Monday, January 22, 2007

Principles of charity; principles of uncharity

In philosophy as practiced today there is a key principle of textual understanding and analysis: the principle of charity. By extension, the same principle is applicable to argumentation in general, as arguments in most areas of life ought to be judged by the same standards as they are in philosophy at its best.

There are at least three versions that we can formulate.

1. Limited deference to classic writings. In the very first philosophy course I took, the course notes instructed students to assume that the author is not an idiot. Certain writings in philosophy have stood the test of time, offering ideas and arguments that continue to interest professional philosophers. Notwithstanding the tendentious pronouncements of Richard Rorty, the most plausible reason for this is that the same topics keep coming back again and again.

There seem to be more and more people out there genuinely unable to understand this point, which strikes me as only common sense. Many, many smart people have been writing on a great variety of topics for a very long time, so the great majority of classic arguments continue to be studied because they are genuinely powerful, and need to be engaged by anyone seriously interested in the topics at issue. Thus, to assume that there is a worthwhile argument in most classic writings is not sycophancy, but the rational response to the evidence. It is motivated deference.

I overheard a conversation at SFU a few years back, wherein a grad student in Communications claimed that she did not have to worry about the classics of philosophy or any other field, making the job of her MA thesis easier. I wanted to say, but did not, “What if one of your examiners asks ‘Hmm, a similar argument was made by _____ in _____. What do you think of that?’?” Really, there is little new under the sun about communication or much else, when it comes to general principles (as opposed to specific findings, which continue to come from science at an astonishing pace).

In a related vein, it’s important to realize that simply refuting classic arguments is not of much interest. For example, I’m pretty convinced that the world of the Forms as envisioned by Plato does not exist, but that does not eliminate interest in his arguments for this shadowy world. They function in a skeptical role with respect to knowledge claims on thin evidence; they function, in modified form, to furnish arguments for mathematical realism (the claim that mathematical objects exist independently of our formulation of them).

On the other hand, the deference should not extend to our actual assessments of arguments. No philosophical argument is made better because of who says it, in contrast to certain modern fields in which there is true ‘expert’ knowledge, such as solid-state physics. Moreover, the status of ‘classic’ in the sense relevant to this topic is best granted very sparingly. I don’t, and won’t, extend it to those ‘classics’ exhibiting a “royal contempt for argument’ (K. Popper). Thus the most plausible reason Hegel seems not to understand modern science is that he in fact does not. The ‘philosophy of nature’ genre founded by him is crank scholarship as far as I’m concerned.

2. A general principle of textual understanding. I noted already that there is little scholarly point in just refuting arguments. There are too many people who try to score points by finding a minor flaw in particular arguments. This is of little interest to me partly because few arguments concerning general principles are free of minor flaws. The more interesting point is whether or not an argumentative strategy is fundamentally mistaken or not. For this reason, it is well to formulate arguments under analysis with plausible premises, not obviously bad ones.

In fact, if you are seriously interested in analyzing an argument, you might even reformulate it with better premises than those given by the author. There is much more value to analyzing a powerful version of an argument than a bad one.

There are a number of authors in the ‘informal logic’ genre who advance the principle of charity as primarily an ethical principle. Somehow it is ethical to assume that a writer’s arguments are reasonable in the first instance. I confess that I don’t get this, and that it seems to me even bizarre. The worth of arguments is not in displaying the virtuosity of the author, but in showing (well or poorly) that less obvious claims follow from more obvious/plausible ones. When I apply the principle of charity, it is for me (and, I hope, for a hoard of readers). I apply it the same way for a living or dead author. The only question of interest to me (qua philosopher) is whether the argument is good or not, not whether the person is good. For this reason, I also don’t buy the frequent assertion that argumentation is primarily a social activity. The cogency of arguments depends on context, sure; nonetheless, an argument is equally cogent whether generated by a passionate theorist or a computer program.

Conversely, I am not worried about mistakenly attributing to a contemporary writer a position stronger than her ‘real’ one. If I do, no harm is done. The point is the argument (and other ones that might be obtained by improving it), not the arguer.

