind him. Socrates states in Republic that the most just form of speech, dialectic, is precisely that sort of speech that "makes it way to a beginning." (510b) The justice of dialectic is that it manages to comprise its own origins at its conclusion, which consists not in some sort of "result," as though thinking were a mechanical process that produced thoughts as the final output, but rather as a transformation in thinking itself.

What this means to ethical thinking is that it cannot depart from a prepackaged conception of human essence towards a prepackaged conclusion as to the ultimate end of man. Utilitarianism is guilty of this more than any other "ethical system;" but it in some way is true of all the other systems we have considered (some much less so than others). It is precisely at that point when ethics becomes separated from the rest of philosophy (and therefore becomes an "ethical system") that it become more or less inherently impossible.

It thus seems that genuine ethical thinking is an exceedingly difficult task, a task that we are perhaps not yet ready for. But is it not folly to expect things to be any other way? If ethics was the sort of easy, common-sense thing that the utilitarians suggest, why is it that we still struggle with matters of ethics? Should we not expect that the science which concerns the origin and end of the human essence would not in fact be an exceptionally difficult sort of science indeed? A science which perhaps turns out to not exactly be a science at all?

We close with some more from Eliot's Four Quartets. These words, again from "Little Gidding," could well be applied to the true nature of ethical thought:

. . . You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always."

03 February 2010

The problem with tools

In the preceding post, we suggested that utilitarianism existed primarily as a piece of "ethical technology" designed to provide mechanisms to remove ethical issues from the complicated web in which they actually exist and produce quantifiable "scientific" solutions (the "felicific calculus" of Bentham). However, for a number of reasons, this turns out to be impossible, and the usefulness of utilitarianism becomes transformed into a monstrous uselessness.

Exhibit A in this transformation is the work on the highly popular modern "ethicist," Peter Singer. Professor Singer holds a prestigious chair at Princeton and his books are published by the presses of the leading universities of the world. He considers himself a utilitarian, and assumes the utilitarian premises to be self-evident, paying a scant 15 pages of his work Practical Ethics laying out his groundwork (and 7 of these 15 pages are in a subsection entitled "What Ethics is Not.") This does not seem to bother Mr. Singer, since he has set out to try the "application of ethics or morality -- I shall use the terms interchangeably -- to practical issues." Evidently the practical application of ethics requires a scant 15 pages of prologue. How much wiser Mr. Singer must be than the legions of philosophers who have written thick tomes on the topic of ethics or morality; how much wiser still than the billions of men and women whose consciences force them to wrestle with right and wrong! Now that such a great master has arisen, let us examine an early conclusion of his inquiry:

"I shall suggest that, having accepted the principle of equality as a sound moral basis for relations with others of our own species, we are also committed to accepting it as a sound moral basis for relations with those outside our own species - the non-human animals."

Thus begins the section entitled "Equality for Animals?" Yes, incredibly the cutting-edge conclusions of ethical technology are that human beings are in no way intrinsically superior to animals. This leads him to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that one may as well use mentally disabled adults or orphaned children for medical experimentation as an animal.

It was at this point that my disgust forced me to put down the work; thus I cannot share any of Professor Singer's further brilliant discoveries. I in no way am in favor of causing needless suffering to animals, but the very fact that I can consider whether or not I ought to kill and eat an animal seems to point to a manner in which I am superior to the animal. Mr. Singer does consider this point but is (I think willfully) unable to see how the intellectual differences between humans and animals are not simply quantitative but qualitative.

And thus the commonsense usefulness of utilitarianism finds itself transformed into something completely repugnant to common sense. This transformation was necessary from the very beginning; by abandoning any system of value that (to use a word that has been worn away almost completely) possesses a transcendent dimension, the mind degenerates into the madness of ratio being turned back upon itself and analytically removing more and more of itself until all that is left is the dark raging of an empty voice preaching to increasingly emptying classrooms. The attempt to use philosophical thinking as a means to some end is always doomed to failure. Just as the "broken drinking goblet like the Grail" in Frost's "Directive" is spelled so that "the wrong ones can't find it," the attempt to technologize ethics into a tool is doomed to failure.

I will hope in the near future to finish this trilogy with some very brief notes on what ethical philosophy ought to consist in, drawing from the example of Plato's Republic.

01 February 2010

Utilitarianism as tool

My attempt to approach this topic did not come off as smoothly or cleanly as I would have hoped, so I would ask the reader to forgive the imperfections in the flow of the prose that follows.

I've often wondered why anyone bothers with utilitarianism; this wonder deepens every time I see works of modern social scientists, who seem need to constantly appeal to utilitarianism when articulating their theoretical foundations. As I considered this, it seemed to me that understanding the real meaning of utilitarianism requires us to refocus on the utilis in utilitarian. Utilis is of course the Latin word for "useful;" the utilitarians adopted this word as the name for their ethics because they viewed as good those things that were useful for accomplishing the highest good, which was the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number (I am here referring to classical utilitarian thinkers; we will have the opportunity to consider their modern descendants in the future). For reasons I will now lay out, I believe it would be more appropriate for us to translate the utilis in utilitarian as a statement that utilitarianism itself is a tool, and that its utility consists precisely in its capacity to allow men to leave behind theoretical questions of right and wrong and focus on "practical" concerns of actually doing ethical actions.

Utilitarianism accomplishes this transformation in the essence of ethics by reordering man's end in light of the collective maximization of pleasure and minimization of pain. It is decidedly unoriginal in doing this (the sophists had proposed precisely this sort of ethics thousands of years prior). Its originality consists in the technologization of this transformation. The sophists had only the tattered rags they stole from the cloak of dialectic to clothe their own reflections, but the utilitarians had something both greater and lesser on their side, which was the commonplace dominance of the form of the physical sciences as the preeminent mode of discourse. The "felicific calculus" of Bentham is precisely this sort of construction; a complicated mathematical shell in which a simple (and false) idea has been encapsulated.

Once this piece of technology was developed, its utility became immediately apparent. All sorts of social sciences, from psychology and sociology to political science and economics, now had a new and firm basis upon which they could conduct their inquiries. Questions about the nature or purpose of man no longer stood in the way of these fields, since a convenient answer had been found. Psychology's transformation into "pop psychology," wherein it became completely engaged in the task of providing us with the tools by which we could feel better, has its root in the utilitarian transformation of ethics. Economics could now make the assumption that the rational human being was the one who sought to maximize his own pleasure, a description which philosophy would traditionally have looked upon as quite a questionable premise indeed.

The transformation of ethics into utilitarianism is a decisive one that lies at the foundation of our age. Those of us who are concerned with moving past (the choice of this word is not accidental) modernity would do well to ponder what is transpiring in utilitarianism. As a brief closing comment that anticipates what will come later, I would like to suggest that the fatal defect of utilitarianism is that it does not actually account for the purpose of human existence, which is precisely what people (justly or unjustly) generally expect philosophers to do. The utilitarian (without appeal to other outside principles) could never explain why people should order their lives towards the pursuit of pleasure. Their counter-argument (that most people do in fact try and do this most of the time) is no counter at all, since the fact that it is generally done is hardly an argument in its favor. The utilitarians popular in our own day seem to have recognized this fact and have turned what was originally an eminently commonsense sort of thinking into an outlandishly monstrous recognition of the complete meaninglessness of human existence that follows naturally from the utilitarian premise.

28 January 2010

On the divided line

An inability to sleep, combined with a recent reading of book VI of Republic, led me to the somewhat disordered diversion of creating an Excel spreadsheet to take a look at the so-called "divided line" that Socrates presents. An immediate problem that we should discover in comprehending the line is that it is completely impossible to actually draw it since the precise dimensions are not given in the dialogue (this is, of course, no accident). However, regardless of which numbers are used, so long as we follow the constraint that Socrates gives us (two unequal segments subdivided into two segments that follow the same ratio as the main division), the larger division of the smaller part of the line and the smaller division of the larger part of the line have the same length. This can be shown mathematically as follows:

Line L is divided into segments X and Y, such that Y > X. X is further divided into segments A and B, while Y is divided into segments C and D. Based on the data that Socrates provides, B = X*(Y/(X+Y)), while C = Y*(X/(X+Y)). Both A and B simplify to XY/(X+Y), so A=B.

This is important because it underscores the necessarily circular relationship that exists between B, which Socrates says contains "the animals around us, and everything that grows, and the whole class of artifacts," and C, which contains "a soul, using as images the things that were previously imitated, [which it] is compelled to investigate on the basis of hypotheses and make its way not to a beginning but to an end." Those sorts of knowledge and knowing that correspond to C (Socrates chooses geometry as an example) attempt to use the sorts of things in B ("material" objects) to discover the template that underlies them, the "things themselves." As useful as this enterprise is, it never reaches to the highest level, D, the level of "intellection," because it has began with the things as images and can neither leave this aspect of them behind nor entirely transform it into something higher. Therefore it will be forever "unable to step out above the hypotheses." This knowledge will therefore be drawn back down towards its material origins and seek to reform the material in light of what it has itself created from the material.

