Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence

One of my favorite books this year, Grail Code is the thoughtful answer to a question that has been on my mind for years, well before Dan Brown unleashed the merchandising behemoth that The Da Vinci Code became: namely, what is the core of the Arthur/Grail stories, and how do we understand the relationship of these stories to Christian culture? Mike Aquilina and Chris Bailey have done a bang-up job with this book. It's fun, with mock arthurian stylings in its chapter heads and allusions to such popular treatments as the 1981 John Boorman film Excalibur and 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Aquilina and Bailey highlight the changing contours of the legends in the hands of men like Chretien de Troyes, Walter Map, Sir Thomas Malory, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. They've turned the history of these romances into an engaging intellectual romance. Christian theology, British history, romance and adultery, this is a wide-ranging, romping read.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Blooming of the American Mind

It's taken me about twenty years to get around to reading this. Despite that, there were still a few surprises:
  • Lots of Nietzsche -- Allan Bloom was a bit mad for that guy. He seems sympathetic, even if not generally in agreement with Nietzsche's conclusions.
  • Doesn't fit into right/left, conservative/liberal categories that easily. Bloom was preoccupied with the notion that one might find a rational ground for morality, as opposed to some non-rational commitment for decisive action.
  • Not a lot of prescription -- he describes a dilemma, but he talks only briefly about things such as the "good old great books," in a kind of dismissive fashion.
  • He harbors a big grudge against 1960's campus radicals for trashing the lofty ideals of the university.
There's some good stuff in it, and generally, in its own oddly personal and idiosyncratic way, it's worth reading. Sometimes it seems the best thing about the book are the section headings, which are wonderfully evocative of the times we live in: "Relationships." "Creativity." "The Self."

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Rockaway Beach

This speaks (er, sings) for itself. Utterly faithful to the spirit of the original.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pleased to meet Fulton J. Sheen

Janel Rodriguez has done Catholics under the age of 50 a huge favor with her biography Meet Fulton Sheen. She relies on Sheen's autobiography Treasure in Clay as the source for most of her work. Very readable and enjoyable, Rodriguez's book follows Sheen's life and development as both a canny media personality and, more importantly, as an extremely devout bishop who in some ways is a precursor to Pope John Paul II's communicative and telegenic piety. Rodriguez's prose is unobtrusive; she never gets in the way of what proves to be a fascinating story filled with colorful incident. If you are unfamiliar with Bishop Sheen, do yourself a favor and get this book.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

My Scrofulous French novel

Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles is a French novel which features two burned out victims of sexual liberation in the 60's: Bruno, who suffers through a humilating youth mired in excrement and spends his life eternally pursuing his next orgasm through degrading sexual acts, and Michel, the detached scientist who has difficulty maintaining normal human contact or expressing any tenderness or love and who can only find some semblance of fulfillment in the elevated life of the mind. The main difficulty is that it's a bit repetitive and not as amusing as it would like to be. Although the vast bulk of the novel could be taken as a social conservative manifesto, the conclusion of the novel, involving a technological redemption of human nature, is difficult to know how to read. Is it a brief for transhumanism out of burned out Dionysian hippie excess, or is the resolution intended ironically? Most importantly, why should I care? If it's ironic, it's neither funny nor perceptive enough to retain my interest. The only motivation to read through to the end is to find out the promised resolution/breakthrough in both the plot and Michel's scientific endeavors. When it turns out to hinge on warmed over ideas from Ray Kurzweil, Julian Huxley, and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, I'm left cold.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


This is one tough novel: big, confusing. It leaves you wanting to re-read it

If you wanted to know the difference in structure (as opposed to scale) between a short story and a novel, Moby-Dick (or, The Whale) is probably the as good an exemplar one would find of the novel form. Where a short story focuses on a single event, action, or mood, a novel tends to take the air a bit more -- perambulate, follow its own muse, wander. And wander Moby Dick does. It goes and goes and goes. Melville wrote that he had written a wicked novel. I wonder if that is perceptible to a 21st century sensibility. He strolls through various modernisms: Calvinism, pantheism, Kantianism, indifferentism, relativism, pessimism. Ahab -- what to make of him: sacrilegious, demonic, monomaniac, striving. A shadow of Christian belief, no longer sufficiently vital to bring salvation, but more than adequate to reinforce notions of depravity and condemnation, hangs over the novel.

Also, Moby-Dick will give you a new appreciation for Star Trek. The episodic nature of the novel makes possible a bunch of self-contained mini-plots, each of which could be spun into its own little story. There's the encounter with a ship that has been taken over by a charismatic preacher and his converted followers. There's a ship in search of an abandoned crew, and one that is filled with bon vivants, appropriately named The Bachelor.

