Deciding to vote, and for whom

As I was reading Facebook entries on the election, and especially exchanges between supporters of Sanders and people in favor of voting for Hillary Clinton, I began to realize that to some extent they were arguing at cross purposes. In what follows I try to make clear, for myself if for no-one else, what’s going on.
Absolute opposition on moral grounds
Some people flat-out refuse to entertain the thought of voting for Clinton. I think I understand why. Their opposition to her is morally grounded, and it is absolute. They do not, in other words, merely prefer Sanders to Clinton. On moral grounds, they look upon Clinton as someone for whom they cannot vote, regardless of who else is in the running, whether in the primaries or in the general election.
Here’s an analogy. A moral vegetarian doesn’t merely prefer her diet to one that includes meat; she is absolutely opposed to eating meat, and since in general moral grounds override grounds of other sorts, she will—entirely reasonably given the judgment she has made—be wholly unmoved by appeals to practical consequences and so forth; only in the direst of circumstances would she consider eating meat, and then not as in any way approving of that act, but because the imperative, let’s say, of survival has precedence over other moral imperatives.
So too someone who on moral grounds opposed Clinton in the primaries will be, again entirely reasonably, unmoved by appeals to the consequences of Clinton’s being defeated. Quite reasonably too she may be angered by being told that voting for Clinton is preferable to voting for Trump; that is like telling a vegetarian that fish is less “meaty” than raw steak—true, perhaps, but beside the point.
I don’t see any inconsistency in the position I’ve just outlined. It would be reasonable for someone who holds that position to refrain from voting, given the options, or to vote for a third-party candidate. Nevertheless I think a person who holds that position may have grounds (but not, strictly speaking, moral grounds) for voting for Clinton. What those are, I’ll say later.
Preference for Sanders
If you prefer Sanders, on moral grounds, to Clinton, then I assume that on similar grounds you will prefer Clinton to Trump. In that case it’s not apparent why you should not vote for Clinton. The only reason I can think of is to hold that the eventual outcome of Trump’s winning would be better than the eventual outcome of Clinton’s winning. That case has yet to be made—especially as addressed to someone who prefers Sanders to Clinton. What has been offered, as far as I can see, is speculation to the effect that Clinton’s victory would preclude, while Trump’s victory would promote, a takeover of the Democratic party by people who favor Sanders’s views to Clinton’s.
In the face of such an argument, it’s entirely in order to bring forward the likely consequences of a Trump victory (which in my view would result in eight years of Trump or Pence; think of what happened to Kerry in 2004). Proponents of Clinton have laid them out in detail: a Supreme Court much worse than the present one (and even more inclined to go along with Republican efforts to restrict the right to vote), an even more corrupt executive branch (Trump wants to eliminate Civil Service protections, for example), not to mention whatever Trump and a presumably Republican Congress would do to realize his threats against Muslims and immmigrants.
Except for someone convinced that a Trump presidency would be such a disaster as to result in the destruction of the Republican Party and the ushering-in of a Sanders revolution, I think Clinton comes out better; and one should keep in mind that Bush’s presidency, with its disasters, had no such effects—though I’ll admit that the Obama White House did its best to forestall them.
Why vote for Clinton if you’re absolutely opposed to her
I think there’s a pretty good case for being morally opposed to a Clinton presidency. Her embrace of Kissinger, for example, which well represents her neoconservative views (Cold War, really) on foreign affairs; her own acquiescence, about which she has been misleading at best, in the demise of democratic government in Honduras, her strong advocacy of intervention in Libya (which she later referred to as a “work in progress”), her favorable view of TPP (until she was forced to express some misgivings during the primaries)—these and more provide ample moral grounds to oppose her.
The best argument I can think of (that would be persuasive to someone who opposes Clinton on moral grounds) is to consider what the act of voting for her signifies. Does it signify moral approval of her opinions and acts? There is a strong tendency in the US to regard the President as not only the head of the executive branch, and in charge therefore of fulfilling the duties of that branch, but also as the moral leader of the country. Washington and Lincoln are the exemplars; Obama traded strongly on that tendency in his first campaign. If you think that in voting for a presidential candidate you are endorsing that person as the moral leader of the US, then it will be hard to come up with reasons to do so in the face of a strong moral case against that person.
But one can think of voting for a presidential candidate in practical terms, as choosing, from among the realistic options, the one whom you believe will do the best job—best as you conceive it. (I say ”realistic” because voting for a third-party candidate who has only an infinitesimal chance of winning is a different sort of act, resting on different sorts of reasons.) Clinton has already shown that for perhaps entirely self-regarding motives she will veer left; I don’t think the same can be said for Trump.
A vote for Clinton, then, by someone morally opposed to her being elected could, as a sort of speech act, be paraphrased as follows: “Yes, you are preferable to Trump (not for what you have done but for what you, unlike him, probably won’t do and for what you might be persuaded to do). But this preference rests on inferior, pragmatic grounds, not the high moral ground, and on those issues where I am morally opposed to your view I will fight you every inch of the way”.

