Wednesday, 24 December 2008


Readers will have noticed the decline of activity in this backwater of Blogland. I have been a little lazy and largely diffident in posting. I have run low on presumption, the grease by which the blogging-cogs run smoothly. Still, the new year may bring more. In the meantime, a very merry Christmas to you all.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Argumentum Insapiens

“Given that Homo sapiens originated in Africa it would be true to say that 100% of Britons have immigrant ancestors.” [1]

Not only would it not be true to say so, but it would be dumb to say so. It is impossible to have immigration into states and nations that do not exist. And I am quite sure that Britain as a state did not exist at the dawn of humanity; that England as an ethno-geographic territory did not exist when the Anglo-Saxons invaded these islands; and that Britain still did not exist when the Normans invaded England. The socio-political-territorial concept of immigration implies by its prefix migration into something, rather than just movement from one point in space to another, and that that something is not a mere stretch of matter, which has by itself no objectively-existing territorial borders. The stretch of matter that we name “Britain” attains no status as anything but matter except by a socio-political concept; and its division into national territories depended on the very nations that made them. The Anglo-Saxons were not immigrants to an England which somehow magically existed apart from them; they were its creators. Nor were they immigrants to a Britain that would not exist until long after they had arrived. Similarly, Scotland did not exist before the Scots invaded from Ireland, and China did not exist before there were people calling themselves Chinese, and so on. It is utter nonsense to speak of the English being immigrants to England, the Scots being immigrants to Scotland, the Welsh being immigrants to Wales, the Irish being immigrants to Ireland, the Indians being immigrants to India, and so on — all of which are not mere stretches of earth, but ethnic, social, or political territories. Mr Worstall, however, comes from the So-Long-As-It-Makes-Us-Richer School of Thought, which is to say that he’d gladly sell his ancestral homeland for a few pennies more a year, and, as it seems, wouldn’t baulk at using spurious arguments to do so. Or perhaps, as regards the latter point, he is just a twit.
[1] Tim Worstall, “Twits”, Tim Worstall (weblog), 18th December 2008. (“Homo sapiens” changed from “Homo Sapiens”.)

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Fewtril no.263

Knowledge is the means by which we deepen mystery. There is, I suppose, an end to it, but that would require either omniscience or shallowness.

Fewtril no.262

Falsification can begin anywhere, but it must begin if “explanation” continues where a fundament is reached.

The Dark Night of the Intellect

“If I concentrate hard enough on why I believe there is a tree in the Quad, I cease to assume that there is a tree in the Quad, and treat that statement instead as a proposition to be proved rather than a premise that is given. In having the question of whether there is a tree in the Quad or not brought to my notice I am being begged not to beg the question, and the courtesies of argument demand that I put in doubt what I normally know to be true. There is also what I might call the Yellow-Spot phenomenon in philosophy, namely, that if we focus our attention too hard on any matter for too long, we cease to see it straight. In the dark night of the intellect, which is the philosopher’s usual state of mind, it is wise for him occasionally to distract his thoughts and look away, that he may see what he is looking at the better; more especially when he is dealing with facts and certainty. For facts are essentially what is peripheral to the question under examination, what can be taken for granted on this occasion; and therefore by being asked sufficiently earnestly to consider any question sufficiently closely I can be cajoled into giving up fact-status for this occasion for almost any statement: courtesy compels. Only if I am making the minimum possible statement can I be pushed no further: only if I say that there is in my visual field at this moment a red rectangular patch on a cream background, am I safe from possible error: hence, if there are basic facts, only the simplest facts of sense-experience can fill the bill. By attempting to make rigid and absolute the flexible standard, which depends on the circumstances, of what the honest man cannot reasonably refuse to concede, we have ensnared ourselves in a reductionist spiral, demanding an ever lower standard of reasonableness until we reach the phenomenalist’s goal, the lowest common denominator of what must be conceded by every reasonable man in any circumstances whatever, that is, what must be conceded by a barely sentient being.
.....It is an interesting way of doing philosophy. We start by assuming that a fact is what a true statement states: from this it is a natural inference that since the conclusions of ethical debate and scientific theorising are not facts, they are not true either. By restricting our criterion of truth to that of agreed truth, we are able to eliminate all doubt and dubiety within the province of philosophy; nor can the opponent of this view fault the examples given of what is to be allowed as really true, for only those truths that cannot reasonably be contested are put forward as examples. One weakness alone attaches to the method: as there are few facts, if any, that we cannot in our metaphysical moments be uncertain of, our concept of truth is regressive; our criterion grows progressively and indefinitely more stringent. At first we exclude those propositions of morals, theology and metaphysics, whose elimination is welcome to many of the enlightened; but the more we think, the more nice we become as to what are unquestionable truths; and so the truths of logic, mathematics, and natural science, of common sense and everyday life, join the procession to the guillotine.”

J.R. Lucas, “On Not Worshipping Facts”, The Philosophical Quarterly, 8, 1958, pp.155-6, online at J.R. Lucas’s website.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


“Young people only appear in the media to receive the blame for breaking Britain, and as the subject of longwinded tracts that label us apathetic and materialistic” — says yet another youngster in the media bemoaning the “negative” image of youth, i.e., whichever image does not excuse or praise the vices and inanities thereof. “Most of us care”, says our young female scribbler, “but feel so disempowered by these stifling truisms.” [1] Apart from indulging in the usual pathetic exaggeration, is she telling us that these labels are stifling but self-evident truths, or is she too apathetic to pick up a dictionary? Or is my usage too old?
.....Often in the eyes of the liberal press, the young can do no wrong — “like a multitude of little popes with the power of infallibility” [2] — and almost every journalist-intellectual therein feels the urge to flatter them, and makes little effort to resist it, such that he can hardly get through a lengthy description of some particular youths without at some point having described them as “very bright” or “fiercely intelligent”, particularly if they are also utterly stupid, poor, and criminal. I suppose, given the strength of this urge, we ought to congratulate any journalist who manages to resist it.

[1] Lily Kember, “Lily savaged”, Comment is Free (The Guardian's weblog), 10th December 2008.
[2] Fyodor Dostoevsky, “One of Today’s Falsehoods”, 1873, in A Writer’s Diary, Vol.1 (1873-1876), tr. K. Lantz (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1994), p.282.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Wrongly Adduced

“We wrongly adduce the honour and beauty of an activity from its usefulness, and our conclusion is wrong if we reckon that all are bound to perform it, and that it is honourable for each to do so, provided it be useful.”

Michel de Montaigne, “On the Useful and the Honourable”, The Complete Essays, Bk.III:1, tr. & ed. M.A. Screech (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p.906.

Inverted Filter

“A Government-office is like an inverted filter: you send in accounts clear and they come out muddy.”

Sir Charles Fox, as reported by Herbert Spencer, “The Sins of Legislators”, The Man versus the State (London and Oxford: Williams & Norgate, 1902), p.55.

A More Fatal Act

“The French Revolution was a vast act of political destruction at the heart of previous society: let us fear lest it creates a more fatal act of destruction, let us fear moral destruction hand in hand with that Revolution’s evils.”

François-René de Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’Outre-tombe, tr. A.S. Kline, Bk.XLII:8:1, published online by A.S. Kline.