Saturday, September 19, 2015

I Reddened the Greedy Eagle's Claw

Three translations of the same poem, a love poem by Rognvald Kali Kolsson:

translated by George McKay Brown

Golden one
Tall one
Moving in perfume and onyx
Witty one
You with the shoulders
Lapped in long silken hair
Listen: because of me
The eagle has a red claw.

translated by Judith Jesch

Truly excel far for the better
women, well-tasselled with Frodi’s milling
your tresses, wise lady.
The hawkland’s prop lets hair fall on
her shoulders -
I reddened the greedy eagle’s
claw – yellow as silk.

translated by George W. Dasent

Sure it is, O lady lovely,
That thy stature far outvies
Form of women whose attire
Gleams well fringed with Frodi’s meal;
Locks as soft as yellow silk,
Lets the maiden downward fall
On her shoulders; I have reddened
Eager eagles’ crooked claws.

Frodi's mill was a wonder-mill capable of grinding out anything, including gold; due to imprudence it became the reason why the sea is salt, but, of course, here it indicates gold (although perhaps also the treasure of peace, which Frodi's mill also could grind). Particularly interesting is the entangling of the images of the lady's hair and of the man's battle-prowess, mixed in with each other and both told in the language of falconry.

St. Rognvald Kali Kolsson, or St. Ronald of Orkney, is an interesting figure. In the twelfth century Kali Kolsson was made Earl of Orkney and Shetland by King Sigurd I of Norway; he took the name of Rognvald, after a very successful predecessor, for luck. There was some initial trouble taking possession of his new position, since it was already held by someone else, but with some cunning and good fortune it all turned out well, so he founded St. Magnus the Martyr Cathedral. It was only in 1151, however, when he was in his forties, that he accomplished his most famous exploit: a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In the course of sailing there, they stopped in Narbonne, where Rognvald met the beautiful Ermengelde of Narbonne, about whom he penned the above verses. He stayed a while there while part of the rest of the pilgrim party went on, but could not be made to stay, and set out again to finish his pilgrimage. He was murdered by a band of outlaws a few years after his return to Orkney.

Toward a Typology of Problem-Solving Approaches

We can think of problem-solving in any domain as having at least a generic structure. There is a problem, which has its own structure that suggests either some gap or some apparent inconsistency. There is a path from problem to solution, which requires certain kinds of activities. And then there is the solution itself, which has its own structure corresponding in some appropriate way with the problem it solves. This gives a way to start sorting out the different kinds of strategies and approaches that can be used to solve problems in general.

Problem-solving is a practical activity and therefore has a means-end structure. The structure of the problem is what we have to start with; from this we get a general idea of the solution, our end, and have to work out together both the means to the solution and the particulars of the solution's structure. So solving a problem requires identifying the features of a problem relevant to solving it and doing so in the right way. This gives us the first family of problem-solving approaches, that of transformation of the problem. Problems have different aspects and they are not always immediately noticeable. So one thing we can do is shift the problem in some way -- either generalize it, or restrict it, or rework it so that it is equivalent but differently expressed.

In recognizing something as a problem we recognize in a very general way what would be required to solve it. This gives us another family of problem-solving approaches based on the desiderata. A problem requires some things of its solution, and there are, in addition, things that are not required but would be beneficial if they could be had. (A problem could in fact be seen as a structure with a set of desiderata.) So one takes this general profile of what a solution would have to involve and develop and transform its structural features in the hope that the path and the details of the solution become more clear.

The first family looked at how the problem itself was structured, the second at how the problem tends toward its solution. But one can also look at how the problem relates to other problems. That is, one can find analogies to other problems -- usually, of course, to other problems that have already been solved. Structurally similar problems are likely to have structurally similar solutions; problems with similar desiderata are likely to have similar solutions. But even if the other problems aren't solved, analogizing to those problems may have a similar effect to transforming the problem itself -- i.e., it may make it easier to determine what in the problem is important to the solution.

When trying to determine the path from problem to solution, one could simply try out the alternatives already available one by one, by ordinary trial and error. Or one could try out alternatives according to one's prior experience by using commonly successful methods, i.e., ways of solving problems that are known to have been useful in other problems, even if those problems were considerably different. The difference between ordinary trial and error and commonly successful methods is analogous to the difference between simple enumeration and more sophisticated forms of induction.

On some occasions there is only a very limited number of possible solutions to begin with, so one works backward from each candidate to find which goes with the problem. This reverse engineering of possible solutions could also be called 'extraordinary trial and error'.

