‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Tuesday 28 March 2017

Lewisham and Prufock

I'm reading, for the first time, H G Wells's semi-autobiographical novel Love and Mr Lewisham (1900). It's very good! It concerns a small, socially insecure but clever young man, with thin arms and legs, who tries to triangulate his love for women with society's larger disapproval and his own shyness. He is a schoolteacher for a while, and yearns in an abortive way after the beautiful Miss Henderson. Then he attends the Normal School in South Kensington, where he yearns after the beautiful, intellectual Miss Heydinger. Here's Wells's description of that location, just before a scene in which Lewisham tries, and mostly fails, to pursue his interest in Heydinger:
As one goes into the South Kensington Art Museum from the Brompton Road, the Gallery of Old Iron is overhead to the right. But the way thither is exceedingly devious and not to be revealed to everybody, since the young people who pursue science and art thereabouts set a peculiar value on its seclusion. The gallery is long and narrow and dark, and set with iron gates, iron-bound chests, locks, bolts and bars, fantastic great keys, lamps, and the like, and over the balustrade one may lean and talk of one's finer feelings and regard Michael Angelo's horned Moses. [ch. 10]
We know that T S Eliot was an enthusiastic reader of Wells (he called The First Men in the Moon ‘quite unforgettable’). He surely must have read Love and Mr Lewisham. Might he, even conceivably, have had this novel in mind when he wrote his great poem about a small, socially insecure but clever young man, with thin arms and legs, who tries to triangulate his love for women with society's larger disapproval and his own shyness? Two accounts, superficially rather different, of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Which room? Somewhere in London, obviously.

Saturday 18 March 2017

The Conjunction Problem

A minor philosophical niggle, this. ‘The Conjunction Problem’ is what Daniel Kahneman, in his Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), calls a particular problem in probabilistic thinking. It goes like this:
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a bank teller.

b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
Kahneman says people will choose (b) as more probable, because they are wrongheaded wrongy wrong-wrongs, the berks. Phil Edwards (in a post discussing something else) summarises: ‘The correct answer is—logically has to be—(a); “A and also B” cannot be more probable than “A with or without B”, whatever A and B are. But we’re not hard-wired to be good at probability; we seem to read the question as an invitation to fill in the blank in the way that gives the most satisfying story, in this case option (b).’

Something about this smells fishy to me. I take the force of Kahneman's point, of course; and we can make it clearer by rephrasing the original question.
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a bank teller and either is or is not active in the feminist movement

b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
Put like that, (a) certainly looks more probable. But there seem to me two problems with it. One has to do with the vagueness with which the question is framed, a haziness that devolves upon being asked to compare a simple with a compound probability. The other has to do with the different valences of probability itself. ‘Given this information about a person, what do you consider plausible extrapolations as to the person's life or work?’ is a different kind of question to ‘this tossed coin has come up heads ten times in a row, what are the odds of an eleventh head?’

It may be, as Edwards suggests, that people plump for (b) because they prefer its implied story, rather than for reasons of pure probabilistic estimation. But then again, that might have nothing to do with it. Conceivably people choose (b) because they simply consider it more probable, irrespective of narrative. Reframe the question another way:
Here's quite a lot of information about Linda, designed to give you a sense of the kind of person she is, so as to feel confident making informed guesses as to the sorts of things she likes and what she does. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is doing something you consider unlikely.

b) Linda is doing something you consider unlikely. Linda is also doing something you consider she'd be likely to do.
The ‘likelihood’ angle is there in the original formulation as, if you like, Kahneman's sleight of hand, to try and nudge people to the ‘wrong’ answer. But it seems to me, when you frame it this way, it's reasonable to select (b). The thinking would be: (a) is, by definition, unlikely, so it doesn't make much sense to choose it. Of course (b) also includes that unlikely thing, but it also includes something much more likely, so if I select it I'll at least get 50%, instead of the all-or-nothing, weighted heavily towards nothing, unlikeliness of (a). The fuzziness is in the question not specifying whether we are selecting for the likelihood of the statement, or the likelihood of that statement plus literally everything else that might or might not be the case. And when you put it like that (a) becomes not so much unlikely as impossible with regard to anything save the Supreme Being. Quite apart from anything else, that's simply not how we assess statements for likelihood. Is it?

It puts me in mind of a version of the celebrated twins-at-the-fork-in-the-road logic puzzle, I think by Raymond Smullyan. You know the original puzzle. You have to get to Blogtown, urgently. But you've come to a fork in the road and don't know the way. Happily there are two people right there, identical twins, who do know the way. Unhappily, for obscure reasons (perhaps to do with their religion) one of them always tells the truth and the other always lies; and, moreover, they will only answer one question from you. What do you ask? The standard answer is: you pick one at random and ask ‘if I asked your brother which road to follow, what would he say?’ and then proceed up the other road than the one indicated. Fair enough. But the Smullyan solution, which seems to me to have a bearing on the Kahneman dilemma, is: ‘pick one brother and ask him the way to Blogtown. If you have chosen the truth-telling twin, he will point you in the right direction. If you have chosen the liar, he will point along the wrong fork in the road and also, with his other hand,  point down the road along which you have just come.’ That's bonkers in similar ways to the manner of Kahneman's bonkers explanation. Isn't it?

Sunday 12 March 2017

The Alphabet Arranged Symmetrically

Art by Scott Kim. Nic Wilkinson (whose Twitter feed brought this piece to my attention) comments: ‘This is unimaginably pleasing to me.’ To me, too.

Thursday 9 March 2017

The Categorical Im-Pratchettive

[Granny Weatherwax by Karen Shannon, reproduced by kind permission]

I didn't know Pratchett personally, although I did meet him a few times at publishers' dos, bookshop events and the like; and once I was on a BBC Radio 2 bookish roundtable with Simon Mayo, China Miéville and him. And I know people who did know him, with varying degrees of intimacy. When they talk about him they do so with love, and loyalty to his memory; but one thing that comes up is how unlike the cuddly humorous old granddad popular-culture version of him he was in life. He was, I have heard more than one person say, capable of real and focused anger. Injustice and unfairness made him angry. There are many things to say about his novels (and to be clear, before I go any further, I should say I consider him clearly one of the most significant anglophone writers of his generation) but the two things that stand-out for me most are: his extraordinary command of comic prose, a very difficult idiom to master and doubly difficult to maintain at length; and the repeated and unmissable ethical dimension to his writing. He was a moral writer above all, arguably even before he was a comic one, and certainly (I think) before he was a worldbuilder, or a creator of character, or a popular metaphysician about gods or existence or death or anything like that; important though all those elements were to his writing. Nor can his moral purpose, and his anger, be separated out. As Wyrd Sisters notes of Granny Weatherwax:
Granny Weatherwax was often angry. She considered it one of her strong points. Genuine anger was one of the world's greatest creative forces. But you had to learn how to control it. That didn't mean you let it trickle away. It meant you dammed it, carefully, let it develop a working head, let it drown whole valleys of the mind and then, just when the whole structure was about to collapse, opened a tiny pipeline at the base and let the iron-hard stream of wrath power the turbines of revenge.
I chatted with Pratchett briefly after the Radio 2 thing, and told him that I'd always been struck that Granny Weatherwax's ethical philosophy, as articulated in Carpe Jugulum (1998)—“sin is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is”—was essentially the same as Immanuel Kant's ethical philosophy. Kant grounded his ethics in the idea that we must always treat other people as ends in themselves, and never as means to an end. Pratchett looked at me quizzically. ‘Can't say I've read a whole lot of Kant,’ he told me. But he did say it was interesting.

It might, I suppose, look wrongheaded to call Pratchett's ethics ‘Kantian’. Kant's most famous moral concept is his ‘categorical imperative’: act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. The belief that individual behaviour must be governed by rules that pre-exist the situation in which the individual must act, is called deontology. Not everybody is convinced by deontology (many prefer consequentialist moral theories). Indeed critiques of Kantian moral theory stretch all the way back to the man himself. Hegel famously thought the categorical imperative empty, John Stuart Mill described it as a merely formal frame, and Schopenhauer attacked it on three grounds. First, he argued, it merely restates the ancient ‘golden rule’ that you shouldn't do to others what you wouldn't want done to yourself, and is therefore redundant. Secondly, Schopenhauer considered it egoistic because its universality includes the person who both gives and obeys the command. And thirdly, he described the categorical imperative as cold and dead ‘because it is to be followed without love, feeling, or inclination, but merely out of a sense of duty.’

More broadly, we might say: there is something over-neat about Kant's systems, something fussily precise, pseudo-mathematical and absolutist, that some people just don't like. It's the kind of metaphysics of morals an intelligent computer might concoct, people say. Moral decisions (we might think) are made by real, living, breathing human beings, in real, often pressing situations. Human life is messy, unpredictable, often awkward, and human beings are not programmed like computers. This last notion—I mean, the messiness of humanity, the way it cannot be neatly fitted into any regular grid—is a profoundly Pratchettian perspective, of course. His glory as a writer is his sense of the sprawling variety and multifariousness of people. Perhaps calling him Kantian does a sort of violence to Pratchett's ethical vision.

We could, for instance, argue that the most Kantian, in the sense of the most universalising, creatures in all of Discworld are the Auditors of Reality. They first appear in Reaper Man (1991), where we're told they ‘see to it that gravity operates and that time stays separate from space’ (and where we learn they have conversations with one another without speaking: ‘They didn't need to speak. They just changed reality so that they had spoken’. Which I've always thought was a very cool notion). The Auditors hate mess and unpredictability and they particularly hate life because it is messy and unpredictable. They would much prefer a cosmos made up of lifeless balls of rock circling stars in mathematically predictable orbits. Indeed, they would like to eliminate humanity, although they can't simply do so because it is ‘against the Rules’ (the Auditors can't break the Rules because, in a certain sense, they are the Rules). They can use proxies, though, and do so to try and extirpate the messiness of life. This drives the plots in Hogfather (1996, where they try to eliminate the titular Santa-Claus-alike because he's so messy and irrational) and Thief of Time (2001, where their plan is to stop time and so deprive humanity of its necessary element). In terms of sheer dedication to this mass genocide, the Auditors are perhaps the most evil characters in the Pratchettverse; although in fact we're told that they lack the imagination to be truly evil.

But this analysis, I'd argue, misrepresents Kant, and so misses something really important about Pratchett's moral vision. It's true that for Kant morality must be derived by what he calls pure practical reason; that is, it can't be based on the selfish or partial reasons people might come up with for their actions, what he calls ‘dependent incentives’. Pure reasoning chooses actions because those actions are good in themselves; good without any ulterior justification, good because derivative of transcendental law. But if that sounds inhuman, it shouldn't. Kant argues this not because he wants to subordinate human will to some tyrannical universal necessity, but on the contrary because this seems to him the only way to ensure that individual people treat other individual people as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end.

That's so for the following reason. To choose to act in a way incompatible with the categorical imperative, Kant thinks, is to elevate your own motivations over the needs of others. Put it this way: morality is the business of deciding which actions are permissible and which are impermissible. When you make a choice to act, you are in effect indicating you believe what you are doing to be permissible. If you steal, then in effect you're giving permission to others to steal from you. If you kill another person, then you’re giving permission to others that they can kill you. And when we put it like that, we can see (it's the first of Schopenhauer's objections, noted above) that the categorical imperative is a reciprocal rather than an absolute ethical frame. And by universalising this individual recipcrocity, Kant gives it rational and categorical force.

And the sheer rational force of acting ethically is something to which Pratchett often returns. In Maskerade (1995), Weatherwax reminisces:
‘There was a wicked ole witch once called Black Aliss. She was an unholy terror. There's never been one worse or more powerful. Until now. Because I could spit in her eye and steal her teeth, see. Because she didn't know Right from Wrong, so she got all twisted up, and that was the end of her. The trouble is, you see, that if you do know Right from Wrong, you can't choose Wrong. You just can't do it and live. So if I was a bad witch I could make Mister Salzella's muscles turn against his bones and break them where he stood ... if I was bad. I could do things inside his head, change the shape he thinks he is, and he'd be down on what had been his knees and begging to be turned into a frog ... if I was bad. I could leave him with a mind like a scrambled egg, listening to colors and hearing smells...if I was bad. Oh yes.’ There was another sigh, deeper and more heartfelt.

‘But I can't do none of that stuff. That wouldn't be Right.’
Choice seems much less open-ended when you think rationally about right and wrong. Weatherwax does not claim to have all the answers; but she does understand that ‘right’ is not the same thing as ‘nice’, and that doing the right thing very rarely coincides with doing the popular thing. That's the main plot of Witches Abroad (1991), in fact. Indeed, it's the main plot of many of Pratchett's novels.

Those Schopenhauerian objections can come to seem, when we reconsider them from, as it were, a Pratchettian point of view, features rather than bugs. Is the categorical imperative egoistic in a ‘bad’ way, because its universality includes the person who both gives and obeys the command? Or on the contrary, mightn't it be egotistical in a ‘good’ way, because ethics must be grounded in the individual psychology of ego and super-ego (I'm being anachronistic when I put it like that, I know) if it is to have any purchase on real life? Pratchett's strongest characters, in the sense of most memorable, most loved, and most often the bellwethers for the novels' ethical dramas, are also his strongest characters in terms of ego. ‘Granny Weatherwax was not lost,’ we're told in Wyrd Sisters. ‘She wasn't the kind of person who ever became lost. It was just that, at the moment, while she knew exactly where SHE was, she didn't know the position of anywhere else.’ That's both funny, and a neat piece of characterisation, although it describes the sort of person we might find rather alarming in real life. Sam Vimes has some of this quality, too: a grounded, or centred, sense of his own grasp on right versus wrong, whatever other insecurities or insufficiencies he might admit to. And Tiffany Aching, despite her youth, likewise. The ‘ego’ here means: Pratchett's fondness for strongly rendered, pungent and memorable and positive characters. The really telling thing, I think, is how rarely he does the opposite: how undersupplied the Discworld books are with full-on moustache-twirling melodramatic villains. That's sometimes seen as a problem. Amanda Craig argues that Pratchett supplies ‘a lifelong source of pleasure and happiness,’ but, she thinks, ‘this comes at the price of not showing us “the darkness”’.
There is a bullying father here, and spite and sudden death, but none of it disturbs. Other great fantasy authors from Tolkien to Robin Hobb leave us in no doubt that the torture, rape and murder in their worlds, described in chilling detail, are real and terrible, like the lust for power and sex that inspires them: but the filth of the city of Ankh-Morpork is down to dirt and poor plumbing. We are so used to the way George RR Martin or Joe Abercrombie or even Ursula le Guin show us fantasy worlds riven with cruelty, that perhaps the kindliness of Discworld is more subversive than it seems. It is, in essence, a humanist’s creation in which laughter, as Nabokov said, is the best pesticide, and humour as potent as swords.
There might be something in this objection, I suppose; although I'd tend to see it as, again, one of the strengths of Pratchett's writing, grounded in his habit of ethically universalising the moral particular. What I mean is: rather than seeing the categorical imperative as a top-down quasi-tyrannical imposition of moral order on the universe, we could see it as exactly the opposite. After all, it takes as axiomatic that nobody is outside the moral world—that is to say, it fundamentally repudiates one of the oldest moral fix-ups in human history, the one where the world is divided into ‘us’, who deserve to be treated ethically, and ‘them’, the outgroup, the Others (the Jews, the slavs, the Blacks, the barbarians, the Muslims, the poor, the women, the gays, all those many varieties of homines sacri) who fall outside of the protection of justice, who can be treated in ways beyond the ambit of morals. Kant isn't having that, and neither is Pratchett. This manifests, for Pratchett, in a refusal to take the dramatically easy way of demonising one or other outgroup. Really, nobody is beyond the pale in Discworld. No group is demonised, actual demons least of all. This same impulse manifests for Kant in an ethical rule that obtains categorically, not only to those like us, or whom we like.

This is also why Schopenhauer's third objection to the Kantian categorical imperative, as a cold and dead matter of obedience to mere duty, misses the mark; as a criticism of Kant (I think, though it would take a lot longer than I have here to demonstrate why) and certainly as a criticism of Pratchett. Pratchett's anger was hot, and his humour was continually and wonderfully alive; and that heat and that liveliness are what power his ethical vision. And one final point occurs to me: Pratchett's strategy for communicating ethically with his readers was fundamentally story-based: he tells us stories, and we are amused, and intrigued, and moved, and in that process we are called-forth into actualised ethical situations, made to think through the business of what it means to act well and to act badly, to consider consequences and otherness and so on.  I suppose it's true that actual Kantian moral philosophers are thin on the ground nowadays, but one of the most importat and celebrated interventions into ethical thought of the last ten years or so was Barbara Herman's Moral Literacy (2008), which is not only thoroughly Kantian, but which explores how morals are a mode of existential literacy, something we learn and practice, and something for which stories are the ideal mode. Herman doesn't discuss Pratchett, but she could easily have done. Doing the right thing, Pratchett says, over and over, is not a passionless matter of obeying an inhuman universal duty; it is always particular, always passionate, and above all always funny.

Thursday 2 March 2017

Sphinxine Riddles

This can hardly help but come across as a little, well, incestuous: linking from one of my blogs to another of my blogs. But here we are. You see, I have started a new blog, which (hopefully) will chart my read-through of all the books published by Herbert George Wells, and this is me drawing your attention to it. I start with a lengthy account of The Time Machine (1895), which moves, in its final section, into a discussion of Oedipus, the Sphinx and that famous four legs/two legs/three legs riddle. Here's my new take on that:
This riddle is also posed by The Time Machine in a more straightforward manner: in the original myth the sphinx describes a strange monster, but the answer reveals that this monster is not so strange; that, in fact, the monster is us. Wells, in effect, does the same, asking: what are these vacuous, diminutive infantile beings, unable to care for themselves? And what are these other monsters? These pale troglodytes that feed on human flesh? These gigantic crabs? This blob of darkness? And once again the solution to the riddle is: they are man. Which is to say: they are you, they are us. It is in this answer that inheres the buried force of the original oedipal riddle, the enduring power of that myth. The sphinx says: ‘I shall describe to you a bizarre-sounding monster. Can you say what it is?’ And Oedipus replies: ‘Le monstre, c'est moi.’ We can speculate that all the previous challengers to the sphinx's puzzle failed not because the riddle is hard, since (famously) it really isn't that hard, but rather because they were unwilling to take that last step, and accept that the terrible beast being described is they, themselves. Rather than accept their essential monstrosity, many people would rather die. That's one of the things this myth is saying, I think.

But there's a second riddle in the Oedipus story, and it is posed not by a sphinx but by the land itself. The fields sicken, the crops die, a curse is on Thebes. Oedipus sets out to solve this riddle too, unaware that it has the same answer as the first one. What is the source of the curse? Oedipus himself. This second riddle both reveals and embodies the short-circuit of existence: man comes from sex, from the mother, into selfhood and along that temporal trajectory sketched by the first riddle towards death, and the mirroring of these two riddles reveals a profound and upsetting truth that all these things are the same thing. Sex is incest, birth is death, existence is a curse, all is folded into all.

My personal reading, here, is that this was always the coded significance of all those legs in the original riddle. After all, we can only claim that a crawling baby ‘walks on four legs’ by confusing arms and legs, a very foolish sort of confusion. Arms are not legs. No: though the answer to the ‘four-legs’ portion of the sphinx's riddle is indeed ‘baby’—which is to say, the answer is the origin of human life, its starting point—the actual solution is more ribald. Just as Shakespeare describes a copulating couple as ‘the beast with two backs’, so the sphinx describes two people having sex as a four-legged beast, two lower-bodies tangled together. It is not until the second riddle, the one at the heart of Sophocles’ play, that we finally understand the two individuals are Oedipus and Jocasta. The remainder of the riddle also anticipates the events of the Oedipus Tyrannus, I think: Oedipus standing alone, after Jocasta's death, in the blazing noon-light of total comprehension; and then Oedipus seizing a ‘stick’, a new limb—the bronze pin from his wife-mother's dress—and blinding himself with it, bringing the darkness, the ‘evening’ which the sphinx promised.
Next up on the Wellsian blog: The Wonderful Visit (1895). Post coming soon.