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John Holbo

Raphael Crucifixion

by John Holbo on March 19, 2017

I want you to look at a picture and give me some responses to questions. The picture is Raphael’s so-called Mond Crucifixion. Here’s a large version. Kindly open it in another tab. Admire it for a minute in a mood of sophisticated discernment. (It’s a nice painting, so this shouldn’t be too painful.) Now stop looking at the picture and answer a few questions for me. Close the tab. Put the image from view. [click to continue…]

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Heroes and Aliens

by John Holbo on March 17, 2017

“I am like a being thrown from another planet on this dark terrestrial ball, an alien, a pilgrim among its possessors.” – Thomas Carlyle [the real one, from an 1820 letter]

“So there I was, thinking: is this a space alien? Is this kid insane?” – Too Like The Lightning

‘¿How is the world weird lately?’
< you wouldn’t understand. > – Seven Surrenders

“You know I’m sincere, Caesar, in my way. I love the Eighteenth Century. I fell in love reading about it at the Senseminary, that great moment when humanity realized experiments didn’t just have to be done with the sciences, they could be done with morals and religion, too. I wanted to do that, run an experiment like the American experiment, or greater. I couldn’t resist the chance to finish what my heroes started, not just the humanitarians like the Patriarch and the Romantics like Jean Jacques, but the underbelly, La Mettrie, Diderot, De Sade. The Enlightenment tried to remake society in Reason’s image: rational laws, rational religion; but the ones who really thought it through realized morality itself was just as artificial as the artistocracy and theocracies they were sweeping away. Diderot theorized that a new Enlightened Man could be raised with Reason in place of conscience, a cold calculator who would find nothing good or bad beyond what his own analysis decided. They had no way to achieve one back then, but I did it. I raised an Alien.” – Seven Surrenders

This post will be something like a Thomas Carlyle style sampler – (un)commonplace book – for potential readers of Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota novels. (You’ve never read Carlyle? That’s quite normal! We shall remedy the defect, slightly.) The Palmer-related point will be something like this. These novels are great! But very weird. She writes like she thinks she’s … Thomas Carlyle or something. That, or I don’t know what. (She doesn’t mention Carlyle by name in her “Author’s Note and Acknowledgement”, but she keeps naming characters after him.)

I don’t propose this as some secret key to the novels. I am sure there is no one Code at the root of it, waiting to be named ‘Carlyle’ (or anything else). But I am only one voice around the table here, so I hope a spot of overemphasis shall not be taken amiss. (Seldom have I read sf novels with so much philosophy packed in, which I’m not inclined to describe as having a philosophy, or being attempted thought-experiments. I mean that in the nicest way.)

I myself have a bit of a Carlyle bug in the ear — sf related one, even. When I teach “Philosophy and Science Fiction” I talk about H.G. Wells, The Time-Machine. (By the by, I must mention that Adam Roberts has been tearing it up, Wells-wise.) I talk about why there’s a sphinx. I talk about Oedipus and the Riddle. I have a bit to say about how maybe Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present — that chapter, “The Sphinx” — is of interest to students of the history of science fiction. Cosmic vision of looming, long-term Truth behind curtain of present life!

“How true … is that other old Fable of the Sphinx, who sat by the wayside, propounding her riddle to the passengers, which if they could not answer she destroyed them! Such a Sphinx is this Life of ours, to all men and societies of men … Nature, Universe, Destiny, Existence, howsoever we name this grand unnameable Fact in the midst of which we live and struggle, is as a heavenly bride and conquest to the wise and brave, to them who can discern her behests and do them; a destroying fiend to them who cannot. Answer her riddle, it is well with thee. Answer it not, pass on regarding it not, it will answer itself; the solution for thee is a thing of teeth and claws … With Nations it is as with individuals: Can they rede the riddle of Destiny? This English Nation, will it get to know the meaning of its strange new Today? Is there sense enough extant, discoverable anywhere or anyhow, in our united twenty-seven million heads to discern the same; valour enough in our twenty-seven million hearts to dare and do the bidding thereof? It will be seen!—”

We have Nietzschean science fiction, of course; Hegelian science fiction — Olaf Stapledon oughta hold you. Why not Carlyle-style sf?

Let’s start with my epigraphs, above. [click to continue…]

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Durkheimian Utilitarianism

by John Holbo on February 19, 2017

This post continues what has evolved into my critical series on Jonathan Haidt (see parts 1 and 2). The burden of the first two posts was: probably a good time to talk about justice, eh? So let’s. I’m going to split it into two, so I can kvetch about how Haidt is confused about Mill (this post), then try to do better myself (next post).

