1.) The fundamental experience of knowledge is insight, which is clearest in the thrill of getting a glimpse of what something is. This is therefore the fact that any theory of knowledge has to explain.

2.) If insight requires an object fitting the description of a Platonic form, then there is no Nominalist or abstractionist account of insight.

3.) Take a simple case of an insight – teaching by example. While in the store you tell your three-year old that you need to pick up some fruit and she asks you what fruit is. You point out some apples, oranges, and grapes, an hope she gets an idea that will be clear enough to exclude the lettuce and radishes. The Nominalist explains that you’re trying to get her to use language correctly by trying to get her to understand how far the term extends. All you’ve done is increase her facility with a language – you haven’t given her any insight into apples and oranges but merely put a label on them that allows for use among social members. The “Aha” moment you’re hoping to achieve is one that empowers he to talk to others.

4.) The Nominalist explanation of insight explains some aspects of a nominal understanding. One isn’t learning anything about oranges when he watches a Latin speaker hold up one after another and say aurantiaco. All “getting it” or “seeing what it is” means in this case is gaining facility with the word. As Hume put it, this formation of a term beyond each of the particular things “proceeds from our collecting all their possible degrees of quantity and quality in such an imperfect manner as may serve the purposes of life.”

5.) Hume is right that the nominal understanding gives no insight into what a thing is and is made for the purposes of life. But one of the purposes of human life is to see what things are. The nominal understanding is a placeholder for insight.

6.) Newton had used the words “bodies” and “fell” his entire life. But what he saw in the apple was nothing more than bodies fall. Of course they do, but Newton saw what this universal meant: the moon is falling just as the apple is, the earth is falling towards the sun just as the moon and apple are. Einstein did not abolish this insight but developed it, as will any physics that is to come. Einstein’s elevator example is a way of indicating that falling is the natural state of bodies – what we call “resting on the earth” is in fact an acceleration inflicted on things which deforms them from the state they naturally tend to. It is only in falling that the body “rests”, i.e. exercises it immanent and perfecting powers. The seer rests in seeing, the body rests in falling.

7.) Describing insight as learning to use language is thus both ridiculous and impossible. Newton wasn’t ushered into further into the Anglosphere’s understanding of the term “falling”. He didn’t gain some new observation that he assimilated into his familiar experience of what happens to things when you drop them. The words, if anything, get in the way. One just sees apple, moon, and earth all doing exactly the same thing and forming a universal system. Darwin’s vision the animal either fitting into its environment or disappearing is the same sort of vision. Don’t talk about the words I used, look!

8.)  Calling Newton’s vision a hypothesis is an attempt to speak of it entirely in relation to what came after it. It neither accounts for the fact that he saw something, or that he chose to start with this hypothesis as opposed to that one. This attempt to universalize hypothesis – which couldn’t be done without insight – is requires overlooking the reality of insight. If there’s one blight on the thought of Hume through Kant through positivism and AI it’s that all of them rely on insight to construct theories that end up forgetting insight entirely.

9.) For Aristotle, this insight is just intellect or Nous – all reasoning comes from it and leads back to it. Reasoning mediates the insight that gives rise to it, and which it exists to give rise to. Insight is the fruits: they’re both the reason the tree exists and acts, and the source of the seed from which any tree arises.

10.) But it’s seems that Aristotle’s “abstraction from sensible matter” can’t explain insight. Abstraction either involves taking a unique form out of every phantasm or assimilating each phantasm to some given form. But it can’t be the first, because then we would need a form beyond all the abstracted forms to unify them; and it can’t be the second because it presupposes a form already abstracted.

Aristotle couldn’t solve the problem because he had no revelation of the Trinity. The higher some unity is, the more it preserves the distinction of what is unified. Each form abstracted coalesces into a single unity, so much so that it is a single nature, while still being this form. The Berkeley-Hume arguments against the possibility of abstraction are just failures to notice the characteristics of unity transcending the  merely natural sphere. Social animals are higher than non social ones because they have a shared life; human society is even higher because this shared life is also a sharing of the self; angelic society is even higher than this because it is not just a sharing of the selves but an interpenetration of selves that is entirely unmediated by anything non-personal (like the sound waves we use for language); and in the Trinity this unity even overcomes the division of one angels essence or species from the other.

