Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Moral exemplarhood

I'm reading a very interesting article written by Ryan Indy Rhodes and David Kyle Johnson in the Batman and Philosophy book called, What Would Batman Do? Bruce Wayne as an Exemplar (2008, pp. 114-125), where the authors argue that the fictional Batman character has as much right to 'belong' to a list of moral exemplars that have actually existed in history (Buddha, Jesus, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, etc.):

Although most readers probably don't need reminding, let's consider some examples of how Batman exemplifies moral virtues. Justice is a constant aim of his activities, not only in the general sense of fighting crime and protecting the innocent, but in more particular endeavors...(p. 115)

-the authors list an impressive demonstration of Batman's commitment to a 'moral code' in dealing with 'real', individual people as well as the villains (symbols) he is sworn to struggle against. But...

Since Batman is a fictional character, it would seem that he cannot be referenced by language. That is, because Batman is not real, sentences about him do not operate in the same way as they do about things that really exist. (p. 117)

The finer points of the authors' argument are compelling and interesting; I would tend to root for their argument whole-heartedly. The two lines of reasoning above are similar to the ones I proposed in Socrates the Man somewhere in this blog.

But there is a sweet irony in this particular paper: if we should deny Batman membership to this 'elite' list of real historical exemplars for the simple fact that Batman is fictional, perhaps we should re-examine historical figures in light of the inevitable embellishments of tradition and demand the same standards of them.

An 'exemplar', you see, is best interpreted semiotically rather than lexically: it is more an embodiment of a set of idealized characteristics than it is in reference to a person. After all, "What is a pond"? -depending on who and what you are (a dragonfly, a person, a frog, a bird, etc.), what makes a pond a 'pond' changes because your needs and emphases change (even from season to season).

Yeshua ben Yosef is my Lord and Savior, and no historical treatment of His figure can change that: He is an embodiment; He is an inevitability; He is expressed in the Nazarene (John 14:6). Period. Full stop.

But I also admire the Batman character. And, for different reasons. The Batman is not only psychologically-real, but psychologically-real that instantly makes him more than a fancy, a whimsy but a well-developed and highly adaptable (ie, stable) characterization of moral exceptionalism.

He has a certain integrity that is preserved across a broad spectrum of backgrounds and re-tellings. Miller's Batman (though the most original telling, to be sure) is inherent and adumbrated in the earlier iterations by other writers. There is an ineffable pedigree linking everything. Even Adam West's Batman has his place in this substantive mythos.

In the Inuit tradition, the Batman figure is very familiar, more so than the Christ figure (though Christ is readily accepted by Inuit): Kiviuq, for eg, is a 'normal' human being cast into exceptional circumstances. He is flawed but ultimately perseveres. And the story continues...

However, Inuit do not somehow mistake the Kiviuq character as someone real: he is an exemplar of human curiosity and ingenuity. Where he goes and what he does is restrained by the seasons and geography. These features are not obvious but may be justifiably extrapolated in each 'episode': it is autumn when the story begins because Kiviuq becomes lost in a sea storm and lands to a place where the bumble-bee woman ultimately 'invents' ice that traps him before he can qajaq safely away; in one episode, Kiviuq has to traipse across a gigantic cooking pot (ie, hunting area) where in one end  he jumps onto seal blubber (ie, Marble Island) and hops over to a series of ribs (ie, Belcher Islands on the other side of the Hudson Bay).

Each telling is different but, throughout, Kiviuq exhibits exquisite sensitivity and sensibility towards animals that he encounters (another hint to times of year) that justify Inuit hunting culture as much as are expressed by a realistic 'person' in Kiviuq that we may try and emulate and strive to be.


Thursday, 25 June 2015

A note on continuing translating The Little Prince

Someone left me a note on my Inuktitut translation of The Little Prince which got me thinking about resuming the translation—actually, I've been thinking about it before. What kind of stumped me a while there was looking for an Inuktitut name for the planet Jupiter. I think there are names for some planets but I'm beginning to doubt there is a name for Jupiter in Inuktitut.

The Little Prince—by the French writer and poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944)—makes reference to Jupiter near the beginning of the story. Though hardly important to the overall telling of the story, a seamless reference in the translation is what I prefer; I think italicizing Jupiter will work just as well...

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Batman and Philosophy: the dark knight of the soul

I accidentally...no.

I couldn't help but open my birthday present early this year. In it was a book called, Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul, ed. Mark D White and Robert Arp. It makes an immediate disclaimer: "This book has not been approved, licensed, or sponsored by any entity or person involved in creating or producing Batman, the comic, the film, or the TV series."

What an excellent read.

Well, the form is a bit fomulaic in the beginning. Compare this entry in a Standford search engine for published papers in philosophy: entry: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/ but once the authors of the Batman book get into contrasting 'deontology' and 'consequentialism' with 'virtue ethics' things get interesting quickly (virtue ethics, says the author, "emphasize character traits, called virtues or excellences, rather than judging specific acts (as deontology and utilitarianism do)." (James Digiovanna, Is It Right To Make a Robin?, p. 21)

This 'virtue ethics' approach looks very familiar to IQ and its notions of 'education'. In discussions where I listened in on and contributed to, the Inuit elders who participated said that IQ education aims to "make a (whole) person" (ie, inuliurniq - lit. 'making of a person') who is able to think and problem-solve even in the middle of nowhere with only what he's brought himself.

Digiovanna continues:

Virtue ethics also takes into account differences, such as differences of character, the different roles people play, and the different cultures in which they live. While he strives to uphold abstract moral principles that he thinks are always right, Batman seems to understand that different sorts of characters demand different sorts of actions. Not everyone should be a Batman or a Robin. The specific character type needed to be a superhero is not suited to everyone, and society demands different roles from each of us. (ibid)

Not only are we all unique as beings but that every event in time is itself uniquely unfolding; it has a beginning and an end (Inuit elders everywhere always says this). How we respond as ethical beings has some influence in the outcome. The Inuit elders spoke at length about the issue of suicide by Inuit youth...the contrast is poignant:

...Plato and Aristotle (384-322 BCE), emphasized building character, noting the importance of training someone to be ethical, rather than simply explaining how to be ethical. (ibid, p. 23)

Trying to be an ethical person is hard. It certainly does not come naturally: it accompanies grief and heart break.


Monday, 25 May 2015

Socrates the man

I've been working (somewhat peripherally to a group at work) to come up with a series of statements to try and develop a philosophical foundation for the use of Inuktitut at work (or, more precisely, use bilingualism at work). I call them 'axioms' and their 'corollaries' not so much because they're self-evident as Euclid's axioms on geometry supposedly are but because I think Spinoza's framework is cool.

These aren't all necessarily original but they provide me with some clarity of thought:

Axiom: "all human languages are equal"

Corollary 1: "grammar defines that equality"

Axiom: "concepts and ideas are not words"

etc. etc.

As a linguist, I've always been fascinated by such gems as "little, green ideas dream furiously" (actually it is: "colourless, green ideas..."), and I think I've got it why such constructs may be generated but are meaningless nonetheless. It has to do with how and what kinds of adjectives and adverbs are allowed in language: there are abstract nouns that require abstract adjectives and concrete nouns that require concrete adjectives...and so on.

But what has been mulling in my mind is how the syllogistic about Socrates the man works. I think I know why and how it works. But first here is the syllogism:

all men are mortal;
Socrates is a man;
therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Again, the abstract vs concrete notion applies here. Socrates the man is clearly different from 'man' per se in that Socrates the man may take on adjectives in ways that the notion of 'man' cannot and vice versa. There are 'old men' to be sure, but Socrates the man wasn't always old (despite all my mental images of him he was once a young boy, he grew up and died) whereas once I've inserted 'old' before 'men' I've collapsed the idea into that one grammatical specificity.

I've been doing a running joke with my students here in Baker Lake by mangling the calque 'good morning' in Inuktitut. Though I swear I use proper Inuktitut versions of adjectives the ones I use aren't of my dialect (nor anyone's for that matter in how I use them) and I get amused looks because they understand what I'm saying but what I'm saying doesn't make much sense.

