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Lost in Time and Place

with 7 comments

Every once in a while something happens on this blog  that just makes my jaw drop–and that’s the kind of thing that happened when I checked the comments last night before going to bed.

AB provides a list of all the things he thinks were accomplishments of the Renaissance.

The problem is that very few of them actually occured in the Renaissance.

The Renaissance is generally dated from the early 1400s–the 15th Century.

The Magna Carta was signed in 1215–at the beginning of the High Middle Ages, NOT the Renaissance.

The House of Commons  first appears in the official records as called to meeting separately in 1341–in the high Middle Ages, NOT the Renaissance.

The “new universities” were almost all up and running before 1300.  Bologna was founded in, I think, 1189.  Oxford, Cambridge, Siena and Paris were already thriving institutions by 1250–again, in the high Middle Ages, NOT the Renaissance.

Scholasticism was first introduced into theology and philosophy in or around 1100, and was at its peak in the mid-1200s–in the high Middle Ages, NOT the Renaissance.

What’s more, the Renaissance was notable for a reaction against Scholastic philosophy.

The Swiss Confederacy dates to the Federal Charter of 1291–again, to the high Middle Ages, NOT the Renaissance.

The Hanseatic League arose from the Hansa societies, the first of which was founded before 1250.  The League was first formally established in by the Diet of 1260 and first recognized by a sovereign state (England, by Henry III)  in 1266–yet again, during the high Middle Ages, NOT the Renaissance.

And although there was lots of Christian Humanism in the Renaissance, the founder of Christian Humanism is generally accepted to be Petrarch, who died in 1274–making Christian Humanism an innovation of the high Middle Ages, NOT the Renaissance.

In other words, society in the Middle Ages was moving forward, in the Renaissance, it only did so in limited areas.

Renaissance philosophy had nothing to do with the Magna Carta or the House of Commons,  the Swiss Confederacy, or the Hanseatic League.  All of these occured or were decades–and in most cases centuries–before the Renaissance began.

I will give you Machiavelli, who is indeed a figure of the Renaissance.

But Machiavelli’s impact on politic philosophy was not as the champion of limited government, it was as the inventor of realpolitik.

Just one more thing–yes, I know all about Biblical literists in the creationist movement who say that God planted dinosaur fossils to test our faith.

I’ve mentionted that phenomenon on this blog during this conversation, in a post AB himself commented on.

It was a while back and it was an aside, so what the hell.

I have to go off and start my week.

Written by janeh

October 11th, 2011 at 9:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Endings and Beginnings (The Defense, Part 11)

with 8 comments

Okay.  Let me see if I can get back on track here.

To recap:  the question in these immediate sections is whether or not the traditional claim of proponents of a liberal arts education that such study will make us “self governing people” in the sense of being more self controlled and better able to choose the morally good over the morally evil.

I’ve said that I think this claim is weak, at least in the way it is usually made.  I don’t think education of any kind can “make” anybody morally good or morally evil.

It can give you the tools to build a house.  It can’t ensure that you’ll choose to build a house instead of gerry rig the tools to make a great catapault to destroy the walls of Troy.

However, on looking at the actual historical record over time, I do think there are indications that those periods in our history when the liberal arts have been widely taught have in fact resulted in societies in which the moral average, so to speak, has been higher than in periods when the liberal arts has been in eclipse.

Okay, with any luck, that gets us  here, and we can go on.

The next period in which the liberal arts were widely taught is not what you think it is–it is not the Renaissance.

As history is generally taught, the Renaissance is a wonderful period full of new knowledge, new art and new beginnings.

In reality, it wasn’t the beginning of something, it was the end of something.

The Renaissance was the decadent end of the Middle Ages. 

As I’ve noted before, there was some very important new science discovered in the Renaissance,  and some very important principles of scientific investigation.

But it was, as a whole, an anti-science period.  The stress was on emotional and artistic extravagance, on confrontation for the sake of confrontation and breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules. 

What moral and political philosophy was produced in the period was largely opportunistic and cynical, a celebration of war for the sake of war and power for the sake of power.  The long Medieval project to impose some kind of ethical restraints at least on Christian states at war with each other died with Macchiavelli and before.  The Medicii’s “had culture” the way they had estates and money.

And the art, you know, was great.

The art is often great in decadent periods.  I don’t know why.

Well, okay, being me, I have a guess.  But I don’t know why.

The point here is that in the Renaissance, in spite of the new power and wealth in the universities, the study of the liberal arts was atrophying at best.  For poorer scholars it had become a credentialing service.  For rich ones, private tutors provided the social sheen of “culture” as an accessory.  Even the pretense of Christian humility vanished and we had Lorenzo the Magnificent.

The Renaissance was the end of Southern Europe as the focal point for learning, culture, science and social advance within Western Civilization.

And it provoked what should have been an expected reaction.

Medieval Europe was Christian in identity and sensibility.  The Renaissance largely was not, in spite of the religious art behaved like Medicis, not like Peters–hell, one of them was a Medici.  One of the others (Alexander VI) was a Borgia.

It didn’t take long for people to start asking the obvious question:  God had promised never to abandon His Church, that even “the gates of Hell would not stand against it.”   But this Church certainly looked abandoned, ruled by worldly men for wordly purposes, craving wealth and power above all things.  The Pope and the Bishops were unashamed to live like wealthy men and to make a display of their riches on virtual every occasion.  Ordinations to the priesthood, absolution from sin, even freedom from Purgatory were all for sale.

So God had abandoned this Church. And that had  to mean that this had never been God’s Church to begin with.

What’s more, to the reformers who began to crop up with increasing frequency during this period, it looked very much as if the cause of the decadance of the Church was liberal learning. 

After all, whenever a layperson or cleric tried to protest the way the higher clergy lived or the way indulgences were sold, they were beaten over the head with Aristotle,  Plato, and the Peripetetics.

