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Showing posts from December, 2013

Bertrand Russell: Human Knowledge

Looking into and around the passage discussed with reader Henry in the comments section of this blog Dec. 20th. 

On the page preceding that quote, Russell had written:

"[W]e have to choose between two alternatives. Either we must accept skeptical solipsism in its most rigorous form, or we must admit that we know, independently of experience, some principle or principles by means of which it is possible to infer events from other events, at least with probability. If we adopt the first alternative we must reject far more than solipsism is ordinarily thought to reject; we cannot know of the existence of our own past or future, or have any ground for expectations as to our own future, if it occurs. If we adopt the second alternative, we must partially reject empiricism; we must admit that we have knowledge as to certain general features of the course of nature [that] cannot be logically inferred from experience."

Worth mulling over.

I submit that we can keep empiricism. Yes…

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…

"How Keynesian Was Keynes?"

I'm reading through a book by Hunter Lewis, co-founder of Cambridge Associates and the Mises Institute.

The book is WHERE KEYNES WENT WRONG (2009).

I'm mentioning it today because of the material in the chapter "How Keynesian was Keynes?," which I found intriguing.  About much of the material in the rest of the book, I'm long since jaded, but some of this was new to me.

In 1948, writing in the American Economic Review, John H. Williams said he had had a conversation with Keynes (the famous economist had died between that conversation and this article).  

Keynes allegedly told Williams "that the easy monetary policy was being pushed too far, both in England and here [the US], and emphasized interest as an element of income, and its basic importance in the structure and functioning of private capitalism. He was amused by my remark that it was time to write another book because the all-out easy money policy was being preached in his name, and replied that he …

Longfellow, on the Bells of Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

From John Milton's Nativity Ode

I'll have nothing to say in this blog over the next couple of days. So this will be our last pre-Christmas post. On Christmas Day itself I'll post the lyrics of a favorite Christmas carol, largely because that's easy to do and I'm holiday-lazy.

See you then!

The following is a fine statement by John Milton of the eschatological hope bound up with Christianity, and for that matter with the Jewish messianic tradition. enjoy.

Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold,
And spekl'd vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous sin will melt from earthly mould,
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

Yea Truth, and Justice then
Will down return to men,
Th'enamelled Arras of the Rainbow wearing,
And Mercy set between,
Thron'd in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering,
And Heav'n as at some festival,
Will open wide the Gates of her high Palace Hall.

John Milton, Nativity Ode (162…

Judge Rakoff's Essay on Finance and Criminal Fraud

The Hon. Jed. S. Rakoff, a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, has written a fascinating essay for the New York Review of Books entitled "The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?"

The title explains the theme well enough.

I'll just quote one bit of what he says. He observes that the Dept. of Justice has argued that it couldn't secure convictions in many cases of apparent fraud by top bank officials because it is difficult to prove the officials knew what their underlings were doing.

This inspires Rakoff to cite a recent statement of the doctrine of "willful blindness."

"Many criminal statutes require proof that a defendant acted knowingly or willfully, and courts applying the doctrine of willful blindness hold that defendants cannot escape the reach of these statutes by deliberately shielding themselves from clear evidence of critical facts that are strongly suggested by the circumst…

Three further points on Descartes

In yesterday's entry I discussed the idea of substance in early-modern European philosophy, with especial emphasis on Descartes.

I made no criticisms of the views under discussion: simply presented the connections of ideas as I understood and understand them.

Today, I'll make four quick critical observations:

1)  The search for what counts as a "substance" seems misguided. Remember, Aristotle used the word roughly as we would use the word "thing." There is no real call for anguished meditation on what counts as a "thing." It depends upon the context in which one uses the word. Indeed, the vagueness of the word adds to, rather than detracts from, its value within a natural language.

2) As everyone knows, Descartes' first solid premise was "I think" and his first inference from that was "I exist." This seems to presume a certain notion of a thinking substance, and to call it "I." If we're going to pursue meth…

What is a substance?

I'm offering a free history-of-philosophy lesson today.

One of the key questions of the early modern era in the western metaphysical tradition was: what is substance?

The word "substance" literally means "standing under." Think of it, in the simplest sense, as a thing about which other things are said, the subject of a sentence rather than the predicate or object. Thus, we say "the ball is red." We don't typically say, "redness includes the surface of this ball." The ball is the subject of the sentence because we think of IT as the substance, and various properties or relations attach to it.

But early modern philosophy involved a search for what is a true substance, the suspicion that the ordinary language idea of a subject (I just evoked) is not enough.

In Descartes' view, there are only three real substances in the world. There is God, there is matter, and there is mind. Each of these is defined by one attribute. God is define…

An Argument for the (Probable) Existence of God

During the course of my last exchange with reader Henry on the Jamesian "will to believe" and related notions, I admitted that I had not done justice to the argument James is making in the final pages of VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, and I promised to try again on another day. So this may as well be the day.

The material I have in mind begins in a minor key, in the middle of a chapter (Lecture XIX) unpretentiously titled "Other Characteristics." James had promised to treat of manifestations of religions his previous 18 lectures had neglected, and he had begun with its aesthetics, moving on to the practice and experience of prayer. Then he says, "The last aspect of religious life which remains for me to touch upon is the fact that its manifestations so frequently connect themselves with the subconscious part of our existence."

He means by "the subconscious part" what we in the early 21st century more often call the "subliminal," t…

Ludendorff's one romantic gesture

Erich Ludendorff was an important German military figure throughout the first world war. He was a major general when it began, and was immediately made Deputy Chief of Staff to the German Second Army under General Karl von Bulow. In August 1916 he was promoted to Quartermaster General.

     I'm boring you with this because I've found a nice brief description of Ludendorff's pre-war life in Max Hastings' new book, CATASTROPHE 1914.

 "A man of chilly rationality though highly nervous temperament, in 1904 he indulged the sole romantic gesture of his life by falling in love with a married mother of four children, Frau Margarethe Pernet. They met in the street in a rainstorm, when he gallantly offered her the shelter of his umbrella. She divorced her husband, married Ludendorff, and the two achieved a notably successful partnership."

Ukraine as a rope over a mud puddle

On December 4, 2013, the Russian gas company Gazprom agreed to a delay proposed by the Ukrainian gas company, Nagtogaz, in the repayment of certain debt.

This was a small development within a sensitive context. The relationship between these two companies, and by extension between their respective governments, is critical to the energy security of central and western Europe.

Indeed, in 2009 Gazprom was less flexible. That year, also a time when winter was coming on and it was faced with an outstanding debt, it cut supplies to the Ukraine for three weeks.

This was an is not a bilateral matter. Most of that gas continues its way westward through the Ukraine. The European Union gets one-fifth of its nat gas supplies through that route.

But this year there is a complicating factor. The tug-of-war for Ukraine's affiliation between the Eurozone to one side and Russia to the other has become more intense: has, in fact, taken to the streets.

Quote for the day

"Mathematics is often defined as the science of space and number ... it was not until the recent resonance of computers and mathematics that a more apt definition became fully evident: mathematics is the science of patterns."

- Lynn Arthur Steen

United States v. Seeger

I read the decision in US v. Seeger recently. It was one of those Vietnam era draft-objector cases.

It's worth reading and even re-reading, not only for historical interest, but because the Justices gave the impression of a genuine grappling with difficult theological terrain.

The Selective Service Act in effect at the time carved out an exemption for those who conscientiously opposed war out of their "religious training and belief" and it defined "religious" in a way that seemed to entail belief in a Supreme Being. Seeger (1965) marked the emergence of a broader notion of a conscientious objector, one going beyond the usual denominational suspects.

One of the draft resisters involved in this case had explained to his draft board that he believed there was "some power manifest in nature" which he was obeying by refusing to go to war. They could if they wanted "call that a belief in the Supreme…

Christopher Beha on Norman Mailer

The December issue of HARPER'S carries a review essay by Beha on the career of Norman Mailer.

This is in form a review of a recent biography, in conjunction with a release of certain posthumous writings. But Beha barely mentions either of the volumes supposedly under review. He simply writes his own essay on the like of Mailer.

Beha writes about Mailer in much the same manner that Mailer wrote about many non-fiction subjects, as for example in The Armies of the Night. Beha refers to himself as YW (for Young Writer) and speaks of YW's impressions of Mailer in the third person.

He  quotes Mailer thus, from a 1959 essay, "[W]hy then did it come as a surprise that people in publishing [in the years leading up to that one] were not as good as they used to be, and that the day of Maxwell Perkins was a day which was gone, really gone, gone as Greta Garbo and Scott Fitzgerald? Not easy, one could argue, for an advertising man to admit that advertising is a dishonest occupation…

Detroit's Bankruptcy: Demos' Reading

Detroit filed for bankruptcy in July 2013. On December 3, a U.S. bankruptcy court ruled against parties who had challenged its eligibility for  chapter 9 protection.
Since Detroit is the most populous city in the state of Michigan and is the center of a metropolitan region of 5.2 million, this event has attracted a lot of attention, inspiring different ‘takes,’ involving in each case a distinct ideological or psychological prism. For example, Detroit has long been the center of the American automobile industry, so much so that the word “Detroit” is used as a metonym for that industry, and that has inspired some commentators who have seen the failure of municipal finances as of a piece with the failure of that industry in the face of innovative overseas competitors and changing public tastes.
This was the take for example, of Mohamed El-Erian, the CEO of PIMCO. This take is also broadly consistent with a mantra of Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, who keeps saying that the city is…

"Medicare for All" -- or Not.

If Obamacare fails, one sure political consequence is a revival of pressures for something more sweeping, for a single-payer program. Nowadays advocates of such a program in the US call it "Medicare for all."

One of the points they make draws on the supposed efficiency of Medicare. Overhead costs are only 2%. Private insurance plans have overhead at 20% of spending. So the former must represent a better way of doing things than the latter ... right?

Holman Jenkins made several valuable points about this in a recent WSJ column, among them these:

First, the 2% figure is a dubious one to begin with, since Medicare's overhead costs are in fact picked up by other parts of the Federal government. Much of a private insurer's "overhead," for example, is bill collection. That portion of "overhead" for Medicare corresponds to tax enforcement so it is picked up by the IRS. The 20%, then, contains items the 2% doesn't. [Also, HHS' budget includes ma…

Rehashing Objectivism

Arthur Herman has written a lengthy book, The Cave and the Light, about the history of western civilization, based upon the idea that ... well, I will let his subtitle do the work of summary: "Plato versus Aristotle, and the struggle for the Soul of Western civilization."

I've skimmed the book -- it really isn't worthwhile reading this sort of thing -- and I can report that it is a tedious rehash of the mashing-up of the history of philosophy accomplished by Ayn Rand and her followers in the 1960s.  Rand read somebody else's summaries of major philosophers and persuaded herself that she was an expert.

I'll give credit where it is due, Herman's title, The Cave and the Light, does capture succinctly one aspect of Platonic philosophy. Yes, inside the cave of the natural world there is (in Plato's famous image) only the false flickering light of candles, and by that artificial light we see only shadows on stone. Our goal should be to get to the real lig…