There's undoubtedly a lot I've missed. Like a whale, this novel's soul is submerged most of the time, only occasionally spouting or breeching to reveal awesome and fearful sights.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Not getting to De Botton of things

Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy is a chatty collection of six essays on selected thinkers from Socrates to Nietsche. Unfortunately, de Botton favors cartoons over examinations of text. His Socrates is reduced to simply a man who bucks conventional wisdom -- a kind of Athenian whistleblower. We could picture him arguing in the city council about heavy metals in the local water supply, whereas in reality he was much more radical. The actual ideas that he championed (e.g., the Good) languish unexamined. Similarly, Nietzsche becomes a kind of drill instructor or personal trainer, doggedly barking motivational truisms like "No pain, no gain."

De Botton's choices of philosophers (the others are Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, and Schopenhauer) indicates a preference for pessimism and materialism, a kind of flinty cynicism that sees itself as practical. Don't read this expecting even modest rigor or reflection. There's no dialectic here. His breezy style and penchant for cute illustration (yes, the chapter on Nietzsche does include an illustration of DC Comics's Superman) keep things moving, but at the end there's not much meat on these bones. De Botton is an affable, diverting, but ultimately unsatisfying conversationalist.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Monday, June 19, 2006

Connie Chung, chanteuse

Unreal. I assume that this was supposed to go through a bit of post-production surgery, but this is precious.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

VOA News - US Military Statement on Zarqawi's Death

VOA News - US Military Statement on Zarqawi's Death: "'Coalition forces killed al-Qaida [in Iraq] terrorist leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and one of his key lieutenants, spiritual adviser Sheik Abd-Al-Rahman, yesterday, June 7th, at 6:15 p.m. in an air strike against an identified, isolated safe house,' said U.S. General George Casey."

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Where's Penn?

Reading Moby-Dick: or, The Whale. What a treat! Really. Discursive, rambling, and sprawling, yes, but still a treat. I'm only halfway through. Monomania, messianic fixations, philosophic ramblings, the thing-in-itself, despair, pedantic treatises and taxonomic catalogs of the natural and nautical worlds -- it's something to sink your teeth into.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Monday, May 22, 2006

The DiCaprio Code

Sent to me by a friend, the first paragraph from Dan Brown's next novel:


Planet Hollywood
Los Angeles, CA
11:49 PM

Award-winning restauranteur and entreprenurial franchise owner Franky Poisson stumbled over a cardboard cutout of Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger, posed under a title reading "Twins." He lunged for the nearest memoribilia-housing glass case he could find - a tall rectangular column showcasing the old woman's shawl from Titanic. Brandishing an elbow, the sixty-year old Frenchman shattered the glass and - being rather not un-sedentary - collapsed to the floor in gasping breaths.
I await the rest with bated breath.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Wrong Guy, just Being There at the Beeb

Too many Guys:

Instead of interviewing Guy Kewney, pundit of Newswireless.net, on the legal battle between Apple Corp. (of Beatles fame) and Apple Computer (of iPod and Mac fame) over the latter's use of the "Apple" mark in selling music through iTunes, the BBC managed to interview Guy Goma, a Congolese gentleman looking for a job at the BBC. Goma, thinking the media interview was somehow part of the job selection process, managed to pass himself off reasonably well as a pundit. He's really on top of his game with this quote: "Exactly. You can go everywhere in a cybercafe. It's going to be very easy for everyone to get something on the Internet." You'd think this only happened in Jerzy Kosinski novels.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Everything old is new again?

Where have we seen this before?
The Canadian and Australian prime ministers expressed concern at unconfirmed reports that said Iran may force non-Muslims to wear colored badges in public so they can be identified.

The National Post newspaper reported Friday, citing human rights groups, that Iran's parliament passed a law this week that sets a public dress code and requires non-Muslims to wear a special insignia.
"Don't be stupid, /
be a schmarty, /
come join the Islamist party!"

Update: Malkin asks, "Is this true?" Stay tuned.

Update 5/24/2006: National Post retracts the story.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Da Vinci, die Bombe

Submitted for your approval: the startling truth about the Da Vinci Code, and Hanks's hair. Seek the Truth.
Minor quibble -- the book did NOT rock. The preview actually looks faithful to it.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The philosophy of every Tom, Jacques, and Ari

Last November Sheed and Ward reprinted Jacques Maritain's An Introduction to Philosophy. This primer, which Maritain first published in 1931, is a bit different from standard introductions to philosophical thought such as Will Durant's Story of Philosophy, Bryan Magee's Story of Philosophy, or Frederick Coppleston's exhaustive multivolume History of Philosophy.

To start with, Maritain is a Thomist, following in the intellectual traditions of St. Thomas Aquinas, who in turn draws upon Aristotle. Maritain's approach in this book is to first trace this history of philosophy up to Aristotle. For this, he posits primitive traditions, discernable from both theology and a reasonable induction from historical evidence, which contain wisdom that is common to all mankind globally. He seeks remnants of these traditions in pre-Greek Indo-European civilizations: Persian, Indian, and Chinese. After surveying these, he proceeds to Greek thought: the pre-Socratics, the Sophists, Socrates, Plato, and finally Aristotle. Maritain sees the ancient Persian, Indian, Chinese, and pre-Socratic Greeks as derived from healthy primitive traditions (although in corrupted form). The work of philosophy, in part, is to recover the ancient wisdom and ground it in a system of reason and dialectic.