What’s more, not only had the Middle Ages coughed up an interesting invention–the printing press–but that press had been used not only to publish the Bible but to publish works of Biblical scholarship that cast doubt on whether even the Bible itself had been kept free of error by a rogue and illegitimate church.

Xavier’s Complutensian Polyglot published the Bible  in six or seven columns–sorry, it’s been a long time–each column being an edition in a different language, so that people could compare the versions and see where there were differences.  Later, Erasmus would do the same with the New Testament in the Textus Receptus. 

At that point, the reformers had everything they needed to effect their reform, and the established Church  had nothing it needed.  The Church had reached the point where it could not defend the Western intellectual tradition because it did not, by and large, know it, or its purpose. 

Faced with people convinced that that tradition was the primary cause of moral abomination, guiltily aware that many of the moral criticism of the Church were entirely justified, unable to articulate (or even imagine) what a defense of that tradition would look like–the whole thing just collapsed.

It collapsed into a near orgy of what we would now call “fundamentalism”–Biblical literalism, book burning, anti-intellectualism as a badge of righteousness, and religious war.

If you don’t believe me, go read Luther, a man who once declared reason itself to be the work of the Devil.

It could all have stopped there.  It did stop there elsewhere in the world when religion and the liberal arts came into conflict. 

It did not stop there in Western Europe for two reasons:

First the liberal tradition had been embedded in Christianity for a thousand years, or more.  All those reformers who thought they despised it were its direct heirs, and they carried many of its assumptions–that the disinterested pursuit of knowledge was a virtue; that all truth is one and contradictions between kinds of truth were only apparent; that God does not lie to us and that therefore what we observe and experience is not some trick of the devil to be shunned rather than examined; that it is a virtue when the individual human being stands by what he knows to be the truth even unto death.

In fact, that last one was often mistaken for a purely Christian concept–Christ died on the cross for us, rather than capitulate to Roman demands that he lie about who and what he was.

The reformers were, like most of their Renaissance contemporaries, about half educated.  They tended to forget the earlier story of Socrates, or ignore how similar the two stories were.

So that’s the first thing–it didn’t end there, because on a visceral basis the reformers were never able to shuck off the entirety of the tradition they thought they were rejecting.

But there’s a second reason, and it’s this–in order to justify their revolt against the authority of the Catholic Church, they had to come up with some principal of authority to transfer their allegiance to, and what they came up with was t his:

Each individual has the God-given capacity to see and understand for himself. 

They meant it to apply to the interpretation of the Bible, and once it got started they weren’t to happy about where it led.

But once the idea was out there, there was no calling it back, and it would soon be put to use on every question anybody could think of.

And in the meantime, Protestant Northern Europe started doing what it thought was necessary to create good Christians in this new definition of Christianity.

It started teaching everybody–women as well as men–to read.

And that brings me to the next cycle.  I’ll get to it tomorrow.


And on the determinism question, of course.

First, of course it is possible to distinguish random from choice events on an objective basis.  We do it any time we observe other people (or the family pet) deliberate among alternatives.  “I’m really hot and I need something to cool me off.  I could go to the ice cream parlor and get some ice cream, but if I do that I’ll miss my calculus class.  I’ve already missed my calculus class twice this term, and missing it again without what my teacher would consider a “good” reason might get me in trouble.  My teacher wouldn’t consider getting an ice cream a good reason.  On the other hand, I don’t have air conditioning and neither does the classroom, and I’m so hot I’m sick.  If I go to class and throw up there, or pass out, that wouldn’t be good either. So–”

Sorry, this is not a random event.  It is nothing like a random event.  And  we can observe it all the time, and we don’t need to rely on our subjective experience to do it.

Second, it is certainly true that we often use one kind of experience to judge others, but that’s not what you’re suggesting.

You’re suggesting that we delegitimize even the possibility that we can judge any kind of experience at all.

If I have a camera whose lens or internal functions distort the pictures that result when I use it, I can work around those by understanding what’s happening and taking pictures in different lights or at different angles.

But if I smash the camera, I can’t take pictures at all.

Your contention that choice (which includes things like deliberation, judgement and decision)  must be an illusion is smashing the camera.

If you were actually right about choice, you would be incapable of knowing it.

Third, I do not believe in God, and I do not believe in the soul.

I am NOT suggesting any form of dualism, Cartesian or otherwise.

It is significant, though, that you think that is the only possible answer here.

Written by janeh

October 10th, 2011 at 10:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Internal Contradictions

with 8 comments

I was a little nervous about labeling this post The Defense, Part 11, because I want to start with a few comments in general about the comments.

And me being me, that could easily take up such a big whacking hunk of the post, that there will be no room left for the main point.

There is this, however:  the answer to one of those comments is a perfect lead-in to what comes next. 

So I think I’ll just get started and see where this goes.

The first thing is to answer the question of why I would bother to do this if I didn’t intend to “win” the “argument,” by which I think is meant to come to some place where the people who disagree with me are forced to bow to my superior…something or the other.

Quite frankly, I don’t get it.  To me, these things are interesting in and of themselves.  They are worth talking about and thinking about and writing about just because they are.   I don’t want to propse or implement policy, although I’d be happy if some things came about and less happy when they didn’t. I don’t want to change anybody’s mind, although I’d be happy if some minds were changed.

I find these things intrinsically interesting and intrinsically important.  Talking and thinking and writing about them helps me understand my world and myself, but even if it didn’t, I’d still be interested.

Talking and thinking and writing about these things just makes me happy. 

Knowledge pursued for it’s own sake–that’s the very definition of education, as opposed to training.

As for the rest of it:  what always gets me about determinism as applied to human (and possible most mamailian, or maybe even simply live) minds isn’t the implications for morality, it’s the internal contradiction.

The reason AB’s cloud doesn’t qualify as a “choice event” is that it lacks that very lived experience that we have when we decide what blouse to wear in the morning.

AB says this  lived experience is just an illusion, nothing real.

But if what our minds tell us is an illusion, then why isn’t it an illusion that we know anything at all, ever?

Once we have declared that our minds are inherently and fundamentally untrustworthy–not simply unreliable a little imprecise and wobbly so that we need to take care about how we use them, but untrustworthy at their very core–

At that point, our “knowledge” that all things are determined is just as much an illusion as our experience of choice.  Hell, our “knowledge” of EVERYTHING comes down to illusion.  Science is discovering more and more causal paths every day?  Is it?   How?

It can’t be that we’re studying it, observing it, and then coming to reliable conclusions.  We can’t come to reliable conclusions.  We have no way of knowing if any of our conclusions are reliable or not.

Even consistancy–all of us apparently coming to the same observations and the same conclusions from those observations–won’t give us that.

We may be having a mass delusion (which is what “your experience of choice is an illusion” is), or maybe there is no “we” and I am deluded that other people exist at all.

The declaration of determinism on this level and on these grounds is a disguised version of subjectivism, and it has the same problems that all subjectivisms have.

The lived experience of choice is part of the data set.  If you are going to defend determinism in a way that doesn’t end you up pretty much declaring that nobody can ever know anything, then you must account for that part of the data in a way that doesn’t land you in a nihilistic soup.

Personally, though, I don’t understand why it’s so incredibly hard for people to accept that we just don’t have an explanation of that particular datum yet.  We don’t know.  That’s really all we can say about it.

And, while we say it, we can work with what we do know:  that it’s demonstrable that people who think they have choice and control behave differently from people who think they don’t,  and the observable results of that difference (in life outcomes, for instance) are largely in favor of the acceptance of choice.

Which brings me to the thing that leads into the next part of this exposition.  I haven’t decided if I’m going to get to it today or not.

Robert asks when we first see evidence of people in Western Europe challenging the ideas in Aristotle’s Physics. 

That’s an interesting question on several levels.

First is this–no complete copy of Aristotle’s writings on the natural world existed in Western Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and around 1100–and I think that date is early. 

What’s more, the early exponents of liberal education were not entirely sure anybody should bother studying things like physics, chemistry and biology at all.  John of Salisbury wrote two books on education–here’s another man who actually founded and ran schools in the Middle Ages–and in neither of them are the physical sciences mentioned except to question whether students should be asked to waste their time studying them.

To John and the men of his era, there seemed to be no practical use for such study.  They saw no results possible from such study except maybe collecting a lot of random facts that would have no impact on your life in this world and no impact on your life in the next.

In one of John’s books, he produces an entire chapter on the different ways in which Scripture and Greek Learning should be taught, including basic rules on critiquing Greek Learning to show where it is false–and he says not a word about Greek learning in the physical sciences.

It seems so obvious to us that knowing the hard sciences produces practical benefits (vaccines, the nuclear bomb), that the attitude of the early Medieval world seems massively impossible, but it is what it is.

As for when, after Aristotle’s works on the physical sciences had been re-introduced into the West, people began to criticize them–I think the better formulation of the question would be at what point people felt they could take those works, start from their premises, and proceed by doing better and learning more.

Newton would later say that he stood on the shoulders of giants. He would find no contradiction in feeling this way at the same time he also believed that he had not only improved on Aristotle’s ideas about mechanics, but proved many of them wrong.

So, to answer–people started testing Aristotle’s ideas about physical science and determining that some of them might be wrong as soon as they got hold of the works to study.  They started to make significant progress in or around the early 14th century.

The more interesting thing is how they went about it.

AB made allusion at one point to the Middle Ages accepting and teaching the Organon as Scripture–that is, teaching Aristotle’s logic as if it was a Sacred Book.

Any foray into the work of actual Medieval philosophers–before and after Aquinas, as well as of Aquinas himself–will make it immediately clear that they did not accept Aristotle’s work on logic as the last word in logical reasoning, and Aquinas himself, the great Aristotlean himself, never relied on syllogisms in his life.

What the Medieval philosophers did do was to put an enormous emphasis on the reasoning process itself.  And they reasoned from all starting points, and often brought several different ones to bear on the same question.

The process bears an eery resemblance to Hegel and Marx:  thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

In Aquinas’s On The Teacher, for instance, he attempts, in the first article, to prove that it is possible for human beings to teach each other anything at all, against the objection of some that Scripture says that this is not possible, that teaching is the province of God alone.

He begins by outlining the several arguments on the subject, including the bases on which they make their judgments.

In some cases the basis is scripture directly, in others it is Pagan philosophy or the writings of Christian philosophers from previous eras.

A lot of what he does is almost purely definitional–an attempt to understand how the people writing (in or out of Scripture) define words like “teach” and “learn” and “know.”

When he is finished outlining his opponent’s arguments, he gives a short section outlining his own.

Only then does he start actually arguing his point–this out the short section as literally an outline–and when he does that he uses…


He talks about interpretation.  He does logical analysis on his opponents’ arguments.  He compares his opponents’ claims about how human beings learn to his own lived and observed experience as a student and a teacher. 

The manner of argument in that third section would be immediately recognizable to anybody who has ever read Hume, or even Kant. 

We give different emphasis to different data now than we did in Aquinas’s day, but we’ve changed our method of argumentation virtually not at all.  

We’ve even got a fair number of people who resort to claims of “science” exactly the way men of Aquinas’s time resorted to claims of Holy Writ–as something that is accepted on faith and that we cannot question.

I will never forget the day that a member of one of those Internet discussion forums I was talking about first spent several days berating the religious members of the list for being “sheeple” who couldn’t think for themselves because they just took everything the Bible said as fact when obviously the Bible was wrong and evolution was true…

And then ended by saying that, well, okay, he didn’t actually understand evolution, but he knew that it was true because science said so.

I really wish I was making that up.

And that gets us where I was going, and obviously I’m not going to get there.

So next time, I hope,

I just want to make one point–

I am not claiming that a true liberal arts education has never existed or never been tried.

I think it has existed several times over the centuries, and that the at  least society wide effects have been demonstrable.

But then there’s the question of why such results are inherently unstable.