Socrates' statement that this sort of thinking is not the highest kind of thinking should be highly interesting to us, since what normally passes for thought is precisely this sort of thinking. That Socrates suggests the existence of an even higher realm, a realm which is neither the astringent ecstasy of the mystic nor the emotional deluge of the romantic, should give us occasion to ask whether we have ever even begun to think in the highest (yet also most original) sense of the word. Despite the tremendous amount of thinking that people all over the "globe" are doing each and every day, it is possible that what is essential in and to thinking remains as an overlooked challenge sheltered in the Socratic dialogues.

22 January 2010

The location of power as the difference between Greek and modern philosophy [part two]

This is a continuation of a previous posting.

We may perhaps best bring to a point our necessarily short consideration of the power of essence within Greek philosophy by ending at the end of Republic, in the tenth and final book. Here we see powerfully the manner in which the beginning controls the end. Socrates, after an ambiguous condemnation of the work of the tragic poets, proceeds to expound a mythic account of the doings of the soul after death, which acts as the Socratic counterpoint to the Glaucon’s story of the ring of Gyges. What is particularly remarkable in this account is the manner in which the soul is determined in advance of itself. After death, persons are sorted on the basis of how they acted when they were alive. The just went on to their reward, while the wicked experienced torment in the abyssal depths of the earth. Here we see already that the essence of what one will be after death is determined in advance by one’s actions during life, just as idea determines image and as the necessity of justice determines discourse. The worst punishments of all are reserved to those who had acted impiously towards their “gods and parents and for murder” (615c, p.298). These crimes are precisely the worst sort of crime because they violate the fundamental debt owed to the origin as the source of life for the human person. The allegorical depiction of essence as the primally powerful wellspring of action becomes even more greatly reinforced towards the end of the myth, when Socrates describes the manner in which souls have their destinies assigned to them before their births. Lots are cast, and each man has laid before him “patterns of the lives” that they may live (617e, p.300). These patterns inscribe the destiny of each man in advance of their lives, containing within them the entirety of the conditions that will help determine the life that will be lived. All that is missing is “an ordering of the soul,” absent so that each person can creatively constitute their existence in response to the destiny that has already been laid before them (618b, p.301).

This explication of Republic in light of the relation of the nature of justice and philosophical discourse to the predetermining nature of essence as the ultimately powerful sovereign of all existence has necessarily been highly inadequate. Platonic dialectic does not lend itself to being disentangled except by dialectic itself, and our attempt to focus on one strand of the dialogue has thus forced us to touch upon many others to even come close to justly articulating our thesis. Even in this exposition we have perhaps acted unjustly, since we ourselves did not quite begin at the beginning, and neglected to show the importance of the dialogue’s opening scene, where Socrates is arrested by Polemarchus and his companions. Though the dialogue in this scene is openly comic, with Polemarchus jokingly forcing Socrates to come with him, the scene takes place against the backdrop of the Athenians bringing a Thracian goddess into their city. They are thus impiously abandoning their ancestral worship, even introducing the novelty of “a torch race on horseback,” a non-Athenian practice (328a, p.4). While all this may seem remarkably unimportant to us now, when set against the historical backdrop of the disastrous ending of the Peloponnesian War, which Athens lost because they had corruptly exceeded the appropriate measure of the polis and had instead sought to become an empire, the events take on a much darker hue.

20 January 2010

On the myth of the "red state" and the "blue state"

The completely implausible victory of a Republican candidate for the open Massachusetts Senate seat provides as good an opportunity as any to consider the myth of the "red state" and the "blue state." Conventional wisdom goes that the "blue" states generally support liberal causes and candidates, while the "red" states support conservative causes and candidates. This myth has the advantage of being extremely straightforward and simple. It is not even incorrect; states do generally vote in a similar fashion over time. It is precisely the general correctness of the theory that makes it practically useless and dangerous. Any theory that is "usually" true but breaks down in extreme situations is worse than no theory at all, because it lulls its followers into the false sense that they "understand" the essence of a situation when they have in fact not gotten past a simple unification of a series of experiences into a cohesive set of not-yet-essential appearances.

