Ben Bayer’s ‘Sniff Tests’ for identifying unreliable stories online (part 2 of 6)

Loosely translated: “Plus un fait est extraordinaire, plus il a besoin d’être appuyé de fortes preuves…” (Pierre Laplace, 1812)

Post by Lucian Minor

Ben Bayer offers five tests to evaluate news items and stories, especially those encountered online. The second of these is summarized by the question, “How likely is the story to be true in the first place?” To answer this, he launches into a discussion of probability, and assumes only that his reader is genuinely interested in a method for estimating this likelihood. In short, the method requires some effort on the part of the reader, and not a little numeracy.

To his credit, Bayer shunts the details of Bayesian probability analysis into an Appendix, but it may be possible to find some broad, more simply phrased advice with which to support this “sniff test.” He offers an old adage (as old as Carl Sagan, anyway, echoing Laplace): “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Expanding on this, Bayer remarks:

The foolishness of believing improbable stories without further confirmation is at least somewhat excusable when someone is young and doesn’t know much about how the world works… Of course, improbable things sometimes happen – like the election of Trump. And that’s why I’m only describing a sniff test, not a comprehensive diagnostic procedure. If a story is improbable to begin with, early indication that it is true should at most prompt you to search for confirming evidence… and that’s when the initial indication is reliable. Not even the mainstream media is 99% sensitive to the truth. I will leave it as an exercise for readers to consider what to do when the story comes from an “alternative” media source.

Using this sniff test, then, depends substantially on “given background knowledge.” Keeping to the analogy, this assumes that one knows what rottenness smells like – which might work with fruit or meat, but perhaps assumes too much in cases of abstract ideas or complex social and political arguments. Surely, some further tests would help! Bayer provides three more, to be reviewed.

“given background knowledge”, this may be edible. Or not.



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Ben Bayer’s ‘Sniff Tests’ for identifying unreliable stories online (part 1 of 6)

Looks easy, doesn’t it?

Post by Lucian Minor

Bayer is a professor of philosophy, studying “questions about knowledge and free will.” As a brief review of his work online will show, he writes professionally for professionals, so the language is technical, precise, and intimidating. However, in 2016 he prepared a series of essays for Medium discussing principles that could be applied to the evaluation of online news sources. Written as a corrective to the plague of “fake news,” they are intended for a wide audience, but their purpose is somewhat constrained: “I don’t know if people who have the bad habit of believing unreliable stories will read this article. I am mainly speaking to those who already see that there is a problem and are looking for ways to combat it more effectively. It seems that no matter how many debunking links you post, the hydra-headed monster of fake and misleading news grows ever-larger.”

His methods are “sniff tests,” not unlike the evaluation a shopper might make in the fresh produce section of a grocery store: “You wouldn’t bite into a melon that smells funky, so why would you swallow a news story that does? News is funky when the source is suspicious, when the nature of the claim being made is disproportionate to the evidence offered, and when it’s presented in a dishonest manner.” These three criteria are expanded in the essays, and supplemented by two more tests to complete the set. The last of these is actually previewed in the Introduction:

Fake news sites exist mainly because they can make a fly-by-night profit by attracting eyeballs to ads. That means that they continue to exist because readers believe fake news and are willing to share it. But these readers should know better. A few moments of reflection is usually all that’s needed to check the temptation to believe a fake or misleading story. The fault, dear readers, is not in our social media, but in ourselves.

Following the Introduction, Bayer examines the first criterion, credibility of the source:

What is the source of this story and what do I know about it?” This is a more detailed version of the earlier criterion of “funkiness” – when the source is suspicious. Bayer expects the reader to be willing to do some work, but some of his methods leave questions open. The ability to gauge the plausibility of a story assumes considerable experience with true and false information, so perhaps this is meant for people who are already aware of the problem of fake news. Recommending a Google search for evidence of the reliability of a source leaves open the question of how to know whether those results are themselves reliable. And parenthetically suggesting that Snopes is a source for such a reliability check leaves the question of Snopes’ credibility unanswered. Indeed, who checks the fact-checkers ?

Bayer points out the basic paradox of online information: “The Internet allows misinformation to be spread at lightning speed. But it also allows you to check that information just as quickly.” There are two further problems here, however: one is that work, even the cognitive labor of searching and evaluating (by whatever standards), takes time, and the move to save time by a division of cognitive labor depends on trust in the source of authority.

To his credit, Bayer engages this problem by broadening his scope to include this question:

How do we know when we’ve found a reliable source? This is a question that is wider than journalism. It’s a philosophical question about why we should trust the testimony of others, about anything. Any time we rely on a friend to report the details of a conversation we didn’t witness, or a bystander to a murder to recount whodunit, or any number of experts (like doctors or scientists or technicians) to give their diagnosis of problems we need to solve, we are relying on testimony.

He summarizes his argument for trust in the testimony of others:

… we have reason to trust other people’s testimony when we know they have a track record of accurately reporting what they witness and not lying about it. We can trust others rationally, without having to accept what they say as a matter of blind faith. We can have evidence that people are good at reporting the facts. To acquire this evidence, we have to start with testimony whose veracity we can check directly ourselves. We build from there to acquire trust in the testimony of those whose reports we can’t check directly ourselves.

This method is not simple, however, and leads to a regress in the case of evaluating news sources:

Nobody, to my knowledge, keeps anything like an exhaustive account of the track records of different news sources. Even if someone did, there would be a further question of why we should trust them…. There’s a longer story here, but in a nutshell, I’ve pretty much come full circle to embrace what is usually derisively referred to as the “mainstream media.

At this point, some readers may be inclined to abandon Bayer as attempting to justify the status quo, but he appeals to an argument from accountability:

It’s true that the journalistic establishment is predominantly left-liberal. It’s also true that its reporting is subject to market incentives. Both of these factors leave reporters and editors subject to various forms of bias. But both also imply significant assets. The same factor that accounts for left-liberal bias (journalistic training) also brings with it a certain set of skills that contributes to reliability. Trained reporters know how to ask questions and confirm allegations in ways that not just everyone with a blog knows how to do. The same factor that accounts for corporate bias (market incentives) also brings with it a factor crucial to assessing the quality of anything we consume that is produced by others: accountability.

The accountability factor is especially crucial: the free press in a free market lives or dies by the reliability of its reporting. If it acquires a reputation for inaccuracy or dishonesty, it loses readers and customers. Its competitors are more than willing to sell papers instead. It is no accident that the majority of “fake news” sites are fly-by-night…. Consuming reliable media sources should be an exercise in the same caveat emptor logic that we apply to other markets.

Having placed the obligation for critical evaluation where it rightly belongs, on the reader, Bayer rests his defense (and returns to it in a later essay):

Of course it’s true that left- and right-wing media bias exist. But it’s one thing to be a biased interpreter of the facts, and another to be an unreliable reporter of the facts. The more you learn to distinguish the facts from the interpretation of the facts, the more you can abstract away from a story’s bias to get a grip on the underlying facts it reports. It’s for this reason I’m confident that, in spite of its bias, the mainstream media is the best source of information we have today.

