Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Affordances, Mythologies

A cranky anonymous poster at Chris's blog posted a link to Jeff Elman's An Alternative View of the Mental Lexicon (smallish pdf). The abstract:

An essential aspect of knowing language is knowing the words of that language. This knowledge is usually thought to reside in the mental lexicon, a kind of dictionary that contains information regarding a word's meaning, pronunciation, syntactic characteristics, and so on. In this article, a very different view is presented. In this view, words are understood as stimuli that operate directly on mental states. The phonological, syntactic and semantic properties of a word are revealed by the effects it has on those states.

It's a provocative view, but ultimately unsatisfying. It would be a terrible thing, in my opinion, were the insights into the constitution of meaning suggested by Gibson's ecology of perception theoretically reduced to an idea of stimulus. I have been wondering what Gibson's notion of affordances would do within a more fully developed semiotics, one that distinguished indexical from iconic and symbolic functions, signals from signs, signifiers from signifieds, linguistic signs from myths (second order representations), or what have you. I don't feel any special call to do structuralism, defend its precepts, or reiterate its findings in some alternative mode, but I think if you're going to examine a phenomenon that would be like mental structuration, it would be worth your while to take a peek at how the structuralists and their academic progeny have examined functions and operations that bear on the problems that interest you.

It's not my intention to lay all this at Elman's feet, because I expect he's devoted his scientific career to developing and advancing his viewpoint, and much of the work that he's done has gone straight to the heart of the structuralist project. To a great extent the appearance of reductionism may simply be an artifact of the narrowness of the genre "article in a scientific journal," so the critical reader is left to sort out which aspects of a complex presentation are direct products of the author's conceptualizations, which are byproducts, which are epiphenomenal, and which are irrelevant. But who's to say? The author?

The fundamental suggestion of the present proposal is to treat words as stimuli, whose "meaning" lies in the causal effects they have on mental states. Or, to paraphrase Dave Rumelhart, words do not have meaning, they are cues to meaning. On the face of it, this might seem to demote the role of any given word in determining the meaning of utterances, but in fact it gives it far greater potential for interacting flexibly with other cues. Understanding the often systematic and sometimes idiosyncratic effects of these cues remains the challenge. It is here that computational models might help to lead us to more precise and formal theories.

I'd agree with that penultimate statement, but the final statement doesn't quite follow. As much as Elman's Simple Recurring Networking model impresses me, it hasn't convinced me that the sort of more precise and more formal theories that such modeling lends itself to would be up to the task of yielding remarkably clearer understandings of systematicities embedded in cultural contexts, much less idiosyncracies of interpretation.

Incidentally, I'd been meaning to say something about the nomothetic in relation to the definition of science, but I reckon that just about covers it. A basic conundrum I see for the scientist is that while a goodly portion of the phenomenal world is, so to speak, ipsative, ipsative methods of inquiry are not generally conducive to standard procedures of verification. It is a grave error in my view to "solve" this problem by treating the nomothetic and the empirical as if they were coextensive.

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:58 PM. 0 comments

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Triple Helix

Plundering the life sciences is a tricky business, as Richard Lewontin reminds us. Lewontin remarks on a confusion between "'understanding' in the weak sense of making coherent and comprehensible statements about the real world" and "'understanding' that means making correct statements about nature." Without subscribing to Lewontin's views of science or nature--perfectly respectable views, but ones that can be bracketed out for the moment--, I feel he roughly captures the ambivalence I've been feeling about his book, The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment. On the one hand I'm delighted to learn about the state of the life sciences from one of the preeminent evolutionary biologists of our time. On the other hand I came to plunder, searching for metaphors and ways of thinking that might illuminate problems far afield from the natural habitat of the evolutionary biologist.

The thing is, I can't quite view the latter mode of reading as "weak." And to the extent that it's askance, it's not properly strong. Liken it to bridge building, and then where does its strength or weakness lie? Or think more abstractly of emergent properties. After Mark Bedau, we could say that a weakly emergent reading of evolutionary theory would be the most consistent with Lewontin's idea of "making correct statements about nature." (Is there a problem with treating a model of causality as equivalent to a hermeneutics? It's not the sort of thing that bothers me much.) The weakness or strength of an understanding would seem to be a matter of what you want to accentuate--though I must admit to being intrigued by Lewontin's concept of a living system as "nexus of a very large number of weakly determining forces" (p. 92 and passim).

