Saturday, January 26, 2013

I sleep a lot


I sleep a lot and read St. Thomas Aquinas
Or The Death of God (that's a Protestant book).
To the right the bay as if molten tin,
Beyond the bay, city, beyond the city, ocean,
Beyond the ocean, ocean, till Japan.
To the left dry hills with white grass,
Beyond the hills an irrigated valley where rice is grown,
Beyond the valley, mountains and Ponderosa pines,
Beyond the mountains, desert and sheep.

When I couldn't do without alcohol, I drove myself on alcohol,
When I couldn't do without cigarettes and coffee, I drove myself
On cigarettes and coffee.
I was courageous. Industrious. Nearly a model of virtue.
But that is good for nothing.

I feel a pain.
not here. Even I don't know.
many islands and continents,
words, bazaars, wooden flutes,
Or too much drinking to the mirror, without beauty,
Though one was to be a kind of archangel
Or a Saint George, over there, on St. George Street.
Please, Doctor,
Not here. No,
Maybe it's too
Unpronounced

Please, Medicine Man, I feel a pain.
I always believed in spells and incantations.
Sure, women have only one, Catholic, soul,
But we have two. When you start to dance
You visit remote pueblos in your sleep
And even lands you have never seen.
Put on, I beg you, charms made of feathers,
Now it's time to help one of your own.
I have read many books but I don't believe them.
When it hurts we return to the banks of certain rivers.

I remember those crosses with chiseled suns and moons
And wizards, how they worked during an outbreak of typhus.
Send your second soul beyond the mountains, beyond time.
Tell me what you saw, I will wait.

—Czesław Miłosz

Thursday, January 10, 2013

State of the Thesis

For my own purposes, an update on my current work on my master's thesis.

Right now, I'm trying to come to terms with Foucault.  I spent a good chunk of Christmas break working through his History of Madness, and I made it up to the end of Part II.  Unfortunately the material most relevant to my thesis is in Part III, and while I have read the most significant portions of Part III before, it would be nice to have the whole thing under my belt.

Meanwhile, time is an increasing concern.  Classes have started and I'm anxious to start writing.  Since the material on madness will come into play at the end of the thesis, I'm going to leave behind the History of Madness for the moment and go into the material on genealogy, archaeology and truth.  My original intention was to focus for this material on The Archaeology of Knowledge, and explain the function of the archaeological project and its endpoint (via History of Sexuality vol. 1) as a tool for genealogy.  However, a quick reading of part of the Dreyfus/Rabinow book on Foucault made me change my mind on this.  A lot of people talk about the genealogical turn in Foucault during the period which led up to Discipline and Punish, and I didn't want to get lost in these controversies or the subtleties which they have no doubt caused to develop.  Instead of sticking to Archaeology and assuming that I would be able to draw the right connections between it and the late works, especially on the moral/ontological level where power comes into play, I decided to start with some smaller pieces more immediately relevant to the question of the genesis and organization of systems of thought.  A few texts came up as useful here.  By accident I ended up reading the interview on "Truth and Power", the final section of which is extremely useful as an explanation for the thoughts underlying the genealogical project after the publication of Discipline and Punish.  Then, more obviously, I knew that I needed to reread "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History".  Third, it seemed worthwhile to go back to The Order of Things, and look at his final chapters on the Man and the emergence of the Human Sciences.  After these I would work through the text of the Archaeology, which would probably prove more useful and a faster read in light of the work done in The Order of Things.

There is something discouragingly vast about settling in on the study of a single author.  Foucault's output is reasonably large and pretty accessible.  Reading through his interviews and articles, one gets a sense of the flexibility and vitality of his thought as it develops.  Though obviously not a systematician (i.e., not a developer of systems, though certainly a technician of systems), neither is he simply a writer of fragments (certainly no Barthes), and consequently it is difficult to report on what is interesting in any of Foucault's works individually, as Foucault's, without busying oneself with the entire corpus.  It's a mercy that he has those lines in the Archaeology on his own lack of continuity as "Author" behind the texts, but any respite this provides against the difficulty of finding a "Foucault" to report on is wiped away by the additional difficulties it creates when one wants to set up a conversation between this "Foucault" and someone else.

Speaking of that someone else, we have yet to deal with Aquinas.  Aquinas isn't a systematician either.  He is a theologian who writes through disputation, i.e., he has an occasional style with a sapiential ordering under-girding it.  The field of Foucault studies is burdened by political interests and questions of development, but we are close enough to the man himself that his texts are relatively unproblematic considered through the lens of contemporary academic "techniques".  They are available, the practice of analyzing them is not problematic in any extraordinary or unique way.  With Aquinas one ends up in something of a bind.  Thomists are inclined more to see St. Thomas as an oracle who will gladly return answers to their problems if only enough time is spent running the conceptual algorithms or getting their parameters just right.  Because of this Thomists tend to expend lots of energy arguing over these little parameters (textual, conceptual, developmental, exegetical), and one has to worry about getting things wrong not only for the obvious reasons of wanting to report correctly on the sense of a text or the mind of the Common Doctor, but also because of the irritation and contempt one is likely to inspire if one fails to get the analysis just right.  Anyway, I have wandered far from my topic.  The research on Aquinas is yet to be done, though it seems that the points of interest for the thesis are largely obvious: the unfolding planes of order in Thomas's ontology, the rational ascent from experience to knowledge of God, from philosophy to faith to beatitude, and the ontological ordering which underlies this: the play of similitudes, the analogy of being, and the vestiges of the Divine Essence scattered across the cosmos, which are the cosmos itself.  These relationships are rich and fascinating, but also (it seems to me) easy to work out.  However, for that I have Fr. Thomas Joseph White's book, and the man himself if I have troubles.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Aspects of Belief

