Reasoning, evidence, and/or not miracles

This week at Plato’s Footnote, Massimo Piglucci posted a brief discussion on how the use of probability reasoning, especially of the Bayesian variety, can be used to dispel contemporary myths such as anti-vaccination paranoia, trutherism concerning the events of 9/11/01, and bitherism concerning Former President Obama.

https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2017/01/16/anatomy-of-a-frustrating-conversation/

 

The comments thread became an object lesson in just how difficult it is to discuss such matters with those who hold mythic beliefs – every silly conspiracy theory was given vent on it. I myself felt it useful to briefly engage an apologist for miracle belief, with someone misrepresenting the argument against such belief as put forth by David Hume, referenced in Piglucci’s article. I would like to present and preserve that conversation here, because it is representative of the discussions on the comment thread, but also representative of the kinds of discussions reasonable people generally have with those so committed to their beliefs that they are open to neither reasoning nor evidence against them.

 

Asserting that Hume begins by declaring miracles simply impossible (and thus pursuing a circular argument), a commenter handled jbonnicerenoreg writes:

 

“The possibility of something should be the first step in a n argument, since of something is impossible there is no need to argue about it. For example, Hume says that miracles are impossible so it is not necessary to look at a particular miracle probability. I believe Hume’s argument does more than the reasoning warrants. ”

 

My reply:

That isn’t Hume’s argument at all. Hume argues that since miracles violate the laws of nature, the standard of evidence for claims for their occurrence is considerably higher than claims of even infrequent but natural events (such as someone suddenly dying from seemingly unknown causes – which causes we now know include aneurisms, strokes, heart failure, etc. etc.). Further, the number of people historically who have never experienced a miracle far outweighs the number who claim they have, which suggests questions of motivations to such reports. Finally, Hume remarks that all religions have miracle claims, and there is no justification for accepting the claims of one religion over any other, in which case we would be left with having to accept all religions as equally justified, which would be absurd, given that each religion is embedded with claims against all other religions.

 

Hume doesn’t make a probability argument, but his argument suggests a couple; for instance, given the lack of empirical evidence, and the infrequency of eye-witness accounts (with unknown motivations), the probability of miracles occurring would seem to be low. At any rate, I don’t remember Hume disputing the logical possibility of miracles, but does demand that claims made for them conform to reason and empirical experience.

 

jbonnicerenoreg,: “If you witness Lazurus rise from the dead, and if you know he was correctly entombed, then your evidence is sense experience–the same as seeing a live person. Hume’s standard of evidence is always about historical occurrences.”

 

My reply:

If such an experience were to occur, it might be considered ’empirical’ to the one who has the experience; but the report of such an experience is not empirical evidence of the occurrence, it is mere hearsay.

 

Unless you want to claim that you were there at the supposed raising of Mr. Lazarus, I’m afraid all we have of it is a verbal report in a document lacking further evidentiary justification, for a possible occurrence that supposedly happened 2000 years ago – which I think makes it an historical occurrence.

 

And no, Hume’s standard of evidence is clearly not simply about historical occurrences, although these did concern him, since his bread-and-butter publications were in history. But if miracles are claimed in the present day, then they must be documented in such a way that a reasonable skeptic can be persuaded to consider them. And it would help even more if they were repeatable by anyone who followed the appropriate ritual of supplication. Otherwise, I feel I have a right to ask, why do these never happen when I’m around?

 

7+ billion people on the planet right now, and I can’t think of a single credible report, with supporting evidence, of anyone seeing someone raised from the dead. Apparently the art of it has been lost?

 

Look, I have a friend whose mother died much too young, in a car crash, 25 years ago. Could you send someone over to raise her from the dead? I suppose bodily decomposition may make it a little difficult, but surely, if the dead can be raised they should be raised whole. Zombies with their skin falling off are difficult to appreciate, aesthetically.

 

jbonnicerenoreg,: “I suggest that if you can get over yourself, please read Hume carefully and comment with quotes. I will be glad to answer any questions you may have about the logic of the argument.”

 

My reply:

Well, that you’ve lowered yourself to cheap ad hominem once your argument falls apart does not speak much for your faith in your position.

 

However, I will give you one quote from Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X, “On Miracles”:

 

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: he weighs the opposite experiments: he considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.

( http://www.bartleby.com/37/3/14.html )

 

I think Massimo and I are reading such a remark rather fairly, whereas you preferred to bull in with something you may have found on some Apologists web-site, or made up whole cloth. It was you who needed to provide quotes and reasoning, BTW, since your counter-claim is opposed to the experience of those of us who actually have read Hume.

 

By the way, I admit I did make a mistake in my memory of Hume – He actually is making a probability argument, quite overtly.

 

jbonnicerenoreg,: “A beautiful quote and one which I hope we all take seriously put into practise.

Hume is arguing against those who at that time would say something like “miracles prove Christianity is true”. You can see that his argument is very strong against that POV. However, he never takes up the case of a person witnessing a miracle. Of course, that is because “observations and experiments” are impossible in history since the past is gone and all we have is symbolic reports which you call “hearsay”. My congratlations for taking the high road and only complaining that I never read Hume!”

 

My reply:

Thank you for the congratulations, I’m glad we could part on a high note after reaching mutual understanding.

 

Notice that jbonnicerenoreg really begins with a confusion between the possible and the probable.  One aspect of a belief in myths is the odd presumption that all things possible are equally probable, and hence ‘reasonable.’  I suppose one reason I had forgotten Hume’s directly probabilistic argument was because probabilistic reasoning now seems to me a wholly necessary part of reasoning, to the point that it doesn’t need remarking.  Bu, alas, it does need remarking, time and again, because those who cling to myth always also cling to the hope – nay, insistence – that if there is something possible about their precious myth, then it ought to be given equal consideration along with what is probable. given the nature and weight of available evidence.  Notice also that jbonnicerenoreg tries to sneak, sub-rosa, as it were, the implicit claim that eye-witnesses to miracles – such as the supposed authors of the Bible – ought to be given credence as reporting an experience, rather than simply reporting a hallucination, or a fabricating an experience for rhetorical or other purposes.  Finally, notice that when I play on and against this implicit claim, jbonnicerenoreg tries an interesting tactic – he surrenders the problem of historical reportage, while continue to insist that witnessing miracles is still possible (which if verified would mean we would need to give greater weight to those historic reports after all!).  But there again, we see the confusion – the possible must be probable, if one believes the myth strongly enough.

