Language and Reason

There are two extreme ways by which to understand the relation of language to reality. One is to think of language as a representation of reality and in that case, as Bertram Russell put it, a well formed, which means grammatical, proposition is always either true or false because it cannot but be an assertion about reality. That allows for a lot of badly formed propositions, those to be regarded as not much more than nonsense, of no use to the speakers. A professor of mine, a pragmatist, took this view, when he held that what most literary critics were doing when they talked about symbols or what sociologists were doing when they spoke about norms, was just mumbo-jumbo, sounds without meaning, because they could not give clear definitions of their basic terms. Most exercises in language should simply be dismissed as nonsense, however sincere the speakers. It should be remembered that even Aristotle, who supposed that most argument was rhetorical in that it was aimed at winning over people to a leader by persuading them in ways that would appeal to them, still imagined that those forms of persuasion were made up mostly of deformed or short circuited logic, a leap of inference required to get from one place to another. Even tyrants sounded somewhat logical.

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Generalizations about Cultural Periods

A cultural period is a span of years during which the themes and forms of expression are similar and, in fact, unique, and so a cultural period can be said to exhibit the spirit of its age, which is certainly the way that William Hazlitt, that wonderful English Romantic critic, looked at the matter. Alterations in themes and genres provide a definition for a period, and so the long Elizabethan Age, which lasts from the Silver Poets of the 1570’s through John Donne, who died in 1631, is unified by its emphasis on drama and on the idea of the conceit, an image exploited for its various meanings. Any of the periods since the time of Chaucer and before and right up to the present can be considered in this light.

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Trump and Decorum

Now that events are moving quickly and Trump may not be in charge for much longer, it is time to consider what it was that made him such a galvanizing figure and why that ran out of steam so quickly. It is important to answer these questions in part to create a historical record while the flavor of him is still with us and also because the way he exits office, whether in chains or on a gurney, as opposed to in a Nixonian display of bravado, may lie in his character, and the clue to that character is why people were drawn to support him in the first place as well as in the three years of his Presidency. 

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Asher Durand's Nature

Asher Brown Durant was a leader in the Hudson River School that dominated pre-Civil War American nineteenth century painting. He is perhaps best known for “Kindred Spirits”, where he depicts Thomas Cole and William Culling Bryant, both important in the intellectual life of their times as well as influences on Durant, the two of them standing on a crag in the Adirondacks, their perch seeming to this viewer quite precarious and they too dressed up for going on a hike. I keep waiting for them to trip and fall off into space. So a picture meant as a tribute to his friends becomes both dramatic and comic because of the way in which it is composed and so has resonated as a great work of American art ever since. 

Durant is less well known for what are his real contributions to the American landscape, which are a set of paintings in which humans either figure very little or not at all. What they depict, instead, are the visual qualities of nature that make of it a different experience than when people are a central focus, as happens in Bierstadt and any number of other landscape painters. This is nature as it is experienced rather than in the grand terms which are advocated by Ruskin to show nature as different from cultivated land, Durand, instead, is looking at nature as if were not a contrast to human life but something on its own.

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The End of The Imperial Presidency

The concept of “The Imperial Presidency”, first coined by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was that the United States as a result of World War II had become a superpower and so implicitly ruled over the entire planet, every other country an ally, a dependency or a sphere of influence, except those that had fallen under the sway of the Soviet Union, the only other super-power because it had both a massive army and atomic weapons. The result of this geopolitical situation was that the President of the United States had almost unlimited powers in foreign policy. He could unleash nuclear war without an act of Congress that authorized war because only he could quickly respond to the threat posed by a foreign power’s nuclear arsenal. Moreover, he could engage in wars that Congress might feel the need for a role in declaring because he could manipulate the laws and sentiments of the United States citizenry in the pursuit of his policies. So Truman did not declare war in Korea because he knew it would not get through Congress and instead called the war “a police action” and no one seriously challenged that. It was a phrase that suited the purpose of legitimizing what seemed expedient during the Cold War even if Congress had not authorized it. Congress found itself reluctant to restrict Presidential military initiatives during the Cold War and so the Congress authorized the Bay of Tonkin Resolution, which was supposed to empower the President to negotiate with the Vietnamese, even as it, after the Cold War, also authorized, as a bargaining device, the resolution to go to war in Iraq, no one wanting to challenge the ability of the President alone to form foreign policy. The Javits War Power Act of 1973 was meant to circumscribe the President’s actions by requiring him to go back to Congress after thirty days to authorize whatever he had done on his own, but it has worked out that such a procedure is meaningless because if we are engaged in a major operation for thirty days, the Congress is not likely to pull the plug on an ongoing military operation, and so the President has carte blanche. 