The interesting question, of course, is whether all problem-solving approaches are members of these six families. What do you think?

Friday, September 18, 2015

An Apple-Gathering

John Farrell reminded me of this recitation of the Christina Rossetti poem:

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Music on My Mind

Special Consensus, "Eagles and Horses"


Rita Ferrone has a truly baffling article on the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick at Commonweal. She notes that the priest shortage, arising because the number of priests grows more slowly than the number of Catholics in general, results in increasing logistical problems with provision of the sacrament of Unction, which is true enough. Then she gives her solution:

The most obvious source of additional help would be deacons. The obstacle, however, is that the Council of Trent (based on James 5:15) said the sacrament of the sick forgives sins—and of course we can’t have deacons doing that! But how many of the sick are even aware that this sacrament is a twofer? The idea made sense when anointing was called “extreme unction” and only administered at the point of death. It makes little sense today. The Second Vatican Council rightly restored anointing of the sick to the status of a repeatable sacrament for those who are seriously ill, impaired by old age or chronic illness, or facing surgery. For those at the point of death, the path is clear: they are anointed, their sins are forgiven, and they receive Communion (viaticum)—a trio the Catechism likens to the three sacraments of initiation. It is their preparation for “passing over” from this life to the next, just as initiation is a “passing over” to new life in Christ. But for others who are sick—and this constitutes the majority—a different approach makes better sense. Oil for healing. Laying on of hands. Prayer, faith-filled encouragement, compassion.

The proposal makes little sense and the argument for it makes none. Nothing in this paragraph shows any understanding of how sacraments work. Sacraments are signs, so how they are done is important; and, in particular, the ministers of the sacrament and the circumstances in which they can be ministers is part of the sacramental sign itself. If you don't have the right minister(s), you don't have the sacrament at all, just as you don't have the sacrament if you don't have the right matter or the right form or a context showing that it has the right end. The minister of the sacrament is given in James 5:14; there is nothing whatsoever that indicates that anyone else can do it, and the Church statements insisting that only the priest can do it are quite easy to find. And this, indeed, makes some sense in terms of the other features of the sacramental sign itself. The Anointing of the Sick signifies the resurrection of the dead and life in the world to come; any healing in it is a small foretaste of glory, both in sign and in grace, spilling over from Christ at the right hand of God. That it is only given by the priest, whose entire sacramental existence is concerned with participation in the heavenly liturgy of Christ our High Priest in heaven, contributes to its signification as the sacrament of glory.

But that is a relatively minor matter; people can easily be confused about who can be minister. What is egregious here is the "twofer" comment, which shows a completely failure to understand the structure of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick itself. Forgiveness of sins is not a 'twofer', as if it were some additional part; it is integrally connected with the healing. In the sacrament, grace overflows from Christ to the soul, thus fortifying or reviving its health, and the consolation of the soul also overflows and fortifies or revives the health of the body to the extent possible. That's the whole point. Healing of the soul is the first and immediate effect of the sacrament; healing of the body is something that follows on this insofar as conditions allow. And healing of the soul includes forgiveness of sins. It's one and the same grace that does both; there is no 'twofer' here. You can't have one without the other and still have the sacrament. And even setting that aside, what people are 'aware of' does not affect the nature of a sacrament -- that is one of the most fundamental and basic principles of Catholic sacramental theology.

Likewise, the Vatican II argument makes no sense whatsoever. It is very possible to exaggerate the extent to which the understanding of the sacrament has changed -- contrary to what Ferrone's words seem to suggest, it was always regarded as a repeatable sacrament, for instance, and the sacrament still serves in the same 'on the verge of death' capacity now that it did; if you receive it instead because of old age or chronic illness, you are receiving exactly the same sacrament that you would get in a case on the verge of death. That was the whole point of insisting on the point in the first place: that the very same sacrament could be applied to more than just nearly dead. It's just extraordinarily strange: Ferrone wants something that has a different ministerial requirement and works in an entirely different way from the Anointing of the Sick, and yet she still insists on talking about it as if it would be the Anointing of the Sick.

There are signs throughout that Ferrone thinks using oil for prayer in cases where people are sick just is automatically the sacrament of Anointing. For example, she says,

We already allow deacons and lay ministers to bring Communion to the sick, and the Eucharist is the premier sacrament, to which all other sacraments are ordered. Why be so stingy with oil for the sick?