And we’ll get there.

I’m going to change the title of this a bit and go have tea.

Written by janeh

October 9th, 2011 at 10:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Saturday in the Land of Indeterminate Season (Another Addendum)

with 8 comments

So I’ve gotten to the end of another bizarre week–the craziness OUGHT to end about two weeks from now–and for the last little while I’ve been thinking over a few things.

So let me answer them, and I’ll get back to real life and The Defense afterwards.

First, I tried to say this outright, but it seems not to have gotten across–between The Defense Part 9 and the Defense Part 10–that is, between the last two posts that actually advanced the argument–I looped back and restarted that particular part of the discussion that the first of the two posts was supposed to have started.

I did that because I had a number of complaints saying that it seemed like I had wandered off and started talking about something else.  I looked back and decided that there was some merit to the complaint. I don’t think I really was on a different subject, but I do think I was distracted and disorganized.

So, if you’re following the argument and want the linear impact of it, just skip that first one and start in on the second as if it had come immediately after what came before.  In terms of the development of the defense, it does.

The second is this–AB claims that I first say I am not defending the proposition that a liberal arts education makes morally better people, and then I go on to defend it.

I think I’d be a little less impatient with this if AB presented himself as the sort of borderline illiterate I see coming out of the colleges these days–unfamiliar with rhetorical forms and literary devices.  But AB seems to me to be very literate indeed.  So literate that it’s been rather curious.  When he/she first posted, the overall literary style seemed nowhere near as good, and the level of maturity seemed a lower than it does now. 

That is, I suppose, given the nature of the Internet, one of those minor mysteries I’ll never be able to solve.

That said, I’ve been–as I’ve pointed out–perfectly clear about what I’m doing. 

First I’ve said that I do not believe the proposition to be true.

Next I’ve said that I think that even if the proposition is true, there would be no way to prove it–and no evidence that would really be evidence.

Then I’ve said that I’m going to stop for a while and look into what reasons there MIGHT be to say that the proposition COULD be true.

This is a perfectly ordinary device in exposition, and I don’t see any reason to continually and forever explain and re-explain it, as if none of us were capable of reading on a level much higher than a modern dumbed-down textbook.

So there’s the last explanation of it, and I’m just going to go on doing it until I’ve played this out.

The other thing concerns the nature of evidence.  Yes, it is perfectly legitimate to demand that someone making making a claim provide evidence of the truth or falsity of tha claim. 

What is not so legitimate is to demand that said person provide evidence AS YOU HAVE DEFINED IT of that claim.

Standards of evidence are shared, or they’re irrelevant.

In this discussion, I’ve got two problems with the standards of evidence being demanded of me.

The first has to do with whether or not  Medieval–early and late–education treated Aristotle as Sacred Scripture, causing his works to be learned by rote and never questioned.

But AB has provided no evidence for the proposition that this was so.  He’s merely stated it, as if it were a self-evident fact, and demanded that I provide evidence to the contrary.

Nice try.

I’ve got a fairly broad acquaintance with the original source material from this period.  Nothing in it that I know of would support the proposition that the schools of this period taught Aristotle or any Pagan author as work to be accepted by pupils uncritically.

The first claims that such was the case came in the Renaissance, and they came with an increasing volume in the Reformation and the Enlightenment–and they came, universally, from men with a vested interest in portraying the Middle Ages (and thereby the Catholic Church of that period) as anti-science and anti-reason.

In the world in which I live, the bald, unsubstantiated claims of men with a vested interest in the outcome of the argument and who  have no direct experience of the phenomena they claim to be describing do not outweigh the reports of men who were on the scene at the time and who wrote down what they actually did. 

This is especially the case when those people are corroborated by many others experience the same phenomena.

So, either the schools of the Middle Ages, early and late, took pains to teach students to question Pagan sources, or there existed a vast conspiracy across the European continent that lasted literally hundreds of years to pretend they did.

I write murder mysteries, but this is a bit too much for me.

Proper evidence that the schools of the Middle Ages taught the works of the Pagans in a rote-learning, never-questioning, sacred-scripture sort of way would require providing original source material that this was so, not some quote out of a textbook saying it was so.

And evidence that such rote learning and unquestioning adulation was being applied to the works of Aristotle in the schools that arose through Gregory the Great’s reforms will be nonexistent.

Gregory, like Augustine before him and Alcuin as well, was not an Aristotlean, he was a neoPlatonist. 

It was Plato, not Aristotle, who was considered the standard of Pagan wisdom  before the 12th Century.

That being said, there’s plenty of original source material out there if you want to look at it, books and what we would call essays, but also letters of instruction from abbots to schoolmasters or schoolmasters to teachers.  Charlemagne could neither read nor write, but there remains an enormous correspondence under his name about the educational reforms he championed in the newly.  Most of these were written by Alcuin, who served as Charlemagne’s private secretary and the operational office for those educational reforms.  Alcuin was also one of the greatest and most vigorous educational reformer of the period.

The last thing concerns, of course, the issue of determinism vs. choice.  

AB says that there is evidence of determinism around us every day, and that he “cannot believe that any thinking person fails to find evidence of determinism, and in great abundance, while there is a conspicuous lack of evidence to the contrary.

I copied and pasted that, just to make sure.

But on the first half, I agree with him–you don’t even have to be able to think that well to find ample evidence of determinism all around you.

On the second half I do disagree–not only is there no evidence of choice, there is continual and endless evidence of it to every single person every single day–and to cats and dogs, too, if they can think abstractly. 

What is an event of choice?

An event of choice occurs when Subject A is presented with a number of possibilities for a future course of action (or thought, for that matter) and is able to adopt any one of them, and is not compelled to adopt any one of them.

So I get up in the morning.  I look in my closet.  I have five possible blouses to wear to teach.  I go through them and think over their merits (that one’s heavy and would be good if it got cold later, that one’s orange and it makes me look like an orangutan) and eventually adopt one as the one to wear.

Three minutes later, putting the thing on, I start to think about it again–and change for another one.

It is, of course, possible, that at the level of atoms and molecules, this is not what is happening, and I only have the illusion that the eventual act–adoption of one of the blouses for work today–is under my control.

But there is  no evidence that this is so.  You can certainly provide just-so stories as to how it MIGHT be true, but that is not the same thing as evidence.  Such accounts are not science, or even philosophy.  They’re theology. 

If you’re really commited to evidence-based inquiry, then you are required to accept the date you’re given.  And you’re enjoined from explaining it away because it doesn’t fit your preconcieved ideas of how nature should be.

As for what a non-choice event would be–take the digestion in your stomach after you’ve eaten a meal, which goes on without your knowledge or consent.  Take rocks coming down a mountain during an avalanche. 

These events are determined absolutely–neither the rocks nor your stomach could have done differently.  The activities were compelled by the totality of the physical facts and could not have been otherwise.

A non choice event  is compelled by the totality of its circumstances.

A choice event COULD have been otherwise.

If you look at a choice event, it exhibits just that distinction, every time, and you experience such events dozens of times, if not hundreds, every waking day of your life.

If you want to say that your experience of those events is an illustion, and that there is really compulsion under the service that we simply fail to detect–well, fine, but then show me evidence of that.

And, as I say, not just just-so stories, or declaration that that HAS to be the case because otherwise science wouldn’t be possible, or whatever.

I like to stick to the realm of observed reality.

And I’m not unaware of the fact that determinism as we presently formulate it would be incapable of either predicting or explaining Newton, Marx, or the Apollo moon landing.

I have to go teach.

Written by janeh

October 8th, 2011 at 8:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

It’s My Blog and I’ll Academically Divert if I Want To (Not Quite The Defense)

with 2 comments

Over the course of writing all this stuff, I’ve been continually amazed at how many people seem to think they have the right to demand that I do it on their terms, in their order, according to their standards, and then do it pronto, right now, I’m required.

But this is a blog, not a neutral Internet forum somewhere.  I write it because I like it, I have fun doing it, this is the sort of thing I think about all the time.  I’d write it–and I’d write about these things–even if nobody was asking me questions.

But I’ll write it in my way and on my terms.   At this stage in my career, nobody gets to make those kinds of demands on me.

And it isn’t helping that I’m getting the feeling that the people making the demands aren’t actually listening to anything I’m saying.

So let’s recap a little, and point AB on the way to evidence for what the medieval schools and new universities were actually like, and then I’ll go off to have the day from Hell.  It is, after all, Thursday.

First–the claim that a liberal arts education will result in our being morally better people IS NOT MY CLAIM.

And, beyond that, from my very first attempt to examine that claim,  I have said REPEATEDLY that I DON’T THINK IT IS TRUE and that, to the extent that it MAY be true,  I think it would be virtually impossible to prove.

If I was to outline what value a liberal arts education would be to the individual–which is what I was originally asked to do–THIS IS N OT THE VALUE I WOULD CLAIM FOR IT.

The only reason I started to examine this at all was that AB said it was the claim that he thought was the most interesting.

But when I DID start in on this, I said that this was the LEAST interesting and LEAST defensible to me.

AB’s demand that I show some evidence that people having a liberal education are better than they otherwise would have been is a demand that I show evidence not only of something I don’t think it true, but of the truth of a proposition that is inherently untestable. 

In order to show such evidence, I would have to have a way to discover what such a person would have been–morally and otherwise—without such an education.

This puts us squarely into the realm of crystal balls.

What I did think might be possible was to show that during periods in which the liberal arts were widely taught, the society as a whole showed a higher level of overall moral conduct, or the particular subset of people given such an education did, than either or both did in eras when the liberal arts were in eclipse.

And that’s where I’d gotten to when we ended up here.

As to choice and determinism–well, first, AB is a determinist in the same way that a good friend of mine is Catholic.  He has no positive evidence that his position is true, but given what he thinks he knows about the world that position seems the only logical possibility.

If that satisfies him, that’s fine.  My friend joined a cloistered contemplative religious order and she’s happy as a claim.

But it doesn’t satisfy me, and it doesn’t begin to provide any account of the data.

“Choise” is not irrelevant here, it’s the crux of the entire problem. 

To get back to the analogies:  when you are given a liberal education, you are given the tools and materials to build a house, and instructions on how to build it.

Then you’re left alone with all that stuff–and you may build a house.  Or you may do nothing with it at all. Or you may use it to set up an elaborate camouflage of your serial killing spree.  Or…

Give a thousand people a liberal education, and you’ll get all those and many more.  Such choices may actually be determined on the level of our individual molecules or atoms or whatever–but we have no proof that they are, and simply deciding it must be so does nothing at all to make us understand what we’re seeing and certainly no way of predicting what any individual’s behavior will be.

Personally, I think the whole “science is deterministic and if there’s such a thing as choice there can be no science” business is the sort of thing people say and then get embarrassed to remember later, when it turns out there’s something going on we didn’t know about.

In other words, I think that position results not from logic, but from a failure of the imagination.

As to more modern examples–since my position is ALSO that there is virtually no way to get a liberal arts education these days, it’s hard to tell what I’m supposed to come up with when nothing exists even to be tested.  Or close to nothing.

But, on top of that, intellectual history is evolution.  It takes a long time–yes! it may take even a couple of hundred years for an idea to take hold in a society and become fully realiized!  Hell, the equality thing took a nearly 2000–and in the process of that evolution, nothing stays the same.

But I was on my way there–to the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, and the Romantic Era, and the Victorian and Matthew Arnold.

I’ll get there.

As for liberal education in the early Middle Ages–the best book about what actually went on in the era (rather than what the Renaissance and the Enlightenment claimed went on in the era), is a thing called the Didascalicon written by a man named Hugh of Saint Victor somewhere in the early to mid 12th century.

