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 Notebooks: Thoughts & comments
 
A growing selection of thoughts, notes and comments from the published work of Domenico Pacitti

[All articles on this page, unless otherwise indicated, first appeared in JUST Response.]

Spaghetti conjunction
An Italian professore confidently states that today's spaghetti tastes decidedly better than yesterday’s – and this turns out to be one of the few assertions he is actually capable of making ex tempore, i.e. without first having to check it in a reference book. (January 2005)
 
Family resemblances
The frost made my eyes water this morning and I held the heel of my right hand to each eye in turn to absorb the moisture. And I remembered that with exactly the same gesture my aunt used to wipe away the tears from her eyes with the heel of her right hand and that this had made a deep impression on me as a child. She would speak to me of her life as a young girl in St Petersburg before the 1917 revolution and of how the film “Doctor Zhivago” paled by comparison with the cruel reality she lived through. My childhood tears were lightweight by comparison, I used to think, for like most children I would wipe them with my forefingers, no differently from when I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. So it’s true after all that family resemblances grow stronger with age – just like our capacity to suffer. (February 2005)
 
Limiting freedom of speech in the EU
The EU has decided to limit freedom of speech and discourage truth telling by granting its anti-fraud office new powers to ransack the homes of journalists and whisteblowers. This is in a sense excellent news since it shows that in some EU countries there are still people with the courage to speak out. Where no such powers exist, truth evidently poses no similar threat. (March 2005)
 
Italian politicians
An old quip has it that you should beat your wife every day, the logic being that you may not know why but she certainly will. Of course, I cannot agree with such action even in the event of incontrovertible evidence. Being a pacifist, I firmly oppose all forms of physical and psychological violence. On the other hand, if in the same spirit you were to suggest that all Italian politicians be sent to prison without trial, yacht owners and offshore bank account holders alike, I might be prepared to waive my objections – I think it highly unlikely that any real injustice would be done. (April 2005)
 
Understanding hating
Wittgenstein advises that whenever we feel like hating someone we should try instead to understand them. The trouble is that when you really do succeed in understanding such people, you very often feel like hating them even more. (May 2005)
 
Authority in the nose
An English soccer player (Trevor Brooking) was sometimes described by commentators as having an educated left foot. I remember a pedantic schoolteacher who could be described as having had an authoritative nose. (June 2005)
 
Moonshine and theology
On dismissing belief in something for which there is no evidence, I was recently critcised for being insensitive to theology. I might have replied along similar lines that my critic was singularly sensitive to moonshine. (July 2005)
 
In the name of Christ
I find it hard to understand why hordes of people should wish to live within a culture dedicated to the name of a single man (Christ, Buddha, etc). Lack of the right sort of paternal affection perhaps? (August 2005)
 
When artistic depiction is too strong to bear
With literary and dramatic works we are told to grant a willing suspension of disbelief. So we know it's not true but it is as if part of oneself was unaware programmed, as it were, to be unaware. But with some works the pain is so strong that we avoid re-reading or we even try to edit out the original experience. Is this due to a defect in the work, or is it part of its merit? (September 2005)
 
Blair, Bush and the history books
Any future history of Britain and the United States relating to the last few years which does not depict Blair and Bush as criminals will fail to paint a true picture for posterity. (October 2005)
 
First friend
My first friend used to come and keep me company as I lay in my pram in the garden by the front door. My mother only became aware of this one day when there had been a light snowfall and he had left his paw marks on the pram. After that she had the maid supervise me more closely. I don't know if I ever saw my friend again and have no recollection of his appearance, though I am told he was black and had big green eyes and a long bushy tail. I fancy we must have had many a fine conversation together and feel sure that he instilled in me the philosophy of feline freedom and all the secrets of solitary survival. (25 October 2005)
 
Grandma's Roses
The overnight snow had stopped now, and the garden was a desert of white. The little boy sat poised at the window, gazing out with a look of disappointed expectation on his chubby face. His little friend the robin redbreast, who had rapped daily at the window for food, had not been seen for nearly a week.
   The breadcrumbs were in their usual place, and the bread was fresh too. So why didn’t he come and eat them? Oh please come and see me … I’m still your friend. And he wondered why his friend would not come back.
   The old lady agreed to walk round the garden with him, but he would have to get well wrapped up first. Their hands clasped together, the two stooping figures wound their way along the path, the little boy keeping up with her with his shorter steps. All at once he cried out:
   –– Oh grandma! Look, look! All your beautiful roses – they’re all gone now. We won’t see them any more.
   –– They’ve all died away for the winter. But don’t worry – they’ll grow again next year.
   The little boy thought for a moment.
   –– Will grandpa grow again next year too?
   The old lady stood still and did not answer.
   Suddenly something made the little boy turn round. Perhaps it was his little friend trying to tell him something … He looked and looked, but the robin redbreast was nowhere to be seen. All was still. Only a slight wind shook the frail branches of the cherry-blossom tree. (1980, repr. October 2005)
 