This notion of specificity is an important concept in what I'm trying to achieve in what I opened with in this entry here. In mathematical terms it'd be a group (or, a set but I prefer group). We all know that literal translation rarely works and why it doesn't work happens at many different levels but that doesn't negate the possibility of translation. A translation that works well does so because of what is called the Karenina Principle. It's kind of hard to explain so I'll just quote a text I recently drafted for the course we just completed:

Some Persistent Issues Surrounding Translation
Besides the structural issues that arise when we try and do translation—which are, as we saw, technical in nature and, therefore, can be solved given the proper means and research—there are also deeper issues that seem rather insurmountable in comparison to the structural ones. The reason for this is that these deeper issues are not only technical but also philosophical and/or even ideological in nature.

One of these that have long been known to be problematic to Inuktitut translator/interpreters is the legal interpreting field. The reasons for the difficulties that confront Inuktitut translators are rather too complex for this course to address but there are broad and general cultural and sociological insights that may shed some light into the problem itself. Using the legal system per se as representative of this type of problem, let us see if anything can be done to alleviate the issue somewhat.

Form or Function
The notions of morality, as we know, are culture-specific—ie, are embedded into the structure and psychology of the language itself. This fact alone makes the issue a seemingly insoluble labyrinth of dead ends and false starts with no end in sight. We are swimmers in our own languages after all, and like the fish that may not even realize it is in water, we find ourselves pretty much in the same bind.

It has been said that “Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back” (attributed to the famous Hungarian mathematician, Paul Erdös). It is in this spirit (perhaps overly-naïve) that we should approach the problem of legal interpreting. There are two basic strategies open to us as translators: describing form and/or function.

Form and function are referenced here not in the sense of linguistic terms but rather in the sense of being descriptors of concepts and the processes in which these concepts are used. The reason for this stratagem is that the Inuit language is structured to describe novelty which then can become lexicalized into a root word in its own right.

If we but imagine the notions of “guilt” or “innocence” as two possible outcomes in the formalized ritual of arraignment, we can see immediately that the words themselves can be transcended with surprising efficacy. Having transcended a word trap of the most vicious kind we can now look into the purpose of ‘arraignment’ itself:

“In legal terms, a plea is simply an answer to a claim made by someone [else] in a criminal case under common law using the adversarial system.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plea)

The question then becomes a matter of phrasing an interrogative in such a way that a plea can be made without getting mired in the philosophical/ideological load of the words in the source language.

The quote above is an example of a 'group theory of translation'. Instead of getting trapped by "guilt" and "innocence" we treat it in binary terms (ie, yes or no; or, agree or disagree). The Karenina Principle also applies because there is really only one way of getting it right.


Saturday, 23 May 2015

Person of Interest

I'm a huge fan of the TV show, Person of Interest, which was created by Jonathan Nolan of The Batman Trilogy. There are parallels, to be sure, between Person of Interest and The Batman Trilogy that are hard to deny. But these similarities go deeper than the obsidian aesthetics into the fracturing of the Batman symbol into the multiple principals of the TV show. And it works; it works beautifully.

The fiction genre called American Gothic has always been evolving into something of the psychologically real and the metaphorically plausible that, I think, is best captured not by description but by 'ephemera' of its kind, such as Cat Power's The Greatest:

Once I wanted to be the greatest
No wind or waterfall could stall me
And then came the rush of the flood
Stars at night turned deep to dust

Melt me down
Into big black armor
Leave no trace of grace
Just in your honor...

In its latest iteration a la Person of Interest superstitious angst gives way to moral angst of fallible, psychologically-real people who find themselves having to deal with the fallout of unmitigated, unhindered development of technology. But technology has always been a character of Gothic fiction, you say?

No doubt. But here we see it forming and evolving organically rather than presented fully-formed and one-dimensional. In Person of Interest there is The Machine (the good guy—Root calls it a her) and Samaritan (the bad guy—whom we know to be neither 'good' nor 'bad' but for its 'father'). There is nothing cursory about Nolan's treatment of his characters.

It is the difference between vintage comic book whose Superman is Nietzschean in nature and Frank Miller's The Batman whom Jonathan Nolan pays homage to in his Batman movies. The 'villains' also are more complex and organically-derived in that they're relatable at some level. The television series format allows that space and time for its characters to develop organically, but under Nolan's genius the characters' can do it even within the two-hours normally afforded in big screen format.

There are rumours going around that CBS has bought only 13 more episodes of Person of Interest after this season's powerful finale. Man, I hope not. If so, Ed The Sock will be proven right:

"...that's enough proof, says Ed The Sock, that in order to stay alive on television for a long time, all you have to do is suck.