Three strands:

  1. Words don't spell out meanings. Meanings are spelled out in context, i.e., meaning encompasses everything that goes with saying, including other words. We can view context in three principal aspects: the syntagmatic, the paradigmatic, and the pragmatic. (I'm saying that the semantic realm is contextual quite apart from the pragmatic--isn't that odd? That meaning might be essentially uncontained, or, more descriptively, weakly held.)

  2. Metaphors are constructive. Metaphors may be conceptualized as bridging cognitive domains, but that only tells half the story. Metaphors can shape, delineate, or redefine existing domains of thought. A strong metaphor clears a space for new ways of thinking, laying the groundwork for new cognitive domains. It is a mistake for students of metaphor to regard cognitive domains as a priori, although that appears to be the norm in ordinary discourse, and we cannot yet rule out the possibility that some domains may come with the territory, so to speak. Nevertheless, metaphor never completely loses its creative potential.

  3. Systematic ways of thinking are intermediate in size and internally heterogeneous. As a consequence, ways of thinking are the nexus of a very large number of weakly determining forces. They also take odd shapes.

Just kidding. Kind of. Of course I'm recasting Lewontin's critiques of determinism, adaptationism and reductionism. It's not exactly what I intended to take away from The Triple Helix, but there it is--a dodge, possibly a tell. The questions I put to my reading of The Triple Helix, most inappropriately, revolved around possible conceptualizations of the relationship between existence as a lifeform and existence as a consciousness. Crudely, does our nature shape our consciousness, or does our consciousness shape our nature? It's an absurdly inadequate dichotomy, but as much as I think about it, I can't renconcile the two perspectives, and I see no compelling reason to choose one over the other (heuristics aside).

At the back of my mind has been Grace de Laguna's (in Existence and the Human World, Op cit) call for a phenomenology of the natural world. De Laguna approaches the lifeworld as a realm of culture and social interaction on the one hand, and on the other as the realm of the biological organism's vital activity:

The environment (Lebenswelt) is not to be understood as a spatial region within which it [Dasein1] has a locus, but, like the world, it is constituted by entities insofar as they have a vital bearing, positive or negative, on the living existence of the organism. The ecological situation within which an organism exists is a complex of overlapping environments, each centered in and determined by the ways of being possible to each of the constituent organisms. Surely we must acknowledge that it's possible to undertake an existential analysis of the living organism, and, furthermore, that it is only through such an analysis that we may gain an understanding of the being of living entities.

(On Existence and the Human World, p. 90)

This view seems to accord with Lewontin's view of the environment, but is it merely analogous, or is there a genuine homology between the lifeworld and an organism's natural habitat? Perhaps it doesn't matter; in the former case we can ask whether it's a good analogy, and in the latter we may yet wonder whether the homology is due to one or the other state being primary--i.e., it's conceivable that we model our understanding of the natural world based upon our existential understanding of the lifeworld, or the the other way around-- or whether there aren't alternative third terms that warrant looking into, e.g. the nature of systems, or systematic conceptual thinking, teased apart from the issue of allegorical thinking. And now I wonder whether the eidetic structure of existence might also be thought of as second order, or transcendental, and whether that's consitistent with the claims being made by existential phenomenology. What exactly is the primary reality here?

Variation is a primary reality of the living world. I was struck by Lewontin's insistence on that point (in various manifestations). Variation is not merely a characterization of the way things are, but a conceptual insight into the process that generates new life forms. Once we set aside a transformational model of change in favor of the evolutionary biologist's variational model, we appreciate the diversity of organisms, including Homo sapiens, in a whole new light. Cultural and psychological differences between people don't appear to matter much in terms of evolutionary processes, and lacking firm data on the culture and psychology of non-humans, these sorts of questions are typically beyond the ken of the evolutionary biologist. (Obviously they are within the ken of the paleoanthropologist, but is the paleoanthropologist typical of evolutionary biology? Cultural anthropology?)

What would the conceptual difference be, I wonder, between variation and variability? Do systems possess the quality of variability, or would we be better served to view variability as a capacity of existential beings? I'd want to clarify this point before extending Lewontin's argument qua Lewontin's argument to the notion of variation in social groups and the world of ideas. Provisionally I'll say that the human world is characterized by plurality, and this is a natural condition of the human being. This is almost like the argument Hannah Arendt puts forward in The Human Condition (Vita Activa).

Arendt indeed identifies plurality as essential to being human: "Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived" (p.8). However, Arendt's definition of action is precisely delimited. She distinguishes three fundamental modes of human activity: labor, work, and action. The first corresponds to human physiology and lifecycle processes, and the business of the species; the second to (material) culture; and the third to history. All three modes of activity, she says, are "intimately conected with the most general condition of human existence: birth and death, natality and mortality." Yet she carefully notes that the "human condition comprehends more than the conditions under which life has been given to man" (p.9). That could be taken as self-evident, and Arendt's explication is quite persuasive. However, the question remains as to where exactly we draw the line between what is given to human beings as organisms or as a species of organism, and what is given to humans as agents of culture and language. Once we begin to consider sociality and its correlates in Homo sapiens and closely related species as biological givens, which evolutionary science gives us some warrant for, then we can begin to question whether plurality truly has its grounds for being in a kind of concommitant to a specifically human freedom or ingenuity.

A key aspect of Arendt's thinking about action and the condition of plurality is her concept of natality, which is neither entirely original nor much like the way other existentialists have dealt with the problem.2 The human being (in the mode of action) always has the capacity to be perform the miracle of rebirth, so to speak. Arendt's concept of natality envisions not only our capacity to remake ourselves, but also our capacity to remake our world:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, "natural" ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born.


Speech and action, then, as I'm reading Arendt, are rooted in the conjoint conditions of plurality and natality, each delimiting the other's horizons of possibility, each implying what the other can do. The conditions of human existence cannot explain who we are, Arendt offers, but in studying them perhaps we see why our search for our own natural essence should always end in perplexity--that we are "whos" and not "whats" (pp.10-11). For the most part Arendt seems satisfied to let the natural sciences have their whats, but her description of the conditions of possibility for being a who accord well with what natural science tells us about what Homo sapiens is, somewhat remarkably, and the project she has undertaken in The Human Condition is decidedly more ambitious than mystical, providing ample reason for either the philospher or the natural scientist to be unsettled by it.

In a footnote to her discussion of actuality (energeia), Arendt remarks that "It is of no importance in our context that Aristotle saw the highest possibility of 'actuality' not in action and speech, but in contemplation and thought" (p.206, n.35). Okay, but in our context it's kind of fascinating that Arendt would read Aristotle that way. If we can describe the natural world as an actuality in an Arendtian sense, taking the argument put forward in The Triple Helix as a provisional license--some would say counterfeit, but we'll see if we get away with it--, what would that imply about the kind of activity we call science? How would it then be possible to make a correct statement about nature?

Another way to approach the issue. Is it possible to make a correct statement about nature that is not also a correct statement about the real world? That would seem to be rather schizophrenic, and yet if we acknowledge plurality as a condition of action/speech (hereafter "discourse"), and science as a mode of discourse, then we might be justified in saying that the discursive reality known as "nature" doesn't need to be real in a certain absolute metaphysical sense, nor does it need to have a wide or robust consensus established to define what it is, but it must be real in the sense of being a field of actuality for a natural scientist, or somebody adopting the viewpoint of a natural scientist, "the naturalist attitude." I reckon many scientists would chafe at the reduction of science to "mere" discourse, or the suggestion that one does science for the sake of science. Let me be clear then about my prejudices and the way I'm trying to look at how Arendt's concept of actuality addresses this notion of "making correct statements about nature."

I don't believe that correctness is the sine qua non of scientific statements about nature. Rather I feel that a scientific statement is distinguished by its correctability, and science may be aptly described as a systematic way of making corrections to statements about empirically accessible phenomena. Now, for the system to work properly, the scientist has to assume that his field of study "actually" exists, meaning that anybody similiarly engaged in the practice of science could access the same phenomena and perform the same experiments, and that there is some sort of universally realizable correct statement that could be made about the phenomena at hand. Is this a paradox, or does it simply reflect an ordinary leap of faith? We generally have little problem accepting that art can be simultaneously idiosyncratic and communicative of essential truths about our humanity. The artist evidently, in doing art, gives in to the possibility of being understood. Doesn't the scientist also give in to this possibility, and take with it everything it entails? Including, naturally, the possibility of being misunderstood?

If the givens for any field of discourse are roughly equivalent with respect to the constitution of knowledge--plurality, natality, worldiness and some others I've neglected to unpack-- then perhaps we should want to distinguish fields of discourse by less all-encompassing criteria, such as their genesis of shapes, or processes of shaping. Returning to my original strongly weak reading of The Triple Helix, then, the problem with an existential phenomenology of the living organism at present may not be epistemological at all, but simply that the field has yet to develop sufficiently intricate and compelling shapes for the life scientist to engage with. I'm not convinced that resolves the basic conundrum of what's primary in the shaping of consciousness, but it may offer a more appreciative approach to the life sciences, and the general problem of reading across disciplinary boundaries.

1 Having weighed in on the Heidegger question, I feel obliged to say that I don't regard de Laguna as a cryptofascist, nor do I believe that she adequately addresses the issue of fascism, which she ought to have done at some point given her particular indebtedness to Heidegger's Sein und Zeit.

2 I see "natality" as similar to Heidegger's notion of thrownness. And of course it is a more optimistic emphasis for an existentialism than the whole "being-towards-death" business and such. Arendt's political and philosphical disagreements with Heidegger are widely known.

posted by Fido the Yak at 2:53 PM. 0 comments

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Spotlight on Darfur 3

The Third Spotlight on Darfur is up at Allthings2all. You can find something there to educate, inspire or think about your response to events in the Sudan. Catez has been doing us a great service with this project. So check it out.

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:27 AM. 0 comments

Season for Empathy

I'm heartened by the news that Secretary of State Rice has weighed in on the funding for the African Union Mission in Sudan (ht Eugene). I've closely followed this aspect of the situation because enlarging that force and expanding its capabilities is one of the most doable routes to easing some immediate concerns of the two million Darfuris who are still living in precarious conditions.

"Precarious." The entry for that word in the Online Dictionary of Etymology reads:

1646, a legal word, "held through the favor of another," from L. precarius "obtained by asking or praying," from prex (gen. precis) "entreaty, prayer." Notion of "dependent on the will of another" led to sense "risky, dangerous, uncertain" (1687).

Wretched and awful may be all too commonplace in the world today. Precarious strikes me as far more critical.

I've been thinking a bit about empathy and its limits, or whether it has much force or domain at all. Catez has asked that submissions for the Third Spotlight on Darfur be tied in with Christmas in some way. Well, it's easy enough to link to UNICEF and suggest that you contribute to their to general fund, or to one of their many programs, including those for emergencies, one of which remains the situation in Darfur.

It makes me wonder though. How is that people are more generous at some times than at others? Does the phenomenon of increased charitable donations at Christmas (or Ramadan for that matter) say anything about our capacity for empathy? Is it the flipside of "compassion fatigue"? Is empathy so taxing? Does it's ebb and flow have to do with knowledge, and the kinds of things people are asked to think about?

Perhaps a key relation is to setting time aside from labor, the notion of a sabbath or simply a rest. I live in a technologically advanced postindustrial society, and yet the rhythms of my life remain connected to an agrarian history. The imprints of industrialization, the labor movement, holidays secular and religious: all these are also discernable, but the agrarian roots remain.

I don't know whether the rhythms of life in the refugee camps of Sudan and Chad have any sense of connection to the ways of life that have been systematically wiped away by the government of Sudan and its proxy militias. I expect that the rainy season and the dry season, day and night, have already taken on a new meanings in light of the precarious situtation people find themselves in. It's dreadful to imagine what it must be like to spend a childhood in that kind of an environment, and what that means for the communities that have been displaced. Will there be an opportunity to recover something of the life that came before?

Thinking about my own family history, there have been upheavals and calamaties, but here in America we have been able to carry on. We have not been marked for extermination, and the decision to leave the farm (or stay on it) was never made at the point of a gun. I know that historically this hasn't been the experience of all who came here, so I do feel rather blessed.

In the political sphere, there are allegiances or orders that would compartmentalize or otherwise limit the reach of the empathic faculty. Sometimes we act as if this only happened to others and not to ourselves. If only things were that simple.

It's a mistake to regard the ebb and flow of compassion as natural. Empathy is something you have to work at, a praxis. You can't just quit and expect empathy to blossom of its own accord. By the same token, if you intend to practice empathy with real effect, you can't allow yourself to be exhausted by it. How and when you practice empathy is something you have to live with. Whether you work through introspection or reaching out, in keeping with your temperment and circumstances, the cultivation of empathy is your gift to the world.

posted by Fido the Yak at 3:25 AM. 1 comments

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Mulligan Meets Monk

Maybe the best version of "Rhythm-a-ning" on record. It's on Riverside, from 1957, with Wilbur Ware and Shadow Wilson rounding out the rhythm section. The rapport between Monk and Mulligan on that tune is just phenomenal. A lot of times cats will treat rhythm changes (or blues) as a warm up exercize or just another excuse to blow. Well, there's room for that too, but it's a particular joy to hear cats getting creative with a familiar tune, at a high level of engagement like that.

What enables a crystaline rapport in improvisational music, bebop in particular? Familiarity with the tune, for sure. With it's underlying chord changes, and with the melody as well. Familiarity among members of the ensemble. A panoply of expectations about how tunes are constructed, about the different roles in an ensemble, about how or when to transition between comping, soloing, riffing, getting back to the head. But rapport has to involve more than that, which basically describes what it takes to be a competent player in a jazz ensemble. Rapport is about listening, obviously. It's also about saying something worth listening to, something relevant and surprising at once.

So it's a mystery? Sure, it's a mystery. Socrates heard the Muses say, "Socrates, make music and work at it" (mousikên poiei kai ergazou), so he devoted himself completely to philosophy. Is that revealing?

posted by Fido the Yak at 4:54 PM. 0 comments

Philosphers' Carnival XXIII

The 23rd Philosophers' Carnival is up at Right Reason. David Clark's Husserl--Point of Departure caught my attention, predictably. Started to make a nuisance of myself over there, but thought better of it--the automatic disquisition is not a form beloved by all. Still, it invites a response, and I intend to post something either pithy and cogent there, or rather antithetical to pithy and cogent here.

posted by Fido the Yak at 4:40 PM. 0 comments

Friday, December 09, 2005

Understanding Zippy the Pinhead

Understanding Zippy the Pinhead in six easy lessons. Elliptical, yes, but never intentionally obscure.

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:27 AM. 1 comments

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Lived Experienced

I've always chafed at the barbarism "lived experience," which I gather came in to usage to reflect a concept of Erlebnis rather than Erfarhung. I happen to like the word "Erfarhung" and think it should be able to do anything "Erlebnis" can do and then some. And I like the word "experience" too, and think it's stupid to flirt with pleonasm in the name of making clear distinctions when one could just as easily indicate precisely what is meant.

But what is meant by "lived"?

Candid looks at the statement by Erich Fromm, "Man has to live his life. He is not lived by it." I think of the distinction Fromm makes as homologous to a distinction between existing and inhabiting, or habitation--actually there's no reason to dress up Fromm; call it being and having. Well, if you made the same sort of distinction regarding "experience," you wouldn't have to resort such petty atrocities as "lived experience."

And yet, trumpets and violins I can hear in the distance... Are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced? Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful....

posted by Fido the Yak at 6:59 AM. 0 comments

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Real Experimentation of the Will

Every idea that does not proceed from a real experimentation of the will is dead and a mere word; dead especially and fictitious all complete knowledge that does not turn to acting.

--Maurice Blondel

The quote, from Blondel's Action, was offered by C Grace in response to Brandon's post of a passage from Edith Stein on thinking with the heart. To my discredit, I am unfamiliar with the work of Maurice Blondel, but I'm intrigued by this statement, and by some of the other themes C Grace has been exploring.

What would constitute a real experimentation of the will? Intuitively I feel that the world of (inter)action is the right place to look at experimentation, but I also sense that, historically at least, the experimental mode of formal inquiry has removed from view certain questions pertaining to its conditions of possibility, and these might also be said to lie within the sphere of action, as opposed to, say, abstract thought. We can call this sphere a "lifeworld" after Husserl, but there are other vocabularies treating the same nexus of problems, Blondel's for instance. But I freely admit that if I'm looking to Blondel for an alternative phenomonological view on the constitution of knowledge, it's a bit silly because I haven't yet read his works. So my preliminary questions about a possible distinction between the experimental as a way of acting and the experimental as way of thinking about acting will have to be put on hold.

But I'm still curious. Is there a paradox involved in turning the experimental gaze towards the subject, whether we see this as reflexive agency, consciousness, psychology, or whatever? In everyday life, we experiment with the will all the time. We abstain or we give in. We stop and think about what we're doing, or we just do it, and then we sometimes compare the results. Are these not real experimentations of the will, utterly ordinary and not the least bit paradoxical? Does thinking require of us that we forget who we are, in some fashion, or would that be a fiction? What would the difference be between subjecting our thinking to experimentation as if it were will, and as if it were, say, imagination, or a free variation of possibilities. Would we have to ask like, "What do I want to think?" and "Might it be better to want something else?"

