Friday, October 24, 2014

Usable Premise Norm of Assertion

There are a number of accounts of the speech act of assertion that take it to be necessarily tied to knowledge. It's widely held that in asserting something you represent yourself as knowing it. There are a number of reasons why you might think this. For instance, if I assert something, it will often be perfectly reasonable to ask, "How do you know that?" There are also Moorean paradoxes, like saying, "The sky is blue but I don't know that the sky is blue," which are perplexing on their face.

Williamson more recently takes a strong version of this, the Knowledge Norm of Assertion, which holds that one ought to assert something only if one knows it. (This is stronger because you could hold that there are cases in which one can represent yourself as knowing when nobody would think you actually know it.) Williamson links this to authority: to assert is to give on your authority and this, he thinks, requires knowledge. Another reason one might hold the position is related to lottery paradoxes: if I have a lottery ticket with an immensely low probability of winning, we would still perhaps think it odd if we went around asserting that it was a loser before it was actually determined to be.

I doubt both the weaker and stronger forms. If I assert something, and someone asks, "How do you know that?", it is often entirely reasonable to respond, "I don't, but it does make sense, don't you think?" Moore's Paradox and lottery paradoxes seem to me to be more about implicature than assertion. And while authority is one element in our evaluation of whether to accept other people's assertions, I am unconvinced that it is usually involved in the actual asserting; nor does it seem to be such an integrally important element that we must consider it, since we seem to have situations in which authority really doesn't matter much.

Other norms have been suggested. For instance, most Knowledge Norm people have argued against the Truth Norm, that we ought to assert something only if it is true. I confess that I find the Truth Norm of Assertion to be even less plausible than the Knowledge Norm. There are also different versions of what might be called a Reasonable Belief Norm, that we ought to assert something only if it is reasonable to accept or believe, for some particular account of what it is to be reasonable. I think all three, Knowledge, Truth, and Reasonable Belief, fail to take into account the sheer variety of assertions, ranging from assertions-from-a-point-of-view (as in Hume's four essays on happiness) to jokes to lies to complicated explanations to best estimates. (It is perhaps also worth noting that since we can apparently make highly figurative assertions, Knowledge and Truth Norms both require that figurative and heavily metaphorical assertions can be true. This isn't an issue for me, since I think it is obvious that metaphorical and figurative claims can be true, but there are quite a few people who don't think that they can. This is one of the reasons why one can't handle this kind of question only by looking at a narrow range of examples, but must follow through the implications of one's suggestion all the way across the board to discover its more marginal implications.)

I think a possible problem is that all these norms make assertion itself intrinsically an assignment of modalities -- Knowledge, Truth, or Belief, usually. But if I assert P, I don't think I'm saying that I hold P with such-and-such modality, where that modality is the same everywhere.

I don't really have a rigorous alternative, but I think one candidate more promising than these is what might be called a Usable Premise Norm of Assertion. This idea is that one ought to assert things that can function as premises in reasoning. After all, logically speaking, assertion does not have the function of showing knowledge, reasonableness, or even truth. What it does have the function of doing is indicating that something can function as a premise for reasoning. Thus I think one could at least plausibly say that the appropriate norm for assertion, the appropriate rule, is that one should assert things that are appropriate for being premises in reasoning. This is different from the Knowledge Norm, since premises don't necessarily need to be known, and from the Truth Norm, since premises only need to be such that they can be posited as true in order to see what follows from them, and it is different from any of the Reasonable Belief Norms, since you don't have to believe or accept the premise for it to be useful as a premise.

In particular cases, of course, it may be the reason that something is acceptable as a premise is that one knows it, or believes it, or that it is true. And I think there are fairly obviously particular cases in which the requirements on premises are heightened for various reasons, so that in those circumstances the only acceptable premises will be those that meet a norm of knowledge or reasonable belief, or what have you. But these all seem to be a matter of additional norms arising in particular cases that affects what premises are usable, not of assertion as such.

