Feb 212009

Socrates wrote nothing. Plato more than com­pensated for this deficit, for nearly fifty years fashioning brilliant dialogs in which Socrates was the central figure. His early dialogs were written shortly after the events they depicted — maybe around 395 BC — and were intended for a critical audience which would have remem­bered Socrates. They portray Socrates conversing with the citizens of Athens, and describe the events surround­ing his trial and death. These dialogs typically end with­out concep­tual reso­lu­tion, without answers to the questions they pose. In this sense, the philo­sophical impact of Socrates is mainly destructive; he stings like a torpedo fish and his opponents slink away. On the other hand, the early dialogs also provide fascinating glimpses into the char­acter of Socrates — a character so compelling that we begin to understand why Plato could not bring himself to move on, why he built such a remark­able monu­ment to this man.

In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades crashes the party — drunk — and proposes a eulogy of Socrates.  He first compares him to the sileni to be found in the statuaries stalls, which when opened reveal figures of the gods inside.  He then describes the effect that Socrates, “with nothing but a few simple words”,  had upon his listeners:

Continue reading »

Feb 042009

We have had some rather vigorous discussions on platonism in our BA Seminar. Recently the discussion centered on the existence of “natural kinds” — the question, for instance, of whether biological species are arbitrary distinctions or grounded in reality. In a famous passage from the Phaedrus, Plato talks about dividing things into forms “following the objective articulation; we are not to attempt to hack off parts like a clumsy butcher. . .” (265e)  Most of our students, it seems, tend to be nominalists rather than realists [which is not meant to imply that they are clumsy butchers]. Thinking about platonism reminded me of the following cartoon — linked in a comment to our GRE post. It is from a nice site, xkcd: A Webcomic of Romance, Sarcasm, Math and Language.


Jan 182009

On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave an address to the Faculty of Science at the University of Regensburg entitled Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections. This address was widely reported by the press, especially the Pope’s remarks about Islam in which he cited the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus’ contention that violence is incompatible with the nature of God.  In the aftermath there were riots and demonstrations, diplomatic protests were lodged throughout the world, and a nun was killed in Mogadishu. Here is the Wikipedia description of the con­tro­versy.

More interesting to me, and not reported by the press much at all, is the rest of what Benedict had to say at Regensburg.  At risk of simplifying, I will pick out three major points:

1) Benedict claimed that Christianity must be viewed within the broader context of Greek philosophy. “This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history — it is an event which concerns us even today.”  (This is in response to what the Pope referred to as the “call for the dehellenization of Christianity”.)

2) He positioned the Church explicitly on the side of modern science. ”The scien­tific ethos, moreover, is. . .the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit.”

3) He called into question logical positivism — citing the unity of human reason and the “intrin­sically Platonic element” in science.

Spengler remarks somewhere that the Catholic Church is one of the few modern institutions that finishes its conversations. This should be reason enough, I think, to attend to the remainder of Benedict’s address. In my opinion, there is considerable philosophical sophistication in the Pope’s comments.  Even for those of us who are not Catholic, the Regensburg address provides a refreshing counterpoint to the flat land­scape of post­modernism.  I recommend it.


Jan 092009


To analyze Josquin is to confront, head on, the incommensur­ability between analytical systems and true artistic greatness.  There is a sense in which approaching him with modern tools of dissection is catching sand in a sieve; no tool of deeper analysis — of the sort favored by composers and theoreticians from the common practice period to the present — will ever yield an entirely satisfactory understanding of his music.  The analysis may indeed provide insight into the less fundamental levels of a works’ structure: motivic parsing may yield a facile understanding of the linear building blocks of a work, and the study of fugal techniques might explain, simply enough, the manner of their deployment. But all of this is on the surface. At the basic, “skeletal” level, an ordinary structural analysis turns up strangely blank. When we ask the most important question—the question of what gives the work meaning, direction, unity—the answer proves opaque.  The explanation why follows an obscure path outward, through questions that are technical, linguistic, and finally philosophical.

There are probably three fundamental paradigms through which the deeper structure of music can be approached.  These I will term, for the sake of this argument, the Schenkerian, the Schoenbergian, and the architectonic.  Each must be carefully turned over, its relevance to the music of the early Renaissance deciphered, and the rest, for the moment, thrown out.  From the remnants, and from a largely unguided study of the score of Josquin’s Missa L’Homme Armé Super Voces Musicales, I will attempt to construct a method which is technically and philosophically coherent with Josquin’s music.  This, hopefully, will itself provide further insight into the score.