Upon stating in brief form what he sees as Aristotle's achievements are, Maritain changes his method. He does not follow, as most historical texts would, with a discussion of late antiquity and modern philosophers. For example, do not get a sketch of Descartes in historical context. Rather, Maritain discusses the structure of philosophy as a body of knowledge. That structure is itself determined by Thomist philosophy. Maritain discusses the boundaries of philosophy -- how it is distinct from the empirical sciences, for example, and how it relates to them. He contrasts the Thomist view on philosophy with alternatives in modernity. He then gives an account of the fields of philosophy:
  1. Logic (a sort of preamble to philosophy proper)
  2. Theoretical philosophy (speculative, related to understanding of the world)
    1. Philosophy of mathematics and nature
    2. Epistemology
    3. Ontology and metaphysics
    4. Natural theology
  3. Practical philosophy (related to human action)
    1. Philosophy of art and technology
    2. Ethics
Walking through these fields (philosophical categories which themselves follow from his Thomism), Maritain points out both the Thomist and Aristotelian positions, and the modernist positions, which are usually contradictory extremes which the Aristotelian mean reconciles.

It's a very rigorous and systematic book with a good deal of common sense. It explains a lot of Thomism in a very detailed way and makes an excellent reference for those looking to understand this point of view. Thomism can be a bit dry. Maritain goes a long way to guiding the reader to see motivations and connections. For example, one can struggle Aristotle for years and not find as clear an explication of metaphysical terms such as essence (being inasmuch as it can be understood), substance (being inasmuch as it primarily is), and act and potentiality (being inasmuch as it is the subject of change and motion). For anyone interested in Thomism, this book is a find.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Making Sense Out of Suffering

Peter Kreeft wrote a book twenty years ago that I've just gotten around to reading. I wish I had read it twenty years ago.

Kreeft is a philosophy professor at Boston College, and his book Making Sense Out of Suffering is a look at the implications of suffering in philosophy and theology. His audience is the skeptic, the person of uncertain beliefs and convictions who is tossed about in this world of sorrow and pain and is struggling to find some way to understand existence in light of that raw fact.

One thing that I really enjoyed about his book was his attention to various traditions and schools of thought. He starts with this observation:
By the time you finish reading this book, ten thousand children will starve, four thousand will be brutally beaten by their parents, and one thousand will be raped.

If you took a poll asking who the profoundest thinker of all time was, the man who would probably come out second, after Jesus, is Buddha. Buddha's entire philosophy centers around his answer to the problem of suffering. How can we not hear him out?
Gotama Buddha's voice is only the first of many which we must hear out. If we follow Kant's suggestion that the great questions revolve around God, the world, and the soul, then the question of suffering becomes a question of the existence of a supreme being and its relationship to the human world. The difficulty of suffering, for belief is that we are asked to accept the following:
  1. God exists.
  2. God is all-powerful.
  3. God is all-good.
  4. Evil exists.
How can this be?

Kreeft summarizes the possible alternate theologies, which differ on these points, either bluntly or subtly. For examine, the atheist may deny that God exists. Or one may more subtly say that God exists, but only as a psychological concept, thereby draining Him of real force and existence. All of these alternate answers have implications for the meaning of human suffering.

Kreeft's goal on the other hand, is to affirm Christian belief and answer a resounding "yes" to all these questions. The task then becomes making Christian belief intellectually credible and defensible. His technique is interesting -- rather than argue from cohesive deductive principles, Kreeft takes successive passes at the problem and allows answers and ideas to emerge suggestively, tentatively, rather than authoritatively and dogmatically.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

MySpace for Catholics

BusinessWeek profiles a nun who is launching a second Web site for Vatican, in addition to http://www.vatican.va.

It will be interesting to see how this works. One concern is possible attacks and attempts to deface the site, but at this point a lot of the techniques for dealing with that seem to be in place to mitigate the possible damage (cf., Wikipedia).

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

History of Catholic Oppression, Headbanger Edition

A friend sends along this article on the tritone, the flatted fifth or augmented fourth in musical intervals. Fun piece, but has the usual historical ignorance about things medieval in the summary:
A new film about the history of heavy metal highlights the so-called Devil's Interval, a musical phenomenon suppressed by the Church in the Middle Ages.
No reference is provided, so it's impossible to tell what is being referred to. Color me skeptical about this. It's unlikely that people were tortured for compositions that used tritones.

