Elegance and freedom

The ballroom dancing of the baroque era is restrained and rational.  It is as far remove as can be from the dancing that results from the injunction to "let it all hang out, baby" that insinuated itself in the sixties.  Here is a move from that dancing.  The move is called doing a reverence, or bowing.  Note that it is mutual: both partners must participate. And what they participate in is an art form where nature is constrained and restrained and forced by human will to conform to ideal patterns. A complicated reverence requires presence of mind and self-control.  It cannot be performed by, say, someone in the grip of road rage. 

In such a move we see tradition, order, rules, restraint and training at work.  Indeed, at the end of the video we hear the voice of the teacher, the dancing master of those days.  Dancing was something you learned how to do, not something that was inside you automatically and merely needed a steady rhythm and a few pops to come out. It was the epitome of being civilized.  The puritans could sniff at dancing but society, both high and low, enjoyed it in a good spirited way.  Whether in the manor house or in the barn, the dancers, the musicians, the dancing-masters, the onlookers knew good form when they saw it.

Romanticism smashed all that.

YouTube - Republican Response to the State of the Union 2011- VIDEO analysis

Republican Response to the State of the Union 2011- VIDEO analysis

The linked video shows an analyst reviewing Paul Ryan't response to the State of the Union Address by the President.  Click the link to the critique.  My critique of the critique:

Paul Ryan is the father of three children and the Chairman of the Congressional Budget Committee. He is no kid or gawky office manager. The analyst here is a media consultant, however, and not interested in substance at all. He is all about image. It is true that Ryan looks young.

The anlaytic tradition of our speaker goes back to the sophists by way of Machiavelli. For them, it is silly to worry about what is right or wrong.  What matters is results.  The sophists claimed that everything is opinion.  If so, truth does not matter.  Persuasion and persuasive technique do. Power is everything.  In this case, I believe every individual point made is valid. This is a competent analysis.  But it is what is chosen to analyse that troubles me some.

The analyst assumes that Ryan shares his professional cynicism, butconsider that Ryan was  saying that if our government keeps borrowing as it is, disaster is inevitable. Disaster means deep austerity and slow growth, which translates to a lower standard of living for everyone. If he is right, his message is urgent., His style or haircut, not so much.

Thus media analysis even though correct on every point may still, by its choice of the terms of reference, end up trivializing everything. And in the process, the citizenry become merely members of a vast audience.


Language and Thought Control

January 18th, 2011 7:42 pm

Free the Dictionary

CNN is now apologizing for the use of the word “crosshairs” in general political speech, as shown in the video after the “Read More” jump. The implication is that the word itself has been used to facilitate a hate crime. That is untrue, as former New York City Mayor Ed Koch observes. But maybe the belief is that if a lie is repeated for long enough then it eventually becomes true. Then power follows. “Real power is the ability to define what the fight is about.” The entire discussion moves into a rigged casino. Control words and you control truth. George Orwell understood this so well that he believed one of the first things every totalitarian ideology does is redefine the words in a language, purposefully, forcefully and relentlessly. In his novel 1984, he called this artificial language of totalitarianism Newspeak.


Thomas Szass pointed out that "In nature, it is kill or be killed; in culture it is define or be defined." An important point to remember when entering the lists of our culture wars...

What Rough Beast?

The news is gloomy.  Our national debt is greater than we think. Our populations are regressing to fatalism and dependency . Some of us have lost those exceptional qualities and virtues that made America such a success.  But now we are in decline. We are losing our will to play a leading part in the world. Unemployment and a distorted market seem to be our fate.

The decline will mean a weakened dollar, higher taxes, less innovation, but more social welfare programs. The free and independent citizen morphs into a cllient of the state. Housing, food, education, healthcare, elder care--all the needs once nurtured by the family are to be managed by the state. And as our domestic need grows ever, our ability to spend abroad declines and with that our influence in the world.  Mark Stein points to the cases of England and France.  Each was the center of an empire and defined civilization, yet within eighty to a hundred years each was an empty shell living off its former strength--and, not incidentally, each protected in its decline by the Americans.

Now it is America's turn to decline, some say. Even the President of the United States thinks American exceptionalism is mostly myth.  We are all the same, under the skin.It's time for us to get off our high horses and join the community of nations. Such thinking, say the doomsters, is itself a sign of the decline.

But what follows if the doomsday scenario comes to pass?  Will the new world order post-
America preserve anything of what made America exceptional? Or will that exceptionalism prove ephemeral or even illusory, as some seem to believe?  Will we end up like Athens and Rome--glorious for a time but utterly vanished (except for cultural influenes) and in utter ruin?

You don't know, Jack

Ambrose Bierce, I think, said that “It ain’t what ya don’t know that gets ya into trouble. It’s what you know that ain’t so.” That is one way to look at epistemology. What do I know that ain’t so? Do my beliefs about the world or reality actually match it? Reality! The physis sought so ardently in Greece and Asia Minor by the Pre-Socratics exists. Things are. Reality Is. And my mind tries to grasp it. But does it succeed? Being human, I do not know reality as a god would know it. And yet, as a human, I have a mind that animals lack, and I can grasp something beyond the mere sensations of the body.