This distinction between bias and unreliability may be overly fine for some, but it makes sense if the individual is responsible for their own judgement. That said, a further discussion of the relationship between the two concepts would be welcome. In fact, the metaphor of “funkiness,” with its connotation of rot, evokes the notion of bias more than unreliability.

Bayer’s other “sniff tests” will be reviewed in subsequent posts.

Reporters with various forms of “fake news” from an 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper



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Should Offensive Books be Removed from your Library’s Collection?

Fiction like this just the tip of a deplorable iceberg?

“To make your argument strong, you have to make your opponent’s argument stronger.” – Robin Sloan

Should offensive books be removed from your library’s collection?

Well, as the librarian you are the authority of that realm! Can people rely on you to do what’s best?

My first response when someone says that a library has offensive materials that should be removed is to think of one of the worst things I can imagine:

“What, are there books in our libraries that inform pedophiles about how to groom children”!?

That said, I realize there are a lot of other things that offend folks, and many rightly so. After all, I get offended about lots of other things to! I did, for example, write this about how ridiculous the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights is.

So here is what I think – after, that is, recalling what I’ve heard many a good librarian religiously insist on over the years: “a good library should have something to offend everyone.”

I think this:

If the thing that you want removed is as bad as you think it is, might it be a good idea to leave it in the collection? Here, think of what many said about the Holocaust after it happened: “Never again”. In other words, if we should all be able to see that the offensive material is clearly antithetical to being human, why not leave it in the collection in order to remind us of what happened, and what possibly–as unlikely as that might seem to us now–could conceivably happen again? Why not recall that even though we see clearly now, there have been many–even among those in academia and the most powerful positions of society–who at one time did not see clearly, and who became what we most despise? Why not have those reminders that “we were once blind but now we see!”?

On the other hand, if we are concerned about the tide turning again, about regress, are we saying that it is not so clear that this is a bad thing after all? That it is, for this or that reason, easy for human nature to revert to these things? In that case, perhaps it is a good idea to leave it in the collection so that you can be familiar with the strongest forms of the arguments persons holding the deplorable views might hold? If these views are so deplorable, it is unlikely that there are contemporary books in the collection defending these arguments, but given that arguments defending this or that were made in the past which were accepted by many, older library books are likely to contain many of these arguments in their strongest forms. Why? Simply because if we take into account that many philosophical arguments do not go away over thousands of years, it makes sense that the authors of these old books, often persons holding academic positions, will be sure to reveal these arguments. I realize that many of these older books may contain offensive material that is not strictly argumentative, but even so, they will be useful for giving clues about what they assume.

On the other hand – jumping off from that last point about what we assume – perhaps we insist that thinking like this is, in the end, hopeless. Why? Because rational arguments are always nothing more than rationalizations which follow innate and tribal impulses. Ideas which seem intelligent or wise are really after the fact, always post hoc. For the most part, we stick to our group and follow charismatic and confident persons, fads and flows.

In which case, clear out all the books. Because any of the arguments they contain don’t really matter.

Not easy is it? This is why whenever you clear out this or that offensive book, just tell yourself you aren’t doing it because you are “banning the book”, but that it doesn’t fit the particular mission of your library, educational institution, etc.


Against the Library Bill of Rights — unpublished essay from 2013

“Philosophy was once the art of asking extreme, dangerous questions. The task of the philosopher is not simply to argue, as much of contemporary academic philosophy would want us to believe, but also to convince, to move, to stir and, eventually, to shake us to the core.” — Cătălin Avramescu

A typical library collection development policy will usually say, regarding complaints about its materials, something like the following: “In considering such complaints, the following statement from the Library Bill of Rights shall remain paramount: ‘materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.’”

Many libraries make it their primary objective to build and maintain a collection according to the American Library Association guidelines.  Not only this, but they promise to uphold and promote the ALA documents on intellectual freedom as found in the Library Bill of Rights, Freedom to Read Statement and the Intellectual Freedom Resolution.

I suggest that taking this approach is a mistake — at least as regards libraries run by private institutions, for example religious ones — and I will attempt to show why by commenting on the brief Library Bill of Rights (LBOR), section by section.[1]

We begin:

The American Library Association affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas, and that the following basic policies should guide their services.

Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.

The introduction mentions that the following “basic policies” should guide all libraries in their services.  The first sentence of part I is not objectionable.  The second sentence, while understandable as a statement of idealism and some faith in “science”[2], is philosophically and morally naïve.  For example, librarians do not include certain topics in their collection not only because they are not in accordance with the library’s particular mission, but because they are either uninterested or uninformed regarding certain viewpoints regarding these topics, and sometimes also because they do not wish, in general, to have particular viewpoints which they find immature, offensive, irrelevant, irrational, or threatening represented in their collection.[3]  One might counter by saying that this could mean that librarians simply need to work all the more diligently at trying to include as much knowledge and as many viewpoints as possible – simply because “we are finite creatures and are prone to miss or improperly misrepresent views we don’t understand or agree with.” I agree with this critique to some extent, although I think what is important here is to realize that some things will always be “beyond the pale” for most anyone.  This is human nature.  It is a good thing that we want to discourage some things and some ideas from spreading or being widely accessible.  In short, I argue that ALA rhetoric notwithstanding, it is inevitable that “public executions” (i.e. shunning, stigma, shaming) happen to those deemed worthy of them, and any books representing their views share a similar fate.  Jonathan Haidt’s new book, “The Righteous Mind” is helpful in this regard especially as regards making this point.

Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

First, see response to I above, as it previews and informs the response here.  Which is: a) insisting that all libraries should do this is unnecessary: the library’s mission may have nothing to do with these issues.  b) many libraries are, for example, religious – therefore, not all libraries who cover current and historical issues need to reflect the popular thinking in the world, but may in fact intentionally seek to challenge it[4], much like Martin Luther King Jr. did in his fight for the civil rights of black Americans.  c) not even public libraries and academic institutions that operate under the auspices of the state necessarily want to present “all points of view on current and historical issues”.[5]  While it is no doubt a good idea for libraries to collect materials that try to accurately describe the world and the movements within it – in more or less detail – materials putting forth contemporary narratives and factual information that exists specifically to promote genocide vs. this or that group, neo-Nazism, racism, sexism, holocaust denial, undermining current laws and regulations en route to getting access to young children for sexual purposes, effective Islamic terrorism, how to directly undermine American democracy etc.[6] in our world today are unlikely to find a place in the stacks of the vast majority of these libraries.[7]  I submit that this would hold true even if there were groups in a library’s community who hold to these views. 

Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

At some point – age eighteen seems a decent enough number – persons come to be considered full adults and should be able to legally read what they want free from parental control and influence.  I also agree fully that libraries should be in favor of books not being banned or censored in the wider context of the United States of America.  However, conflating books that are challenged in libraries with “banned books” or “censorship” cheapens the struggles of persons who live in societies where certain books really are banned throughout the country as a whole.[8]  Although the intent is to engage and educate young persons about the importance of the freedom to read, I argue that it usually does not meet this goal as it should (see footnote 6 for more details, and see here for a person of the secular liberal persuasion saying much the same thing, only not as nicely).  On the one hand, we can make a distinction between upholding freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly and on the other hand taking active steps – perhaps tirelessly active steps – to make sure that absolutely all views – of the majority and minorities – are available (again, something I argue [see responses to I and II above] that none of us do or want to do or even really think we should do anyways).

Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.

In general, when it comes to free access to ideas, I agree with this ideal and seek to uphold it (particularly when it means people being able to access books from more traditional Christians in the world of academia, who I consider to be some of the best informed persons in the world!).  Freedom of thought, speech, press, assembly and religion are always desirable for human beings, and I think that the rights described in the Bill of Rights help make for one of freest societies possible on earth.  Not only this, but I believe in order to attain to and preserve this kind of free society, we need, among other things[9], to allow in the wider public square even views that we find particularly odious (see footnote 10 below).  As for the “transcendent value of free expression”, which some librarians promote and say that private libraries should be a part of,[10] I do not know what that means.  Does “transcendent” here mean “divine”?  If so, since we are talking about specific values deriving from this God, which view of God is this and why should we believe it?  Does value here necessarily mean “inalienable human right.[11]?  If so, is the only limit physical harm that can be immediately discerned to be just that?  Does “free expression” derive from the right of free speech?  Is “consent” the key here?  For what ages?  For activities done in private or public?  How does this fit with other people’s values, particularly those who feel they have been given freedom not primarily to express themselves, their identity, etc., but primarily in order to do what is right – which also means restraining many of their own desires for the good of all?  In other words, I do not know if I believe in any “transcendent value of free expression”.  I do believe that “tolerance” can be a very valuable and necessary political notion, perhaps akin to how some very liberal librarians still believe that giving parents the right to supervise their children’s book borrowing can be valuable and necessary in the present time.

A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.

In general, I agree with this statement.  See the paper mentioned in footnote 7 for ethical issues that may arise here.  Further, there is the concern for “age appropriateness” as well – what does “should not be… abridged because of… age” mean? [12]

Libraries that make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.[13]

In general it seems like a good principle. I am sure we all have our limits though.[14]

In the end, I think that we do need a sound collection development policy to guard against sheer private opinion and prejudice.  That said, I argue that it is not advisable for institutions that are explicitly religious to attempt to do this primarily by appealing to principles of “intellectual freedom” – enshrined for example, in this document. [15]




[1] The “Intellectual Freedom Principles for Academic Libraries: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” as well as the latest edition (8th) of the Intellectual Freedom Manual, compiled by the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, was also referenced for this essay.

[2] Concrete example: what did I learn from reading books featuring different views on sex education?  They are talking past one another – for good reason.  We are all ideologues, and generally, the persons who write the books on controversial topics are more so.  Both sides claim, I submit rightly, that the others are “ideologues” and “catechists” (as in “catechesis”, what the church does), blinded by biases which will not allow them to see the truth, or the whole truth.  They both tout the science and statistics in their own favor.  When it comes to the most developed thinking from both perspectives, we see that we simply have here fundamentally different worldviews and moralities (whatever common ground may be shared among those who possess them).  It is interesting that as regards sex education, both sides want to say that their claims “work” and are in line with “what science says”, even as, I suggest, for those most committed to these views that is decidedly not what this is about.  Rather, it is simply about what people want to defend is right and wrong.  And yes, what is said to be right or wrong is often – but not always – said to be connected with science and what “works” in this or that sense (seen in our conceptions of “sustainable human flourishing” which by definition seek to avoid “reality bouncing back” – whether we are primarily focusing locally or globally, in the short-term or the long-term, etc.) – but not always.  For example, to take the issue of gay marriage, it is interesting that some very sophisticated persons will say, for example, that whether or not kids in general do better with a mom or dad is not an important issue, period: civil rights are.  Evidently, “science” can be left to hang here.  I do not doubt that many feel “civil rights” is a good principle to be devoted to, but what happens when the reasons for civil rights are reflected on in order to be made explicit?  Is there a sound philosophical and intellectual basis for the existence of civil rights or does it simply come down to exercising our own will to power in the way that we want to?  And if the existence of “civil rights” can be justified with some sound philosophical grounding, what is the basis for how those rights are conceived both abstractly and in the concrete?  I think it is not impolite to expect answers to this!

In sum, sometimes people are open about their moral claims and the influence they think they should have, and other times less so.  But in many debates, no one can really say that they are primarily justifying their claims on the basis of “science”.

[3] We are here dealing with unavoidable philosophical questions having to do with person’s more or less developed worldviews and the ethics that go with them as well as the issue of epistemology, that is, how we know what we know.

Everyone also ought to know that some things need not and should not be doubted (at least in their personal lives), for while some knowledge can certainly be created through doubt, much also comes through and from persons we trust, present and past – which often is able to be backed up with some good evidence and reasons (perhaps not “beyond a shadow of a doubt” but “beyond a reasonable doubt”).  That persons may be doubted and that evidence and reasons may be false does not change this very human truth.  Finally, I suspect everyone knows that certain kinds of knowledge can be particularly dangerous in the wrong hands.

[4] In this case at least, I agree with the notion that the “library must be free of external politics”, quoted by an essayist in the book True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries (p. 62).  Of course, that author was making that statement in order to assert that libraries must be totally neutral and that this entails defending pornographic and erotic materials in libraries.

[5] According to a friend, years ago the University of Wisconsin Library at Madison was prohibited by its constitution from purchasing theological books. The prohibition was gotten around in some cases by purchasing titles for courses in history of civilization or comparative religion, which was apparently permissible.  This same friend told me the following: “The only library that could meet the ALA requirements strictly would be a library run by people for whom nothing matters; not even Google meets ALA requirements because of its reliance on relevance ranking and the desire to make money.”

[6] Other topics unlikely to find promotion in public libraries, even if put forth by more or less intelligent sounding voices using arguments they and some others at least find compelling: the case for child marriage (see June 2011 National Geographic), the case for foot-binding, the case for female circumcision, the case for child sacrifice (see news reports from Uganda), the case for sati (widow burning), etc.  Really, if we are going to speak about how important a diversity of voices is here, where is the cultural sensitivity for these minority groups and their most educated and articulate voices?  I understand that the views of these cultures are probably seen as “conservative” by many (I suppose in some sense they are, though it’s not a conservatism I sympathize with ; from my view, evidence from the past shows us that most all ancient cultures, save that of the Jews and a few other exceptions, were “conservative” in that the desires of the strongest men were fully met with little resistance to their will.  In other words, as regards something like sex [which may or may not be accompanied by a desire to physically or psychologically dominate and/or diminish the other] their desires for physical pleasure are met much like they are in the popular pornographic novel Fifty Shades of Gray, simply without the concern or sensitivity for the notion of free consent from those not having as much power as they), on what basis does the person arguing against these things avoid the charge of being driven by their own “personal fears and prejudices”?  How do they know that this is not the case (after all, why not consider that when one really listens to these folks, they might make a convincing case that they really are attempting to “love their neighbor” in this or that sense, for this or that reason.  Perhaps after a heart-to-heart it will seem that their views really do “respect and build relationships” – although not in a sense we had been familiar with before…)?  They can’t say they are simply being responsible either, because modern librarians know that to act like a “moral guardian and babysitter” is to be an irresponsible librarian.

But this is wrong.  For example, the cataloger Francis Miska, in his audio program “The Genius of Cataloging” notes that the original focus of the 19th century library movement was “to deliver the best books by the best authors to a public, who by reading them would become mentally cultivated.”  The focus was not to give books to people because they “can do something with it” (practical use), but because of “what a book would do to them.”  It seems to me that no librarian should fool him/herself about any supposed “neutrality” on their part – they have views about life and how we should live that they want to inculcate in others, just like anybody else.

[7] Even if “Diversity in Collection Development”, an official “interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights”, asserts the following: “Librarians have an obligation to protect library collections from removal of materials based on personal bias or prejudice, and to select and support the access to materials on all subjects that meet, as closely as possible, the needs, interests, and abilities of all persons in the community the library serves. This includes materials that reflect political, economic, religious, social, minority, and sexual issues.” In addition, information about how to freebase cocaine, build bombs and biological and chemical weapons is something libraries should neither obtain nor promote.  For one of the best reflections I have seen on these kinds of library ethics, specifically addressing and critiquing the ALA’s Code of Ethics, see here for a paper by one of my good friends, Jason Schock ( )

[8] There are some strict German laws relating to Nazi literature and to my knowledge this is justified in the eyes of most anti-censorship activists.

[9] Here I mention the thoughts of most founders of this country regarding how critical it is for a democratic republic such as ours to have persons who restrain themselves, so that government does not have to.

[10] American Library Association. (2010). Intellectual freedom manual. Chicago: American Library Association, p. 8.

There is a well-known quote from Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.  My thought on this is that in some political contexts – where, in general, the society is characterized by high levels of Christian religious conviction and a general respect for other human beings – it makes sense to make this sacrifice for others.  On the other hand, I contend that this still does not mean that an individual or especially a government or government entity needs to amplify, encourage, or subsidize the ability of all to communicate their viewpoints.  We may allow neo-Nazis the right to assemble, have a parade, etc, just like anyone else, making sure that there are some private and public channels that they have access to (see the Skokie parade the ACLU defended).  That does not mean we ourselves need to take active steps to promote their views, but we may actually take steps to discourage them – even as we make sure they have the ability to believe it, say it, and promote it through their own efforts – all without incurring physical harm, loss to personal property, etc.  This is real “toleration”, which I think is politically valuable and important, even if, sometimes, it seems distasteful.  I can find biblical precedence for something like this notion of tolerance in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15), and the Father’s tolerance for his behavior.

Part of this Christian consciousness involves the idea that God respects individual persons’ freedom to resist Him (we get what we want), and it only seems right and fair that Christians should be able to resist other religions as well.  Hence, to be fair, people should be free to resist all particular religions, even as, when it comes to general matters of personal freedom and sensible governance (including justice), Christians try to persuade others (civilly) through “natural law” argumentation (while making it clear we are, in fact, Christians), which does not preclude talking about the very real felt human consensus about a general Deity(s)/Divine Nature that inhabits (and is responsible for) the cosmos.

I note that only in the West have persons had so much freedom to live as they see fit. I believe that this is due to the heritage of Christian tolerance (Nietszche, Islam [?]: “weakness”) and its influence in our society (see developed argument here).  For example, western culture’s shift away from arranged marriages to marriages based on mutual choice is a good thing. It is a Christian idea – we do not choose God but He does allow us to leave – to disown Him. This is the reason why free consent is now considered to be at the heart of marriage in the West (on the other hand, some misunderstand the limits of free consent, seeing it, for example, as the defining moral principle in sexual relationships – see here).

Where are the limits of this tolerance?  Well, I would never be OK with materials that are pornographic or erotic (constructed with some intent to sexually arouse and excite, whether for pleasure or profit) in libraries, period (for a “sophisticated case” that I think has the potential to appeal to many secular liberals who may be particularly hard to persuade, see the essay “Preludes to a theory of obscenity” by John Durham Peters in the 2011 bookObscenity and the limits of liberalism”, edited by Loren Glass and Charles Francis Williams).  We should do absolutely everything that we can do to discourage pornography use and make it difficult and cumbersome.  If, due to its increasing popularity and mainstreaming, people want to look at it from a critical perspective – particularly “literary works” that are said to have some “redeeming value” (can the same value the book has be found elsewhere though?) – materials on the topic can be bought in conjunction with a class and the items put on reserve for that class.  I would argue that should hold true for public academic libraries and not only private religious ones.

[11] American Library Association. (2010). “The Universal Right to Free Expression”, Intellectual freedom manual. Chicago: American Library Association p. 195

[12] For example, I think that the best policy for public libraries is not only requiring parent’s or guardian’s permission to sign up for a library card and giving them full monitoring privileges, but also enabling them to choose whether or not their children may have borrowing privileges for the non-juvenile materials.  On the library’s part, books that may not be appropriate for minors need not be displayed where little eyes can see them.  Perhaps in some cases, it might make sense to put a book cover on a book, not necessarily because of an “implication of disapproval”, but because of these age-appropriate concerns.  Finally, see my comments about pornography in the footnote above. 

[13] Adopted June 19, 1939, by the ALA Council; amended October 14, 1944; June 18, 1948; February 2, 1961; June 27, 1967; January 23, 1980; inclusion of “age” reaffirmed January 23, 1996.  A history of the Library Bill of Rights is found in the latest edition of the Intellectual Freedom Manual.

[14] Interestingly, up until recently, many Christian churches in New York state were being told that they could not rent space from public schools because it was a violation of the separation of church and state.  In my mind, it is amazing – just amazing – that educated public officials would be thinking this way.  That said, if practitioners of Mayan religion wanted to do human sacrifices in those schools, obviously appeals to religious freedom would be called into question!

[15] After reading this paper a friend made the following comment: “Does a Christian university library have a right to its patron to limit its collection in support of Christian truth?  In today’s pluralistic society, we exalt freedom of choice and minimize truth or even believe that truth cannot be found, if only by individual choice. Perhaps a conservative library taking pains to evaluate its collection and make sure it has first and foremost books that support the school mission is a good thing—maybe even admirable.”  I think that is right, and have done a bit more writing now to this effect.  I am willing to share that essay for any who would like to explore this topic more.   Also, for a good account by persons reconsidering the LBOR from a more secular perspective, see this paper (it is just part of a larger philosophical argument here though).

Breitbart News Brings Attention to Laudatory Efforts to Fight for Academic Freedom

Hate cannot survive our love – and love of the truth!

Do you ever read Breitbart News? If you don’t, maybe you should — at least on occasion.

Why? Well, if you don’t, you might fail to realize all the ways some institutions of higher education (no doubt made up of a good number of university and college administrators) are bravely standing up for the truth — that is, the critical truths of academic freedom, inquiry, and free speech.

For example, in this article we learn about The American Association of University Professors’ efforts to defend and promote Trinity College professor Johnny Eric Williams. Tom Ciccotta, the author of the article, quotes the following from a blog post from the organization:

As Professor Johnny Williams, who was suspended from Trinity College in Connecticut following a campaign of targeted harassment, observed, “Like other faculty who have been threatened and harassed this year, I was targeted over remarks I made that drew attention to racism.” Efforts to silence faculty members who speak out on matters of race are not newas the AAUP has found in investigations dating back to the 1950s.

“A campaign of targeted harassment” is no small thing in today’s world, as Jordan Peterson has learned the hard way. Mean words on the internet hurt, and the physical threats that tenured professors like Rachel Fulton Brown received — “Rachel Fulton Brown is a fascist and deserves to be raped to death. Screenshot this, you Nazi c***. You’ll get exactly what you deserve — have no place in the academic world where civil dialogue and conversation should reign.

“So what exactly did Williams face a backlash for?” Ciccotta asks.

Williams merely made a simple comment on Facebook last year, encouraging “first responders to let Congressman Steve Scalie bleed out after he was shot during a practice for the congressional baseball game”:

It is past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system. #LetThemFuckingDie

The article goes on:

Williams also shared an anonymously-authored Medium post entitled “Let Them Fucking Die,” which argued that the first responders to the congressional shooting should have let Representative Scalise and others die. The inflammatory blog post called on minorities to refuse assistance to whites in potentially fatal situations, like choking, bleeding out, or drowning. The post then calls for those persons to not only watch as others die but to “smile” as they watch, for letting them die is a “great service” to the “universe.”

Can any honest observer deny that these efforts to take a seriously, erudite, and constructive look at the white supremacist patriarchy should not be defended? I, for one, can’t understand how anyone could not see this professor as a model for us all, and that his being placed on leave last year certainly was a blow to academic freedom.

“Meritocracy is a ‘tool of whiteness’” — Laurie Rubel, also defended by the AAUP

Of course, knowing its reputation, I thought it could be that this Breitbart news piece was completely “fake news” — and that this story actually misrepresents the laudatory efforts of this fine institution of higher education to encourage inquiry, critical thinking, civility and such.

That would be a shame, but as best I can tell it doesn’t seem to be the case. And, fortunately, William’s own institution seems to have realized its error, as we learn from this AAUP article,

A group of sixty colleagues demanded that the administration rescind its decision, and the chapter’s executive committee issued a statement of support for Williams, citing concerns about academic freedom, due process, and the stifling of “critical engagement with issues of race.

With bright lights such as Johnny Williams fighting for the truth, I have no doubts that there is hope for a brighter future in academia.

“Let. Them. F***ing. Die.
And smile a bit when you do.” — Son of Baldwin


Is the Prevailing Narrative about Lindsay Shepherd True?

Lindsay Shepherd, pictured with Canadian firebrand professor Jordan Peterson (image from this video)

Have you heard about the case of Lindsay Shepherd? Let’s start with this clip from the Wilfrid Laurier University Wikipedia page, under the section 2017 Free Speech Controvery:

In November 2017, the university became the subject of a free speech and academic freedom controversy, for censuring teaching assistant (TA) Lindsay Shepherd for the course Canadian Communication in Context, after she neutrally presented a three-minute recording of a debate from The Agenda with Steve Paikin, a TVOntario program. In the clip of a debate between two University of Toronto professors, Jordan Peterson advocated against the compelled use of gender-neutral pronouns while Nicholas Matte advocated for it.[10] Members of the Laurier administration claimed that this promoted transphobia and censured the TA.[11][12] After the audio recording of the meeting between professors and the teaching assistant was publicised, the public reacted with outrage and a professor and Laurier President Deborah MacLatchy issued a public apology to the TA. “The conversation [between the professors and the TA] I heard does not reflect the values and practices to which Laurier aspires,” MacLatchy wrote.[13] The university retained Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP to be the task force to study Laurier’s adherence to freedom of expression while keeping within the human rights legislation and values.[14]

When the Laurier incident was raised as a freedom of speech issue in Parliament during Question Period, Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan replied, “Our government is committed to creating open spaces for Canadians to debate and express their views … In a free society, we may disagree with a person’s views but we must defend the right to hold them unless those views promote hate”.[15][16]

Laurier subsequently posted a video on the WLU web site of MacLatchy discussing the “university’s century-old commitment to freedom of expression.”[17] The board of governors unanimously endorsed MacLatchy’s stance in this regard but the situation continued to develop on the Laurier campus. The Waterloo Region Record related incidents of harassment of faculty and transgender students on social media in a December 2, 2017 report, Laurier’s crisis on campus – A public-relations nightmare reveals a school divided. The reporter provided this description of the situation among faculty: “professors are openly taking shots at each other, pitting faculties and colleagues against one another. Some tenured faculty are calling for outright boycotts of their own university, urging parents not to send their kids there and for donors to keep their money.” Teaching staff interviewed were mixed on their evaluation of the situation regarding gender-specific pronouns, some suggesting that transgender students felt “harmed” and others encouraging the need for open discourse and a diversity of opinion.[18]

On December 18, 2017, Laurier concluded its independent investigation, finding that Shepherd did not violate university policies, as well as revealing that no formal or informal complaints were ever made by any students in the class. MacLatchy stated that the meeting was conducted with “significant overreach” and called the TV Ontario clip “a reasonable classroom teaching tool”.[19][20]

(end clip from Wikipedia)

Is everything really “back to normal” though? This hardly seems to be the case. Here is just one small indication of that:

One of the things that is fascinating about this case is how Lindsay Shepherd quickly found herself on a variety of conservative media programs. Given her willingness to go on some of these programs, there were those who essentially said that she, like Jordan Peterson, was giving strength and comfort to the “alt right”.

An interesting exception to this trend on the left though was the Zero Books podcast, which recently had Shepherd on as a guest for a very interesting interview. Here is a tweet that the Zero Books founder, Douglas Lain, put out shortly after the podcast:

In the conversation which ensued, there were a number of interesting comments and exchanges. As readers of this blog might not find surprising, I found myself particularly drawn to this one:

“Fit all too well”. Almost like we could call all reasonably call it “true,” I guess. : )

Interestingly, Jordan Peterson recently had a couple other professors from Wilfrid Laurier University to discuss the incident in more detail as well. And in a podcast conversation with the anarchist Willamette University professor Thaddeus Russell, Lain indicated that is was his intention to have Jordan Peterson on his Zero Books podcast this month as well!

A “wannabe-Marxist” talking with a definite “anti-Marxist”? This podcast junkie is definitely hoping that happens. It would surely be an interesting — and hopefully somewhat fruitful — conversation.


What Can C.S. Lewis’s Sublime Waterfall From His “Abolition of Man” Teach Us Today?

