Monday, July 13, 2020

Two books on the Italian castrati singers

Two books about the castrati.

Francis Toye (1952)

Toye finds "no necessity to discuss the physical aspect of the operation" but says it "was introduced into Italy either from Spain or from the Orient, was known in the twelfth century and common in the sixteenth when, owing to the difficulty of polyphonic music, castrati were preferred to boys in church choirs. They were associated with opera from its very beginning [in the 17th century] and the title-role of Monteverdi's Orfeo was sung by one of them." (p. 18) At first they played masculine roles; later, feminine. Goethe came to approve of castrati in feminine roles because they "emphasized the artificial conventionalism of the stage." (p. 19) Their singing voices "represented nothing effeminate but the tonic attributes of perpetual youth..." (p. 19) By the mid-eighteenth century, women were participating in opera nearly equally with castrati. "...the attainment of perfection in the art of singing was a castrato's whole life, and it was usual for him in old age to take pupils and thus hand on the experience." (p. 21) They did not provide merely "acrobatics" and "vocal fireworks" but also "the emotional and expressive element in opera seria." (p. 21) Toye adds that "many of the castrati lived normal and exceedingly active lives." (p. 19)
"In Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra, Rossini "first established the innovation of writing down exactly what the singers had to sing instead of conceding the latitude of embellishment and improvisation which they had for so long enjoyed. Rossini is said to have come to this decision after hearing the male soprano Velluti in Aureliano — almost the last appearance of a castrato in opera. Not apparently that he was so much dissatisfied with Velluti's performance as frightened by what might be the result had his music been left to the mercies of a singer with inferior musical training, one of the new now all-powerful tribe of primadonnas for instance." (p. 40)

Francis Toye. Italian Opera. London: Max Parrish and Co, 1952.

Patrick Barbier (1989)

Barbier opens his book by reserving judgment on the historical castration of boys (which was "never performed before the age of seven and rarely after twelve" (p. 12)):

There is no point today in reopening the case so often brought in the past against castration and those who practised it or underwent it. How can we judge a medical procedure which influenced the whole of western music for more than two centuries, now that we are so far removed from the conditions prevailing in the baroque period? How can the 'modern' mind, moderately influenced by the nineteenth century, understand how a particular period dared to seek pure and 'gratuitous' Beauty through a mutilation so 'costly' to the individual who was subjected to it? Above all, how can we adopt an attitude towards emasculation when no great castrato has confided his deepest feelings to us? Was the operation inflicted on him felt as a tragedy? Was it not sometimes sanctified by a voice and a 'nature' which overturned the traditional plan of the masculine or feminine condition? We know, for example, that when people expressed pity for them the castrati Carestini and Salimbeni burst out laughing: were they exceptional or fairly normal?

For the historian only one thing matters: the presence and triumph of the castrati for nearly two hundred and thirty years on the stages of Europe, and still longer within the Roman Catholic Church. The Italians were of course the promoters and the greatest 'consumers' of these singers. (pp. 1-2)

The Byzantine Empire began employing eunuch singers in churches (per Theodore Balsamon's 12th century Commentary on the Nomocanon) and subsequently it conquered Constantinople which had many eunuchs in the harem. (p. 7) There were also eunuch singers in Mozarabic Spain in the 12th century who increasingly influenced Catholic liturgy. (p. 8) Later, however, they were "an essentially Italian phenomenon in the sense that they were recruited and trained only in that country." (p. 174) In France, they were sometimes derided as "cripples," and in one instance "Luigi Rossi was forced into hiding, Torelli, the famous producer and creator of theatrical machinery, was imprisoned and some castrati only just escaped lynching." (p. 191)

The Pietà taught music to uncastrated boys (integri) and eunuchs (non integri), and one day in 1782, the boys rebelled against the eunuchs in the dining hall because the eunuchs were given equal privileges. (p. 57) If students ran away from the conservatory, they would not be allowed to return. (p. 58)

He says: "The castrato voice differed from that of the normal male singer through its lightness, flexibility and high notes, and from the female voice through its brilliance, limpidity and power. At the same time it was superior to a boy's voice through the adult nature of its musculature, its technique and expressivity." (P. 17) However, boys were generally castrated first and then sent to musical training to find out if they could sing. "Castration," therefore, "was like a lottery from which very few emerged victorious...Some castrati in fact had horrible voices, shrill and strident." (p. 29)

Farinelli sang every day to Philip V, the Bourbon ruler of Spain, at the request of the Queen, who hoped that the music would cure the King's mental illness. The King seemed to recover, and Farinelli became his confidant. (pp. 203-204)

None left memoirs (p. 3), and they received quiet funerals. (p. 222)

He points out that eunuchs were regular human beings. Performers in general "had their moods, their weaknesses and their financial demands. The much talked about, long-standing image of the castrato as arrogant and capricious by nature [emphasis mine] makes no sense..." (pp. 107-108) (He adds that "if you didn't like the castrati that was enough to transform them very quickly into monsters" (p. 108), though it is unclear whether he means that people would portray castrati as monsters or if the castrati would behave in monstrous ways in reaction to being hated.) Similarly, some artists "knew each other well, appreciated and respected each other, while others were jealous and hated each other." (pp. 147-148) And "they were often accused of corrupting morals" despite being "no more inclined to sexual crime than other men." (p. 152) It is strange, then, that his final sentence is: "This adventure lasted for three centuries, defying all the laws of morality and reason to achieve the impossible union of monster and angel." (p. 242)

Chapter 6 (pp. 122-135) is about how Popes regulated the castration of boys.

