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Opinions Weak and Strong


Continuing a thread that I started to explore earlier this year, I'd like to take a closer look at the intensity of opinions. Here as almost everywhere, there is a continuum: we all have opinions we hold strongly and opinions we hold weakly. Not only do the specific contents of these buckets change over time, but in general the intensity of one's opinions can change over time, too. We're all familiar with the sophomoric young adult who has strong opinions about everything (yes, I resembled that remark). Such an individual can be contrasted with the more mature person, who understands what truly matters in life and doesn't hold strong opinions about matters that are less important or positively unimportant.

More pointedly, it can be helpful to ask yourself: do I hold my opinions, or do my opinions hold me? This touches on the sensitive topic of identity: for some people, their opinions aren't just things that they happen think, but a huge part of who they are. This direction can be quite damaging, both for oneself and (if enough people have their identity tied up with their opinions) for society at large.

For such people, it can be progress not if they give up an opinion entirely but if the intensity of their opinion weakens. It seems to me that if your opinions are a big part of your identity then you also tend to engage in binary thinking: you acknowledge only two ways of perceiving the world, one of which (yours, of course!) is right and good in contrast to the other one, which is wrong and bad or even evil.

In my experience there are several antidotes to binary thinking. One of them is recognizing that it's a multi-causal world: there's never just one cause for any reasonably complex phenomenon in human life. If you can identity multiple causes, you're much less likely to believe that your opinion is completely consistent with the one true cause and therefore completely true. The next step is to see that there is some truth in other opinions on the matter at hand - and that there is not only one opposing viewpoint, but several different perspectives.

Adopting this approach to truth and opinion can take many years, in large measure because it requires a great deal of mental flexibility and a willingness to really listen to what other people believe. (For the avoidance of doubt, I'm not saying that the things other people believe are all equally valid; only that if you consider them empathetically you'll likely find aspects that are worthy of respect.)

Next time we'll look at the deeper dangers of binary thinking and how to avoid them.

(Cross-posted at


What I've Learned from Aristotle


My friend Adrian Lory asked me recently to describe the essence of what I've learned from all of my Aristotle readings over the last few years as I prepare to write a book about his views on human flourishing. Here's a brief summary.

  1. Happiness or eudaimonia is a matter of living and doing well, of succeeding at a truly human way of life.
  2. Living well is a fulfillment of my nature as a social and thinking being.
  3. Fulfillment is an activity, not a feeling (well being is objective, not subjective).
  4. Character is destiny: the self is not a natural endowment but a personal achievement.
  5. Good activity is grounded in the choices I make.
  6. Choice is a matter of making commitments that result from deliberation about the purpose of life.
  7. The goal of human activity is doing what is beautifully right in any given situation.
  8. It is not enough to commit myself to good activity: I must continually be aware of and actualize my ideals.
  9. True freedom consists of serious leisure devoted to activity for the sake of those I love and inquiry into the sources of human meaning.
  10. The love and practice of wisdom is a way of life.

This is all still rather abstract, whereas Adrian is most interested in how my encounter with Aristotle has changed how I live. Here I'd say that I've become more focused on human relationships, more intent on improving my character, more deliberate in forming commitments, more aware of seeing my commitments through in action, and more serious about devoting my leisure time to projects that truly matter to me (especially in the realms of philosophy and music).

(Cross-posted at


Meditations on Bach #7: Aristotle and Bach


On pp. 169-174 of his book Bach: The Learned Musician, Christoph Wolff describes the genesis of Bach's musical thinking. Of particular interest to me is his recounting of some insights from Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who founded the field of musicology and wrote the first biography of Bach in 1802. Wolff writes as follows.

Forkel elaborates on the idea of musical thinking by emphasizing that "order, coherence, and proportion" - or better, order/organization, coherence/connection/continuity, and proportion/relation/correlation (the original German terms Ordnung, Zusammenhang, and Verhältnis are not easily rendered by single words) - must be brought to bear on musical ideas.

This is extremely intriguing. As I explained in my most recent journal entry, in the Metaphysics Aristotle analyzed three key sources of beauty in these very terms (using the Greek words τὸ ὡρισμένον, τάξις, and συμμετρία).

Was Forkel's elaboration his own conception or did Bach himself think about music in terms of Ordnung, Zusammenhang, and Verhältnis (Aristotle's τὸ ὡρισμένον, τάξις, and συμμετρία)? It's not farfetched that Bach acquired this habit of mind from his many interactions with scholarly colleagues in Leipzig, several of whom were well versed in ancient rhetoric and philosophy. Because Forkel communicated extensively with Bach's children C.P.E. Bach and W.F. Bach - both of whom were musicians, composers, and students of their father - one might hope that his information about J.S. Bach's musical thinking was accurate. Further research is required, but this is a fascinating if tentative connection between my favorite philosopher and my favorite composer.