Of course, the obvious objection that comes to mind is that this might be too weak in several ways. And that's possible, although we do have to take additional circumstance-relative norms into account before we can really say whether the objection has any bite. I also haven't considered all the other variations of all the other norms of assertion that have been proposed. But I think it has the advantages of both staying true to the reason why we have a concept of assertion at all (since it only has general importance because of its logical role) and to the sheer variety of ways in which we assert things.

Living in Interesting Times

Today (yesterday on traditional calendars) is the feast of St. Antoni Maria Claret i Clarà, or Anthony Mary Claret. I don't really have much to say about him, but it's perhaps worth noting that when he died at the age of 63, he had survived at least fifteen assassination attempts.

So perhaps we can file this under 'Yet More Reasons to Appreciate How Easy Most of Us Have It'.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

With Careless Ease from Tree to Tree

by Thomas Parnell

My days have been so wondrous free,
The little birds that fly
With careless ease from tree to tree,
Were but as bless'd as I.

Ask gliding waters, if a tear
Of mine increased their stream?
Or ask the flying gales, if e'er
I lent one sigh to them?

But now my former days retire,
And I'm by beauty caught,
The tender chains of sweet desire
Are fix'd upon my thought.

Ye nightingales! ye twisting pines!
Ye swains that haunt the grove!
Ye gentle echoes! breezy winds!
Ye close retreats of lore!

With all of Nature, all of Art,
Assist the dear design;
Oh teach a young, unpractised heart
To make my Nancy mine.

The very thought of change I hate,
As much as of despair;
Nor ever covet to be great,
Unless it be for her.

'Tis true, the passion in my mind
Is mix'd with soft distress;
Yet while the fair I love is kind,
I cannot wish it less.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Fourfold Revelation

Now this fourfold divine revelation, embracing the two external branches of Scripture and of nature, and the two inner ones of conscience and devotion, has its seat in the four faculties of the lower order which have so repeatedly been brought before our consideration. For the memory is the organ of its written and oral transmission and perpetuation —nay, of writing and language generally, according to the intimate connection which subsists between them. And in the next place, the external senses, with which we may also associate an immediate intuition into the depths and mysteries of nature, are the organs for perceiving and understanding the sensible phenomena. Lastly, there is conscience, and, on the other side, a longing after God and divine things, as the highest and most enhanced degree of human pursuit—of the profoundest aspiration of man's soul, and the purest desire of his spirit.

Friedrich von Schlegel, Philosophy of Language, p. 504.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Emperor Karl

The 21st of October is the memorial for Blessed Charles I of Austria. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, he became the presumptive heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to which he succeeded in November 1916, in the midst of World War I. He began almost immediately to try to negotiate a peace settlement. Under pressure from Woodrow Wilson, who had put forward his Fourteen Points as the basis for a peace, Charles issued a decree turning his Empire into a confederation. Disputes among the different ethnic nations now given partial self-governance began to pull the Empire apart. They began to declare independence. With even Hungary severing union, and a challenge looming within Austria itself, Charles in November 1918 'relinquished participation' in all government matters. He very definitely did not abdicate, since he hoped that a change of winds in either Austria or Hungary might recall him to the throne, and he considered himself the rightful Emperor to his death -- but he gave up all political power. He attempted in 1921 to reclaim the throne of Hungary, but failed completely, and lived in relative poverty until his death in 1922 on the island of Madeira.

He has generally been regarded as a very weak emperor; but he has also been lauded for his sincere devotion to peace and common good.

Charles I of Austria

From Pope John Paul II's beatification homily:

The decisive task of Christians consists in seeking, recognizing and following God's will in all things. The Christian statesman, Charles of Austria, confronted this challenge every day. To his eyes, war appeared as "something appalling". Amid the tumult of the First World War, he strove to promote the peace initiative of my Predecessor, Benedict XV.

From the beginning, the Emperor Charles conceived of his office as a holy service to his people. His chief concern was to follow the Christian vocation to holiness also in his political actions. For this reason, his thoughts turned to social assistance. May he be an example for all of us, especially for those who have political responsibilities in Europe today!