Patrick Barbier. The World of the Castrati: The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon. Translated by Souvenir Press and Margaret Crosland. Souvenir Press, 1996. (Originally: Histoire des Castrats, published in France by Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1989.)

Sunday, July 5, 2020

What do people mean when they say humans are 'basically good'?

When people say that humans are "basically good," they might mean any of a few different things.

Intrinsically/naturally good

Some people might mean we are "created this way" by God, but a more scientific worldview can also attempt to identify intrinsic goodness. Social animals have to support each other or the group will not survive. This is studied in evolutionary biology. The term "reciprocal altruism" is used especially when some form of payback is expected — "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours”. A specific act may be done without expectation of reward, but the general rule holds true. Even "random acts of kindness" strengthen a society by distributing resources and building trust, so the giver benefits in a less-defined but still tangible way.

Intentionally/voluntarily good

Some empathy happens unconsciously because we have evolved to have those feelings, but some surely happens more intentionally. When we simply want something, philosophers call it a "first-order desire"; when we "want to want" something, it's a “second-order desire.” "Wanting to want" means we're critiquing and intentionally developing our own desires. (e.g. One might say: “Typically I’d rather mind my own business than reach out to a stranger, but I want to become the kind of person who is nice to strangers.”) To this end, we study philosophy, join groups (consider organized religion), and pay each other (consider customer service representatives) to be more pleasant and helpful than we would naturally be without those social supports.

Usually good (in practice)

People who make this claim are saying that — regardless of whether we are born good or choose to be good — we are kind and supportive to each other far more often than we are cruel and destructive. Consider how fragile trust is, and how, every time trust is breached, it takes a hundred or a thousand kind acts to rebuild it. We remember the times people hurt us, while we tend to overlook the thousands of times people are directly kind to us and the millions of ways they have been indirectly supportive from a distance. Though it may sometimes be hard to remember how many times people have been kind to us, a simple inventory will demonstrate this.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Coming to recognize interdependence

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please," said Marx; while, said Joseph Chilton Pearce, "to be fully 'human' is not just to survive physically, but to survive as a cultural creature."

In some cultures, this is more difficult and less obvious than in others. "Most contemporary Americans possess no stable identity," said Diana Butler Bass.

Nothing is inherited from the past, few family ties bind, and all forms of personhood must be chosen and, often, chosen again. It is not uncommon for an individual to live in several states, marry more than once, change religious traditions one or more times, and switch jobs or even careers. Because of this open-ended quality, life is an unfinished and unfinishable project, which leaves many wondering if meaninglessness is life's ultimate meaning. Human beings might be, in essence, homeless wanderers, aimless and without final direction. And this wandering, the constant roaming for identity and vocation, fuels random busyness — doing tasks, burying oneself in work, or becoming addicted to hobbies and sports to cover the sense that life may well be without purpose.

We may need to challenge ourselves to contemplate and commit to our duties to each other. Placing ourselves in a cultural context, developing a sense of solidarity, and committing ourselves to a collective project is an important task. Christopher Phillips wrote: "Both Socrates and Oedipus believed that self-discovery was always related to the goal of advancing their respective societies. Digging into their past with no greater purpose or objective than past-dwelling introspection would have made no more sense to Sophocles' Oedipus than it would have to Socrates." The pursuit of feeling good about ourselves is not an end in itself. Someone might profit off luring us into that activity, but the broader society does not benefit. "I think self-esteem is a white invention to further separate one person from another," said Terese Marie Mailhot. "It asks people to assess their values and implies people have worth. It seems like identity capitalism."

Religion, too, is not only a goal for individual but for collective development. “The idealism of the young...if it becomes life-long commitment and action,” Jewish tradition holds, according to Eugene Borowitz, will “create a religious self.”

Of a Buddhist interpretation, Stephen Batchelor wrote:

Letting go, even momentarily and unintentionally, of that desperate and obsessive grip on self does not obliterate you but opens you up to a fleeting and highly contingent world that you share with other anxious creatures like yourself. This can be frightening; for the only certainty in such a world is that at some point you will die. You realize that your self is not a fixed thing or personal essence but a tentative and confused story hastening toward its conclusion. * * * ’Contingency’ is a concise and reasonably accurate translation of the Buddhist concept paticcasamuppada (usually rendered as ‘dependent origination’). Whatever is contingent depends on something else for its existence. * * * In eroding this sense of our own necessity, we come to see how the unprecedented and unrepeatable person we are emerges from a sublime matrix of myriad contingent events—no one of which need have happened either. Insight into the emptiness of self is achieved not by eliminating self but by understanding it to be contingent rather than necessary.

Our humanity, Joseph Chilton Pearce said, depends on accept[ing] the "tension of form and content" that is part of all being. We are terrified of our mortality and we withdraw into what we think of as a detached intellect. From this, what we call "culture" is created. But the denial of life is simply the victory of death; there's nothing "spiritual" to celebrate about it. We don't need "to abolish the ego, which would be like killing one's horse in the middle of a race." Rather what we need is "a shift of dominance, the true turning."

"Temptation," said the rapper Kendrick Lamar, "is just the feeling that you’re the most independent person on planet Earth." How will we resist that temptation and move toward interdependence?


Marx. Quoted in "Prep is Dead, Long Live Prep." Benjamin Schwarz. The Atlantic. October 2010. p 112.

Joseph Chilton Pearce. Exploring the Crack in the Cosmic Egg: Split Minds & Meta-Realities. New York: Washington Square Press, 1974. p. 84.

Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith, HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. pp. 228-229.

Christopher Phillips. Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Die-Hard Romantic. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007. p. 46.

Terese Marie Mailhot. Heart Berries: A Memoir. Counterpoint, 2018. p. 27.

