Distance: the epistemic norm

I heard a story from one of my tutors of an english literature lecturer who was once asked: why is it that we are not taught modern literature after the 1970s? Why don’t we read Salman Rushdie, or Zadie Smith, Will Self or Philip K. Dick?

The reply from this english scholar was: we don’t know what’s good yet.

It is important to have distance in order to have a proper appraisal of things. There are many different kinds of distance one can have in the appraisal of a situation. There is historical distance, where the event in question is far enough so that we may see it from a wider perspective than the one immediately constricted to our point of view. It is hard to see the tragedy beyond our own loss.

I remember hearing a story about how Thucydides, in his history of the early Athenian statemen and their enacted policies, is said not to be trusted in his account of one or two of the archons, because of his personal attachment and his own hardship that had happened to his life as a direct result of their action. I think it is either the account of Perikles or Kleon where this ‘ad hominem’ appeal is made. Even the founders of narrative history have attachments to their subject.

The issue is not whether we should judge Thucydides reliable, but to take distance as an epistemic guide, or even norm. The notion of having distance as a mark of good judgment can be made in the following ways:

1. Disinterest (Kant’s Aesthetics): To have a genuine appraisal of the aesthetic worth of a thing, one must have a sense of detachment from the enjoyment of the thing, and one’s invested and partial ends. Food for instance, is a habituallly consumed commodity, it is done so to both fulfill a need and sate a wholly subjective desire unique to one’s own palette (let us exclude the psychology of preparing food for now). Here are a couple of factors that undermine the genuineness of our aesthetic judgments:

i. Personal attachment: is it right to like a band because your friend or family member is in it? It would be seen as sacriledge to denigrate their musical effort on aesthetic grounds, as it would be seen as a personal offense not to like their work. (I’m in this situation a lot)

ii. Mistaking judgements as non communicable, solely subjective, and not propositionally based; against those which are ‘not just subjective’ and thus communicable, and preferably propositionally based.

iii. Recieved and esteemed opinion: we may have nonrational prejudices to a judgment. By this, I mean beliefs which are culturally learned or given a great deal of importance to the agent. We might believe certain things because parents, peers, or those whom which we give either importance or authority (on grounds of ignorance and their percieved higher wisdom) make us believe or encourage us to believe. Peer pressure, childhood beliefs are perhaps the greatest enemies to distance. It is, as if we associate a judgment orp reference to a particular time of our lives or personage.

2. Moral distance: To be an impartial party in a deliberative matter is to give no party a preference. There are reasons why we might be partial in moral situations. It is because we have those that are friends and family that defines the difference between partial and impartial. Often stated to some ethical theories is the charge that moral impartiality is anathema to those most fundamental building blocks to our relationships.

While partiality may be an important part of our ends as persons; it may also be anathema to our appraisal of a situation morally insofar as we prefer the view of one agent to another in a situation where it may be epistemically better to use a ceteris paribus approach.

3. Epistemic distance: This was mentioned in the first point so I shall not try to repeat myself. We might have epistemic norms and practices (rather than beliefs, as stated in 1.iii.) that are preferred over other ones. Those epistemic norms may either be deleterious to the truth, or inadequate. We might have primitive epistemic norms learned from primary education or parental upbringing, such as:

i. trust x as an authority figure
ii. trust authority figures in general
iii. ad hominem testimonial appeals against character
iv. elaborating a thought as a crude question such as ‘so where did she get it from, then?’, or ‘if x did not do it then y must have’ where y denotes an explicit particular

It is a useful tool for history to have a bit of time passing an event before having a proper appropriation of it. How may history see the US presidents George W. Bush, or Barrack Obama. I personally think that Obama may not be seen in the optimistic way that he is seen now. This is for a few reasons: firstly, it is the newness of his position that gives us a better opinion of him and the many ‘firsts’ that he represents. That is a kneejerk response more than anything from the US president previous to him (and his reptuation). We may, on the other hand, see the actions of GWB in a more, or less charitable light, when we see the implications of his domestic and international enactments. Few people acknowledge the campaign in Afghanistan than they do on Iraq, for instance. Perhaps one should question whether the Afghanistan campaign was legitimate, instead of concentrating their energy on the Iraq military campaign. A thought focused on one issue is a thought ignored upon another.