I got email about my last post (not just comments!) suggesting Haidt could do better than I give him credit for. I am 100% sure this is correct. I reconstructed Haidt’s argument with a conspicuously cloudy Premise 3: “something something plurality something pluralism something diversity?” I am sure Haidt could tighten that one up. Yet it does not seem to me he, in fact, has. In this post I am going to lay out textual evidence. Having done my best to expose the logical worst, I’m going to close this post by trying to say how he got into this hole. Honestly, I think I get it. He wants to have his Mill and eat his Durkheim, too. Best of both. I also get why he might feel his bridge from Durkheim to Mill might be load-bearing.

First, a basic point about the sense of ‘justice’ at issue in this post. (A sense we will have to broaden if and when I get around to the follow-up.)

Haidt is, we know, concerned about under-representation of conservatives in academe. There are two possible grounds for such concern.

1) It’s distributively unfair, hence unjust to conservatives, if there is viewpoint discrimination against them, as a result of which they fail to gain employment (or they lose employment).

2) It’s intellectually damaging to debate to have few conservatives present in conversations in which, predictably, liberals and conservatives will find themselves at odds.

I have no idea what Haidt thinks about 1. His arguments concern 2, so I’m going to focus on that. Justice as in: optimal intellectual balance. Epistemic justice. Justice as in justification. Not distributive justice.

On we go. [click to continue…]

Not-Normal, To Be Sure. But How Normal Is That?

by John Holbo on February 18, 2017

Trump is not normal. He should not be treated as normal. I quite agree. But how normal has it been in US politics for a not-normal possibility to loom, as a real possibility?

We don’t write histories of the New Deal as “The Period When, But For An Assassin’s Bullet, Huey Long Might Have Changed Everything”. We call that period: The New Deal.

We don’t write histories of the Clinton Era as “The Period When, If He Hadn’t Dropped Out, Before Getting Back In, Ross Perot Might Have Been President”. We call those years: The Clinton Years.

If Trump had lost in 2016, I don’t know what era we would be in but it wouldn’t be “The Almost-Trump Years”.

We don’t do Almost Black Swan, when it comes to labeling eras. But, as in horseshoes and hand-grenades, ‘almost’ ought to count for something. Huey Long and Ross Perot are the populist ringers that occur to me as obvious Trump analogs. How many radical ‘almosts’ have their been, over the years? Suppose you went back through your US history textbook, reheading all the chapters. What are the biggest, craziest ‘almosts’ that barely weren’t?

This is, to repeat, not an argument for regarding Trump as normal.

Howl’s Moving Castle

by John Holbo on February 11, 2017

It’s good to see that National Review is awakening to the threat of one branch of government being afflicted by lunacy and threatening to ride roughshod over the other branches, and the Constitution.

I’ve been seeing much Facebook bemusement this morning over this opinion piece by Eugene Kontorovich.

More broadly, constitutional structure supports examining only executive statements to interpret executive action. When Trump made his most controversial statements, he was private citizen. He had not sworn to uphold the Constitution, or to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. He was, in this sense, a legally differently obligated person. His policies and their relation to the Constitution would presumably be affected by his oath — that is why the Constitution requires it.
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Purity, Partisanship, Pluralism

by John Holbo on February 7, 2017

A lifetime ago – in subjective Trump-time! – I made a post about how pussyhats are potent symbols. Social justice! Purity politics. Sacred values. This seems obvious to me. Then again, as a young man they made me read Durkheim. (There’s a myth about the U of Chicago: they make you read all Plato-Thucydides-Tocqueville, all the time, your first year. In my experience they had so many darn anthropologists, many of us spent our first year reading Geertz, Boas, Benedict, Levy-Bruhl, others. Not anything Allan Bloom might have approved for our tender-minded consumption. Anthropologists are mad, you see, so keep them busy lest they make trouble. They were tasked with instilling ‘core values’ in the young: relativism! Yes, yes, Durkheim is a structural functionalist. Close enough for scandalizing rubes and maroons! Ah, mid-80’s memories.)

The point of my pussyhat example was to to illustrate my allegations about blindspots and contradictions in Jonathan Haidt’s popular writings on the subject of partisanship, PC and pluralism. Things got hot in comments. (Not everyone has read Durkheim, it must be.) Then Haidt showed up in comments (Crooked Timber gets results!) He linked to a post he made, rebutting mine. So now I’m going to rebut the rebuttal. [click to continue…]

Card-Carrying ACLU Member

by John Holbo on January 30, 2017

I just joined. Sent ‘em some money. They’re going to need it. We’re going to need them.

Morgan And (Pseudo) Science Fiction

by John Holbo on January 23, 2017

My older daughter was feeling pretty low so I said I would read to her while she did some drawing. Normally that means Moomin books or Discworld or something. Tonight, she was in the mood for more scholarly fare. She requested: King Arthur’s Enchantresses, Morgan and Her Sisters In Arthurian Tradition, by Carolyne Larrington (a book I got her a few years ago, but which proved a bit much then.)

So I’m reading about Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin, so forth, and this bit comes up, which I think I may include in my science fiction module, next time round.

Is Geoffrey’s Morgan supernatural or human? Did she acquire her magical powers from the Other World, or is she simply an educated, mortal woman who has actively studied the knowledge she wields?

Geoffrey gives us no origin story. But our author writes: [click to continue…]

Moral Polarization and Many Pussyhats

by John Holbo on January 22, 2017

I agree with a lot in this piece by Will Wilkinson. But I disagree with stuff he says after asking the question ‘why is our moral culture polarizing?’

One place to start is to ask why it is that people, as individuals, gravitate to certain moral and political viewpoints. Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations” theory—which shows that conservatives and liberals have different moral sensibilities, sensitive to different moral considerations—is perhaps the best-known account. But there are others.

In a 2012 piece for the Economist, I surveyed some of the research in personality psychology that indicates a correlation between political ideology and a couple of the “Big Five” dimensions of personality—conscientiousness and openness to experience, in particular—and then connected that to evidence that people have self-segregated geographically by personality and ideology. It’s an interesting post and you should read it.

The upshot is that liberals (low conscientiousness, high openness to experience) and conservatives (high conscientiousness, low openness) have distinctive personalities, and that there’s reason to believe we’ve been sorting ourselves into communities of psychologically/ideologically similar people.

Wilkinson goes on to talk about other, non-Haidt stuff that contributes to polarization. I like that better. (I think Wilkinson does, too.) But I want to grouse about Haidt, who I think has done interesting empirical work but who commits what I regard as terrible howlers when it comes to moral theory, and when it comes to reasoning about practical, normative implications of his work. [click to continue…]

Bodies In Motion; Kittens At Tea

by John Holbo on January 17, 2017

I like to relax at night with a spot of sketching. I would like to improve my capacity to render human anatomy accurately. My gesture drawing could be more – gesture-y. The girls and I are resolved to branch out into animation. TVPaint, here we come! (Or is that more than we can manage? We shall see.) The internet is a glorious source of free reference material. Fine books exist, and a few sit on my shelf. But a new site launched today, which looked good enough to make me open my wallet and pay for a yearly subscription. They are having a 50%-off deal, launch day only. And you can look around for free. It’s nicely done. It’s fun to look at.

Or perhaps you prefer vintage 1914 kittens, courtesy of the Library of Congress Flickr feed, celebrating 9-years of Flickr Commons.

Happy 9th Birthday, Flickr Commons! (LOC)

Algorithmic Price Fixing, Amazon Variations

by John Holbo on January 14, 2017

Henry’s post was interesting. It reminded me of an anecdote passed along by an acquaintance, who shall go nameless.

The individual in question is involved in publication of limited run, high quality art books. You can’t do that if you can’t make significant profit, per unit. (‘Volume volume volume!’ doesn’t hack it if you lack volume.) Medium-length story short: [click to continue…]

Derek Parfit Has Died (Physically)

by John Holbo on January 2, 2017

Parfit was a great philosopher, and derived a mildly unfair advantage from looking more than a bit like Peter O’Toole. If you just read Reasons and Persons, then looked at a lineup of Ph.D.’s in philosophy, I think you’d probably go: ‘that’s the guy! Gotta be!’ Also, Reasons and Persons is definitely the major work of philosophy most deserving of being rewritten in ‘plan your own adventure’ format. ‘If you think the resulting hivemind will still be you, turn to page 347. If not, turn to page 360.’ That sort of thing.

Let us extend his identity ensure that his psychological life rolls on, albeit in a branching way, by remembering him well. Psychological connectedness and all that.

Reason and Persuasion … And Academic E-Publishing

by John Holbo on January 2, 2017

It’s been a year since Belle and I self-published the latest edition of Reason and Persuasion [amazon], after the original publisher reverted the rights to us. The self-publishing model for our book works ok. We give away the PDF. But you can buy the paper and get a free Kindle version to go with; or just get the Kindle for $1.99. Such a bargain! Or get it from iBooks. All major ebook formats available. We’ve sold a couple hundred copies this year; given away thousands more as free downloads. (I hope you remembered to buy a copy for the person on your list who had everything … except a copy of our book!) I keep hoping it will catch on as a standard textbook in virtue of its obvious economic advantages – and it’s good philosophically, too. But if we just keep bobbing between the 100,000 and 1,000,000 sales ranks on Amazon, I can live with that. But if YOU have a friend looking for a Plato text for some intro course, kindly give them our card.

reasonandpersuasioncoversmall [click to continue…]

Flyin’ Saucers Rock n’ Roll

by John Holbo on January 2, 2017

When I teach SF and Philosophy I include a short bit on SF in different media (before proceeding to devote the semester to short stories, for the most part.) So: SF and popular music. Seems like a thing. And a suitable challenge for the CT commentariat. I would be particular appreciative of intelligent periodization. But unclassifiable curiosities are also always welcome.

My post title come from Billy Lee Riley’s 1957 rockabilly hit. Ten years earlier, in 1947, you have a curious, country-gospel number, “When You See Those Flying Saucers”, from the Buchanan Brothers. Ten years later, in 1966, we’ve got the Byrds, “Mr. Spaceman”, the birth of a hippy-trippy sort of space rock – although folk-y “Spaceman” lacks the cosmic, synth-y atmospherics one associates with later progginess. Then, in 1969, we get “Space Oddity”, flipping the script from aliens to alienation, and corresponding to the work Kubrick does with 2001: A Space Odyssey, graduating out of the B-movie flying saucers era. (I just linked to the 1972 version. The song had sort of a slow roll-out, on its way to becoming a classic.) Glam and Ziggy Stardust. Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (1972) is the other early-70’s pop classic in this category. But let’s not forget Harry Nillson’s “Spaceman”, which was a Top-40 hit in 1972. “Bang Bang Shoot ‘em up destineee!” And Genesis, “Watcher of the Skies” (1972). I feel Journey’s 1977 “Spaceman” bookends what the Byrds started a decade earlier. (By the by, Journey finally made it into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame this year. Also, ELO.) After 1977 we are, for a time, in the Styx “Come Sail Away” era, at least when it comes to American SF-themed pop megahits. [click to continue…]

“Holding with Haeckel that all life is a chemical and physical process, and that the so-called “soul” is a myth …” – H.P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West – Reanimator”

Years ago I made a parody Christmas book mash-up of Lovecraft/Haeckel/Clement Clark Moore. I called it Mama In Her Kerchief and I In My Madness: A Visitation of Sog-Nug-Hotep. I made print versions but then took them down (they weren’t quite it.) Yet it lived, lurking beneath the surface, in the form of a perennially popular pair of Flickr albums and this old Hilo post. Hidden, winter sun-dappled tide pools of hideous, unfathomable, happy depths for kiddies to dip their toes in! But 2016 is the year of fake news. You can’t spell ‘fake’ without the ‘Haeckel’. So my fraudulent yet innocent concoctions have wandered and, eventually, been mistook for genuine Victoriana. Oh, well. I can’t completely blame them. Real Victorian X-Mas cards are often dark and weird. Hence the joke.

Caliginous gloom is the best disinfectant. If, as some whisper, ‘even death may die’, then perhaps it is possible to quash a rumor that Haeckel actually designed X-Mas cards. Accordingly, I have seized the seasonal opportunity to republish and set the record straight. A new, improved version of the print edition is now on Amazon! It is also available on Kindle. Somehow Amazon not seen the connection yet, but I imagine that will resolve itself. (Also, I made slightly different covers for the two editions. Which do you prefer?)

For impoverished urchins, with nary a penny to spare, yet high-speed internet access, I have updated the Flickr galleries with some higher quality images. The old ones were skimpy. My most popular images, Blue Boy and Feeding Birdies, are available in larger sizes. Some others, including several of my favorites. (Maybe I’ll get around to doing all of them. But not today.)

Boy Blue and Blue Jelly (front)

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