Eugene B. Borowitz. Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew. (1991) Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996. p. 94.

Stephen Batchelor. Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil. New York: Riverhead, 2004. pp. 8-9.

Joseph Chilton Pearce. Exploring the Crack in the Cosmic Egg: Split Minds & Meta-Realities. New York: Washington Square Press, 1974. pp. 213-214, 216.

Rapper Kendrick Lamar, quoted in The New York Times, quoted in The Week, July 11, 2014.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

'Surviving Autocracy': A search for new language

Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar said that "autocratic transformation" happens in three stages: attempt, breakthrough, consolidation.

In a new book Surviving Autocracy, Masha Gessen (they/them) says these terms apply to the current American situation. (Gessen was citing a 2019 prepublication manuscript of Magyar's The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes: A Conceptual Framework.) These terms, Gessen says, are better than "using the language of political disagreement, judicial procedure, or partisan discussion to describe something that was crushing the system that such terminology was invented to describe." What we are experiencing under Trumpism is not an ordinary political debate within the existing system. A new system is crushing the existing system, and we need new language to describe it.

These ideas, and very much more, in this book:

Masha Gessen. Surviving Autocracy Riverhead, June 2, 2020.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

What's the brain? What's the mind? A journey told through quotations

The purpose for which the brain evolved

"...the very consciousness that enables us to probe the workings of our cells may have been born of the concerted capacities of millions of microbes that evolved symbiotically to become the human brain. * * * In a sense we are "above" bacteria, because, though composed of them, our power of thought seems to represent more than the sum of its microbial parts. Yet in a sense we are also "below" them. As tiny parts of a huge biosphere whose essence is basically bacterial, we—with other life forms—must add up to a sort of symbiotic brain which it is beyond our capacity to comprehend or truly represent.
Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan. Microcosmos. California: University of California Press, 1986, 1997. pp. 34, 152.

Human brains continue to develop after birth

“The simplest means [to evolve larger brains while still giving birth through a narrow pelvis] was to give birth while the baby’s head is still small, then let the head and brain develop outside the womb during a period of intensive neonatal care. This is in fact the solution that humans developed. Whereas the newborn brain weight of a nonhuman primate is already around 42 percent of its adult weight, a human child’s is a mere 29 percent. The human infant continues its basic cerebral development for eighteen months after birth, during which time the rapidly growing brain is not held in by a firm case. Fusion of the cranial sutures is greatly delayed. The downside is that the human baby is far less physically and mentally autonomous... the development of the baby-sling removed the crucial factor limiting the efficiency of postnatal care and allowed hominid females to bear underdeveloped babies that, with postnatal brain growth, could subsequently catch up and—crucially—overtake australopithecines in brain development.”

Timothy Taylor. The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture. New York: Bantam, 1996. p 47-8.

When last year's Nobel prize for chemistry was awarded to the discoverers of green fluorescent protein, the pages of newspapers (this one included) lit up with photographs of 'brainbows.' ... Dr Lichtman hopes to use his brainbow mice to answer questions about neurological development, such as why the nerve cells of babies have far more connections than do those of adults.”
"Wired." The Economist. April 11-17, 2009. p. 82.

You can look at a picture of a brain...

"Researchers are now trying to better understand what constitutes a "normal" brain by studying a newly compiled atlas that contains digitally mapped images of 7,000 of the organs. A decade in the making, the brain mapping project quietly debuted this summer. ... Dr. Arthur Toga, says the plan is to quantify the differences between brains. Understanding the variations should provide "a good index between normal populations and a diseased population." This brain atlas — freely available to registered users over the Internet — maps the brains in multiple dimensions. It charts brain activity, pinpointing the seat of functions such as speech, memory, emotion and language and highlighting how those locations can vary among individuals and populations.
"Brain atlas to help define what's 'normal': Thousands of brains digitally mapped to aid researchers." CNN. August 6, 2003. [URL no longer works]

...but no one can understand the way you think just by looking at a picture of your brain

“Moreover, if it were suggested, as occasionally it is, that the body itself or the brain is that substance [which has the two aspects of brain and mind], and that mental activity IS brain activity, but ‘viewed from within’—from the inside instead of the outside—then the appropriate comment would obviously be that the word ‘inside’ as so used really means nothing at all. For, if one wishes to observe what goes on literally inside the brain, what one must do is simply to open it up and look. Such an operation might, in a then facetiously etymological sense of the word, be termed ‘Introspection,’ but would anyway be something radically different from what in fact is denominated Introspection.”

C. J. Ducasse. The Belief in a Life After Death. p. 73.

“I can imagine a time when, after getting an answer to a question from your Web browser, neither you nor your computer will know for sure where it came from. After all, do you know where the letter A is stored in your brain?”
Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life. New York: Plume, 2003. p. 158.

“I have often encountered motifs which made me think that the unconscious must be the world of the infinitesimally [physically] small. Such an idea could be derived rationalistically from the obscure feeling that in all these visions we are dealing with something endopsychic, the inference being that a thing must be exceedingly small in order to fit inside the head.”
C. G. Jung. Aspects of the Masculine. (Collected Works.) Translation by R. F. C. Hull. New York: MJF Books, 1989.p. 147-148.

The brain is busy even when it's not working on an assigned task

"During early functional MRI studies, researchers noticed that a certain set of brain regions would activate together whenever subjects were not performing the task they were assigned. Originally this was assumed to be some sort of daydreaming or rest network, but eventually, scientists realized the network was involved in thinking about the self, thinking about others, remembering the past, considering the future, and making social evaluations.
That brain network, now known as the Default Mode Network, is associated with creativity and imagination. If you think about it as a light switch, it comes on whenever your task-oriented networks shut off. So if you and the internet are constantly performing “productivity” together — it stays dark."
Jacqueline Detwiler. “How to Think Without Googling.” Forge (Medium). October 22, 2019.

