A philosophical turn of mind

In a closed facebook group on analytic philosophy, someone asked a question along these lines: "How do you primarily criticize other people's reasoning?"

Here's the reply I gave. What are some other ways you approach the task of evaluating another's reasoning?

There's no definitive checklist or prescription for identifying an issue and diagnosing someone's treatment of that issue. One reason such an endeavor cannot be reduced to an algorithm is that the complexity of any single issue can be daunting, and the product of interactions among such issues is of an order of complexity too high for even the best merely human mind to address synchronously or sequentially.

Instead, we have to use various troubleshooting heuristics until we've isolated a matter of interest that fits our capacity for analysis. At that juncture, we can go to town on it, and perhaps make (micro-)progress toward clearing away the underbrush of human cognition and laying out defensible assertions about how and why things are.

Typical questions in the area of fuzzy diagnostics applied to person P include (but are not limited to):

  • What is the general domain that P is addressing, and what general domain does P seem to believe P is addressing? Do these match?
  • What are the purposes of P's discourse? To identify an assertion and rebut it? To identify a confusion and clarify it? To rant gracefully against a disfavored ideology? To note an oversimplification and introduce remedial complexity? Other?
  • What does P assume? Does P acknowledge that P assumes that?
  • When fluff and qualifications and mods and idiosyncratic terminology and other debris have been swept away, what is P's argument? What conclusion does P claim to reach? Which premises does P offer as an avenue to reach it? What evidence does P adduce in support of them?
  • What kinds of evidence are actually relevant to P's argument? What kinds of evidence does P employ? What kinds does P ignore? What kinds does P dismiss? What is the effect of this particular configuration of employment, ignorance, and dismissal on P's endeavor?
  • Which alternatives to P's affirmations and inferences does P explicitly consider? What does P prefer to them? Which explicit judgments account for P's preference? Which unacknowledged factors constrain it?
  • Does P's argument, taken as facially acceptable, pass the "So what" test?
  • If you find fault with P's argument in its given context for reasons such as those suggested above, is there something about your own approach, your own assumptions, your own preferences, or your own commitments that prompt or guide you to object in that way?
  • Is P right?
  • What would you have to know or reliably believe in order to evaluate P's discourse in each way listed above? Are you suitably positioned to evaluate it?

Note: this is not an exhaustive list– not even close. It's also given not in a chronological or diagnostically relevant order; it's given in the order in which I improvised the list while eating a bagel and superficially weighing your question.

The broad point is that there's no formula for doing philosophy. Instead, there's a set of habits of mind intermixed with some balance of generosity, skepticism, curiosity, and hope.

A Footehold on Research

 "As for research, I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else. A research assistant couldn’t have done that. Not being a trained historian, I had botherations that led to good things. For instance, I didn’t take careful notes while reading. Then I’d get to something and I’d say, By golly, there’s something John Rawlins said at that time that’s real important. Where did I see it? Then I would remember that it was in a book with a red cover, close to the middle of the book, on the right-hand side and one third from the top of the page. So I’d spend an hour combing through all my red-bound books. I’d find it eventually, but I’d also find a great many other things in the course of the search." ~ Shelby Foote1

Discerning – A Meditation

Today, embrace the sun and moon,
Pose questions to the rocks and clouds,
Consider ripples in the sea,
And delve into the dust of doubt.

Engaging them, take time to see
That each announces not itself
Alone, but one, strong, fair, and true,
Who them displays, whose word all wealth
Now allocates to large and small,
Including you within some scope,
Governing cosmic, quantum, all,
A ground of mystery and hope.

So when you ponder, ask, and reach,
Give time to see as well as show.
Discerning means and motives, learn
To shape and teach as well as know.

Folly's Foliage


Here's a bit o' light verse, given that words are many but hours few.


Folly's Foliage

A dandelion puff aloft went wayward without sinking,
Uprooted, blown into the sky by simple wishful thinking.
So bold, its dreams of meaning made of happenstance and hope.
So dry, the withering stem now plucked– an epistemic trope.

The keep with no foundation falls apart in nothing flat.
Our prison-house of language games will make quite sure of that!
Each proposition needs a promise– given, cherished, kept–
Else thinking, thus unsteadied, spawns a progeny inept.

So build your treehouse near the stream and, firmly rooted there,
It will provide the place where thought may thrive and grow and dare.
The blooming bud once plucked becomes a thing already dead.
Perennial, the cultivated carefully instead.

In the New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg Gets It Wrong

Verlyn Klinkenborg has written an op ed called The Decline and Fall of the English Major in which he starts with his students' inability to write and winds up discerning a "literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities". The apparent goal of the article is to defend the value of the humanities. However, the editorial has two weaknesses that undermine that goal.

The first weakness arises in the attempt to define that value. The author reduces what the humanities offer to mere writing— to clear composition. "They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing," explains Klinkenborg, who also asserts that undergrads do not know "how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature."

So the value proposition of the humanities is reducible to clear thinking, clear writing, and a literary hobby. If that's all the humanities can offer, then why not eliminate every humanistic discipline other than composition and informal logic?

The humanities must be defended, if at all, on a much broader and deeper basis than this. To defend them merely because they build communication skills is to provide a tacit argument for superseding them with more efficient means toward that goal.

This fault in the editorial is joined to another. Klinkenborg writes: "…a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities… suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring…. Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply."

Whether these are genuine faults or merely perceived ones hardly matters in view of one overriding concern: if the humanities are so excellent at developing clear thought and clear verbal expression, then why do "the humanities… do a bad job of explaining" their value, and why do "the humanities… do a bad job of teaching the humanities"?

It seems reasonable that if the value proposition of the humanities consists of "clear thought and expression", then explaining the value of, and teaching, the humanities should be a slam dunk (and should be perceived as such). But if "the humanities" do a poor job of explaining their value and communicating their methods, then why believe in the first place that effective communication is a likely outcome of humanistic education?

Note– I'm all in favor of the humanities. Because of my humanistic education, I look askance on weak arguments and outright contradictions. For this reason, I don't like to see the humanities defended by a reduction to "clear thinking and writing" on the one hand and, on the other, by a contradiction of their efficacy at precisely that juncture.

A Christmas Hymn

I believe I first heard the advent hymn a solis ortus cardine in the 80s, when I was living just up the road from the Benedictine Abbey of S. Martin in Ligugé, France. The monks there were known for their chants, so I picked up their Chefs-d'oeuvre Grégoriens (on cassette tapes back then). It served well as a soundtrack for my quasi-total immersion in the middle ages.

Here's what Wikipedia offers about the song:

A solis ortus cardine … is a Latin poem by Coelius Sedulius (died circa 450), narrating Christ's life from His birth to His resurrection. Its 23 verses each begin with a consecutive letter of the alphabet, making the poem an Abecedarius…

The first seven verses, with a doxology verse by a different writer, were used from the early Middle Ages onwards as a Christmas hymn. They write of the striking contrast between the grandeur and omnipotence of the Word of God (the second person in the Holy Trinity) and the vulnerable humanity of the child in whom the Word became flesh.

Although I have a sentimental attachment to the version by the Choeur des Moines at L'Abbaye de Ligugé, I think this video by the Schola Gregoriana Monostorinensis in Transylvania presents the lovely melody at its best:

A solis ortus cardine
ad usque terrae limitem
Christum canamus principem,
natum Maria Virgine.

Beatus auctor saeculi
servile corpus induit,
ut carne carnem liberans
ne perderet quos condidit.

Caste parentis viscera
caelestis intrat gratia;
venter puellae baiulat
secreta quae non noverat.

Domus pudici pectoris
templum repente fit Dei;
intacta nesciens virum
verbo concepit Filium.

Enixa est puerpera
quem Gabriel praedixerat,
quem matris alvo gestiens
clausus Ioannes senserat.

Feno iacere pertulit,
praesepe non abhorruit,
parvoque lacte pastus est
per quem nec ales esurit.

Gaudet chorus caelestium
et angeli canunt Deum,
palamque fit pastoribus
Pastor, Creator omnium.

Gloria tibi, Domine
Qui natus est de virgine
cum Patre et Sancto Spiritu,
in sempiterna saecula.



credo ut intelligam, ambulo ut legam

Here's my favorite name for a dead-end street in France. I respect its current and former intellectual humility, and I celebrate its medievalizing wit.

l'Impasse de la Trinité (formerly l'Impasse de la Résurrection)
l'Impasse de la Trinité (formerly l'Impasse de la Résurrection)

Sidney Hollis Radner, 1919-2011 – A personal remembrance

This article first appeared in The Mandala Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 1 (July/August 2011), pp. 26-27.

Magnificent Obsession

It seems as if I’ve always known his name. No, not Houdini’s—Sid Radner’s.

That Tony Curtis movie is what first sparked my interest in the monarch of manacles. An obscure 1971 BBC documentary is what really kindled the flame. The Truth About Houdini was televised in the greater Los Angeles area around Halloween of 1976, and I vividly recall a photo in that week’s TV Guide of the real Houdini with his striped shirt, his heart-shaped hair, and his ball and chain. It was a photographic still from The Grim Game, and at the time it was one of the few photos of Houdini that I had ever seen. I carefully extracted it from the magazine and packed it away in an Antonio y Cleopatra Cigars box with my other childhood treasures. Now and again, I studied it with care.

From that moment and for many years, I sought out books and information about Houdini. Because I’m the sort who mulls over footnotes, it seemed to me that Sid Radner was popping up everywhere. Randi and Sugar cited him. Henning and Reynolds thanked him. Christopher too, and eventually Brandon and Silverman, Kalush and Sloman, Koval and Culliton. And from the very beginning, the coincidental convergence of Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner and Gilda Radner in my 1970s TV-saturated mind made Sid’s name unforgettable. I was Radner-aware.

Flash forward a couple of decades. Sometime in the middle 1990s, I was on the phone with Bill Brehm concerning the Houdini Historical Center in Appleton, and he realized I was in New England. “You should go visit Sid Radner!” he declared. “I should? I mean yes, yes. I should!” A little while later, the phone rang and Sid was inviting me and my wife to his home in Holyoke. From his perspective, I was a random stranger who happened to share his magnificent obsession. From my perspective, he was one of the last living connections to the Man Behind the Myth. Here was a chance to savor his unique perspective, and to see some of his collection.

I couldn’t wait.
Continue reading Sidney Hollis Radner, 1919-2011 – A personal remembrance

David Byron thinking through the (digital) humanities and visual/spatial/virtual cultures