Continue reading »

Dec 142008

Robert L. Horn is a philosopher, scholar, and teacher who has been an inspiration for several gene­rations of young philo­sophers. He grew up near Richmond, Indiana, earned his B.A. from Earlham College, his Th.D. from Union Theological Semi­nary, taught at Haver­ford Col­lege (1958-1961), Union Theological Seminary (1960-1966), and was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. In 1966 he was lured back to Earlham, where he taught for roughly thirty years. His area of specialization was in Kant, Hegel, and the Danish Hegelians who com­prised the context for Søren Kierkegaard. He also had a deep interest in Plato, especially in the illumi­na­tion of the dialogues by historical and archaeolo­gical research, as well as in Native American culture and as­tronomy.

It was with great pleasure that I learned, last year, of the publication of Robert Leslie Horn, Positivity and Dialectic: A Study of the Theological Method of Hans Lassen Mar­ten­sen, Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre and C. A. Rietzel, Copenhagen, 2007.  I think that Bob was probably pleased that it was published by Kierkegaard’s publisher, Rietzel. Here are some snippets from the editor’s introduction:

The present work was originally a dissertation for the degree of Th.D. at the Union Theological Semi­nary in New York City in 1969.  For years now, it has been known as a kind of insider’s tip among the small circle of Anglophone scholars interested in Danish Golden Age theology. Unfortunately, the work was never published, and its reception has until now been limited to those who personally knew the author or had access to it via the university microfilm dissertation service. . .

Although it was written more than twenty-five years ago, this text still today must be regarded as one of the leading works on Danish Golden Age philosophy and theology in the English language. . . .the present work can be said to anticipate a number of historically oriented studies of Søren Kierkegaard’s works that have been published over the last decade or so by leading scholars. . . .In this respect it is to be praised as an outstanding pioneering effort in the field.  However, unlike many other pioneering works, its scholarly standard is extremely high. . .

There can be no doubt that when this work comes to be more generally known by students and scholars alike, it will contribute immensely to our appreciation of the work of Hans Lassen Martensen. Moreover, it will help to put the philosophy and theology of Søren Kierkegaard in a new perspective. . .

There is much more that can be said about Bob Horn. It was an extraordinary privilege to study with him. I thought of Bob when I read Nathan’s post mentioning Schoen­berg’s comment to Karl Kraus: “I have per­haps learned more from you than one is permitted to learn if one wishes to remain independent.”


Dec 052008

In the literature on Schoenberg, there is surprisingly little material that deals comprehensively with his relation to the broader intel­lectual trends of fin-de-siècle Vienna.  We are provided with snap­shots, from this angle or that; the full picture remains elusive.

The contemporary interpretations we have of Schoenberg’s relation to his Viennese milieu fall, broadly speaking, into two categories.  These categories reflect two competing interpretations of his broader musical significance, which themselves correspond to two distinct and occasionally contradictory sides of Schoenberg’s nature.  These interpretations we may call the rational-technical, and the ethical-religious.  There are also, notably, a small number of works that attempt to synthesize these two approaches, but as of yet none do full justice to their subject. It is in this field—the consideration of Schoenberg in his sometimes paradoxical totality—that the richest work remains to be done.


The first school of interpretation, and that which was predominant for much of the mid-twentieth century, is the rational-technical.  This itself is intimately related to the school of technical analysis which tends to address itself exclusively to the linguistic and formal elements of Schoenberg’s musical language.

The rational-technical interpretation of Schoenberg might also be called the positivist interpretation.  Those who endorse this view of Schoenberg tend to see him, where they relate him to contemporary intellectual phenomena, predominantly in the light of the logical positivism of the Wiener Kreis, or Vienna Circle, a discussion group that grew up around the philosopher Moritz Schlick.  They also, concordantly, place considerable emphasis on Schoenberg’s relation to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the most important philosophical document of the period, and one by which the logical positivists set considerable store.

Continue reading »

Nov 012008

I am not much interested in the hidden intentions Shakespeare had in writing Macbeth, whether he was striving to portray the immortal torment of the human soul or merely to flatter the self-importance of an English King. I’ll leave that to the scholars and hecklers of the human spirit who can find nothing better to do than to dig around in the dust-bins of history. I am interested in the play as it stands. In particular, I am interested in the “weird sisters.” I think we should take the damn witches seriously.