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The Jim Garrison Standard

There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there at the moment. There is the now old one of Vice President Biden having intervened in Ukraine to help his son. There is the theory pushed by Rudolph Guiliani, that there is a link between the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign and Ukraine in that the real intervention into the Democratic Party servers originated there. And, of course, there is still the lingering suspicion that somehow Russia had the goods on Trump and so Trump acts like Putin’s lap dog. Added to this is the most recent, which is the accusation by Hillary Clinton that Tulsi Gabbard is a Russian asset, the Democratic primary candidates running away from that. How are we to evaluate these claims? Or are we just supposed to go on the basis of who backs them? Republicans will back pro-Trump conspiracies and Democrats will back anti-Trump conspiricies and it is too soon to tell who will back the anti-Gabbard theory. Is there no way out of this mess so that a rational person can decide on his or her own who to believe? I believe there is.

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Death is Unjust

Death is supposed to be just. It is part of life and therefore not to be feared. That is why the quote from Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything: a time to live and a time to die”, is interpreted to mean that thee is a balance in life so that what is made has to be unmade, when what Ecclesiastes is saying is simply that sometimes one thing happens and sometimes another and that there is no use getting all that bothered about it. The mistaken conception is brought closer to our own era when William Hazlitt wrote in 1815 that when people died they were prepared to die. Maybe he thought that because the people he knew who had died had suffered from long term debilitating illnesses which left them with ever less energy and concentration so that death was both a blessing and the continuation of a downward spiral which was inevitable, making a person into a different person from the one they had been when they had been actively engaged with life.  

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The October Democratic Debate

Despite the complaints that the Democratic field is too large, there being too many candidates on the stage, and the usual criticism that these debates aren’t really debates because they are not sustained interchanges where people get to answer people’s answers, the CNN debate on Tuesday was very successful in that it gave a sense of each of the candidates and gave the audience an education on a range of issues. The topics touched on could have been expanded into an entire political science course. Most of all, the debate provided a sense that what unites the Democratic Party is that it sees the purpose of government as satisfying whatever needs the populace has. There is no limitation on the ways government can help people, which is the opposite of what Republicans used to say, before Trump, which was that smaller government was better government, that government had its limits because government was the enemy of liberty rather than its enhancer-- or that was the case before Trump appeared on the scene to play Mr. Bluster from the Howdy Doody show: all talk, no delivery. But before getting to the issues, let’s talk about the horse race.

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Sargent Drawings

The exhibition of John Singer Sargent’s late charcoal portraits of fabulously beautiful women, at the Morgan Library and Museum, is quite profound. These pictures were drawn when Sargent was sick of doing the elaborately colored portraits of society women, those dressed up in fancy gowns, the costumes distracting from the fact that Sargent is primarily interested in faces and that he has the ability to render each face as distinctive and deep. Sargent’s facility as a portraitist, whether in color or charcoal, prompts a viewer to ask the most difficult questions about the nature of portraiture, and that fact alone casts considerable credit on Sargent for having raised them, even if neither he nor anyone else is able to fully answer them. 

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Foreground and Background

One aspect of our existential situation is that people are sometimes involved in their own histories and sometimes they are not. Sometimes we are actors in our lives and our circumstances as when we take on a new job or act as a Good Samaritan and sometimes we are bystanders, as when we experience technological unemployment or notice what is happening in a Presidential race. Sometimes we shift our focus, and so we are drafted into the Army because of Pearl Harbor and yet the story of ourselves as soldiers is so profound that the war is a story of all those G. I.’s. who make up the Greatest Generation, each one of them to be immortalized as the doers who brought World War II to its righteous conclusion. This alternative between being at the heart of a story or on the periphery of a story is such a fundamental feature of human existence that we are not aware of the importance and pervasiveness of the distinction even as It is a distinction that we cannot do without if we want to grasp what happens in life and what life itself consists of, just as we can not easily grasp what it would be to be a creature in heaven that had no physical being, just a spiritual being, and so not subject to respiration or the feel of the breeze on our cheeks. A good way to get some sense of this distinct characterization of every human being as caught up, somehow, in his or her history, is to treat it as a version of what can be more readily understood in art as the distinction between foreground and background, which is not just a convention of art but a characteristic of life recognized by art with perhaps greater accuracy than is true in literature or philosophy. 