LinkJuly 27, 2016 in Current Affairs

An effect of maleness

An article by Alla Katsnelson in Nature (28 April; doi:10.1038/nature.2014.15106; currently free) reports on new results from Jeffrey Mogil, a well-known pain researcher at McGill. Mogil and his team have shown that olfactory exposure to males (humans, rats, cats, dogs, guinea pigs) dampens pain responses in mice. In a paper published in Nature Methods (doi:10.1038/nmeth.2935), Mogil and his team report that even a T-shirt, or the scent of chemicals from a male armpit, had the same effect. The only exception was male cage-mates of the subjects. Women, on the other hand, had no effect on pain sensitivity.
Sensitivity to pain was decreased (by about 40%), it turned out, because male scent increased stress, as indicated by increased levels of cortiosterone.
That the presence of an experimenter could alter the responses of animals to pain was long suspected. Mogil says it is
“something that people have been whispering about at meetings for years […] But no one had bothered to look at this systematically.”
Two take-home results are indicated in the article:
“It’s the kind of result a lot of people wish wouldn’t happen,” says Douglas Wahlsten, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Alberta, Canada who has studied how animals react to experimenters. Such effects should be taken more seriously, Wahlsten says. “I think this paper will make people more aware.”
Animal researchers, says [Joseph] Garner, will have to embrace statistical methods that compensate for a greater range of variability. “We need to think about animals as more like human subjects,” he says, “than as controllable reagents.”
It’s worth noting that in an all-male lab a systematic biasing of results by the presence of males would not be noticed (the same would hold, of course, in an all-female lab).
Perhaps the same could be said of philosophical results.
Three other articles on pain and empathy I noticed while researching the above:
  • Jeffrey Mogil. “Animal models of pain: progress and challenges.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10.4 (2009): 283–294. (doi:10.1038/nrn2606).
  • Bartal, Inbal Ben-Ami, Jean Decety, and Peggy Mason. “Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats.” Science 334.6061 (2011): 1427–1430. Reported on in Nature by Virginia Gewin. (See also Mogil 2012.)
    From the abstract: “To test for empathically motivated pro-social behavior in rodents, we placed a free rat in an arena with a cagemate trapped in a restrainer. After several sessions, the free rat learned to intentionally and quickly open the restrainer and free the cagemate. […] They freed cagemates even when social contact was prevented. When liberating a cagemate was pitted against chocolate contained within a second restrainer, rats opened both restrainers and typically shared the chocolate.”
  • Monya Baker. “Animal models: Inside the minds of mice and men”. Nature 475, 123–128 (07 July 2011) doi:10.1038/475123a. On the use of animals in the study of mental illness. Intriguing quote:
    As human genetic studies reveal gene variants with increasingly smaller impacts on disease, there is increasing demand for new behavioural tests to assess them. Results of assays are highly variable, and they may not measure the most meaningful symptoms, says Jeffrey Mogil, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. “We’ve made a lot of advances in making ever-fancier mice, but at the end of the day the question is, what’s your assay and what’s your measure and are they relevant?” he says. “The slow link in the chain, the messy link in the chain, has always been the behavioural assays.”

