Saturday, December 7, 2019

*Another* Day that will Live in Infamy

Historians have long wondered, how, as late as December 1941, with a world war raging, and a litany of Japanese grievances against the U.S., the officers and sailors at our principal Pacific naval base  were all sitting around with their thumbs up their butts, the ships berthed cheek-by-jowl, an impossibly alluring target.
A secondary puzzle was, did FDR have any advance intel that such an attack was likely, but ignored it?   (Let us set aside the conspiracy-theory that he knew but let it happen.) If so, he would take a seat beside Stalin, who likewise had been remarkably lackadaisical with respect to Nazi Germany, which had been waging blitzkrieg, but from whom he felt safe, owing to the piece of paper known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.  Stalin actually did have warning, from Japan-based master-spy Richard Sorge, and quite precise warning at that:    “Der Krieg wird am 22. Juni beginnen, ” a message sent on 15 June.   This was ignored.

Toleja so ...

A lesser-known possibility is that Washington did receive warning of an impending sneak-attack, and indeed from Sorge’s circle.   A Comintern memoirist who had repeated contact with Sorge  writes:

Kurz vor ihrem Hochgehen in Tokio   gab die Gruppe “Ramsay” [i.e., Sorge] noch eine hochbedeutsame Meldung  an zwei Adressaten durch:  Moskau und Washingtron.  Gewiß gelangte sie auf auf den Schreibtisch Stalins, vermutlich nicht auf den Schreibtisch Präsident Roosevelts:  die Meldung, daß die Japaner  ohne Kriegserklärung  auf den wichtigsten Flottenstützpunkt der USA im Pazifik, Pearl Harbor, für Anfang Dezember  unter strengster Geheimhaltung  vorbereiterten.
-- Ruth von Mayenburg, Hotel Lux (1978), p. 144

She goes on to state that Sorge’s Yugoslav coworker Branko Vukelić tipped off an American friend as to the impending attack, to no avail.

In any event, the lesson of 7 December was not promptly learned, for on 8 December, in the Philippines, another branch of the service was likewise caught with its breeches down.   Let Professor Wiki tell it:

Even though tracked by radar and with three U.S. pursuit squadrons in the air, when Japanese bombers of the 11th Kōkūkantai attacked Clark Field at 12:40 pm, they achieved tactical surprise. Two squadrons of B-17s were dispersed on the ground. Most of the P-40s of the 20th PS were preparing to taxi and were struck by the first wave of 27 Japanese twin-engine Mitsubishi G3M "Nell" bombers; only four of the 20th PS P-40Bs managed to take off as the bombs were falling.

A second bomber attack (26 Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" bombers) followed closely, then escorting Zero fighters strafed the field for 30 minutes, destroying 12 of the 17 American heavy bombers present and seriously damaging three others. Two damaged B-17s were made flyable and taken to Mindanao, where one was destroyed in a ground collision.

A near-simultaneous attack on the auxiliary field at Iba to the northwest by 54 "Betty" bombers was also successful: all but four of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron's P-40s, short on fuel and caught in their landing pattern, were destroyed No formal investigation took place regarding this failure as occurred in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. The Far East Air Force lost fully half its planes in the 45-minute attack, and was all but destroyed over the next few days, including a number of the surviving B-17s lost to takeoff crashes of other planes.

Thus, not only December seventh, but December eighth,  is draped in crape.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Evolutions des chevaliers polonais

with maneuvers as graceful  
as the unfolding of a petaled flower

-- James Michener, Poland (1983), p. 93

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Feu le roi (mort assassiné, 1934)

the   strange, soft   sound
of a whole      city
                       weeping …

[From: Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), p. 616]

Monday, December 2, 2019

Yaitse, 1936: Tableaux

When I awoke       and saw the sun
a pale-green blaze     in the treetops


watching water     clear as air
comb straight      the green weeds on the piers

[From: Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), p. 425]

Monday, November 25, 2019

Touching Down

We landed at Lisbon  at sunset.
The light was   Cognac-colored,
and there was a soft wind  off the water.

-- Nathan Heller, in 1 Feb 2016 The New Yorker

Monday, November 18, 2019

Betrachtungen eines Unphilosophischen (quater)

I don’t like purely philosophical works.  I think a little philosophy should be added to life and art, by way of seasoning;  but to make it one’s specialty  seems to me  as strange as eating nothing but horseradish.
-- Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (1957) (ch. XIII.16; Lara speaking)

Nicht vom Wetter spricht sie, nicht vom Schneider,
höchstens von den Grundproblemen  beider.
-- Christian Morgenstern

[I wrote the following around twenty years ago, before I was baptised.  Just stumbled on it while cleaning up some files. 
Since that time, I’ve read a fair amount of philosophy, often with pleasure, and dabbled in composing some.  But the treatment here of the cognitive problem does not need revision or retraction.]

I must conclude, reluctantly, that I am of a not very philosophical cast of mind.  Intellectual, yes; thoughtful, I hope so; but philosophical, in the sense of spontaneously grappling with the questions that engage those denominated philosophers, alas not.
Had I never read a line of academic philosophy, I could contentedly have walked for ten decades down the lanes of life, kicking at stones and appreciating the trees, without once wondering, let alone worrying, whether a name denotes a universal, or rather a concept, rather than (snicker snicker) a thing. Left to my own devices, I would likely never have asked whether Being even had a nature. let alone what the bugger might be.

Such questions as these have never troubled my sleep; and it is only with the greatest difficulty than I can induce them to trouble my waking hours.  Yet we read, in the letters of our betters:

"What distinguishes a man from a word?  There is a distinction, doubtless."
--C.S. Pierce, "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities".

This I no more ponder than whether a hawk may be discerned from a handsaw -- indeed, it rather recalls the grotesque title of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  Yet Peirce concludes, alarmingly, that "The word or sign which man uses  is the man himself."  Should we be troubled by this?

Doing philosophy – well, I seldom do.  But when reading philosophy – something never undertaken save after a sound night's sleep, in the company of pots of strong coffee – I have often had the horrible experience of carefully lucidly processing each phrase of a sentence as it comes along, then finding, when I reach the sentence end, that the meanings of the initial phrases have evaporated:  as were intelligence but a porthole on a passing landscape, seizing each piece clearly as it looms into view, but at the expense of losing the last.  (That was rather a long sentence itself; let us pause.)
            Herewith a specific instance, taken from a little work in paperback (Arthur Danto, What Philosophy Is) known for being a relatively clear and non-technical introduction for the layman:
            "It is demonstrable that, for any system of sentences – any theory, say – which satisfies exceedingly weak and undemanding formal criteria, just this alleged desideratum can be achieved."
            This is not a long sentence; and for the first two-thirds of it, it actually calls up to me very visual ideas.  "Any system of sentences – any theory, say": I picture these sentences as speech-balloons, dangling from a mobile, with little hand-icons pointing at other sentences which they imply or from which they derive.  "Which satisfies exceedingly weak and undemanding formal criteria":  here our hypothetical theory is embodied as a sort of Doctor Watson, waving his hand with bluff good humor, in dismissal of the trifling demands made upon him: "No trouble at all, sir!"  And as for that initial "It is demonstrable that", well, we all know that "It is demonstrable that P" means (for the plain man) just that "P", and moreover gives you license to swallow P without troubling yourself to prove it or make it plausible, or even to understand it very deeply:  just one of those solid facts that people our Watsonian society, which the tradespeople have somehow seen to.
            Then comes "just this alleged desideratum".  Alas: this sends you haring back to the previous paragraph, or previous page.  And the "alleged" is troubling:  do we desire this (whatever it is), or do we not?  This centrifugal tension makes subtly more difficult the task of going back and finding the antecedent for "this".  It's not like "she": hmm, hmm, complicated, this, -- aha, Natasha Nikolayevna.
            Now:  one fact about philosophy, which makes the subject hard to follow, is rather to its credit.  Namely:  we never know what might be called into question.  So we can't just sit back and nod  as bits of received opinion are spooned into our open mouths.
            In many non-philosophical areas of life, we can count on so much that is unchallengeable, that their arguments are like sermons in a lazy church.  We can doze; we can idly watch the fly buzzing across the stained-glass windows; and miss nothing that is essential, for we have already all that is essential, the rest is embroidery.  As, in the radical Sixties, syllogism went rather like this.

     (1) Amerikkka is a honkey-assed imperialist pig
     (2) The righteous Vietnamese people are righteous, popular, and Vietnamese.
From this it follows:
     (3) Blah de blah de blah de blah (rahht ohwn!) 
Everyone goes home satisfied.

What does it mean, to be "unphilosophical"?  It cannot spring simply from stupidity – which is a general term; too much counter-evidence in collateral fields.  Nor ignorance – not after having sat at the feet of the philosophical:  for, failure to absorb their wise lessons would have to be due either to stupidity (already ruled out of court) or "unphilosophicality" : quite possibly present, but this is the quality to be explained.  (I recall a case from some years ago, in which some Brazilian peasants, or Indians, were brought to trial for having killed quite a number of people: and were acquitted, on the grounds of "invincible ignorance".  A charming verdict; egomet etiam, nolo contendere; but again, this is the explicandum, not the explicans.)
            One possible partial explanation is that, apparently, despite gross this that and the other thing, I do actually, more or less, in some sense, believe in God.  This may even be largely unconscious, but it does determine things.  As:  Good heavens!  Here He went and made Eden for our grandsires to saunter in, and angels to attend our fallen birth – and you're worried about the existence of tables??!??!*  Get a life, man!  Get an afterlife!
[*On page 100 of Danto's booklet, we have an image of the philosophically inclined scientist  swallowing an atom  but straining at a table.]

It is a stylistic characteristic of the philosophic genre, that its reported combatants are generally abstract and shadowy, unnamed figures.  Not Gould vs Dawkins, or Quine vs Chomsky, but: the Realist; the Representationalist; the Phenomenalist, each with his separate agenda; curiously dispassionate partisans, like players in a masque. 
            In one sense, this should make for clarity.  As, I may know a whole bunch about Chomsky, or Chesterton, or Orwell, but it is different from the bunch of things known by disputant P., and different still from the sub-bunch of things that have caught P's attention in the present case.  Hence, when P. says: "….(Orwell)….", a million bells go off in my head, which may obscure his message.  Whereas, when the don refers to the Realist, there is no clanging, nothing to refer to but the Realist's résumé.
            And yet and yet… It is with this as with the medieval allegories, where ((Danger)) orates to ((Faithful)) anent ((Beauty)), and the eyes turn to glass.  These creatures have no form – no warts – no tits – it is difficult to attend, hard to become engaged.

            This lack of philosophical engagement has few consequences for the practical matters of life, such as renewing a driver's license.  Still, it bothers me.  For, philosophy is reputedly fundamental – indeed, is so virtually by definition.  Smart people are presumably interested in problems of ontology, while stupid people are interested in football scores.  [A surprisingly large number of smart people are interested in baseball.  This cannot, then, be an intellectual failing; but it may be a perversion.  The question remains open.]

*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *

Yet I am troubled by questions of epistemology, for the good and simple reason that certain people whom I know  (those notorious Other Minds, in whose complete integrity I believe implicitly) seem to know (or say that they know) what I don't know; nor know I  how (or whether) they do know it.
CEO (cigar clenched in right mouth-corner, speaking laconically out of the left):  Nyaahh… Dis noo magneddic-stawritch standid, it'll nevah catch on, da mahhkit'll riject it.
Me (thinks): How the F*** does he know that?!?!?


On a good day, then, and with a good book, I can – granted, not do, but at least – read philosophy, and engage with it:  an EKG would reveal busy little blips and bumps, I'm not just flatlining with the book open, the mental equivalent of an all-day sucker.  And admittedly, most of the enjoyment comes from the crackling style (as with Quine) or the apt examples (Strawson, Geach), rather than from any genuine penetration into the delicious mysteries of what it means, what it really means, to say that x equals (wait for it) x.  So the author of the book need not feel that his labor is wasted:  here is John Q. Public with his engine turning over and that author's very book in his hands (those hands which might equally as well have held a breast, or a beer).  And yet – the book once laid upon the night-table, all its arguments and all its concerns  go out like a light.
            It is not so with, say, poetry.  To read poetry before retiring is as dangerous as drinking espresso for a nightcap: I toss and turn, the lingering rhythms like a hot blanket, which cannot be cast off till I drag myself out of bed, snatch a bathrobe, and WRITE - WRITE - INDITE!  Whereas philosophical propositions  spark no further fever.  I lay down the volume, fall into a dreamless sleep, and perhaps the next day have some vague lingering recollection – "Yes, that 'x' thing, it was equal to, let me see, was it 'y'? -- no!  'x', that's it!  x = x.  My, the things one learns."  Or:  “Is it true, that snow is white?  Mmmm..mmyes!”

            Perhaps a policy of not asking overmany fundamental questions too often, is not so much intellectual laziness, as the better part of epistemological valor.  For, truly to nail down the simplest everyday phenomenon, is largely beyond the reach of science.
(Physics is really good at addressing problems that it invented itself, like muons;  not so much when it comes to snowflakes, or lightning, or wind.)

            In addition, when you go to the scientist, thou sluggard, you find him not exactly bent over the philosophy-of-science books either.   And this, not only among those sooty alley-dwellers the chemists, with their practical pots, but even those austere, unstained – theoretical physicists, nay, mathematicians.  Mathematics does not need metamathematics to go about its business, whether devising formulae that will predict the stresses of actual bridges, or proving theorems about ideal manifolds in n-space.  (We may define pure mathematics as the subject in which Bertrand Russell does not know what he is talking about, though what he says is none the less true.)

~     ~     ~

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(Ich bin Thomas Mann, and I approved this message.)

Other  tragic examples:

Valéry était atteint  de cécité philosophique.
-- Etienne Gilson, Linguistique et philosophie (1969), p. 234

Freud himself  confessed to an insensitivity to philosophy -- or at any rate, to academic philosophizing -- after reading a book a colleague had recommended:

“You cannot imagine how alien all those philosophical convolutions  seem to me.   The only feeling of satisfaction they give me  is that I take no part in this pitiable waste of intellectual powers.  Philosophers no doubt believe that  in such studies  they are contributing to the development of human thought;  but every time, there is a psychological  or even a psychopathological problem  behind them.”
-- quoted in Ernest Jones, Freud: The Last Phase (1957), p. 140.

(Assignment:  How do these observations apply to the case of Wittgenstein?  Discuss)

Latest update:  
"Even when I have moved away from observation,  I have carefully avoided any contact with philosophy proper.  This avoidance  has been greatly facilitated  by my constitutional incapacity."
--  quoted in Ernest Jones, Freud: The Last Phase (1957), p.335

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Ontology of History (updated)

The pageant of all that has happened is, to begin with, a blooming buzzing confusion.   Historically, one aim of the chronicler has been to slice up some of it, and dress it up into a narrative that will be entertaining or edifying for the audience.  More analytically-minded historians (such as Ibn Khaldun and his successors) have set themselves an additional task:  To make sense of it.

ابن خلدون

A wide-ranging comparative historian acknowledges the wealth of data which confront the historiographer, but

The “intelligible fields of study”, the comparable units of history, remain inconveniently few for the application of the scientific technique.
-- Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History (12 volumes; 1934-61; introduction, last paragraph)

One classic move is to organize the ever-mingling, ever-onrushing flow of events  into coherent thematic chunks;  as:  the Dark Ages; the Renaissance; the Reformation;  the Enlightenment.   Others refer to calendric stretches but, if so, normally must modify the defining termini a quo and ante quem  to reflect actual historical development:  thus, “the long nineteenth century” (which lasted into the Edwardian autumn, and winked out forever at Sarajevo), and “the Sixties”,  which  in the good sense  began with JFK’s election, and  in the bad sense  with his assassination;  and then petered out ignobly in the early seventies.

Anyhow, huge subject, won’t treat it here, but merely serve up a couple of quotes specifically related to Islamic historiography -- thus posting at least a place-holder for the topic, in our wildly successful “Ontology of …” series (soon to be featured on bubble-gum cards, suitable for trading).

“Classic” or “classical period” is likewise a construct, all the more obviously so  since it is being borrowed from one phenomenon, Greek and Roman antiquity, and used to somehow periodize another quite different one, Islam.
-- F. E. Peters, preface to A Reader on Classical Islam (1994)

History is a seamless garment;  periodization is a convenience of the historian, not a fact of the historical process.  By choosing casefully, one can slant history without any resort to actual falsehood.  For example, a writer on relations between the United States and Japan can start with Hiroshima, or he can start with Pearl Harbor.
-- Bernard Lewis, “In Defense of History” (1997/1999), reprinted in From Babel to Dragomans (2004), p. 389

He goes on to make an exact parallel with the historiography of the Crusades, of intense current relevance, but too hot to handle in this space;  consult the (excellent) original article.

The essential human unit  in which man’s nature is fully realised  is not the individual, [n]or a voluntary association which can be dissolved or altered or abandoned at will, but  the nation.
--Isaiah Berlin, “Nationalism”, repr. in Against the Current (1979), p. 342

(Cf. individual vs. group selection  in Darwinism.)

[Afternote] We sometimes also find explanatory periodization, not by historians, but by the people themselves:

The Aztecs … sought relief … from the oppressive idea of eternity, by breaking it up into distinct cycles … each of several thousand years’ duration.  There were four of these cycles;  and at the end of each, by the agency of the elements, the human family was swept from the earth, and the sun blotted out from the heavens, to be again rekindled.
-- William Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843), p. 53


Glanced at above is the internal ontology of historiography -- its structure and staffage.  There is also the matter of its external ontology -- how it fits in with other disciplines.

“History is an art, like the other sciences,” a felicitious paradoxical epigram crafted by Veronica Wedgwood.
--John Lukacs, The Future of History (2011), p. 81


Saturday, November 16, 2019

Modus Ponens Paradox

Dixit Algorizmi:

* All Elephants are Mortal.
* Babar is an Elephant.
* Yet -- Babar is Eternal.

How do we account for this discrepancy?

For discussion, see:

For additional crispy thought-food, click on any of the Labels below. 

For those who could care a fig for philosophy(**), and are interested only in the mighty Elephant King, click here.

(**) Technically known as the ficus philosophiae.