The world against me rages, its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages, its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free, no trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day.

--Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (Auf, Auf, Mein Herz, mit Freuden), Paul Gerhardt

Friday, October 29, 2010

My other blog

Any readers of this blog may or may not know that I have another blog.  I won't be finding time to post here again this week (hopefully at least once next week), but I did make the time to post something at my other blog.  It may or may not be of interest to those reading here. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


FYI, I am beginning to teach a theology course as an adjunct and so my posting will probably be quite a bit sparser for the next few weeks.  Still hope to do at least one a week. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Loving your enemies (?) in practice

 “…but can I have a friendly cup of coffee with a neighbor whom I consider to be a murderer or a pervert or an advocate of murder or perversion?”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Barfield, Owen ; Poetic diction: a study in meaning, preface to the second edition (b) [1951]

Barfield, Owen ; Poetic diction: a study in meaning (1973, 1952 [2nd ed.], 1927)

Preface, 2nd ed. (b)

Barfield says that "in the days of Locke and Hume it was felt that science was the newcomer, requiring a foundation in philosophy; but since then the two have changed places".  Despite the "ever-changing assumptions" of science, modern philosophers do not try to question the scientific assumptions of the day (seeing them as "given"), but seek to "justify the ways of science to man".  Who can argue with success? 

He notes that there is one assumption of science that has remained unchanged longer than the rest, and that is that the real world is a "somewhat" in "the construction which the mind of man does not participate; of which it is purely a detached observer" (here, Hume's philosophy is relevant).  "It is of course in attempting to describe more precisely the nature of the 'somewhat' that science both parts company with the man in the street and keeps changing its ground".  In the 19th century the real world was assumed to consist, in the last resort, or things.  These things kept getting smaller and smaller, but they were at least there, and if you ad a powerful enough microscope, for example, you'd be able to see them (18).  In like fashion, Hume had been content to say that the "'impressions' which were the material of knowledge were produced in the senses by 'objects'" (19).  

20th century science though, complains Barfield 

"has abolished the 'thing' altogether; and twentieth-century philosophy (that part of it, at least, which takes no account of imagination) has obediently followed  suit.  There are no objects, says the voice of Science, there are only bundles of waves - or possibly something else; adding that, although it is convenient to think of them, it would be naive to suppose that the waves or the something else actually exist.  There is no 'referent', echoes the philosophy of linguistic analysis deferentially, no substance or underlying reality which is 'meant' by words.   There are only descriptions, only the words themselves, though it 'happens to be the case' that men have from the beginning so persistently supposed the contrary that they positively cannot open their mouths without doing so" (19).  

Barfield then quotes Logical Positivist A.J. Ayer saying "that we cannot, in our language, refer to the sensible properties of a thing, without introducing a word or phrase which appears to stand for the thing itself as opposed to anything which may be said about it."  

He goes on:  "Kant erected the Forms of Perception as a kind of impenetrable screen between the real world of 'things in themselves' and the mind of man.  The Positivists have substituted syntax for the forms of perception, and scrapped the things as otiose" (19).  

My summary: Barfield seems to be on the verge of concluding that given scientist's skepticism about finding out what is really real - and positivist's corresponding expulsion of the referent in language - we are stuck with not really being able to know anything (i.e. if we take their presuppositions to their logical conclusion).  

My critique/comments:  When Barfield talks about how twentieth-century philosophy has abolished the "thing" altogether, I think his qualifier, "that part of {20th c. philosophy], at least, which takes no account of imagination" is more important than ever.  Again, it seems to me that we have come a long way from the Logical Positivists.  I think many persons want to make Karl Popper into one of these, for example, but I do not think that we can do that so easily, as his thought does take account of the imagination and he does not seem to insist that philosophical naturalism is true.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Barfield, Owen ; Poetic diction: a study in meaning, preface to the second edition (a) [1951]

Barfield, Owen ; Poetic diction: a study in meaning (1973, 1952 [2nd ed.], 1927)

Preface, 2nd ed. (a)

He says the book "claims to present, not merely a theory of poetic diction, but a theory of poetry: and not merely a theory of poetry, but a theory of knowledge.  It is as such, I see, that it must be judged.  Apparently, the author was determined that the title should at least be unassuming" (14).