I recall studying rules for voicing four part harmonies, and parallel fifths and octaves were "against the rules." It would be disingenuous to write that "music theory teachers suppressed parallel fifths in the twentieth century." In fact, the article itself notes that this interval (which is quite dissonant) was used "in presenting the devil [o]r . . . to portray the crucifixion."

But, for the record, I dig tritones. "Purple Haze" may be the definitive rock tritone intro. King Crimson also made a career out of the tritone. And you have to dig the name "Professor John Deathridge." Makes you want to be in a metal band with him (he has to skip the first name).

Monday, April 17, 2006

Passion is no ordinary word

David Scott is interested in Catholicism as made vividly manifest by artists, poets, and saints. In The Catholic Passion, he seeks to get to the romantic, dramatic, visionary, vibrant core of Catholicism, in all its cultural manifestations. It's a rewarding and rewarded effort.

This book takes as its starting point Chesterton's assertion that the most perilous and exciting path is not heresy but Christian orthodoxy. Scott is not interested in detailing doctrine and dogma, but in dramatizing and fleshing out the faith as it is embodied and lived out in the Church. Scott tells stories of people such as Blessed Charles de Foucauld, Dorothy Day, Francis Thompson, Eugene O'Neill, and St. Catherine of Genoa. Certainly not all are saints -- some are not even believers. But all stories lead the reader to an intimation of what it is that draws so many of us to the Church.

The "passion" of the title is a word that evokes romance, suffering, and engagement. Scott shows us how this passion is a part of life as lived, with a voice that is committed and honest. His words give us not a set of catechetical propositions, but a body, a corpus of Catholicism that is set before the eye of the reader. If you get a chance, pick it up -- it's an excellent, enjoyable, nourishing read.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Be afraid -- be very afraid

New York Daily News caught my eye with this article on TomKat. I don't usually follow this story (shooting fish in a barrel). However near the end of the story, filled with creepy details of Tom Cruise's attempts to script Katie's birth according to Scientologist, uh, for lack of a better word, ideas, comes this disturbing line: "Cruise said the couple has a 'plan B' for the birth if things don't go their way, but he didn't reveal it."

Oh. Scripting "shifts" for your other children and drilling all involved in childbirth to maintain silence through great pain in order to thwart Xenu's evil is just the standard plan. Plan B -- what on earth can that be? I'm picturing Tom in a Devil mask, screaming "Don't you $#%*!@ look at me!" while a hostage situation unfolds in L. A. Heaven help us.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Judas manuscript came from sleazy dealer

Judas Gospel Figure Has Tainted Past - Los Angeles Times:
In its unveiling of the Gospel of Judas last week, the National Geographic Society credited Swiss antiquities dealer Frieda Nussberger Tchacos with 'rescuing' the ancient manuscript, described as one of the most important archeological finds of the last century.

But National Geographic made no mention of a suspended sentence Tchacos received in Italy four years ago for possession of looted antiquities, nor her alleged involvement for years in antiquities trafficking.

'In the past, she was at the center of the looting in Italy,' said Paolo Ferri, the Italian state prosecutor who has led an investigation of the illicit trade for 10 years.
Looks like National Geographic doesn't mind dealing with Belloq.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Tiny KISS on The Situation

Ok, I've really missed out by not having a TV. Tucker Carlson on MSNBC has shown us Tiny KISS, a tribute band for the 70's band composed entirely of little people. What a country!

Warning: unfortunately, this link can only be viewed in Internet Explorer (because Mister Softie likes it that way). It's worth it.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

New patristics blog: The Way of the Fathers

Big welcome to Mike Aquilina, who has come out to the blogosphere with The Way of the Fathers, a blog on patristics. Mike's a writer who's both inspired and inspirational, and his book of the same name is a wonderful introduction to early Christian writing and thought. He also plays a mean piano.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Schmittizing of leftist critique

This New Republic piece seems to be a trashing of Richard Neuhaus from Damon Linker, who was his associate editor at First Things from 2001-05. One paragraph really stood out:
Carl Schmitt, the political theorist who devoted a great deal of thought to this dilemma, determined that such men have no choice but to make an arbitrary yet resolute decision to obey some authority, any authority. Taking account of the options in Germany in 1933, Schmitt swore obedience to Hitler. Neuhaus, of course, makes an infinitely more respectable decision in favor of the Vatican. He does so because, in his words, 'the promise of Jesus that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide his disciples' is a 'promise made to the Church.' But why does Neuhaus--and why should we--trust this promise? He claims that he can know that the Church's authority is worthy of his obedience in the same way that a bride can 'know' that her 'bridegroom will be faithful.' Though Neuhaus does not employ the term, what he is describing is merely another leap of faith, a melodramatic form of cosmic confidence that derives its psychological strength from its aversion to philosophical thinking.
It's not as though Neuhaus frequently cites Schmitt or that there is some other obvious connection. Carl-Schmitt-slander seems to have become a trend, hasn't it? I hadn't heard of the guy before last year, and now, he's the hip brush with which to tar conservatives. Maybe Tim Robbins will write an awkward play about him. At least with Leo Strauss, there was an actual, discernable influence that the man had, albeit not nearly as pervasive as critics claim. My take is that of prominent modern conservatives, few are Strassians; virtually none are Schmittsters (what would the word be?).