But deacons and lay ministers aren't the ones who actually do the sacrament of Eucharist; they are just distributing. They can do so because when the priest ministers in the sacrament the sacrament is then by its very nature distributable. But the oil for the sick is not the sacrament of Anointing. It's merely the matter for it. The sacrament only happens when the oil is actually applied with the appropriate kind of prayer by the priest. The parallel would not be laity and deacons distributing Communion but laity and deacons confecting it -- as if the deacons and lay ministers carried around blessed bread and wine and then actually tried to celebrate Mass themselves when they got to the sick. This would not be the sacrament of Eucharist. It is entirely possible to have anointings that are not the sacrament; people do such things with blessed oils all the time. They just don't pretend that it is the sacrament.

[Incidentally, Ferrone gets the Council of Trent wrong on the subject. Council of Trent does not merely say that the sacrament has to do with forgiveness of sins, therefore only priests can do it -- after all, baptism also has to do with forgiveness of sins, and in principle anyone can do it. The Council of Trent specifically says that Scripture only indicates that priests can do it (James 5:14, not James 5:15) and that the Church carefully does not do anything other than what St. James says on the subject. But you could indeed make an argument from forgiveness of sins here. The Council explicitly says that the sacrament is the completion of the sacrament of penance, so as such the sacrament should not be less restrictive in its possible ministers than the sacrament of penance. (It should require ministers at least as consecrated.) But the sacrament of penance or reconciliation is reserved to priests.]

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

I Found No Apples There

An Apple-Gathering
by Christina Rossetti

I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple tree
And wore them all that evening in my hair:
Then in due season when I went to see
I found no apples there.

With dangling basket all along the grass
As I had come I went the selfsame track:
My neighbours mocked me while they saw me pass
So empty-handed back.

Lilian and Lilias smiled in trudging by,
Their heaped-up basket teazed me like a jeer;
Sweet-voiced they sang beneath the sunset sky,
Their mother's home was near.

Plump Gertrude passed me with her basket full,
A stronger hand than hers helped it along;
A voice talked with her thro' the shadows cool
More sweet to me than song.

Ah Willie, Willie, was my love less worth
Than apples with their green leaves piled above?
I counted rosiest apples on the earth
Of far less worth than love.

So once it was with me you stooped to talk
Laughing and listening in this very lane:
To think that by this way we used to walk
We shall not walk again!

I let my neighbours pass me, ones and twos
And groups; the latest said the night grew chill,
And hastened: but I loitered, while the dews
Fell fast I loitered still.

This is one of those poems that is very tough to crack, in the sense that every interpretation that one finds seems to fall short of what the poem actually gives us, and only cover part of the evidence of the poem. A very common interpretation reads it as the tale of a 'fallen woman' -- but the narrator is not mocked by the neighbors at any point for plucking early, as one would expect, but for not having a basketful of apples, and, indeed, the narrator herself finds the bare fact of her neighbor's piled-up apples as itself 'like a jeer'. I've yet to see an interpretation of the poem that did justice to the gap between love and its fruition, which is quite clearly an element of the poem. And, of course, there are the things that are not said, with which one has to be careful -- are they implied despite being not said or not said because they are not true? For instance, it's very easy to read the first stanza as suggesting that there are no apples because the narrator plucked the blossoms -- but it's not actually said. One could perhaps also read it as the tree having immense promise -- so many blossoms it could spare some for decoration -- and yet none of it being fulfilled when the time came, for reasons unknown.

Here is something to which I would not commit myself to treating as a true interpretation, but is worthwhile for at least seeing things in the poem that are otherwise easily missed, just because of assumptions we make that hide some of the features: read the poem as if 'apples' meant 'children' or 'domestic joys', and see what pops up.

Forty Less One Acts of Labor

A previous post had a quotation noting that there are thirty-nine acts of labor prohibited on the Sabbath in Jewish practice, based on the kinds of labor that would have been done in creating the Tabernacle. I though it would be interesting to note what they are. The major locus for the list is the Mishnah Tractate Shabbat 7:2, which lays out the list as follows:

The principal acts of labor (prohibited on the Sabbath) are forty less one--viz.: Sowing, ploughing, reaping, binding into sheaves, threshing, winnowing, fruit-cleaning, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, wool-shearing, bleaching, combing, dyeing, spinning, warping, making two spindle-trees, weaving two threads, separating two threads (in the warp), tying a knot, untying a knot, sewing on with two stitches, tearing in order to sew together with two stitches, hunting deer, slaughtering the same, skinning them, salting them, preparing the hide, scraping the hair off, cutting it, writing two (single) letters (characters), erasing in order to write two letters, building, demolishing (in order to rebuild), kindling, extinguishing (fire), hammering, transferring from one place into another. These are the principal acts of labor--forty less one.