If I say the “waterfall is sublime” is that an “authoritative statement”? What makes it so?

Maybe we should back up…

What is authority? Maybe we can agree that it is inextricably tied up with concerns about responsibility, knowledge (know-that and know-how), trust, and truth.

That said, is it ultimately something outside of us or inside of us? That is eventually where the question leads.

Making the case from reason alone.


In arguing that there is truth that we all know (see the last few posts on this blog, here [“When truth is disregarded, authority weakens”], here [“Aristotle at the library: why philosophy won’t go away”] and here). I recently said, following C.S. Lewis’s classic example from his masterpiece The Abolition of Man, that “we know that waterfalls are sublime — not only that they produce ‘sublime feelings’ in us”*

In response to that statement a librarian colleague said this is Platonic because I am implying that “abstractions have objective reality. Such as the idea that waterfalls are objectively sublime.” (they go on to say “To many of us, our sublime feelings are subjective; they are not a sign of innate sublimeness in whatever evokes those feelings.”)

I will admit that this response, coming from another librarian who also thinks that the phrase “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” is lacking, caught me off guard. Is this necessarily a Platonic statement? If so, why? Could it just as easily be an “Aristotelian” statement?

My NeoPlatonist** friend, Dr. Eric Phillips, said the following in response:

Aristotle was a Platonist to a point, but he went renegade on the question (related to your question) of the separability of the Forms from Matter. His emphasis on the Forms in Matter, and even his insistence that they had to be contemplated in this way, both helped NeoPlatonism to improve on Platonism, but if NP hadn’t also insisted on the transcendence of the Forms, it wouldn’t have been Platonism.

…what’s really at stake in your question about Sublimity-or-sublimity is objectivity vs. subjectivity, and Aristotle was just as much an Objectivist as Plato was. Intellectual content (Form) is in the things already, and is discovered there by the Intellect of the observer. But Plato’s Objectivity is transcendent, thus hardier and more naturally anchored in the Mind of God, as we see in NP.



… my instinct when it comes to the academy… is to stay away from NeoPlatonic assertions… because Aristotle does not deny the forms, but puts them in matter. Here, it just seems to me that one is able to start from our experiences, as existential and historical and evidence-oriented beings, and work from there…

My major concern is that all the classical philosophies seem to get neutered when historicism is understood or experienced as somehow compelling… See, e.g.

 Dr. Phillips:

That’s not a reason to favor Aristotelianism to NeoPlatonism, because NP also holds that we discover the Forms within the objects of our perception. But NP doesn’t end there.


Yes, that makes sense. It also might make sense then that people consider me to be talking about Platonism, when, in my own mind, I am simply trying to point out that persons cannot stop consistently assuming stability in many of the things in the world of which we speak — even trans-culturally and trans-historically. I don’t even mention transcendent realities (like Forms that exist somewhere outside of us in another realm).


Do you have a view then about reasons why a person might immediately assume Platonism? Is it because all of us — or perhaps, intellectuals more generally — believe that we all must, from the get-go — be operating from a systematic understanding and/or narrative that we try to convert others to and others try to convert us from?***

Dr. Phillips:

I think people are making the jump to Platonism because they assume Aristotle is one of their own, although he isn’t. …secular intellectuals have out-Aristotled Aristotle, see themselves as part of his branch, and don’t consider how thoroughly he too would scorn them. Also, “Platonist” is a much worse name in their book, because whatever might have been wrong with Aristotle, Plato had it much worse. It’s like calling someone a Nazi instead of an anti-Semite, just to up the ante.

As for assuming that everyone is speaking from a philosophical system that is trying to colonize the world, that’s just the universal PoMo assumption, isn’t it?

Plotinus… father of NeoPlatonism


Why do they assume Aristotle is one of their own? Are they assuming too much devotion to empiricism in Aristotle (at the expense of a belief in real Essences/Forms)? In other words, they have a post-Ockham view of Aristotle?****

secular intellectuals have out-Aristotled Aristotle, see themselves as part of his branch, and don’t consider how thoroughly he too would scorn them.

By this, do you mean they have put all of the focus on his storied empiricism, and gladly lost the other part?

Also, “Platonist” is a much worse name in their book, because whatever might have been wrong with Aristotle, Plato had it much worse. It’s like calling someone a Nazi instead of an anti-Semite, just to up the ante.

Because he is barely empirical by their standards, and is the Evil Essentialist par excellence. Right?

As for assuming that everyone is speaking from a philosophical system that is trying to colonize the world, that’s just the universal PoMo assumption, isn’t it?

Well, PoMos say there is no truth, and hence this kind of activity is all about power. I do tend to think that we as human beings can’t stop stating what is true about the world and want others to agree with us. We certainly think that there are some things that simply can’t be right and we should be able to convince/persuade others not to believe them. Not everyone necessarily would force everyone to believe what they believe if they could though!

Dr. Phillips:

Yes, you understand me on all three of your questions. Modernists and Postmodernists are used to being on “Team Aristotle” when the annual Plato-v-Aristotle football game comes around, so often all they remember about him is that he was an empiricist and he did science. But to the extent that he was an empiricist, he offers testimony of how empirical observation can discover Form. And they don’t usually think of it in these terms, but they discover Form through empirical observation too. It’s just important to the atheists among them that there not be any Mind higher than theirs with which they might have to compete in understanding that Form and processing its implications. And to say that Form is transcendent is to say that there is such a Mind. (The Prime Mover is not nearly so threatening, because all It does is draw things to develop their own innate potential, whatever that is.)


What I find really interesting here though is how Rebecca Goldstein seems far less frightening to atheistic types than Thomas Nagel (and his Mind and Cosmos). Maybe this goes to show, however, how Platonism — updated and revised by Goldstein — is not so threatening (just like you say Aristotle is not threatening). But maybe NeoPlatonism is? [See, for example, this article that I wrote, “The Gods of our Brahmins: Thomas Nagel’s and Rebecca Goldstein’s Intelligent Designers,” exploring this topic].

Dr. Phillips:

I don’t know Goldstein except what I just read in your article, but yeah, Old Platonism is definitely less threatening to atheists, because there’s no explicit Hypostasized Intellect, World-Spirit, or One-Beyond-Being. I do think that’s where the system leads, though, if you follow its internal logic. Forms are ideas, and ideas are thinking, and thinking is what a mind does.

Attempting to appropriate Plato while avoiding his God-talk.



*In a library technology conference presentation I made in 2014, I said the following about C.S. Lewis’s approach:

In his brilliant and more or less non-religious book, The Abolition of Man, Lewis basically contended that the [modern scientific and technological mindset] (not his language) had the power to “abolish” man. He made his argument that Western civilization was destroying itself by using a few simple sentences from an English textbook for middle school students.

