25 July 2006

On Toposes and Aporia

Perhaps you missed this comment in a recent review of N. Rescher, Philosophical Dialectics:

But the book does have a relevant problem, one that was easily avoidable. If ever a book seems not to have been copyedited and proof-read, it is this one. Typographical errors abound, including many glaring mistakes. I do not recall more of them, ever, in a serious philosophy book: approximately every second page contains one. Almost inexplicably, too, some entire passages appear twice within the book. A short paragraph from p. 31 recurs on p. 35; p. 78 repeats material from pp. 38-9; pp. 79-80 reprise, with a few trivial changes, a passage from p. 39 (oddly, the later appearance corrects a substantive typographical mistake from the earlier one); much of p. 80 all-but-repeats some of pp. 37-8; and a paragraph on p. 40 occurs again, with minimal alteration, on p. 81. That is not all: p. 103 quotes a lengthy passage from Peirce (referencing it cursorily in n. 10, on p. 113) which also appears in n.6 (appearing on p. 113); pp. 104-5 feature a passage used at pp. 97-8; this is followed immediately, on p. 105, by a few sentences from p. 99.
A pity, I think. Apparently, if Rescher had divided the book somewhere between pages 41 and 78, he could have had two books for the effort of one.

I wonder if you've heard mathematicians speak of 'toposes' (plural, for them, of topos), which is a branch of category theory. In an reverse twist, the NDPR reviewer seems to think that aporia is plural, presumably of aporion:

And how are those principles implemented within philosophy? Aporetically! Even individual philosophers, it seems, incur this predicament: "generally the answers that people incline to give to some questions are incompatible with those they incline to give to others" (p. 17). We strike our toes on "cognitive dissonance" (ibid.), on "puzzlement and perplexity" (ibid.). Aporia arise. ("An apory is a group of contentions that are individually plausible but collectively inconsistent" (ibid.)) Socrates would be proud of his legacy.

Examples abound, and Rescher mentions several -- starting with ones about virtue, knowledge, meaning, explanation, and the problem of evil. How should a philosopher react to these aporia? Precisely as philosophers do react:

one can . . . become a skeptic, and walk away from the entire issue, or else one can settle down to the work of problem solving, trying to salvage what one can by way of cognitive damage control. . . . (p. 19)
Mathematicians can be excused for this sort of thing, but not, I think, philosophers--and not, certainly, editors.

21 July 2006

Moved Out

Here's one time when I'd rather predict than promise or intend: it's likely I'll post tomorrow, as finally I've finished the move out of our house.

This was a difficult move, which, as you know, took a week longer than planned (by the revised plan!). My procedure in the past, when moving, had always been simply to box, move, and then unbox--indiscriminately. This time, as I said, a decision had to be made about everything, and there were six options: leave behind, take along, give away, sell, store, trash.

But the good thing about a protracted move is that we are hardly 'in boxes' now, as we've been able to set up rooms at the pace at which we've moved out.

Here's a picture of our new digs, which the youngest children call 'the Hotel'.

Joseph immediately became good buddies with six year-old N., who with his sister are the only other children living in the apartment complex.

I'll tell you a story which, to my mind, helps to confirm that our decision to move was a wise one. We have been wanting to start our youngest children on musical instruments. The Longy School of Music is immediately next door, and my wife went there today to inquire about lessons. She brought home a brochure with a picture on the cover of the face of a young boy playing violin in the Suzuki program at Longy.

Later in the day, when N. was visiting our apartment, he asked whether we recognized the boy on the picture of the brochure. Indeed, it was N. himself. We told him that our boys owned a violin (a 1/4 size instrument that we had bought last year, in anticipation of lessons). So N. excitedly ran home and brought back his violin. He then proceeded to show my boys how to hold the bow, position the instrument, and so on.

So, on our first day entirely moved out of our house, here I was, witnessing a six-year old neighbor showing my boys how to play the violin, as naturally as if he were teaching them how to play tag or toss a ball. I won't romanticize Cambridge, and I do recognize that this incident was extraordinary, by any reckoning--but, needless to say, it was not something that would have happened in the farm town of Lancaster.

14 July 2006

Ensnarled in the Population Imagination

The best thing, in my view, about a recent Call for Papers from the "Metaphysical Society of America" was the footnote at the end:

N.B. The 2007 program takes place on a Sunday and Monday, not Saturday and Sunday.

I liked that. After all, why should we presume that it is acceptable to hold academic conferences on the Jewish Sabbath, which effectively excludes many of our colleagues? But why hold them on a weekend at all? Why shouldn't they be scheduled, standardly, during the week, and considered as part of our professional work--with our making provisions, of course, to make up for missed class time?

But the rest of the Call is the sort of thing gives metaphysics a bad name. Here's the first paragraph.