 

And if we believe in fairies strong enough, Tinkerbelle will be saved from Captain Hook.

 

This won’t do at all.  The bare possibility means nothing.  Anything is possible as long as it doesn’t violate the principle of non-contradiction.  A squared circle is impossible; but given the nature of the space-time continuum posited by Einstein, a spherical cube may not only be possible but probable, presuming a finite universe.  But the probability of my constructing or finding an object I can grasp in my hand, that is both a sphere and a cube is not very high, given that we exist in a very small fragment of Einstein’s universe, and Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry suit it better than applied Relativity on a universal scale.  All things in their proper measure, in their proper time and place. 

 

But the problem with miracles is that they are never in their proper time and place, to the extent that one wonders what their proper time and place might be, other than in works of fiction.  Why raise Lazarus from the dead if he’s just going to die all over again?  Why raise Lazarus instead of the guy in the grave next to his?  Why do this in an era and in a place lacking in any sophisticated means of documentary recording?  And why would a divine being need to make such a show of power?    Wouldn’t raw faith be enough for him, must he have eye-witnesses as well? 

 

And of course that’s the real problem for jbonnicerenoreg.  For miracles to achieve anything that looks like a probability, one first has to believe in god (or in whatever supernatural forces capable of producing such miracles).  There’s no other way for it.  Without that belief, a miracle is bare possibility and hardly any probability at all.   And I do not share that belief.

 

The known unknown on the internet

This was written after reading an interesting article by Firmin deBrabander, “Shame on You,” at the Aeon website. *

 

deBrabander uses the perspective of French sociologist and philosopher Michel Foucault to discuss some current cultural formations arising in and because of the internet and its ‘social media.’

 

Foucault was concerned with the nature of power in modern capitalist society. But he held that power is diffuse and not centralized. We learn to regulate ourselves in a society in which our personalities are formed by society, a society in which even our darkest or most cherished secrets are actually available for view and review in particular circumstances.  This creates a web of relations throughout which power, as the effort to control behavior (of ourselves and others) is disseminated through language and shared interests.  One essential aspect of such power relationship has to do with how we seek to be seen, and how we seek to see others.

 

We may be watched by the state (probably are), but first we are watched by parents, peers, total strangers – your neighbors, the people you meet in a shop or on a bus, your congregation at church (if you attend), etc., etc. However, society has a hierarchical structure, so naturally those who benefit most from social strictures on behavior will be those with money, influence, or authority.

 

So what deBrabander is asking is how the internet has effected the diffusion of power, normalizing this interplay with what one might call socialized privacy, and how that generated echo chambers leading to a disunity of communication in society as a whole: “The result,” deBrabander remarks, “is a growing conformity within camps, as well as a narrowing of the shared space for understanding and dialogue between them.” And this seems clearly to benefit those with money, influence, or authority.

 

Self regulation is essential to any society; however in the current environment, you are almost guaranteed to reveal some, perhaps all, of these things to some one; if you do so on the internet – which is always a public forum, no matter how we pretend otherwise – that creates problems, some of which deBrabander discusses. (Although I think there are more as well.)

 

In some sense everything about us is ‘shameful,’ yet everything must be ‘confessed.’ And we seem to be constructing a culture around this double imperative.

 

Shame exists as a social function,helping to generate a sense of self with the agency to determine seemingly hidden values and revealed values. However the sense of shame is indoctrinated by parents and peers, and in differing social groups will determine the shamefulness of differing values. Thus anything about an individual may prove shameful in some circumstance. However, in the globalized social media, small groups appear to form around what the participants may think are private revelations that are in fact entirely public. If we take the presumed privacy as a means of protecting the hidden, then everything hidden in the many different groups becomes an object of potential shame. However, in order to participate in any group, one has to reveal what is hidden, even what the person feels ought to be hidden, and so confess. However since there is no real privacy on the internet, what is confessed is done so publicly. , This creates a web of what is hidden from some groups but revealed in others, but available to all in most circumstances,, and in other circumstances, available to those with the proper technology. This web supports the social status quo, and in a hierarchical society especially those at the top of the hierarchy with the wherewithal to leverage technological access to all information in the web.

 

It’s pointless to get paranoid in this situation; however it helps, in learning to live with it, to recognize that it is, and what it is.

 

To see this more concretely, imagine a professional football player; last year he signed a lucrative ten year contract, this despite his knowledge (known only to his family) that his mother died of Huntington’s chorea, which means that there is a 50% chance that he will likely not be able to fulfill that contract.

 

So, he doesn’t want to confess this to his team. But at some point, reluctantly, he confesses to a doctor, to receive proper diagnosis. It’s positive. So he secretly joins a support group with fellow sufferers, which is primarily concerned with confessing the kinds of physical and emotional suffering the condition causes.

 

Meanwhile, on his off-hours he pursues an interest in gardening, particularly flowers. But he doesn’t want his teammates to know this, because they all say such an interest is gay. That isn’t true, of course; but just as it happens, he is gay – and he doesn’t want his teammates to know this either. However, he certainly wants those who attend his favorite gay bar to know this, since that’s the only way he can make relationships at that bar, to which he goes after spending time at a local horticulture club. But he doesn’t mention this at the bar, because it’s a leather bar, and flowers are considered fey there.

 

Meanwhile, his alcoholic brother has sobered up thanks to the intervention of a fundamentalist church, and insists they attend some meetings there together, which he does to support his brother (who doesn’t know he’s gay), despite the fact that he’s an atheist, which only his gay friends and his fellow horticulturalists know about him.

 

Now it might be said to him, that these various social groups in which he participates put him in a tense and precarious situation, which can be ameliorated considerably if he would only confess all of his issues to everyone involved. But of course while his sense of shame in certain groups would be alleviated somewhat, he would be effectively making himself a focus of attention, some of which he would rather not have (especially if his team decides that his Huntington’s chorea invalidates his contract).