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Aftermath of Arginusae

If we only considered the battle itself, we might well consider the Battle of Arginusae in 406 BC to be a shining victory by Athens at a crucial moment in the Peloponnesian War. The Spartans had blockaded the main Athenian fleet at Mytilene. In order to rescue it, the Athenians had to throw together a fleet out of ships barely out of the shipyards, manned mostly by people with only limited naval experience. To make sure that they could man the ships, the Athenians even granted citizenship to thousands of slaves who were willing to sign on as rowers. Rather than put the relief fleet under a single general, eight generals -- Aristocrates, Aristogenes, Diomedon, Erasinides, Lysias, Pericles the Younger, Protomachus, and Thrasyllus -- were put in charge of it. They met the Spartan fleet under Callicratidas at dawn. The Spartan fleet was not quite as large as the Athenian fleet, but it was a more experienced one. However, the Athenians threw surprise after surprise against the Spartans. Each general took one-eighth of the fleet, which then functioned as an autonomous unit, responding dynamically to immediate local problems, but the fleet as a whole nonetheless worked together to achieve the major objectives. They used their slight advantage in numbers to outflank the Spartan fleet. The Spartans fought fiercely, but Callicratidas was killed in the course of the battle, and the Spartans fled, having lost almost three times as many ships as the Athenians. It was a great victory, if one only considers the battle itself.

However, as the Spartans took flight, the generals were faced with a difficult decision: Should they proceed immediately to destroy the remaining ships in the blockade of Mytilene, or should they stop and rescue the very many Athenians who were now at sea, their ships having been destroyed. They decided that the eight generals would proceed to Mytilene, leaving behind the trierarchs Thrasybulus and Theramenes to rescue the survivors. But a great storm came up, and both plans failed. When news of the failure to rescue the drowning sailors came to Athens, it touched off a political maelstrom. The Athenian Assembly began to rumble. By this point Thrasybulus and Theramenes had returned to Athens, and the generals assumed that they were the ones stirring up trouble, so they wrote the Assembly, blaming the two trierarchs and denouncing them. Thrasybulus and Theramenes were able to convince a significant number of people that this charge was unjust, however, so the anger of Athens turned toward the generals, who were deposed by the Assembly and recalled to Athens to stand trial. Two of the generals, Aristogenes and Protomachus, fled, but the rest, not understanding just how furious the citizens of Athens were, returned to the city.

At first the generals looked like they might have a chance. There was initial sympathy to the idea that the unexpected storm was entirely the problem. However, it just so happened that the festival of Apaturia, a very family-focused festival, came up, and the opponents of the generals were able to stir up the anguish of those who had lost loved ones. When next the Assembly met, Callixeinus proposed a motion in the Assembly to decide the guilt or innocence of the generals by straight vote, without trial. It was opposed by Euryptolemus, a cousin of Alcibiades, on the grounds that it was illegal. It was a brave thing to do, and led to a crisis within the Assembly itself. As Xenophon says in his Hellenica (1.7.12-15):

And some of the people applauded this act, but the greater number cried out that it was monstrous if the people were to be prevented from doing whatever they wished. Indeed, when Lyciscus thereupon moved that these men also should be judged by the very same vote as the generals, unless they withdrew the summons, the mob broke out again with shouts of approval, and they were compelled to withdraw the summonses. Furthermore, when some of the Prytanes refused to put the question to the vote in violation of the law, Callixeinus again mounted the platform and urged the same charge against them; and the crowd cried out to summon to court those who refused. Then the Prytanes, stricken with fear, agreed to put the question,—all of them except Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus; and he said that in no case would he act except in accordance with the law.

The Prytanes were the people chosen by lottery to preside over the procedures of the Assembly, and it just so happened that on that day, of all days, the philosopher Socrates was chosen by lot to be one of them. As Xenopho, says, he refused to put it to the vote, even in the face of a furious Assembly. Socrates' refusal gave Euryptolemus some room to maneuver, and he stood up and gave the best speech of his life, arguing passionately for a different resolution, in which each general would be tried separately. It was passed. Then one of Callixeinus' allies put in a formal objection as to the legality of Euryptolemus's resolution and a second vote was taken, this time defeating it. The Athenian Assembly declared the generals guilty and condemned them to death.