Metaphysics, First Philosophy, was described by Aristotle as the quest for ultimates, archai, as he put it. Its subject: Being qua being. Its core question: What is it for a thing to be? Metaphysics considers not just living things, like biology, or thinking, or the weather, but whatever exists. It holds itself open to consider all claims about reality at large. It is perhaps its generality that has given metaphysics a bad name in some quarters. The interest in ultimates ensnarled it in population imagination with the arcana of the occult. For many philosophers, metaphysics has seemed to be hopelessly entangled with irresoluble quandaries. For how could one have the effrontery to try to characterize reality at large? Some have taken refuge from such big questions by turning to an analysis of language or some other meta-critique, parasitic on other modes of discourse. Others have substituted historical disquisitions on texts and the circumstances of their composition. Or they have sublimated, if not creatively, in poetic or artistic expression, then cloaking their metaphysical interests in the opacity of oblique discourse or the armor of technical jargon. And yet the big questions do not disappear. They remain robust as long as human curiosity flourishes. And efforts to address them persist, varying in quality with the insights or insightfulness of those who make the attempt.
The paragraph raises interesting metaphysical questions itself, such as what sort of thing is such that it can be ensnarled in the imagination ('population imagination') together with 'arcana of the occult'. Or how is it that there can be a 'meta-critique' which is not parasitic on language but 'discourse'. Or what it means for persons to 'sublimate'. Or whether a question may remain robust when human curiosity no longer flourishes. (I did, however, appreciate the subtle distinction between 'insights' and 'insightfulness'. That was helpful.)

Of course we certainly should avoid 'cloaking metaphysical interests in the opacity of oblique discouse'. That would be terrible. We should never do such a thing.

The second paragraph attempts to clarify:
Our question, then, is the ancient one: What is it for a thing to be? Do minds exist? If so, what is their relation to bodies? What is it to be a person, or a living being? What connections are there between being and knowing? fact and value? reality and truth? Do ideas exist, and if so how? Does God exist? What about probabilities and possibilities? What is the ontic status of causes? All these questions are opened up by the inquiry into being. The topic is chosen for its openness to a wide variety of perspectives. Papers are invited that seek to grapple with such questions, drawing on the work of past and present philosophers but not avoiding active engagement with the core questions in their own right.
Yes, clearly, 'the ancient question', What is it for a thing to be?, is equivalent to Do minds exist?, the fact-value distinction, and the existence of God.

And what about probabilities and possibilities? Yes, what about them?

11 July 2006

Floruit, Bis

For friends of Dissoi Blogoi, who are tuning in to the blog, even after I've said that I wouldn't post until July 16... to reward you for your loyalty, I post a picture of a strange double flower, a kind of Siamese Twin flower, which my sister-in-law, Mary, discovered in the field, not far from where Muddy Man once lived. Note that it has a flat stem, double in width as compared with a normal stem. Each flower has its own sepals.

Floruit, Bis

For friends of Dissoi Blogoi, who are tuning in to the blog, even after I've said that I wouldn't post until July 16... to reward you for your loyalty, I post a picture of a strange double flower, a kind of Siamese Twin flower, which my sister-in-law, Mary, discovered in the field, not far from where Muddy Man once lived. Note that it has a flat stem, double in width as compared with a normal stem. Each flower has its own sepals.

09 July 2006

Until July 16, Non Cogito

I've been wanting to post but must finally face up to reality.

We're in the midst of a move, from our sprawling homestead in Lancaster, to a tiny 1100 sq ft apartment in Cambridge, MA. We attained the keys to the apartment today and have agreed with our renters to be out of our current residence within a week.

(The reason for this move, is to be closer to my wife's Ph.D. program in economics: the plan is that, through her finishing her dissertation, the privative evil of an ABD willl be removed from the world.)

The moving in part is easy. We need merely select out a tiny subset of our furnishings, and take personal effects roughly equal to what one would bring on a 2-week vacation. This effects a marvelous simplification.

However, everything that remains must be dealt with: if not placed the trashbin, then boxed and put into storage. Thus an enormous quantity of stuff must be handled.

Philosopher that I am, the overwhelming magnitude of this task has just struck me--which has led me also to realize that, in truth, I will not be able to post, or even so much as glance at a scholarly book, until July 16 or so.

And now, dear reader, I have given you fair warning.

03 July 2006

On Vacation

You might have guessed that I was away on vacation last week. It didn't seem wise to announce it to the world beforehand. But there can be no harm after the fact.

Of course, no one wants to see pictures of someone else's vacation. Yet what about a picture which shows the very essence of vacation?
(That's Gregory in the "Ball Crawl" in Storyland, New Hampshire.)

Or a picture which has a splendor all its own, such as the following, taken from a ledge on Mt. Willard, overlooking Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire?(In the foreground that's Gregory, once again; Joseph, known already to readers of this blog; and Nicholas.)

Or a picture which proves that, once in a while, moose actually do cross the road, or at least come near the road, at one of those innummerable 'Moose Crossings' indicated on New England roadways?