3. Davidson’s interpretive principle of charity. In the bluntest form, Donald Davidson claims that in interpreting the words of an other-language speaker, we must assume that most of that speaker’s beliefs are true. Otherwise we have no basis for translation. Now, no one knows how to enumerate beliefs; Karl Popper tries to do something like this with his formulations of verisimilitude (truth-likeness) but these attempts run into many technical problems. Anyway, it seems question-begging, as noted by Barry Stroud, to assume that anyone’s sets of beliefs are ‘mostly true’. We could all be massively confused. I doubt this is true, myself, but I don’t think that it comes for free.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, there seems to be some clear sense in which an other-language speaker’s must cohere, more or less, with something recognizably accurate. Whether this formulation does what Davidson wants, I doubt. I’m not really sympathetic to the entire school influenced by Quine and Davidson. So perhaps this version of the principle is of no interest to me.

Now, I’ve hinted at some definite limitations to principles of charity. In fact, there is so much bad scholarship out there, it often is well to assume that much does not offer good arguments.

It might be thought that I’m assuming that scholarship is somehow worse now than it used to be. But I don’t think this is true. Rather, when looking at the past, especially at philosophy more than 200 years ago, most of the really bad stuff has fallen away, largely if not totally forgotten. Thus if you look at the older philosophy under study, we have a better sample than for current philosophy. The sands of time wash away the worst stuff – usually.

So, where do I think that a principle of uncharity should apply? It should apply in cases in which the writer makes unreasonable demands on the reader in terms of what is accepted without argument. There is a lot of current thought out there to the effect that certain philosophical positions are so divergent that their respective advocates cannot communicate with each other. While this might be true, it’s a pretty convenient excuse for not bothering to put yourself clearly. Moreover, the extent to which this is true is drastically exaggerated, in my opinion.

I’m particularly irritated by people who apply an alleged principle of charity in a perniciously selective way. My favorite example is that of Judith Butler, a leading fog generator in present-day scholarship. Now, I’ve got to preface by reiterating that these principles as I understand them are not primarily modes of assessment for writers, but for writings. In non-scholarly contexts, I’ve seen Dr. Butler write admirably clear, worthwhile articles. Not so for her ‘scholarship’, famous for its obscurity. Michael Bérubé, another scholar whose non-scholarly writing I respect, has criticized her detractors for being uncharitable. One must understand, he says, that she is a “Freudian mystic” in order properly to parse what she says. I call bullshit. It seems to me pretty clear that “Freudian mysticism” is not a legitimate scholarly position.

Why do I think this position is selective? Well, if someone tried to advance a political position from the point of view of a “Limbaughian mystic”, Dr. Bérubé rightly would point and laugh. There are some who will say that this comparison is over the top. Well, I don’t think so. First of all, Rush Limbaugh is a better writer than Sigmund Freud as far as I’m concerned. If that offends anyone, I don’t give a fuck. At least Rush has arguments, most of them pitifully bad of course. Freud has therapy results conclusively shown to be falsified and fake arguments really little more than pot talk; they’re not stupid, but they’re not supported by anything close to cogent arguments. Look at Civilization and its Discontents. No arguments: lots of assertions, some plausible. Nothing I am willing to accept as serious scholarship. Freud has smoke; Butler has fog.

None of these are principles to be applied mechanically. There is an element of judgment required in all textual interpretation. In the case of really obscure writers, though, the burden of proof is on the writer to show that their position is one worth entering. No one is entitled to a free ride.

Now, in taking this position, there is the danger of ignoring genuinely valuable work. Perhaps there is lots of good work out there that I am unwilling to take on because it seems obscure. While this may be true, I’m not losing any sleep over it. Firstly, I’ve read most of the antecedents of these modern fog generators. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve been accused of not reading people like Hegel, Heidegger, Foucault, etc., when I have spent many thoroughly unenjoyable hours on them. The more important point is this though: there is limited time for reading in one’s lifetime. There are lots of great new scholars out there for reading, ones who I don’t necessarily agree with, but who make clear, serious points that obviously deserve my attention. There is nothing unreasonable about refusing to go further with advocates of Freud, Derrida, Baudrillard, and all the rest. There’s better philosophy available, most of it by people who are less well-known, but drastically superior in their writing, according to me.