Historical distance also gives us less of an immediate investment in its impact. With the exception of a small few, few people may have a personal view of the French occupation of Prussia, or the Hundred Years War in the way that they may have of the current economic situation, or the UK industrial strikes of the 1980s, or of Thatcherism. A Prussian would almost certainly have a pretty poor opinion of Napoleon, but skip forward a few generations and it is not so clear.

Historical situations may eventually form the climate of our current political age, but we are not often invested personally in what happened, we often are led to accept a single narrative, which is sometimes apolitical, of the events. In this sense, we are given a sense of universal history.

I think here is where I end this post; as the notion of universal history is another issue.


The notion of the 3rd way

It is the case in the United States  as well as to some extent, the UK, that being party political leaves one with very limited options. I’ve always considerd myself a bit ‘left’ politically, not centrist, not right-wing (although there are some charitable things about being politically conservative in the old fashioned sense). I was vaguely left, that entailed to me things like:

i. Belief in social egalitarianism
ii. Preference of government intervention and authority in issues such as education, healthcare, emergency services, transport and the military.
iii. Belief in regulation of the financial system and a limitation to ‘laissez faire’ attitudes to capital.

I would say its not a caricature, I would also say it is a pretty vague set of beliefs. I was never really political. I mean, I did go on a few protests against the Iraq war. But now I think why bother. My sociology tutor was against the notion of donating to charities and NGOs. Charities, for him, dealt with problems that were too big for charities to solve it. Do you really think, for instance, that giving a bit of shrapnel in your wallet will cure cancer? will it stop child abuse? will it irrigate for all of Sudan? I don’t deny that NGOs do make a difference, but there is something fundamental that causes these things. No, I don’t mean to expose some kind of Spinoza caricature of determinism to state the metaphysical necessity of suffering (although that is true, too). But pressuring the proverbial man with a red button is better.

Petition to your local MP, I’ve done it, if they get enough letters, they listen. Anyway, I digress. There are so many causes that are political: climate change, missing people, world debt (for the MDCs as well as LDCs). Recently, I’ve found that the political left in Britain is a bit undesirable; either they did not stick to their values, or their values were no good in the first place. I’m not naturally averse to conservatism so where does one go? Giddens once spoke of a political ‘third way’, other authors appeal to this notion as the nebulous alternative. Frankly, between the two political parties is a whole world of positions. It is in this strangling obsession with two-party politics that both leads people apathetic to political issues, and also to more extreme views. Socialism has always been small, but I’m sure they’ve picked up a few people recently. It’s a perennial worry that unstable times have long term political (and thus) human consequences.


Aesthetic expectation

I don’t know about anyone who has written about this in the past, but this is more a running thought that I have often had. Why does no one stutter in a TV programme or a film? Why does no one sneeze, cough, mis-pronounce, or talk in a poorly grammatical way? Okay so, you might want to reply to me and say “oh, but characters do stutter, sneeze, mispronounce words, state incorrect syntax (that is, the order in which words are said), or mutter”. You may state examples and I will agree, but in all of those instances, they are often towards some kind of significance. Someone might be coughing as a plot device to indicate either an illness or some kind of secret communication. Maybe some characters use different lexical choices that others are not familiar with because they represent either someone of ethnic difference (using ebonics, or a non-native speaker for instance), or represent a person more or less intelligent than the ‘reader’.

Okay, so it may not be the case that people speak properly all the time in television serials or cinema, but, we do expect them do, on pain of some lurid plot device. It is to this end that I present the thought: expectations are place in our reception of the media. Sure, we may say that reality television shows when our speech is realistic, when people speak inproperly, often because of the stress of being under the camera in an artificial televised situation and because of being under constant camera surveillance in such programmes; one cannot always be at their best.

I want to make a simple distinction: there are plays, films, television shows, songs, and other such ‘media’ where we have an expectation that is fulfilled, and those where our expectation either is unsatisfied, or we are led to decide how to react to such a work of media. I think that the notion of expectation is a sociological thing. We expect pop songs to be catchy, AOR rock songs to be rocking and although appearing somewhat anti-conformist; are actually part of a cultural norm. We expect protagonists to be heterosexual (although this tide might slowly change), we expect romance to be a primary theme to the text.

In the study of popular music; Adorno put forward an analysis of Jazz music, although it is significant that while his analysan (early Jazz) has changed, but the analysis applies to our modern popular music. Songs are in a similar form to the menuet in classical music: ABA (also known as Binary form [I think]). The emergence of popular music has come about due to a great many factors (consumption patterns, economy, technological innovation, population), and all of these factors should be seriously considered.

I wonder, however, whether our aesthetic expectations aspire towards a normative expectation. We expect that an album has a titular song; songs which are ‘single-worthy’; the titular song is ideally 3m20s; a song or album which might be ‘experimental’ or ‘epic’ and so on. This distinction of expectation also may have a place in comedy. Sometimes jokes are set up to be made in a conversation; other times a joke is not funny if it is not expected; sometimes a joke is funny in a banal sense because it was expected to be made; for instance, mention a certain king of pop and not far away is something related to his criminal allegations.

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No posts for now

Since it has been tacitly established that I’m doing a lot more moderating and writing for this blog lately, I should say that there are a lot of postworthy events of late. I’m not able to get them all done right now, but it should be said that there are a lot of interesting stories lately:

1. The death of JG Ballard
2. The pirate bay founders are arrested
3. Somalian pirates and the international response (are they the next century’s ‘al-qaeda’, in the same way that drugs were the hot topic of the 1990s)
4. Julian Baggini’s role as ‘philosopher-in-residence’
5. Amazon.com have removed their sales listings of LGBT and sexual literature (some feminist blogs call it ‘amazonfail’ – they try to be cool and naughties but its a bit late)

We may or may not get these posts done, we are all busy at the moment, I’m thinking of getting a regular story of the week piece for NR.


Opposites beget opposites

Plato has a few artuments to try to demonstrate the nature of the mind. One of which, in the Phaedo appeals to the fact that we find from one state, it follows a contrary state; or to put it bluntly, that an opposite begets an opposite. After youth comes aging, after light comes day and after life comes death.

The appeal to the immortality of the soul is that like night and day, we find a repetition once a cycle is completed. A day is followed by a night, and a day follows that. It striked me that some people have a similar belief about the original homeopathic programme during the 18tC. What is to note in both notions of the eternity of the soul and homeopathy is that both beliefs are an appeal to a metaphysical thesis.

While metaphysics has a place in our beliefs and understanding about the world; it is far from this kind of direct appeal. The issues of metaphysics rather, emerge from our conduct of empirical studies. Once one has appropriated research about the natural world, metaphysical theories seem better placed to appropriate said research: do theoretical entities exist? for instance. Is there a unity in the body of knowledge of science?

It is a deceptively simple notion that opposites beget opposites, and often the arguement concerning the existence of the soul drag us to very thorny metaphysical territory. The applicability of such a claim of opposites begetting opposites seems far to vague to constitute a thesis. Does one make a claim about the eternal reoccurence from Plato’s claim? Is one to justify vaccinations? Or is one to justify the rationality of their belief in the earth’s rotation on that basis. This simplistic belief seems prima facie correct.

I’m not sure how knowledge of antibodies (in the vaccination case) or universal gravitation apply. It is said that the simplest explanation is the best one; but simple in this sense is different to naive.


Is the ‘New Atheism’ for the win?

Like Ozymandias, I look at the world with multiple screens at once with a randomly circulating feed of different sources in my antarctic base (well that’s almost true, anyway). A lot of my RSS fees seem to indivate that there is a gradual success of the new atheist movement.

THe decline in the communal role of religion has the inevitable effect of institutional changes. Declines in numbers of church-goers or clergical members could be said to be based on this grassroots decline. I suspect that the increased interest in institutional organisation, namely, offices, councils, and authorities, is driven by our lack of interest at the local  and communal basis of religious life.

An initial distinction should be made. When we understand the ‘new atheism’. We should distinguish between a cultural mindset whereby we see an increased amount of criticism about supernatural beliefs, against a set of authors. What a Dawkins or a Hitchens belives is not to define those of all atheists and secularists, just imagine the irony of perceiving them as prophets or authorities. They probably see themselves as saying what we are all thinking, and to some extent they may be accurate.

There is some criticism of this movement, and a lot of it is good. I’ve made point of in the past at how the ‘new atheists’ are ignorant of the ‘old’ atheists. They are also putting forward arguments which aren’t particularly hard hitting. Antisophie once wrote that she is ‘Anti-stupid’, and it seems to me that a sense of dogmatism or complacency is made about the argumentative worth of atheism, or a dogmatic acceptance of the falsity of all religious beliefs tout court.

It is an interesting fact that there are a slowly mobilising group of professional analytic philosophers who also happen to be Christians. There are some metaphysicians who are usual suspects of being a Christian in this issue but what has taken me by surprise is that a number of philosophers of language and epistemologists are Christian. Looking at their names and my vague familiarity with their work; they tend to be either do quite formal and technical work, they are foundationalists and are the kinds of philosophers who love to use symbols. In short, they are no fools

It is much to my amusement that I heard that William Lane Craig took part in a debate with Christopher Hitchens. This is a joke. William Lane Craig has written on issues such as the philosophy of time and the relation of physics to Christian doctrine; and Hitchens is famous for being a friend of Princess diana and being an editor for Vanity Fair. While I do not question the eloquence or writing style of the latter, I don’t expect him to have a view about Eternity or perdurantism that is superior to the likes of McTaggart. It’s the pugilistic equivalent of Mike Tyson against a parkinsons-ridden Cassius Clay.


Categorial frameworks: some preliminary thoughts

I’ve been currently trying to tackle Korner’s Categorial Frameworks for some time now. I don’t have anything but rough thoughts on the issue but there are interesting points to be made, especially in relation to Kant, and some issues that I am not clear about.

1. Applies to what?

The question that most philosopher’s might ask would be something like ‘what is the remit of the category thesis’? or ‘what area is it relevant to’? The answer of this I am not sure. Kant’s metaphysic of science employs a taxonomy of a Linnaean scheme and applies most clearly to scientific classifications and entities; the claim that this taxonomy applies to metaphysics in any bigger way is perhaps going beyond the original text.

The categorial scheme tries to, according to Korner, show how our convictions about what there is in the world relate intimately to metaphysical convictions. Korner’s initial discussion of the subject matter of how our classificatory system may take place sometimes looks like it would fit in a discussion about universals or properties. In this respect, Korner throws his hat into that horrifically large body of literature and interest of an area of metaphysics which is both the most ancient and yet one of the hot topics of the past century.

Part of me thinks that such an analysis of categorial frameworks as a theory of universals is not very prospective. On the other hand there may be a suggestion that categorial frameworks are normative logical constraints. If the ‘universals’ category notion is Aristotelian, then the normative conception is Kantian. The story does not end here, it seems. Korner seems to be thinking much a wider conception. More to say about this than I have actually accorded for now.

2. Some of the organisational principles of the category-rules

Korner defines his notion of the categorial framework. Some features are curious to me:

i. Some terminology is used but not really defined, they seem to draw from various historical metaphysical things:

a. a person is different to a characteristic; but of course the latter can itself within the set of the former: example:

Napoleon Bonaparte is a person
Napoleon Bonaparte’s hat is a person/thing
Napoleon Bonaparte may contain a set of characteristics: we may say of other things that they are Napoleon Bonaparte-like if they share characteristics of the original thing ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’ (such as maniacal nature, grandeur delusions, height envy etc)

b. There is a distinction between an attribute and an object. The notion of ‘attribute’ has Spinozist connotations.

c. The categorial framework seems to use sets: the following kinds of issues are considered of these sets:

i. Whether a set has mutual exclusivity of another set
ii. Mutual exclusivity can be ‘violated’ or allowed iff one of the sets is empty
iii. An empty set may be constured into or replaced by a non-empty set in an ontology: if a set of natural properties is empty, then we may drop it for a larger set of ‘maximal’ properties

d. Definitions:

i. What is a natural classification vs an artificial one? This distinction is not clear to me
ii. What is the difference between a maximal and a non-maximal scheme/class?
iii. What is a ‘total’ class? Is it okay for a classificatory scheme to have such a thing in an ontology?

2. What frameworks seem to do:

Frameworks seem to be for Korner an analysis of how we actually do behave intellectually. It is in  a sense a thesis about the history of ideas. As such, we seem not to commit or refute a single system, but Korner’s notion may be an analysis of generic features of these ‘frameworks’ which we may historicise, I am trying to vocalise an alternative conception, but I struggle to (although I think there definately is one)