In this textbook, Lewis points out that its authors, when talking about a waterfall, are careful to point out that we cannot say that the waterfall is “sublime” in itself – that is, intrinsically – but we can say that the waterfall provokes sublime feelings in the one who observes it. Lewis first of all points out that as regards feelings, the word “humble” is a more apt description and from that point on he is off to the races. He spends some thirty pages arguing convincingly that this simple move on the author’s part – where an objective goodness and beauty outside of the human being has been denied – has disastrous consequences for our lives together. In one of Lewis’ more memorable lines he states: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

**Of NeoPlatonism vis a vis Platonism, another learned friend says: “In broad strokes….Aristotle was a Platonist. Plotinus and Proclus mediated classical Platonism and Aristotelianism to a significant extent, such that while Neoplatonism is similar enough to classical Platonism to warrant its moniker, it is dissimilar enough that most of the perennial criticisms of Plato don’t stick to it.”

*** Listen from around 14:30 for a couple minutes: I almost want to say: “Monsieur Lacan, I see what you are saying. Well, my ‘master discourse’ (patriarchy!?) assumes various good hierarchies in nature and society and the belief that we are all human beings who share much horrific and beautiful common ground.”

**** The endgame of Ockham’s approach where universals  are not connected to things, but concepts (prior to Ockham, universals are distinct from, but inextricably linked to stable forms):

“Ontological individualism undermines not only realism but also syllogistic logic and science, for in the absence of real universals, names become no more than signs or signs of signs. Language thus does not reveal being but conceals the truth by fostering a belief in universals. In fact, all universals are merely second or higher-order signs that we, as finite beings, use to aggregate individual entities into categories. These categories, however, do not denote real things. They are only useful fictions that help us make sense out of the radically individualized world. They also, however, distort reality. Thus, the guiding principle of nominalist logic is Ockham’s famous razor: do not multiply universals needlessly. Every generalization takes us one more step away from the real, so the fewer we employ, the closer we remain to the truth.” (Michael, Allen Gillespie. “The Theological Origins of Modernity.” Critical Review 13.1 (1999): 1-30. ProQuest. 20 Apr. 2015, italics mine)

With Ockham, any sense of “natural teleology” is dulled by his denial of forms and the purely mechanistic science made thinkable by it. “Being is not intrinsically good but is value-free; fact and value are separated.” (Holmes, Fact, Value, and God, 100)

In which Jack and Jill Visit a Teahouse…

Recently, on the ACRL Framework listserv (copied also to the and lists as well), librarian Heather Craven started a thread called…Jack, Jill and AiCC,” which generated all kinds of interesting responses.

Here it is (re-posted here with permission):

Here is a thought experiment for talking about some of the concerns that have been raised about the AiCC Frame – while avoiding the philosophical “Is Absolute Truth a Thing?” rabbit hole:

An instructor wants their class to examine a scientific study in a medical journal, comparing the effectiveness of a certain kind of herb tea to that of aspirin for treating headaches.

Two of the students want none of it.

Student Jill says: “Questioning the value of herb tea is disrespectful to my culture, so this study is not an authoritative source for me. I value nature. My aunt is an herbalist, and my culture traditionally uses this kind of herb tea. My experience is that herbs work. An authoritative source for me is an online magazine that supports natural remedies.”

Student Jack says: “I think a study on herb tea is a waste of time, so this study is not an authoritative source for me. I value modern medicine and progress. My father is a pharmacist, and my whole family says that herbal remedies are useless. My experience is that aspirin works. An authoritative source for me is a subreddit discussing how ‘natural’ remedies are just a way to make money off of old wives’ tales.”

Jill and Jack consider the basis of authority to be congruence with their values, culture, experience, identity, etc. These students get the concept of AiCC: they recognize how their perceptions of authority stem from such factors.

But practices such as double-blind testing, falsifiable hypotheses, reproducible results, etc. are explicitly intended to limit the influence of such factors on the gathering and observation of evidence. So the study’s very attempt to examine and present evidence, instead of to support a worldview, strips it of authority in the eyes of these students.

The study could give these students common ground for discussion, i.e. “we can agree that there is evidence that herb X has effect Y on population Z in conditions ABC, as compared to aspirin which has effect Q in the same conditions.” But it does not, because their concept of authority is unrelated to evidence.

Jack and Jill are fictional, but we really do see students who reject evidence out of hand and who dismiss information resources if they feel that the sources do not adequately reflect their worldview. Is AiCC, which emphasizes construction and context and de-emphasizes evidence, problematic in working with these students? How can we best encourage these students to acknowledge and give weight to evidence, regardless of their worldviews?

(end Heather’s original post)

What was my response to this?

My recent blog post, “When Truth is Disregarded, Authority Weakens,” originally appeared as one of the messages near the end of this thread.

And… a library colleague of mine forwarded me this, which I thought was quite hilarious. I imagine readers of this blog might enjoy as well:

He says “Poking around in an old site, we find this roughly-formed parable, possibly garbled in translation*”:

So Jack & Jill walk into a teahouse and meet a person of indeterminate age & gender making tea.

Jill says, “I value nature. Do you have any herb teas which can act as natural remedies?”

Jack says, “I value modern medicine and progress. Do you have anything with aspirin in it?”

So the tea master motions for them to sit down, and serves them each a steaming cup.

“What!” exclaim Jack & Jill together. “This is just hot water!”

So the tea master says, “How do you know that?”

And Jack & Jill were enlightened.



*BTW, he just made up that… it wasn’t actually from that site. Part of the joke.

Image: Jack and Jill pic from Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)

Aristotle at the Library: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away


Copy of my email to fellow librarian heavily involved in criticism of the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame:


Thanks for engaging me on the issues here. I’m glad you see the questions I raise* being “at the heart of information literacy.”

In full disclosure, my intention is to make the case that there is much that we can learn from the classical philosophers – at some level, their questions and arguments strike us at relevant today (think of the book Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Goldstein).

That said, there is also no doubt that it appears to many – even some of the most conservative of secular thinkers – that these same philosophers (especially Plato) are no longer relevant. We might think: “What after all, if anything, can today be considered permanent much less eternal?” (read more about this in the blog post I did here). Today, other than out-of-the-box persons like Goldstein, those attempting to remain more conservative seem to be increasingly represented by knuckle-dragging religious holdouts like myself or by those associating in some form with the philosophies of Ayn Rand.

With that out of the way, you said:

I think what [Bob] is describing as Platonic is the belief that abstractions have objective reality. Such as the idea that waterfalls are objectively sublime.

To many of us, our sublime feelings are subjective; they are not a sign of innate sublimeness in whatever evokes those feelings.

I will admit that it has taken me a while to figure out how to respond to your statement here! My initial response was confusion, because someone like Aristotle — before Ockham at least — believed that an objective ideal of “sublimity” existed, but not in some other reality (which truly exists somewhere beyond the reality that the waterfall reflects) but in every waterfall.

If I am not mistaken, you are engaging my statement on the basis of a rather “historicist” orientation, which I suppose should not have surprised me (given what I write in the blog post I mention). In sum, historicism always puts the emphasis on things as apprehended by the human mind throughout time — examining these, their functions, and the best use of them — and not things in the cosmos much less in any transcendent realm(s) (i.e Plato’s Forms, etc).