Phrases rarely used in good philosophy papers/test answers

There are a number of phrases very commonly used in philosophy exams and papers, but rarely used in ‘A’ papers. The reason in most cases is that they are incurably vague relative to what is required in context. Good philosophy papers define terms to a high degree of precision. Truly excellent ones often just use plain English words with careful qualifications; they say things specifically enough that no technical terms are needed. When students write imprecisely, it is difficult for the reader to know whether the student is careless, poorly studied, or afraid to say something definite.

So here’s the rogue’s gallery. The fact that the distinctions on display, so obvious to me, seem not obvious to students, indicates that we all need more philosophy.

‘based on’: this is one of the most annoying ones. To say that ‘X is based on Y’ could mean, variously, that:
  • X require Y
  • X is inspired by Y
  • X is made plausible by Y
  • X is made likely by Y
  • X’s existence is conditional upon Y
  • X only can be understood given Y

and lots more.

‘subjective’: criticism does not apply when a specific meaning of ‘subjective’ is under examination, for example, Kant’s formulation. This word could mean:

  • dependent on the observer’s subjective impressions
  • dependent on one’s capricious whims
  • understood only by the individual
  • privately held/known
  • bad
  • incapable of precise formulation

‘objective’: the flipside. The most annoying construction here is ‘more objective’. According to dictionaries, works apparently unopened (and unclicked!) by many students, ‘objective’ is a strict superlative, so ‘more objective’ is literally nonsensical. But even without this perhaps pedantic objection, ‘objective’ is usually in student writing a confused amalgam of some or all of the following.

  • independent of the individual’s views/whims
  • correct
  • good
  • binding on all people/societies
  • publicly understandable
  • tending to involve people in general

‘scientific’: again, criticism does not apply when there is a specific meaning of the word under examination. Often it means a confused amalgam of:

  • good
  • rational
  • true
  • in accordance with scientific findings
  • subject to rational/public examination

‘logical’ means in student essays any number of good qualities, many of which have nothing to do with logic as such.

‘mindset’ and similar words:

  • set of beliefs
  • general attitude
  • theoretical orientation
  • theory
  • hypothesis
  • bad attitude

‘is considered…’: the phrase ‘X is considered to be Y’ is a wildcard used for

  • X is Y
  • the author I’m talking about says X is Y
  • unspecified people think that X is Y
  • I think that X is Y

Here as elsewhere, it is possible that the student is being tentative due to timidity about his/her understanding.

My very, very short lifetime listening lists

I proposed the following lists before:

1. If I only could listen to one song for the rest of my life, and nothing else, it would be “Sabotage’ by the Beastie Boys.

2. If I only could listen to one standard-length album for the rest of my life, and nothing else, it would be The Man Who Sold the World by David Bowie. It was my initial choice, and I stuck to it.

3. If I only could listen to one double album for the rest of my life, and nothing else, it would be The Beatles White Album. Ditto.

4. If I only could listen to ten songs for the rest of my life, and nothing else, they would be
Anthem of the U.S.S.R. by Paul Robeson (had name wrong before)
“Atom Heart Mother” by Pink Floyd
“Brandenburg Concerto No.4 in G major” by any competant Bach orchestra
“Der Tanz der Schatten”, live version, by Theatre of Tragedy
“Every Day Should Be a Holiday” by the Dandy Warhols
“Heroin” by the Velvet Underground
“New Dawn Fades” by Moby
“Stripped” by Depeche Mode
“Terrapin Station” by the Grateful Dead
“This is a Lie” by the Cure

It turns out that Moby’s version of New Dawn Fades is longer, and better, than the original, the best song ever from Joy Division. Other notable omissions: Tori Amos, Bauhaus, Black Sabbath, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, the Dears, Metallica, Motörhead, New Order, Parliament, R.E.M., Rolling Stones, Pete Seeger, Sisters of Mercy, Patti Smith, Stooges, U2.

