Monday, 28 January 2013

Knowledge and Nescience

Sri Ramakrishna said: “When, hearing the name of Hari or Rama once, you shed tears and your hair stands on end, then you may know for certain that you do not have to perform such devotions as the sandhya any more. Then only will you have a right to renounce rituals; or rather, rituals will drop away of themselves. Then it will be enough if you repeat only the name of Rama or Hari, or even simply Om.”
(from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna

All forms of worldly and Vedic behaviour that are connected with valid means of knowledge and objects of knowledge start by taking for granted the mutual superimposition of the Self and non-Self, known as nescience, and so do all the scriptures dealing with injunctions, prohibition or emancipation.
Opponent: How, again can the means of valid knowledge, such as direct perception as well as the scriptures have as their locus a cognizer who is subject to nescience?
The (Vedantin’s) answer is : Since a man without self-identification with the body, mind, senses, etc., cannot become a cognizer, and as such, the means of knowledge cannot function for him, since perception and other activites (of a man) are not possible without accepting the senses etc. (as his own); since the senses cannot function without (the body) a basis; since nobody engages in any activity with a body that has not the idea of the Self superimposed on it; since the unrelated Self cannot become a cognizer unless there are all these (mutual superimposition of the Self and the body and their attributes on each other); and since the means of knowledge cannot function unless there is a cognizership; therefore it follows that the means of knowledge, such as direct perception as well as the scriptures, must have a man as their locus who is subject to nescience.
(from the preamble to Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya by Shankaracarya

Professor Gary Gutting writing in the New York Times: The Way of the Agnostic
Critics of a religion — and of religion in general — usually focus on knowledge claims.  This is understandable since the claims are often quite extraordinary, of a sort for which we naturally require a great deal of evidence — which is seldom forthcoming. They are not entirely without evidential support.  But the evidence for religious claims — metaphysical arguments from plausible but disputable premises, intermittent and often vague experiences of the divine, historical arguments from limited data, even the moral and intellectual fruitfulness of a religious life — typically does not meet ordinary (common-sense or scientific) standards for postulating an explanatory cause. Believers often say that their religious life gives them a special access (the insight of “faith”) to religious knowledge.  But believers in very different religions can claim such access, and it’s hard to see what believers in one religion can, in general, say against the contradictory claims of believers in others.

There is a genuine confusion about the status of knowledge in religion. The focus on love and understanding as central elsewhere in Gutting’s essay is a recognition that knowledge in religion does not have the same crisp well defined edges that are the ideal of science even if not quite managed. History and doctrine are important but precise congruence is not. Even Christians who like to keep things tidy admit limits to what we can know about the divine. This is intimated in:
“Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And every man that hath this hope in him, purifleth himself even as He is pure.” (I John III: v. 2, 3).

If you relate this to the passage from the B.S.B. you can see that defective knowledge is admitted by Shankara. Knowledge and this includes the transmission of knowledge as per the Vedas is not capable of conveying ultimate truth. The valid means of knowledge i.e. the pramanas, are adequate to the business of everyday truth such as that of science but when we step out of the subject/object dyad then the pramanas are not adequate. As Sri Ramakrishna said, speaking as a devotee, all conventional injunctions and forms of worship fall away upon merger with the object of devotion.

The latter part of my extract from Professor Gutting’s piece is often regarded as the victory roll and folding body press of the agnostic wrestling with the believer; what about the conflict between all the various forms of religion, they can’t all be right. That objection only goes on all fours if the dualistic Subject/Object account of knowledge is regarded as ultimate. As I have indicated briefly the Advaitins deny this and the Sufi theory of the imaginal which Henry Corbin has written about shows the possibility of alternative realities generated by the Absolute according to the beliefs of the seeker.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Philosophy without Intuitions by Herman Cappelen

It sometimes seems to me that a pestilence has struck the human race in its most distinctive faculty - that is, the use of words.. It is a plague afflicting language, revealing itself as a loss of cognition and immediacy, an automatism that tends to level out all expression into the most generic, anonymous, and abstract formulas, to dilute meanings, to blunt the edge of expressiveness, extinguishing the spark which shoots out from the collision of words and new circumstances.
(Italo Calvino: Six Memos for the New Millenium)