Hugh was an Augustinian monk in Paris, who taught the liberal arts in the Abbey school and then became master of that school.  The Didascalicon outlines the principles of a liberal education both as they were practiced at the Abbey when he studied them and later as he practiced them himself.

It is a practical book, meant to be used as a manual and textbook by furture teachers at the school and by men and women trying to bring the liberal arts to their own schools, or to found schools for them.

If you read this thing, the first thing you’ll notice is that Hugh is trying to square the circle. 

He wants his students to accept Scripture “docilely,” but at the same time he thinks that a) you can’t really understand Scripture unless you learn to analyze and interpret it and b) that the liberal arts and the works of the Greeks and Romans are the best way to learn to do that and c) that the liberal arts are inherently dangerous because the works of the Pagans often carry conclusions in ethics and other things that are contrary to Scripture and that therefore must be carefully dissected and crituqes if they are to be used correctly by Christian students.

The liberal arts then were organized as trivium (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic) and the quadrivium (music, astronomy, arithmatic and geometry). 

When I was first learning about it, the quadrivium sounded a little odd to me,  until somebody explained that music was considered to be a branch of mathematics. 

If you’re looking for students being encourage to challenge the works of the Pagan masters, it’s dialectic you’re looking for, and to a certain extent the higher studies in grammar. 

You’ll note, by the way, that the examples chosen of how to critique and challenge such masters are all in the realm of metaphysics, ethics, and that sort of thing, rather than in “natural philosophy” (chemistery and physics). 

This was not because people of Hugh’s time found natural philosophy to be sacrosanct, but because they largely thought of it as trivial.  It was composed of things that were nice to know, but not terribly important to real life.

You’ll also note that they were very enamoured of a sort of watered-down, passed-on version of the Socratic method–in other words, they taught by confrontation and critique at least at the higher levels.

What Hugh and men like him wanted was to teach their students to criticize and interpret and yet someone insure that they would only do so to works OTHER than Scripture.

Anybody not so thoroughly committed to BOTH Christian orthodoxy AND the liberals arts would have seen right away that that wasn’t going to happen.

As to the Middle Ages/Renaissance thing–you might want to be careful with that.  The Renaissance liked to pride itself on having overturned the stodgy irrelevance of the Middle Ages (how many angels can dance on the head of a pin!), and the Enlightenment liked that even better.  And the narrative we have taken out of that era tend to be about the supposed conflicts between science and religion.

In point of fact, however, the Renaissance stands to the Middle Ages more like the way the Romantic Era stands to the Enlightenment.  It was a largely anti-science, anti-rationalist reaction to a period that had gone far down the road of turning everything over to the logical, the practical and the ploddingly worked-out.

There were great strides made in science in the Renaissance, but they were in large part made by men who were largely out of step with their time, sticking to the plodding and methodical when most of everybody else was going in for emotional extravagance and artistic extremism.

The Renaissance began in theology–with a change in focus from attempting to learn the attributes of God to discussing and delineating the relationship between God and man.   Sounds like a little enough thing, but it gave rise to a renewed concentration on secular learning as a manifestation of God in the world.

I’ll get to what the content of the morality was that the liberal arts taught–both originally and throughout the evolution of it–eventually, because that’s inevitable

But right now, I have to go have my day.


Written by janeh

October 6th, 2011 at 9:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Indoctrination Thing (The Defense, Part 10)

with 6 comments

Let me see if I can start at the beginning here, and be coherent.

First, AB asks if I’m trying to prove that a liberal arts education makes some people good, or only if some people say it makes them good.

I’d say I’m trying to prove either.

I’ve said this now several times, but I’ll try again.

No system of education, no matter what its content or form, can make anybody good.

 Nothing and nobody can MAKE (caps now, in hopes I’m finally getting across) an individual good.

An individual must choose to be good–to want it and to work for it.

If he does not make that choice, no system of education in the world, no parental upraising, no mass media, no system of torture and indoctrination can get him there.

At best, a system of torture and indoctrination that is extreme enough can break down his mind and make him something on the order of a human robot–but at that point, discussions of good and evil become irrelevant.

What forms of education can do and do do is to provide a roadmap for virtue, and those roadmaps can be more or less accurate and more or less useful.

Every system of education provides such a roadmap on several levels.  And every system of education provides such a roadmap on an explicit level.  It’s not that Liberty University provides an explicit roadmap while Secular U down the road provides an open space for free thought and untrammeled discussion.  It’s the Liberty University is forthright about its intentions and Secular U is not.

If you don’t believe me, go into the dorms at Secular U and take a look at the Freshman Orientation week activities, the “diversity training seminars,” the “minority sensitivity” workshops and all the rest of it. Then take a look at the speech codes.  Then try saying–in a class, or on the dorm floor–that the Affirmative Action admits at your school have lower paper credentials than regular admits.   That last thing happens to be true, but it doesn’t matter.  Saying it outloud can get you hauled up before a disciplinary board at two thirds of the colleges in this country, it can get  you written up as a racist (a determination that will reach any employer who wants to hire you with the rest of your record), and could–if you refuse to recant–get you expelled.  Think of Gallileo in that emblematic Enlightenment narrative scene.

If that’s not “indoctrination,” I don’t know what is.

All systems of education aim deliberately at inculcating a certain set of moral standards whether they admit to it out front or not, and here’s the thing–that’s not “indoctrination,”

If it was, there would never have been anything but “indoctrination” on this earth.  And there couldn’t have been.   We don’t teach if we don’t think we know something worth passing on,  and up until this last century (the 20th, I mean), we never flinched at saying that part of our purpose in education was to produce morally better people. 

We were still saying that, explicity, in every institution, up until around 1968.  Then we kept on doing it, but started claiming we weren’t.

We’re still left with the question of whether or not a liberal arts education can be proved to result in morally better human beings. 

Because, as I said, although education can’t MAKE anybody moral, it can AFFECT whether or not we choose to be moral beings, and it can AFFECT what kind of morality we choose to follow.