Information arrives in pieces

"Nothing enters consciousness whole. There is no direct, objective experience of reality. All the things the mind perceives...have been assembled piece by piece by the processing powers of the brain..."
Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquili, and Vince Rause. Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001. p 36.

Thought occurs in pieces

"Who or what within the brain monitors all this activity? No one. Nothing. The scenarios are not seen by some other part of the brain. They just are. Consciousness is the virtual world composed by the scenarios. There is not even a Cartesian theater, to use Daniel Dennett's dismissive phrase, no single locus of the brain where the scenarios are played out in coherent form. Instead, there are interlacing patterns of neural activity within and among particular sites throughout the forebrain, from cerebral cortex to other specialized centers of cognition such as the thalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus. There is no single stream of consciousness in which all information is brought together by an executive ego. There are instead multiple streams of activity, some of which contribute momentarily to conscious thoguht and then phase out. Consciousness is the massive coupled aggregates of such participating circuits. The mind is a self-organizing republic of scenarios that individually germinate, grow, evolve, disappear, and occasionally linger to spawn additional thought and physical activity."
Edward O. Wilson. Consilience. p. 110.

We are aware that we're thinking...

“Like it or not, we humans are flawed spiritual creatures peering from biological brains. By ‘spiritual’ I mean self-contemplating and/or self-loathing. I think that our spirituality is best defined as our awareness of our own consciousness. Rats, mice, amoebas, and planets aren't self-contemplating and/or self-loathing. We're different. So there is a tension between what we are, material beings living in a material universe, and how we feel about ourselves. We feel that we are more than the sum of our parts. We try and bridge this spirit/body gap. We look to religion, science, faith, psychology whatever [sic] to answer the question: Why are we self-observing, or, to put it another way, who am I?”
Frank Schaeffer. Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism). Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2009. p. 4.

...but chemical signals direct our thoughts without our awareness of that process

“‘You're probably 99.9 percent unaware of dopamine release,’ says Read Montague, a professor of neuroscience at Baylor University. ‘But you're probably 99.9 percent driven by the information and emotions it conveys to other parts of the brain.’”
Jonah Lehrer. How We Decide. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. p. 41.

”Why People Gamble: It's an old idea that levels of dopamine in the brain rise when gamblers win, giving them a rush and pushing them to gamble more, but it turns out things are not quite as simple as that. David Zald of Vanderbilt University found that while this is part of the story, losing also causes a drop in dopamine levels--something never seen before. Part of compulsive gambling may be an attempt to restore lowered dopamine levels after losses.”
Stephen Reucroft and John Swain, Fast Facts, Boston Metro, July 28, 2004, based on Discover, August 2004.

”The dopamine system is a kind of accountant: keeping track of expected rewards, and sending out an alert — in the form of lowered dopamine levels — when those rewards don't arrive as promised. When the pack-a-day smoker deprives himself of his morning cigarette; when the hotshot Wall Street trader doesn't get the bonus he was planning on; when the late-night snacker opens the freezer to find someone's pilfered all the Ben & Jerry’s — the disappointment and craving these people experience is triggered by lowered dopamine levels.
The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp calls the dopamine system the brain's ‘seeking’ circuitry, propelling us to seek out new avenues for reward in our environment. Where our brain wiring is concerned, the craving instinct triggers a desire to explore. The system says, in effect: ‘Can't find the reward you were promised? Perhaps if you just look a little harder you'll be in luck — it’s got to be around here somewhere.’”
Steven Johnson. Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. pp. 34-35.

A human individual is both body and mind...

"And actually man is not a pure spirit at all, nor a sage; man is not, as Spinoza said, an automa spirituale, or, as we would prefer to say, a "rational automaton." Man is a psycho-somatic amphibian, that is to say, a symbiosis of soma and psyche, which is to say, a mixed being."
[Vladimir Jankelevitch. (1903-1985). Forgiveness. Translated by Andrew Kelley. University of Chicago Press, 2005. Originally Le Pardon, 1967. p 82.]

...or does the mind consist of the physical brain?

" is an error to use two different sets of words, concepts, and feelings when considering our brains (on the one hand) and our minds (on the other)....The brain and mind constitute an inseparable unity. * * * Thus we are portrayed as mindless brains or brainless minds, and never the twain shall meet."
J. Allan Hobson. The Chemistry of Conscious States: How the Brain Changes its Mind. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co, 1994. pp. 6-7.

“Neurologically speaking, then, the mind cannot exist without the brain, and the brain cannot exist without striving to create the mind. The relationship of mind and brain is so intimately linked, in fact, that it seems most reasonable to consider the terms as two different aspects of the very same thing.
Consider, for example, that the existence of a single human thought requires the highly complex interaction of hundreds of thousands of neurons. In order to separate mind from brain, it would be necessary to think of each neuron as something distinct from its function, which is a little like trying to separate the seawater that provides the substance fo an ocean wave from the energy that gives the wave its shape and motion. The existence of the wave requires both elements: without energy, the wave would fall flat; without water, the wave energy would have no expression. In the same sense, it is not possible to separate individual neurons from their functions; if it were possible, then a thought could be freed from its neurological base, and the mind could be seen as something separate from the brain, a free-floating consciousness that would be considered a ‘soul.’"

Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquili, and Vince Rause. Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001. p 33.