LinkMay 7, 2014 in Psychology


This summer I learned to walk. More precisely, I learned to walk normally. My gait had gotten unsteady, and I was dragging my right foot. Work with an excellent physical therapist helped straighten me out. But balance problems, tremors, and hesitations continued.
At the beginning of August I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I want to describe the phenomenology of my version of it, and begin thinking through its implications for the philosophy of perception and action. But first the disease itself.
For a first-person account of Parkinson’s by a neurologist, see this recent article in Nature.
What Parkinson’s is
The immediate underlying problem is a deficiency of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Levels at diagnosis are typically 30% to 70% below normal. Dopamine is involved in many neural processes, not only motor activity but decision-making and the regulation of emotion. The symptoms from which Parkinson’s is diagnosed — tremor, bradykinesia, rigidity, and postural instability — will in time be accompanied by others, including loss of smell (mine, however, is rather more sensitive than less), autonomic dysfunction, troubled sleep, and dementia.
Source: H. Braak, K. Del Tredici, “Presymptomatic and symptomatic stages …” Dopamine and glutamate in psychiatric disorders (2005) 475–502, figure 1A, p476.
DOI: 10.1007/978-1-59259-852-6_20
Diagnosis typically occurs five to eight years after the conjectured onset of the disease. Before diagnosis, in the so-called “presymptomatic” phase, there may have been nonmotor symptoms, including rigidity, aversion to novelties, and depression. In my case the presymptomatic phase may have begun as early as 2005. With no doubt fallible hindsight I can recall evidence of motor problems at least two years ago.
Dopamine deficiency, once regarded as the cause of Parkinson’s, is now accounted rather as a symptom. (Progress in understanding “causally deep” diseases like Parkinson’s consists in travelling back along the chain of causes; the aim, however, is not to find ultimate causes but to find the most effective points of therapeutic intervention; manipulability is key.) It is now thought that Parkinson’s, like Alzheimer’s, includes the buildup of aggregates of proteins that eventually disable or kill the neurons that contain them. A cascade of further problems ensues. In Parkinson’s the proteins in question are “synucleins”, smallish proteins which, in aberrant forms, tend to stick together. Mitochondrial malfunctions [pdf] are also present that may both cause and be caused by the protein aggregates. As yet there is no cure for either abnormality. Consensus on the chain of causes that issues in Parkinson’s ends here.
Source: Braak & Del Tredici (2005), figure 1B.
What degrades first is the substantia nigra, the “black stuff”, responsible for production and regulation of dopamine. Like other parts of the midbrain, it is very old, and was perhaps already present in the first vertebrates, 500 million years ago. The breakdown of proteins eventually spreads to other areas associated with motor activity and with impulse control, and ultimately to the cortex. Motor symptoms improve upon the administration of levodopa (a dopamine precursor that can pass through the blood-brain barrier, made famous by Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings). But eventually its effects diminish, as the condition of the brain worsens. For nonmotor symptoms there is no established treatment. Nothing is yet known to stop or slow down the progress of the disease, although exercise, especially “forced” exercise, is thought to have some positive effect. I now own a treadmill.
For a recent survey on Parkinson’s diagnosis, etiology, and treatment see Nature Outlook (2010) [paylink], and Michael J. Fox’s website.
I will mention two striking perceptual effects of my symptoms. The first is that my perception of spatial relations has changed. Things a block away seem — unsurprisingly — further, no doubt because it requires more effort than it used to to walk five hundred feet. Things within fifty feet or so, on the other hand, feel closer. I say “feel” because I’m referring not to visual perception, not to how things look, but to how close they seem [paylink], and thus how threatening if they are moving toward me or I toward them. The involuntary fear of heights that Hume notes is impervious to reason has become almost overwhelming; the involuntary flinching that occurs if something large looms too quickly now kicks in sooner. Crowds have become more unnerving. Even when I am in the kitchen with only my wife I sometimes stop short three or four feet from her, though I realize even as I stop that there’s no risk of collision.
This is owing, I suspect, to my decreased mobility. It takes effort to turn, effort to bend at the waist, effort to start moving out of the way. My awareness of that — I don’t mean explicit thoughts of being immobile but the feeling of stiffness, of effortful change of posture — seems to have resulted in a recalibration of my “proximity detectors”, and that in turn to altered perceptions of the ambient space and objects within it.
A second effect has again to do with spatial perception. I notice a marked reluctance to reach down. A book on the floor feels farther away. It is as if the perception of something like Gibsonian affordances has been altered, or the locomotive field, the viscosity, of nearby space. The same applies more generally to reaching in general, especially if the thing to be reached is behind me.
The perceived difficulty of reaching (somewhat exaggerated). The view is from overhead; the center of each circle sits above the central vertical axis of the perceiver. Darker is more difficult.
A third effect, more cognitive than perceptual, and thankfully infrequent, has occurred when I find myself in a kneeling position on the floor and momentarily unable to rise. The thought that immediately comes to mind is not that I can’t stand up, but that I have forgotten how. Incapacity is refashioned into ignorance.
It would follow, if I had indeed forgotten, that I would now have to learn anew the sequence of acts by which one rises to a standing position. That is indeed what I did this summer as I worked on my gait and balance. One exercise consisted simply in this: from a standing position, lean forward until you start to fall, and (deliberately) take a single step forward to maintain your balance. I was taking several small steps, which is more likely to be ineffective.
Until new habits have worn in, I must plan acts that before were performed “on the fly”, without deliberation. To get off the floor from a kneeling position if I cannot give myself a boost with my arms, I have learned to first set my left foot on the floor in front of me, and then, as I unbend my left left knee, pull up the right leg so that at the end both legs are straight and my feet are flat on the ground. I’ve described the act in Molloy- or Kafka-like detail; in such detail must I construct it. Needless to say doing things thus is slow and inefficient by comparison with the fluent, unreflected doing I was used to. The slowness associated with Parkinson’s has to do not only with the reluctance of the nervous system to respond to one’s intentions, but with the need to substitute plans for long-standing habits.
All this provides further illustration, if any is needed, for the close relation between perception and action argued for by Merleau-Ponty in the 1940s (Phénoménologie de la perception, 1945; see Jean-Luc Petit "La Spatialité originaire du corps propre", Revue de synthèse 124.1 (2003): 139–171) and more recently by Susan Hurley [pdf], Alva Noë, and others. Parkinson’s, in its early stages, has no direct effect on perception (although it may hinder visual perception by affecting the basal ganglia, which control visual saccades). What it does to perception will therefore be by way of its influence on motor control. Early-stage Parkinson’s provides a natural settingf in which to test the so-called ‘enactive hypothesis’. The more general point that loss of motor capacity provides a test has, of course, not gone unnoticed. What I would urge is a more fine-grained analysis of its effects, for example, that the space around one could feel different than before in various ways — with respect to “looming”, for example — that do not consist in its looking different, and that the feel I am trying to articulate — with respect to heights, say — seems to be an amalgam of perceptions, motor inclinations, and emotions.
I see some evidence in my experience also that for certain emotions, notably anxiety, the Jamesian theory may be true, at least in a weak form according to which certain bodily goings-on, though not perhaps necessary, suffice for it to be present. The awkward tension I often feel in my muscles, especially in the abdomen and upper torso, resembles that of anxious anticipation, and it requires concentration not to feel anxious as a result. On the other hand, if the capacity to have emotions depends in part on the capacity to express them, then one can make sense of the impassivity of Parkinson’s patients even without invoking the “dopamine hypothesis” alluded to earlier.
I am sobered by the thought that it was child’s play for my understanding to make intelligible to itself my altered dispositions in terms of more-or-less reasoned preferences. I’ve noticed that to the extent that I’ve become more impulsive (more likely to interrupt, for example), reasons come readily to mind both to explain and to excuse my behavior. The higher capacities seem to operate here in the manner of an overly accommodating servant who manages to make sense of even the most outlandish expressions of his master…
It was very easy to throw aside the blanket. He needed only to push himself up a little, and it fell by itself. But to continue was difficult, particularly because he was so unusually wide. He needed arms and hands to push himself upright. Instead of these, however, he had only many small limbs, which were incessantly moving with very different motions and which, in addition, he was unable to control. If he wanted to bend one of them, then it was the first to extend itself, and if he finally succeeded doing what he wanted with this limb, in the meantime all the others, as if left free, moved around in an excessively painful agitation. “But I must not stay in bed uselessly,” said Gregor to himself.
— Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis, trans. Ian Johnston. [Back]

LinkNovember 26, 2013 in NewAPPS · Psychology


[See Mohan Matthen, “Why do movie effects get dated?” at NewAPPS.]
Consider two famous stop-motion sequences by Ray Harryhausen: the Cyclops sequence from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and the skeletons sequence from Jason and the Argonauts.
In the fiction of Sinbad, there is nothing to indicate that the Cyclops moves otherwise than like a large humanoid animal. Its motions should appear smooth like those of humans. But they don’t. The difference is apparent especially when human actors and the Cyclops are presented in the same frame. Harryhausen may have intended that the motions should be realistically depicted, but his technique falls short, especially now that computer animation sets the standard.
The skeletons’ motion as depicted has the slight jerkiness and excessive clarity of stop-motion animation. But skeletons, after all, if they could move, might very well move in an uncanny manner. One can see the sequence as depicting realistically the uncanny motions of skeletons brought to life.
Or one can see it as not-quite-realistically depicting ordinary, smooth, physically correct motions.
Which option predominates will depend on conventions of depiction. The overarching convention that governed the reception of works like Harryhausen’s, at the time of their making was a version of realism (see this 1941 article in Popular Mechanics). In particular, the depicted motions, other than magical, of fictional creatures were to appear as much like those of human or animal actors as possible. Realism, together with an emphasis on technical ingenuity and painstaking labor, has been part of the ideology of special effects from the start.
Also among the cultural norms surrounding special effects is that the spectator is invited to view them with a critical eye. The tagline of Superman, “You will believe a man can fly”, succinctly sums up the challenge taken up by special effects. Conviction will depend not only on the depiction but on the range of instances with which the viewer is familiar. What the critical eye looks for will therefore change as techniques change.
What the critical eye looks for will also change according to the imputed target of depiction. Rotoscoping, a technique in which the figures in a cel animation are traced from a filmed human figure, frame by frame, enables animators to depict human movements much more accurately than traditional freehand animation. Even now the results look more realistic (Snow White, 1937; Gulliver’s Travels, 1939).
Pinocchio, Popular mechanics 1940
Source: Popular Mechanics, 1940.
But compared with what 3D computer animation can now accomplish, it falls short — if you take the target to be the realistic depiction of the human figure in motion. Shading, for example, is absent or minimal. Spectators in 1939 did not expect detailed shading, and still less a physically realistic treatment of reflection, and the absence of those features did not, therefore, tell against the realism of Rotoscoped animation.
When we watch older movies, we tend, I think, to revise our estimate of the target, rather than judge it to fall short by current standards. Viewers of Pinocchio were said to marvel at the “realism of the shadows, the highlights on jewels and on shiny objects, the mists, the dusts, and the water” (Popular Mechanics, January 1940, 21–22). Judge for yourself: look at the liquids, the smoke, the shadows… Pinocchio may have looked more realistic than its predecessors. It may still look more realistic. But does it approach the realism of today’s animation?
Standards change, targets change. Which standards do I apply? What governs my imputation of targets to animations? They aren’t arbitrary, of course. On the other hand, they aren’t determined by features of the medium or of the human perceptual system. Viewers learn which standards to apply and which targets are likely to be aimed at from critics, from peers — the avenues, in other words, by which one picks up collective norms generally. In that respect the realism of animations is a matter of convention.

LinkJune 11, 2013 in Æsthetics · Film | Comments (0)

The frozen coachman

Catarina Dutilh Novaes’ item on literature and on what, thanks to her and to Helen de Cruz, I now know to call “moral self-licensing” brought to mind some sleuthing I did two months ago. This was in connection with teaching a bit of the “moral uplift through art” literature that Catarina and her commenters discuss. (The review article cited by Catarina, by the way, is available for free here. See also the abstracts at p81 of the program for 2011 meeting of the Association for Consumer Research — one area in which the theory will soon find application…)
The trail begins with William James, who in his Briefer Course on Psychology (1915) writes:
All Goods are disguised by the vulgarity of their concomitants, in this work-a-day world; but woe to him who can only recognize them when he thinks them in their pure and abstract form! The habit of excessive novel-reading and theatre-going will produce true monsters in this line. The weeping of the Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale (148).
For a long time — I don’t remember why — I thought that the unfortunate coachman was to be found somewhere in Tolstoy. Other people did too, including the critic Vincent Sheean, who places the coachman in St. Petersburg, and has the noble lady watching La dame aux camélias. For all I know, he may be right.
But the coachman has turned out to be an elusive character. I tracked him back to around 1700… After which I’ll return to James, and Catarina.
Source: The Idler 11 (1897) 703. Artist: John Schönberg.
The next earlier appearance I could find was not promising. We move back to 1897, to a volume of a periodical called the Idler. In a story by Fred Whishaw, a prolific author of adventure novels, Alexis Bogoliubov [i.e. Godslove], chief coachman to Baron Krilof, has seen his brother condemned to Siberia by the Baron, who is Head of Police; the Baron, moreover, had insisted on calling him twice to duty while his little daughter lay ill with a fever. The second time she died. Persuaded by some “nihilist” friends of his brother to assassinate the Baron, Alexis drives him to the theatre, planning to shoot him when he comes out. The Baron comes out, climbs into the coach, but Alexis does nothing. They ride home. Later, the Baron sends a servant to tell Alexis to take the coach and horses to the stable. But Alexis doesn’t answer: he is frozen stiff, and has been, says the doctor called to see him, for an hour. He was dead already before they left the theatre…
Next, a more light-hearted story from Blackwood’s (1867). In “The Eastern trip of two ochlophobists”, the first-person narrator writes:
When I was in Rome I remember being told that it had not been so cold for forty years, and the fact that Pss—i’s coachman had been frozen to death on the box while waiting at the opera for his mistress was adduced as a proof; on inquiries afterwards, I must own that it was satisfactorily shown that the coachman’s inability to stir proceeded mainly from drunkenness.
The coachman and his mistress (not master) have moved to Rome, and instead of being bent on assassination, the coachman has tied one on, and has gone “stiff” only in metaphor.
You will have noticed that these two tellings of the story are fictional. James’s anecdote is not. Our next stage yields a nonfictional frozen coachman, in Russia like James’s, not Rome.
On the 5th of December, during a cold spell of minus twenty [Celsius], one knew or heard — for it was expressly forbidden to speak of it — that Napoleon had stopped in the outskirts, at the gates of Vilna, had dined in his coach, chatted with the Duke of Bassano, even as his coachman died of the cold, and also that the Duke of Rocca Romana […] was so extravagant as to bring with him, in the same equipment as at Naples […] some delicate and charming horses, only to see them freeze to death at the end of the campaign (129).
This narrative has all the trappings of authenticity. It comes from the Réminiscences sur l’empereur Alexandre 1er et sur l’empereur Napoléon 1er (1862) by Sophie de Tisenhaus, countess of Choiseul-Gouffler, who was in Vilnius at the time (so I gather). The incident would have occurred in 1812.
Perhaps it did. Perhaps we have found the frozen coachman, the prototype of James’s. And yet a bit of doubt persists… In a work from 1842 — before Sophie de Tisenhaus’s, but after the incident she mentions — we find that frozen coachman were commonplace in old Russia.
It is incredible how much the poor coachmen, footmen, and postilions, are expected to endure. People will often go to the theatre or to a party, and leave their equipages in the street the whole evening, that they may be able to command their services at a moment’s notice. The coachman then finds it difficult to resist the inclination to sleep; and the little twelve-year-old postilions, not yet accustomed to watch till midnight, hang slumbering on their horses, or, winding the reins round their arms, slip down and lie cowering on the frozen snow. Many a poor coachman has thus lost his nose, or has had his hands and feet disabled, while his master was feasting his palate or his ears, or indulging a voluptuous sympathy for fictitious sorrow (Köhl, Russia, 1842 but probably published in German earlier).
In the Spectator of 1840 we find coachmen — and their passengers, in this somewhat more egalitarian society — freezing in Paris:
How the wretched coachmen manage to live at all in such weather as I have seen in Paris, is to me inconceivable; for even to the inside passengers the cold becomes to times so severe, that with all the contrivances they can think of—warm furs, hot-water bottles, great-coats, boat-cloaks, and shawls, they can scarcely go from one house to another without being frozen to death; a fate which actually befel two poor sentries, and an unfortunate donkey […] (1235).
Fifty years earlier, the grandfathers of some of those coachmen had already sat freezing at the behest of their masters.
The theatres and all places of public amusement are shut, when the cold is seventeen degrees of Reaumur. A custom of the Russian nobility and gentry makes this regulation absolutely necessary. Asiatic pomp prevails here, as much as at Isphan or Delhi, in defiance of ice and storms. They make their attendants wait with their carriages wherever they go, for one, or for ten hours, as it happens, let the cold be ever so violent. The miserable grins of those half frozen wretches, convince me that it is not their choice: the coachmen are sometimes frozen to death, upon their boxes (Sentimental and Mosaic Magazine (1792) 348).
We seem to be in the presence of a commonplace, a complex of received ideas concerning the cruelty of the nobility, the coldness of Russian (or Parisian) winters, and the love of liquor among the servant class. How nicely it fits together, and how suited to making various points. In Köhl, the topic is the endurance of the people; in the 1792 passage (excerpted from Andrew Swinton’s Travels, published, it seems, that same year), the topic is much the same; but in James the point of the anecdote shifts from the coachman to the lady, from exhibiting features of social class and climate to the indifference of people who have “indulged a voluptuous sympathy for fictitious sorrow” — to moral self-licensing, or experiences of art that enable it.
Our journey ends with a footnote on page 176 of Pierre Moricheau-Beaupré’s Effets et des propriétés du froid, avec un aperçu historique et médical sur la campagne de Russie (1817). The footnote cites (probably) the Commentaries by Gerard van Swieten on the Aphorisms of the celebrated physician Hermann Boerhaave (1668–1738). These were first published in the 1740s. Boerhaave, perhaps already by 1709, had made observations upon the brain of a “cocher mort de froid”…
My efforts to find the original passage in Boerhaave have proved fruitless. But I see no reason to doubt that Boerhaave really did dissect a frozen coachman’s brain. A death from whose telling no morals, it seems, were drawn.
Back to James: the Russian lady (a transposition back to Russia of the lady in Rome, who herself may be a calque of Napoleon or the theatre-loving nobility of Moscow or St. Petersburg) exemplifies, rather oddly, the woe that arises to those who recognize goods only in their “pure and abstract form”. The implication is that when we watch Lear holding Cordelia in his arms and lamenting her death what we behold is more abstract and pure than when we see, on screen, a man amid the wreckage of a tornado-ravaged town in Oklahoma holding his injured daughter in his arms.
I don’t think so. In fact I don’t think whatever differences do obtain between truth and fiction matter much in this context. The psychologists seem unconcerned by them. In the moral-licensing papers I looked at, the experimental setups often had people reading about fictitious or “what-if” cases and anticipating making decisions rather than actually making them. That the situations their subjects are asked to consider were not real seems not to matter.
The moral uplift — or the moral license — that the appreciation of narrative fictions is supposed to provide would not, then, be an effect they have qua fictions, but simply qua stories, and the relevant dimension would be not truth but plausibility. (A similar thought was suggested to me this spring while teaching Catherine Wilson’s “Grief and the poet”, Susan James’s “Fruitful imagining”, and Wilson’s reply, all in Brit. J. Aesthetics 53.1 (Jan 2013), esp. 118–119.) In particular the fable of the frozen coachman, even if it encloses a kernel of truth, owes its persuasive force rather to the complex of received ideas that it calls to mind and marshals on behalf of the various morals drawn from it.
Catarina writes that the “first and foremost commitment” of fiction is to “a ‘good story’, one that is engaging, where the pieces hold well together, where the characters go through interesting events […]” I would amend this by changing “fiction” to “narrative” (see also Nathan’s comment on Catarina’s post). Though the discussion began with the question whether literature is uplifting (or, as I would say, lends itself to uplifting interpretations), literature turns out to be something of a red herring.

LinkJune 4, 2013 in Æsthetics · Literature

Adversaries and disputants, gender and argument

Inspired by some comments of Jennifer Saul on Rebecca Kukla’s remarks concerning the “aggressive, argumentative” style in philosophy, Eric Schliesser and Catarina Dutilh Novaes here at NewAPPS have taken up the question of what I would call the character of philosophy. Does it consist in contests in which adversaries, having occupied positions, not only defend them vigorously but also attack those positions which, being contrary to their own, they take to be opposed to their own? Readers of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors we live by will recognize here a familiar conceit: argument is war. How warlike should philosophy be?
Consider an ideal type: the (pure) adversary intends that his or her position should prevail. To be an adversary is, by presumption, to be engaged in a contest, that is, in a collective endeavor in which it makes sense to occupy a position.
It is clear from the discussion that no-one really thinks that philosophers should be pure adversaries. We don’t intend that our position should prevail come what may, but that our position should prevail, given that it is (as we think) true, or given that it has (as we think) the balance of reasons in its favor (a condition for which I will use the word “probable” in its older, scholastic sense). We aren’t pure adversaries, but rather adversaries in good faith. (For completeness’ sake I should have an account of devil’s advocacy, i.e. of arguing for positions that one does not in fact regard as true or probable. That would be either a mere exhibition of skill or else a component of some larger act of advocacy in good faith.)
So: a second ideal type. The (pure) disputant intends that his or her position should prevail, provided that it is true (or probable). The scholastic conception of philosophy was of a disputational, not an adversarial, endeavor whose end is the discovery of the true or the probable. In the American court system, on the other hand, because the legal question of guilt or innocence is decided (ceteris paribus) by a jury’s or a judge’s verdict, the proceedings are not, in an immediate way, disputational; instead there is a strong tendency for lawyers to become pure adversaries, their proximate end being not truth but persuasion. (On a distinction between “negotiation” and “scholarly communication” which is analogous to the distinction made here, see Andrew Gelman on “Different modes of discourse”.)
In philosophical discussion (as always, I presuppose good faith) it is understood that assertions must either be defended if questioned or explicitly taken as assumed (locally if not globally) for the sake of argument. A philosopher writing in an aphoristic mode may proceed as if that requirement had been suspended: but it is only suspended, not removed. To remove it would be to shift the aims of philosophy, e.g. toward spiritual exercise (historically, a character of philosophy no less prominent than truth-seeking: see Pierre Hadot’s Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique, Matt Jones on Descartes, Pierre Force on Montaigne and Pascal, and John Sellars on Justus Lipsius).
Philosophical discourse is in that respect always disputational. At minimum to offer reasons for p is also to offer reasons against not-p, and thus to implicate a sort of contest between the proposition asserted and its negation. (On the agonistic origins of Western philosophy see G. E. R. Lloyd’s Revolutions of wisdom and Demystifying mentalities and Marcel Detienne’s Maîtres de vérité; on scholastic disputation, see John Marenbon’s Later medieval philosophy, and on disputation as ritual spectacle see Enders 1993 in the bibliography below; Catarina Dutilh Novaes has written here on argument as dialogue). Kukla is right in exhibiting contempt for anyone who is put off by mere disagreement among philosophers (see also her further remarks at Facebook). But I see no reason to suppose that philosophy must be aggressively disputational. Must an objection be cast as an attack? Disputation needn’t be agonistic, in my view; on the contrary, if the collective aim is to conduct an inquiry into truth, cooperation may be just as productive. Placing a “high premium on verbal sparring and cleverness” (where cleverness denotes something other than or in addition to skill in argument) is at best an imperfect means to that aim; and it exacts a significant social cost insofar as it amplifies disparities of power which have nothing to do with the capacities needed to conduct inquiry.
An intense aggressive style can be used as an instrument of oppression: on that point I suppose there will be agreement. “Your objection has no merit” can be a way of saying “Shut up”, an exercise of power. But I take it that Kukla would include browbeating among the activities she agrees should be discouraged. So the question resolves itself to this: does the intense aggressive style itself (if indeed we can detach the exercise of that style from the social meanings of aggressiveness in particular social contexts) function as a filter in academic philosophy in ways that we would reject, once it became apparent that it was functioning thus? Kukla tries to arrange it so that the burden of proof is on the person who says yes, demanding evidence for that position while offering (so far as I can tell) only her own experience on behalf of her own. If you are antecedently persuaded of the benefits of the intense aggressive style, that may be enough. (I am not so persuaded. Perhaps that is because I am not solely concerned with who should be a philosopher, but with the social profile of philosophy generally.)
