22 August, 2009


That's not a reference to chemistry. Rather it's to philosophy; specifically to the first of Plato's dialogues that appears in the Signet edition of Plato's collected works. My brother is reading the Republic and several others currently, and in a fit of nostalgia for freshman year of high school, I picked up his book and started from the beginning. I hadn't read Ion since way back then, and it's a much faster read at 20 than it is at 14, I can assure you.

For one thing, it's one of the shortest Socratic dialogues that I've ever read. Well actually, probably the shortest - even Laches seemed longer. I believe Cleitophon is the shortest that exists, but I've never read that one. Anyway, its remarkable conciseness: Socrates manages to turn the very pliable Ion's way of thinking completely around using even fewer arguments and examples than he usually needs to correct the generic dull-minded interlocutor. This brevity makes it quite an easy dialogue to follow, and the ubiquitous irony of the set-up and of the argument's course is much easier to pin down than usual.

In questioning Ion about the nature of his art of rhetorician, Socrates is basically doing what we would be if we tried to define the work of a literary critic; at least, so one might think of it. "The reciter," Socrates observes to Ion, "must be the interpreter of the poet's mind to the audience; and to do this, if he does not understand what the poet says, is impossible". This makes plenty of sense to Ion, who, though enthusiastic about his craft, hardly strikes one as the cleverest reciter of poetry to sing verse. Within a few paragraphs, he has Socrates running intellectual circles around him (as is Socrates' habit), as both begin to conclude that the reciter is altogether less qualified to judge the merit of the poet when, for instance, the poet sings of horsemanship than a skilled horseman, when the poet speaks of healing than a doctor. In other words, Ion is soon admitting, the reciter or actor has much less knowledge of anything that a poet writes about than the professional whose skill is that described; and any knowledge that the reciter does have is in virtue of his skill in that art. That is, a reciter may know the standards of good horsemanship because he possesses that skill to some degree himself, but only in virtue of that art does he know it, not in virtue of his art as a reciter.

Clearly this leaves them with the idea that there is no such thing as the art of reciting or acting, at least not such as Ion understands them and Socrates had just defined them at the beginning. Ion's proposed defense of the reciter's art is that he knows "what is proper for a man to say" - that is, he knows what a fisherman, a weaver, a slave, or a ruler would say in a given situation. But the argument Socrates has just used easily quashes that suggestion when he points out that surely a fisherman, a weaver, a slave, or a ruler would certainly know better than the reciter whether what the poet has written corresponds to the reality of the situation.

The dialogue ends with Socrates and Ion agreeing that the reciter really has no art or special knowledge at all: he is either a cheat, or when interpreting the great poets is "possessed by divine dispensation". Ion is serious. Socrates is most certainly not.

At least, it seems most unlikely that Plato, master of the literary art of the dialogue, would have so little respect for art that he would find it uninterpretable - or so little rationality that he would consider interpretation to be possible only through a divinely-induced frenzy. And of course, he never leaves the reader with a hard and fast conclusion to savour: these dialogues are meant to keep you thinking.

Well one of the first things this gets me thinking is that perhaps Plato wants to make a point about the nature of poetic art as compared to that of manual crafts or theoretical skills. The close connection he draws between the work and the interpreter necessarily makes us think, as he discusses the nature of the interpreter's understanding, also of what is being understood. Poetry is not one of the arts with a concrete, useful result, like a plow made by a blacksmith that can help create a garden, or a mathematical formula that allows certain buildings to be built; it is not, as Josef Pieper would say, one of the "servile arts". Thus it's not something that is properly encountered as a blacksmith would approach a "how-to-forge-a-good-plow" manual. You don't just want to judge poetry on the skill with which it describes isolated activities. It's a thing much more organic and coherent than a how-to manual; if it is good poetry, at any rate, it will say something not so much about fishing or smithing, as it will say something about the meaning of life. Yes, accuracy in the details is important, but only insofar as this will help give a truer picture of what life as a whole is truly like and how human beings will interact with this world.