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The private, the public, and Hawthorne

A friend at Random House sent me virtually every 19th century novel in Modern Library imprint, and I'm re-reading The Scarlet Letter now. A passage today struck me:
One day, leaning his forehead on his hand, and his elbow on the sill of the open window, that looked towards the grave-yard, he talked with Roger Chillingworth, while the old man was examining a bundle of unsightly plants.
"Where," asked he, with a look askance at them,—for it was the clergyman's peculiarity that he seldom, now-a-days, looked straightforth at any object, whether human or inanimate,—"where, my kind doctor, did you gather those herbs, with such a dark, flabby leaf?"
"Even in the grave-yard here at hand," answered the physician, continuing his employment. "They are new to me. I found them growing on a grave, which bore no tombstone, no other memorial of the dead man, save these ugly weeds that have taken upon themselves to keep him in remembrance. They grew out of his heart, and typify, it may be, some hideous secret that was buried with him, and which he had done better to confess during his lifetime."
"Perchance," said Mr. Dimmesdale, "he earnestly desired it, but could not."
"And wherefore?" rejoined the physician. "Wherefore not; since all the powers of nature call so earnestly for the confession of sin, that these black weeds have sprung up out of a buried heart to make manifest, an outspoken crime?"
"That, good Sir, is but a fantasy of yours," replied the minister. "There can be, if I forbode aright, no power, short of the Divine mercy, to disclose, whether by uttered words, or by type or emblem, the secrets that may be buried with a human heart. The heart, making itself guilty of such secrets, must perforce hold them, until the day when all hidden things shall be revealed. Nor have I so read or interpreted Holy Writ, as to understand that the disclosure of human thoughts and deeds, then to be made, is intended as a part of the retribution. That, surely, were a shallow view of it. No; these revelations, unless I greatly err, are meant merely to promote the intellectual satisfaction of all intelligent beings, who will stand waiting, on that day, to see the dark problem of this life made plain. A knowledge of men's hearts will be needful to the completest solution of that problem. And I conceive, moreover, that the hearts holding such miserable secrets as you speak of will yield them up, at that last day, not with reluctance, but with a joy unutterable."
It recalled a conversation I had last week with an old friend. We got to talking (writing, actually) about whether truly private experience is possible. My friend recounted many experiences in which he had intimations of things which we might term "private": intimations of the death of loved ones, clairvoyant or telepathic experiences, and that sort of thing. One of the things that Hawthorne keeps coming back to is the social and personal skirmishes across the public/private border. A woman has a private affair that bears public fruit in the birth of her child and results in her being very publicly humiliated. Her husband abandons his public claims and ties to her and assumes a new identity. He attaches himself to her lover, a minister, who holds the knowledge of his sinful affair deep within his own heart, where it nonetheless becomes known and visible to the husband. Throughout, the public and private have a way of bleeding into one another. Never really saw this before (of course, you don't see much the first time around).

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The worst movies of all time == the best movies of the 80's?

What was it about the 80's? My theory is that what pop music was to the 70's, pop films were to the 80's -- that is, all the money, headlines, raves, and Oscars were grabbed by films that were practically unwatchable. Just saw Cocoon and Good Morning, Vietnam this weekend. Wow. Awesomely bad. Supremely unwatchable.

And don't get me started on Oliver Stone! What a hellish decade in movies. What were we thinking?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Paranoid thoughts of mind control

The Pope likes to unwind by listening to his iPod. . . . The Queen, President Bush and Tony Blair all own an iPod.
Can a one-world government be far behind?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Critique of Pure Reason

What can you say about the Critique that hasn't already been said? I revisited this book as a result of a discussion with the Prince of Lit Kicks, this time around at a more leisurely pace.

This is a daunting work. It's also a necessary work, inasmuch as any understand of contemporary thought and intellectual history must encounter it. Kant has influenced nearly every major school of thought and cultural trend for the last 200 years. Below, I'll try to sketch his thought in this Critique.

This is the story of Immanuel Kant, who found philosophy a mess and sought to fix it. Specifically, he was a former Rationalist who was disconcerted by British Empiricism (specifically the skeptical philosophy of David Hume). He sought to provide a grounding for the truths of empirical science and mathematics, establish the possibility of religious faith and practice, while at the same time avoid dogmatism in metaphysical reasoning.