The current generation of people, Barfield notes (23 years after the first ed.), is not quite so interested in the "various theories of language, life and literature" that Barfield was concerned to address (rationalizing his own observations in terms of these) when the book was written.  This is because it now regards them as "irrelevant to its own more maturely skeptical philosophy".  It is confidently asserted of Kant, Berkeley, and Locke, for example, that they were not so much wrong, but "asked the wrong questions" (14, 15).  He says that if he were doing the book today, he would criticize Hume and his more recent disciples in the Appendices instead, "not the less so because [now] the fashionable method is to analyse language itself - which is the heart of my matter" (15).

He notes that any readers coming "fresh to the subject" may at this point want to start reading at Chapter One, coming back to the Preface later (you have been forewarned!)  It becomes clear why he says this: he gets into very philosophical territory.  He discusses and dismisses the ideas Dr. I. A. Richards and the Logical Positivists, starting with this:

"Now in a footnote to page 113 in this book it is pointed out that 'logical judgments, by their nature, can only render more explicit some one part of a truth already implicit in their terms'.  And in another, to page 131, that the logician is continually seeking to reduce the meaning of his terms, and that 'he could only evolve a language whose propositions would really obey the laws of thought by eliminating meaning altogether'" (16). 

He goes on to say that "I do not think it too sweeping to say that the doctrines of linguistic analysis, or as it has sometimes been called, Logical Positivism, are no more than an extensive gloss on this principle".  The Logical Positivists basically said that "all propositions except those from which some observation-statement can be deduce are, it is averred, meaningless, either as misuse of language, or as tautologies" (16, 17), (me: therefore eliminating the claimed importance of religious language, for example, which they believed was completely unverifiable)

Barfield then naturally moves on to talking about Locke and Hume, who attributed great importance to observation, or sense-impression, and dismissed any notions of "innate ideas" or innate thoughts.  For Hume, he notes, "man, as knower, is above all a passive recipient of impressions [or ideas, which for Hume are the perceptions].  Such is also the assumption on which the edifice of physical science is erected" (17).

My summary: The whole idea of science has (so far at least, when he is writing this) been based on the idea that we can, through the power of our sense impressions and the careful use of descriptive language, "pin things down" (I say: to capture and use the truth).  In order to do this, they often have to reduce the meaning of the terms they use.  Furthermore, Logical Positivists insist that this is the only kind of real knowledge there is.  

My critique/comments:  It seems to me that since Barfield wrote this much has happened.  Looking at individuals like Karl Popper, Michael Polanyi, and Thomas Kuhn, science is much more nuanced now about how our observations work hand in hand with our ideas, or presuppositions.  In addition, persons like Popper, although embracing some of the Logical Positivists points, distinguished himself from them, and it is much more nuanced views like his that hold influence.  That said, the indented quotation above is fascinating.  I wonder if I am right in saying that if one can really understand Barfield  here, one will get to the heart of his work and concern.  It seems he is speaking to the idea that we often want to pin things down, clearly and distinctly defining them, and then universally applying these definitions to our entire range of experiences and circumstances - and this, he seems to be saying (whatever the feasibility of such a project) comes with a cost, namely the loss of the meaning in our language.  There is much more to be said here, but that will need to wait for later. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

[Highbrow] friendship with the world

“Sooner or later, however, the real nature of his new friends must become clear to him, and then your tactics must depend on the patient's intelligence.  If he is a big enough fool you can get him to realise the character of the friends only while they are absent; their presence can be made to sweep away all criticism.  If this succeeds, he can be induced to live, as I have known many humans live, for quite long periods, two parallel lives; he will not only appear to be, but actually be, a different man in each of the circles he frequents.  Failing this, there is a subtler and more entertaining method. He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent.  This is done by exploiting his vanity.  He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a ‘deeper’, ‘spiritual’ world within him which they cannot understand.  You see the idea—the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction. Finally, if all else fails, you can persuade him, in defiance of conscience, to continue the new acquaintance on the ground that he is, in some unspecified way, doing these people ‘good’ by the mere fact of drinking their cocktails and laughing at their jokes, and that to cease to do so would be ‘priggish’, ‘intolerant’, and (of course) ‘Puritanical’.”—Screwtape

Lewis, C.S. ; Screwtape Letters, p. 47, Touchstone, 1996 ed.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Popper, Karl ; Conjectures and Refutations, chapter 1(c): On the sources of knowledge and ignorance

Popper, Karl ; Conjectures and Refutations - the growth of scientific knowledge (1968, c1963)

Chapter 1(c)

The idea that our intellect is a source of knowledge because God is a source of knowledge "has a long history which can easily be traced back at least to Homer and Hesiod.  Plato also "plays a decisive part" in the pre-history of this doctrine, which was Descartes' starting point.  The sources of knowledge for the Greek poets were divine.  They were the Muses, and they guaranteed the truth of the stories.  The philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides made similar claims, and Parmenides' god even says that in order to distinguish between truth and falsehood, he must rely on the intellect to the exclusion of the senses of sight, hearing, and taste (also similar to Descartes) (9,10).

Plato sharply distinguishes between the "divine frenzy of the poet" and the "divine sources or origins of true knowledge".  He "grants the inspiration to the poets but denies them any divine authority for their alleged knowledge of facts".  On the other hand, Plato's idea  is that each man is in some measure granted the possession of divine sources of knowledge (amemnesis), i.e. the essence or nature of a thing "rather than of a particular historical fact".  At birth, our immortal soul forgets what it knew (this is an "epistemological fall" of sorts), but if we "see the truth again [we shall] recognize it.  All knowledge is therefore re-cognition - recalling or remembering the essence or true nature that we once knew" (here, think of Socrates' story about Meno's slave boy being taught to recall the Pythagorean theorm).  Even here, we can see the idea that the truth is manifest (which Popper opposes, 10).  

Plato describes his teaching as one which "makes men eager to learn, to search, and to discover", but his optimism seems to have waned in the Republic.  Here, we find the parable of the cave, and with it, the idea that obtaining true knowledge ("the divine understanding of the real world") and passing it on to others is exceedingly difficult.  Here, "truth may be attained by a few - the elect", something that Popper says is "more wildly optimistic than even the doctrine that truth is manifest".  Here, optimistic "anti-traditionalist, anti-authoritarian, revolutionary and Utopian rationalism" gives way to pessimistic "authoritarian traditionalism". 

Popper thinks that in Plato's story of the cave (and maybe also the story of the fall of the city, "when the Muses and their divine teaching are neglected" also in the Republic) one can see an echo of "Parmenides' doctrine that the opinions of mortals are delusions, and the result of a misguided choice / convention (Popper also thinks this may come from Xenophanes' doctrine that all human knowledge is simply guesswork, with his own theories being merely similar to the truth).  Parmenides essentially says that even though the fall affected all men, "truth may be revealed to the elect by an act of grace - even the truth about the unreal world of the delusions and opinions, the conventional notions and decisions, of mortals: the unreal world of the appearance that was destined to be accepted, and to be approved of, as real...: a few may reach certainty about both the unchanging world of eternal reality and the unreal and changing world of verisimilitude..." (11, 12).   This, Popper believes, was Plato's inspiration for his philosophy.  

What Popper is really interested in though are the more optimistic ideas of Plato's.  He thinks that Plato's more optimistic epistemology (pre-Republic) contained the roots of Aristotle's theories of induction (and later, Bacon's), as well as the "germs of Descartes' intellectualism".  He thinks that when Aristotle said that Socrates was the inventor of the method of induction, he was referring to the "Socratic method", i.e. the idea that judicious questions can help us to remember or recapture the forgotten knowledge of the soul (possessed in its pre-natal state of omniscience).  He thinks that Both Aristotle and Bacon meant by "induction" "not so much the inferring of universal laws from particular observed instances" as a "method by which we are guided to the point where we can intuit or perceive the essence or the true nature of a thing", which is precisely the aim of Socrates' method, or art of midwifery (or maieutic).  Therefore the aims of maieutic and induction were the same (12). 

Socrates' method basically asks questions with the intent to destroy prejudices, or "false beliefs which are often traditional or fashionable ; false answers, given in the spirit of ignorant cocksureness".  Socrates himself does not pretend to know, but aimed to teach us to "doubt our own convictions.  Fundamentally, the same procedure is a part of Bacon's induction" 13.