Aristotle Research Report #16: The Sources of Beauty


Aristotle uses the word καλός in both an aesthetic sense and an ethical sense. This has caused confusion among translators and commenters alike. Should the word be translated as "beautiful" when talking about art but as "right" or "fine" or "noble" when talking about character, intention, and action? Did Aristotle think that works of art were inextricably tied up with morality or that traits of character were aesthetic in some way? Let's look into the matter.

As to the best translation for the term, I prefer the phrase "beautifully right". Just as an action that is wonderfully appropriate to the situation can be not merely the right thing to do but a beautiful thing to do, so a musical phrase (for instance) can be not merely beautiful but fit just right in the artistic situation.

What are the real sources of such beautifully right action or production, whether ethical or artistic? Aristotle's insights on the topic are spread around several of his works.

In Book 13, Chapter 3 of the book that has come down to us as the Metaphysics, Aristotle says that the greatest ways of being beautifully right are τάξις, συμμετρία, and τὸ ὡρισμένον. These terms themselves aren't necessarily straightforward to understand. τάξις refers to the arrangement of the parts of a thing, such as the various parts of an army, of an animal, or of a work of art or craft; we could use the word coherence to translate it. συμμετρία is the origin of our word symmetry, but I think it is better translated as proportion. τὸ ὡρισμένον is sometimes rendered as finitude or determinateness, but the underlying sense is more like order as opposed to chaos, especially the kind of order that derives from fitness for a purpose (in Book 9, Chapter 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says that living is among the things that are good and pleasant in themselves, since they are determinate and what is determinate is of the nature of the good - he goes on to say that a corrupt life or a life of pain is unordered, chaotic, or indeterminate).

In Chapter 7 of the Poetics, Aristotle says that in addition to τάξις a fourth source of beauty is μέγεθος, typically translated as size or magnitude; the example he uses is an animal, which can't be beautiful if it's too tiny to be seen (Aristotle lived 2000 years before the invention of the microsope) or if it is so large that it can't be taken in at a glance (e.g., if it is as long as ten thousand athletic fields, as he says). We can think of this as a matter of stature; my favorite artistic example is the Ecossaises of Beethoven: trifling little pieces 30 seconds long or so, which are cute but perhaps lack the requisite stature to be beautiful.

Also in the Poetics (Chapter 8), Aristotle discusses the importance of unity (τὸ ὅλος): "that which makes no noticeable difference when it is there or no there is no part of the whole". Although this is similar to the coherence of τάξις it seems to be slightly different, so we can consider it a fifth factor.

Finally there is the aspect of seriousness of purpose or significance of subject matter. For instance, Aristotle argues that a tragic play needs to portray actions that are σπουδαῖος (serious, significant, worthy of attention).

So: coherence, proportion, order, stature, unity, and significance. In future posts I'll make use of these concepts to analyze what is beautifully right in both ethics and aesthetics.


Meditations on Bach #6: Five Strings?


Although the first five of Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello lie quite naturally on the bass (when tuned in fifths, that is!), the sixth suite in D major (BWV 1012) is a slightly different story because it was originally written for an instrument with an added string above the usual four. The exact identity of this instrument remains a mystery - some think it was written for a viola pomposa or viola de spalla, others for a violoncello piccolo (not that any of those instruments are well-understood). Whatever the truth of the matter, playing music written for a five-string instrument on a four-string instrument introduces new challenges: in particular, it requires intricate playing high up on the fingerboard. Modern cellists try to overcome this challenge through heavy use of thumb position, an innovation that post-dates Bach's lifetime; however, that doesn't make the task much easier. While working on the prelude to the sixth suite, I've realized that playing it on a five-string electric bass would make a lot of sense. Ideally such a bass would be tuned in fifths with a high E string, C-G-D-A-E. This seems achievable by using strings for a six-string bass and discarding one of the strings; for example, La Bella makes a six-string set normally tuned B-E-A-D-G-C and I would tune B up to C, discard the E string, tune A down a step to G, keep D as-is, tune G up a step to A, and tune C up two steps to E. After conferring with Marek Dąbek of Stradi Basses on whether the high E string will work, I'm happy to report that we're transforming the "Mocha 4" into a "Mocha 5".




This piece of light verse popped into my head the other day.


There is no word that rhymes with dog.
Though some appear as if they should
(The log that's fallen in the wood,
The fog that lingers on the coast),
You'll find that at the very most
Their rhymes are slant and that you can't
Just line them up and hope they sound
As up with pup or sound with hound.
The other creatures have their rhymes,
A name that rings and quickly chimes
(The cat is on the mat, of course,
The horse will run with little force),
But dogs are stuck with no such luck
And strike out when it comes to verse
(Although they seem not much the worse).
No matter how you shake your paws
At strictures of poetic laws,
There is no word that rhymes with dog.

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