How did he seek to do this? By establishing a critique of reason whereby he understands the validity of all mental constructs. Kant distinguish between judgments which are a priori (prior to experience) and a posteriori (arising out of experience), and judgments which are "analytic" (trivial, tautological) and "synthetic" (where the predicate adds something that is not contained within the subject). Are synthetic a priori judgments possible? Kant answers yes, and much of this book deals with what follows from that.

First Kant deals with how we have sense experience. He claims that space and time are necessary a priori conditions for sense experience -- not physical things in the world. The content of our experience is sense-data: raw sensation that arises outside ourselves or inside ourselves and is "given" in experience. The forms in which we construct that experience are space and time. Sensations, organized within us spatially and temporally yield sense experience (perceptions).

Kant then proceeds to our abstract thought. What he terms "Understanding" has pure, a priori concepts according to logical form. He calls these "Categories." These do NOT arise as a mere empirical habit/convention -- they are prior to experience and are necessary forms that allow rational beings to experience the world intelligibly. Thus, we take the raw givens of our Understanding, which are perceptions (which we dealt with under "Transcendental Aesthetic"), and we impose the categories upon these perceptions -- we "schematize" our experience.
Perceptions, when given intelligible form according to schemata, yield intelligible concepts. We are justified in doing this because the perceptions are not things-in-themselves, but mere appearances (phenomena), and in order for these phenomena to exist in an experience that is coherent and consistent for us, they must have these forms. We are NOT justified in applying these categories to things-in-themselves (noumena).

This is where Reason eats itself. It tries to do the same thing the Understanding did, but now it does this with respect to the big metaphysical questions. It starts with concepts and attempts to unify all phenomenal experience according to concepts and yield the Ideas of Pure Reason. When it does this, it gets all confuzelled. It tries to deal with 3 Big Problems (Kant uses the term "dialectic"):

  • Soul - Reason wants to insist that the thinking soul exists, that it is subject (pure substance), that it is simple, and that it is unchangeable through all its activities. These are the Paralogisms of Pure Reason. We need these ideas -- their contraries are unthinkable for us(?), but these are not demonstrable.
  • The World - Reason wants to answer questions about the series of appearances that constitute the world: Is the World limited or unlimited in space and time? Is the world made up of simples or composites? Does freedom exist in the world? Is there a necessary being connected with the world? These are the Antinomies of Pure Reason. Unlike the Paralogisms, these questions admit of contradictory answers. They, too, cannot be adjudicated by pure reason.
  • God - Reason wants to demonstrate the existence of God. Kant refers to this as the Ideal of Pure Reason. He claims that all arguments demonstating God's existence in fact, despite outward appearances, depend upon one method, the "ontological" proof of God's existence, which Kant disallows as transempirical.

Kant tries to tell us how to employ reason. First, stop arguing speculatively about God and other ultimate metaphysical realities! But he does urge us to apply those metaphysical ideas in practical (moral) contexts -- we are obligated to do so. In this, he anticipates the Victorians, who were somewhat skeptical on matters of faith, but stressed the necessity of continuing to act according to traditional morality. The dialectic problems deals with ideas are not verifiable speculatively. They are not constitutive of experience. Rather, they serve a regulative function, specifically in the practical realm of morality.

Kant claims that reason is architectonic: it naturally wants to assume the greatest generality. Kant says this is fine for moral thinking, but bad for speculative thinking.

Kant says that philosophy answers these questions: "What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope for?" The bulk of Critique of Pure Reason answers the first question. The Critique of Practical Reason, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Metaphysic of Morals, etc., answer the second question. The third question ties the two together -- this is what Kant deals with at the end of the first Critique.

Kant sees the great transendental ideas as being God, Immortality, and Freedom. They are the starting points of theistic religion (e.g. Christianity and Judaism). These can neither be verified nor disproved by speculative reason (since speculative reason must by its nature deal with givens (Latin, data) either from sense-experience or pure intuition (as in mathematics). These ideas, however, are necessary "regulative" ideas for the guidance of practical (moral reason) and are valid in that connection. Thus, the second Critique answers the question "What ought I to do?" by recourse to the transcendal idea of Freedom. The question, "what may I hope for?", is given response through the transcendental ideas of God and immortality, for if God does not exist, nothing can grant us happiness for moral behavior and unhappiness for immoral behavior, and if we're not immortal, God won't have anyone to reward.

I probably have made errors and inaccuracies in the above, but I hope I give a flavor for his thought. Kant is sober, earnest, and disciplined. Again, he's not easy, but I think he's worth the effort.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Telegraph | News | Soviets 'had Pope shot for backing Solidarity'

Was the Soviet Union behind the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II? An Italian commission says, yes, definitely. The man who was deputy chairman of the KGB at that time says no, as does the FSB, the re-named KGB.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Guns, germs and steel

The Purist

I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist,
Trustees exclaimed, "He never bungles!"
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
"You mean," he said, "a crocodile."
That bit of Ogden Nash whimsy came into my head as I thought about Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, a reflection on human history through the lens of evolutionary biology. Diamond, unlike Professor Twist, is seeking answers to real world problems. In this case, he seeks to understand the plight of indigenous peoples and their subordination to European and Asian cultures in light of evolutionary pressures. Even so, Diamond struggles awkwardly in his attempts to justify the ways of the Blind Watchmaker to men. One false note comes early in the book, when he departs from his evenhandedness to assure us that not only should we not hold New Guineans to be less intellectually endowed than Europeans (a reasonable enough assumption), but that they are probably intellectually superior. He admits that he can't demonstrate that superiority empirically, so that assertion strikes the reader as an attempt to curry favor by a politically correct reverse bias.