After some time, a number of Athenians regretted the decision of the Assembly, so they started bringing to trial those who had argued in favor of the summary judgment on the generals. Callixeinus and his allies fled.

Arginusae, unsurprisingly, plays a fairly important role in Socratic dialogues. Plato himself uses it at least twice as an example of how Socrates stood for justice regardless of popular opinion. It is found in the Apology, where Socrates gives it as an example showing his willingness to put justice over his own life:

And listen to what happened to me, that you may be convinced that I would never yield to any one, if that was wrong, through fear of death, but would die rather than yield. The tale I am going to tell you is ordinary and commonplace, but true. I, men of Athens, never held any other office in the state, but I was a senator; and it happened that my tribe held the presidency when you wished to judge collectively, not severally, the ten generals who had failed to gather up the slain after the naval battle; this was illegal, as you all agreed afterwards. At that time I was the only one of the prytanes who opposed doing anything contrary to the laws, and although the orators were ready to impeach and arrest me, and though you urged them with shouts to do so, I thought I must run the risk to the end with law and justice on my side, rather than join with you when your wishes were unjust, through fear of imprisonment or death. (32a-c)

We find it again mentioned in the Gorgias. While he is arguing with Polus, Polus says that Socrates will see that he is refuted if he will just ask the other people present whether they agree with what he says. Socrates replies that he's not the kind to curry public opinion:

Polus, I am not one of your statesmen: indeed, last year, when I was elected a member of the Council, and, as my tribe held the Presidency, I had to put a question to the vote, I got laughed at for not understanding the procedure. So do not call upon me again to take the votes of the company now; but if, as I said this moment, you have no better disproof than those, hand the work over to me in my turn, and try the sort of refutation that I think the case requires. For I know how to produce one witness in support of my statements, and that is the man himself with whom I find myself arguing; the many I dismiss: there is also one whose vote I know how to take, whilst to the multitude I have not a word to say.

This is an interesting passage, because it implicitly carries a theme running throughout the Gorgias, that Socrates' philosophical approach is closely tied to his pursuit of justice: Socrates arguing against the orators and their account of justice is like Socrates refusing to follow public opinion rather than law in the aftermath of Arginusae. In both ways he stands for justice and is unafraid of social pressure or threats in doing so in both cases.

Xenophon in the Memorabilia uses it as an example of Socratic piety. Socrates took his oath so seriously that he would not deviate from what it required:

[W]hen he was on the Council and had taken the counsellor's oath by which he bound himself to give counsel in accordance with the laws, it fell to his lot to preside in the Assembly when the people wanted to condemn Thrasyllus and Erasinides and their colleagues to death by a single vote. That was illegal, and he refused the motion in spite of popular rancour and the threats of many powerful persons. It was more to him that he should keep his oath than that he should humour the people in an unjust demand and shield himself from threats. For, like most men, indeed, he believed that the gods are heedful of mankind, but with an important difference; for whereas they do not believe in the omniscience of the gods, Socrates thought that they know all things, our words and deeds and secret purposes; that they are present everywhere, and grant signs to men of all that concerns man. (1.1.18-19)

As Xenophon notes, Socrates' behavior in the Assembly was common knowledge, so, he concludes, the Athenian jury that condemned him to death should have known better than to think he was impious.

We also find the Arginusae episode playing a role in the spurious dialogue Axiochus, usually thought to have been written in the late Hellenistic period. In that dialogue, Socrates is out walking when he comes across Clinias, son of Axiochus, who was Alcibiades' uncle. Axiochus, it turns out, is on his deathbed and is distraught, so Clinias asks Socrates to come and comfort him. This Socrates does. In the course of the discussion, Socrates talks about the futility of professions, and uses the Arginusae episode as an example. According to the dialogue, Axiochus was one of those who supported Euryptolemus in the Assembly (unsurprisingly, since they would have been related). When Socrates remarks on the basis of the story that politics is not a pleasant trade, Axiochus agrees, and says that he has refused to participate in politics ever since. The use of the story in this dialogue is not straightforward, but part of the idea seems to be to emphasize that true consolation in life derives from virtue and piety, not from superficial things like political success.