According to our sock-puppet commentator, the fact 'Person of Interest'—a show that actually predicted the Edward Snowden NSA whistle-blowing scandal—might not stay on the air is proof that on network television mediocrity rules." (http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/05/20/person-of-interest-cancelled_n_7343266.html)


Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Nunavut University?

I held off as long as I could...

I love the idea of developing an accredited university in Nunavut—I'm a lover of education and knowledge in general. But I have found—much to my dismay—that I often have notions that seem somewhat at odds with those of others. This didn't use to bother me much when I had that indignant hunger for 'social justice' (ie, my ideas of it anyhow). But it was a hunger and thirst of equal opportunity—shall I say?

I must admit that I didn't read the articles about the idea of 'Nunavut university' that I have been seeing recently in the media outlets that focus on Arctic issues and current affairs. The taglines kind of put me off (I thought: here we go again), and I do not enjoy getting worked up like I used to anymore. But I bit the bullet and gave in to actually read the news piece on the CBC website.

I've been a longtime supporter of Terry Audla. I think he's one of a handful of Inuit leaders who take his work seriously and actually has the savvy to advocate for our concerns and interests convincingly from inside the system on out. His words make a whole lot of sense:

"It's based on Inuit becoming more aware of where they stand in society in general. When it comes to the decision-makers, academia has a lot of influence. When you have that, the more credence you're given." (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/nunavut-university-promoted-as-voice-and-inspiration-for-inuit-culture-1.3077490)

This is in sharp contrast with what the other quoted comments say about the idea of a Nunavut university some of whom are already saying what Inuit think:

An initial course list was proposed: Inuit studies, fine arts, linguistics, political science and indigenous governance, education, health, natural science and law.

Research would be limited to what Inuit care about.

"One participant noted that the European tradition of 'knowledge for knowledge's sake' does not align with Inuit beliefs and values, and as such should not be promoted or supported by a university in Inuit Nunangat," says the report. (ibid)

wow. you don't say...

I was watching a The Simpsons episode where Lisa actually convinces Principal Skinner and the Superintendent to implement a Humboldt school. Though it made tongue-in-cheek fun of this education theory and practice the theory and practice itself is a very interesting concept.

Wilhelm von Humboldt (22 June 1767 – 8 April 1835) was a Prussian polymath who was appointed by Friedrich Wilhelm III to reform the education system of the empire. I first came across a reference to this great man in a book on the Riemann Hypothesis and was immediately intrigued by him in that his work produced one of the most productive era of advancements in human knowledge in the German tongue.

A cursory glance at the Wikipedia entry on his name says of him:

Humboldt installed a standardized system of public instruction, from basic schools till secondary education, and founded Berlin University. He imposed a standardization of state examinations and inspections and created a special department within the ministry to oversee and design curricula, textbooks and learning aids.

Humboldt's plans for reforming the Prussian school system were not published until long after his death, together with his fragment of a treatise on the 'Theory of Human Education', which he had written in about 1793. Here, Humboldt states that 'the ultimate task of our existence is to give the fullest possible content to the concept of humanity in our own person […] through the impact of actions in our own lives.' This task 'can only be implemented through the links established between ourselves as individuals and the world around us' (GS, I, p. 283).

Humboldt's concept of education does not lend itself solely to individualistic interpretation. It is true that he always recognized the importance of the organization of individual life and the 'development of a wealth of individual forms' (GS, III, p. 358), but he stressed the fact that 'self-education can only be continued […] in the wider context of development of the world' (GS, VII, p. 33). In other words, the individual is not only entitled, but also obliged, to play his part in shaping the world around him.

Humboldt's educational ideal was entirely coloured by social considerations. He never believed that the 'human race could culminate in the attainment of a general perfection conceived in abstract terms'. In 1789, he wrote in his diary that 'the education of the individual requires his incorporation into society and involves his links with society at large' (GS, XIV, p. 155). In his essay on the 'Theory of Human Education', he answered the question as to the 'demands which must be made of a nation, of an age and of the human race'. 'Education, truth and virtue' must be disseminated to such an extent that the 'concept of mankind' takes on a great and dignified form in each individual (GS, I, p. 284). However, this shall be achieved personally by each individual, who must 'absorb the great mass of material offered to him by the world around him and by his inner existence, using all the possibilities of his receptiveness; he must then reshape that material with all the energies of his own activity and appropriate it to himself so as to create an interaction between his own personality and nature in a most general, active and harmonious form' (GS, II, p. 117).

In the original text from which this section has been lifted without attribution, "GS" refers to Humboldt, Wilhelm von. 1903–36. Gesammelte Schriften: Ausgabe Der Preussischen Akademie Der Wissenschaften. Bd. I—XVII, Berlin. (Cited as GS in the text, the Roman numeral indicates the volume and the Arabic figure the page; the original German spelling has been modernized.) "Gesammelte Schriften" means "Collected Writings". (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_von_Humboldt)

This pretty well encapsulates the Humboldtian model of higher education  (German: Humboldtisches Bildungsideal, literally: Humboldtian education ideal) that—I would contend—is more in line and spirit of what Terry Audla (and, by extension, IQ notions of knowledge) envisions as to what form the Nunavut university should take.

The Humboldtian model of higher education [...] is a concept of academic education that emerged in the early 19th century and whose core idea is a holistic combination of research and studies. Sometimes called simply the Humboldtian Model, it integrates the arts and sciences with research to achieve both comprehensive general learning and cultural knowledge, and it is still followed today. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humboldtian_model_of_higher_education)

The thing that concerns me greatly about the GN outline of the proposed Nunavut university is that embedded in it is the taking away of the notion of 'academic freedom' that founds not only our conventional institutions of higher learning but in particular the Humboldt model that has enriched the human experience in subtle but meaningful ways.

We should also distinguish bureaucratic notions of Inuit (traditional) Knowledge and the Inuit ideal of inuliurniq which is motivated by giving the individual intellectual and practical tools to be able to problem-solve even in the case of complete isolation out in the wilderness.

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts...


Saturday, 16 May 2015

Does universality equal fairness?

Recently in the House of Commons during Question Period Prime Minister Harper thought he was handed a gift from Justine Trudeau when Trudeau apparently made a "gaffe" by premising his question to the Prime Minister: "Benefiting every single family is not what is fair..."

Harper could hardly contain his glee—actually for someone with a reputation for being a cold calculator he doesn't have much of a poker-face—as he pounced on Trudeau with a comeback: "This is what happens when you get off-script". Truly, it was his Count Olaf moment.

But it got me thinking about fairness and universality (ie, 'universal' in the sense of being a flat rate for all instances of application regardless of circumstances or situation).

A qualification of individualized "consequentialism" that seems to define Harper's political understanding of governance, I think, can and should justifiably be made here.

-Individual consequentialism is a vicious variant of the Utilitarian philosophy in that it takes on some of the coloration of Machiavelli's political philosophy which holds that a state's actions are justified (ie, should not be questioned) if the ends serve the purpose of preserving and maintaining order and constancy of its political structures (ie, serve the interests of the 'benign' ruling class).

It is in this light I think that the true context of Harper's "politics of meanness" must be understood. After all, small governments are 'good' and 'lean' not so much in terms of their 'distributive capacity' to the greatest good but if, and only if their policies and means to exact taxes and levies on big business and the rich remain checked and emaciated. Forget "trickle down economics"; this is unabashed Darwinian corporatism.

Universal child care allowance that the Harper gov't is proposing is simple and seemingly 'fair' in that it treats everyone 'equally' regardless of income and socioeconomic standing. But it is really a 'regressive' benefits scheme by any other name (ie, it is tied to the notion of further decreasing the tax burden on the rich in relative terms whose take-home pay increases significantly at the expense of those who need the assistance the most simply because it adds to the tax avoidance toolkit that the poor do not have access to).

The means-tested scheme that Trudeau is proposing seems to be a complexification of the tax and benefits system in comparison to Harper's proposal because it would make these benefits to Canadian families dependent upon their ability to draw household income in absolute terms (ie, the proportional distance between benefits and entitlements as in relation to real income and wealth: the wealthier one is the smaller the gap between needs and means).

In theory, under the Trudeau scheme, the burden on tax payers is more evenly and fairly distributed because it is tied to that hypothetical zero gap between need and means.