Archive for March, 2009

“Some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis…”

I couldn’t agree more!  A colleague sent me this gem from Erwin Schr0edinger (1887-1961), pioneer of quantum mechanics and Nobel Prize winner:

We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge.  The very name given to the highest institutions of learning remind us, that from antiquity and throughout many centuries, the universal aspect has been the only one to be given full credit. But the spread, both in width and depth, of the multifarious branches of knowledge by during the last hundred odd years has confronted us with a queer dilemma.

We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to require reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind to fully command more than a small specialized portion of it. I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true aim be lost for ever) than that some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them – and at the risk of making fools of ourselves.

From preface to “What is Life?” 1944
Based on a series of lectures given in Dublin in 1943

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I came here (to the University) for an argument…

…or rather for a disputation.  It may be a necessary ingredient for transdisciplinarity and something like the unity of knowledge.  Here’s Josef Pieper:

In the medieval university it was no more possible that it is today to achieve universality of knowledge and present things in such a way that students, or even teachers, obtained a truly “integral view.”  In this sense, the medieval university, just like our own universities, was not a place for studium generale.  But there was a difference:  the medieval university had the disputatio, and through it universality was achieved!  Hence we may validly ask whether the disappearance of disciplined debate carried out within the framework of the university between individuals and among the faculties may not be the true reason for the much-lamented loss of even a sketchy integral view.  It should be clear that I am not speaking here of converse among specialists and on a subject interesting only to specialists.  I mean converse on the subjects of “man in general.”  On these subjects, of course, the separate disciplines are constantly raising new questions and offering new material for discussion.  I know that for a debate of this nature several prerequisites are needed which were obviously present in the medieval university and which seem lacking today–for example, the common language and the relatively unitary philosophical and theological world view.  But perhaps it would not be altogether utopian to attempt to rebuild our academies on the basis of those very principles which were the foundation stones of the Occidental university–one of which is certainly the spirit of disputation.

[Guide to St. Thomas, 87-88]

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Kant: WRONG for America!!

Thanks to an alert colleague at the JOE–the Kant “attack ad”:

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Money Matters

Bad Banks

I admit it:  I got into philosophy so I could avoid math (sorry, Plato!).  So when it comes to money matters, I need somebody to explain things to me like I’m a four-year-old.  If you are like me in this respect, then find yourself a quiet corner and read this transcript [.pdf] of [or listen here to] the “Bad Bank” episode of the  radio show, This American Life.  It is an amusing and informative exposition of what went wrong with all the banks.  You will get it.

Bad Bonuses (and Bad Bills to get them back)

My personal political science and constitutional law advisor, Paul Sracic, brings the following to my attention regarding the chances for getting the big bonuses back from AIG execs (if this is even something we should really be worried about in the first place…).  On March 18, the Wall Street Journal law blog asked constitutional law Professor-in-Chief Lawrence Tribe whether the proposed plan to tax severely the AIG bonus money is constitutional.  Actually, there are five potential constitutional concerns:

On March 18, Professor Tribe gave the taxing plan a pass on all counts.

On March 22, Professor Sracic’s dissenting view was noted at the Volokh Conspiracy.  Specifically, Tribe had opined that the tax plan would not likely be viewed as a bill of attainder:

I do think Congress (and the Executive Branch) could avoid serious Bill of Attainder problems by passing a sufficiently broad law … rather than targeting a closed class of named executives even though the prohibition against Bills of Attainder, unlike that against Ex Post Facto laws, potentially reaches civil as well as criminal penalties.

Sracic says not so fast…

Congress may have more of a problem with the Bill of Attainder provision than they are admitting. This is because the separation of powers principle that might normally argue for judicial deference may run in the other direction here.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in US. v. Brown (1965) that the basic reason for a Bill of Attainder clause was to prevent “trial by legislature.” This is because “the legislative branch is not so well suited as politically independent judges and juries to the task of ruling upon the blameworthiness of, and levying appropriate punishment upon specific persons. “

Congress can always levy a tax that seems punitive to those who have to shell out the money. Legislative motive is therefore crucial to both limiting and to giving teeth to Bill of Attainder analysis. Does anyone think that it would be difficult to prove in court that the overwhelming reason that this bill was passed was to confiscate the ill-gotten gains of those AIG employees who received the bonuses? It is money that is already in their pockets. In this sense then, confiscation of property is being used as a punishment. When Congress does this, it is a Bill of Attainder.

On March 23, Greg Sargent of The Plum Line blog reported that Tribe has changed his mind on this point.  Sargent writes:

Tribe had previously said that he thought the measure — which would slap a 90% tax on bonuses for executives whose family incomes exceed $250,000 — would pass constitutional muster. But now, after taking a closer look, he’s not so sure.

Tribe says the problem with the bill is that the Constitution forbids Congress from enacting a “bill of attainder,” which would essentially “legislate punishment of an identifiable class,” as he put it. Tribe noted that the Supreme Court had used that clause to slap down other laws.

Tribe says the main problem is that it’s hard to make the case that the law isn’t “punitive.”

“Its punitive intent is increasingly transparent,” Tribe says. “when you have Chuck Grassley calling on [executives] to commit suicide, and people responding to pitch fork sentiment, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t an attempt to punish an identifiable set of individuals who are the subject of understandable outrage.”