On the other hand, there's a lot of really stimulating and interesting stuff in this book. Diamond talks about: what kinds of foodstuffs are necessary to support civilization; why disease almost always flowed from native Europeans to native Americans (and not vice-versa), whereas Europeans encounter many new diseases when they attempted to enter Africa; why those previous two topics are related; how innovation happens; etc. It seems like there's an interesting fact or point of view whenever you turn the page.

The book seems to want to be a complete explanation for the course of human history -- it's got that sort of broad, sweeping intellectual appeal that a large work of philosophy or science has. For example, after someone learns Newtonian mechanics, he tends to see the entire universe as the interplay between physical forces that are expressed in terms of differential equations. A similar dynamic happens here.

As with most grand theories, it's important to see that there are some important limits to the analysis. While we can see why, in broad strokes, European and Asian peoples might have overwhelming advantages in human history in purely biological and geographical terms, Diamond's analysis is of no help in answering historical questions that still might strike us as large, but come within the realm of European or Asian culture, instead of at the border with other peoples. For example, it's hard to see how his analysis adds anything to our understand of conflicts such as the Greco-Persian wars, the rise and decline of Rome, the Napoleonic Wars, or the American Civil War. Certainly these questions are important, and we rightly inquire into agricultural, military, political, and culture causes for these events. In these cases Diamond's analysis is largely impossible, since we are dealing with peoples that share genetics, foodstuffs, climates, terrains, etc.

Perhaps I'm nit-picking. It's an excellent, thought-provoking book. I'd just like to temper the inevitable temptation to view all history through this lens.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Whores, and there's an end on it

Jim Geraghty at TKS writes about a Turkish movie that shows
American soldiers crash[ing] a wedding and pump[ing] a little boy full of lead in front of his mother. They kill dozens of innocent people with random machine gun fire, shoot the groom in the head, and drag those left alive to Abu Ghraib prison where a Jewish doctor cuts out their organs, which he sells to rich people in New York, London and Tel Aviv.
The surprise is that it stars American actors Gary Busey and Billy Zane. It's been a while since these two have been in the money (Zane's terribly hammy performance in Titanic, e.g.), but to appear in propaganda that is both anti-American and anti-Semitic is a new low for both.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Google: Tiananmen? Never Happened!

Evan Coyne Maloney has a good bit on brain terminal about Google's selective social conscience:
Google has been taking a lot of flak, rightfully so, for censoring search results to satisfy the Chinese communist dictatorship.

The search engine is placing notices on each page notifying users that items have been censored at the request of the Chinese government, so it isn't quite as bad as Microsoft's actions to placate the Chinese, which include taking down entire websites without notice, rendering them inaccessible to the entire world. Google's censorship applies only to the version of the search engine aimed at the Chinese market. Still, for a company whose motto is 'Don't Be Evil,' the action is at best hypocritical, and it shows the slogan to be nothing more than empty P.R. sermonizing. . . .

What makes Google's actions even more hypocritical is that, just a week before this Google flap erupted, the company was hailed by privacy advocates for refusing to turn over to the U.S. Justice Department aggregate data on searches for child pornography. What a brave stand!

So Google has the backbone to rebuff to the U.S. government's attempts to fight child porn, but the Don't Be Evil company is willing to help China continue to repress its people by erasing moments from history like the Tiananmen Square massacre

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Encyclical Letter "Deus Caritas Est"

Pope Benendict XVI's first encyclical letter "Deus Caritas Est" ("God is Love") has been published and is available in English on the Vatican's Web site. Haven't read it yet, hope to get to it this weekend.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Greg Gutfield on the Huffington Post

Greg Gutfield has a good satire up at the Puffington Host: "Marking Sunday's anniversary of the 33-year-old Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood has launched a magazine targeting 'choicers' to be given out at clinics across the country.
'This new magazine will reflect the growing concerns and needs of women in the child-nonbearing age group,' says Melody Barron, a spokesperson.

Called 'Child-Free,' the premiere issue will feature articles and sections that target this prized demographic, as well as counter all those supermarket magazines that show actresses and models happy with their new babies and pregnancies."