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To Engage with Judy Garland

A. O. Scott, the NY Times movie critic, was right on the mark when he said in his review of “Judy” that the movie really wasn’t that great but that Renee Zellwegger had done such a star turn portraying Judy Garland that she was up there for an Academy Award for Best Actress. I would put it differently. Zellwegger doesn’t look like Garland, she doesn’t sound like her, and she doesn’t have her mannerisms, but she puts together a character which makes you think of Judy Garland, which is in keeping with what Zellwegger has said in interviews, which is that her aim was not to imitate Garland but to convey the emotions that went along with her. The movie itself, however, settles for the usual bio-facts about Garland. She was groomed by Louis B. Mayer to be a star, she took diet pills and sleeping pills from an early age and thus became a life-long addict, she was a car wreck in that she gave erratic performances and often didn’t show up on time, and the movie even threw in another part of the Garland legend, which is that she became an icon for her gay followers, all of these facts following from and in the service of an Achilles like dilemma to have a dazzling life as a performer even if it meant her personal life would be very rough, a pledge she did not regret until the end of her life when she preferred to see herself as a mother than as Judy Garland, the legend.

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The Necessity of Impeachment

Conservatives and moderates will say that the phone call between Donald Trump and President Zelensky of Ukraine is just Donald Trump’s usual bluster and so not to be taken seriously or, if it is, that it does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense because it is, after all, just one phone call, and that even if it is an impeachable offense, it is too late in Trump’s term to pursue impeachment because the election about a year from now is available as the preferable device for getting rid of him and so not give the Republicans the excuse of saying that the Democrats are not willing to go to the ballot box to get their way. My view is that the charges are very serious, very impeachable and, most important, it is necessary to pursue these charges because we cannot wait for the next election to correct the problem Trump presents.

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Samantha Power: Human Rights Activist

The top national security people who work in the White House are usually meritocratic appointments, the selection made from people who had been working previously in ever more important positions in either Republican or Democratic Administrations, and so you could count on how they would conduct themselves in office because they were already known quantities. That tradition goes back a long time, John Foster Dulles was the heir apparent for Secretary of State if Thomas Dewey had beaten Harry Truman and he got the office when Dwight Eisenhower won the Presidency four years later. Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk were old Washington hands. The same is true closer to the present. Madeleine Albright was a Democratic fund raiser turned professor of international relations and Condoleza Rice was a student at the University of Denver under Albright's father and she had learned a lot about deterrence theory before she signed on to educate George W. Bush about foreign policy. Colin Powell had been a political general before working in the White House. 

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A Third Try at Impeachment

Here we are at the start of the third round of impeachment talk, and it is a good question whether anything will come out of it when nothing came of it in its previous iterations. First there was the Mueller investigation into connections between Trump and the Russians during 2015 and 2016. Mueller got so tied up in legalities that he couldn’t conclude that the communications between the Rusians and the Trump camp amounted to a conspiracy because there was no proof of criminal intent, which is a version of what I would call the clown defense. Trump is such a clown that he doesn’t know he is entering a conspiracy only that he is acting conspiratorially and then can deny it was malevolent because he goes public with what others would try to hide. He asked Russia at a public rally to go after Hillary’s emails and a few days later Wikileaks released a lot of information. So how could Trump be conspiring right in front of us? He is a fool rather than someone like Nixon, who worked hard to cover up what he knew to be wrong conduct on his part even if it were warranted by his sense that both political parties do it.

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Art Theory

Art theory refers to the development of concepts that are applicable to a number of art works so as to explain them rather than to the examination of a particular artwork, even though the concept may be drawn from a particular work of art and then becomes generally applicable, as is the case with Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, which is drawn from “Oedipus Rex”, but has become applied ubiquitously. Art theory is therefore different from the trivial arguments about whether a Duchamp's toilet is or is not truly an art work or whether art is a matter of line and color or subject matter. These are fruitless philosophical arguments while the real work of art theory is to increase the body of concepts that can be used to analyze art.

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Writing History and Living History

There is something profoundly different in these two things: the activity of writing history and the activity of living within history. Sorting out the differences between the two sheds light on the more abstract issue of the difference between living in the mind and living in existence, which is a question as old as philosophy, what with Socrates having maintained that the demands of the two were quite different: mind requiring unrelenting criticism, even if it earns scorn from those not engaged in the pursuits of the mind, while life itself required obedience, even to the drinking of hemlock. Let’s bring the dispute up to date.

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Mannerisms and Character

“Foyle’s War” is a British television series about World War Two as that is seen through the eyes of a police detective on the southern coast of Great Britain. It is very good at capturing the mixture of the mundane and the extraordinary that took place in those years, the mixture of ordinary violence with war inspired violence, and also provides a sense of the social class situation, British literature always particularly good at that, in this case the stifling lives of the working class and the also restricted lives of the rich, who live in unsightly and uncomfortable manor houses. The most striking feature of the series, however, is Michael Kitchen, who stars as the title character. I resist seeing him in any other role because I don’t want to see his mannerisms utilized for establishing any other character than Foyle. It would seem a betrayal even though, of course, actors always play different characters even when they display the same set of mannerisms in each role. We know John Wayne’s slouch; Jimmy Stewart’s hesitation, Cary Grant’s elegant accent, Myrna Loy’s smile. But I clearly identify Kitchen with Foyle. The character walks stiffly, keeps up a glum or sometimes amused face, raises an eyebrow when he is being quizzical, and when he is angered, he talks more rapidly and with greater exactness and certainty and also with a bit of a sneer. Actors are very good at objectifying their characters, at finding some mannerism which distinguishes the character so that the audience can get hold of the character, but isn’t that true in all of life, in so-called “real” life?

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The September Democratic Primary Debate

Commentators quickly summed up the horse race aspects of last night’s Democratic Primary Debate. Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill, two former United States Senators, said on different networks that nothing had changed in that the three leading candidates, Biden, Sanders and Warren, were still in the lead, having provided acceptable though not outstanding performances, and that some of the outlier candidates, like Amy Klobacher and Corey Booker, had made some well put points. Only Julian Castro and Andrew Yang seemed to falter, Castro for aiming a haymaker at Biden that failed and which made Castro look cruel, and Yang for offering an Oprah like gift to some citizens, an offer that drew laughter from most of the candidates. So things are settling in, the longer Biden remains in the lead, the longer he is likely to maintain it, his occasional stumbles notwithstanding. So much for the feel and strategies of the candidates vis a vis one another.

I want to attend, instead, to what were the topics selected by the journalists to ask questions about, and what were the presumptions embodied in both the questions and answers. It is interesting to note, as some commentators have, that neither impeachment nor Warren’s wealth tax, both worthy of debate, were brought up in the course of the debate. Nor was abortion or the Supreme Court. What was brought up and how was that handled?

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A Nation in Crisis?

Pundits and scholars suggest that our nation is in crisis. Abroad, we are challenged by China, Russia, North Korea. We are threatened at our borders by immigration. We have an economy that doesn’t produce satisfactory jobs for many underemployed people and where career paths are uncertain for people even of the upper classes. The country is rife with regionalism and a cultural war between the people who live on the coasts and those who live inland. Race relations are still lousy or, worse than that, retrograde, what with police shootings of unarmed black citizens and the urban underclass ever more racially segregated. There is a rampage of mass shootings. We are desperately in need of infrastructure improvements and bringing about a decline in air pollution. And, of course, we have separated into two political tribes which can not communicate with one another and an electoral system which two times in the last twenty years has given us a President who did not win the popular vote. How can this not be considered a crisis? Well, it is not, and that is made clear by applying even a wee bit of historical perspective. In fact, we are living in perhaps the most benign of times since the Era of Good Feeling that followed the War of 1812 and lasted, let us say, until the tariff crisis of 1824 that ushered in the Pre-Civil War Era which was a thirty-five year period in which any number of things were done to try to prevent a civil war.

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Thomas Cole's "The Voyage of Life"

Thomas Cole’s “The Voyage of Life” is a series of four paintings he did in the 1840’s that showed the stages of human development, the first about childhood, the second about youth, the third about maturity, and the fourth about old age. These paintings set out a theory of human development when no theories of that sort would be rendered until the turn into the Twentieth Century and so the four paintings are like Cole’s four paintings on “The Course of Empire” in that they are breaking new intellectual ground and trying to find images to do justice to the insights that Cole offers up even if, I am afraid, he does not in this case do very well at illustrating his conceptions. The paintings in the series are worth consulting because they show us what a muscular intellect can do at starting out an entire field of human inquiry.

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