5. If I only could listen to ninety minutes of music for the rest of my life, and nothing else, it would be (with running total shown):
2:48 “I Saw the Light” by Hank Williams. If this song doesn’t make you reconvert to Christianity, nothing will.
5:48 “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys
9:49 “Every Day Should Be a Holiday” by the Dandy Warhols
17:01 “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground. Greatest rock song ever.
32:41 “Brandenburg Concerto No.4 in G major”
36:41 Anthem of the U.S.S.R. by Paul Robson. If this song doesn’t make you want to be a socialist, at least a little bit, nothing will.
40:31 “Stripped” by Depeche Mode. Best alternative dance song ever.
45:00 “This is a Lie” by the Cure. An expression of existentialist ethics, far less pessimistic than it sounds.
49:47 “New Dawn Fades” by Joy Division
53:40 “Dead Souls” by Joy Division. Very pessimistic indeed.
58:14 “Major General Despair” by Crass
61:55“Tear the Roof off the Sucker” by Parliament. Pure fun in one song.
66:01 “Follow in the Cry” by After Forever. I simply cannot listen to this song enough times. I wish I were female, so that I could sing like this woman.
68:42 “Which Side are You On?” by Pete Seeger, Jane Sapp, and Si Kahn. Passionate. If it weren’t for unions, most of us would be living in shacks. Which side are you on?
72:28 “This Land is Your Land” by Pete Seeger, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Doc Watson
75:19 “Ride the Magic Carpet” by Euphoria. If this song doesn’t make you want to be a hippy, at least a little bit, nothing will.
79:27 “Dancing Barefoot” by Patti Smith
85:04 “The Tower of Song” by Leonard Cohen. Not his best song, but synoptic.
88:28 “Code of Honor” by Code of Honor. One of the best ever California skate-punk songs.

A few things are shown, it seems to me, by this particular time-wasting exercise. First, the idea held by Sartre and many others that reason is of no value in the face of your passions is deeply mistaken. Your rational discernment is of very high value in making hard decisions. While what you want is not always stable, rationality properly construed serves your passions (I think a famous guy said that once). Another thing is that the commonly held notion that pop music only can be mere consumer product and/or bubblegum for teenagers is wholly false. If you have any dreams or thoughts at all, I promise you they’re out there on somebody’s music.

Process of compiling very, very short listening lists

In a previous post ( I asked what you would choose if you had a very tiny amount of music for the rest of your life. I promised to comment on my process for my own choices, not all of which I’ve made. What I have to far:

1) One song: “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. I briefly considered “Every Day Should be a Holiday” by the Dandy Warhols, but I did not change my mind.

2) One single album. I decided to select these much like the candidates in a Canadian political convention (also the way American presidential candidates used to be chosen). Recalling that the one album you want need not be the best, if one compiles lists of one’s favorites, lesser favorites may win in the end by a process of elimination. Likewise, in the recent Liberal leadership convention, dark horse candidate Stéphane Dion won in the end over favoured Ignatieff and Rae, because as lesser candidates were dropped over repeated votes, the majority supported Dion.

The Man Who Sold the World by Bowie. Upside: truly great musicianship, and reminds
me of the science fiction I read as a kid. Downside: a somewhat pessimistic album.
The Velvet Underground and Nico. Downside: all about gutter life, no good news.
Mothership Connection by Parliament. Downside: uniformly happy.
Meddle and Animals by Floyd: the latter is really too pessimistic to go for every day.
Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. ‘Pessimistic’ is putting it mildly.
First and Last and Always by Sisters of Mercy. Fringe candidate.
The Stooges. Fringe candidate.
Easter by Patti Smith.
Crown of Creation by the Jefferson Airplane.

3) One double album, selected as in 2.
The Man Who Sold the World by Bowie.
We Shall Overcome by Pete Seegar.
Joe’s Garage by Zappa.
The Beatles White Album. This one is particularly good for the present purpose, as it is highly varied in types of songs.

I’m really leaning to the Beatles here, and again, they are very far from being my favorite band.

4) 10 songs. I’m inclined to choose some very long songs summarily.
“Atom Heart Mother” by Pink Floyd.
“Hendrix Medley” by Soft Cell.

The following are ones I find particularly synoptic.
“The Anthem of the U.S.S.R.” by Paul Robson: pomposity and credulity.
“New Dawn Fades” by Joy Division: dignified misery.
“Stripped” by Depeche Mode: one of the best dance songs ever.

Plain favorites:
“I Saw the Light” by Hank Williams. Downside: short.
“Heroin” by the Velvet Underground. Downside: a downer.
“Brandenburg Concerto No.4 in G major” by Bach.

Two slots remain. Some other possibilities, most of them reasonably long:
“Every Day Should be a Holiday”
“We Want the Funk” by P Funk (aka Parliament)
“Dark Star” by the Grateful Dead.
“Venus”/“Der Tanz der Schatten”/“Hamlet for a Slothful Vassal” by Theatre of Tragedy.
“Nymphetamine” by Cradle of Filth (fringe candidate).
“Dead Souls” by Joy Division.
“Dead Stars” by Covenant.
“Some Kind of Stranger” by Sisters of Mercy
“Assimilate” by Skinny Puppy (more darkwave dance; fringe)
“Play for Today”/“This is a Lie” by the Cure.
“The House at Pooneil Corners” by the Jefferson Airplane.
“Holiday in Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys.
“This Land is Your Land”/“Which Side are You on?”/“Solidarity Forever”.
“Major General Despair” by Crass.

5) For 90 minutes total, my basic criterion would be genres. Minimum:
10-15 minutes of punk
15 minutes of goth rock
10 minutes of political music
20 minutes of dance music/funk
15 minutes of hippy music
15 minutes of absolute favorites.

“I Saw the Light”, “Sabotage”, “Heroin”, “Every Day Should be a Holiday”, “New Dawn Fades”, “Dead Souls”, “We Want the Funk”, “Anthem of the U.S.S.R.”, “Stripped”, “This is a Lie”, “Brandenburg Concerto No.4 in G major” and “Major General Despair” are acclaimed.

Frustrations in essay grading

As usual, my current ‘stack’ (electronically submitted) of essays to grade has brought back a world of frustration. If I didn’t care how students do, there would be no frustration. But because I do care, it brings this emotion back almost every time I grade a stack. Worse, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to express this frustration in essay comments. If you express it in too-strident terms, students will feel put upon (and justifiably). But if you are too polite about it, they just won’t get it.

It doesn’t frustrate me that students are not always able to measure up, or that they may not always get what I say. Dealing with these things, after all, is my job as an educator. The frustration for which there is seemingly no relief, though, is that arising when students won’t listen. When I repeatedly give instructions, in strong and simple terms, and they are not followed – that gets to me.

It’s not all bad news. I can see that some of the students are profiting from earlier comments and taking them to heart. But when I have to say the same thing for the third time, I have to wonder if they even care. I don’t put comments there for the good of my health, after all. Why do students throw away valuable points by ignoring them?

When citing ideas from an author or quoting, you must include a specific reference, every single time, without exceptions. Dear student, when I write that, I don’t mean you sometimes should reference, or that you usually should reference. I mean…what the goddamned sentence says in black and white.
The phrase ‘based on’ almost always is too vague to say what you need. Now, if I read this from a professor, I think I’d say to myself, “well, better stop using that phrase and try to find more specific ones.” Wouldn’t you? Not all my dear students, apparently.
Saying that two authors are ‘similar’ or ‘different’ is insufficient: you must explain what these similarities and differences are. So why are you doing this again?
Titles of books are either italicized or underlined, no quotes. What don’t you get? One more time: what part of this don’t you get???
(at the end of an introductory paragraph) What are your conclusions, in one or two sentences? What are the basic reasons for them, in one or two sentences? It’s not obvious when I write this, that your essay and its grade will improve if you answer these questions? No? Oy vey.

The vast majority of all the essays graded below 70% would gain at least 10 points more if they responded to these comments. What am I missing? I should add that in this particular course for which I am a TA, the students are offered an excellent package of resources and services to help with their essay writing, some specific to this course, and of which they are constantly reminded.