A critique of Ryan Anderson

Zack Ford critiques Ryan T. Anderson:

Inherent in his definition of marriage is a concept Anderson refers to at times as the “comprehensive act,” his euphemism for when a man inserts his penis into a woman’s vagina and releases sperm to fertilize her egg…. Countless caveats are also required for Anderson to make this argument work. As for infertile couples, he claims, “It is the procreative nature of marriage” — whatever that means — “rather than the actual procreative results of individual marriages that explains government policy in this area.”

1.) The quotation Ford cites both changes the topic and belies the point he is trying to make. The “government policy” Anderson is speaking about is clearly the law, and just as we can’t write a law for each person in atomo, we can’t write laws for each married couple in atomo. We write laws based on the sort of thing that falls under the law, and all Anderson has to mean by “nature” in the quotation is “sort of thing”. Leaving aside the question whether marriage is in fact procreative, which Anderson is not trying to prove in the quotation, the statement he is making is as obvious as the claim that we don’t write one marriage law for Billy, another for Socrates, another for Sue, ad infinitum.

2.) Minimally, all “marriage is a procreative sort of thing” means is that we have a reasonable expectation of procreation following marriage, as most people do. That’s why the “first comes love, then comes marriage…etc.” kid’s rhyme makes sense in a way that that other kids rhymes don’t (“and the dish ran away with the spoon”). We might not expect kids to follow from the marriage of Frankie and Johnny, but Anderson wasn’t speaking about individual cases.

3.) Marriage is procreative because sex is. Ford would certainly balk at this claim, but his attempt to explain himself again belies his “whatever that means” dismissal of Anderson’s claim:

Anderson knows very little about sex, why anybody has it, how anybody has it, or just how deep, intimate, and meaningful it can be for any couple regardless of their chance of fertilizing an egg and regardless of their gender pairing.

And what if Frankie and Johnny have sex with neither of them finding it deep, intimate and meaningful? Whatever else you want to say about them, it would be ridiculous to take this as evidence against the claim that sex is a deep, intimate, and meaningful sort of thing.* But then why cite non-procreative sex as evidence against sex being a procreative sort of thing?

While the phrase “act of a procreative character” or some equivalent is crucial to most broadly traditional sexual ethics, no description of sex can avoid talking about it as “an act of _____ character”. Not every sex act ends in reproduction, or orgasm, or increased love or unity, but it would be nonsense to take these cases as showing that sex was, say, just as ordered to not having an orgasm as to having one.

4.) There are any number of ways to recognize that sex is procreative without conceding Anderson’s moral conclusions about homosexuality, birth control, gay marriage, etc. But Anderson’s arguments are actually simpler and more radical than Ford seems to recognize. Anderson, following George, is arguing that those incapable of acts of a procreative character can’t get married because they can’t have sex.** We can obviously speak of “gay sex” or “contraceptive sex” or “marital sex” but the adjective doesn’t have the same relation to the noun in all these cases. One can speak of a gas engine, a steam engine, and a half-finished engine, but this doesn’t give us three sorts of engines. Sometimes modifying a noun indicates or requires its absence. 

5.) I’ll concede that there is a difference between biological and moral/ social questions, but trying to get this to do work in sexual ethics frequently sounds very strange. The social and biological dimensions of, say, eating are clearly different, but the full biological dimension is integral to the social considerations. One could spit out his whiskey after tasting it (as the guys at the distillery do) but you couldn’t share a drink in that way, or have dinner by following the analogous practice. Whatever the guy at the distillery is doing, it’s not drinking; and for analogous reasons whatever bulimics are doing isn’t eating. If you wanted to have a dinner party, you’re actually logically unable to invite bulimics, and there would be something ridiculous or cruel in doing so. Anderson’s arguments, which apply equally well to gay marriage or contraceptive marriage of forced marriage, are comparable to this.


*What I mean is that we take the sex itself as giving rise to the resulting intimacy, even if in some cases this doesn’t arise.

**Obviously, Ford would take this claim as beneath refutation or as the ultimate modus tollens. If this site had a following of even a modest size, I’d be swamped with troll comments and pictures with taglines like “Look! I’m not having sex!” For all that, small things in the beginning can grow large by the end – and if Anderson were to admit that the sorts of sex he critiques were divisions of a genus he’ll have to admit them as integral, whole, and morally proper species of a human act.

Defensive infantilism

1.) Assume the decadence of the West makes sense, not in the minimal sense of being the logical outcome of some crazy or hedonistic idea, but in the more robust sense of being an attempt to deal with some fact about the world. This does not rule out other explanations but only looks for that aspect of decadence that makes sense as a response to the world. It also does not attempt to justify or condemn the decadence, but simply to take the first step towards understanding why it made sense to choose it. I claim it makes sense as a defensive infantilism, and I’ll deal with it first as infantilism, then as defensive.

2.) Consider decadence as infantilism:

a.) Consumerism. The only sort of person that can be relied on to want to buy everything they see is a child. Even a shop-till-you-drop parent will be shocked by how much a kid will ask/insist “can we get that? puh-leeeze?”

b.) The sexual revolution. At it’s heart, it’s the limitation of eros to the fact that all the sex you want is fun! Why are the oldsters so uptight about it? The highest reality about eros that can be allowed is that it (often? sometimes?) involves commitment, but even my second grade son (who “got married” at recess in a series of weddings performed by his friend) understands that much. Again, the pornographic depiction of sex – which seems like the ideal world of the sexual revolution – is a fantasy which cannot get beyond infantile fascination with gigantism.

c.) Cult of celebrity. The objects of the cult all have a Peter Pan quality about them: living in a world of perpetual youth, partying like a bunch of kids sneaking out of the boarding school, and primarily skilled at play-acting and make believe.

d.) Primitivism in art. The infantilism of Pollack or Cy Twombley is the easiest to grasp, but all our art tends toward the primitive (pentatonic scales, tonic chords, pictures over text like a child’s book, fascination with potty-language, etc.) It goes without saying that this does not rule out beautiful art, but it does rule out any popular art demanding subtlety of taste, a long attention span, an adult-sized vocabulary, a palate of emotions that goes beyond exuberance, rage, sadness and defiance, etc..

e.) Infantilism of justice. For us, justice is primarily found in (a) identifying a theatrical and almost operatic protestation of injustice (oppression! The total loss of freedom!) then (b) seeking some universal authority to vindicate us (Washington! Bussels! The Constitution!) All of this suggests nothing so much as kids fighting on playgrounds and then tattling their grievance.

3.) Infantilism makes sense as a response to the horror at “the parent”, i.e. at authority and power.  The obvious candidate for such a horror is the First and Second World Wars, though these were inseparable from the larger horrors that arose from attempts on the Right to crush moral decadence (Italy, Germany) and attempts on the Left to create collectivist, Utopian, and modern-Mechanical economies (Russia, Cambodia, Vietnam).

Human authority and power is human wisdom, but this wisdom seems to have shown itself to be simultaneously incompetent and too clever for itself. All attempts to make ideal societies, fight just wars, or establish predicable economies have fallen laughably short; but we have been so wildly over successful at creating weapons that any fight between industrialized powers ends up killing soldiers and even whole populations like insects.

Our infantilism is thus our defense against ourselves. It is a Utopian ideal of creating a world too innocent for war. Our systems of education, manners, and political life will promote docility, obedience, close surveillance, confused authority and suppression of masculine energy. All differences between persons that might prove worth fighting over will be villainized with taboos (discrimination!). This collective approach isn’t planned, of course, since it is a response precisely to planned societies. While unplanned, however, it is certainly enforced.

Fresh approach to the cogito

We never find Descartes saying “I think, therefore I am” in the second meditation. What he claims is that the claim “I exist” is something unable to be doubted, at least when thought by him. So what difference does this make?

1.) The “cogito” formulation makes existence an inference or conclusion while Descartes is speaking of a first principle or insight. A conclusion is something that requires something less known than a premise, since if it were better known or just as well known, then a conclusion wouldn’t need to be a conclusion, i.e. follow from something else. But Descartes isn’t saying that thought is immediately known to him and can be used to prove something (as Russell claimed he was), but that “I exist” is immediately known and any attempt to call it into doubt is impossible. Making “I exist” a conclusion would vitiate Descartes’ whole enterprise, which was to look for a belief that could not be doubted.

2.) What Descartes is doing is better understood when compared to a proposition like “The assignment for tonight is pages 65-70” when said by the teacher, or “I take you for my husband” when said by the bride. These propositions are also indubitable, not because of some sort of inferential claim but because the speaker is responsible for the truth of the proposition.

3.) Descartes is making a claim far more radical than an inferential cogito he gets credited with – he’s in fact saying that a rational self is responsible for the truth of his own existence. This is simply what it means to be rational, i.e. you are responsible for making yourself what you are, or you are what you choose to become. This is inter alia why a thinking thing is a moral thing.

4.) Descartes is clear that he is only a thinking thing imperfectly, though we are perhaps more cognizant than he was of how true this is, since all thought after Nietzsche can be summarized as a struggle to define the scope and power of the factors that condition thought: language; social conventions; gender; limitation and ignorance; personality traits; historical circumstances; unconscious and subconscious drives and instincts; an unknown multitude of sensible powers; the contingencies of IQ, having enough time and money and health to think; the peculiarities of a psychological profile that might include a history of abuse,  etc.

5.) This is one approach to Descartes’ claim in the later meditations that because he is imperfect, God must exist. A contemporary way of putting the argument might go like this:

a.) If something is (really) possible in a qualified, imperfect sense it is (really) possible simply (if not, then what we are calling “qualifications” would belong to the description of the thing taken simply. Said another way, if a thing is impossible without X, then X cannot be a qualification of what it is simply, but is either an integral feature or a necessary accident.)

b.) A thinking thing is really possible in a qualified sense (true a fortiori, since I know that I really exist.)*

c.) God alone is a thinking thing simply (while we don’t assert he exists, he alone could be unconditioned by any pre-conscious or subconscious motives, or be completely responsible for what he is.)

d.) A thinking thing, as such, exists necessarily (since whatever says “I exist” says it so far as it I responsible for the truth of the claim. See above at 2.)

e.) Therefore, God is really possible and, if he exists, does so necessarily.

f.) But if something exists necessarily, it must either be (i) really impossible or (ii) really existent.

g.)  God is really possible. (from a-c)

h.) Therefore God exists.

6.) The argument both uses Leibniz’s possibility axiom and improves on it, since it traces both divine necessity and his real possibility in the same reality of thought (sc. the cogito). For the same reason, it also improves on other necessity-contingency arguments by using a modality of necessity that proves God is essentially personal.

7.) Descartes might respond to philosophy after Nietzsche by saying “Sure, there are all sorts of limitations and qualifications placed on reason. But these are all essentially conditions of reason, i.e. we cannot understand them except in relation to the reason which they make possible. The attempt to absolutize these conditions in such a way as to make reason an illusion that cannot have a true transcendence of power, historical conditions, gender, language, or any of these things is a failure to understand that it is precisely such a true transcendence that these conditions are providing the conditions of.”

8.) Descartes is taken as ushering in the era of the subject. This is fine, so far as we recognize that subjectivity belongs to the conditions of reason and not reason taken simply.


*This premise makes the argument a cosmological argument and not an ontological one.

Nature is both art and subconscious

Physics understands nature by comparing it to art, whether it’s Aristotle seeing matter and form as bronze and the statue, Galileo seeing inertia as a swift boat on a flat sea (or carriage on a smooth road) Descartes seeing all animals and complex systems as machines, Einstein seeing time as a clock, Planck seeing all energy as the colors of a heated black box, etc.. This analogy lets us see nature as rational and intelligible. Taken in this way, reason comes before nature and arranges it as a sort of art.

But nature is also what conditions and gives rise to rationality and choice, e.g. a natural desire is one that we simply have prior to any reasoning or choice about it. Taken in this way, nature is the subconscious or unconscious, and so is happening behind reason’s back. In this sense, nature is what we see in a dreamless sleep.

These two senses are not a facile equivocation. Both are accounts of nature as source or principle of action. But this source is both comparable to reason and yet prior to it.

