T. S. Eliot

Drawing of T. S. Eliot by Simon Fieldhouse. De...

Drawing of T. S. Eliot by Simon Fieldhouse. Deutsch: T. S. Eliot, gezeichnet von Simon Fieldhouse. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are studying this essay in class. Any comments are most welcome!

In English writing we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence. We cannot refer to “the tradition” or to “a tradition”; at most, we employ the adjective in saying that the poetry of So-and-so is “traditional” or even “too traditional.” Seldom, perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure. If otherwise, it is vaguely approbative, with the implication, as to the work approved, of some pleasing archaeological reconstruction. You can hardly make the word agreeable to English ears without this comfortable reference to the reassuring science of archaeology.


Certainly the word is not likely to appear in our appreciations of living or dead writers. Every nation, every race, has not only its own creative, but its own critical turn of mind; and is even more oblivious of the shortcomings and limitations of its critical habits than of those of its creative genius. We know, or think we know, from the enormous mass of critical writing that has appeared in the French language the critical method or habit of the French; we only conclude (we are such unconscious people) that the French are “more critical” than we, and sometimes even plume ourselves a little with the fact, as if the French were the less spontaneous. Perhaps they are; but we might remind ourselves that criticism is as inevitable as breathing, and that we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it, for criticizing our own minds in their work of criticism. One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles any one else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity.


Our fascination with crime

The New York Times has finally caught up with us and reviewed River.

You can read their review here.

Our December 15th post is republished below.


RiverA recent Netflix offering, River, is a one season (lobby for a second season!) crime drama that I stumbled across and then became fascinated with. Result:  watched all six episodes over two nights! River stars Swedish acting legend Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, Thor) as the eponymous  Detective Inspector John River, an experienced and brilliant cop with a mind that even he can’t trust.

Obviously, I had to alert my old pal and fellow contributor, the poet Ken Cathers, to the show. He liked it also! And he would like to start a conversation here. He opens with this:

The Guilty Attraction of Crime (Fiction)

After recently watching the new Netflix crime series River I began to question
what is it that makes crime shows and crime fiction so appealing. As a genre crime fiction is generally regarded as an inferior, popular form of art largely circumscribed by its conventions. It is still the most widely watched type of program on television. There is also more crime fiction published that any other genre with only the possible exception of cookbooks. Food for thought, indeed.

Typically the novel or crime show will begin with the actual depiction of a crime or, at the very least, the body of the victim of the crime. This is quickly followed by the arrival of the hero: the detective. Generally, he is a loner; a jaded idealist. Often he finds himself in some sort of disrepute with his peers over some recent scandal or compromising situation. These details are not immediately revealed adding to his personal mystery and complexity as a character. Regardless, it soon becomes apparent that the detective is obsessed with finding the truth, solving the crime and restoring order to the community. In short, he may be seen as a kind of modern white knight, albeit one with slightly stained and dented armour.

In many instances the detective has an assistant or cohort who possesses special deductive or investigative skills. He or she will also act as a confidante who manages to draw out the detective’s innermost hopes and fears thereby making him more fully rounded, more believable. These partners range in personality type from Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Watson, through Jussi Adler-Olson’s Assad to River’s street-wise woman partner Stevie, who just
also happens to be dead.

Before the investigation can even begin the detective is often confronted by a foil or competitor. His role is to complicate and undermine his every move. This person is usually the detective’s social superior or commanding officer who feels somehow threatened or betrayed by the hero’s individuality. So it goes.

Once the investigation has actually begun the next relationship of importance to develop is between the detective and the criminal. Usually this begins indirectly through the unearthing of clues, interviewing of suspects, etc. Inevitably, it seems, the detective relentlessly closes the gape between the state of not knowing and the certainty of both the identity of the criminal and the motive for the crime.

In many, but not all, cases the criminal is eventually tried and punished or even killed in pursuit. This is, however, not essential to the genre and seems more prevalent in the North American crime shows.

So that, in short, is the framework of crime fiction. Tried and true. But that does not, in any way, explain its appeal. There have been numerous explanations offered. First, it may simply be our prurient fascination with violence; the raw material of scandal and gossip. We may, perhaps, identify with the victim: murdered, left unburied in a shroud of mystery. Some others may identify with the criminal. See the crimes committed as expressions of their own repressed desires. Or they may identify with the detective as an agent fighting for the common good in a kind of modern day morality play.

But no matter which of the characters we identify with a successful crime story draws us into its mysterious and threatening world. It is, in a sense a kind of literary crossword puzzle, a verbal Sudoku. It is a form of escape from our everyday life where complexity seldom gives rise to meaning and crimes and problems are seldom fully resolved. In the detective world there is only a finite number of clues, suspects. There is also a satisfying unveiling of mysteries where codes are broken, order restored. It is a world in miniature, a diorama finite in detail, comprehensible in its entirety.

To emphasize its inherent difference from our own mundane world it is often set in an exotic location: a remote resort, ancient foreign city or in the criminal underworld of some large metropolis. For most of us crime fiction places us in the position of travelers in a strange land. We are also tourists in a landscape of mental anguish and inconceivable deeds. How easily we step back into our own reality of comfort and safety. Relieved, we step away from lives gratefully not lived, crimes not witnessed.

Perhaps the strongest appeal of crime fiction is in its depiction of the process of how crimes are solved. The csi work, the lab work, fingerprint analysis, use of surveillance video, the interviewing of suspects create a mosaic of techniques that eventually reveal the identity of the criminal. We are participants in a successful hunt. In the end we are accomplices to the forces of good. Celebrants of some small imagined victory. At least until the next novel is opened, the next show begun.

Note: This article is not intended to be any kind of definite description of crime fiction. Rather, I hope others can use it as a spring board to stimulate some discussion and new ideas about the genre. I look forward to your comments. – Ken Cathers


An old paper (but a good one?)

English: Theoria A Journal of Social and Polit...

English: Theoria A Journal of Social and Political Theory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Humanist in Canada -Autumn 1986 Number 77 (Vol 19 No.3)
By Bob Lane
It might be useful to consider the questions of political theory, and the language used in the answers offered over the centuries. “How can we explain why it is that the great majority of people seem to voluntarily accept their inequality?” is the central or crucial question in the field of political theory. This question, as Hume noted, comes from the observation that, in fact, it is so easy for the few to rule over the many. Why is this the case? Sometimes the answer is offered that we have an obligation to obey the State. What is the nature of this obligation? Where does it come from? Can we reduce all political obligation to the application of a formula?
As Thomas McPherson puts it in his book Political Obligation: “The philosopher’s interest in political obligation has been mainly in the problem of the grounds of political obligation —that is, in the questions: “Why ought we to obey the government?” (p. 4) And, if we cannot find a ground in political obligation then we have anarchy. First, notice the difference between: (1) Why ought we obey the government? and (2) Why do we obey the government? The answers to (2) are usually in the terms of certain facts: because the government has all the power; because it would be prudent to obey; because the government knows best; etc. But one cannot answer a question about what people ought to do simply by pointing out what they do do. And yet there is a logical relationship between the two questions, a relationship that can be stated simply: “ought‟ implies “can‟. We cannot claim that one ought to do something which one cannot do. Philosophers have offered many theories attempting to establish the grounds for political obligation that answer the question “Why ought one obey the government?‟
I propose to look at several of them now and argue that all are logically flawed. The theories are:

1. Divine Right (St. Augustine or St. Paul)

2. Natural Law (Plato)

3. Contract Theory (Hobbes, Locke)

4. Social Utilitarianism (Bentham and Mill)

5. Naive Anarchism (the marshal’s wife in High Noon)

6. Theoretical Anarchism (Robert Paul Wolff)

An interesting feature of much of political philosophy is that its language is often closer to poetry than to science. Hobbes talks about a social contract but doesn‟t want us to look for it. Machiavelli and Hegel tell us the State is an organism but don’t really expect biologists to go looking for a new species. Marx talks of a future time when all will be well in the language of the prophets of old. Plato uses allegory and myth. There is often a fair amount or urging, commending, cheering as well as arguing. One problem in discussing these theories is that it would be easy to commit a straw man fallacy in order to easily defeat them. I’m aware of that possibility and my comments do not depend for their validity on the complexity and subtlety of these arguments, but on a rather simple logical category mistake that each makes. You should read these writers yourselves for they are first class thinkers, some of whom are also first class writers.
My first point is this —if we cannot ground political obligation in some way then anarchism rules the day. If there is no answer to the question “Why ought we obey the state?” then everyone has the right to do what ever he or she wants to do since the political rules would not be binding.To the question “Why ought we obey the state?” the divine right theory answers because it is as if God had given the command. Rulers, it says, are representatives of God on earth and one owes obedience to the laws because those laws are God’s laws. We are to obey not because the law is the law but because the law is God’s command. The person who has bound himself to obedience by the acceptance of a particular God would have an external ground of obligation to obey all particular laws. Oddly enough this position is not satisfactory because it is too relativistic. What God are we to obey? Khomenie’s God? Bush’s God? Sharon’s God? Think of all the gods who are currently invoked in the bloody streets of Lebanon!
The natural law theory answers that it is as if the laws of the state were like the laws of nature. According to this theory there are certain fundamental principles of right and justice that human reason can discern merely by attending carefully to the propositions asserting those principles. These propositions are claimed to be self-evident truths or laws of nature. This theory often gets a hand by arguing from analogy to the laws of nature discovered by science. One should notice, however, that “law‟ is ambiguous as in “the law of gravity‟ and “the law which will set our taxes‟ for it would indeed be strange to talk about repealing the law of gravity. While the laws of nature are discovered regularities, the laws of states are proclamations. We might counsel our friends to obey the law but we do not counsel stones to obey the law of gravity.
Contract theory answers “Obey the government because it is as if you have entered into a contract to do so.” It was intended to bring out the necessity for government to be based on the agreement or consent of the governed, rather than imposed on them from above. We are to imagine that once upon a time in pre society our ancestors got together to enter into a contract that would assist them to combat a life that was “nasty, brutish and short”. “We have to give up some autonomy,” they reasoned, “in order to gain security.” Contract theory can be seen as a logical outgrowth of natural law theory. If natural law theory is correct about there being basic and unchanging principles of right and justice that are knowable, however, it does not follow that one group has the right to compel another group to obey those laws. But contract theory provides the grounds for enforcing the law. Each individual in the state of nature has the right to enforce the natural law (as best one can) and it is that right which one gives over to government when one contracts with one’s fellows to put an end to thestate of nature. Hobbes argues that every legitimate government is founded on such a social contract.
To the question: “What is the justification for society’s exercise of authority over its citizens?” the social contract theory replies: “This authority is derived from each man’s consent, or as if he had signed a contract.”Social utilitarianism says that both natural law theory and social contract theory are wrong. People create governments chiefly for purposes of self-protection. in order to secure a situation in which all of us —the weak as well as the strong —shall have an opportunity to live our lives without the constant fear of attack by our fellows, we need a system of rules by which each of us accepts certain restraints upon our actions on the condition that everyone else accepts those same restraints. Social utilitarianism justifies government authority on the grounds of the principle of utility, which says that that action is best which maximizes the pleasure of the most people. Its justification lies in the consequences it brings about. If every member of society is more secure because of government authority, then authority is justified.
The naïve anarchist holds that society would be better off if there were no established governmental authority at all. It is based on an optimistic view of human nature that holds a belief that men and women without government authority or force would in fact limit their own desires in such a way that they would not be in perpetual conflict with one another. Mrs. Starrett In the great movie Shane articulates this position: “It would be better if there were no guns in the valley at all, Shane, even yours.”
Theoretical anarchism is the view that there is no theoretical justification for the authority of the state. Some people rule and some obey. Some have guns and some dig graves. Those with the guns are obeyed not because they have any right to be, but simply because they have the power to compel obedience. Wolff argues that the absolute moral and intellectual autonomy of the individual cannot be given away to the state and will always be the arbiter of obligation. He posits this autonomy of the individual as the external grounds for his anarchism.Notice that all these analyses, whether they draw the anarchist conclusion or not, follow the same logical pattern.
(i) A tight connection is assumed between political authority, in the rule-issuing sense, and political obligation.
(ii) The issue of justifying political authority is reduced to the question of whether citizens have a strict obligation to obey laws just insofar as they are valid laws.
(iii) Since obligation is given priority here, the justification of strict political obligation is made the central issue and the justification of political authority is thought to turn on it.
(iv) But since obligation is logically prior to all other political concepts, the task of justifying it requires we go outside the whole system of political concepts.
(v) Hence, the justification must be attempted by reference to some external, non-political system. Then this offered justification must treat these obligations as non-political and therefore all external grounds exclude political obligation in principle. We are left with but one conclusion: we can have no political obligationat all. This is what the anarchist has noticed and seized on.

Let me try a football analogy. British Columbia and Winnipeg are playing for the western final. Winnipeg is whistled for having thirteen men on the field. They attempt to justify this action:
1. God said we could.
2. Natural law said we could.
3. Contract theory said we could.
4. It would maximize pleasure, or the end (winning) would be easier to obtain.
5. We just wanted to.
6. We can decide how many players to use because we are an autonomous group of moral agents.
In each case the captain is looking to an external principle to ground his claim. But all these claims are senseless because the disobedient act makes sense only within the rules of the game. It must be justified within the foot ball league rules.The principle of utility cannot be invoked by a quarterback as justification for throwing an illegal pass.The notion of political authority is an intrinsic one, belonging always to a particular system of political concepts. I said earlier we are left with the conclusion that we can have no political obligation at all. Hence anarchism is true, but now you can see that this would follow only if we attempt to ground political obligation on some external ground.

We need to think about political obligation as existing within a field of play, and about the game of politics as being constituted by rules which are justified from within the system. The rules change. We change them. They are not natural laws but conventions. They express not the truth forever, but reflect our limited wisdom or our desire to be just and fair and decent.

Sunday’s Sermon

English: The Baines Wing at the University of ...

English: The Baines Wing at the University of Leeds. Taken on the afternoon of Tuesday the 4th of May 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Diversity

Here below is an interesting list of philosophy books to add diversity to your class reading (or for your personal reading).

The Diversity Reading List collects high quality texts in philosophy, written by authors from under-represented groups. Its aim is to promote the work of such authors and facilitate finding and using their texts in teaching. Currently, the List focuses on ethics, but in the near future it will be expanded to all areas of philosophy. For a broader description and the theory behind the project, visit our About page.
You can use the list by searching or browsing. To search for specific authors, titles or keywords, use the search function above. To browse, use the topic and tags menus on the left.
The List exists largely thanks to the involvement and recommendations of all those who care about making philosophy a discipline of equal opportunity. If you would like to recommend a text to be included, please use the form available on our Contribute page. Please use this page if you would like to send us any further comments or suggestions.
If you would like to share your experiences of, or suggestions for using a particular text in teaching, you can do so by posting a comment to the relevant List entry.

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