Very, very short lifetime listening lists: recorded music on a ‘desert island’

The first post is a request for very short lists of 'favourites' in a genre established long ago: the books one would want if stranded on an island in the South Pacific. While it would be difficult to play recorded music in such a situation, the idea of extending one’s wants in the face of limited choice transfers nicely to music. Suppose for some reason not specified, for example, that you only could listen to one recorded song for the rest of your life. What song would it be? Or, less radically limited but still quite limited in the scheme of things, one album?

For one song, my choice in this hypothetical multi-lemma long has been ‘Sabotage’ by the Beastie Boys. ‘Sabotage’ is far from my favourite song; if I were inclined to list my favourites from top to bottom, it would be far down on the list. But when looking into what I would want from the one and only song I would hear for the rest of my life, this particular one combines numerous desirable elements. It’s a fun song, but it has an edge too. You could project an edge upon it if you so chose. It’s funky yet air-guitarable. And while I really am not a car guy, I often have enjoyed blasting this one riding in an automobile. It’s got a beat; it’s cool.

Speaking to some friends, I thought to extend the idea to albums and compilations, because for a music lover these too present very restrictive regimes of choice, while obviously less restrictive than for one song only. I devised the following categories. They are to be understood as mutually exclusive. That is, don’t make the list with a view to having all the music in all categories available. Think of each item as an independent possibility, wherein it must be chosen above all competitors as the only recorded music you will hear for the rest of your life.

1. One song: the only song you get to hear for the rest of your life. By a ‘song’ I mean a packaged song on some album, a maximum of one side of a standard LP.

2. One ‘standard’ packaged album of roughly 45 minutes. Back in the day, a standard LP was roughly 45 minutes. Some were a little longer, some a little shorter. No ‘bonus’ tracks from CD re-releases. So if this were the only music you were to hear for the rest of your life, what would it be? Not an anthology and not a boxed set. A published compilation from one artist seems to me OK, as do show tunes albums and ‘split’ LP’s such as the classic American hardcore LP from the San Francisco punk bands Code of Honor and Sick Pleasure. No way though that I’d want to listen to one punk album, and nothing else, for the rest of my life.

3. One packaged album of any sort, but not an anthology and not a boxed set. A maximum of 2 CD’s or three records. What would you choose? Some people, on reflection, might give the same answer as in #2. Here, I suppose, one might allow re-releases with bonus tracks – but would this represent what you really would want?

4. Ten packaged songs, any such. Constraints same as for #1. No weird composites created by computer, etc. So what 10 songs would you choose for the rest of your life? Would they all be long?

5. A compilation of songs, any monkey business with or without computers allowed, a maximum of 90 minutes. Would you choose lots of short songs, or a mix?

Of course, there have been lots of ‘favourites’ song lists on the Internet as elsewhere, but few have asked the existential question of what you would choose if the crunch came. As I’ve suggested before, the choices need not be your ‘favourites’.

As a science guy turned to philosophy, I naturally thought of what process one might follow to make these choices if one had the time and inclination to bother. Also: are there rational consistency requirements linking your choices? For example, would that one song for now unto eternity occur in that 90 minutes you might have instead, again unto eternity? Maybe, maybe not. Some rational considerations:

1. The one song you want to hear forever need not be your subjective favourite.

2. The one album you want to hear forever need not be your subjective favourite. Nor need it include the choice for #1. An entire album might have other, better means of evoking the emotions you are looking for in music.

3. You might have an entirely different choice for your best double album than for a single. Or perhaps there is some single album so right for you that you would pick it for #1 and #2 both. On the other hand, rationally this choice should be either the same as for #2, or else a longer album.

4. If you had your choice of 10 songs, you might be inclined to take one or more selections from the album(s) you might choose for #2 or #3. You might be inclined to take mostly long songs, because there is more there. But if you are like me a fan of pop music, broadly construed, there are a limited number of really, really long songs. For a classical music fan, on the other hand, the particular pieces chosen might not be the longest because that would induce frustration at not hearing the rest of a symphony.

5. In the case of 90 minutes, go nuts, it would seem to be rational to favour at least some of the content of albums you’d pick for #2 and #3. If you were particularly attached to some album, I suppose, you’d take it in lieu of a compilation.

I’m going to step back to make my choices, but I’ve already announced my choice for #1 of course.