I want to re-open a discussion we have had before somewhat indirectly on NewAPPS. In a recent review of Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: A German-English Edition, translated by Mary Gregor and Jens Timmermann , Arnulf Zweig writes,
"Gregor and Timmermann are not only faithful to his words; they replicated his syntax. Take a comparatively short and simple example; Kant writes: Man denke doch ja nicht, daß man das, was hier gefodert wird, schon an der Propädeutik des berühmten Wolf vor seiner Moralphilosophie, der von ihm so genannten allgemeinen practischen Weltweisheit, habe, und hier also nicht eben ein ganz neues Feld einzuschlagen sey. The translation: However, let it not be thought that what is here called for already exists in the guise of the propaedeutic of the famous Wolff for his moral philosophy, namely that which he called Universal Practical Philosophy, and that we do not therefore have to open up an entirely new field. (IV, 390 l.20 ff.) [the passage from Zweig continues after the fold--ES]
I had already been thinking that the incidents of police violence at UC Davis and UC Berkeley (whose chancellor is no less a creep than Katehi at Davis) seemed to be following a pattern.
Now Allison Kilkenny at In These Times reports that mayors at eighteen cities where Occupy groups have camped took part in a conference call “to share information and advice on how various cities were handling the demonstrations” (so said Mayor Sam Adams of Portland). Rick Ellis, a journalist in Minneapolis, spoke with an official from the Justice Department:
The official, who spoke on background to me late Monday evening, said that while local police agencies had received tactical and planning advice from national agencies, the ultimate decision on how each jurisdiction handles the Occupy protests ultimately rests with local law enforcement. According to this official, in several recent conference calls and briefings, local police agencies were advised to seek a legal reason to evict residents of tent cities, focusing on zoning laws and existing curfew rules. Agencies were also advised to demonstrate a massive show of police force, including large numbers in riot gear. In particular, the FBI reportedly advised on press relations, with one presentation suggesting that any moves to evict protesters be coordinated for a time when the press was the least likely to be present.
Naomi Wolf offers an explanation for the Federal government’s involvement. I’m not entirely persuaded by the details. It seems to me that in any case the story above is “explosive” enough. If Obama’s DHS has a plan to suppress the Occupy protests by force, then I think he has broken faith entirely with the people who came out in such numbers to support him in 2008.
Addendum: In response to a FOIA request from Truthout, the FBI denied that it had any documents pertaining to Occupy Wall Street. For what it’s worth, the FBI has also denied involvement with local police in “addressing” Occupy Wall Street camps: “these reports are false. At no time has the FBI engaged with local police in this capacity”.
Joshua Holland at Alternet denies that there is any evidence for a federally ordered crackdown, while at the same time granting that there was “cooperation”. He talked to an official in the mayor’s office in Oakland, who, not surprisingly, downplayed the significance of the conference calls. There was, however, an independent avenue of coordination through the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) (see Shawn Gaynor, “The cop group coordinating the Occupy crackdowns”, SFBG 18 Nov).
One may well want to draw a moral distinction between the White House’s urging or demanding that Occupy sites be cleared and its merely acquiescing in their (politically convenient) removal. For the record, their position is this: “[…] obviously every municipality has to make its own decisions about how to handle these issues, and we would hope and want, as these decisions are made, that it balances between a long tradition of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech in this country and obviously of demonstrating and protesting, and also the very important need to maintain law and order and health and safety standards, which was obviously a concern in this case”.
I think Holland is correct in holding that the immediate violations of civil liberties and the violence perpetrated by the police, rather than speculations about forces behind the scenes, provide ample motive for political action. (Thanks to GPTLA in comments for the links leading to the Alternet story.)
In the exchange over Dennis' wonderful post on infinitesimals, Dennis writes, "Casting doubt on someone’s pronouncements is very far from devising a consistent theory to show them false (consistent because it has models in the category of sets). A mathematician would regard that as the difference between gilt and gold." I call Dennis' move here (and it is one that Russell also was frequently attracted to), an instance of "Newton's Challenge to Philosophy." That is, a philosopher appeals to natural science (or mathematics) to settle a dispute within philosophy. Let me grant Dennis' claim about the "mathematician." But within philosophy burden-shifting is no small achievement. Note, in particular, that Russell appeals to mathematics in order to condemn Leibniz's wrong turn to "speculation." That is to say, it is one thing to get the math wrong or to be unable to provide a mathematical proof for a claim within mathematics. It is another thing to make a claim to the effect that metaphysics of mathematics has been settled. I suspect it was inevitable that Russell would be wrong about the latter.
