Feb 252009

Artur Bieleki characterizes the Fantasie, Op. 49, as “one of the pinnacles of Chopin’s creative art” and according to Niecks “Chopin’s genius had now reached the most per­fect stage of its development, radiating with all the inten­sity of which its nature was capable.” The Fantasie begins with a mys­ter­ious march-like preamble, followed by an astonishing free-form expo­si­tion. The middle section consists of a beautiful cho­rale, which abruptly gives way to a recapit­ula­tion and a slight wisp of a coda. The music is wayward and power­ful. The performance is by Hannah:


Feb 232009

Alasdair MacIntyre’s recent book, Dependent Rational Animals, offers us a picture of the human situation as fundamentally dependent and derives from this a corresponding picture of the relationship between rationality and various virtues. In the last chapter he concludes that “we are able to become and to continue as practical reasoners only in and through our relationships to others,” and hence that, “rational enquiry is essentially social.” It is “not something that I undertake by attempting to separate myself from the whole set of my beliefs, relationships, and commitments and to view them from some external standpoint. It is something that we undertake from within our shared mode of practice” (MacIntyre 1999 156-157). While I ultimately share these conclusions, it is valuable to consider how some of MacIntyre’s specific arguments and discussions undermine this general insight. At various points he himself falls prey to what he calls “illusions of self-sufficiency” by supposing that critique requires transcendence, that accountable practical reasoners must be independent practical reasoners, and that speaking with “my own voice” must replace “my originally infantile desire to please others.” I will suggest that these assumptions are residues of a Kantian picture of reason and morality which are inappropriate to the essentially social nature of being dependent rational animals.

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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:

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Feb 152009

I was saddened last week to read this article, by another Senator, blaming the current economic crisis on the ‘ideology’ of Milton Friedman. I first read Free to Choose and Capitalism and Freedom when I was in my thirties, and I suspect that I was attracted to Milton Friedman as much by his evident humanity and kindness as by the lucidity of his thought.  Over the years, though, his ideas began to make more and more sense.  It may be that early acquaintance with religious hypocrisy had sensitized me to the recognition of poli­tical and economic hypocrisy — and Friedman was certainly tireless in exposing the latter — but there must also have been some other factor, some influence that led me to place a high value on human freedom.

I think people have to decide for themselves whether freedom is important — there are clearly argu­ments to be made against it.  But here is a brief introduction to one of its greatest advocates:

If you want to see more of Milton Friedman, this site contains videos of his famous PBS series.  


Feb 142009

by W. B. Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Feb 102009

One of our most distinguished Senators recently remarked to his colleagues that “the science is screaming at us.”  The behavior of several (climate) scientists this past week certainly seems to lend credence to this obser­vation. Here is an exchange between Michael Mann of the University of Pennsylvania and a Canadian journalist named Lawrence Solomon:

Original Solomon article.

Mann reply.

Solomon response.

A fair summary of the North and Wegman Reports, in my opinion, is given by Steve McIntyre here

A second incident involved the behavior of NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt in regard to Harry, an Antarctic weather station. Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado became embroiled in this controversy and gives his summary here: 

A Formal Response to Gavin Schmidt   (also, see his comment #2).

Original sources on this latter dispute can be found at RealClimate and ClimateAudit.  

Altogether, it was not a great week for civility in science. 


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 112009

So, Shelley and I went off to see Gran Torino this evening and we really liked it. This is not necessarily a recommendation. Shelley tends to like movies about grumpy, politically incorrect, old men while I seem to like everything Clint Eastwood does. But Ann Althouse, who strikes me as hard-headed and sensible, also gives Gran Torino a strong review: “I laughed, I cried — a great movie experience.”  Trailers are here.

At the end of the movie the audience just sat there.


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.

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Jan 072009

–by Mark Shields

I think we may need more choices than cause = CO2, cause = natural variability, and cause = unclear, for those who think there is warming; I don’t feel these options exhaust the interesting set of “causes”. I personally think, whether at any given moment the temperature trend is up or down, that the absolute level is higher than it would have been without mankind liberating large amounts of stored (chemical and nuclear) energy via Fossil Fuel, Fission and Fusion (FFFF). This concern is completely different than the concern about CO2 levels, and I think is an easier way to frame the pertinent question about what we should be doing about our use of energy.

These “FFFF” energy sources borrow from ancient reserves of potential energy and release this energy in the present timeframe at much higher rates than would have been the case otherwise (without human participation in the cycle). In contrast, rapidly cycled solar energy flux captured in the form of wind, solar, hydro-electric power (and even wood heating), is solar energy temporarily forced to do human directed work before being largely transformed back into heat within timeframes comparable to those in which mother nature would have done the same.

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Jan 042009

The following chart, taken from econphd.net, is based upon 2002 data and shows GRE scores for various academic fields of graduate study:

Three things strike me about this chart. First, the total scores for the scientific disciplines are consistently higher than those for the humanities and social sciences; second, philosophy has the highest total score of the non-scientific disciplines; and third, the low ranking of education (and public administration) calls into question the seriousness of our culture — and its sustainability.


Dec 182008

Which of the following most closely reflects your current views on climate change?

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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.

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Dec 012008

Hannah will be playing with violinist Robin Scott in Weill Hall, Sunday afternoon, December 14 at 3:00 PM. They are playing the Schubert “Duo” Sonata in A, D.574.

Shelley and I are planning to go.  If you are in New York, please come.  It should be a nice afternoon of music; on the same program with Hannah and Robin, Lisa Stepanova and Dina Nesterenko are playing the Beethoven Violin Sonata in G, Op. 96, and the Cha Dan Trio is playing the Beethoven Trio in G, Op. 1 no. 2. 

Unfortunately, it costs money — tickets are available here.


Update:  It was indeed a nice afternoon.  Here are the first two movements of the “Duo” — recorded a month or so earlier: