The centrality of coffee

by John Q on January 23, 2005

Tony Judt illustrating the centrality of coffee as a metaphor (or maybe synecdoche) for civilisation. (thanks to Glenn Condell for the link)

Paul Feyerabend punks Francis Wheen

by Henry Farrell on January 23, 2005

I’ve been reading Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World, which is one of the most profoundly annoying books that I’ve read in the last few years. There’s nothing more frustrating than to read a book by someone who shares several of your pet aversions (trickle down economics, Deepak Chopra, obscurantist literary theory), but who isn’t bright enough to say anything interesting or non-trivial about them. It’s a rambling, shallow book which aspires to, and occasionally even attains, the intellectual level of a middling Sunday-supplement broadside.

There’s one unintentionally hilarious bit, where Wheen vigorously excoriates literary theorists for having been taken in by the “Sokal hoax”: and then goes on a few pages later to deliver an extended harrumph attacking Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method. Wheen cites a passage where Feyerabend attacks the teaching of science in schools as a form of tyranny (in Wheen’s reading, Feyerabend is saying that we shouldn’t be teaching children that the earth moves around the sun; we should be teaching them that _some people believe_ that the earth moves around the sun). What makes this delicious is that Wheen, like the literary theorists whom he’s been fulminating against a few pages previously, has been taken in by a provocation. If he’d bothered to read the preface of _Against Method_ properly, he’d know that Feyerabend is deliberately and consciously putting forward as outrageous a set of examples as he can in support of a serious argument. The essay was originally planned as one half of a twofer, in which Imre Lakatos would try to top Feyerabend with an equally vigorous set of arguments on behalf of a somewhat more orthodox account of the sources of scientific progress. Sadly, Lakatos died before the project could be completed. Unlike the postmodernists (Irigaray, Kristeva) whom Wheen lumps him in with, Feyerabend was a trained scientist who knew what he was talking about, and was engaged in a very serious debate about the scientific method and its merits as a process of generating new discoveries. As an aside, Feyerabend also wrote one of the most entertaining autobiographies, Killing Time that I’ve ever read.

Durkheim and Desperate Housewives

by Chris Bertram on January 23, 2005

The latest Prospect has “a nice piece on Durkheim”: by Michael Prowse, arguing that we should take him seriously as a critic of free-market capitalism. I was, however, struck by this paragraph concerning Durkheim’s views on the advantages of marriage for men:

bq. Durkheim used the example of marriage to illustrate the problem of anomie or inadequate social regulation. You might think that men would be happiest if able to pursue their sexual desires without restraint. But it is not so, Durkheim argued: all the evidence (including relative suicide rates) suggests that men do better when marriage closes their horizons. As bachelors they can chase every woman they find attractive but they are rarely contented because the potential objects of desires are so numerous. Nor do they enjoy any security because they may lose the woman they are currently involved with. By contrast, Durkheim argued, the married man is generally happier: he must now restrict himself to one woman (at least most of the time) but there is a quid pro quo. The marriage rules require the woman to give herself to him: hence his one permitted object of desire is guaranteed. Marriage thus promotes the long-term happiness of men (Durkheim was less certain that it helped women) because it imposes a sometimes irksome constraint on their passions.

No comment from me, except that it reminded me of a dialogue between Gabrielle and her boy-gardener lover during a recent episode of “Desperate Housewives”: . It went something like this:

bq. He: So why did you marry Carlos?

bq. She: Because he promised to give me everything I desired.

bq. He: And did he?

bq. She: Yes.

bq. He: So why aren’t you happy?

bq. She: It turns out I desired the wrong things.

Cue Aristotle stage left?

It’s like he’s known me all my life

by John Holbo on January 23, 2005

Basically, you’re a razor, and you have to run through a number of
increasingly weird 3D levels, chasing cats, and shaving their balls.
The cats get increasingly hard to find, and there are an amazing number
of them. There are tabbies, tortoise-shells, Siamese, and cougars. As
you complete levels the razor gets more powerful and you have to be
careful not to hurt the cats or neuter them. When you succeed in
shaving a cat’s balls, it spits up a diamond that you can collect.


Putting the ‘imp’ back in implicature

by John Holbo on January 23, 2005

Next time I teach Grice on conversational implicature and the Cooperative Principle, I think I’ll use this sentence as an example of how not to be maximally relevant:

In Trier, Germany, birthplace of Karl Marx, the prosecutor’s
office has been investigating the claim of a woman that babies were
being cut up and eaten in Satanist rituals.

Link via Jonathan Goodwin, who reliably bursts with timely and topical quotations. Such as this:

Philosophical works among [the Solipsists] are more or less of this
sort: “Does the scarab roll dung into a ball paradigmatically?” “If a
mouse urinates in the sea, is there a risk of shipwreck?” “Are
mathematical points receptacles for spirits?” “Is a belch an exhalation
of the soul?” “Does the barking of a dog make the moon spotted?” and
many other arguments of this kind, which are stated and discussed with
equal contentiousness. Their Theological works are: “Whether navigation
can be established in imaginary space.” “Whether the intelligence known
as Burach has the power to digest iron.” “Whether the souls of the Gods
have color.” “Whether the excretions of Demons are protective to humans
in the eighth degree.” “Whether drums covered with the hide of an ass
delight the intellect.”

Discuss. In strict accordance with Grice’s Cooperative Principle. That is, "make your conversational contribution [concerning the protective puissance of demon excretions, etc.] such as is
required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or
direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged."