28 October 2007

A Halloween Column

A few words, appropriate to the season, about logic and the spirit of defiance.

My expectation is that my next entry into Pragmatism Refreshed will have to wait until November 1,m Thursday, by which time of course the Great Pumpkin will have risen, rewarded Linus for his fidelity, and gone on his way.

In the words of a 19th century German logician, Christoph von Sigwart (1830 - 1894): "No amount of failure in the attempt to subject the world of sensible experience to a thorough-going system of conceptions, and to bring all happenings back to cases of immutably valid law, is able to shake our faith in the rightness of our principles. We hold fast to our demand that even the greatest apparent confusion must sooner or later solve itself in transparent formulas."

The "we" in the second of those sentences is the western post-Renaissance scientific spirit, inclined to put facts into tables and draw conclusions, then impute those conclusions to God or (what is the same) the nature of things.

As Dostoyevsky knew, as his "underground man" expressed with eloquence at about the time that Sigwart was writing those words, there is also that within "us" that rebels against the "transparent formulas" in which "we" have such faith. So let the thorough-going system of conceptions have the other 364 days of the year. This one is given over to defiance, to sensible experiences that aren't so sensible, and aren't interested in "solving themselves." To flights on broomsticks and knocks on the door though nobody is there.

27 October 2007

My future as a blogger

I'm going to cut back on my entries to Pragmatism Refreshed. Why? Because I've begun a new blog, here, www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com -- and I'm splitting my constant quantum of blogging energy into two.

Proxy partisans is what it sounds like -- a blog with a tighter focus on the battles for control in corporate America, as waged through the proxy machinery required by the laws of the state of Delaware (usually) with some impositions on the federal level.

Meanwhile, Pragmatism Refreshed will continue as it is -- a receptacle for whatever is passing through my head on a particular day -- the ultimate vent.

The distribution of efforts should be 50/50, so I hope those of you who've been checking in on a daily basis will keep up that habit, or modify it only slightly and check in once every couple of days to see what's new.

By the way, the new issue of Conde Nast's Portfolio is on newsstands. I bought one in an airport on my way across the country Thursday. It's their best issue yet (though that isn't a really high bar for them to clear, either). They may be beginning to find a distinctive voice. The articles on the chocolate industry and the pertinent FDA regulations was a fun read, from the pen of Alexandra Wolfe, the daughter of Thomas Wolfe.

Her father didn't really do the magazine any favors in its inaugural issue, as I believe I've mentioned on this blog. His contribution, which started with a failed effort at onomatopoeia -- in this case, an effort to represent the sound of fists banging on a door -- was just silly, on a lot of levels.

But Alexandra has done Portfolio, and the family name, proud.

26 October 2007

Good to be home

As regular readers of this blog likely remember, I check out the local newspapers when I travel, not for the usual AP/Reuters stuff that I'd read anywhere else in the world, of course, but for the local stories.

As might be expected, in San Francisco over the last few days the BIG story has been the devastation in the southern part of their state, with some obvious local angles -- the bay area fire departments are sending assistance to their brethren, etc.

Less, predictably, a front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle Saturday said that there may be a serial killer preying on the homeless who camp out in Gold Gate Park. There have been three recent homicides there in recent weeks -- September 4 and 8, and October 16. Tensions with neighbors who see the homeless not as harmless eccentrics but as somewhere between a nuisance and a danger has been runing high at any rate. Some of the interviewees thought that might be behind the killings. But that seems implausible to the experts interviewed, who think there ismore likely a connection to the lively crack-cocaine traffic in the area.

A much lighter story inside the same paper, same day, concerned the consolations to be found in moving out of a home one owns, especially in an overpriced area, into a rental situation. The reporter, Susan Fornodd, and her husband, moved to a rental house less than a mile from one they used to own.

Still too serious a subject for you? In implication if not in tine? there's one even further inside the paper about collectors of Halloween kitsch, who are apparently excited now about Tiffany plates with pumpkin illustrations.

I did a lot of thinking during my travels about my own blogging future, and I'll bring you all into my confidence tomorrow.

17 October 2007

"It's Not a Picture, Daddy."

This will likely be my last post here for a few days. I hope its a good one.

On my Vermont travels this weekend, my friend and I stopped at a gorge, where the Black River cuts deep through the mountainside just down the road from Woodstock.

We weren't the only ones with cameras to have stopped there. It was a beautiful day for sight-seeing (site-seeing? -- either homonym works) and the bridge over this gorge was crowded.

I saw a father trying to encourage the inner sighte-seer in his daughter. He asked her, "Isn't this a wonderful picture? The colorful trees and the water...."

She interrupted his exposition to say: "It's not a picture, Daddy."

That's an insightful little girl. She has a great career in philosophy ahead of her. Dad was using the term "picture" non-literally of course, but the child's mind grasped the difference between being 'really here' and the mediation of somebody else's photo, painting, etc.

She is the connection between my post Monday on the Vermont trip and my post yesterday on the philosophical question: What is reality? The reality/picture distinction is that between the artificially framed view someone else has chosen for me, and the unframed view -- or, more strictly, the naturally framed view my nervous system provides.

Hollywood can imagine a "matrix" for her in which she only thinks she's standing at a gorge, and Descartes can imagine an evil demon who tricks her into thinking she's at the gorge. But even within those artfully constructed worlds, the reality/representation distinction reasserts itself. Within the matrix, there would still be a here-now experience of the gorge on the one hand and various partial representations of it on the other, so such hypotheses don't shed the sort of doubt upon that valuable distinction that their creators sometimes think they do.

If you had a home at that scene, you'd have realty near the reality, which would put your "i" in the middle of it.

16 October 2007


Let's ask that everlasting favorite question: what is reality?

We must begin any chain of thought somewhere, and since the question itself presumes that "reality" is our goal, not our premise, we can't start there.

So let's begin with what is sometimes taken to be its antonym, "appearance."

I submit that although there is a sense in which it is right to take appearance/reality as antonyms (and I'll get back to that) there is a broader sense in which our conception of reality has to be built up out of appearances.

Reality, broadly considered, has the following four constituents:

1)Everything that has ever appeared to anyone – whether the appearing has been long-lasting or fleeting, consequential or not – a wood stove keeping you warm or purple spots before your eyes indicating illness. Everything that has ever appeared to anyone has this much reality – it really has appeared! So we start with that. This is the "cogito" part of a famous formula.

2)Also, there are potential appearances. The noise the tree makes in the uninhabited forest. Of course, somebody might have been there. Somebody might be there the next time a tree falls. We ought to have a conception of reality broad enough to include such unrealized possibilities.

3)Invisible cosmic machinery. We postulate that various things must be happening or have happened in order to make sense of that which appears to us. After all, appearances are strikingly law-like and predictable. The sun appears to rise in the east every morning. We postulate the laws of gravity and inertia that make sense of this, and this machinery too is real.

4)Those to whom things appear. Conscious minds. Us. This is the "Sum" part of the formula.

So reality, I imagine you might say, has all of those constituents. But it is often used in a narrower sense, focused especially upon (3). This is what we mean when we say, “I’m not interested in the appearances, only in the underlying realities.” Some appearances are privileged because they fit nicely with one another into a coherent whole, and with the underlying cosmic machinery we postulate. Other appearances, like the strange sights I dreamy last night, or the purple spots that swim briefly before my eyes when I suffer from a fever, don’t have that privilege, and are “merely” appearances, nothing more.

We might also consider the English language term “realty” or “real estate.” Land and the buildings permanently affixed to it are more real than other forms of property, by common consent as suggested in the language used to describe them. Why is that?

15 October 2007


I drove to Vermont Saturday with a friend to see what we could see of the colorful leaves of October.

What sticks in my mind is that we spent some time in Springfield, Vermont, the town that hosted the Simpsons premier.

The Simpsons, as you probably know, is a cartoon television show that takes place in a "Springield" of no definite state. See my August 2 blog entry for a description of the movie. The point to retain for now is that the clues that the series (and the movie) provide to the location of its Springfield are famously contradictory. Still, Springfield Vermont hosted the movie premier, and it is still celebrating.


Its got a statue out in front of a building that may be townhall, of a hand (Homer's, presumably) holding a donut with sprinkles and a bite in it.

Also, the restaurant we stopped at for a cup of coffee has Simpsons-themes menus.

Another point sticks to mind: the difficulty of finding decent radio stations while driving through the Green Mountains. When I tired of statis, I put on my CD of the songs of the musical "Spelling Bee," which I'm afraid my leaf-peeping partner disliked.

See my April 12 entry for what I like about that musical.

Still, by the time we got back into Massachusetts it was possible to get a decent signal from radio stations we could both listen to with pleasure.

And that will conclude this travelogue.

14 October 2007

Robert Barclay

In the words of Robert Barclay, one of the first generation of Quakers:

"All true and acceptable worship to God is offered in the inward and immediate moving and drawing of his own Spirit, which is neither limited to places, times, nor persons: for though we be to worship him always, and that we are continually to fear before him, yet as to the outward signification thereof in prayers, praises or preachings, we ought not to do it in our own will, where and when we will; but where and when we are moved thereunto by the stirring and secret inspiration of the Spirit of God in our hearts; which God heareth and accepteth of, and is never wanting to move us thereunto when need is, of which he himself is the alone proper judge. All other worship then, both praises, prayers or preachings, which man sets about in his own will and at his own appointment, which he can both begin and end at his pleasure, do or leave undone as himself seeth meet, whether they be a prescribed form, as a liturgy, &c., or prayers conceived extempore by the natural strength and faculty of the mind, they are all but superstitions, will-worship, and abominable idolatry in the sight of God, which are now to be denied and rejected, and separated from in this day of his spiritual arising, however it might have pleased him (who 'winked at the times of ignorance,' with a respect to the simplicity and integrity of some, and of his own innocent Seed, which lay, as it were, buried in the hearts of men under that mass of superstition) to 'blow upon the dead and dry bones,' and to raise some breathings of his own and answer them; and that until the day should more clearly dawn and break forth."

13 October 2007

Yes, Close the Loophole

I don't believe in taxation in general. I don't believe in sovereignty or government either. All that is implied in the label "anarcho-capitalist" which is part of the mission statement of this blog.

Ordinarily, then, I wouldn't get involved in debates over particular tax proposals up or down. It is my mission as an anarcho-cap to think out of precisely that box.

Still, I have seen (relatively) strong and weak arguments made in "within the box" terms, in debates especially over what does or doesn't count as a capital gain. I know the difference -- between strong and weak that is -- and some of the arguments made to defend tax loopholes, made to defend in particular favorable capital-gains like treatment for some very ordinary-income type cash receipts (by the managers of hedge and private equity funds) are painfully weak.

I keep hearing and reading these bad arguments for how compensation for that particular sort of well-remunerated employment should really be considered capital gains because it takes place within the context of a limited partnership and the managers have their own money involved so its only fair to be nice to them and we don't want to wage class warfare by calling compensation by its right name. It is painful to watch it, but I do my duty.

On September 8, on this blog, away from the obligations of employment and propriety, I discussed the general considerations governing why capital gains are generally treated favorably in the first place. All I'll say today in expansion upon that is: Leges non verbis, sed rebus, sunt impositae.

Or, in humbler non-Latin terms, I reminded of the story about Abraham Lincoln in which he asked a cabinet member, "how many legs does a dog have if we call a tail a leg?"

"Well, sir, then it would have five."

"No. It would have four. Calling a tail a leg won't make it a leg."

Income is income, and income earned by managerial effort is "ordinary income" for which the law prescribes a rate. Calling it capital gains for various spurious reasons ought to stop. Or ought to be seen for what it is by the general run of folks who can't benefit by such trickery, in the hope that seeing what is underway here will diminish their attachment to the myth of sovereignty and will help hasten the day of anarcho-capitalism.

12 October 2007

Advertising on XBox

Yesterday's New York Times ran a fascinating business story about Toyota's movement into the video game world.

It isn't selling the games. It is selling itself within the games. Advertising -- or more strictly, product placement -- has come to the world of the Xbox.

The Times' story starts with a new Toyota Yaris which "has a giant tentacle that reaches out of its roof to shoot enemies as it races through a futuristic tunnel, sometimes within inches of soaring fireballs," and is the central character in the new Xbox game, also accordingly called Yaris.

This may be the best pop cultural thing to happen to Toyota iun the US since South Park portrayed the owners of its Prius as impossibly smug people whose self-satisfaction may result in meteorological disaster.

Actually, it might be an even better bit of product placement than that.

The Yaris (not the model with the robotic tentacle, though) is BTW a real car. It was introduced in Europe in 1999 and in America in the spring of last year.
The 2007 models come as a three-door hatchback ($10,950), a basic four-door sedan ($11,825), or a sportier sedan, $13,325).

Although advertising through video games isn't entirely new, (advertisers will spend $502 million on such deals this year, the NYT story says) it does appear to still be new to the automobile business. And another case where Toyota has stolen a march on its US based counterparts.

11 October 2007

Is the Net Good for Writers

I'm feeling too lazy today to do anything more than leave you with a quote. Fortunately, a good one is available. The subject line for this entry, Is the Net Good for Writers, is the subject of a symposium over at 10ZenMonkeys, whence my quote comes.

One of the contributors, Mark Dery, gives us the following reflection, on what Oscar Wilde might be doing today. Enjoy:

Skimming reader comments on Amazon, I never cease to be amazed by the arcane expertise lurking in the crowd; somebody, somewhere, knows everything about something, no matter how mind-twistingly obscure. But this sea change — and it's an extraordinary one — is counterbalanced by the unhappy fact that off-the-shelf blogware and the comment thread make everyone a critic or, more accurately, make everyone think they're a critic, to a minus effect. We're drowning in yak, and it's getting harder and harder to hear the insightful voices through all the media cacophony. Oscar Wilde would be just another forlorn blogger out on the media asteroid belt in our day, constantly checking his SiteMeter's Average Hits Per Day and Average Visit Length.

10 October 2007

In praise of a camera

Anthony Lane wrote in praise of the M-series Leica cameras in a surprisingly interesting essay in the Sept. 24 issue of The New Yorker.

There have been Leicas since 1925, and as Lane points out early in his piece, the famous head shot of Che Guevara, the one reproduced on countless posters and tee-shirts over decades now, was taken on a Leica, as was the "celebrated smooch caught in Times Square on V-J Day, 1945" the photo in which a nurse gracefully bends in a half-circle while receiving a sailor's festive attentions.

You can read Lane's article here.


In the letters sections of the more recent TNY, the one dated Oct. 15, I see two letters that expand a bit on the Leica cult. One of them is from Frank Van Riper, a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer himself, who writes that the great thing about his two M6 Leicas is that they don't look intimidating to the subjects. The great bugaboo of serious photography is that spontaneous moments like that kiss can't really be caught by the "typical photojournalist, bristling with ling lenses attached to S.L.R. bodies whose shutters and motor drives sound ominously gunlike."

I'm a lousy photographer, and take bad touristy shots, but listening in on the fervent discussions of almost any cult can be interesting. And in this case, the real issue is one of preserving and recovering the past.

(I was sufficiently captured by the exchange to look up what the initials S.L.R. mean. Single lens reflex. It's a camera in which the photography views the subject through a mirror. Sadly, I don't feel any wiser for having looked that up.)

09 October 2007

Math notation

I'm not accustomed to thinking of mathematical notation as having a history. After all, the equals sign, "=," just is what it is. When did I first encounter that sign? First grade? I can't remember, and this "time out of mind" quality is what protects it from historical inquiry.

But of course such notation does have a history. The number zero has a history that supports a legion of scholars, as does the history of pi. How we write a number is connected with the way we think about numbers, so that writing "0" is something very different from writing "zero."

Still, let's not drift away into number theory. Let's stick with a sample of what one might call "pure notation," the equal sign. This = was invented in 1557 by Robert Recorde, of Wales, in what was actually the first book on algebra printed in the British isles.

Here's the URL for an image of the page in which the equal sign first appears.


You'll notice if you go to that page that Mr. Recorde used two rather longish parallel lines.

The old-fashioned fonts can make comprehension difficult. So I'll reproduce the final paragraph for you, just before his list of seven equations.

"Howbeit, for each alteration of equations, I will propound a few examples, because the extraction of their roots, may the more aptly be wrought. And to avoid the tedious repetition of these words, 'is equal to,' I will set as I do often in working, a pair of parallels, or remote lines of one length, thus: ===========, because no two things can be more equal. And now mark these numbers."

We should all have as solid a claim to immortality as Mr. Recorde and his scheme for the avoidance of tedious repetition.

08 October 2007

Fraudulent conveyances

A defunct New York based hedge fund named Manhattan Investment entered chapter 11 protection seven years ago.

Earlier this year, in a surprise move, a bankruptcy court judge ruled that giant brokerage firm Bear Stearns -- which was the "prime broker" for Manhattan -- might be on the hook for $121.5 million in money that this particular client transferred thereto shortly before the collapse. Bear with me whilst I try to explain this to myself.

There's a large and convoluted body of precedent and principles that deal with pre-bankruptcy transfers. There's good intuitive reason for concern. After all, think of this on a Mayberry Scale. Suppose Floyd's Barber Shop (or FBS Inc.) has fallen on hard times. Too many of the men of Mayberry have gone bald, or have gotten into the habit of going to Raleigh to get their hair cut in fashionable styles, and poor Floyd just can't make ends meet.

He has lots of creditors, but we'll focus on two, the North Carolina Scissor Sales Co. (NCSS) and the Greater Mayberry Hair Tonic Supplier (GMHTS).

The folks at GMHTS have always been buddies with Floyd. They've hung out together out in front of the sheriff's office and all that. But Floyd hardly knows the NCSS at all. They're just the name of the invoice to him.

So what does he do when he is facing insolvency? If he declares bankruptcy, then his barbershop as an "estate" is protected from all creditors until the court-appointed trustee can come up with a plan for who gets what. The strangers at the NCSS and Floyd's buddies at the GMHTS will be on an even basis here.

Suppose that he doesn't like that idea. Giving in to a natural human temptation, he might make a large payment -- all the cash he has left in the register, against the GMHTS bill. Then declare bankruptcy the following day.

The NCSS will naturally be unhappy when they discover this. Floyd isn't allowed to do that. The Trustee may seek to "avoid" that conveyance -- in other words, get the money back from the scissors' salesmen and put it back into the barbershop's cash register until a general plan is developed, wherein of course the NCSS and the GMHTS will be treated equally.

Which conveyances are avoidable and which aren't? Ah, there's the rub. The $121.5 million question for Bear Stearns just now.

07 October 2007

Harry Potter


Now that that's out of the way. I've continued my slow wanderings through the last novel in the Harry Potter series since I last discussed wizardly matters here. It has been slow because, well ... I've had other things to do. But I'm about two-thirds of the way through now.

As one might expect from a book of this sort, the pace picks up considerably between the half-way mark and the 2/3s mark.

I liked the introduction of the "deathly hallows" that gives the book its name. The three leads characters (Harry, Ron, Hermione) start seeing an odd geometric-looking symbol. When at last they hear an explanation for the symbol, it turns out the markings, which had seemed quite abstract (a triangle, a circle inside it, a line bissecting them both) have very concrete referents. The three objects, or hallows, are: a certain cloak, a particular wand, and a stone.

The stone here appears not to be the "philosopher's stone" or "sorcerer's stone" from the first book -- unless she's got a surprise in store to which I haven't come yet. Yet it is surely not unrelated to that.

I enjoyed the scene whereby the three lead characters are nearly captured by Death Eaters due to some treachery by Luna Lovegood's father, and the fact that his treacherous actions are, from his point of view, not only understandable but sympathetic.

That incident leads us -- as so much in Rowlings' work does -- to contemplate the etymology of one of her names. Xenophilius? Lover of the foreign or the strange.

I also like the way that, further on, even Wormtail, a justly despised character who was once Ron's pet rat, his "animal familiar," gets a chance to redeem himself.

That's enough babbling for now. All in all, it seems that the book deserves most of its hype, if not quite all.

06 October 2007

Universal Expression: The Search for Scapegoats

In my entry in this blog for June 30 I wrote about a company called Universal Express. I wrote about it because the company, for some time now, has been chiefly a vehicle for separating fools from their money, and because its chief executive, Richard Altomare, was an especially good example of shamelessness. Altomare actually compared himself to Rosa Parks.

"I am sure that Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony and others, who questioned previously accepted 'legal' practices, were vilified, criticized and even demonized prior to the truth finally surfacing," he was saying in late June. A neat way, as I noted at the time, to deflect accurate accusations of criminality. http://cfaille.blogspot.com/search?q=Universal+Express

There is more to report. The court, in the person of Judge Gerald Lynch, appointed an examiner, Jane Moscowitz, to take control of the assets, itemize same, protect them, and make reports. Ms Moscowitz made her first report September 28. You can read it for yourself at this URL: http://materialevidence.angelfire.com/master.pdf

She reports that upon her appointment as receiver, she found that the company had a bank account with $83,000 in it, but a biweekly payroll obligation of $112,000, excluding the payroll to Mr. and Mrs. Altomare. Accordingly, she assembled the employees and told them there was no money to continue paying them. She asked for their contact information and told them they could leave.

"After I left the area where they were assembled," she wrote, "Altomare told the employees that there were sufficient funds to cover payroll but that I had simply chosen not to pay them."

Mr. Altomare appears to have treated employees with the same consideration that he always treated investors -- all he did for either was to find them scapegoats for his con game. There's more here:


True believers are coming at last to see the nature of the scam. One such true believer had created an online petition complaining of attempts by the nasty Securities and Exchange Commission to "destroy him, our company, and our fair market system."

But said true believer no longer believes. He's added an note to the page with that petition, saying: "As author of this petition, in good conscience I can longer support Mr. Altomare or Universal Express, or any of the other defendants. I have sadly come to the conclusion, based upon what I have read from the court appointed Receiver in this matter, that shareholders were abused. I withdraw this petition. My intentions were good, but I feel betrayed."

Maybe Mr. Marten, the creator of that petition, can turn his betrayal to good effect by better recognizing, and warning others of, the fact that we live in a sad time, when there's many a Bull Connor who wants to compare himself to Rosa Parks.

05 October 2007

Jerry Flint

Jerry Flint is a columnist for Forbes, who wrote a wonderful piece there this week called, simply: Quackery.

His subject, General Motors, a company with a long history of "resorting to gimmicks to resolve labor issues or just to get out of a sticky spot."

He gives two cases in point: one from the company's recent past, the other from its VERY recent past (one might say, from its specious present).

1) A few years back, GM decided that it was paying too much money to those of its workers who, in its Delphi subsidiary, made various auto parts: its power trains, its HVAC, etc.

It 'solved' this problem by spinning off the subsidiary -- making Delphi a theoretically separate company. But to avoid trouble with the union for this bit of domestic outsourcing, it had to give Delphi various guarantees. The guarantees have undermined the reason for the spin off, and as Flinto says GM has since given billions to those same workers. The whole notion of a spinoff was a gimmick, a bit of quackery.

2) The present. Late last month, GM settled with the auto workers union after a brief strike. The stickiest issue was health care for retirees.

The solution was the creation of a health care trust, funded by the auto companies but managed by the union. I've discussed this before, and expressed some of the same skepticism that Flinto expresses here, although he is more forceful on the subject than I was: http://cfaille.blogspot.com/2007/09/after-brief-strike.html

Says Flint, "It doesn't reduce any costs. The health care bill would remain the same" and although that eliminates the medical liability from the balance sheet, "What difference will that make if GM fails to make sexier cars?"

Precious little, surely.

04 October 2007

A Pluralistic Universe

The title of this entry is also the title of William James' most metaphysical, most speculative, most free-ranging work.

I'll limit myself today to some observations about its structure. James defines his own position through a series of dichotomies, of either/ors if you please. The first two of them are set out clearly in the first lecture, the third appears more gradually.

There is first the question of materialism versuis some sort of supernaturalism. Philosophies of the former sort define the world "so as to leave man's soul upon it as a sort of outside passenger or alien" while supernaturalism of any variety "insists that the intimate and human must surround and underlie the brutal."
James opts for the latter. "Not to demand intimate relations with the universe, and not to wish them satisfactory, should be accounted signs of something wrong."

The second dichotomy takes place AFTER we have crossed the threshold of supernaturalism. Shall we worship a Being who transcends this world, or shall we worship the world itself as supernatural enough?

Dualistic theism or pantheism? Given the former, "Man being an outsider and a mere subject to God, not his intimate partner, a character of externality invades the field. God is not heart of our heart and reason of our reason, but our magistrate, rather; and mechanically to obey his commands, however strange they may be,
remains our only moral duty. Conceptions of criminal law have in fact played a great part in defining our relations with him."

With such a God as that, James will have nothing to do. So he will be a pantheistic supernaturalist. A critic might think this an oxymoron, since if we reduce God to identity with nature, then God has ceased to be supernatural. But what James really means by supernatural, remember, is intimate, vital, non-mechanical, and what
he means by God is that something intimate, vital, etc. that infuses or surrounds all that seems external, material, mechanical, etc.

That is what it means to say that nature is itself supernatural.

Still, we can understand this God/nature in one of two ways -- monistically or pluralistically, and filling out THAT distinction, the third in the series, constitutes the heart of the book. We have to give at least our provisional, for-the-sake-of-discussion consent to the first two steps he takes even in order to understand what he is on about thereafter.

03 October 2007


If the title to this blog entry doesn't make you yawn, if you think there might be something brilliant or original in the idea of a "painting about painting," then this story might suit you:

But if it DOES make you yawn, consider this instead. In an episode of The Simpsons, the bartender Moe re-models his bar to appeal to the fashionable crowd. Along with other odd furnishing in the new Moes's, there's a television set hanging from the wall that shows an unblinking eye.

Homer asks Moe, "What's with the eye?" setting up the following brilliant dialog.

Moe: "Its' a pomo thing."

Homer: (Baffled expression on face) "Pomo?"

Moe: "Post-modern"

Homer is now silent, the baffled expression remains, Moe breaks the silence.

Moe: "Weird for the sake of weird."

Homer: "Ahhhhh!"

02 October 2007

Determinisms: Hard and Soft?

William James once drew a distinction between hard and soft determinism, in an essay often cited these days in discussions of what is nowadays called compatibilism. But I'll get to that.

Let's first understand James on his own terms. Early in an essay on the human will, on whether and to what extent its expressions are all fated, determined since forever ... early on he addresses the question of terminology. The word "freedom" is such a nice word, used so ringingly in anthems and in the course of orations on patriotic holidays, that everybody on every side of an argument will want to be standing up for "freedom rightly understood."

Old-fashioned determinism is the sort that disdains such nice words. Hard determinists don't shrink "from such words as fatality, bondage of the will, neccessitation, and the like. Nowadays, we have a soft determinism, which abhors harsh words...." The word both sorts of determinists abhor is "chance," which stands for the simple notion that the parts of the universe "have a certain amount of loose play on one another, so that the laying down of one of them does not necessarily determine what the others shall be."