In philosophical papers and academic blogs ‘she’ has become the standard for the unmarked personal pronoun particularly when the profession of philosophy is being considered in general. cf: golden cobra
Presumably this is to encourage women to take up advanced study with a view to becoming academics. Grammatical positive discrimination kind of. In a rumination on the ethics of littering by a prof. I noted that whereas ‘she’ was used in topic neutral mode when it came to vandalism ‘he’ or ‘she’ it was who uprooted a post in the park. Do I detect a wobble in resolve?

The profession continues to wallow in ‘worry’ and be beset by ‘suspicion’(cf: suspicion also suspicious minds)but there is an apostle of light in the person of Herman Cappelen who is generally dismissive of such hedging locutions and who blows cold on the subject of intuitions as the ore from which philosophic gold is extracted.

Here is a review:disputatio

and the first chapter available on Professor Cappelen’s academic web site:
web site
An interview with him:
new books in philosophy
I hear the grinding of tectonic plates and as Professor Cappelen promises to debunk the notion of analytic philosophy as being conceptual analysis, earthquakes are coming.
Oh ye worriers!

P.S. It is published by O.U.P. in the U.S. so ‘she’ must be obeyed but nevertheless I will have to read it.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Getting Along

Charles Camosy is one of those people who likes to get along even with those for whom the price of getting along is capitulation to their point of view. One is reminded of the turkeys that voted for Xmas.
oxford podcast
Julian Savulescu his interlocuter has not bothered to acquaint himself to the slightest extent with any of the rebuttals from the pro-life side to the points he is making. It’s as if he did not wish to clutter his mind with rubbish that was best consigned to an epistemic lumber room.

I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.
(Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet by A.C.Doyle

Thus Savulescu trots out the well worn point ‘if the killing of the unborn is such a scandal why is something not done about the vast numbers of miscarried unborn. Why are pro-life people not working harder to save these mites?’. A less polite form of that argument which is sometimes heard is ‘ if you think this is a holocaust why aren’t you down at the abortion clinic physically preventing abortions from taking place, by violence if necessary?’ The implication is that pro-life people are insincere hypocrites with a ‘war on women’ agenda or something like that.

A roomful of academics ought to be able to distinguish between a deliberate taking of life and and an involuntary loss of life which is difficult to predict and guard against. That does not seem to be the case however as I’ve read a similar ,argument from Peter Smith though slightly more elaborated:
logic matters

Here a type of gradualist argument is presented. We are offered the notion that because a very early miscarriage, an involuntary event, is not taken to be such a dreadful thing then the voluntary procuring of a miscarriage at the same stage is likewise not an awful thing that we should feel terribly guilty about. The focus is on the psychological relationship to the immature foetus. Why is there such a fuss in the one case and not in the other, Smith asks? That is just the point at, issue, what is voluntary is blameworthy and what is involuntary is not. It is that which builds the attitude we take and even in the case of the involuntary and accidental killing of a person we would be haunted by it but still not accuse ourselves.

My dialogue with Peter Smith went as follows:

michael says:
September 2, 2011 at 9:38 am
The ‘scourge’(of miscarriage) is interesting but not very alarming. Why? How can you be exercised by something you are not even aware of? Are women who might be pregnant supposed to go around ‘in tin shoes, sipping tepid milk’? Again how is this a challenge to Catholics who at least at the end of life assert that it is not morally required to use heroic means to keep alive the moribund. Having failed to hit the nail to begin with the author continues to hit it in the same place repeatedly.

Peter Smith says:
September 2, 2011 at 9:56 am

But of course the question is: once you are aware of the rate of natural embryo death, what — in consistency — should be your moral reaction?

michael says:
September 3, 2011 at 7:44 am

I would apply the principle of not using heroic means and not striving officiously to keep alive; to allow, in other words, nature’s quality control to take its course. I do not see that as a challenge to the pro-life/anti-abortion stance.

The comments on the whole are interesting and not unquestioningly supportive of the O.P.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Vision of Sudden Death by Thomas De Quincey

Thomas De Quincey asks the question which we hesitate to form and which therefore remains an uncondensed cloud of ghoulishness: Was there much blood? The book that most considers the peremptory demands of mortality is the essay collection Miscellaneous Essays( It contains the classic On the knocking at the Gate in Macbeth which shows how horripilation is wrought by the master. He then repeats the trick himself in The Vision of Sudden Death but reversing the temporal condition. First we get the soothing normal then we get the fright.

It is on a late night mail coach moving into the dawn drawn by 6 horses controlled by a giant one eyed coachman that this irruption of horror occurs. De Quincey as his wont is fortified by a light breakfast and what he describes as:

Having mounted the box, I took a small quantity of laudanum, having already travelled two hundred and fifty miles—viz., from a point seventy miles beyond London, upon a simple breakfast. In the taking of laudanum there was nothing extraordinary. But by accident it drew upon me the special attention of my assessor on the box, the coachman. And in that there was nothing extraordinary. But by accident, and with great delight, it drew my attention to the fact that this coachman was a monster in point of size, and that he had but one eye. In fact he had been foretold by Virgil as—
"Monstrum. horrendum, informe, ingens cui lumen adempium."

One sees here that device beloved of the British practitioner of the essay, the learned aside and the wilful divagation into pedantry with an outbreak of footnotes. Here we are artfully suspended in the ho hum tedium of the abstruse, the better to lull you with my dear. The coachman falls into a deep slumber having been engaged during the day in a court case at the local assizes. They are rushing along in the sandy margin of the road on the wrong side and the horses grateful for the mild going are picking up speed.

Suddenly from thoughts like these, I was awakened to a sullen sound, as of some motion on the distant road. It stole upon the air for a moment; I listened in awe; but then it died away. Once roused, however, I could not but observe with alarm the quickened motion of our horses. Ten years' experience had made my eye learned in the valuing of motion; and I saw that we were now running thirteen miles an hour. 

Yes indeed, uh-uh:

Before us lay an avenue, straight as an arrow, six hundred yards, perhaps, in length; and the umbrageous trees, which rose in a regular line from either side, meeting high overhead, gave to it the character of a cathedral aisle. These trees lent a deeper solemnity to the early light; but there was still light enough to perceive, at the further end of this gothic aisle, a light, reedy gig, in which were seated a young man, and, by his side, a young lady. Ah, young sir! what are you about? If it is necessary that you should whisper your communications to this young lady—though really I see nobody at this hour, and on this solitary road, likely to overhear your conversation—is it, therefore, necessary that you should carry your lips forward to hers? The little carriage is creeping on at one mile an hour; and the parties within it, being thus tenderly engaged, are naturally bending down their heads. Between them and eternity, to all human calculation, there is but a minute and a half.

In Irish mythology there is the coach which comes to fetch your soul, the coiste bodhar. Coiste Bodhar
Was this bearer of the King’s Mail to be such a vehicle?

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin

I read Willy Vlautin’s Lean on Pete recently. It’s well written and has some of the same qualities of The Motel Life though not quite as realized in terms of inscape which was Hopkins’ term for that mysterious quality of perception that allows us to enter into the heart of things. Narration is a gift that Vlautin has. He’s a musician in a band as well and one can imagine in the bus the paused hush as he begins a story which will be not overcooked and not overchewed. They are brisk and I think probably depend on those stock images which we have of American life, the trailer park, the tract house, the degraded environment of the inner city. There is no need to describe, no need to pause, a visual library gives us all we need to know. To continue the metaphor to the point of collapse those images have a million date stamps on them and are beginning to fall apart.

