Monthly Archives: December 2004

particularism and coherence

I?m a moral particularist. I believe that some words and concepts have moral significance, but we can only tell whether they are good, bad, or neutral in particular cases. Abstracted from any specific context, they have indeterminate significance. Examples include love, loyalty, pleasure, courage, and generosity. These words and concepts are indispensable. We cannot replace them with ones that have determinate and predictable significance without oversimplifying morality. Therefore, moral judgment ought to be about whole situations, not about abstract concepts.

I?m also a cultural particularist. I believe that people have large sets of values, experiences, preferences, and opinions that jointly constitute their ?cultures.? Often, many people who live at roughly the same time and place share a lot of ideas, values, etc., and then we say that they belong to the same ?culture.? However, there is usually no single perspective, worldview, premise, or foundation that defines or underlies their culture. Thus there may be no precise boundary to a culture; and we can often classify one person as a member of several cultures at once. Some philosophers have argued that the various cultures of the world are fundamentally incompatible or unable to comprehend one another. But every member of a complex, reasonably free society will have slightly different ideas, experiences, and values, so each person can be described as having his or her own ?culture.? This is a reductio ad absurdum; it suggests that there can be no deep incompatibility among cultures (or else no one could understand anyone else). If everyone in a society does share exactly the same set of values, then we suspect that they are deprived or politically repressed.

These two forms of particularism are independent and separable, but they go together well. The combined position has implications for moral reasoning and the humanities. I?m spelling out the implications in my book on Dante, which is nearly finished.

However, I recently realized that there is a phenomenon that particularists have difficulty explaining: coherence.

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the Dutch evade the “resource trap”

Last week, I participated in a conference on the “ethical aspects of ultrafast communication.” It was funded by the Netherlands government as part of a massive technological program. Apparently, most of the Internet is now carried on fiber-optic cables that were laid during the dot-com bubble of the 90s. But the signals have to be switched, stored, and buffered using traditional circuits–with electrons rather than light waves. These switches and other components are slower than fiber-optic cables by several orders of magnitude. The Dutch are now optimistic that they can build “all-light” components that will increase the speed of the Internet by at least 100-fold, thereby expanding opportunities for voice, video, and interactivity.

The money that they are investing in this research comes from giant natural gas deposits that were discovered around Groningen in 1959. I asked whether the financial returns of the “ultrafast communications project” will go to the Dutch government, universities, specific companies, or to no one at all (if the inventions are put straight into the public domain). No one at the conference was sure. Nevertheless, the investment sounds smart to me.

There is an interesting contrast with countries like Nigeria, Venezuela, and Iraq, which seem to be much worse off because they have vast deposits of valuable raw materials than they would be otherwise. Countries fall into a “resource trap” when their governments can capture the revenue from raw materials and buy popularity with targeted social programs, while also maintaining advanced police states. The extraction of raw materials does not create many jobs or allow workers to form large unions, but it does bolster the state. Since good government is the key to economic growth, and natural resources often support bad governments, they can be a curse. But not in countries like the Netherlands, Norway, and Iceland, where excellent democratic government and an engaged citizery predated the discovery of oil or gas. In those cases, free resources are–as you might expect–a good thing.

aesthetics and history

Last week in Bruges, Belgium, at the medieval Hospital of St. John, we saw an altarpiece by Hans Memling that’s sometimes entitled the “Mystic Marriage of St. Catharine.” (The picture to the right is just a detail; click here for a photo of the whole original painting.)

Even if you knew nothing about this work, you might like it–not necessarily in a digital photograph, but in its original 31 square feet of paint. The figures are extraordinarily realistic. The cloth is rich; the colors are luminous and balanced. The woman wears an expression of repose and kindness. Her pale white skin, the ruddier skin of the man behind her, and the wool of the lamb create interesting tactile contrasts. However, if you somehow thought this were a modern illustration, you might not give it a great deal of thought. You would have to acknowledge the artist’s technique, since practically no one can paint light, texture, and skin so naturalistically today. But then again, naturalistic oil painting isn’t very useful now that we have color photographs. And if the image turned out to be a photo of models in medieval clothing, it would be downright strange.

Actually, the altarpiece was painted from 1474-79. That fact makes it much more beautiful than it would otherwise be, I believe. But how can an external fact increase the beauty of an image? The colors would be as rich and harmonious if they had been painted yesterday.