The distinguished historian of philosophy (and fellow NewAPPSer), Dennis Des Chene, appeals to lack of citations to claim that Benardete's Infinity had no influence in the "real world." (For the record: I hope any of my works will get cited more than 70 times in the real world!) But as any historian of early modern philosophy can tell you, citations don't tell the whole story. Here's a relevant example from the recent history of metaphysics (I am recycling an earlier post): let's focus on the methodology of one of the classic papers of contemporary metaphysics (Hawthorne & Cortens, 1995), "Toward Ontological Nihilism." This piece follows the rhetorical/argumentative-methodology of Bennett's Rationality (which I like to call his Fable of the Bees) almost exactly. This is no surprise because Bennett (who was one of Hawthorne's teachers; I believe also Cortens but less sure) is generously cited in the paper, although Rationality isn't. I think this is a nice case of very plausible, unconscious influence (something Hawthorne proposed to me in correspondence after I asked him about it).
The Greasy Pole was meant light-heartedly, but it got a couple of interesting people seriously interested.
First, Dennis Des Chene tried to model how citations tend to get magnified; then Tony Chemero chimed in saying how power law distributions provide a rich ground for speculation in cognitive science. In the meanwhile, Eric Schliesser reminded us how important Pareto distributions are in the economics of wealth distribution: it's the Matthew principle referred to by Dennis. (The rich get richer.)
As Dennis realized, these kinds of statistical distributions betoken underlying interactions, and Tony says that they can thus provide an argument against modularity in domains where they occur. He provides a reference to a terrific review article on non-Gaussian scaling laws by Christopher Kello et al: there's a link in comment 11 of my post. Kello et al. write:
Measurements of living systems often obey scaling laws rather than linear relations or Gaussian statistics. Bringing order to such regularities, which are inherent in nature’s complexities, including the complexities of cognition, has proven to be as difficult as bringing order to randomness.
Benny Goldberg asked me when the phrase “physical sciences” first started being used. At first I went with “intuition”, which suggested that it was a recent invention. But then I looked at Google Books, and was surprised to find (never having thought about this before) that the phrase in English goes back at least to the 1790s. One prominent occurrence is in Mary Somerville’s Connexion of the physical sciences (1835). Her work, which is organized around astronomy and geology, includes also celestial mechanics, acoustics, optics (including color theory), heat theory, electricity, magnetism (these are not yet one topic), gravitation, and a little bit on the influence of climate on living things.
Occurrences in English before 1790 seem to be borrowings from the Continent. The French phrase “sciences physiques” is found as early as 1753 (Encyclopédie, s.v. Chymie, p410)—I doubt that that is the first occurrence. The Latin scientia physica is very common from the beginning of Medieval philosophy onward; it is supposed to denote knowledge of natural things (“physical” in the Aristotelian sense) in general, so that biology or rather the scientia de anima insofar as it deals with the soul as a principle of rest and motion in living things is a scientia physica. The sense of the phrase is thus not quite the same as that of “physical science”.
The question then is: does anyone know the history of this phrase? Or of the term ‘physical’ (and its relatives in French, etc.)? It would seem that the restriction of the physical to the topics treated by Mary Somerville occurred sometime after the decline of Scholasticism, and that our notion of the physical rests on that restriction. Which is to say, that if you call yourself a physicalist then to any philosopher before 1600 you would probably have some explaining to do.
The recent exchange between Dreyfus & Kelly and Garry Wills in the NYRB has a depressingly familiar ring. In brief, the conversation goes like this:
Rorty thought that Descartes invented the mind. The historians said no. (In Philosophy and the mirror of nature Rorty even quotes John Yolton on the “act” interpretation of ‘idea’, which he recognizes to be bad news for his historical claim. He replies, offhandedly, that if Descartes didn’t invent the mind, then Kant certainly did…)
Does it matter? Rorty might well have said that what counts is that we have the concept. And yet it does seem that the history has a role: it sets up a contrast between bad Cartesian cogito-fixation and good Aristotelian (and post-Cartesian) no-big-deal-ism. Similarly, Dreyfus and Kelly use old texts (and slightly less aged athletes) to set up a contrast between bad out-of-this-worldly-individualism and good being-there-whooshism, and they do so by examining what they take to be instances of the types.