My summary: - What underlies Bacon's method is really the Socratic method, which Plato subscribed to early on, only to fall into epistemological pessimism later.  Aristotle, Bacon and Descartes all used this method to arrive at the discovery of essences.  
My comments/critique: First, I think it is telling that the idea that the "intellect is a source of knowledge because God is a source of knowledge" is as much a Greek idea as it is a Jewish or Christian one.  I am also curious to know what Socrates thought about the "essence of things" and to what extent we might be able to discover these.  He certainly was interesting, insisting that he did not know....  I think that it makes sense to draw the connection between Socrates' method and Artistotle's and Bacon's inductivism, although it seems to me that the idea that Divine Laws could be pinpointed in the process was pretty clear in Bacon at least.  It also seems to me that traditionally philosophers may be pessimistic about man's ability to know because of the disasters that have come upon man in this or that age.  Likewise they tend to be more optimistic when times seem somewhat better, showing improvement.  In either case, the idea seems to be that if we really knew more, we would be more successful in creating a better and more just world.  The Christian points out that there really is much that we do know but suppress (the kind of "conspiracy theory of ignorance" Popper decries), even as there is much that we do not know.  Finally, all knowledge and wisdom are ultimately found in Jesus Christ, who will bring all things to fulfillment, and redeem and renew the whole creation.   

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Popper, Karl ; Conjectures and Refutations, chapter 1(b): On the sources of knowledge and ignorance

Popper, Karl ; Conjectures and Refutations - the growth of scientific knowledge (1968, c1963)

Chapter 1(b)

Popper warns that our political hopes and Utopian dreams might often affect our search for truth, therefore, "it may be our best plan to start by criticizing our most cherished beliefs" (6).  

He says that the implicitly accepted idea that truth is manifest (i.e. "we have been given eyes to see the truth, and the 'natural light' of reason to see it by", 7), at the heart of both Descartes' (rationalist) and Bacon's (empiricist) teaching, gives rise to the "curious" conspiracy theory of ignorance (see last post).  For Descartes, "what we clearly and distinctly see as true must indeed be true; for otherwise God would be deceiving us".  For Bacon, Nature is an open book that only an impure mind can fail to read correctly (7).  

According to these lights, it is only prejudices and powers (spiritual and earthly), for example, "our sinful refusal to see manifest truth" that are to blame.  Marxism seized upon this and ran with it in a certain way - it is completely unoriginal.  The "priest who keeps the people in ignorance was a stock figure of the eighteenth century", and Popper believes was one of the inspirations of [classical] liberalism.  Earlier yet: "protestant belief in the conspiracy of the Roman Church", and "Plato's uncle Critias" (7)  

Popper says that "this curious belief in a conspiracy is the almost inevitable consequence of the optimistic belief that truth, and therefore goodness, must prevail if only truth is given a fair chance" (8).  He says a tolerance based on an "optimistic faith in the victory of truth may easily be shaken", and this is liable then to turn into a conspiracy theory (which in the main was [is?] a myth as well).  

He goes on: "The simple truth is that truth is often hard to come by, and that once found may be easily lost again" (8 - he speaks of erroneous beliefs with great staying power in science and medicine in particular).  And yet, he says 
"perhaps the strangest thing in this story is that this false epistemology was the major inspiration of an intellectual and moral revolution without parallel in history.  It encouraged men to think for themselves.  It gave them hope that through knowledge they might free themselves and others from servitude and misery.  It made modern science possible.   It became the basis of the fight against censorship and the suppression of free thought.  It became the basis of the nonconformist conscience, of individualism, and of a new sense of man's dignity; of a demand for universal education, and of a new dream of a free society.  It made men feel responsible for themselves and for others, and eager to improve not only their own condition but also that of their fellow men.  It is a case of a bad idea inspiring many good ones" (8, italics mine)
But, he says, this idea also led to disastrous consequences as this theory is "the basis of almost every kind of fanaticism" (including the idea that those who don't "see manifest truth must be possessed by the devil").  "Only those who have every reason to fear truth can deny it, and conspire to suppress it."  

Popper summarizes at this point by saying that "since "truth is not manifest, as a rule", an optimistic epistemology then also leads to authoritarianism, although "perhaps less directly than does a pessimistic epistemology".  "The allegedly manifest truth is therefore in constant need not only of interpretation and affirmation, but also of re-interpretation and re-affirmation", and the authorities required to do this may "learn to do so arbitrarily and cynically".  Finally, "many disappointed epistemologists will turn away from their own former optimism and erect a resplendent authoritarian theory on the basis of a pessimistic epistemology (Plato)" (8,9)