I think that the date and provenance of a work are relevant to its aesthetic value–for two reasons. First, a painting can evoke a whole lost culture. Flanders in the 15th century was cruel, superstitious, oppressive, dirty, and sometimes vulgar. (There is even some vulgarity in the right wing of the “Mystic Marriage of St. Catharine.”) The same civilization was also dynamic, prosperous, and vigorous–the world’s leader in international commerce–yet capable of spiritual purity and calm. An image like Memling’s altarpiece reflects the best of its entire cultural milieu, which greatly increases its beauty.

Second, a great work from the past belongs to the “history of art.” We tell this story as a series of discoveries and revolutions (borrowing ideas from other fields of history). It is a heroic tale, beginning with the Archaic Greeks and ending with Picasso and Matisse, if not with post-modernism. Each era or movement is described as solving problems or overcoming prejudices inherited from the past. Once the great artists of a particular moment have solved their problems, we no longer admire repetitions of their success. Thus Memling is impressive because he can imply complex interactions among multiple figures much better than his teachers, Van Eyck and Van der Weyden, could. But any journeyman artist of the 17th century could place eight people in an organized open space and show how each related to the others. So what is original in Memling is commonplace two centuries later. And what is original is also beautiful, because we view the whole history of (Western) art as a moving narrative.

Our emphasis on the historical development of art is itself a feature of our own civilization, not something universal. The first people to tell heroic stories about the development of art were Pliny and Vasari, each coming after a great era of creativity. Their way of appreciating painting and sculpture works perfectly in a secular museum, less well in a temple or a church, which has a different purpose. Memling himself would have had a very limited understanding of the history of art, as shown by the fact that he placed biblical figures in late-Gothic, Flemish settings. Yet our historical sense is what makes us find Memling so beautiful.

stones of London

I’m reading Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, a 750-page book with one dominant theme. Fire, riot, real-estate speculation, bombs, and state planning have caused constant and brutal change throughout London’s 2000 years. But despite all this disruption, many streets and districts mysteriously retain consistent functions and characters over very long periods. Sometimes a place will have a modern use (and name) that evokes the same site before the Romans arrived.

I think Ackroyd sometimes stretches a point and is not perfectly reliable. However, his theme has personal resonance for me. I partly grew up in London, spending five school years there, plus every summer (save one) until I was nineteen. We usually rented a new home each year, so we lived all over the city. Now I return with my own family almost annually. Thus I have seen London’s evolution since the 1970s in a kind of freeze-frame–skyscrapers sprouting; cockney cafes giving way to Starbucks; Bangladeshis following Ugandan Indians and Jamaicans; bowler hats, Mohawks, and backwards baseball caps in procession. In my lifetime, London has extended its ancient pattern of destruction, immigration, and reconstruction.

As a child, I was deeply interested in London’s history. This interest came from two main sources, my parents and my school. My mother took us down to the muddy banks of the tidal Thames to dig up clay pipe stems from pre-industrial times and helped me find chalk fossil shells deposited eons earlier. We also went on guided walking tours. I especially recall a geologist’s tour of the stone used in West End buildings; a walk along the remains of the Roman wall (which now runs through the glass blocks of the financial center); and nighttime visits to the Tower of London, led by a Beefeater. We went to the theater often, and such plays as Bartholomew’s Fair and The Knight of the Burning Pestle evoked old London for me.

For three years, I attended the only state primary school within the City of London, Prior Weston. The imaginative, progressive faculty emphasized local history. They made their mix of cockney and yuppie students feel citizens of the old London “commune,” with its guilds, monastic orders, councils, traditions, and civic privileges. The city was being torn up then, as usual, huge towers rising from bomb sites. Ugly and anonymous as the new buildings were, they followed ancient roads and their foundations laid bare the remnants of Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Medieval, Tudor, Stuart, and Victorian London. I was especially possessive of the bomb site next to our school, which we viewed as a “nature preserve,” since it had sprouted wild flowers and sheltered hardy urban birds. We agitated to preserve it, but a massive building soon appeared in its place. Meanwhile, outside the school’s main door, vegetables were still sold from wooden barrows as they had been for a thousand years.

to Belgium and Georgia

My family and I are going to Belgium today. We’ll stay in Bruges and I’ll commute to a conference at the University of Tillburg on “The Ethical Implications of Ultrafast Communications.” From Belgium, we’ll go directly to Macon, GA for Christmas. I clearly need a break from computers, so I won’t go online (let alone blog) until December 27 or so. Until then, I wish you happy holidays and leave you with some genuine Flemish phrases to translate:

  • Klik op de fotos voor meer detail.
  • Deze on-line versie van de sociale gids geeft u recente informatie over alle sociale organisaties in Brugge.
  • [Newspaper headline:] Amok over fiscale amnestie!
  • Meer info?
  • (And they call this a foreign language?)