The whole point of opposing bills of attainder, Tribe says, is to prevent what some have called “trial by legislature.” Tribe concludes: “That’s the primary vulnerability.”

Score one for Sracic (and, it would seem, for the obvious).

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How dare you do metaphysics?

Just listen to William Desmond in the “Preface” to his book, Being and the Between:

We philosophers ask for bread, and what stones are we handed?  Commentaries on commentaries on commentaries….  What is the matter itself?…

I think that a philosopher is a seeker, and that any genuine philosophy is an adventure in thought.  As an adventure, it cannot be judged before the search has begun.  There will be many who scoff on the dockside as the ship heaves off.  They will congratulate themselves on their prudence in valuing the security of safe harbor, and the solid land.  They will even feel superior to those who launch out into the unknown, those who risk their thinking.  They feel sure in advace it will come to shipwreck.  But perhaps these wise homebodies are the already defeated.  How dare you do metaphysics?  I do dare.  But you must also dare, if you want an answer to your question.

And if we philosophers took to heart these prudent discouragements, we might never stir from the spot.  Alas, we too seek for home, but we must seek for home to be at home.  We are fools, no doubt, to dream of something more.  But since the world is so wise, and since the standing army of its sages is always swelled with new recruits, the stray folly of metaphysical adventuring will perhaps be excused in us.  We have been told not even to try, so we will not blame the fashionable commentators for the outcome–be it what it may.

Sound like we might have an interesting book here?  Want to read it?  Better get ready, because this is who Desmond wants for a reader:

Let the wise read as the philosopher writes.  I do not ask for uncritical readers, but I do ask for disciplined readers–readers who have studied hard and long, who can take their time to think; readers who have not shunned solitude; readers suspicious of themselves before being suspicious of others; readers patient when demands are made on them; readers themselves adventurers; readers who ask for more than the rhetorics fashionable in academic philosophy, and who hate the substitution of ‘relevant’ ideology for the seriousness of truth; readers with souls full of an intellectual, indeed spiritual generosity, beyond the hermeneutics of suspicion; readers who desire to hear fundamental questions addressed with a genuine intellectual, not to say, spiritual seriousness; readers philosophically rich enough in themselves as to be able to laugh at the pretensions of what sometimes passes for ‘philosophy’; readers who long for a simple human voice to speak again about the essential issues that perennially perplex us.  I do not ask for the impossible.  I do ask for what now is rare.

I’d like to be worthy to read this book (yes…some books we might just have to merit the privilege of reading, and maybe this is such a book…. Who knows?)

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Feast of St. Joseph

Today is the Feast of St. Joseph, my personal favorite saint.  Besides the fact that he’s sold a couple of houses for me–making him a Saint for our times, it is only fitting that your verbose Prattler have a patron who knew how to keep his mouth shut.


[You can buy this beautiful sculpture here (sure wish I could!)]

The sculpture above depicts St. Joseph the Worker (Feast Day = May 1), as does this the following:


Saint Joseph
Detail from the right wing of Triptych of the Annunication – Robert Campin, Netherlands (Bruges), ca 1378-1444 (Oil on Panel)
The Cloisters Collection, 1956 – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I like a Saint who is not afraid to get his hands dirty, who rolls up his sleeves and tries to build something, who doesn’t shy away from a little hard work.  There is all kinds of work, though–both manual and intellectual labor.  Those of us who are philosophers and teachers should remember those whose work, unlike ours, causes calluses, bad backs, black lung, and that generally takes its toll on the body, even as we dedicate ourselves to our own vital labors, holding their own, rather different, occupational hazards.  [May I recommend checking out Workplace:  A Journal for Academic Labor, in which you will find–perhaps–some food for thought.]

But St. Joseph was first a dad, the “foster father” of Jesus, a parent who knew how to get out of the way of his kid, even while loving and protecting him  (something not so easy that all of us parents would do well to learn).  Today would be as good a day as any to call to mind our own dad, who maybe was quiet as St. Joe, who maybe didn’t always say everything he meant to say, who maybe didn’t always get out of our way, but who nevertheless gives it his best shot day in and day out.  Why wait until June?  [Thanks, Dad!  And thank you, too, Art!]


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You heard it here first about the President’s “reasoning”…

…on embryonic stem cell research, but of course not as eloquently as Charles Krauthammer puts it.   He writes, in part:

I am not religious. I do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception. But I also do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix. Moreover, given the protean power of embryonic manipulation, the temptation it presents to science and the well-recorded human propensity for evil even in the pursuit of good, lines must be drawn. I suggested the bright line prohibiting the deliberate creation of human embryos solely for the instrumental purpose of research — a clear violation of the categorical imperative not to make a human life (even if only a potential human life) a means rather than an end.

On this, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves it entirely to the scientists. This is more than moral abdication. It is acquiescence to the mystique of “science” and its inherent moral benevolence. How anyone as sophisticated as Obama can believe this within living memory of Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom.

It gets even testier, but deservedly so.

And, nota bene, Krauthammer is not completely opposed to embryonic stem cell research.  This complaint about bad thinking should be a concern of everyone, regardless of what side of the issue you are on.

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