But if my beliefs about reality are false, is it possible to arrive at true beliefs about reality? Can I find the truth about things? Or, as the sophists claim, is there really nothing but opinion? If so, I should give up the philosophic search for truth and instead search for influence, as the sophists argue. I should learn how to use words to influence people. Learn from the sophists, for a steep fee, how to make “the weaker case seem the stronger and the stronger case seem the weaker.” Learn to manipulate the jury, the public, the democracy. Instead of the open search for truth through rational discussion and argument as Socrates taught it, I should learn to make arguments fit my personal preferences and interests. But I will not be dishonest if I am searching for reality, which, after all, may be knowable.

Then again, are intangibles like justice, wisdom, beauty and goodness also knowable? That is, besides knowing a good horse or a good chariot or a good anything else, can I come to know goodness itself? (This is the problem of the one and the many, the many a good thing versus goodness itself.)

It gets so abstract, so quickly. But the basic point is Bierce’s. There are people who know what God wants and how the world should and will be organized. The know what sort of killing is permitted. They know that they will win. And if you ask them how they can be so sure, they will tell you that they read it in a holy book that does not lie. If they were students of epistemology, if they listened carefully to Descartes and Hume and Locke and that strange bird Bishop George Berkeley they might not be so sure that what they know is actually so. At least, that is the main practical value I see in the study of epistemology.

I wasn’t really kidding when I wrote in an email today that the more I teach this course, the less I know...

Strange bedfellows

After nominating Sonia Sotomayer to the Supreme Court last year, President Obama has followed up by nominating Elena Kagan, former Dean of the Harvard Law School and a former Soliciter General of the United States. Unlike Sotomayer, who was a career jurist, Kagan has worked mostly in academia and as an administrative lawyer. The press is pointing out that she has a limited judicial "paper trail" of published decisions by which to judge her political views. But it is a safe bet that she is a woman of the Left and not of the Center or Right.

A personal irony is that she served as counsel for Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Anita Hill's explosive testimony nearly derailed his nomination many years ago. If Kagan goes to the High Court, Justice Thomas will be welcoming as a colleague a former adversary. He has written eloquently about the collegiality of the Supreme Court, so he will no doubt strive mightily to rise to the occasion.

It may not be difficult. Carol Platt Liebeau, a conservative talk show host, reports that Elena Kagan is highly regarded by conservatives as well as by the liberals who dominate in her milieu. In fact, Dean Kagan is credited with making sure that the Harvard Law Faculty included some distinguished conservative scholars, to the dismay of some of the more partisan liberal faculty there. And she is credited with approaching problems in an open-minded and non-ideological way.

President Obama was no doubt looking for a reliably liberal vote on the Court. He has probably gotten that, but he has also given us a person of apparent decency and integrity whose friends and admirers include those who do not necessarily agree with her on all issues.


Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnanimity

Does Aristotle's concept of magnanimity apply to nations as well as to persons? How can you tell when someone displays this virtue? Can you think of any cases where you saw this virtue? What would happen at either extreme of this virtue? That is, can you think of someone with too little? Or too much?

To a foreign policy hawk, President Obama might appear pusillanimous in bowing to foreign heads of state (American presidents do not bow to other humans.) Or in refusing to condemn Iran's brutal suppression of protests over rigged elections. To such a hawk, the President is magnanimous to a fault.

Thoughts on Rauhut, Chapter One

Thoughts on Chapter One if Nils Ch. Rauhut's Ultimate Questions.

This is a chapter about human faculties (reason, observation, imagination) and human institutions (mythologies, religions, science, and philosophy). So it is pretty abstract and conceptual.

Professor Rauhut, in order to explain what philosophy is, must make a clear definition, or boundary marker, around mythology, religion, science, and philosophy. His schema seems to be:

Myths are just fantasy.
Religion is myths with revelation claims.
Science is reasoning about empirical data.
Philosophy is reasoning about non empirical matters.

But I am not sure it can be done precisely. For example, both mythology and religion must involve the use of reason. I think what Rauhut means by reason is reason as applied to data from the senses, not that mythology and religion are devoid of reason.

The boundary between philosophy and religion is easy to state: philosophy eschews revelation. Philosophy is skeptical and demands reasons based on empirical data. In this way it is like science and not like religion. So how to separate science and philosophy?

Philosophy, in his telling, deals with fundamental questions that cannot be resolved by empirical means. Philosophy turns out to be high level conceptual analysis. Philosophers help us think about things by making us answer questions about the terms or concepts we are using in our thinking.

Philosophy in this sense is a far cray from a settled "philosophy of life." It is a questioning, approach that goes back to Socrates, as we know. He was executed for it. Philosophy can be dangerous, too, in unsettling our unexamined assumptions about life and truth.

Alexander Pope (1688 - 1744) (he of our pastoral bliss poem) in An Essay on Criticism, 1709: gave excellent advice to those who would climb Mt. Parnassus to drink the inspiring waters:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.