The reason for the list in the first place is that each distinct violation of the Sabbath law requires an offering, so you'd need to know what the major distinct acts are. Each category includes not just what the label says but anything that involves the same kind of work as the activity in the label. It's clear from the tractate that one of the reasons for interpreting the list in terms of labor done to build the Tabernacle is to explain why some of these particular actions are treated as distinct from each other, and another, of course, is to assist in determining whether a given action falls into one of these categories -- the closer it is to Tabernacle-building work, the more certain you can be that it is a violation, and the farther it is from such work, the more room for difference of opinion among rabbis. So, for instance, lots of scraping-type activities can get counted as being the same kind of work as "scraping the hair off"; sweeping and polishing a floor, however, ends up being more firmly in the category than a lot of other kinds of scratching and scraping, because it's very much the sort of thing you'd do in constructing a Tabernacle. But there can be complications. I found the following anecdote somewhat amusing:

"Slaughtering." Under which category? Rabh said "dyeing," and Samuel said "taking life." Said Rabh: "I said something which may seem absurd, and so as to prevent future generations from deriding me I will give a reason for what I said: Butchers are in the habit of coloring the throat of the carcasses with blood, in order that people may see (that the meat is still fresh) and be induced to buy."

Which goes to show that there may be underlying reasons for unexpected classifications.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Da Xue (Part I)

For its early history, the scholarly or Confucianist movement took as its primary texts the Five Classics -- the Book of Documents, the Book of Odes, the Book of Rites, the Book of Changes, the Spring and Autumn Annals, each of which is a kind of anthology of smaller works. By long tradition, they were thought to have been at least partly edited by Confucius himself. The Analects and the Mencius became widely read and respected entirely as commentaries on the Five Classics. The Five Classics came to be seen as rather difficult to understand on their own, and the demand for excellent commentary on them was considerable.

An epoch arrived in this commentary tradition with the great Zhu Xi, the greatest of all the Daoxue or Neo-Confucian scholars. In order to provide an easier, briefer introduction to the essential ideas, Zhu Xi recommended that students start with four works, which would come to be known as the Four Books: the Great Learning, the Analects, the Mencius, and the Doctrine of the Mean. Both the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean were chapters from the Book of Rites that Zhu Xi held to be especially valuable for distilling the essential principles of Daoxue. He championed the idea that students should begin with these Four Books, and, while not universally accepted, this became the dominant expectation. (This was significant, in that it inevitably led to the Four Books displacing in practice -- although not in principle -- the Five Classics as the fundamental texts of Confucian thought.) Of the Four, Zhu Xi held that the Great Learning or Da Xue should be read first, as providing the general pattern of the Way, and specific steps according to which one should study. Students could then go on to the more difficult Analects to get the foundational principles, proceeding through the Mencius to get the development of these principles, and culminating in the Doctrine of the Mean to begin discovering more advanced topics. Zhu Xi argued that the Da Xue fell into two parts, a foundational text written by Confucius himself and a commentary on that text by Confucius's student Zengzi.

The Great Learning can be read online in James Legge's translation at the Chinese Text Project. I am beholden also to the excerpts and commentary of Daniel K. Gardner's The Four Books and to James Legge's notes on the work.

The Classic

The text, while brief, turns out to hold hidden complications right from its first sentence. What does the 'great learning' mean? There are two possibilities, both of which can be found in Confucian commentators: it could mean extensive learning, in which the case the work is a summary of the scope of knowledge required for good governance, or it could mean learning for the mature or for adults, in which case the work summarizes the principles and structure of advanced study. A second textual issue arises in the very first sentence. It identifies three topics in which the Great Learning consists; the first is showing forth one's splendid virtue and the third is coming to rest in perfect goodness. The second, however, has two forms. In one form, it is loving the people. However, the Cheng brothers, who were a major influence on Zhu Xi, suggested that this was a corruption and it should read renewing the people. Because of Zhu Xi's importance, the latter reading has generally been taken as the most common. Under the traditional renewing interpretation, the great learning is a process: one starts with manifesting one's own virtue, which requires cultivating virtue in others, until this is complete.