Thus the Aftermath of Arginusae plays a definite and important role in constructing the Image of Socrates, and in giving future generations an example of a philosopher standing for justice even in the face of popular pressure.


Quotations are from the translations at the Perseus Project.

Hushed Woods, Dumb Caves, and Many a Soundless Mere

A Sleepless Night
by Alfred Austin

Within the hollow silence of the night
I lay awake and listened. I could hear
Planet with punctual planet chiming clear,
And unto star star cadencing aright.
Nor these alone: cloistered from deafening sight,
All things that are made music to my ear:
Hushed woods, dumb caves, and many a soundless mere,
With Arctic mains in rigid sleep locked tight.
But ever with this chant from shore and sea,
From singing constellation, humming thought,
And Life through Time's stops blowing variously,
A melancholy undertone was wrought;
And from its boundless prison-house I caught
The awful wail of lone Eternity.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Action and Conviction

Now, two things belong to the fulfillment of our duties: action and conviction. Action accomplishes what duty demands, and conviction causes that that action to proceed from the proper source, that is, from pure motives.

Hence actions and convictions belong to the perfection of man, and society should, as far as possible, take care of both by collective efforts, that is, it should direct the actions of its members toward the common good, and cause convictions which lead to these actions. The one is the government, the other the education of societal man. To both man is led by reasons; to actions by reasons that motivate the will, and to convictions by reasons that persuade by their truth. Society should therefore establish both through public institutions in such a way that they will be in accord with the common good.

Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, Allan Arkush, tr., Brandeis University Press (Waltham, MA: 1983) p. 40. He goes on to argue that the two major kinds of public institution that do this are the state and the church/synagogue/mosque.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Links of Note

* 168th Philosophers' Carnival

* Sci Phi Journal

* Dale Van Kley has a critical review of Jonathan Israel's series on the Radical Enlightenment.

* Newly discovered cave art in Indonesia changes the timeline for human beings engaging in art; the cave art goes back as far as the earliest cave art previously known, in Spain and Southern France. Finding it about the same time so far apart strongly suggests that the practice may go back thousands of years farther than previously thought.

* Sister Doris Engelhard, Europe's last brewmaster nun

* Corey Robin discusses Kantianism in Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, as well as the question of whether Arendt saw Eichmann testify.

* Stephen Read on why medieval logic matters.

* Gregory Fried discusses Heidegger's Black Notebooks.

* Elissa at "WIT" discusses charges of modern-day Jansenism. As she notes, the use of the label is often rather detached from what the Jansenists actually were, as well as from what the Jansenists were specifically condemned for.

* Clare Coffey, Duty and Delight

* Distractify colorizes 52 old black and white photos.

What It Is Not

That the thing perceived, I replied, is not the same as the thing not perceived, I grant; but I do not discover any answer to our question in such a statement; it is not yet clear to me what we are to think that thing not-perceived to be; all I have been shown by your argument is that it is not anything material; and I do not yet know the fitting name for it. I wanted especially to know what it is, not what it is not.

We do learn, she replied, much about many things by this very same method, inasmuch as, in the very act of saying a thing is not so and so, we by implication interpret the very nature of the thing in question. For instance, when we say a guileless, we indicate a good man; when we say unmanly, we have expressed that a man is a coward; and it is possible to suggest a great many things in like fashion, wherein we either convey the idea of goodness by the negation of badness , or vice versâ. Well, then, if one thinks so with regard to the matter now before us, one will not fail to gain a proper conception of it. The question is—What are we to think of Mind in its very essence? Now granted that the inquirer has had his doubts set at rest as to the existence of the thing in question, owing to the activities which it displays to us, and only wants to know what it is, he will have adequately discovered it by being told that it is not that which our senses perceive, neither a colour, nor a form, nor a hardness, nor a weight, nor a quantity, nor a cubic dimension, nor a point, nor anything else perceptible in matter; supposing, that is, that there does exist a something beyond all these.

St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Macrina the Younger in Gregory of Nyssa's On the Soul and the Resurrection.