Posts from October 2004

Blues for Dixie; Gone Till November

Like Roderick, I’ll be spending this weekend at the Alabama Philosophical Society annual shindig–in fact, by the time you read this I will probably already be in Mobile, presenting my essay on Hume’s empiricism and the Missing Shade of Blue–in somewhat shortened version. Here’s an even shorter version: Hume divides all of our perceptions into ideas or impressions, and all of our ideas and impressions can be analyzed as either complex (i.e., made up out of other more basic ideas or impressions) or simple (existing independently of any other perception). He then famously argues that any idea that we can have is ultimately derived from sense experience–because all of our complex ideas must ultimately be composed of simple ideas, and–here’s the big claim–we cannot have any simple ideas except those that are copied from a corresponding simple impression. You can call this the copy princple; it’s both the most important philosophical conclusion in the opening chapters of the Treatise and the first Enquiry, and also the most important methodological principle used in the rest of the book. It’s the key to Hume’s empiricism, and the foundation of nearly all of his most famous arguments concerning causality, the external world, the idea of substance, personal identity, and so on. Yet immediately after giving two arguments for it, he goes on to argue that there is a specific counterexample to it–the so called Missing Shade of Blue. My essay takes up the puzzle and the two questions it raises–the exegetical question of just what the hell Hume thought he was doing in raising, accepting, and then apparently ignoring a counterexample to the principle whose universal truth seems to be the linchpin of his empiricist philosophy; and the philosophical question of what alternatives were on offer, and whether Hume’s solution was the right solution to take. The shorter version of my essay mostly drops the first question, out of considerations of space, in order to concentrate on a novel answer to the second that’s adapted from a distinction made in Mike Watkins’ work on Hume’s arguments on causation. (Actually Watkins’ distinction is subtly different from my adaptation of it to the case; but that’s not too important here.) I argue that Hume actually uses the notions of simplicity and complexity to do two distinct, and separable, kinds of work, and that once the two notions are separated, it becomes clear that there is an attractive solution to the puzzle of the Missing Shade of Blue that avoids abandoning the copy principle by revealing that it is actually ambiguous, and that the only formulation of it worth saving actually poses no difficulty for the Missing Shade thought-experiment. I go on to argue that the richer picture of experience that this offers has big potential ramifications for Hume’s most infamous applications of the copy principle: his skeptical examinations of the idea of objective causal connexion and the idea of external objects.

(Yes, I know that it’s controversial to claim that Hume was a skeptic on these matters. I don’t care. Whether or not Hume ultimately endorsed a skeptical attack on the alleged content of these ideas and the justification of the principles based on them, and if so however he meant for that to be taken in light of his claim that these same arguments are in some sense unnatural, all that I’m concerned with in my essay is the much less controversial claim that Hume found some sort of suspicious examination of these ideas compelling from some standpoint. The name “Hume” is used as a sort of useful shorthand for the case that he makes; if the skeptical Hume does not exist, it will be necessary to invent him.)

Anyway, if you want a more thorough examination than that, you’ll have to just read the essay–but that shouldn’t be too hard, because I’ve placed a draft of it online. Feel free to pass along any questions, comments, applause, brickbats, etc. which may come to mind.

In any case, I’ll be relaxing in Alabama for the rest of the weekend; L. and I are going to be down in Mobile until tomorrow afternoon for the conference, and then staying with my parents for another day before heading up to Detroit again on Monday. Don’t be surprised that posts are held up for a while (ho, ho, ho–as if that’s something new); in the meantime you might check out a couple of fascinating-looking weblogs that Ampersand lately recommended: AVEN Blog, a weblog for the asexual community (which I’m hearing a lot about since the recent article in New Scientist), and Sisters Talk.

I’ll see you in November. Cheers!

These old stories

It’s all coming down to the last few days before The Election now; and in all the (understandable! sympathetic! important!) rush and clamor it’s important to remember that we live in a wide, old world and that there has been a lot more before this November and there will be a lot more after every last one of these men and their works on the earth has crumbled into dust and ashes. So it’s hard to say just how glad I read a beautiful, moving article by Alina Stefanescu on living in history–on history, and living memory, and making our way in the midst of horror and hope.

History inspires, as it legitimizes and shames. The Bush administration has attempted to legitimize the Afghan and Iraqi transition to a democracy by involving historical institutions assumed to resonate with the local public. The extent of Russian and Chinese liberalization is constantly conveyed as a grappling with history– scholars resort to descriptions of strong-man rule and reverence for authory as stumbling-blocks in the path to free societies. Dale Richmond even goes so far as to define “South Eastern European values” entirely with reference to historical political institutions in the area.

While government-oriented institutional theories prove effective in short-term comparisons, their comparisons are often limited to explaining the political behavior of elites. Truly effective institutional paradigms would encompass social and non-governmental institutions, for it is these institutions which act as incubators of social change, creating classrooms of oral history and legendry, encouraging the laboratories of revolution. You don’t have to be a radical deconstructionist to acknowledge that the tale told by history textbooks is often a politically-motivated one, which sustains and reinforces current political arrangements. And you don’t have to worship Howard Zinn to acknowledge that the most crucial history for transition states is “the people’s history”– the one that legitimates and supports regime change.

Clausen’s includes a moving quote from one of my favorite authors, William Faulker. In “The Jail” (1951), Faulkner channeled the memory of a Alabama Civil war soldier’s widow to unveil the vividness and poignancy of historial memory:

“so vast, so limitless in capacity is man’s imagination to disperse and burn away the rubble-dross of fact and probability, leaving only truth and dream…there is the clear, undistanced voice as though out of the delicate antenna-skeins of radio, futher than the empress’s throne, than the splendid instantiation, even than matriarch’s peacful rocking chair, across the vast instantaneous intervention, from the long long time ago: Listen, stranger, this was myself: this was I.”

Who am I? Who were “we”? Must the “we” be delegitimized to make room for the repentant “I”? Every time I return to Romania, I silently observe the reckonings of individuals seeking to reconcile their present conceptions of morality with their past communist complicity (or lack). The older generation brushes off such difficult reflection with statements like, “It was better then..” or “Who cares? Politicians are all the same– I just did what I had to do to put food on the table”.

How we justify past horrors is the cornerstone of future political arrangements. How governments obscure past and present horrors can be exhumed through an analysis of propaganda. The stories we tell to hold our worldviews and self-images together cannot be discounted, especially when the stories don’t quite match the official explanation.

You should read it all. I’ve talked a lot, especially over the past year or so, about history and its importance, but I couldn’t hope to say why I do it better than Alina already has. All I can add is how much her post reminded me of another remarkable talk about history, from Utah Phillips, recorded on Fellow Workers (one of his collaborative albums with Ani DiFranco). The album–you really ought to get a copy of it, now, if you don’t already have it–is a passionate, moving, and often very funny collection of stories and songs from the anarchist workers’ movement of the early 20th century. And along the way, Utah Phillips muses on history, memory, and coming to terms. I couldn’t hope to duplicate in print that achingly earnest passion or that long, steady rumble of his voice. But here it is; listen to it some day, as soon as you have the chance:

The old songs, these old stories… why tell them? What do they mean?

When I went to high school–that’s about as far as I got–reading my U.S. history textbook, well I got the history of the ruling class; I got the history of the generals and the industrialists and the Presidents who didn’t get caught. How about you?

I got the history of the people who owned the wealth of the country, but none of the history of the people who created it… you know? So when I went out to get my first job, I went out armed with someone else’s class background. They never gave me any tools to understand, or to begin to control the condition of my labor.

And that was deliberate, wasn’t it? Huh? They didn’t want me to know this. That’s why this stuff isn’t taught in the history books. We’re not supposed to know it, to understand that. No. If I wanted the true history of where I came from, as a member of the working class, I had to go to my elders. Many of them, their best working years before pensions or Social Security, gave their whole lives to the mines, to the wheat harvests, to the logging camps, to the railroad. Got nothing for it–just fetched up on the skids, living on short money, mostly drunk all the time. But they lived those extraordinary lives that can never be lived again. And in the living of them, they gave me a history that is more profound, more beautiful, more powerful, more passionate, and ultimately more useful, than the best damn history book I ever read.

As I have said so often before, the long memory is the most radical idea in America….

–Utah Phillips, The Long Memory, Fellow Workers (with Ani DiFranco)


(Link thanks to Radley Balko 2004/10/27 and LRC Blog 2004/10/26.)

If you thought that comparing George Bush to Aragorn and his assault on Iraq to the War of the Rings was not quite enough for you, then you might be the sort of person who appreciates the latest Freeper Flash movie classic, When the Man Comes Around, set to Johnny Cash’s song by the same name. The Man coming around in the movie is our brave leader, George W. Bush; the movie is a slideshow of war propaganda, with big Bush press photos set in time to the refrain … when the man comes around. It would be a bit of a mistake to describe it as the latest entry in the genre of Hawk Hagiography: if you’re not familiar with the song, it’s describing the Second Coming and the Man in question is Jesus Christ. Hagiographies are about the saints; putting George Bush in the place of the Lord and Savior needs a different word entirely.

My suggestion is blasphemy. Here’s what the Bible had to say about this sort of thing:

1 And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.

2 And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.

3 And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.

4 And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?

5 And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months.

— Revelation, chapter 13

Further reading

The rumors of feminism’s demise have been greatly exaggerated

(I owe the link to the brilliant take-down at feministe 2004/10/21)

If there’s one thing that you can count on every year, it’s that some dude will decide it’s time to hold forth on Women’s Lib and how the feminist movement blew it all and is, if not completely moribund, at least marginalized and just about to close up shop. The best part about spouting off about the feminist movement, for boys like these, is that it’s easy: unlike political movements run for and by men, you don’t have to actually bother to take the time out to research what people said or did, or what they are doing now, in order to offer your pet theories. Consider, for example, Tom Sawyer [sic!] of The Rant, who offers the following winning introduction to his article on feminism.

Remember the Year of the Woman in politics?

It sure came and went fast.

With this being another election year, we have heard form all kinds of groups. We have heard from the George Soros backed groups, Move On, the Swift Boat veterans and lots of others ranging form mainstream to the far fringes. You know what group we haven’t heard from?

The feminists.

This election year we have not heard from women’s groups at all. We have heard nary a word form the National Organization of Woman. This is unusual for them, since we have heard so much from them since roughly the 1980’s until the end of the Clinton Administration. They used to be as loud as banshees. Now nothing.

It’s as if they disappeared into the kitchen or something.

So where are all the feminists this election year, anyway?

photo: 1.15 million marchers rally on the Mall

1,150,000 feminists at the March for Women’s Lives 2004/04/25, Washington, DC

Oh, yeah, there they are.

Tom, Tom, Tom. It seems that the rumors of feminism’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

You say you didn’t see the largest political demonstration in the history of the world on your teevee? Well, Jesus, why did you expect the television news to give you reasonable coverage of mass marches in general or feminist politics in particular? Is that a strategy well-justified by its success?

You say you don’t hear discussion of the issues in the newspapers or magazines? Well, again, why are you counting on the newspapers to give you good coverage of feminist activism? Nevertheless, I do have to wonder which newspapers and magazines you’re reading–apparently not The Chicago Sun-Times, The Boston Globe, or The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

You say you didn’t hear the candidates highlighting discussions of feminist issues? Is that the feminists’ fault, or the candidates’? Bush clearly doesn’t want to talk about it because he knows he’d lose, and Kerry doesn’t want to talk about it because he’s a schmuck. Politicians are out of touch with reality. What else is new?

What about the rest of Tom’s article–his theory that feminists have squandered their credibility and marginalized themselves by giving a hypocritical and partisan pass to Bill Clinton’s sexually predatory behavior? Well, sure, there were an alarming number of feminists who either fronted for Bill Clinton or didn’t say much during the Lewinsky debacle. But was that the consensus opinion? Let’s see:

I am one of the few feminists I know who believed Paula Jones from the git-go. I believed Kathleen Willey and I believe Juanita Brodderick. Each of these women strikes me as a credible witness. Taken as a whole, we see a jack rabbit who grabs any nearby woman for a moment of relaxation. …

Yes, Clinton has appointed more women to big jobs than any other president in history and that’s nothing to snivel at, but rather than view a handful of high-profile women as some sort of blessed gift from on high, I see the appointments as one small result of thirty years of feminist agitation. Yes, he’s held the line on abortion, but any Democratic president would have done the same thing. Now let’s look at a few examples of how Clinton let us down so swiftly we could only gasp: signing the oppressive welfare bill, dropping Lani Guinier like a hot potato, firing the remarkable Jocelyn Elders for daring to mention masturbation (how’s that for hypocrisy?), endorsing the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy for the military, letting Janet Reno get away with the inferno at Waco, vetoing the needle-exchange legislation, ordering air strikes on two small, troubled countries to show he’s the Free World’s great macho leader.

On balance, his record is atrocious.

–Susan Brownmiller, Bill Clinton, Jack Rabbit


When Paula Jones sued Bill Clinton, male dominance quaked … It was clear that now any woman can sue any man for harassment … Monica Lewinsky catalyzed the fears and bigotry behind attempts to shut down sexual harassment.

–Catharine MacKinnon, quoted in The Yale Daily News 1998/03/23: MacKinnon draws people to conference


I have a modest proposal. It will probably bring the FBI to my door, but I think that Hillary should shoot Bill and then President Gore should pardon her.

–Andrea Dworkin, Dear Bill and Hillary

You say you didn’t know about any of this? That’s fine. Nobody expects you to keep up with all the news on a political movement that you’re obviously neither very interested in nor very sympathetic to. But this stuff wouldn’t have been hard to figure out if you were interested in looking for it; and if you don’t know what you’re talking about, then why are you still talking about it?

Further reading

Technical Difficulties

I’ve been set back a bit on my posting schedule, thanks to a delightful combination of factors: I was going to try to integrate TypeKey identification into my comments sections in order to help control spam; but first I found out that I’d have the joy of having to reformat my hard drive and get back up to speed from a clean install and, thank God, up-to-the-minute full backups. (It’s a tale of woe, but also a boring one. Don’t ask.)

TypeKey is, I think, close to completed. Immediate effects you may notice: (1) you can now sign in using your TypeKey identity when posting comments on individual entries; (2) if you don’t sign in using a TypeKey identity, your comments will be held up momentarily for moderation. It’s not that I don’t love you all, it’s just that spammers run amok here as elsewhere, and I’ve had to deal with one no-conscience asshole too many lately. If you do comment pretty frequently here, and you don’t have one already, it may speed things a bit for you if you sign up for a TypeKey identity (all you need is a valid e-mail address). If you don’t, that’s fine too–your comments will just go up as soon as I have the chance to screen them.

Let me know what you think about the changes; and forgive me if things are a little dusty in the comments department for the rest of the night. Actual content should be resuming within (I hope!) the next day.