Interior dialogue on space and time

A: So I want to understand space and time.

B: All right, let’s start with this co-ordinate system, X, Y, Z. Now if you have something moving on this and you want to compare the different times you need an equation that will…

A: But where is any of this? I wanted to understand space and you’re drawing pictures of things I’ve never seen.

B: Right, but clocks moving on this grid will relate to other clocks on the grid in predicable and interesting ways. Do you know that a twin travelling at close to the speed of light will age more slowly than one at rest?

A: I don’t doubt that this would be important to guys who are worried about travelling that fast and who need to co-ordinate clocks. We can’t have trains running into each other, after all.

B: But anything living or even existing is a clock. Your heartbeat is a clock, your breathing, the rotation of electrons around a nucleus, everything.

A: I agree with that, but you’re framing this reality in a peculiar way by imagining a uniformly divided line for time to tick on. You want me to look out at the world and see a homogeneous, orderly grid with every possible intersection marked off by a unique, ordered number. That will tell me all sorts of useful things, but I don’t see it anywhere.

B: What are you talking about? What else could you mean by time than this?

A: Honestly, you’re imagining that at the bottom of things one finds a featureless city grid-plan or high-rise. I don’t doubt that one can imagine such a fundamental city-plan behind everything and then talk about how nature behaves in it. If I only encountered nature as conditioned by the spacial and temporal exigencies of the city, I’d even need to imagine it in that way. But while I don’t doubt you can (and even need to) imagine nature moving through an infinite imaginary high-rise and then give a description of what its day is like it still has an air of make-believe about it.

B: This is by far the most successful account of space and time anyone has ever given. This is simply the best we can do.

A: “Best” is a term of comparison, but any experience of it that doesn’t start on your grid can’t be compared to one that does. A Voyageur in the wilderness of Ontario thinking about time in the silence of the woods isn’t thinking about it in any way contiguous with the one who imagines it like you. The problems you’re interested in won’t even occur to him, and if he went on to learn them they would be nothing but a different sort of experience.

B: These poetic and intuitive accounts of nature are all anthropomorphic and subjective.

A: And putting all nature in an imaginary high-rise isn’t?

B: These are maps, not territories.

A: Take that metaphor seriously. Maps are ways of recording the order of one thing to another. “Map” in this sense will have as many meanings as there are sorts of order in the world.

B: But there’s one order in the world. Just look around.

A; I know, and I don’t want to give that up. It seems like I’m arguing for some sort of Kantian idea that we have only a multitude of experiences of the one, but never the one. The unity behind the forest is never known to us, only the forest of the forester, the girl picking flowers, the botanist, the tribesman.

B: We have to be able to get beyond this.

A: I have to believe that something does, but it would be a knower with no subjectivity.

Note on Non-Euclidean geometries

Non-Euclidean geometries are developments of Euclidean geometry and not critiques of it. Oddly enough, if we could prove the Fifth Postulate, Euclid would have been wrong about it being a postulate and this would have counted as a critique. Again, if all attempts to deny the Fifth Postulate ended up assuming it, then it would been a self-evident axiom, and Euclid would have been wrong again. But non-Euclidean geometries developed as failures to achieve either of these ends, and so they are, in fact, deeper understandings of the Fifth postulate as a postulate.

Platonic forms and insight

Say you’re confused about what mass is. You’re always confusing it with weight. You still do OK in chemistry class because you accept what your teacher and the textbooks say, and because you can use the term in a few formulae as an “m” that gets shifted around according to various algebraic rules. You make periodic attempts to understand what the term means, but the people who seem to understand mass just keep telling you the same stuff over and over again.

Simply speaking, you don’t understand mass, but in a qualified sense you understand a few things about it. You have a name, at least, but it functions mostly as a placeholder for a thing you don’t really get. You have some trusted authorities that give you a real confidence that the term means something and that your failure to understand it is definitely a result of ignorance. Finally, you have a functional grasp of the name, i.e. you can use it effectively in ways that don’t demand understanding what it is. The last two conditions provide motives for hanging onto the name even when you don’t understand it. The first gives you some helpful social pressure to accept some truth (which is opinion) and the second allows you to see the term as good even if you can’t see it as true (this includes having a knack for manipulating things one doesn’t understand, which Plato thought was particularly distinctive of rhetoricians, but it’s just as common among kids that are good at math. Using a working hypothesis is perhaps the loftiest instance of this sort of imperfect knowing.)

But say one day you finally just “get” mass. Maybe someone explains that you can’t just effortlessly shove a boulder in space but the boulder is still floating there, weightless. Aha! You finally see it! You no longer need to rely on the external props of opinion or manipulations of symbols or even words. All the strange things said about mass all those years just fall into place. You’ve seen mass in itself, which was Plato’s preferred way of speaking about what we later called platonic forms or ideas.

But what about what we get told in philosophy classes? Didn’t Plato think forms were up in the sky somewhere? Wasn’t he telling some far-fetched story about the location of “universals”? When one understands the thing in itself, he can see all this as the garbled attempt to understand something far more significant. A form is what you see when you finally “get” something. We might as well call it the Platonic Aha! But what is the character of such a thing?

First off, you have to make some sort of distinction between the thing itself and the sensation of it. You didn’t have a new sensation of mass when you saw what it was; and nothing in your memories or experience of mass has changed. Two kilos still feels the same as it ever did. The sense experience remains the same though it gets re-ordered and illuminated from within by your new understanding.

Second, your knowledge takes in a stability that it never had before. You might make future refinements to your understanding, but these future refinements cannot make your present knowledge an error. You have more than just the  working hypothesis of mass that you had before. Later developments in science must have the character of deeper understandings of mass (perhaps by unifying it to other things, or showing how is a manifestation of something more fundamental) or perhaps science will develop a non-mass based physics (like we now have non-Euclidean geometries) but neither of these are critiques of mass.*

Third, the new knowledge cannot be merely a matter of induction, i.e. of repeated experience with mass. Part of this is clear from the first point. The new understanding is certainly occasioned by experience and even in some sense dependent on it, but of itself it orders and arranges sense experience and therefore of itself prior to it. Your new insight filters and sorts experience, and a filter has to be put in place before things can be filtered and sorted.

Fourth, the thing in itself is, under normal circumstances, clearest in the best instance of it. If you want someone to know what a math student is, it’s easiest if you show them someone who’s good at math; and anatomy books show pictures of healthy, well-proportioned bodies.

So the platonic form is, in different ways, set apart from sensation, eternal, prior to any sensation, and intimately connected with the good. In different ways this makes it divided from the sensible thing, a timeless form, and something that we have had “before birth” (since we’ve had sensations of mass since we were born) and things that we see in the light of the good (i.e. in “the sun” that illuminates things outside the cave).


*Non-Euclidean geometries are not critiques of Euclid, they are consistent geometries made without using a Euclidean postulate. Postulates are divided from common notions precisely by not being things we ask someone to see. Euclid’s postulates are therefore garbled by textbooks that turn them into additional common notions: while Euclid asks us in the first postulate to draw a line between any two points, the Geometry textbooks garble this into a claim about lines one can draw between points. But truth claims can be critiqued whereas mere postulates are simply done/used or not.

Infinite monkeys (pt. 2)

A proof for the infinite monkey hypothesis (which we might have, if you truth this computer model) shows us that copying can be done without intention, i.e. it proves a xerox machine is possible.

It might actually show less than this, since it (re)produces linguistic signs but it cannot produce a language, which means that it must be producing meaningful things so far as they are without meaning. There’s nothing odd in this – there are millions of people who have made triangles without knowing they made Deltas. Thus the meaningful can be made by chance, qua meaningless.

What the monkeys can do

The monkeys with typewriters might bang out all the book of he British museum, but they couldn’t make a language, a password, or logo. All these require an act of the will or convention to say “this word means this” or “this’ll be my password” or “That will be our logo”. The upshot is that the monkeys are really accidental copyists, though they might copy books or merely words. The analogy suggests that the best randomness is capable of is making a copy of something meaningful, provided the meaning is given.*


*the monkeys might bang out an “original work” but only in the sense of copying one word at a time, and happening to get lucky with the order.  This just means that meaning is given at the level of the word and not the work.

« Older entries