The accuracy of description is not the end of poetry, though Ion quite misses the point and easily falls for Socrates' trap when the latter suggests that it is through his incessant questioning. And if there's some other type of truth present than the purely utilitarian, there is something more in poetry than a fisherman, a blacksmith, a horseman, or any other type of artisan will know by virtue of their art. There's nothing preventing the busiest artisan from being an interpreter of art on some level, but now the tables are turned from when Socrates suggested that the reciter only can judge the virtue of poetry by means of other skills that he possesses. It is not the case that the artisan will truly understand parts of Homer because he is a seaman and Homer talks about ships; rather he will understand all of Homer and be capable of judging his work, insofar as he understands human nature and something of what life in the world is all about.


A rejection slip from a Chinese economic journal, quoted in Financial Times:

"We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity."

18 August, 2009

Boston, MA (as if there were any other Boston)

So just prior to my family's epic hike of Katahdin, I decided to spend a day in Boston, both to look around the city, and to visit a friend from Chicago who's staying there for about three weeks. My sister was going to come with me, but she chickened out (jk Mary!), claiming that she would need more than four hours of sleep before hiking Katahdin (what nonsense!). So another friend from Maine who had spent the summer doing biochem research in Boston came along instead.

It was quite a lot of fun going down there at any rate, and considering that Katahdin turned out to be hikeable on what ended up being about 3 hours of sleep, the trip was less rash than it might sound. I travelled down on the new bus line that extends from Augusta to Portland and then on to Boston. (Huzzah for the introduction of some basic public transportation to central Maine!) Basically this meant getting up at 4:30 to ensure that I could catch the 6:15 a.m. bus, a rather tedious hour-and-a-half-long ride to Portland, a bit of a wait as the bus became crammed with so many passengers in Portland that the friend who was supposed to travel down with me couldn't board, and then another couple of hours spent watching "Mr.Bean's Holiday" without any sound.

Then Boston, South Station; and the epic Revolutionary War era site-seeing commenced. Well, actually I at first only walked to the Old South Meeting House, dating from 1729, and famous for Sam Adams' planning of the Boston Tea Party there in 1773. That was while I waited for my friend to arrive on the next bus. Once she arrived, we went to Mass at the cathedral, lugging backpacks all the way in pretty sweltering heat, but finding the beautiful church worth the trouble of getting there.

Lunch in Boston Commons was nice; it cooled us off a lot to be able to just sit around on the grass and talk and eat carrots and fruit and homemade bread with peanut butter for a while. We followed that up with a walk towards Faneuil Hall, through Quincy Market, and to the wharf, which was much cooler and another nifty area with a most Bostonian feel to it. Once we met up with my other friend, we went towards the North End, which is both Little Italy, and a site saturated with Revolutionary relics. Now Little Italy was particularly fascinating this day because there was a celebration in honor of Our Lady going on, and it seemed like the entire section of town was out to celebrate. There was a huge procession carrying a statue of Mary and Jesus on a litter covered with streamers and a canopy. The procession moved through streets crammed with vendors selling canoli, Italian ice, gelato, and practically every other Italian-American food known to man, and it would stop every few yards as children from overhanging balconies would shower it with pounds of confetti and streamers, people set off fireworks, and one of about six Italian-American marching bands would play. Each time it stopped, the men carrying the litter would pass long streamers to the crowd, and people in the crowd would tape dollar bills to the streamers until they were full. Then the resultant money-chains would be taped to the litter like decorations. Definitely the most unusual thing about the entire celebration.

Nothing else was quite as exciting as that, but we did get to see (not for the first time for me) Paul Revere's house; the Old State House, oldest public building in Boston, dating from 1713; the Old North Church, where we marveled at the fact that families would come to church to sit in cubicles; and the Copp's Hill Burying Ground. All good stuff, which helped to refresh a little of my elementary school American revolutionary history, and reignite my interest in that period.

No recounting of a trip would be complete without a brief overview of food consumed; for dinner this day we went to a bakery, bought a loaf of bread, then bought some tomatoes, cheese, and an avocado at a grocery store and ate near the harbor where some musicians had set up and a moderate number of people had gathered to listen and enjoy the growing cool of the evening.

10 August, 2009

The "Problem" of Universals Applied to Standards

The “problem of universals” has presented itself to philosophers as one of the most basic metaphysical puzzles since the time of the ancient Greeks,so it's no surprise I'm taking an interest in it after a few semesters at UD. A universal is fundamentally distinguished from the individual, or “particular,” objects that we encounter in day-to-day living in the sense that it refers to the core similarity between diverse objects. For instance, in the sentence “This round-ish, red-colored fruit is an apple,” “this round-ish red-colored fruit” signifies a particular because it refers to an individual being, whereas “apple” is a universal because it refers to some category of appleness of which all individual apples are part. The “problem” with universals is the question of whether they exist at all, of whether they are real or merely constructs of the human mind. The nature of our answer to such a query is of vital importance: it does not simply determine our view on universals themselves, but has a much broader significance for our understanding of how we should approach the world. One substantial ramification of our answer is the effect it will have on our understanding of whether or not we can apply standards to the beings in our experience.

Among the reasons we may wish to preserve a coherent system of standards in our world-view is that in so doing we retain the necessary rational tool for making judgments about the beings and situations that we encounter over the course of our lives. When capable of applying standards to the objects of our experience we are empowered to make rational decisions about those objects depending on what our standards are and how those objects live up to them. For instance, if we have a standard that sets out certain criteria for what makes a thing an apple, we can use this standard in evaluating specific objects to determine which one is the apple and will therefore be tasty to eat. Without such criteria, there is no way of determining what a thing is, at least not in terms of what practical repercussions its essence can have on you. A natural corollary to this ability to define something is, from an Aristotelian viewpoint, the ability to determine whether it is good as what it is. Thus is you know what an apple is, and you know that a specific object is an apple, you also know that if that particular apple happens to be rotten, it is not good; it is not fulfilling its being as an apple to the fullest potential.

From the preceding discussion it is clear that if we want to preserve the reality of standards, it is necessary to reject the view that universals are non-existent. By the extreme nominalist (universal-rejecting) position, only words can be general. There is, however, no underlying reality that these words are signifying. That is, we may call a variety of objects “apples”, but in doing so we are not expressing any fundamental unity of essence but only denoting certain accidental similarities between everything that we categorize under that term. Such a position necessarily excludes the notion of real, objective criteria against which a particular being can be weighed. We can, true enough, apply general terms to specific objects by the nominalist theory, but such application does not constitute a real judgment of those objects if it is not in reference to something real. Perhaps phrased as the nominalists have it, exclusion of the universal from the ontological chart may seem harmless enough when it comes to our standing example of the apple. If we can at least recognize that all things we call apples will share the attributes of tastiness and not be poisonous, we will feel safe enough eating one whether its “appleness” is real or merely a verbal construct. However, when we turn our consideration towards less concrete matters it becomes apparent that there are many universals—truth, goodness, and beauty in particular—which seem crucial to a complete understanding of the world in which we live. Yet these have no specific concrete expression such that considering them solely as accidental properties will serve our apparently innate desire to take them as standards to guide our approach to being. In this vein we should also consider that though we can accept the apple as edible from a nominalist point of view, there is no logical way for us to evaluate its goodness. It shares the accidents of all other particulars to which we apply the general term, but it cannot be judged a good apple unless there is a standard of appleness by which we can analyze it.

Thus it is clear that if we find the ability to judge objects of our encounter both valuable and necessary based on the nature of our experience of the world, we must think of universals as realities. There is a myriad of ways in which to formulate our conception of universals, but I will focus only on Aristotle’s, which is notably opposed to the platonic idea that universals have some separate, vague existence as un-instantiated forms. Drawing apprehension from his foundation, we receive a picture of universals as “ways of being”: realities which exist but not independently of and separate from particular beings. That is, they are real only insofar as they are instantiated in individual, actual beings. Individual apples, then, are united by virtue of an appleness that exists in and through them.

