Monday, April 27, 2009

Science and Institutions

Pangrammatically speaking, science is to intuition what politics is to institution. This suggests a rather radical conclusion: science cannot be institutionalized. It is the purpose of politics to transform institutions, and the purpose of science to transform intuitions. The idea of "free inquiry" derives its sense from this grammar.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Amateur Economists

From this week's Economist:

Subsidies to home ownership have also weakened financial services. They encouraged more people to buy houses (which was the point), but, logically enough, also encouraged lenders to take greater risks with housing. This was fine while house prices were rising, but the fall exposed how vulnerable banks’ balance sheets had become.

I don't know very much about this sort of thing, but lately I feel I've been learning a lot about how markets actually (and inexorably) work. Can the credit market and the housing market really be separated in this way, so that it was okay to take risks "while house prices were rising" on their own and in some separate market? I mean, didn't the banks' exposure to ever more innovative forms of risk keep creating new kinds of credit and therefore new buyers for houses they could not previously afford (wrong way to put it: they still couldn't afford it, but they could now finance it anyway).

The bubble burst because the only thing left to lenders was to come up with a clever scheme in which they, say, paid borrowers to take their money. Once new forms of articifical demand could no longer be created (through novel credit instruments, subsidies, and gov't guarantees), the fall had to come. Lenders did not suffer the effects of rising and falling house prices. They were an important part of the cause.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

James and Rawls, Pangrammaticists

"The true, to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving." (William James)

"Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is the first virtue of systems of thought." (John Rawls)

I would like to say that truth is a rightness in the way of belief, and justice is a rightness in the way of desire. Justice is the virtue of institutions, I agree; but truth is the correlative virtue of intuitions. If truth is the expedient in the way of thought, and I will grant that it may well be, then justice (arguably "the right") is the expedient in the way of feeling. The former is supported by the precision of our concepts, the latter by the precision of our emotions.

As to the way we behave, yes, we may in that regard be right or wrong, and, when this rightness or wrongness is conditioned by institutional factors, I will grant that that right is just and wrong is not. Truth, likewise, is the rightness of our beholding when such beholding is conditioned by intuition.

[Update: all behaviour is conditioned by institutions. And there can be no beholding without intuition. But they can be, as it were, "barely" conditioned. We might perhaps talk of "unbound" behaviour and beholding: actions that lack any immediate motive, beholdings that don't immediately make sense.]

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Categorical Imperative?

Do only what is necessary.


Indecency is not injustice but the proximate occasion of injustice. My line on proximate occasions (also of sin) is that they should not necessarily be avoided. In that sense, my position is less than Catholic.

Indecent acts, in fact, are also occasions of greater good, i.e., of higher-level justice, and the road to the improvement of imperfect institutions.

Justice only makes sense in the context of institutions. The reproduction of the conditions of our institutional experience depends on our decency. It can therefore, sometimes, be necessary to behave indecently as an act of resistance. Indecency challenges the immediate power of institutions...

...just as dishonesty challenges the immediate knowledge of intuition. The argument for dishonesty in particular situations is that it creates a space that is freed from habitual judgments on matters of fact. Indecency, likewise, fosters moments that are freed from habitual judgments about how we act. They are "shocking".

[Update (07/07/2014): Art must provide the proximate occasion of scandal. See Andrew's comments and my response to this post.]

Monday, April 20, 2009

Decency & Institution

Before I forget, just a quick note to register a great couple of sentences in The Economist on the passing of Raúl Alfonsín:

There was nonetheless a decency about Mr Alfonsín that marked him out. He believed in institutions.

Institutions are to decency what intuitions are to honesty. But one does not, properly speaking, "believe in" them; one desires them. Or not. Decency is carrying out your business in the appropriate suite of rooms.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Moral Reasoning

This short piece in the NYT provides an occasion for me to state that, pangrammatically, "moral reasoning" is a contradiction in terms. While I don't agree that we should leave the study of morals to psychology, I do think philosophers should get out of that racket. What they call "moral reasoning" should be left to the "moral passioning", if you will, of poets.

The best argument I have for this appeals to the hard-headed rationalists among philosophers. How do they react when their students tell them "how they feel" about epistemological matters. "I just, you know, feel that people should be able to believe whatever they feel good believing in, okay?" Well, that's the sort of thing I hear when philosophers tell me "what they think" on ethical issues.

Thinking your way to justice is like feeling your way to truth.

Note: I actually don't have a pangrammatically homologous word for "morals". Roughly: Morals are to ethics as __________ are to epistemology. (Note the plural, we are looking for countable epistemological conditions. Beliefs are no good; we already have desires.)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sea Space

"It is like a sea. I often think of it as a space." (Rosmarie Waldrop)

(more later)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Time and Pace

"Rhythm is a form cut into TIME, as a design is determined SPACE." (Ezra Pound, ABC, p. 198)

A room is to space as a pace is to time.

An institution, i.e.,
a suite of rooms.

And an intuition is a change of pace.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rooms, Space, and Time

A room is to space as a __________ is to time.

(more later)

Pleasure and the Ethical Life

"Power results from the orderly pursuit of pleasure," I said, "[as knowledge results] from the orderly pursuit of certainty." I think I'm on to something here. The orderly pursuit of a goal must be patient. One does not fool oneself that one has reached a goal when one has not. One accepts the progress one has made.

You pursue certainty on a particular issue, but you often have to settle for lesser certainties (not less certainty about the major theme). Likewise, you may be looking for a great pleasure, but you often have to settle for lesser ones. The orderly pursuit of pleasure and certainty implies actually enjoying what you get, not being disappointed by not getting everything all at once. One must accept, as Pound says somewhere, the length of the journey.

I like this idea that the ethical life (would Hegel call it Sittlichkeit?) is the orderly pursuit of pleasure.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Pleasure & Pain, Certainty & Doubt

"What gives us so much as the idea that beings, things, feel?" (Wittgenstein, PI§283)

At the extremes: agony and despair, bliss and faith. Then there is ordinary workaday pleasure and certainty, pain and doubt.

It is important to recognize that pleasure, for example, is not so much a feeling as a modulation of feeling that may involve many emotions. Doubt, likewise, is a modulation of thought, not in itself a thought.

Doubt is not a feeling, though it may, of course, be pleasant or painful to doubt certain things. Pain is not a thought, though it may force us to think.

Friday, April 03, 2009

On Certainty

An answer just occurred to me. Certainty is to epistemology as pleasure is to ethics. Ethics is the orderly pursuit of pleasure. Epistemology is the orderly pursuit of certainty. We might speak of the discipline of certainty and the discipline of pleasure.

Pleasure without discipline leads to impotence. Certainty without discipline leads to ignorance. Power results from the orderly pursuit of pleasure, knowledge from the orderly pursuit of certainty.

Ethics is not simply the avoidance of pain. Nor is epistemology, of course, the mere avoidance of doubt. On the contrary.


Pleasure is to ethics as __________ is to epistemology.