A human mind and body shares something with its community

"The idea of commonality between minds is not new. It is found in Jung (1964)’s collective unconscious; in transpersonal psychology’s transpersonal realm, and in Teilhard de Chardin (1959)’s noosphere, to name but three examples. Possibly group analytic literature take site concept of a common area of mind operating between and amongst individuals in a group more for granted than anyone else. Foulkes has designated this as the ‘group matrix’ (Foulkes 1964)."
[Isabel Clarke. “Psychosis and spirituality: the discontinuity model.” Printed in Psychosis and Spirituality: Exploring the New Frontier. ed. Isabel Clarke. London and Philadelphia: Whurr, 2001. p. 141.]

“...The thing called the human body is divided from other things in its environment by the clearly discernible surface of the skin. The point, though, is that the skin divides the body from the rest of the world as one thing from others in thought but not in nature. In nature the skin is as much a joiner as a divider, being, as it were, the bridge whereby the inner organs have contact with air, warmth, and light.”
Alan Watts. Nature, Man, and Woman (1958). New York: Vintage Books, 1991. p 55.

A relaxed mind can open up

“Maslow found that when humans have satisfied their basic physiological and social needs, they frequently have ‘peak experiences.’ These experiences are especially intense moments in which individuals are overwhelmed by the sensations of ecstasy, wonder, and awe.”
Robert C. Fuller. Spiritual, But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. Oxford University Press, 2002. p 139.

The way we train ourselves to think creates our possibilities

"The mystical experience itself is in part a function of what the mystic thinks can happen. No experience of transcendence ever happens to a person who inhabits no culture or thinks in no particular language."
Denise Lardner Carmody and John Tully Carmody. Mysticism: Holiness East and West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 9.

"An entire academic field has its origin in the idea that we are computers. Further, the computer comes to represent an ideal, in light of which real thinking perversely begins to look deficient. Thus, when the postindustrial visionary reasons from the fact that complex systems involve 'the interaction of too many variables for the mind to hold in correct order simultaneously' to the conclusion that 'one has to use algorithm, rather than intuitive judgments, in making decisions,' he argues from the fact that the mind does not do what a computer does to an assertion about the incompetence of the mind. This seems to express an irrational prejudice against people. For, in fact, highly cultivated human minds can get to be pretty good at sussing out a burning building, playing chess, chasing down intermittent gremlins in a car’s electrical system, and who knows what else."
Matthew B. Crawford. Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. p. 171.

"Under these conditions [of post-atomic attack], some high percentage of the population is going to be nauseated, and nausea is very catching. If one man vomits, everybody vomits. It would not be surprising if almost everybody vomits. Almost everyone is likely to think he has received too much radiation.”
Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961, p. 86 Quoted in Arthur Herzog. The B.S. Factor: The Theory and Technique of Faking It in America. (1973) Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books Inc., 1974. p. 90.

Our own consciousness is determined by the way we think about it

"...consciousness, like love and money, is a phenomenon that does indeed depend to a surprising extent on its associated concepts. Although, like love, it has an elaborate biological base, like money, some of its most significant features are borne along on the culture, not simply inherent, somehow, in the physical structure of its instances."
Daniel C. Dennett. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1991. p 24.

What have we learned?

"What does this mean concerning our personal lives, to which, at last, we now return? The microcosm of our consciousness is where the macrocosm of the universe is known. It is the fearful joy, the blessing, and the curse of man that he can be conscious of himself and his world."
Rollo May. Love and Will. New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1969. p 324.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

How we determine what is correct

Here's some trilemmas.

Trilemma 1

Consider the following proposal:

  1. Everyone who actually contributes to the project will be recognized as having equal status to the other contributors.
  2. Everyone with contributor status will be given equal power to help determine the right path.
  3. The current power structure will remain the same.

They cannot all be true. Which statement will be rejected?

Trilemma 2

Consider the following statements:

  1. We can solve any question of power distribution regarding how we determine the right path.
  2. We have the motivation to do good by solving such questions.
  3. There is an open question of this type.

They cannot all be true. Which statement will be rejected?

Trilemma 3

Consider the following statements:

  1. The rightness of the path is self-justifying or uses a circle tying back to itself.
  2. The rightness of the path depends on a fixed point outside itself.
  3. The rightness of the path depends on an infinite regress of points.

Are these the same or different?

Friday, September 20, 2019

Quotes: On deep reading, writing, and meaning

Annie Murphy Paul ("Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer," Time, June 03, 2013):

The deep reader, protected from distractions and attuned to the nuances of language, enters a state that psychologist Victor Nell, in a study of the psychology of pleasure reading, likens to a hypnotic trance. Nell found that when readers are enjoying the experience the most, the pace of their reading actually slows. The combination of fast, fluent decoding of words and slow, unhurried progress on the page gives deep readers time to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions. It gives them time to establish an intimate relationship with the author, the two of them engaged in an extended and ardent conversation like people falling in love.

This is not reading as many young people are coming to know it. Their reading is pragmatic and instrumental: the difference between what literary critic Frank Kermode calls 'carnal reading' and 'spiritual reading.' If we allow our offspring to believe carnal reading is all there is — if we don’t open the door to spiritual reading, through an early insistence on discipline and practice — we will have cheated them of an enjoyable, even ecstatic experience they would not otherwise encounter. And we will have deprived them of an elevating and enlightening experience that will enlarge them as people.

William Poundstone (Labyrinths of Reason:  Paradox, Puzzles and the Frailty of Knowledge, New York: Anchor Books, 1988. p. 200):

Most rational people do not ponder Newbold's and Levitov's cases long before rejecting them. To say exactly why we reject them is something else. Susan Sontag defined intelligence as a "taste in ideas." It is difficult to codify that taste.

Fernando Pessoa (The Book of Disquiet. Edited by Maria Jose de Lancastre. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. London: Serpent's Tail, 1991 (a collection of writings that were unorganized upon Pessoa's death in 1935). p. 258):

To say things! To know how to say things! To know how to exist through the written voice and the intellectual image! That's what life is about: the rest is just men and women, imagined love and fictitious vanities, excuses born of poor digestion and forgetting, people squirming beneath the great abstract boulder of a meaningless blue sky, the way insects do when you lift a stone.

Aline Kilmer, (quoted by the AP, quoted in The Week, Feb. 5, 2016. p. 19):

Many excellent words are ruined by too definite a knowledge of their meaning.

Akwaeke Emezi. Freshwater. Grove Press, 2018):

We don’t have to swallow our work or be afraid that it’s too deviant to do well; there is, in fact, no canon we cannot touch. Even when seized by a thousand fears, we can make strange and wonderful things simply for the sake of the strange and the wonderful, we can create without permission, we can write into the unknown.

Mallarme (quoted in Anatole Broyard (d. 1990). Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir. New York: Carol Southern Books, 1993. p. 32):

If a person of average intelligence and insufficient literary preparation opens one of my books and pretends to enjoy it, there has been a mistake. Things must be returned to their places.

Uzma Aslam Khan (The Geometry of God, Clockroot Books, 2009. Kindle location 1718):

Until now we were stepping outside the box the lines were loose. But now Nana wants to follow the laws he wants a legal ghazal [poem]. While we think of one Nana says, 'Everyone understands love through the images of love like the bulbul and the rose or the hunted bird or eye lashes like daggers or we have made up our own. But a ghazal in English is illegal!'

Willis Elliott (Flow of Flesh, Reach of Spirit: Thinksheets of a Contrarian Christian. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995. p. 114):

Your 'soul,' by which here I mean your interiority, is compounded of all the conversations you’ve ever had — with other human beings, with God, and with yourself. That’s only one angle from which to describe your soul, but it’s a vital one, theoretically developed by social-psychologist George Herbert Mead (as the social origin of consciousness), and clinically tested and developed by a man I studied with, Hugh Missildine (as 'the child of the past within'). Mead died before I could get to him, but he got to me through his writings. Both men have been important in the shaping of my understanding of interiority and thus in my devising the Thinksheet genre.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Quotes: We understand through word, image, sound

"Seneca believed...arguments are like eels: however logical, they may slip from the mind's weak grasp unless fixed there by imagery and style."

Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy, Vintage Books, 2000. p 92.

"The magic of words still remains for me. I prefer them to ideas.
Chicago newspaperman Ben Hecht, quoted by Ron Powers, in The Beast, the Eunuch, and the Glass-Eyed Child. New York: Anchor Books, 1990. p xvii.

"Truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in the types and images. It (the world) will not receive it in any other fashion."

Gospel of Philip

"I realized that only in music could I find the answer I was seeking to the questions of the previous evening. Argument I could follow, it weighed with me, yet I could decide nothing from it.
Fred Hoyle. October the First is Too Late. Connecticut: Fawcett, 1966, 1968. p 156.

"But I think everyone should have a little philosophy, Thomas said. It helps, a little. It helps. It is good. It is about half as good as music.
Donald Barthelme. The Dead Father. New York: Pocket Books, 1975. p 76.

What do we want more than knowledge?

"Why should workers become intellectuals? I find it hard to imagine a less attractive prospect than a society made up of intellectuals," said Christopher Lasch.

Intellectual projects may not even be able to achieve what they set out to do. Knowledge is, first of all, not necessarily the final goal. Sometimes the goal of knowledge is to find a better goal.

"This, then," said Soren Kierkegaard, "is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.

Knowledge is also fragile and elusive. It dies a little bit in the process of coming into being.

"The forceps of our minds," said H. G. Wells, "are clumsy things and crush the truth a little in the course of taking hold of it."

In which case, said Parker J. Palmer, we must reconnect with the truth as it is known before the mind even grasps it, as "every time we get in touch with the truth source we carry within, there is net moral gain for all concerned. Even if we fail to follow its guidance fully, we are nudged a bit further in that direction. And the next time we are conflicted between inner truth and outer reality, it becomes harder to forget or deny that we have an inner teacher who wants to lay a claim on our lives."

We may still have to engage in our intellectual projects, but at least we understand their proper limits — that is, where the academic exercise ends and where we begin.

"Many academic examinations fall into this category, in which it is psychologically healthier for the student to realize that he is required to take the examination and he doesn't like it, and to study for it with that realization in mind. The damage to his integrity comes," as Rollo May explained, "when he tries to persuade himself that he does like it."


Christopher Lasch. The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1984. p. 27.

Johannes Climacus (Soren Kierkegaard), Philosophical Fragments, ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, 1985. p 37.

H. G. Wells, quoted in, quoted in The Week, June 14, 2013, p. 19.

Parker J. Palmer. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. p. 19.

Rollo May, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1972. p 103.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

On Harry G. Frankfurt's 'The Importance of What We Care About'

The Importance of What We Care About (book cover) by Harry G. Frankfurt

The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt collected thirteen essays in The Importance of What We Care About (1988). The first twelve are reprints, and the thirteenth is new. He reprinted them in chronological order with only a brief preface, so it is a challenge to see how they are related as a body of things one might importantly care about. I imagine that a chronological presentation of his work is useful to inform us about his evolution as a philosopher but not necessarily useful to introduce us to any particular topic or drive home any particular thesis.