That there is a process in view is confirmed by the next propositions of the text, which identify a series and insist on the importance of putting first things first. We need to know the end in view (where to rest), and given that we can set ourselves in proper order for considering what needs to be done to achieve it. This is shown by the example of antiquity. Wishing for everyone to manifest their inner virtue, they knew that they had to govern their states well; that requires harmony in households, which requires self-cultivation, which requires setting one's heart right, which requires sincere intent, which requires extension of knowledge, which requires investigation of principle, so this is where they begin. (Because the Da Xue gives investigation of principle pride of place as the first in the series, what exactly is meant by 'investigation of principle' will be one of the most important foundation-stones of the Neo-Confucian movement.) Zhu Xi notes that, despite the fact that this is structured as a series, movement from step to step can require considerable discipline and work.

All of this requires taking self-improvement to be essential; the right process of improvement begins with self-improvement, and without it nothing else can be done properly. What is more, this is something on which everyone should focus, regardless of their station in life.

This, then, is the classic or jing portion of the work. In the Liji or Book of Rites, there does not seem to be any sharp intended division between this portion and the rest, but the book does naturally fall into the parts when one looks at the content, which is almost certainly why Zhu Xi takes it to have the two parts. And, however we would interpret the Da Xue as a chapter in the Liji, as one of the Four Books the Da Xue has always been understood to have a classic portion and a commentary on it, so it makes sense to follow this tradition as we continue on.

to be continued

Links of Note, Noted

* At the SEP:
Saul Fisher, Philosophy of Architecture
Paul Guyer and Rolf-Peter Horstmann, Idealism
Kirill Thompson, Zhu Xi

* Eric Schwitzgebel on the lack of Chinese philosophy in college curricula

* MrD on the repugnant conclusion and certain popular Catholic arguments.

* Philosophers' Carnival #179

* Matthew Milliner on the Catholicism of Black Elk.

* Some good discussion of Pascal's wager

* John Corvino on gay rights and the race analogy.

* How Hagia Sophia was built.

* The history of Aristotle's Masterpiece, an early modern book on sex mashed together out of different sources

* Instituto pro Latino Sine Flexione; they have Peano's writings on the subject.

* Anton Wilhelm Amo, a philosopher from West Africa who lived in Enlightenment Germany.

* Nick Barrowman, Correlation, Causation, and Confusion

* Terrance Tomkow and Kadri Vihvelin on counterfactuals

* The Feynman Lectures on Physics, online

* Richard Marshall interviews Sara L. Uckelman on dynamic epistemology and medieval logic

* Fra Josemaria M. Barbin on The Temptation of the Istari

* The basics of oolong tea

* Anthropological researchers reconstructed the appearance of St. Rose of Lima from her skull. St. Rose at one point smeared hot pepper juice over her face to try (not entirely successfully) to stop men from checking her out and to stop people from commenting on how pretty she was, so it's unusurprising that the comment of the researchers on the reconstruction is that she was “a pretty woman with soft features and a well-distributed face.”

* The story of Benedict Daswa, who was beatified on Sunday.

* Michael Flynn on St. Christopher, ET, and the Middle Ages

* Queen Elizabeth II recently surpassed Queen Victoria's record as the longest-reigning British monarch. May there be many more years in store.

* The Chaldean Catholic Help Iraq Network

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Fortnightly Books, September 13

I'm still not feeling up for the long haul required for finishing the third volume of the Arabian Nights, so I've decided something a bit lighter for this time around: Diana Wynne Jones's parody fantasy novels Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin. Both are re-reads.

Dark Lord of Derkholm is probably my second favorite novel by Diana Wynne Jones, after Fire and Hemlock. It won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children's Literature in 1999, but, like much of her work, it is an error to think of it as simply for children; it requires a rather extensive knowledge of worn fantasy tropes, and like almost all of her works has an acidic edge. The basic idea of the story is that a fantasy world is the victim of a ruthless tourism industry; Mr. Chesney's Pilgrim Parties go on annual tours during which everyone has to play fantasy roles so people can see what they expect to see in a fantasy world. The tours are destructive and devastating: people die, resources are depleted, farmlands and food sources laid waste, and everybody's lives thrown out of kilter every year without exception. But nobody can do anything about it. However, the Black Oracle and the White Oracle have both been asked what they can do to rid the world of the Pilgrim Parties, and they have given the answer: appoint Derk the Dark Lord of the tour and make his son Blade a Wizard Guide. Be careful what you ask for, the White Oracle said; the Black Oracle just started laughing hilariously....

Year of the Griffin is the sequel, taking place eight years after Dark Lord of Derkholm, and is a tale of misfits stumbling into a bigger adventure than they imagine.