Readers have scoffed for centuries at the three witches in Macbeth. But nowadays we are not satisfied with scoffing at witches, and we seek to go further. Nowadays our literary critics herald “the death of the author” as Nietzsche once spoke of “the death of God.” There is only the text, they say, and the doer behind the deed is a metaphysical fiction. But if skepticism is our value we should also show skepticism about our skepticism. We should be suspicious of the grandiose claims of Nietzsche and our contemporary literary critics and suspect, in the spirit of Mark Twain, that reports of the death of God and of authorship are greatly exaggerated. Authors and gods are tough things to kill. As Shakespeare wove the witches into Macbeth in diverse and subtle ways, gods and authors weave themselves into the fabric of our world. Perhaps in time we could “kill them,” but should we? Would life be better, more worth living, in a disenchanted world?

Continue reading »

Oct 162008

Philosophers have never felt comfortable speaking about silence. Why should they? At best such efforts are ironic; undertaking them literally is generally thought to involve performative contradictions, since the content of what we are trying to say contradicts the fact that we are saying it. When mystics claim to have an ineffable, or inexpressible, knowledge of ultimate realities, philosophers are naturally curious to hear more about it, but of course anything intelligible the mystics may say, including the very idea of the ineffable, is by definition not ineffable but expressed, and hence self-refuting. It seems that the best solution is for mystics to maintain total silence. But even then Hegel does not leave the mystics alone. He dismisses their silent knowledge as “the night in which all cows are black” – in other words, as a pre­sumptuous and ultimately empty achievement.

Trying to speak about silence is akin to the ontological task of trying to get something from nothing. Maybe God can create ex nihilo, but the rest of us find this hard to understand, and doing it is totally beyond us. Most philosophers cannot even bake a cake. Even ordinary people find it hard to argue with the principle ex nihilo, nihil fit (from nothing, nothing comes) — and when philo­sophers are asked to make something of nothing, they seem compelled to employ humor to effect their escape. For example, in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy P. L. Heath writes:

Continue reading »

Aug 152008

Raymond Smullyan is 89 years old, and lives across the Hudson in the Catskill mountains. A distinguished mathematician, logician, and philosopher, he has written over 20 books which have been translated into more than 17 languages. Smullyan is the Oscar Ewing Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Indiana University and played a prominent role in the history of modern logic. In 1957 he wrote an influential paper for the Journal of Symbolic Logic, called “Languages in Which Self-Reference is Possible,” showing that Gödel incom­pleteness holds for many formal systems more elementary than those considered by Gödel. Georg Kreisel described Smullyan’s Theory of Formal Systems as “the most elegant exposition of the theory of recursively enumerable (r.e.) sets in existence.” Smullyan is probably best-known, though, for his popular collections of logic puzzles. When my children were growing up, they spent many hours with The Lady or the Tiger. My own favorite is To Mock a Mockingbird, which is about combinatory logic and the lambda calculus, one of the foundations of computer science.

Continue reading »

Aug 082008

There is a story behind the title of this blog.  In 1897, Charles Peirce was invited by his friend William James to give a series of philosophy lectures in Cambridge, MA. Peirce prepared a daunting set of lectures on formal logic and, in December of 1897, sent an outline of these lectures to James. But James, sensing a mis­match between Peirce’s outline and the prospective audience, wrote back to Peirce begging him to reconsider the topic. “There are only three men,” James wrote, “who could possibly follow your graphs and relatives.” James implored Peirce to “be a good boy” and to think out a more popular plan; and James went on to make the rather unfortunate suggestion that “separate topics of a vitally important character would do perfectly well.”

Peirce was annoyed by this response (although it would have taken more than this to diminish his affection for James). He imme­diately set about revising his lectures, bestowing upon them the new title: Detached Ideas On Topics of Vital Importance. There was consider­able irony in this title, since Peirce thought there was little to be gained from either “detached ideas” or reasoning about “topics of vital impor­tance”. The latter was held up to particular ridicule in the draft of a new opening lecture that Peirce called “On Detached Ideas in General and on Vitally Important Topics” [1.649-677]. This draft is not available electron­ically, as far as I know, but it has influenced twentieth century Peirce scholarship through its inclusion in The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. [Hartshorne and Weiss, 1931] What follows is my own gloss on this text — with extended quotations to help convey the flavor of Peirce’s writing.

Continue reading »