Two politically opposite examples of this same point are the victory of President Obama in the 2008 elections and the present election of Scott Brown that we are now considering. In the 2008 elections, the Republicans not only accepted but embraced the entire "red state" mythos. Their presidential candidate was a fighter pilot POW and their vice presidential candidate was a gun-toting "hockey mom" (whatever the devil that meant). They ran a gleefully anti-intellectual campaign calculated to appeal to the masses of "red" voters who supposedly drove trucks and owned guns and hated the "liberal elite." When it came down to the election, the McCain-Palin ticket found itself derailed not just in the blue states, but in many of the red states as well. What happened?

In Massachusetts just yesterday, the opposite event occurred. Martha Coakley seemed like an ideal blue state candidate. She was extremely "progressive," well-educated, and would have been the first female senator from the state (if I am not mistaken). While arguably she ran a relatively uninteresting campaign, she did this precisely because Democrats don't need to campaign for national office in this state--they always win. Yet she lost, and to precisely the sort of person who one would expect to win in a red state, a truck-driving national guardsman whose biography, as Jon Stewart observed, seemed tailor-made for a nighttime TV drama and not a Massachusetts senator. How could this possibly have happened in one of the bluest of the blue states?

The answer to this question lies in the overcoming of the belief in the actual division of the population into partisan political factions. Not because this belief is incorrect, but because it fails to explain that which is most in need of explanation in a practical theory of political psychology, which is the sudden and incalculably unexpected upset. The fact that red states and blue states only retain their chromaticity in the everyday situation should already suggest to us, who are (hopefully) more penetrating observers than most, that there is another force at play here...

18 January 2010

The location of power as the difference between Greek and modern philosophy [part one]


The forgoing was written as a submission for a graduate philosophy conference on the nature of power. It is not exactly the sort of topic I would have taken up of my own accord, which is why I hope you will pardon if it is constantly bending away from its apparent topic towards something else.

The difference between the philosophy of the Greeks and the philosophy of the moderns comes into sharp relief when we consider the question of the location of power. Where is power located—does power stem from a thing’s origin, as a river does from a spring, or does power lie in the end, bringing objects to itself by a sort of gravity? There are many sorts of power in this world, but the ultimate kind of power envisioned by both Greek and modern philosophy is the power by which things are determined to be the things that they are. This force, designated as essence, is the power by which a thing exists precisely insofar as it is what it is in its formal aspect. The power of essence is absolute power.

For the Greeks, essence lies in advance of that which it essentially determines. One of the most dramatically interesting examples of this fact is found in the philosophical allegory Republic, by Plato. In the dialogue, Socrates suddenly (and entirely unintentionally) finds himself caught up in a dialectical defense of justice. The decision of Plato to compose his ultimate philosophical work on the topic of justice is not an irrelevant detail—unless the nature and necessity of justice is demonstrated, then there is no difference between philosophy and sophistry. The only difference between the dialectic of Socrates and that of the sophists is that Socrates always insists on the truth, which is very often an inconvenient and at times a dangerous endeavor. The dialogue is in no way a political work in the modern sense of the word; Aristotle’s Politics is the first great work of Western political philosophy. Rather, the dialogue seeks to establish the possibility of philosophizing at all, a possibility which rests in the justifying philosophy, rendering it right in light of that to which it owes its essential ground.

These preliminary remarks upon the nature of Republic, insufficient as they are, must suffice to set the stage for our exposition. The ferocious energy of his interlocutors pushes Socrates quickly into an all-out defense of the reality of justice. Socrates proposes to do this by “watch[ing] a city coming into being in speech,” since such an endeavor would allow him to “see its justice coming into being, and its injustice” (Republic 369a, p.45). Socrates begins at the beginning; something he had been trying to do throughout the dialogue. After all, he initially found himself involved in the discussion of whether or not justice was better than injustice, a discussion which he admits was itself unjust, since he did “not know what the just is” (354c, p.34). The expectation that one should establish the nature of justice prior to deciding upon its qualities is itself a precursor to the location of essence at the origin of a thing instead of at its end. He is drawn back into argument by Glaucon, who puts into action the injustice of the sophists by refusing to allow Socrates to examine the essence of justice, instead launching immediately into a memorable attack on the desirability of justice. The fact that Glaucon ignores Socrates’ warning that discourse on justice is impossible except in light of a discourse on the essence of justice is no accident. He becomes in the dialogue an allegory for the sophists, who are themselves (beyond their own historical context) archetypes of unjust men, using their thinking to bypass the beginning in light of some more or less desirable end.