 So, does it?  And does it affect those things better or worse than other forms of education, and other non-educational approaches to getting people to behave morally?

Michael is quite right in saying that all people everywhere exhibit moral behavior no matter how they were raised an educated, and that some nonhuman mammals (dolphins, dogs) exhibit behavior that seems to be moral, too.

I don’t think he’s right in saying that this indicates that we’re less free or in control–sorry, can’t remember the exact quote and I can’t seem to find it–than we think we are.

This sort of argument pops up a lot in secular circles these days, and as an argument against the existence of God, it’s weak beyond belief.  Both the ancients and the early-to-Renaissance Christians noticed this, too, and they took it as a proof that God did exist, because God implanted in the soul of every man the rudiments of his law. 

There is, in fact, no way to disprove that second formulation any more than there is a way to disprove the existence of God.  So I really wish secular people arguing for secularism would find another way to frame this subject.  This one actually loses you points with most audiences.

Okay–back on track.

I said yesterday that although we’d have a hard time showing whether any system of education had been the cause of any individual’s deciding to be good, that we might do better if we looked at populations.

In other words, we might be able to say that one society, having this kind of education, showed evidence of having a more widespread population of people choosing to be good than this other, over there, which used a different kind.

I used as an example the observable change in moral behavior–I should probably say publicly exhibited moral behavior–in the Catholic clergy after the widespread educational reforms instituted largely by Gregory the Great.

Robert suggested that those changes might have been the result of the increase in the rigorousness of the education offered, which increase would have resulted in an increase of observed moral behavior no matter what the content of the education.

And I think that I can, pretty much, dispense with that particular possibility.

There are three reasons.

The first is that the education that existed before Gregory’s reforms was not unrigorous, it was just of a certain kind.

It was, that is, devoted entirely to the study, recitation, memorization and interpretation of Scripture.

It was this narrow focus that Gregory was convinced was the cause of  the deficiencies Gregory saw in the Church he had taken control of, and those deficiencies were largely eradicated in the wake of those reforms.

But we don’t have to stop there–we have at least two other examples of educational systems with rigor that not only showed no signs of producing widespread moral improvement, but that seem to have resulted in widespread stagnation on any level you chose to look.

The first is the system that developed in the 7th Century in China and remained in place, expanded, for centuries. 

It had as its rationale something that usually does any society that adopts it a great deal of good–that is that talent and intelligence is not restricted by class and that society needs to find a way to indentify talented people no matter  how lowly their birth and put them to work.

The Chinese attempted to do this by instituting a system that was eerily like the early Christian one, except that its sacred texts were ostensibly secular.

I say ostensibly because the texts were treated as if they were sacred–memorized, recited, and given as Absolute Authority.

It was an odd thing, because the actual subjects on which candidate were texted were things like military strategy and agriculture as well as the works of Confucius. 

But you can treat anything as dogma, and the Chinese did.

That educational system lasted over 1000 years in one for or another, and what the Chinese got for it was stagnation on every level, the moral not the least of it. 

There’s another one of those civilizations that has a lot of “stuff,” but doesn’t develop scientifically or socially in any significant way.

The other example is, of course, the education offered right up to this day by the Muslim madrassahs. 

Before the 8th Century, Muslim countries had several seats of learning (in Cordoba, for one) that attempted to function on liberal arts principles, to the extent that that society was able to learn them from the Greek and Latin writings picked up in the conquests.

After that point, it returned to education as a course in the study, memorization, recitation and inculcation of the Koran.  And of the Koran exclusively.

I don’t care if what you’ve got hold of is the Principia Mathematica, if you treat it as a sacred text never to be questioned, you will not produce better people and you will not produce a better society.

Rigor is obviously not the issue.

That still doesn’t “prove” that a liberal arts education can give us the tools–can uniquely give us the tools–to become morally better people IF that is what we CHOOSE to do.

But it’s at least a start.

I’m going to go get something done.

Written by janeh

October 3rd, 2011 at 10:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Eichmann Loved Beethoven (The Defense, Part 9)

with 14 comments

So, okay.  I’ve had some sleep.  Some.

For what it’s worth, my “week” started nine days ago, on the Saturday before yesterday, when I showed up for my Saturday morning class and was the only person to show up.  No students. Not one of them. 

I thought at the time that this did not bode well, and it didn’t.  Remind me to take off on one of my rants about how we shouldn’t send people who don’t want to be there to “college.”

But back to the wars, for the moment.

I said in the last point that I didn’t think it was possible for a liberal education–or any kind of education–to make us good. 

Education can tell us what “good” is, or give us an overview of how “good” has been conceived over time, but in the end the only thing that can make us good and decent human beings is our decision to be good and decent human beings. 

And the nature of that is such that we have to keep renewing the commitment every day.

Maybe every hour.

“Good and decent human being” is not the default position.  It’s essentially an aspiration that no actual human being ever reaches to the full.

But there, you see–there it is again.  The idea that to be a good and decent human being, to lead a good life in this world, is itself inextricably bound up with the idea of a liberal arts education. 

Plato tells us that the virtue of philosophy is to teach us to live well, and Aristotle and the Romans echo him, right down to the Christian era–where learning how to live well, so that one can leave this life to spent eternity contemplating the face of God, is the whole point of studying anything.

What’s more, right through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, what was claimed was not just that those parts of philosophy (or theology) which directly addressed ethics were meant to teach us to do good, but that all the liberal arts were needed, including the things we now call physics, chemistry and mathematics.

But a claim is a claim, and not proof, on any level.  Is there any evidence at all that a liberal education will a) help you if you decide to be good and b) help you better than other forms of education or none at all?

Well, let’s ask first–what is evidence?

A lot of times, when I get into these discussion, I find that what people want is the experimental and quantifiable. 

The actual claim of advocates of the liberal arts over the years is not that it will make you good but that it will make you better than you would have been without them. 

People commenting on this blog have grumbled that such a proposition is not testable, and therefore is worthless as a proposition.