James is writing in order to defend indeterminism, not to take sides between the two sorts of determinists, so he accepts the word "chance" as a statement of what he believes in, and abandons the word "freedom" to the grubbers after nice words.

The issue of things (as distinct from the issue of words) is between determinists and indeterminists, between believers in chance and believers in fate.

Now, the debate as James understood it has gone the way of all flesh. On the one hand, quantum mechanics, Godel's theorem, chaos theory and such developments have acclimated everybody to the reality of chance in the world. On the other hand, the fact that everybody now believes in chance makes chance seem less important.

Debate does continue over compatibilism. This is the view that moral responsibility and human autonomy in some valuable sense is consistent with a mechanical/materialistic theory of the universe and of our place in it.

The contrary of compatibilism of course is incompatibilism, which comes in two varieties. Incompatibilists can either say, "No, such a view is incompatible with moral responsibility, which is a good reasons for looking for flaws in such a view, because we ought to work to keep the idea of moral responsibility." We can call this the II position (incompatible, thus immaterialism)!

Another set of incompatibilists can say, "No, such a view is incompatible with moral responsibility. So much the worse for our notions of moral responsibility though -- we're going to have to learn to live without them." Call that the IA position (incompatible, thus amorality)!

James' words on the different sorts of determinists with whom he was contending have been shanghied into this debate, so that "soft determinism" is sometimes used to describe compatibilism (we can have materialism and morality too). "Hard determinist" is used to describe the IA position. This implicitly equates James' sort of indeterminism with the II position.

I don't think that's fair to him, though. Were he alive today, and up to date on contemporary science and philosophic debates, my own suspicion is that he'd still believe in immaterial aspects of the cosmos, as he did, but he wouldn't link that notion tightly to the foundations of morality. Just as he didn't want to chase after exclusive title to the word "freedom" and was happy to grant it to the determinists if they wanted it.

He would likely be a compatibilist, but he probably wouldn't regard compatibilism as all that important a point to make, because the reasons/motives that would impel him to keep looking for the immaterial would be quite different from those to which the II position appeals.

01 October 2007

Changing the Proxy Rules III

As I noted at the end of yesterday's comment, I'm all in favor of the Second Circuit's AFSCME decision, ands in favor of letting it stand, allowing the sort of meta-election now under consideration, not despite the possibility that it will prove a slippery slope, but largely because it might.

By itself, this is a small matter. I can't imagine a lot of election-rules tinkering breaking out in corporate America as a result of anything the SEC does or doesn't do, nor do I think a lot of good would be accomplished it it did.

Still, the shareholders own the company, and it is good to remind the company management, their employees, of that simple fact.

Managements tend to entrench themselves, to seek safety behind various procedural barriers. They like "staggered boards," for example. In this gambit, the shareholders are allowed to vote in or out only one-third of the boards at any one meeting. They justify this by talk of preserving continuity and experience, etc. But the empirical research shows that shareholders don't benefit from that continuity in any way that would show up in, say, the value of a company's stock.


When challenged on their responsiveness to their shareholders, or lack thereof, incumbent boards and their apologists, the advocates of entrenchment, or of what one scholar calls "directorial primacy," like to say that if shareholders aren't happy with how the company is run, they can always sell the stock. They shouldn't have to, though, That's the point. They're owners, not renters.

If you live in a home with a leaky roof and you don't like it, you canmove. The owner can then either fix the roof or find another tenant who'll tolerate the leak. Even if its your home, you might of course decide that fixing it is too much trouble, in which case you can sell.

But you, as owner of equity, also have the option of hiring a contractor who'll fix the roof. And if your contractor proves dilatory in doing this job, of firing him and hiring another. That's what shareholder activism is all about, and why the AFSCME decision should (a) stand as law, and (b) prove the start of something broader.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.