Some times it's gratifying to think against our impulses, and other times it's gratifying to go with them, to have them confirmed. By what standard do we measure the results of an experimentation of will? Adequacy? Suitability towards some more encompassing project of action? Whether we can live with our thoughts? That wouldn't seem like much to ask for from thinking--but just try it.

posted by Fido the Yak at 4:47 PM. 0 comments

Monday, December 05, 2005

Three ruminations

Can you chew another animal's cud? Maybe if you're running GNU-Linux. Anyway, three ruminations:

  • Michael Pakaluk (Dissoi Blogoi) looks at the Socratic maxim, No one intenionally does wrong. Is that a statement about knowing or willing? In any event, by rejecting the doctrine of akrasia, Socrates surely did not mean to offer an excuse for bad deeds. Rather, he meant that people have a responsibility to know what's right, and further, I think, that a citizen has a responsibility to educate his fellow citizens--as I read Gorgias.

  • Brandon (Siris) looks at Hume on geometrical equality. What if you divided the Eleatic school in half, and divided it in half again.... Are we talking fuzzy like a penguin, fuzzy like a yak, or fuzzy like a Treatise of Human Nature?

  • Ellis Seagh (Consciousness and Culture) continues to explore indeterminacy.

posted by Fido the Yak at 12:17 AM. 0 comments

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Dewey on International War

Alex at Strictly Speaking takes a fresh look at Dewey's "Ethics and International Relations."

posted by Fido the Yak at 6:41 AM. 0 comments

Traduttori Traditori

The Washington Post reports on a meeting between United States Marines and Sunni Arab tribal leaders in Ramadi, Iraq.

"We're here to work through the problems," Williams urged. "These are complex problems. There are not easy solutions, but there are solutions."

His words were translated differently, however. "I don't have any time to waste," is how they were conveyed by another army interpreter, an older Lebanese man, seemingly impatient after five hours of talks, and improvising in an apparent effort to bring them to a close. "Even if you all do have time to waste, today's not the day."

Thus prodded, Marines and tribal leaders reached an agreement: Anbar's elders would come up with a plan that would satisfy U.S. conditions for security and allow U.S. troops to pull out of Ramadi, and Williams would try to pitch it to Baghdad. Despite the disconnect, both sides had gotten across enough of their points to satisfy, at least to a degree.

Well, let's hope so.

I had welcomed the passage of Senator Feingold's Civilian Linguist Reserve Corps amendment because it directly addresses the military's need for competent translators. But that program cannot be the end of the story. Foreign language education must be treated as a vital national (indeed, international) interest. The imperative is both practical and ethical. In cases of military engagement, the moral quandry created by an inability to communicate is obvious enough. Less obvious perhaps is the imperative to communicate across language barriers when the possibility of military confrontation would appear to be quite remote. When we look at the field of diplomatic engagements, the frontline as it were against resorting to military action to solve disputes, it becomes evident that the system as a whole does not function as a tactical (or, primarily, strategic) alternative to war. It is only from the point of view of national security strategies that diplomacy serves such a function, begrudgingly. The culture of diplomacy obeys its own logic, homologous to but not reducible to the logic of ongoing conversations. The ongoing character of diplomatic engagements, together with what Jean-Loup Amselle describes as the "mestizo logic" of cultural differences, carry implications for ethical conduct within and beyond the realm of strategic calculations. To see what I mean, you can experiment with grunting at people in lieu of greeting them to see how it impacts your quality of life--recommended only for the brave.

In recent memory the United States Congress has been remarkably ungenerous to foreign language studies. Congressional debates over Title VI (Area Studies) appropriations have too often been less about solving realworld problems than they are about scoring points for narrow interest groups. One simple solution to address future needs: allow undergraduates to receive Foreign Language Area Studies scholarships, which are currently awarded only to graduate students. This is a provision included in Senator Dodd's International and Foreign Language Studies Act of 2005 (S.1105), and it's been kicked around in some other bills on the Hill. There is no broad bipartisan support for this initiative. (Senator Dodd's bill is indeed presented in English, and it doesn't say "Even if you all do have time to waste, today's not the day." I checked.)

As I've been writing this post, Richard Chappell has put forward a call for investing in rational capital. I wouldn't know whether ratiocination is the be all and end all of problem-solving abilities--I'm reminded of Rorty's defense of sentimental education--, but it surely has a handy place in the good citizen's tool shed. And the suggestion that politics today is too far down the path of emotional appeals and mindless insults certainly resonates here in the States. What to do about it? It's a set of complex problems, but they must be addressed because the consequences of sustained willful idiocy are too serious to ignore.

posted by Fido the Yak at 5:25 AM. 1 comments