 

But here’s the problem. On the internet, under various pseudonyms, he begins participating on sports site; on sites for sufferers of Huntington’s chorea; on gay sites; on horticulture sites; on Christian sites for the support of families with someone suffering alcoholism; on atheist sites. On each site he confesses some aspect of himself and his situation he thinks he’s keeping hidden from others – from different others in the different groups in which he participates.

 

But he’s not. That myth is maintained by the acceptance of the pseudonyms he uses, and the fact that most of these sites do not communicate with each other. But in fact all his pseudonyms can be traced back to him; everything about him can be known.

 

The ease of access to the internet, the rapidity with which we can post on it, the ‘friending’ and ‘liking’ on many sites, the seemingly protective allowance for using pseudonyms, ‘handles’ and the like, have misled us into believing we have control over our presence on the web. That’s not true. To socialize at all we surrender something of ourselves to the groups we address. But on the internet, we may end up surrendering everything about ourselves to people we don’t know, and don’t even know exist. Remember, even without posting on the ‘net, our browsing is tracked to provide us with advertisement ‘recommendations.’ These are provided by programs; but the information can be accessed by the advertisers themselves. So there is no invisible presence on the ‘net. We enter it revealed, already ‘confessed’ by the websites we visit.

 

And as the construction of the surveillance state continues apace, there may be a time that everything we’ve revealed on the ‘net will be registered in a data-base in some government agencies main-frame.

 

Again, there’s no point in getting paranoid, because in contemporary society, there’s no way to avoid these interactions. But one should always post on the ‘net prepared for the consequences of public exposure.

 

—–

 

* https://aeon.co/essays/how-baring-and-sharing-online-increases-social-conformity

I  noted this article through a posting at Plato’s Footnote.*  The above includes a comment made there: and since posting this, I’ve felt impelled to write another comment, which I expand on here,  discussing some of the possible motivations for this problem:

 

In a society with few naturally formed communities, such as one used to find in homogenous small towns, we are ever trying to find communities of interest to which to join.  These can be support groups, hobby-interest groups, religious groups, fan clubs, sports clubs, or just the neighborhood bar.  In the process of becoming a member of such a community, one chooses what to reveal and what to conceal about one’s life as a whole.  This will often take on something of the nature of a confession, while involving anxiety something in the nature of a sense of shame concerning what is not revealed, although this is always a matter of degrees.  An alcoholic in AA is certainly confessing, but in a presumably safe environment.  A recovering alcoholic attending a book club ‘confesses,’ even professes a love of books, but may feel too much anxiety about his/her alcoholism to reveal anything about that.  However, in the process of attending AA he or she might discover someone who likes books; attending the book club might lead to discovery of someone else with a similar issue, and friendships are formed; each community grows tighter together.

But on the internet, the communities we join, while still needing professions, confessions, and silence on secrets, social interactions necessarily change.  Our recovering alcoholic begins posting on an AA oriented website.  The conversations involved are for all those to see, not just recovering alcoholics.  The other participants to discussion are unknown to our poster.  Some of them may not even be recovering alcoholics, they may be trolls trying to attract attention to their own site to accumulate ‘clicks’ for sales to advertisers. Meanwhile, at the book-club site, where the participants are required to provide a list of their favorite books, our recovering alcoholic unthinkingly includes the Big Book as a favored text.  Soon, it goes the rounds ‘Are you an alcoholic?’  ‘I think Fakename21 is an alcoholic!’  ”My father was a drunk, I hated him!’  ‘Why don’t you show some will-power?’ etc. etc.  If our protagonist wishes to remain in the online book-club. suddenly we see a confession concerning his/her alcoholism.  It might be made angrily, or sorrowfully, or, if done with rhetorical finesse, will earn responses of approbation: ‘good thing you joined AA, keep it up!’

But the fact remains that what seemed to be a secret has now become a confession in an entirely different community than the one it was intended for.  And further both the AA site postings and the book club postings are now public property.

Such issues are magnified ten-fold on ‘social media’ sites like Facebook.  There, the communities are shallower, and less grounded in shared interests, and the public access more open, less controlled, yet frequently unnoticed by those posting to their page.  They think their sharing with family and ‘friend’ (whom they’ve never met or actually talked with).  But their audience may include trolls, their employers, sex predators, government agencies, and certainly includes advertisers tracking their browsers.

So I don’t think its largely fame or attention such people are looking for, although that may be part of it.  Frankly, I think loneliness is what drives most of them to the internet.  It is ever harder to find real communities to join in one’s vicinity, and of course joining those requires the effort to get out, drive the car or take a bus, get jostled in a crowd, etc. all the unpleasantness of real human content – the internet is so much more convenient.

That tells me that something has changed, is still changing here.  I can’t say that it’s a bad thing, I may be a grumpy old man concerning such matters.  But it doesn’t look like much of a good thing over all.


Writer’s block

…so I haven’t been writing much at all lately.  I haven’t been reading much, either.  Mostly I just watch episodes of old TV shows or listen to old songs, or putter around the home, attempting not to clean anything – every layer of dust marks its era.

 

We had a shake-up at work recently, but while it didn’t lose me any money, it did lose me some prestige, and the job’s taking more time than it has, while yet being ever more boring….

 

Then of course, there’s politics.  Trump is worthy of satire – and I’ll post some of my own soon – but the very fact that he could be the candidate of a major party in the US is shameful.  I suppose one can fear him as a kind of Mussolini of the digital media age; or laugh at him as reality TV clown pretending to be a politician; or gloat over his demolition of the Republican Party; or hate him for his tastelessly open bigotry.   But his very presence on the national stage reminds me of how dumbed down, uninformed, anti-intellectual, bigoted, unreasonable and unreasoning people there are in this country – not just among the voters, but among the politicians who managed to generate the conditions that have allowed this walking stink bomb onto center stage, but also among the media that has pandered to this fool.   This country has been working its way down into a ditch out of which it can never dig out, for quite some time, but this is the lowest Its gotten by far.

 

But it’s ben a downer couple of months, for sure.  A friend of mine, suffering from psychological difficulties has also recently developed physical issues.  My dog is going blind.  The shake-up at work has left the future uncertain.  I don’t like the used car I recently bought, but am stuck with it now.  (“It seemed like a good idea at the time” – oh, that fatal judgment on our supposed powers of judgment.  And on some of the websites I read, I seem to be seeing the same discussions with the same arguments ad nauseum.   Can’t we find something new to say?  Can’t I?

 

I should also mention my last two major writing efforts, my posts on Hegel here, and the essay I wrote about Heidegger on http://heideggerpolitics.wordpress.com.  The Heidegger essay was a bit of a downer because it concerned Germany in the 1930s, and that’s always a downer.  But the Hegel essay had an odd lingering depressive effect – partly because I was unable to complete the series, but also because as I posted it, I grew saddened, and somewhat frustrated, because I know that Hegel was one of the great writers in philosophy of Modernity, even when largely wrong, and he has certainly been one of the most important.   But the fact is that almost nobody in America reads him anymore, not only his texts but his influence have largely been forgotten, the kinds of lively discussions one could have about him are all quieted, and while some of this is just the general movement of history in one direction rather than another, what is especially upsetting about it is that this is not really a result in the trends of the history of philosophy, so much as it is the result of the trending toward a post-literate culture.  People have lost interest in reading difficult texts.  As far as the texts of the past are concerned, we’re essentially a ‘Cliff’s Notes’ culture – that is, a culture of interminable redactions, simplifications, and half-baked generalizations about what someone said about what someone else said, about some book written by someone or other sometime when.

 

Yes, it is true that I am somewhat waxing nostalgic for the age 0f the book.  But it is also true that the post-literate culture has allowed the anti-literate, the anti-intellectual, the proudly ‘know-nothing’ to thrive – indeed, become the presidential candidate of the Republican Party.

 

At times like this, I wonder – what good is writing?  What good in speaking?  why even think?

 

So anyway, as must be clear here, I am suffering a relapse into chronic depression.  And that makes sitting down to write very difficult.  It’s simpler to sit and stare at a blank piece of paper.  Eventually, you know, the mind projects patterns where none can be found.  I have found great entertainment staring at blank monitor screens and letting the pixels cause my optic nerves to generate illusions.   Perhaps one of these illusions will prove to be that I have written something interesting.  We’ll see.

 

 

Problems with public discourse again (and again, and again…)

Recently, people have been been wondering about the clamor for correct speech, from both the Left and the Right. There are just some things we’re not supposed to talk about in certain quarters – whether this is a discussion of a rape narrated in a work of literature in an English studies course, or about the non-Christian deism or skepticism among the writers of the US Constitution. People are just too damn sensitive these days. We forget that an honest public discussion on shared concerns should deal with the realities of life’s experience, and the disappointments of history, however harsh. This is a problem that bubbles up time and again in American public discourse. America has been a Puritan culture since… well, since the Puritans first landed here. (They were not escaping the religious intolerance of England, they were running from the religious toleration they found in the Netherlands.)

Puritanism, need not be claimed by only one ideology. It is a rigid attitude toward social behavior, demanding that what one person, or one group, sees as the right and the good ought to be accepted by everyone and abided by. So there are many forms of puritanism, across the cultural and political spectrum. Since it stems from a ‘will to be right,’ which is endemic among those belonging to cultures open enough to engender serious disagreements, it will keep rearing its ugly head again and again, causing pain to those successfully repressed, and push-back of various rebellious spirits – including competing forms of puritanism.

But while we should always increase our understanding of the problem, that doesn’t mean we will ever be able to rectify it. The variable factors are too many, too historically entrenched, and too many people are invested is the most troublesome of them.

Two things I’d like to note. First, of course, the obvious – all societies engage in discourse management and limitation. ‘We don’t talk about such things;’ ‘a proper lady/gentleman would never use such language;’ ‘say that again, child, and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap!’ Such cautions were common in my youth. The free speech movement of the ’60s led to their eventual disuse; but they’ve obviously been replaced by other cautions, motivated by different interests. Were these eventually discarded, they would simply be replaced. Social interactions, to proceed smoothly, must have some sense of direction, and of boundaries that cannot be crossed. Some of these boundaries are rather obvious in a given context: A white supremacist skinhead should probably not spew his racism when he’s in the midst of bloods in the hood. Knowing such boundaries and maneuvering through them is part of the skill of speaking with others. An individual is his/her first censor, and should be.

Second: America doesn’t have only one culture, and never has. The very hope for one was lost with the Louisiana Purchase. Throughout the 19th century, when people wrote of ‘American culture,’ they were actually talking about the culture of the Eastern seaboard. By the 1920s, this myth became harder to sustain, as emergent cities in the West began defining themselves, while regional politicians began stoking grudges born in the Civil War against Eastern intellectualism, big banks in NYC, and the ever out of touch Washington politician. Meanwhile new media were developing to record and preserve (and market) the culture of quite limited communities – think of the blues and early country recordings from various locales in the South. But also think of the Western films that memorialized the fundamental differences between the Eastern and Western historical experience. Finally (but only for now), think of how the influx of immigrants in the late 19th/early 20th centuries effectively redefined many of the cities of the Eastern seaboard (and, later, elsewhere as well). The 1926 might find one reading The New Yorker, but just as likely, given one’s heitage, Der Groyser Kundes.

In the ’60s, which saw television become our major media for information and politics, combined with the rapid increase in the number of colleges, all sharing a similar curriculum, and the ride of national political movements, Americans effectively deluded themselves into believing there was a national culture. That could not be sustained. The social consequences of the national political movements included much good, but also considerable fragmentation along regional, political, economic, ethnic lines, but also along lines of locally generated sub-cultures, some cultures of choice. Now when people refer to an ‘American culture,’ they are really only talking about the culture projected on television, since TV is the only source of information that most Americans share. Unfortunately, all TV seems to deliver is further delusion, much of its ‘information’ of questionable quality and uncertain factual basis.

The fragmentation is an on-going process – the tendency appears to be a function of Modernity, and we find it in play during the Reformation, as Protestant churches splintered off from each other due to (often violent) doctrinal disputes. This fragmentation is thus an on-going historical process; groups are formed in opposition to other groups, coming together over a perceived sharing of values, only for its members to discover that they do not share the same motivations, and are not unanimous in their interpretation of those values. The group’s discourse management strategies break down, boundaries get crossed, and group members break off to form new groups, and so on.

‘Well,’ the question may be asked, ‘why aren’t we simply a bunch of mutually suspicious, antagonistic tribes at this point?’ Well, maybe we are. However, we have, at crucial historical moments, developed bureaucratic institutions and organizations that suffer from considerable inertia; and these institutions and organizations are really what bind most of us together.

(For instance, I prefer Bernie, but I’ll probably have to vote for Hillary in November, because I share more values and interests with the Democratic organization than the Republican one, and the institution of the US government remains relatively stable, even though apparently incapable of needed reform. But hopefully it would prove resistant to Trumpian subversion as well, should the worst come to pass….)

I here think of the countless essays I have read over the past 45 years that have deployed phrases like ‘we need to,’ ‘we ought to,’ we really should,’ concerning hopes of political, social, or economic reform. Not a single one of those essays actually contributed to political, social, or economic change.

I think it was maybe the late ’90s, when I was reading an essay insisting that ‘we need to do (x).’ when I suddenly realized: ‘no, we don’t need to do anything – it might be good to do (x); but since we don’t need to do it, and most people seem not inclined to do it, well, so it goes.’

Around that time I had another unhappy insight, into the nature of ‘the crisis of contemporary capitalism.’ There is no crisis of contemporary capitalism. Workers get screwed, lose their jobs, suffer in poverty – and that’s exactly what is needed to keep capitalism working. So was the recession of ’08, and the lame attempts at amelioration. Unemployment is built into the system; poverty is built into the system; uncertainty is built into the system. Social injustice is part of the American economy. Some use race to leverage this injustice, some gender, some age, some class, some education – but some prejudice must be formed and deployed to leverage injustice in the system, because the injustice is a necessary function of the system. One can no more imagine a capitalist economy without social injustice than one can imagine a species of tree without bark.

That means that social injustice cannot be corrected by sweeping movements without actual revolution; it has to be corrected incrementally, on a case by case basis, even where the case involves collectives. John L. Lewis, when asked why he was not a communist, replied (paraphrasing from memory), ‘Communists want utopia; I just want to make things better.’

It is a core problem with so-called Social Justice Warriors, or scientisimists, or religious zealots, or the Tea Partiers, etc. – that they honestly believe that if we all just get together and get our heads right, the world will spin in the desired direction.

That’s not true, and it’s not how history happens.

Read instead Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.” King uses “we must” phraseology in only one paragraph, and it is not a call to social change, but a moral directive to those who already agree with his basic project. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

There’s no point in asking people to change. They have to want to change. Americans are unhappy; but they do not want to change. That’s the real problem here.

I’m not simply trying to say something about our economic system (although economic considerations underlie many of the issues here discussed). My point is that ‘what ails our discourse?’ is a question for those of us who believe that public discourse ‘ails’ – that the shared interchange of information and persuasion has developed obstacles to communication and shared agreements leading toward collective action. But I suggest that most people do not perceive any ailment here at all, and are not only content with the current universe of discourse, but actually find it socially useful in a number of ways (including economically).

Any time we are considering a seeming problem in a given society, it helps to ask three questions: 1. Do the people involved perceive a problem? 2. If they do, what are they willing to do about it? 3. If they don’t, or are not willing to do anything about it, then could this ‘problem’ actually be built into the social processes that keep the society functioning? In other words, a) it may not be causing anyone discomfort despite its inefficacy as a process, and b) even should it in some ways cause discomfort or even harm, it may be satisfying in other ways that keeps the given society functioning.

In short: on disinterested observation, it may appear to be a problem; but once all interests are taken into account, it may not be a real problem at all, or at least one that people are quite willing to live with.

Finally, I referenced Dr. King’s “I have a dream,” because that was a public address that really did contribute to a moment of social change. But how? At the time, everyone knew that change was in the wind – it had already begun with Brown v. Board of Education, and the Alabama marches, and it was not to be stopped. All King did was to provide it with a focus, a lightning rod of imagery expressing the fundamental hope that his audience held dear, while reminding those on the fence of the issue of the justice embedded in that hope. He doesn’t talk about what we should do – his audience already knows what they should do; he is telling us ‘now is the time to do it,’ and reminding us of the future it can lead us to.

In the condition of increasing fragmentation in 2016, it’s not clear that an address like King’s is possible or would have anything like the same effect. We do not know that change in a given direction is possible; we do not share the same hopes or dream the same future anymore. There is really no ‘we’ here to share this knowledge or these hopes. or take action based on these. Just a whole bunch of differing ‘us’ against ‘them’ tribes.

Unfortunately – most people, though they complain, seem quite willing to live with that.

Language, innovation, history; in philosophy

A blogger writing under the handle Philosopher Eric, recently replied to a comment at Plato’s Footnote ( https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/platos-weekend-suggestions-4/comment-page-2/#comments ), “(…) my actual theory is that meaning doesn’t just exist as consciousness, but rather as the positive/negative sensations which consciousness presumably produces for a given subject to experience. Thus for a cat in a world without humans, “pain” would be something meaningful to it. While you have no ability to logically assert that this definition of meaning happens to be “wrong (…)” – which, of course happens to be mistaken, as his interlocutor pointed out. (Much of what follows is my own commentary on the discussion.)

The hard fact is that we cannot change the of philosophy (less so of science) willy-nilly simply by thinking matters through and coming up with some Great Idea that will answer everybody’s questions, and set all matters right. Further, the language we have with which to communicate just is as it is; it may be highly specialized in specific fields of discourse; but it is not open to sudden change by sheer will. Innovations in language require time, effort, but most importantly community. Language is a shared practice; if you can’t get others on board to your personal language usage, you might as well keep a journal of your unique and special proclamations – and burn every day’s entry upon completion, because nobody’s ever going to read it besides your self. (As Eric’s interlocutor, Daniel Kaufman, noted, “While you are free to invent a word, argument by stipulation is rarely very persuasive.”)

I see this misstep frequently from people who believe they have discovered The True Philosophy (their own or another’s), and are convinced that if readers don’t get what they are saying, or read it in contextual ways they won’t allow, or expect clarification in commonly understood conversational terms, that there is something wrong with the readers, or with the conventions of normal conversation, or with commonly understood language usage.

Language does not function communicably that way. Language has never functioned that way. Language cannot function that way. Language is a communal system of verbal signification that came before us, prepared us in our youth, and will speak eulogies over our graves.

Of course language changes over time; But this takes concerted responses by groups of people engaged in determined efforts to do so. It may be a collection of academic professionals, it may be an ethnic minority unsatisfied with expected norms, it may be poets or novelists looking for better ways to express themselves – but it’s always a group, it is never an individual, and it is never achieved through a top-down injunction. Esperanto failed, Positivist purification failed, puritanical grammarians have failed – all efforts to ‘clarify’ language from some supposed position of wisdom ‘outside of language’* will inevitably fail. Language just is, in the first instance, what we speak; and what we speak, if it is to communicate, must respect the expectations of our audience. Refusal here leads to isolation, not to superior authority or winning arguments.

As to the question, whether ‘pain’ is ‘meaningful’ to a cat: here the distinction between semiotics and philosophy of language may be useful. If a cat steps on a thorn and thereby reacts in a manner attempting riddance of the invasive object, we can indeed say (semiotically) that its sensations have significance – the sensation signifies the invasion into the body of the foreign material, as immediate response to the thorn as sign of threat, calling forth the ‘ridding’ response.

That doesn’t make it ‘meaningful’ in the semantic sense, since this requires an ability to formulate the experience conceptually for verbal expression.

This also illuminates the issues of whether there is inherent meaning to the universe or to life. The universe is filled with phenomena that can be responded to as signs – but only by living beings, since that is in the nature of life, that it is responsive to the stimuli it encounters as significant to its survival in one way or another.

But if meaning is a function of language, then only an intelligent species capable of language (and humans are the only species we know to be so capable) will be able to ‘make’ or ‘find’ or other wise articulate meaning, for meaning to be understood.

And it has to be understood, by those of like intelligence, in order to be communicated; else-ways we are spinning wheels in isolation. That may make someone feel good about themselves or their ideas; but it won’t effect anyone else’s thought, nor the common language in which these thoughts are communicated.

Bottom line: If one reader doesn’t understand you, that may be his or her problem. If multiple readers do not quite ‘get it’ or read it differently than you intended, then it is best to rethink your writing strategies. Believe me; I been there; I know.

And if you have something truly new to contribute to science or to philosophy, or to some other field of inquiry, find some way to express it within the many streams of discourse that we inherit in our history. Innovation is difficult, but not impossible. The question is whether you can attract others to it in way that is meaningful for them, given that they share the same history.

Or start a religion; but don’t expect others to flock to your church. You may be your only congregation. That might not be a bad thing – you can always save yourself. But others might think it more reasonable to find traditions in which they feel comfortable – and there’s nothing wrong with that either. **

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*There is no ‘outside of language’ for the human animal; hence no position of pure authority from which to adjudicate and purify language usage.

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** It is said that, after his enlightenment, the Buddha met a Hindu yogi on the road, and explained all that he had learned.  The yogi listened patiently;  saying something like, “very well for you,”  he walked away.  The Buddha thus learned that his message was only for those who wanted it.

Philosophy and its hope (2)

In my previous post, I wrote on the question of whether philosophy per se, but especially professional philosophy, needed to address the concerns of the communities in which it appears.  Here I will more specifically address the historical problems professional philosophy has experienced by not addressing such concerns.  This includes the infamous fracture between what is known as ‘Anglo-American’ or Analytic, philosophy, and what known as ‘Continental’ (more accurately, Phenomenological) philosophy. *

I attended graduate philosophy courses at the University of New Mexico back in the early ’90s. At the time, the department there was dominated by hard Analytics; a couple aging professors were kept on to teach “history of” courses, regardless of their own expertise. (My favorite professor, Fred Gillette Sturm, who taught me Peirce, was one of these; but his expertise was in Liberation Theology and South American philosophy – which of course were not considered ‘real philosophy’ among Analytics.) But the department was having problems. First, the interests of the Analytic tradition were still determined by the Logico-Positivist agenda; and as such were particularly narrow. The problem with such narrow interests is that they’re not text-productive. There’s not only little innovation one can do in ‘P)Q’ language analysis, but there isn’t much commentary one can write on the texts that did achieve innovation. Thus not only did UNM have difficulty placing its doctoral students, but it also had to release younger assistant profs having difficulty getting published. Embarrassingly, the courses that attracted the most students at the undergraduate level were those the department heads wished would just go away – courses taught by the ‘historians,’ in aesthetics and culture, in Latin American, Asian, or German philosophy.

In returning to UNM Philosophy’s web-site occasionally over the years, what I’ve found is that the Department resolved this problem by, first, handing over the department to moderate (post)Analytics (particularly Wittgensteinians and Austinians), who turned to the ‘historians’ for advice. The department is now notable as ‘eclectic,’ including Phenomenologists, specialists in ‘environmental philosophy,’ and in regional culture and the arts, feminists – as well as the post-positivist Analytics (who apparently continue to hold administrative responsibility and the power that implies).

But we should remember that the dominant voices of the Analytic tradition never really cared about what happened in State universities like UNM. They were entrenched in the IVY League. Quine, for instance, was happily situated at Harvard, and I know of no evidence that he cared a whit about what happened outside the Ivy League thinkers who were his principle interlocutors. The Positivists and their immediate inheritors were content with a narrow philosophy of language, because they had no concern for the professional survival of those outside their immediate community.

This left that community, and the Analytic tradition inheriting those concerns, utterly isolated, not only from basic professional interests, including survival of programs (and of students) outside that community, but cut-off from other fields of research as well.

The point I was trying to make in my previous post is that non-philosophers in many fields, and even outside the academy, have a real interest in what philosophy has to say to us, in terms of the basic interests motivating our understandings of the world. The logical-positivists denied the validity of such interest; the political-institutional fall-out of that has been, in part the reduction of interest – and funding – for philosophy departments.

At SUNY Albany for my Doctorate in English, I’d already found the other possibility for dealing with the publication-impoverishment of the Analytic tradition. In the Philosophy Department at Albany, the ‘historians’ were effectively ‘ghettoized’ (largely restricted to teaching undergraduate courses), and the way the Department dealt with the lack-of-publication problem was by re-designing its program to emphasize the newer, publication-richer ‘Cognitive Science.’ That turn, promising a ‘boom,’ would later prove a ‘bust’ for many departments, as Cognitive Science integrated with the Computer Sciences or the neuro-sciences. Many young Cognitive Science philosophers drifted away from philosophy, into AI studies, or neurology, or mathematics. Why not? Cognitive Science was never about anything philosophical – with wisdom – to begin with. Why waste time with epistemology if the algorithms of neurological responses to stimuli could be measured for AI duplication, instead? – and with much richer grants than philosophy could ever attract.

Around then, a number of conservative Analytics came out to slam the influence of Continentalism in the Humanities. I was rather perturbed that these philosophers had missed an important point. In Literary studies, no precise criticism can be practiced without some theoretical sophistication; indeed every text of criticism comes embedded with some theory, however crude. The New Critics had run a long ways on presumptions drawn from classical rhetoric, Kant, and Coleridges’ misreading of Kant (supplemented by Hegel and, most recently, T. S. Eliot). By the late ’70s, criticism based on these theoretic resources had been pretty much exhausted.

This opened a theoretical void in Literary studies; had the Analytic tradition a rich reading of literature or other cultural concerns, its proponents could have filled that void. Instead, they had virtually nothing to say on such matters. The French post-Structuralists did. Who were young Literaturists to drawn on for text-productive, publishable, theoretically informed criticism?

I’m trying to indicate that there are important extrinsic reasons for maintaining study of the history of philosophy. The Enlightenment philosophers had interesting things to say on a wide range of topics, and various fields drew on them for theoretical support for a long time. But once that resource grew stale, a healthy philosophy should have been able to fill that void. The Analytic tradition couldn’t do that. But such voids will be filled. The Continental tradition is much better informed in the history of philosophy, and thus was able to transmute the Enlightenment philosophies into new, text-productive forms of thought. Before condemning the Continental tradition, remember that it provided a great many young academics in various fields with the source material for publication – and thus jobs and security. If the Analytic tradition could have done better – it should have. It didn’t.

The situation has improved somewhat. Analytic philosophers now seem to write comfortably in conversational tones (important to opening access to their texts to a wider audience), and seem to be reaching out beyond their discipline. But the damage has been done. It is unclear whether professional philosophy in America can fully recover from it.

I have no problems with there being an academic field/ discipline of philosophy. Of course; for one thing there is no other way to preserve the history of philosophic thought; and for another, there’s no other way to advance it authoritatively.

But for philosophy to survive in the academy, it needs to address at least these four issues:

1) It needs to be text-productive, and directed toward expanding the publication possibilities (as much as to say, opportunities for employment and tenure) for graduating doctorates.

2) It must be able to address the needs of other fields of study that are theory-dependent – and I’m not talking about the sciences.

3) It must develop tolerance for variant grammars and rhetorics of text productive discourse (yes, I’m talking about Continentalists and non-Analytic English or American philosophers).  It needs to be ‘eclectic’.

4) And, yes, it must reach out beyond the Academy, and be willing to include the writing and thought, not only of Academics in other fields, but thinkers outside of the Academy all together.

I’m not in the Academy, so I couldn’t begin to say how this would be accomplished.

But during the Reagan era and it’s immediate aftermath, quite a number of colleges got rid of their philosophy departments all together. Addressing the four issues above won’t necessarily ward off the budget-choppers, but may help in arguing against them.

Again, I’ll emphasize this point, because I was there, and I know how important it is. When Literature studies needed theoretical renewal, The Analytics were not there – the French Post-Structuralists were. If Analytics don’t like that, they shouldn’t bother ridiculing it – Let them give professional Literaturists an alternative theory of literature. (Remember, we’re talking about people’s livelihood, not some esoteric ‘principle of truth’ or whatever – I’m a Pragmatist; I don’t have much time for ‘Justified True Belief,’ ‘P)Q,’ ‘thought-experiment’ wheel-spinning. Certainly the future employees at various non-Ivy-League colleges across the country don’t.)

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* Just as historical side-note, both the Analytic tradition and the Phenomenological tradition originated in Germany.  The only strong stream of American philosophy is Pragmatism – which, admittedly, also arose as a response to German philosophy.  Meanwhile, English philosophy uncontaminated by German thought, comes to an end with Mill’s later turn toward what we would call progressive politics.

E. A. Poe: Philosophy of Composition

Note: Having just posted my poem, “The Tragedy of Hamlet,” I thought about explaining why I engaged in such a verse text that was composed with, frankly, a kind of ruthlessness, in the sense that it quite intentionally plays on the expectations of the readers, especially regarding the many interpretations of Shakespeare’s original that those familiar with that play carry with them; but also expectations concerning the specific words and phrasing. (There is, for instance, a sexual joke somewhere in the middle of it; but more important is the play on the repetition of references to ‘lord’ in the aristocratic sense, and ‘Lord’ in the religious sense.) (It was also important to me to end the poem with a line borrowed from Gertrude Stein’s libretto for “Four Saints in Three Acts,” which was the background influence to the poem, and to have this line evoke the problem of memory, which is clearly one of the sub-textual themes of Shakespeare’s play.)

Well, I could go on with such a discussion for quite a while. Instead, I’ll let a better poet than I raise the larger issues underlining these. In the following essay, Edgar Allen Poe delivers a most cold-blooded explanation of the writing of one of the most beloved poems in the American canon (“The Raven”*). I remember, as an English student, professors trying to wave this essay away, or explaining it as a post-hoc apologia. Nothing could be further from the truth – read it for yourself. Poe knew exactly what he was doing – and anyone aspiring to write good poetry should.

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THE PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION

EDGAR ALLEN POE

(1846)

Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of “Barnaby Rudge,” says- “By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”

I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin- and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’ idea- but the author of “Caleb Williams” was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis- or one is suggested by an incident of the day- or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative-designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view- for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest- I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone- whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone- afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would- that is to say, who could- detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say- but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers- poets in especial- prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy- an ecstatic intuition- and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought- at the true purposes seized only at the last moment- at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view- at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable- at the cautious selections and rejections- at the painful erasures and interpolations- in a word, at the wheels and pinions- the tackle for scene-shifting- the step-ladders, and demon-traps- the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.

I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.

For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions, and, since the interest of an analysis or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analysed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select ‘The Raven’ as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition- that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.

Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance- or say the necessity- which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.

We commence, then, with this intention.

The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression- for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones- that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose- a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions- the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.

It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art- the limit of a single sitting- and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as “Robinson Crusoe” (demanding no unity), this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit- in other words, to the excitement or elevation-again, in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect- this, with one proviso- that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.

Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the critical taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem- a length of about one hundred lines. It is, in fact, a hundred and eight.

My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed: and here I may as well observe that throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the slightest need of demonstration- the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a disposition to misrepresent. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect- they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul- not of intellect, or of heart- upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.” Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem, merely because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes- that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment- no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to is most readily attained in the poem. Now the object Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable to a certain extent in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion, a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me), which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement or pleasurable elevation of the soul. It by no means follows, from anything here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poem for they may serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in music, by contrast- but the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and, secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.

Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation- and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.

The length, the province, and the tone, being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the poem- some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn. In carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effects- or more properly points, in the theatrical sense- I did not fail to perceive immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain. The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis. I considered it, however, with regard to its susceptibility of improvement, and soon saw it to be in a primitive condition. As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone- both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity- of repetition. I resolved to diversify, and so heighten the effect, by adhering in general to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain- the refrain itself remaining for the most part, unvaried.

These points being settled, I next bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.

The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was of course a corollary, the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt, and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant.

The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” In fact it was the very first which presented itself.

The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.” In observing the difficulty which I had at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the preassumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a human being- I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech, and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.

I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven, the bird of ill-omen, monotonously repeating the one word “Nevermore” at the conclusion of each stanza in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object- supremeness or perfection at all points, I asked myself- “Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death, was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious- “When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

I had now to combine the two ideas of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word “Nevermore.” I had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying at every turn the application of the word repeated, but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending, that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover- the first query to which the Raven should reply “Nevermore”- that I could make this first query a commonplace one, the second less so, the third still less, and so on, until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself, by its frequent repetition, and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it, is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character- queries whose solution he has passionately at heart- propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture- propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which reason assures him is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrows. Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me, or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction, I first established in my mind the climax or concluding query- that query to which “Nevermore” should be in the last place an answer- that query in reply to which this word “Nevermore” should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.

Here then the poem may be said to have had its beginning- at the end where all works of art should begin- for it was here at this point of my preconsiderations that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us- by that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore-
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven- “Nevermore.”

I composed this stanza, at this point, first that, by establishing the climax, I might the better vary and graduate, as regards seriousness and importance, the preceding queries of the lover, and secondly, that I might definitely settle the rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement of the stanza, as well as graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect. Had I been able in the subsequent composition to construct more vigorous stanzas I should without scruple have purposely enfeebled them so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.

And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected in versification is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite, and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is that originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.

Of course I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaic- the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptametre catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrametre catalectic. Less pedantically the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short, the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet, the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds), the third of eight, the fourth of seven and a half, the fifth the same, the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines taken individually has been employed before, and what originality the “Raven” has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven- and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields- but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident- it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamber- in a chamber rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it. The room is represented as richly furnished- this in mere pursuance of the ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole true poetical thesis.

The locale being thus determined, I had now to introduce the bird- and the thought of introducing him through the window was inevitable. The idea of making the lover suppose, in the first instance, that the flapping of the wings of the bird against the shutter, is a “tapping” at the door, originated in a wish to increase, by prolonging, the reader’s curiosity, and in a desire to admit the incidental effect arising from the lover’s throwing open the door, finding all dark, and thence adopting the half-fancy that it was the spirit of his mistress that knocked.

I made the night tempestuous, first to account for the Raven’s seeking admission, and secondly, for the effect of contrast with the (physical) serenity within the chamber.

I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas, also for the effect of contrast between the marble and the plumage- it being understood that the bust was absolutely suggested by the bird- the bust of Pallas being chosen, first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the lover, and secondly, for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself.

About the middle of the poem, also, I have availed myself of the force of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression. For example, an air of the fantastic- approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible- is given to the Raven’s entrance. He comes in “with many a flirt and flutter.”

Not the least obeisance made he- not a moment stopped or stayed he,
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door.

In the two stanzas which follow, the design is more obviously carried out:-

Then this ebony bird, beguiling my sad fancy into smiling
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no
craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore-
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore?”
Quoth the Raven- “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door-
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

The effect of the denouement being thus provided for, I immediately drop the fantastic for a tone of the most profound seriousness- this tone commencing in the stanza directly following the one last quoted, with the line,

But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only, etc.

From this epoch the lover no longer jests- no longer sees anything even of the fantastic in the Raven’s demeanour. He speaks of him as a “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore,” and feels the “fiery eyes” burning into his “bosom’s core.” This revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lover’s part, is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the reader- to bring the mind into a proper frame for the denouement- which is now brought about as rapidly and as directly as possible.

With the denouement proper- with the Raven’s reply, “Nevermore,” to the lover’s final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another world- the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion. So far, everything is within the limits of the accountable- of the real. A raven, having learned by rote the single word “Nevermore,” and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleams- the chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. The casement being thrown open at the fluttering of the bird’s wings, the bird itself perches on the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who amused by the incident and the oddity of the visitor’s demeanour, demands of it, in jest and without looking for a reply, its name. The raven addressed, answers with its customary word, “Nevermore”- a word which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who, giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is again startled by the fowl’s repetition of “Nevermore.” The student now guesses the state of the case, but is impelled, as I have before explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer, “Nevermore.” With the indulgence, to the extreme, of this self-torture, the narration, in what I have termed its first or obvious phase, has a natural termination, and so far there has been no overstepping of the limits of the real.

But in subjects so handled, however skillfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required- first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness- some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term), which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal. It is the excess of the suggested meaning- it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under-current of the theme- which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind), the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.

Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the poem- their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them. The under-current of meaning is rendered first apparent in the line-

“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my
door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”

It will be observed that the words, “from out my heart,” involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical- but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and never ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted- nevermore.

—–
* Poe: The Raven
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!