Kukla holds that, as far as she can tell, the intense aggressive style puts off people of all sorts equally, and so no social harm will result from its being a common or the prevalent style in philosophy. That, of course, is an empirical claim. Evaluating it would require an intimacy with the literature on small-group dynamics and on negotiation (since I think it reasonable to regard the activity of a seminar, e.g., as consisting partly in negotiations about group beliefs) that I lack. Perhaps others more qualified can comment on that point. I will conclude with some impressions.
In a quick review of studies of negotiation, the firmest general conclusion I can draw is that small differences in setting and expectation can generate significant differences in the importance of gender to influencing behavior. There is no easy answer to the question raised above. For example, if an activity is framed as a winner-take-all competition, women, even those who do well, are less likely to choose to take part than men (Bertrand 2010:1555), which suggests that we not frame discussion in such a way that only one person can be right. Or again: “women’s performance in negotiation improves significantly when negotiating for someone else as opposed to for themselves” (Bertrand 2010:1557), which suggests that we frame the task of discussion not as that of defending my opinion as against yours, but rather as that of determining which of the alternatives we should maintain.
It would seem that the trend of the later literature points to two major conclusions: (i) the differences are usually not large, and are exhibited only when conditioned on other features of the situation; (ii) other relations, notably power relations, with which gender relations are correlated may have a greater role in social interaction. In short: under favorable circumstances, prevalence of the intense aggressive style need not, perhaps, aggravate inequality, in particular gender inequality. But it is up to us to ensure that circumstances are favorable.
    Marianne Bertrand. “New perspectives on gender”. In: Handbook of labor economics 4b: 1545–1592.
    Linda L. Carli. “Gender, language, and influence”. Journal of personality and social psychology 59.5 (1990) 941–951.
    Renee Edwards, Mark A. Hamilton. “You need to understand my gender role: an empirical test of Tannen’s model of gender and communication”. Sex roles 50.7/8 (2004) 491–504. (Also a nice example of modelling complex causal relations.)
    Jody Enders. “The theater of scholastic erudition”. Comparative Drama 27.3 (1993) 341–363.
    Annette Hannah, Tamar Murachver. “Gender and conversational style as predictors of conversational behavior.” Journal of language and social psychology 18.2 (1999) 153–174.
    Michael A. Gilbert. “Feminism, argumentation and coalescence.” Informal logic 16.2 (1994) 95–133 (with bibliography of earlier literature).
    Deborah M. Kolb. “Too bad for the women or does it have to be? Gender and negotiation research over the past twenty-five years”. Negotiation journal Oct 2009:515–531.
    Laura J. Kray, Leigh Thompson, Adam Galinsky. “Battle of the sexes: gender stereotype confirmation and reactance in negotiations.” Journal of personality and social psychology 80.6 (2001) 942–958.
    Alex J. Novikoff. “Toward a cultural history of scholastic disputation”. The American historical review 117.2 (2012) 331–364.
    Amy E. Walters, Alice F. Stuhlmacher, and Lia L. Meyer. “Gender and negotiator competitiveness: a meta-analysis”. Organizational behavior and human decision processes 76.1 (1998) 1–29.
    Janice D. Yoder, Arnold S. Kahn. “Toward a feminist understanding of women and power”. Psychology of women quarterly 16 (1992) 381–388.

LinkMay 30, 2013 in NewAPPS · Philosophy of Philosophy · Society | Comments (0)

The soul of man pictured

Source: Jan Comenius, Orbis pictus
(Syracuse, NY: C. W. Bardeen, 1887).
The illustration above is from Jan Comenius’ celebrated, oft-reprinted school-book. The Orbis sensualium pictus presents, in words and in pictures, “all the fundamental things in the world and all the acts of life”. In pictures (an expensive novelty at the time) because, after all, “in Intellectu autem nihil est, nisi priùs fuerit in Sensu” (a famous Aristotelian slogan), and so one must exercise the senses, perceiving by their means the differences of things, so as to lay the foundations of wisdom and right action.


LinkMay 21, 2013 in History of Science · Psychology

Two new theorems in number theory

In grade school we learn how to divide one whole number by another. Sometimes nothing is left over, but often the division leaves a “remainder”. One learns to say “Eleven divided by five is two remainder one”. Numbers that always leave a remainder when divided by another number other than themselves or 1 are called prime. All other numbers are called composite (except 1, which is neither prime nor composite).


LinkMay 21, 2013 in History of Science · Philosophy of Mathematics | Comments (0)