We can consider our beliefs under a few different aspects. On one hand, there is the certainty with which we believe: how sure we are that our idea of something is correct. We can also think about beliefs in terms of their value, how much of a difference they make to us. Things matter more or less, and the truth about them matters correspondingly more or less. Again, we can divide up our beliefs based on the evidence through which we came to believe them: the evidence of our own senses, or that of a textbook or teacher, or the testimony of a friend.

The evidence or testimony on which we come to believe something is really independent of our certainty about it, and both are really independent of the value we place in our beliefs, though of course there are logical connections between all three. There are, no doubt, many other ways of sifting through beliefs, but evidence, certainty, and value are pretty fundamental. Since they are so important to belief, let's think about them in relation to Belief, i.e. supernatural faith.


The Evidence of Faith
When Thomas Aquinas discusses the act of faith, he talks about "believing God". This means that in faith the testimony one is accepting as the basis of one's belief is God's revelation about himself. God does not speak words to me, and I have certainly never heard him read out the words of Scripture, so how exactly is the believer believing God?

Suppose you have a friend in a distant land who wants to send you a message, but no one is willing to make the entire trip to deliver it. Instead, he finds someone traveling in your direction, tells him the message, and instructs him to go as far as he can and, when he stops, to pass on the same instructions to someone else, so that (with luck) the message will eventually reach you. Now, even if everything goes right and the message eventually arrives, there are difficulties involved. What is actually being reported to you is not simply the message of your friend, but the testimony about what that message was, mediated by the entire line of messengers, men whom you do not know and whose character and intelligence you cannot be sure of. The message may have been misunderstood or intentionally changed, and you would never know. Your only way of determining the credibility of the messenger's account is with reference to what you would expect your friend to say in a message, and this is no sure guide. In any case, the testimony available is merely that given by the messenger, and is his own, not your friend's.

The situation changes somewhat if your friend is not just a man living in a distant land, but the eternal and omnipotent God, who governs all things. Why? Logically, the providence of an omnipotent God excludes the frustration of his plans through error or malice. Which means that, as the entirety of the world and all its events are intentional expressions of God's will, whatever true proclamation about him you receive can rightly be called God revealing himself. The evidence of faith is God's self-revelation, mediated through the tradition of preachers and teachers and accompanied by the light of the Holy Spirit, though obviously this fact can only be seen in the light of faith itself. In other words, the evidence of faith is not evidence sufficient to convince those without faith. This is one of the paradoxes of faith: that it is the evidence of things unseen (Heb 11:1), that in it testimony is given visibly of things which are beyond sight.


The Certainty of Faith
Certainty is a complicated business, because it has no one root. Our certainty is based on the quality, character and clarity of the evidence on which we believe, but also on its relation to other things we believe, and on our desire to make a particular view of things work. The certainty of one belief may not be well-grounded in evidence, but may be supported by a network of desires and implications which hold together an entire worldview. A physicist may have once believed that the Higgs Boson existed, before it was observed, but he believed on the basis of a theory the explanatory power of which was sufficient to render credible something for which there was no direct evidence.

The certainty of faith is, like most important certitudes, twofold: on one side it is based on the credibility of the claims of faith in relation to all our other beliefs, in relation to our general habitual understanding of the world. This intellectual certainty can be enhanced through theological study and historical research, uncovering the strength and continuity of the tradition, the depth and profound coherence of the mysteries, their transformative power and transcendence.

On the other hand, there is a volitional certitude which underlies our faith and makes it possible in the first place. (This is the deeper and richer certitude.) Faith concerns things which lie beyond the scope of natural human reason, and our first assent to the things of faith happens because the will moves the intellect to believe. The motion of the will is inspired by grace (this is the “prevenient grace” described by the Council of Trent), which disposes us to want to accept what we have heard. Even after we have understood and accepted the gospel, though, the force which underlies and sustains our belief, which keeps it "alive" instead of just making it an irrelevant and empty assent, is a motion of the will, namely charity.


The Significance or Value of Faith
We mentioned earlier that the connections between beliefs and our interest in sustaining a coherent understanding of things make a difference for our commitment to any given belief. I am fairly certain that the square root of two is greater than 1.414, but (not having calculated it recently) I would not stake very much on this belief, nor would I fret over having to give it up if new evidence came along. Many beliefs are invested with great significance, and this happens in two ways. Sometimes beliefs are deeply significant because their loss would entail the loss of everything else significant, though in themselves they don't attest to anything particularly desirable or valuable. The law of non-contradiction is an example, as are many abstract principles. Other beliefs are significant because in themselves they attest to the nature of something we desire, something our lives are oriented toward. A man whose life was spent in a quest to walk upon the sun would be devastated when he learned that this was impossible. Beliefs matter in this way because they are what determine what matters in the first place, because they give shape to the value of everything else in our lives, not merely by implication but by direct infusion.

For the believer, faith has both sorts of significance, but primarily the latter kind. When given reign, faith transforms the mind of the believer and enriches his desire for happiness by showing him the root and end of all his desires. In faith First Truth speaks, and speaks himself, who is our ultimate desire, whose goodness is heard by echoes in all our earthly longings. In faith we find the true value of creatures and reach beyond them to eternity.

[This post was also published today at Fare Forward.]

Monday, January 7, 2013

Awkward

I'm not used to writing. I dunno. I'd quite like to write a tragedy or a sonnet or an ode, but there's the rules. THey put me off. They weren't made for amateurs. All this is already pretty badly written. O well. At any rate, I saw something today which I'd like to set down in writing. Set down in writing doesn't seem all that marvelous to me. It's probably one of those ready-made expressions which are objected to by the readers who read for the publishers who are looking for the originality which they seem to think is necessary in the manuscripts which the publishers publish when they've been read by the readers who object to ready-made expressions like "to set down in writing" which all the same is what I should like to do about something I saw today even though I'm only an amateur who is put off by the rules of the tragedy the sonnet or the ode because I'm not used to writing. Hell, I don't know how I did it but here I am right back at the beginning again. I'll never get to the end. So what. Let's take the bull by the horns. Another platitude. And anyway there was nothing of the bull about that chap. Huh, that's not bad. If I were to write: let's take the fancy-pants by the plait of his felt hat which hat is conjugated with long neck, that might well be original. THat might get me in with the gentlemen of the French Academy, the Café Flore and the Librairie Gallimard. Why shouldn't I make some progress, after all. It's by writing that you become a writesmith. That's a good one. Have to keep a sense of proportion, though. The chap on the bus platform had lost his when he started to swear at the man next to him claiming that the latter trod on his toes every time he squeezed himself up to let passengers get on or off. All the more so as after he'd protested in this fashion he went off quickly enough to sit down as soon as he'd spotted a free seat inside as if he was afraid of getting hit. Hm, I've got through half my story already. Wonder how I did it. Writing's really quite pleasant. But there's still the most difficult part left. The part where you need the most know-how. The transition. All the more so as there isn't any transition. I'd rather stop here.

— quoted from Barbara Wright's translation of Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Some thoughts on fundamentals.


1. The Kantian critique of metaphysics is overzealous in its skepticism and consequently loses the world. But isn't the basic question of Kant's deduction of the categories a good one? He asks: what are the fundamental categories of metaphysics, what is their intellectual genealogy, and what are their rights? His approach is very clever and commensurate with his "copernican revolution", but the excessive investment in a priori mental structures renders it less interesting. One can easily destroy Kant's solutions (at least in their particulars) by pushing at the Table of Categories. Why these twelve and not others? But even supposing we were to abandon Kant's categorical framework, the fundamental problem seems to stick: certain concepts are deduced in the process of doing metaphysics, because the things they name are necessary for us to be capable of talking about or conceiving of being at all. So, in the order of discovery, essence or what-ness occurs relatively early on (for Aristotle anyway). But we speak of essences because they solve a particular problem. The question, then, is whether once we have got them, we don't abuse essences and tacitly make them significantly more than was warranted at their point of origin. The quid juris tends to be left unasked, as we move beyond primitive questions into advanced problems. This is dangerous, especially in the context of dogmatics.

2. There are two modes of philosophical analysis: one attempts to discern among several kinds of questioning which has has as its object the primary determinant of truth/being, the other attempts to work out conceptual puzzles within an existing intellectual edifice. Philosophers who think only the former kind of activity counts as philosophy, will tend to see a massive gap in the history of philosophy between the stoics and the moderns. Obviously they're wrong, because the work of the medievals, and especially the scholastics, is philosophically very rich and powerful. However, there is something correct about the prioritization of that first style of philosophy over the second, and we can see it in any attempt at conversation between certain scholastic and modern/post-modern philosophers. A dialogue between Aquinas and Kant would be unproductive, not simply because of their disagreement on most issues of fundamental importance, but primarily because the order of questioning differs so much between the two. For Kant, the fundamental task of the philosopher is to find out what can be known and uncover the architectonics of possible knowledge. For Aquinas, the fundamental task of the philosopher is to grasp the most abstract kernel at the heart of all things and to know what it is to be. People often overemphasize the "turn to the subject" that divides modern philosophy from its antecedents, but the best modern philosophers are always ready to reexamine the bases of knowledge and the orientation of philosophy (modern philosophy as determined by the anxiety of influence), where medievals generally are not.  This makes conversation with medievals more difficult in some ways than conversation with moderns, but this distinction may not be defensible at all.