It gets better. Check it out.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Z-Man #2 has a new tape, too

Al-Qaeda's al-Zawahiri praises 'martyrs' in Afghanistan in audiotape - Forbes.com: "Al-Qaeda's number 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, paid tribute to the Islamist 'martyrs' in Afghanistan, in an audiotape posted on an Islamic website purportedly from the target of an air strike last week.

The 18-minute tape, whose authenticity could not immediately be confirmed, gave no indication of when the recording was made. But the website said it was 'a new speech by Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri, may God protect him'. "

Pope's First Encyclical Due This Month - Forbes.com

Pope's First Encyclical Due This Month - Forbes.com: "Pope Benedict XVI said Wednesday he will publish his first encyclical on the different aspects of God's love next week, adding it was 'providential' the text would be released after a period of prayer for unifying all Christians. "

Sad post in the midnight hour

R.I.P. Wilson Pickett

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sen. Patrick Leahy will vote against Samuel Alito

Leahy just announced this at a speech at Georgetown Law Center.
Alito isn't a done deal yet. It'll be interesting to see how the Dems play it. Red state Democrat senators will support, blue staters oppose, with a total just over 60 nominating Alito? This would immunize the party leadership against the wrath of the Left. They can say they didn't call for it because the votes weren't there, leaving Daily Kossacks to fume at the Ben Nelson's of the world, but not the Leahy's and Kennedy's . . . .

Or they can have a narrower loss and antagonize their base. Or they can call for a filibuster and probably lose the filibuster in the future.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The pro-life "conspiracy"

A good friend of mine on the other side of the abortion controversy writes to me that Alito looks assured of nomination because the pro-choice side was outmaneuvered by the pro-lifers, and the pro-choice activists did nothing. I have to wonder what planet he's on.
For example, here's the headline in huge, stop-the-presses font on NARAL's homepage:
The battle for the Supreme Court continues . . .
Stop Anti-Choice Alito
Help save the Supreme Court from President Bush:
Tell your Senators to oppose anti-choice Alito!
On the National Right to Life Committee page, we find . . . no call to action on Alito. The first and largest link is "PARTIAL-BIRTH ABORTION RETURNS TO THE U.S. SUPREME COURT." No invective, no call to action, just a warning that activists should pay attention. The Alito link? The writers at the New York Post ("Headless Body Found in Topless Bar") are undoubtedly impressed with this attention grabbing headline: "Heightened Interest in Alito's Views on Abortion as Hearings Approach." The date on the linked story is December 6, 2005. That's right, they didn't even bother to call for his passage, and they didn't bother to update it once the hearings came or went. NRLC's volunteer copy editors are worth every cent they're paid.

How did I choose these pages? I simply googled the most prominent pro and anti abortion organization that I knew off.

Of course, I don't expect my friend to see that his analysis was wrong. Like most pro-choicers, he's convinced that Alito is likely to succeed because the pro-lifers were more vocal and focused on confirming him than the pro-choicers were on shutting him down. Why acknowledge anything that's actually occurring or address contrary evidence?

For the time being, the reality denial of the pro-choice sympathizers works against them.

Poor Richard's Birthday

The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary: "HAPPY 300th BIRTHDAY, BEN FRANKLIN!"

Hat tip: Michelle Malkin.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves

Cheerfully desperate, curmudgeonly in a breezy way, Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is a delightful, quick read. Truss takes on the tendency of email and other rapid-response technologies to send our written communications into a world of Joycean incoherence. It's a chatty thing, with lots of diversions and asides, such as the contributions of Aldo Manuzio to the wonderful world of typesetting and punctuation. This book makes a great gift for people who love books qua books and reading qua reading.

Truss have a very pleasant sense of play. For example, in a section dealing with particular punctuation rules, she loves to display those rules she's writing about within the selfsame section. Truss is clever and lively and charming. Bookworms, give it a try. You'll like it.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Are you ready, CC?

The Political Teen has a video of Ray Nagin advocating keeping New Orleans a "chocolate" city.

Isn't that charming.

I'm picturing David Duke campaigning to keep Louisiana "vanilla."

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Apple Launches iMeat?

News of the Weird:
A 14-year-old girl who received a new Apple iPod opened the sealed box and found raw mystery meat inside, according to a Local 6 News report.

Rachel Cambra purchased a new high-tech iPod for her daughter as a gift this week. When she opened the sealed box, the device was missing and in its place was a piece of raw meat, the report said.

Muslim Scholars Were Paid to Aid U.S. Propaganda - New York Times

Muslim Scholars Were Paid to Aid U.S. Propaganda - New York Times:
A Pentagon contractor that paid Iraqi newspapers to print positive articles written by American soldiers has also been compensating Sunni religious scholars in Iraq in return for assistance with its propaganda work, according to current and former employees.

And this is a bad thing because . . . .? Isn't the Times always claiming that we're not winning Muslim "hearts and minds"? Shouldn't we be trying to win some?

Lazy Sunday (Chronic of Narnia)

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