Giambattista Vico, who responded to Rene Descartes

Why do I think that you are expressing a historicist orientation? Descarte’s great challenger Vico, recognized widely as the “Father of historicism,” said, for example, the following:

Abstract, or general truths are eternal; concrete or specific ones change momentarily from truths to untruths. Eternal truths stand above nature; in nature, instead, everything is unstable, mutable. But congruity exists between goodness and truth; they partake of the same essence, of the same qualities…

And where, by the way, did Vico get this kind of a view from? It seems to me that the language is similar to Plato’s, and yet, I am not positive that what he is saying is ultimately what Plato wanted to say. In any case, maybe he did have a lot in common with Plato and he simply helps us understand Plato’s diminishing influence (even as Goldstein points out the areas where he continues to speak to us) – or, perhaps, the diminishing influence of Plato as he tended to be understood classically!

It is true that in making the statement that I do about waterfalls, I am attempting to get persons like yourself to embrace a statement about the world that most all of the classical philosophers of the ancient world (as best I can tell) we know of would have accepted.

The other statement I offered: “regardless of what we think or know about Newton and Einstein, we know that when we drop objects our given sense experience tells us that the objects fall towards our feet and not otherwise” is a statement that I offered with the intent of challenging those who do not think or feel that the problems in the Framework that persons like yourself and myself identify are significant problems. This statement – appearing to me uncontroversial as a trans-cultural and trans-historical reality – is something that I have heard even academics sympathetic to those of a more conservative disposition (though not claiming to be conservative themselves) try to challenge or avoid.

Pagan philosopher Plotinus, the father of NeoPlatonism.

In sum though, I am trying to revive the importance of Aristotle and not so much Plato in our thinking. Here is what my NeoPlatonist friend has to say about this:

Aristotle was a Platonist to a point, but he went renegade on the question (related to your question [about the sublimity of waterfalls]) of the separability of the Forms from Matter. His emphasis on the Forms in Matter, and even his insistence that they had to be contemplated in this way, both helped NeoPlatonism to improve on Platonism, but if NP hadn’t also insisted on the transcendence of the Forms, it wouldn’t have been Platonism.

… Now, what’s really at stake in your question about Sublimity-or-sublimity is objectivity vs. subjectivity, and Aristotle was just as much an Objectivist as Plato was. Intellectual content (Form) is in the things already, and is discovered there by the Intellect of the observer [(NP also holds that we discover the Forms within the objects of our perception. But NP doesn’t end there)]. But Plato’s Objectivity is transcendent… [as the Forms exist somewhere outside of us in another realm]

Of course, Again, what we have today in the place of this is the all-consuming philosophy of historicism (and yes, some versions of historicism, like “right Hegelianism” try to combine concerns for objectivity with the subjective and notion of perpetual change). So why think that bringing us back to thinking more in line with Aristotle is a possible move?

Wayne Hudson, in his recent article, “Theology and historicism” (thesis eleven 116(1) 19-39, 2013) gives us a hint. He says the following about the weaknesses of historicism: “Put bluntly, it is not clear why…. recurrent structural features should not also be historicized if things change in the course of history as much as historicists suggest. Conversely, if things do not change that much, then historicizing may have limited applications in other areas as well.”

-Nathan Rinne



*The questions were (see last blog post):

Speaking generally (not just in an academic context) how do we know if we have a reliable source or resource?

How can we get better at recognizing this in general, and in specific contexts?

[y did not mention my third key question: How can you begin to determine whether your biases/inclinations are good or bad?]


When Truth is Disregarded, Authority Weakens

My recent contribution to the ACRL Framework listserv to the thread titled “S/F: Jack, Jill and AiCC”.(copied also to the and lists as well).

Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Melissa writes to Margaret:

The concern seems to be that if we acknowledge objectivity as a factor in authority at all, then we must claim that Absolute Truth Is A Thing, and/or claim that authority is absolute and infallible. (To put it in your and Perry’s cognitive development terms, the fear seems to be that any acknowledgement of objectivity is simply a retreat from Relativism back to Dualism.)

Hear, hear!

Glad to see Joe here to, though when it comes to this:

I think you can address this scenario without the weird, neo-Platonist ‘Absolute Truth’ business from threads of yore.

…I simply want to point out that this strikes me as a red herring. I would like to know who more about these fascinating neo-Platonists that Joe speaks of.

For my own part, in one of my last messages I posted on the ili board (back in April), I said this:

Librarians, like scholars, have always advocated for seeing “the human community of practice” rather expansively (at least when it comes to their international “communities” of choice) and have realized that people want people who will both:

  • try to live honestly; and
  • who, to say the least, will not continually insist that we cannot really begin to know anything about objective reality – particularly when we make careful and disciplined efforts to do so.

…. I continue to argue that there are certainly many particular, individual facts and truths that we are able to discover, even as when it comes to larger questions of Truth (the set of all things which exist), full knowledge and understanding certainly escapes us (and I believe ever will). Why should we assume that because there are many ways of “being in the world” this will change?


The fact of the matter is that for a significant amount of the human population – perhaps more outside of academia than inside it these days — matters of truth and authority are inextricably connected. Even a charismatic person in a position of authority who does not speak in accordance with the realities persons experience on the ground (cue Aristotle if anything, not Plato) – and connect with them on this basis – will begin to lose both trust and respect. This holds true even if that person seems, for the time being at least, to lose little social, cultural and political influence and/or power.

And then, saying “my aunt says,” or “my whole family says” does not “offer[] nothing,” but is increasingly valued.

But even there, we will still have common ground, won’t we? We all got here somehow. : )

I submit that this is the reason that this discussion – which assumes and attempts to bolster and sharpen the dichotomy between authority in the academic context and authority in other contexts – ultimately fails to address the real issues at stake, which would involve persons asking themselves questions like the following:

  • Speaking generally (not just in an academic context) how do we know if we have a reliable source or resource?
  • How can we get better at recognizing this in general, and in specific contexts?
  • How can you begin to determine whether your biases/inclinations are good or bad?

And we can then connect this back to the academy. I think one thing that might help is to think about what we mean by scholarship. Here is what I mean by the term: concentrated efforts, individually and collectively, to solve problems, discover the unknown, remember the forgotten. Any methodology of scholarship that does not have room for all of those factors does not deserve to be in the academy / university.

I suggest we start by uniting our own scientific and poetic sides. First, regardless of what we think or know about Newton and Einstein, we know that when we drop objects our given sense experience tells us that the objects fall towards our feet and not otherwise. Right? Second, we know that waterfalls are sublime — not only that they produce “sublime feelings” in us. Right?

By the way, let’s hear it for dualistic thinking and absolutist thinkers like Epictetus (three cheers all):

“If you seek truth, you will not seek by every means to gain a victory; and if you have found truth, you will have the gain of not being defeated.”



P.S. I’ll be at a Reformation festival for the next couple days and so will not be able to interact with any forthcoming responses for a while. Thanks.


Images: Statue of Achilleas Thniskon (Dying Achilles) at the Corfu Achilleion. (CC BY-SA 3.0)