If the history of philosophy needs defending, the posts listed above ought to persuade anyone persuasible. Rather than add another log to the palisade, I thought it would be useful to try to understand why the question keeps coming up. (There’s ample evidence that it does come up every so often. You’ll find earlier stages of the discussion in Margaret Wilson’s Descartes (which was published, significantly enough, in a series called “Arguments of the Philosophers”), in Bernard Williams’ introduction to his Descartes (and the afterthoughts in A Sense of the past), in Alan Gabbey’s “Arguing with the ungrateful dead”—I can’t find a reference to it, but it circulated in samizdat in the late 1980s—, and Dan Garber’s introduction to Descartes embodied.)
The question keeps coming up, I think, because the history of philosophy has two faces. One looks toward intellectual history, itself a branch of cultural history, and the other toward contemporary philosophy. Call these the East Face and the West Face (that gives me room for two more if I need them…). The East Face thinks of philosophical texts in the manner of a historian: they are remains of the past which happen to be available to us in the Archive (see Foucault’s Archeology), and which we take as indices of past events, notably the acts of thought we take to be evidenced by the texts we study. The task of the intellectual historian (once the basic work of putting together the Archive is done) is to describe accurately and to explain those events. (Putting together the Archive is itself a very difficult and challenging task, I might add—see Thomas Tanselle’s work on editing and textual criticism; or take a look at André Robinet’s edition of Leibniz’s Principes de la nature et de la grâce.) That’s a rather atmospheric way of saying that we look at texts, try to determine the intentions behind the speech acts of their authors, and—having thus understood the phenomena—try to understand why the authors did what they did. The process goes on at the level of phrases (e.g. Descartes’ semel in vita), arguments, whole texts, œuvres, schools. (I should add that in my view every responsible reader does history, at least occasionally. Only in those situations in which everyone understands everyone else so well that “hitches” in understanding—do you mean by ‘essence’ what I mean?—never get in the way will we not be engaged in tasks resembling those of the historian properly speaking. Consider the giants of the 50s—Quine, Carnap—: for today’s graduate student, I suspect, a great deal more needs to be motivated and explicated than when I first encountered them; in the 70s there were plenty of native Quineans and Carnapians from whom one could absorb the requisite understandings without having to crack a book.)
One of the latest stories coming from the Wikileaks cables has it that Michael Moore’s Sicko was banned in Cuba. It was banned, so the story goes, because it depicted the Cuban healthcare system so favorably that authorities feared showing the movie would provoke a backlash among a public well aware of the actual state of the system.
This is strange. All the references in Google news to the supposed banning of Sicko can be traced to a single piece, dated 6 or 8 Aug 2007, by a Cuban dissident, Dr. Darsi Ferrer. The piece does not in fact say that Sicko was banned. It says instead that “There is no doubt that the Cuban authorities will not allow the Cuban people the possibility of watching this documentary”. The relevant paragraph in the cable, which is dated 31 Jan 2008, looks like a paraphrase of Ferrer’s opening paragraph. So it is not independent testimony to the banning of the movie.
After trying to track down the truth in this matter, I am stymied. It’s worth remembering that the cables are no more trustworthy than the people who wrote them, and that those people have axes to grind too. That’s pretty clear in this case (remember that the FHSP who wrote this was hired or appointed by the Bush State Department).
That’s not to say that Moore didn’t misrepresent the condition of the Cuban health system, or that the cable doesn’t state the truth, but only that in this domain everything needs independent verification. Journalists generally are treating the cables as if they presented a behind-the-scenes unvarnished truth. We historians ought to know better. All our documents are merely evidence, sometimes good, sometimes not so good, for what happened.
Update 19 December:
The Guardian has a followup story, still mostly in steno mode, in which Michael Moore’s response to the Wikileaks cable is paraphrased. The story casts as a he-said-she-said matter what is really a question of fact. It continues to report as fact statements from the cable even though the cable has been shown to be retailing propaganda on the question of the banning of Moore’s film.