As Socrates begins the unveiling of what he proposes as the ideal city, his simple vision is sidetracked by Glaucon, and Socrates is forced to take a far more difficult and complicated path to demonstrate the necessity of holding to the origin. After Socrates presents a rustic paradise, which Glaucon sees as a “city of sows,” Glaucon attempts to correct Socrates by pointing out that the city Socrates had proposed differed from Athens and similar “modern” Greek cities (372d, p.49). This exchange is notable for two reasons. First of all, it completely refutes the literalist readings that have doomed interpretations of Republic by thinkers as original as Aristotle and as recent as Karl Popper. Socrates clearly states that the simple city he had described moments earlier is, in his mind, “the true city… a healthy city, as it were” (372e, p.49). What he goes on to describe is not his ideal city, but, as he says clearly, “a feverish city” (372, p.49). The entire convoluted narrative that follows, with its rejection of poetry, its caste of guardians, and its noble lie, has departed from the straight path of the ideal city in speech and instead becomes a journey into the unspoken presuppositions of Socrates’ interlocutors. This leads us to the second reason why this exchange it notable for our purposes—Glaucon had not stopped to consider the possibility that we would have to look beyond our limited historical situation to locate the source of justice, and that perhaps justice itself would consist in nothing more complicated than this very retrospective glance. They had, after all, started off in search of the just city; Socrates had imagined a sort of pastoral paradise that would form the prototype of later cities, while Glaucon assumes that not at the beginning but in media res would one find justice.

13 January 2010

The self-fulfilling prophecy

It is a commonplace that the ancients did not engage in the enterprise we call "the philosophy of history." The thinkers of the Aufklärung (the "Enlightenment") were accordingly the first thinkers to actually engage in the philosophy of history, which consists in an attempt at discovering the essence and end of what is understood as history. The possibility of engaging in the philosophy of history presupposes an understanding of history that presents history to us as an object for philosophical inquiry. The ground for the possibility of the objectivity of history is not questioned by the majority of those who engage in such work. None of the simple French progressive thinkers (nor their modern counterparts) ask themselves what the nature of their relationship to history must be to determine its essence to consist in progression. Equally blinded to the essential ground are those who reverse the ground of the position of the progressive thinkers and claim that the end of history is unknowable, since they are operating under the same idea of the nature of history that their opponents are. For it is clear that the philosophy of history, whether actually possible or not, must take its place as a historical development in a concrete and mutable historical context. This immediately renders the naive optimism of the French enlightenment, and the equally naive scientific progressivism of our modern civilization, as clearly invalid (if nonetheless possibly "true").

Hegel's greatness consisted precisely in the apprehension that the philosophy of history did not exist separately from history itself. This confrontation between subject and object, which would have shattered the philosophy of a lesser thinker, instead led Hegel to the dramatic conclusion that not only must the philosophy of history itself be historical, but, more asountingly, that the essence of history is itself historical. This means that the philosophy of history bridges the gap between a descriptive "theoretical" discipline and a proscriptive "practical" discipline. Put another way, the truth of history is suspended into a future which arrives in the apprehension of its inevitability. The question of whether history (or for that matter anything at all) is now as Hegel says it to be is irrelevant in light of the coming of the infinite end of history. The philosophy of history is the creation of history itself.

Marx completes this motion by the mythologized fabrication of history. The Greek myths were suspended in the past, but the modern myth of the philosophy of history projects a past with a view towards the future. Thus Marx spins his fairytale of the time before private property, knowing full well that such a time never existed. Indeed, his entire interpretation of history in light of private property and class struggle is patently false, but this falsity (in light of the true meaning of the Marxist doctrine) can be completely consummed by the possibility of its truth. History ceases to be an attempt to produce an "accurate" record of events and becomes the most powerful tool in the arsenal of the revolutionary, who reconstructs the past to become an appropriate foundation for the future he seeks to bring about.

Thus the philosophy of history assumes the role of the self-fulfilling prophecy. In an essential form, this motion constitutes the distinct difference between ancient and modern philosophy; a difference controlled by the ancient beginning even as this beginning is increasingly concealed. The metaphysical determination of "subjectivity" as the ground of essence, wherein modern philosophy decisively diverges from ancient philosophy, is the ground for the possibility of the philosophy of history.