This way of understanding universals has a compelling consequence when considered in light of the determination to preserve the rational concept of standards. If it is a valid move to consider universals as containing criteria by which we can assess an individual being, there must be some perfection of that being which the universal implies and comprehends. And if the universal exists only insofar as it does in actual beings, there must be some being in which each one exists—either substantially or in the soul through knowledge, as Aquinas, building on Aristotle, puts it—perfectly. Though this idea deserves to be more fully developed than I have space to do in this essay, it suggests another compelling reason for belief in God. According to Christian thought, God Himself is that Being in which all created things have their being. Thus, the apple would exist in God perfectly in his comprehension of it, whereas the pervasive characteristics of being—truth, beauty, and goodness—exist as modalities of Himself as He interacts with our world.

06 August, 2009

And now for some spiritual enightenment....

Here's a choice selection from our local retreat center; thought y'all might be interested.

Dowsing as a Tool for Self Knowledge and Decision Making

Many people are familiar with the ancient form of dowsing for water by using a Y-shaped hazel tree branch. Dowsing is enjoying resurgence in alternative medicine fields as a simple, powerful, and fun way to make decisions regarding your health, spirit, and emotions, for example. Anyone can dowse as long as they keep an open mind; appreciate listening to their inner spirit, and practice. We'll learn to dowse using L-rods, pendulums and everyday household items, and we'll learn how to use dowsing to aid in the decisions you make every day. You'll be amazed by how clear your answers become as you begin to learn and trust the ancient and fun art of dowsing.

You know, you just have to keep your mind wide enough open so that it can fall out somewhere near the beginning. Preferably around where they start talking about the water in the ground mirroring your chi patterns. It's when you get into how the energy of manifestation from the matrix of life follows an intuitive guidance along a path that seems to be new yet feels old, etc. that things really start getting interesting!

Labyrinth Day

On the first day of the last month of 2009, come and walk the indoor labyrinth. Where are the endings and beginnings in your life? Settle your heart, mind, and spirit for the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The labyrinth will be set up in the southwest room for your journey. Information about the labyrinth and reflective questions will be available for your use. Arrive and depart at your own pace.

If you get really lost, maybe they'll come find you if you yell long enough.

The Sacred Art of Healing Through Laughter: Become a Clown!

Allow your "inner child" some play time. Give yourself a new name and create a character that speaks to your inner dreams or outer fancies. Clowning can be amusing, transforming, and healing too. The basics of balloon sculpturing and a bit of magic will be included for fun.

Inner dreams? Outer fantasies???? Do we want to know?

Earth Stations

Join us as we journey in prayer with pictures, poetry, chants, and wisdom from many cultures to bring us into the spirit of solemn reflection on behalf of a wounded earth. Outdoors 3-4:30 pm unless it is raining (dress warmly), and indoors in the chapel 6-7:30 pm. Bring a drum, rainstick, or sound maker if you want. Walk the Earth Stations on your own anytime this week (call ahead to arrange). FREE.

But... donations to PETA are accepted. Oh yeah, and it's a good idea to have your costume incorporate a lot of bandaids, ankle wraps, and fake limb casts just to make the "wounded earth" motif extra clear.

Picturing Prayer

"Pray always," we have been told. This weekend retreat is an invitation to "Pray all ways." The movement will be gentle. From moments of tranquility born of centering prayer, we will 'pray' the Presence of God as captured through the eyes of a digital camera. The rhythm will be from inner stillness to outer awareness and back to our Center. Participants should come equipped with a digital camera. If you have no camera, come with a sketch pad and pencil in order to 'picture your prayer.' Come. Pray always. Pray all ways.

Capture your inner stillness on film using our new x-ray equipment. Or go old school with the "down-the-throat" camera. Outer awareness is well portrayed through keeping the eyes wide and mouth slightly open, hands hanging loosely at your sides. Come yourself to learn the gnosis of photographing your incorporeal Center from our tranquilizing guru!