The problem is that an untestable proposition is not by that fact proven to be untrue.

A great many of the most interesting and important questions in human life are not amenable to this kind of “proof,” and I doubt if anything except physical reality–chemistry and physics–is. 

I think that’s why the “social sciences” are such miserable failures as sciences.  They’re almost always attempts to stuff intractable human questions into little science holes that are not big enough to contain them. 

But testable propositions or not, there are ways in which we can find support for the squishier questions.

The first–and least reliable, I should think–is through testimony, through the statements people have made through their own experiences.

In the case of the liberal arts, there are a lot of testimonies. 

Going back at least to the Roman Imperial period, we have the writings of numerous men (all men in the beginning) and women about their encounter with the liberal arts and in what way it changed the way they thought and behaved.   We have accounts of their decisions to change and of their actual struggles in carrying out the change. 

Testimony lacks solidity, of course.  True believers testify.  They have a stake in the outcome of the argument.  A convert to Islam will have testimony to the changes in his behavior–and often in the same kind of behavior, in his ability to exercise self control–as well as a student of the liberal arts, or a Christian, or a NeoDruid.

No, I am not making those up.

We do a little better if there is third party testimony to the changes–confirmation by outsiders of a change in attitude and behavior that followed on an introduction.

And we have that, too, lots of it. 

The problem is that we also have lots of such third party testimony from other kinds of conversions, all across the board again. 

In the case of third party testimony, we do have a calculable difference of the direction of change and its durability–but I think this is still far too squishy to be satisfying.

Maybe the best we can say here is that when a person converts to a new idea, that conversion will in and of itself cause a change in behavior.

And since control of the self is one of the perennial problems of human existence, such conversions almost always lead to more of such control,  probably to an extent simply because most such systems tell the people who convert to them that they’re actually capable of exercising such control.

There are exceptions (those NeoDruids again), but I think that’s the basic idea.

What seems to me to be a more interesting avenue of investigation is this:  during several periods of history there have been mass conversions, and within those mass conversions societies had discussions about the value of the liberal arts.  And they made different decisions about that, too.

I’ve already talked her about what happened to Islam in about 700.  AB responded that Muslim civilization had a longer run than that, right through the Turks, at leas as it pertained to having materially rich socieites.

But the question was not what made societies materially wealthy, especially in the short run.  In the short run, you can do that with simple plunder.

The question was what made scientific civilizations, meaning civilizations that advanced the sciences.

Materially wealthy or not, science in Islamwas dead by 700, and has never returned on a civilizational level.  Saudi Arabia has state-of-the-art medical facilities–built by Western engineers and staffed by Western doctors.

Not just Western-trained, mind you–the senior level staff is literally Western, usually Australian and British.

But we don’t have to restrict ourselves to the Islamic example.  There are several periods in Western history where such discussions took place, not just the one carried on largely by Aquinas and Abelard in the High Middle Ages.

One of them took place in the two to three centuries after the fall of Rome, when the Christian Church strugged with the education of its members. 

There was a strong sentiment in favor of abandoning “Greek learning” altogether, and providing only study in the Scriptures, a Christian version of the Islamic madrassah.

You can read through the work of the men and–in this case sometimes–women who took part in that discussion, while society at large was taking part in a vast social experiment in the training of priests and nuns.

And when you do, what you find is a significant and alarmed dissatisfaction with the ability of priests trained in scripture alone not only to control themselves in the face of various temptations, but to take on the responsibilities of a parish.

Alcuin, Cassiodorus, Basil the Great, Gregory the Great, John Chrysostom, even Augustine–all of these writers were almost painfully aware of the dangers of “Greek learning.”   They looked to Vergil and saw images of debauchery and worried at them the way we worry about violence in video games.   They looked to “natural philosophy” and metaphysics and saw the seeds of doubt and heresy.

In the end, however, they also saw advantages, and too many of them to ignore.  They included increased personal self control among the priests and increased understanding of the effort needed to be good and willingness to undertake the effort.

Gregory especially, charged with the Papacy in one of those periods of chaos and corruption that made a lesser man like Celestine give up in despair and resign in terror, hammered home, time after time, the necessity of “Greek learning”  in the training of good and competent priests.

He instituted training in the liberal arts in priestly formation on as wide a basis as possible through his papacy, encouraging bishops to set up cathedral schools that taught the liberal arts not only to priests in training to but the local boys and girls of the aristocracy, and to men who wanted to live as secular scholars.  He encouraged the formation of schools and institutes that because the platform from which the universities developed into what we know now.  He provided funds and encouragement for monastery and convent schools (technically, cloistered women lived in monasteries, not convents, but–that’s another story).    He provided funds and support for the copying of manuscripts and the establishment of libraries, and encouraged bishops, abbots and abbesses to do the same. 

The result was the transformation of society in the West and the rebirth of that civilization that is distinctly Western. 

Of course, it’s always possible that this was entirely accidental, that the actual cause of the change in everything from the conduct of government to the reported conduct of individual human beings came about accidentally or at random or due to some cause that has nothing to do with Gregory’s educational reforms.

But here’s the thing.

It happened at least twice again.  With similar elements. With more than similar outcomes.

And I’ll get to that the next time I write.

I’ll also explain why AB is wrong to say that if I’m connecting Shakespeare and the Puritan revolution, I’m in the “wrong century.”

Ideational arcs take a lot longer than a century to work out, and that one started around the reign of Henry VIII and didn’t end until the Second Great Awakening.

I need tea.

Written by janeh

October 2nd, 2011 at 8:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Not About A Sex Change Operation

with one comment

I have departed from no field.  I have had a hell of a week.

That said, I should point out what ought to be obvious–to say that a liberal arts education (or any other kind) can’t make you good if you choose not to be is not the same thing as saying that a liberal arts education (or any other kind) can’t influence your choice to be good rather than otherwise, or that some forms of education aren’t better at doing that than others.

But I’ll get back to it when I can think straight again.

I need sleep.

Written by janeh

October 1st, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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