My summary: - Popper teaches as he does because he - through good parenting, hard work, education, and knowledge of the ways of scientific discovery (he didn't say this [yet at least!]) - is able to see that it is manifestly true that it is not manifestly true that truth is manifest. 
My comments/critique: For me, this seems relatively simple: sometimes truth is clearly manifest (i.e. there are things that absolutely everyone can agree are true), and other times it is not (do I need to prove this?).  Contra Bacon, not only an "impure mind" might read "Nature" incorrectly.  And of course, Christianity does explicitly say that we hold down, or suppress, the truth (I would say, the truth we can and do know) in unrighteousness, and therefore, I think the idea is not a bad one with good consequences, but a good one with mostly good consequences.  I find it interesting that Popper seems to assume that if we can know the truth, we will tend to live according to it (kind of like the Gospel of John: "the truth will set you free").  As this pertains to morality (and Popper must be concerned about this as he talks of politics above) I think the Apostle Paul, writing in Romans 7, is instructive.  Here, he talks about knowing what was good and yet not doing it (I believe good exegesis demands that we see Paul writing this as a Christian who is struggling with sin, while others say this took place before he was a Christian - in either case, I think it is something that "natural man" can i.d. with).  That is an interesting point to consider, I think.  

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Perry Mason on his problem as defense attorney

“Once [the prosecuting attorney has] come to the conclusion the defendant is guilty, the only facts he considers significant are those which point to the guilt of the defendant.  That’s why circumstantial evidence is such a liar.  Facts themselves are meaningless.  It’s only the interpretation we give those facts which counts.”

What do you think? 

--Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Perjured Parrot, 1939

Monday, October 4, 2010

Popper, Karl ; Conjectures and Refutations, chapter 1(a): On the sources of knowledge and ignorance

Popper, Karl ; Conjectures and Refutations - the growth of scientific knowledge (1968, c1963)

Chapter 1(a)

Popper asks, “How can the absence of anything have sources?”  Popper says that he means, through the phrasing of the title (i.e. the “sources of ignorance” part), to direct attention to a “number of historically important although unrecorded philosophical doctrines, and among them, especially, to a conspiracy theory of ignorance which interprets ignorance not as a mere lack of knowledge but as the work of some mischievous power, the source of impure and evil influences which pervert and poison our minds and instill in us he habit of resistance to knowledge.” (3, italics his) 

He begins by saying that he thinks that both the “empiricists” and he “rationalists”, understood respectively as those saying the ultimate source of knowledge is observation or “the intellectual intuition of clear and distinct ideas”, are both wrong.  “I shall try to show that neither observation nor reason can be described as a source of knowledge, in the sense in which they have claimed o be sources of knowledge, down to the present day” (4)

He notes that the “belief in the possibility of a rule of law, of justice, and of freedom, cannot well survive the acceptance of an epistemology which teaches there are no objective facts.” (5)  He says that “the great movement of liberation which started in the Renaissance” “was inspired by an unparalleled epistemological optimism: by a most optimistic view of man’s power to discern truth and to acquire knowledge.” (5)  “Modern science and… technology [were] inspired by this optimistic epistemology whose main spokesmen were Bacon and Descartes” (5).  Despite their differences, both men believed “each man carried the sources of knowledge in himself” (5).

Indeed, Benedictus de Spinoza may have said that truth manifests itself, and John Locke that “every man carries about him a touchstone… to distinguish… truth from appearances” (3), but as Popper will go on to say, they were wrong: truth is not evident, revealing itself or being revealed to us by the removal of its veil… And it is not true that “once the naked truth stands revealed before our eyes, we have the power to see it, to distinguish it from falsehood, and to know that it is truth.” (5)

Popper also talks about an epistemological pessimism, which he says is rooted in a distrust of man and his reason… his power to discern the truth.  It is, he says, linked historically with a doctrine of human depravity, which usually leads to the demand for powerful traditions and authorities to keep people in check.

So if Popper does not endorse the kind of epistemological optimism (or pessimism!) he describes, in what way does he believe “man can know: thus he can be free”, and therefore remain an advocate of the ideas of classical liberalism (i.e. “rationalism” in a wide, good, sense), which has always “claimed the right of reason and of empirical science to criticize, and to reject, any tradition, and any authority, as being based on sheer unreason or prejudice or accident?”  More later…

My summary: -
My comments/critique: First of all, let me point out that Popper is a gifted writer and communicator – I think this book, given its topic matter, is relatively easy to understand.   That said, I will hold my tongue for a while longer before commenting.