In the Preface, he says he's focused on "metaphysics or...the philosophy of mind — for instance, how we are to conceptualize ourselves as persons, and what defines the identities we achieve." He's interested in free will, and not just in the context of moral choices.

The thirteen essays are in academic language that is generally difficult to read. Here's what they are about.

"Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility" (1969)

His position is: "A person may well be morally responsible for what he has done even though he could not have done otherwise." More specifically, a man who faces a threat if he does not perform a certain action is unable to act otherwise, but if he had coincidentally already decided to perform that action anyway for reasons of his own, he is still morally responsible, according to Frankfurt. "We often do, to be sure, excuse people for what they have done when they tell us (and we believe them) that they could not have done otherwise. But this is because we assume that what they tell us [about the threat or coercion] serves to explain why they did what they did."

"Freedom of the will and the concept of a person" (1971)

Humans (and some non-human animals) are entities that merge mind and body, and lamentably there is no word for this. Humans are unique because we have "second-order desires," that is, we can want to want something. [Typically: We want to eat dessert, and we wish we wanted to eat something healthy.] It is for a person to be "concerned with the desirability of his desires themselves"; it is "the question of what his will is to be." Reason is a prerequisite to "becoming critically aware of his own will and of forming volitions of the second order," and these second-order desires — driven by reason and will — have to do with "the essence of being a person."

In this essay, he argues that it's possible to have free will even in a deterministic universe. Some outside force might determine whether one "enjoys or fails to enjoy freedom of the will." In that case, though, two people (the person and the outside force) might be morally responsible for the person's choices.

"Coercion and moral responsibility" (1973)

He discusses "cases of coercion in which the victim is made to perform an action, by being provided with a certain kind of motive for doing so," such that "the victim is not to be regarded as morally responsible for what he has been coerced into doing." He notes that "threats" and "offers" are similar in that they create a motive, but a threat dangles a "penalty" while an offer dangles a "benefit." People who are threatened may still be morally responsible for their choice. "Coercion" is something more because it makes the person no longer morally responsible. This has something to do with the severity of the threat, such that "the person would act reasonably in submitting" to the threat. "This requirement can only be satisfied when the threat appeals to desires or motives which are beyond the victim's ability to control, or when the victim is convinced that this is the case." When a threat is severe enough, the victim "cannot prevent his desire to avoid the penalty in question from determining his response," unless, that is, he's got some exceptional virtues or powers. In that case, he "performs not merely rightly...but with a certain heroic quality." He ends by claiming that "only another person can coerce us, or interfere with our social or political freedom," and we "tend, of course, to be more resentful" of such personal interactions than of mere environmental constraints. Nonetheless, our environment may deprive us of free will; the deprivation of free will does not require the interference of another person.

"Three concepts of free action" (1975)

This essay, written while he was teaching at Rockefeller, is a response to a 1975 essay of the same title by Don Locke. Frankfurt mentions Locke's example of two hijacked pilots who are ordered to fly to Cuba, one who does so because he is afraid he'll be killed, the other who follows orders gladly because he has a mistress in Havana. This is a strange example to illustrate the subtleties of coercion. If we were in need of an example, slavery and rape are far more common in the real world, and the perpetrator often tries to make the victim feel guilty for submitting to the coercion (e.g. because — so the perpetrator conveys — that is what the victim secretly wants, or would have done anyway, or is all they're good for, or...) These problems, not men's helicopter fantasies, are something we actually already care about. This is why diversity in philosophy departments is so important.

Frankfurt discusses cases in which a person feels conflicted about his choice. The hypothetical person claims "that what he did was not something he really wanted to do, or that it was not something he really wanted to do." He might, for example, have picked the lesser of two evils.

A person is "active with respect to his own desires when he identifies himself with them." If his identification of himself with his desires is what drives his action, then he is "active" with respect to those actions. "Without such identification," Frankfurt says, "the person is a passive bystander to his desires and to what he does..." Second-order desires cannot be passive. They are active by their nature; a person is always identified with his second-order desires.

"Identification and externality" (1977)

What's the difference, he asks, "between the sort of thing that goes on when a person raises his arm (say, to give a signal) and the sort of thing that happens when a person's arm rises (say, because of a muscular spasm) without his raising it?" [This is one of the very last topics I would have considered including in a book titled The Importance of What We Care About. but here it is.] And, for that matter, "to some of the thoughts that occur in our minds, as to some of the events in our bodies, we are mere passive bystanders. Thus there are obsessional thoughts, whose provenances may be obscure and of which we cannot rid ourselves; thoughts that strike us unexpectedly out of the blue; and thoughts that run willy-nilly through our heads." We experience these things passively; we are not identified with them.

"The problem of action" (1978)

Our understanding of "action" centers on "the contrast between what an agent does and what merely happens to him." Actions may have causes, but they need not have causes of any particular type. He talks about "purposive" behavior that involves course corrections to achieve some goal.

"The importance of what we care about" (1982)

Here's the title essay of the book. It's the most readable essay up to this point, indicating, to me, his evolution as a writer. It marks a turning point in his writing style.

He identifies "what to believe" (epistemology), "how to behave" (ethics), and "what to care about" (his interest).

"...for most of us, the requirements of ethics are not the only things we care about. Even people who care a great deal about morality generally care still more about other things. They may care more, for instance, about their own personal projects, about certain individuals and groups, and perhaps about various ideals to which they accord commanding authority in their lives but which need not be particularly of an ethical nature. There is nothing distinctively moral, for instance, about such ideals as being steadfastly loyal to a family tradition, or selflessly pursuing mathematical truth, or devoting oneself to some type of connoisseurship."

And what does it mean to be important? The concept is "fundamental" and runs into "circularity" when he tries to define it. Something is important if it makes a "difference at all" to something else, probably an important difference.

"A person who cares about something is, as it were, invested in it. He identifies himself with what he cares about in the sense that he makes himself vulnerable to losses and susceptible to benefits depending upon whether what he cares about is diminished or enhanced. Thus he concerns himself with what concerns it, giving particular attention to such things and directing his behavior accordingly. Insofar as the person's life is in whole or in part devoted to anything, rather than being merely a sequence of events whose themes and structures he makes no effort to fashion, it is devoted to this."

A person's caring cannot be fleeting, or else it would appear no different from an "impulse. He would not in any proper sense be guiding or directing himself at all." Also, "when a person cares about something, it may be entirely up to him both that he cares about it and that he cares about it as much as he does." And: "The formation of a person's will is most fundamentally a matter of his coming to care about certain things, and of his coming to care about some of them more than about others."

He closes with these lines: "When a person makes something important to himself, accordingly, the situation resembles an instance of divine agape at least in a certain respect. The person does not care about the object because its worthiness commands that he do so. On the other hand, the worthiness of the activity of caring commands that he choose an object which he will be able to care about." I don't know from agape, but this sounds like normal post-breakup advice to me. If someone refuses your energy, stop thinking about them and give your energy to someone who wants it.

"What we are morally responsible for" (1983)

He's still arguing that a person may be morally responsible, even if he can't act otherwise, when he "acts as he does for reasons of his own, rather than simply because no other alternative is open to him."

"Necessity and desire" (1984)

Here, Frankfurt claims that "desires" sometimes take precedence over "needs." A terminally ill patient might choose a "pleasure cruise" on his bucket list rather than yet another surgery. He thinks that we must also consider "the value of what [something] is needed for" rather than the mere fact that it is needed.

A "volitional need" depends on something that's wanted. If the desire is voluntary, the volitional need is "free"; if the desire is involuntary (for example, "especially intense or difficult to control" or "ineradicably persistent" even if mild), the volitional need is "constrained."

He makes this interesting comment at the end: "Our feeling that it is incumbent upon us to assist a person in need tends to become somewhat attenuated when the need is essentially derivative from that person's desire. This may be because the hardening of desire into necessity strikes us as an analogue of 'bad faith,' so that we suspect the person in question of being unable to control his desire only because he does not really want to do so."

"On bullshit" (1986)

This essay is famous, so I shall not say much about it here. It maintains that bullshit is a type of deception that, unlike lying, doesn't intend to make a truth claim. "For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.

"Equality as a moral ideal" (1987)

Regarding the distribution of wealth, what matters morally "is not that everyone should have the same but that each should have enough. He believes that an undue focus on economic equality "tends to divert a person's attention away from endeavoring to discover...what he himself really cares about and what will actually satisfy him." On a different tack, in times of scarcity, there are moral questions about the best distribution of resources: "perhaps it is worse to prolong the process of starvation for a short time than to terminate quickly the agony of starving to death." He also applies this argument to the educational rights of a hypothetical disabled child, saying that making a choice to help a disabled child even when it might adversely affect an abled child isn't about "providing people [in this case, the disabled child] with as much as others. It pertains rather to the urgency of the needs of people who do not have enough."

"Identification and wholeheartedness" (1987)

He muses on the difference between "mind" and "consciousness." For example: "one way of being unconscious is to be asleep. But even while they are asleep, animals respond to visual, auditory, tactile, and other stimuli. Otherwise it would be difficult to wake them up."

It gets more productive here: "We are ceaselessly alert to the danger that there may be discrepancies between what we wish to be (or what we wish to seem to be) and how we actually appear to others and to ourselves." Also: "Our hearts are at best divided, and they may even not be in what we are doing at all." To the extent that we are "moved to act by something other than what we really want," we're passive, because "we are moved by a force that is not fully our own."

A "second-order volition" is a choice about what desire you want to motivate you.

"When the decision is made without reservation, the commitment it entails is decisive. Then the person no longer holds himself apart from the desire to which he has committed himself. It is no longer unsettled or uncertain whether the object of that desire — that is, what he wants — is what he really wants. The decision determines what the person really wants by making the desire on which he decides fully his own. To this extent the person, in making a decision by which he identifies with a desire, constitutes himself. The pertinent desire no longer in any way external to him."

Also, choosing to identify with one of two desires "is not necessarily to eliminate the conflict between those desires, or even to reduce its severity, but to alter its nature." The person's commitment "eliminates the conflict as to which of these desires he prefers to be his motive. The conflict between the desires" — "which remains — is in this way transformed into a conflict between one of them and the person who has identified himself with its rival. The person is no longer uncertain which side he is on, in the conflict between the two desires, and the persistence of this conflict need not subvert or diminish the wholeheartedness of his commitment to the desire with which he identifies."

"Rationality and the unthinkable" (1988)

This is the final essay, written for this book, that serves as the conclusion, I suppose.

A challenge of utilitarianism is that "anything might at some point be morally imperative." As with atheism, "nothing can be ruled out in advance." A utilitarian can't commit to principles of personal integrity and "can form no stable conception of his own moral identity." [Apart from utilitarianism, anyway.] There do need to be some limits on what is thinkable; "the set of actions that are unthinkable for a person specify the limits of what the person can will to do. It defines his essence as a volitional creature." People who will do anything "if the price is right" have "no essential nature at all." Our will, which regards "what we are unable to bring ourselves to do," sometimes compels us to act in a way that seems on the surface to be irrational ("against [our] judgment") but that is just where "the rationality of a person may in part reside."

And so finally we see what Frankfurt cares about.