It’s not so much the detail as the telling detail. Dickens’s readers all knew about slums and had read many a tract about dens of vice and corruption. Tom-all-Alone’s as a terminus has its own special stink:

Jo lives—that is to say, Jo has not yet died—in a ruinous place known to the like of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone's. It is a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people, where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants who after establishing their own possession took to letting them out in lodgings. Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery. As on the ruined human wretch vermin parasites appear, so these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever and sowing more evil in its every footprint than Lord Coodle, and Sir Thomas Doodle, and the Duke of Foodle, and all the fine gentlemen in office, down to Zoodle, shall set right in five hundred years—though born expressly to do it.
(Bleak House)

They’re going to make a movie out of Lean on Pete. It will be o.k. because it’s going back to being a movie but sometimes more is more.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Illative Sense of John Henry Newman

How are we to develop the Illative sense? First of all there is the small question as to whether there exists such a thing as the illative sense as Newman understood it? His account of it persuades me but it may be something that you need to have some experience of to accept, the point being that the overleaping of intermediate steps towards a truth is not likely to be supported by methods which depend on them. It’s the lifting yourself up by the seat of your own pants without external aid aspect that gets people worried. Here surely is well dug, manured and with tilth like fine breadcrumbs, soil, ready for the seeds of self delusion. That is a sensible point and it can only be answered by an admission and an admonition - caveat rhetor. The man who has served his apprenticeship to the truth using all the standard tools for its attainment is one to whom the truth may be revealed by illative means. He has by long attention achieved a connaturality with the truth. It speaks to him.

Previously here:
illative sense
Elisa Freschi’s points in the comments are well taken.
T. Arnold Haultain’s strictures (pub. 1885) on the illative sense are to be found at the Internet Archive:

Monday, 7 January 2013


Is our impression of continuity the source of continuity or is it the point of departure for an analysis of self-identity? What I mean by self-identity here is the feeling of the continuance of a self and not the empty expression implying that there is a self that is identical to itself.

First of all the analysis of personal identity into synchronic and diachronic may be unsustainable as it is obvious that traits and abilities require time for their expression. A closed and suspicious person will require less time to be disabused of a new acquaintance than an open and trusting one but both traits will require time to unfold. It is like the moving point of the cone of memory a la Bergson. Everything is focused at that point of entry into the plane of history but because everything that happens is poured into the cone of memory and alters its contents, it is clearly the case that we never step into the same river twice. There is then constant alteration but there is at the same time a style of alteration. To offer a planetary metaphor this style or interaction between the elements of the personality is like the gravity that keeps the ‘falling’ planets in the same relation to each other. So by the anatman doctrine of the Buddhists and the ‘bundle’ theory of Hume the self is a vacuous concept.

The wily advaitins expand the vocabulary of the problem and refer to that disputed entity as the jiva or individual person and reserve the appellation ‘self’ for the consciousness or awareness that takes different mental shapes but remains fundamentally the same through all its manifestations. The metaphor offered is that of ‘clay’ and various vessels that are made of clay.

This is a position that you cannot logically think your way into, the force of it must be felt through meditation or to put it into Platonic terms, it is a formal apprehension.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli by Ronald Firbank

Many of the Anglican priests that went over to Rome in the early days of the Oxford Movement were drawn by the charms of its interiors and the access to ritual splendor, the chaunting and the sublime weight of the cope as the Tantum Ergo was sung. One might imagine them as a synchronised swimming team breasting the choppy Tiber in burgundy leotards.
Ronald Firbank was brought into the Church by Fr. Hugh Benson of whom I have written. Firbank was refused entry into the priesthood as was another associate of Benson’s, Frederick ‘Fr.’ Rolfe or Baron Corvo.
Already a published author and a fully formed personality by the time he entered Cambridge at the age of nineteen, Firbank took the further step of divorcing himself from English culture by converting, in 1907, to Catholicism, a religion whose ornate rituals, costumes, symbols, and pageantry provided him with a vehicle through which to express his homosexuality obliquely.

Down at the back of Charlie Byrnes I found a hardback copy of Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli for €2. It’s in perfect condition first published in 1926. This edition is from 1977 beautifully got up by Duckworth with an unusual ligature between st and ct. In the first chapter the Cardinal is baptizing the Duquesa’s dog:

And thus being cleansed and purified, I do call thee, ‘Crack’! he addressed the Duquesa’s captive burden.

If you can’t join them, mock them. Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, W.H. Auden and others regard him as a fine writer. Ernest Hemingway had some books of his at the Finca in Cuba. Gertrude Stein recommended him:
In the three or four years that we were good friends I cannot remember Gertrude Stein ever speaking well of any writer who had not written favorably about her work or done something to advance her career except for Ronald Firbank and, later, Scott Fitzgerald.
(from A Moveable Feast by E.H.)

Let me leave you with this:
Bearing a biretta and a silver shawl, Madame Poco, the venerable Superintendent-of-the-palace, looking, in the blue moonlight, like some whiskered skull, emerged, after inconceivable peepings, from among the leafy limbo of the trees.

Friday, 4 January 2013

The Meaning of Treason by Rebecca West

Where do they go, those books from the €1 shelves after they have been winnowed by such as I? I prefer not to find out, some things should remain mysteries but there is no afterlife that is conceivable for theological year books unless they are glued together for a high shelf in a theme pub. I saved from that dismal fate recently two volumes, The Meaning of Treason by Rebecca West pub.1949 and Elephant Bill y Lt.-Col J. H. Williams. pub.1950.

Rebecca West is naturally always very readable. A large part of her book is taken up with the trial for treason of William Joyce aka Lord Haw Haw.
Lord Haw Haw
Strictly of course the treason verdict was not by any means safe and sound as Joyce was not a British citizen even though he passed himself off as such nor was America, whose citizen he was, at war with Germany when he became a naturalized German. That direct sort of treason being a frail twine to hang the hated broadcaster the remoter shores of jurisprudence were scouted for a more adhesive charge.

It is a maxim of the law, quoted by Coke in the sixteenth century, that “protection draws allegiance, and allegiance draws protection” (protectio trahit subjectionem, et subjectio protectionem)

Even got under false pretenses the British passport which Joyce had and diligently kept current gave him protection and that therefore he owed allegiance to the crown. In a curious semi-uncoupling of passport holding and citizenship in 1905 Lord Alverstone defined a passport as:

a document,, issued int the name of a Sovereign, on the responsibility of a Minister of the Crown, to a named individual, intended to be presented to the government of foreign nations and to be used for that individual’s protection as a British subject in foreign countries.

It’s that last little ‘British subject’ afterthought that marred the prosecution’s case given that statute law involves strict adherence to its letter. West characterises this in a gendered fashion:

The arguments that Joyce’s counsel brought against the obvious inference were peculiarly masculine; they were tainted with that decadence which befalls all human activities; art, literature, science, medicine and law, when the game becomes less important than the rules.

My summation:
I put it to you, that you Rebecca West have used such expressions on many occasions during your connection with Mr. Wells, that those sentiments however heart felt have no bearing on the legal facts of the case and that moreover Mr. Wells knew this and knew that the mercy of the court would not be forthcoming.

Neither was it for William Joyce.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013


There is always going to be talk about conspicuous examples of events that we can only characterise as evil. The account of how they happened on a naturalistic causal basis often then turns to the question why a good God allowed them to happen. This concept of God which is taken to be the dominant one in the West is thereby found wanting. Such a God is absurd, ergo there is no God or if he’s not dead he’s as good as dead.

The Gnostics considered that all matter is aimed at death and has at its ontological core a lack. Augustine in a different sense took lack as the source of evil. Whereas the Gnostics took matter as such to be evil, in Christian theology matter itself is transcended. My father related to me once that when they repaired to the pub which was also the undertakers after a funeral on the counter he saw the receipt for the coffin: to one ‘victory’ £6/6/0‘. “O death where is thy sting,o grave where is thy victory, ”.

However the soul’s connection to the body as the form of the body is maintained in the post mortem state. The body then will be a ‘soma pneumatikos’ , a spiritual body. If you’re going to have a personal immortality then the body in some manner must come into it. Matter itself is transformed in the Christian account and in this final reckoning the lack in matter that is fundamental to the occurrence of evil is rectified.