Words, souls and people
Why does it sometimes happen that when I reformulate my original thought to render it more elegant something important seems to be missing to the point that I no longer even recognise it as my own? What exactly has been lost? The soul, perhaps? But can thoughts properly be said to have souls? Of course – just as certain people can properly be said not to have souls. (November 2005)
 
Rite and wrong books
The Book of Rites (禮記 Liji), one of the five surviving Confucian classics, teaches the rudimentary rules of correct behaviour and the importance of respect and ritual. As such it ought to replace the catechism as compulsory reading in all schools. If this is religion then I would unhesitatingly give my whole life for religion, and this without renouncing my confirmed atheism. By comparison, the doctrines of Christianity and the Roman Catholic church are horror stories for hysterics. (December 2005)
 
Changing hands and handing change
The opening chapter (曲禮 'Quli': 'Rules of Property') of the Book of Rites (禮記 Liji) teaches that we should take an elder's hand in both hands, as when receiving pearls or jade. Only the right hand should be used, however, when presenting a horse or a sheep and only the left in the case of a dog. But the Book of Rites also teaches that male and female should never let their hands touch in giving and receiving. So why do the cashiers at my local supermarket persistently brush their hands against mine in handing me my change? Haven't they read the Book of Rites? (December 2005)
 
UK journalists manipulated on Italian TV
A recent discussion programme on Italian national television focused on drawing comparisons between Italian and British society. The declared aim was to provide an objective balance sheet of the key merits and faults on either side. The true aim was to cast Italian society in a more positive and credible light as a normal country with normal faults. Predictably the programme produced the desired result. While the British guest “experts” – correspondents for the UK mainstream press – argued honestly to support their ingenuous misunderstandings about Italy, the Italian resident lions argued dishonestly to conceal what they understood only too well. Lambs to the slaughter. (December 2005)
 
Spineless backbone in T.S. Eliot
I have never quite understood the wholesale collective worship of T.S. Eliot's poetry by the professionalised literary criticism fraternity. What has always struck me most is the sheer spinelessness of the man, so graphically reflected throughout the backbone of his work. (December 2005)
 
Vital disjunctions
After death, do things matter or do they not matter? Or do they neither matter nor not matter? If our answer to Q1 is that things don't matter, then how, if at all, does this differ from the answer to Q2 that they neither matter nor don't matter? What exactly does it mean for something neither to matter nor not to matter? Is such a disjunction legitimate? Conversely, before existence was there being or nonbeing? Or was there neither being nor nonbeing? What could it mean for there to have been neither being nor nonbeing? Rig Veda X,129 raises this question. (December 2005)
 
Beyond belief
What does it mean for someone to insist on holding a belief in the face of rational counter-evidence? A person subscribes to a religion, accepts a ready-made package of beliefs and considers himself to be a believer in the relevant doctrine. You press him on these beliefs and spell out what some of them entail – for example, belief in immortality and an afterlife. Despite hard rational counter-evidence, he insists that he still holds these beliefs. Could we then say that such people believe that they believe but don’t? There are people who view their beliefs as a private matter, impervious to public scrutiny and quite resistant to logical analysis. It’s as if they wanted to say: 'I believe on my own terms and that’s the end of the matter.' They may believe under one description (their own) and not under another description (ours) even though the latter may be no more than a logically equivalent reformulation of the former. Suppose the believer were to argue: 'Your drawing logical distinctions shows that you haven’t understood belief properly. The need to reduce the whole to its component parts, like a flower to its petals, shows that you are unable to perceive the whole correctly.' Yet the believer’s behaviour remains at embarrassing variance with some of the beliefs he insists on ascribing to himself. I believe there are believers who believe basically because they have to believe, even though they may not always admit to this. (December 2005)
 
Founding fathers of corruption
It is incorrect to view the Roman Catholic Church as a single case of corruption, albeit a particularly serious one, for it is in itself no less than the very incarnation of corruption. The early Church fathers did not simply continue and develop Ancient Roman clientelism and corruption but transformed them radically to their own advantage. The Roman Catholic founding fathers of corruption caused longlasting damage probably beyond their own wildest dreams when, invoking Matthew (9:2-8) and Corinthians (11:27), they instituted the sacrament of confession, thus replacing the ethic of justice with that of forgiveness. The consequences of this momentous act, which has probably done more than anything else to shape the remarkably enduring corrupt mentality of Italians, survive to this day in both practising and non-practising Catholics. (December 2005)
 
Vatican cash
The Roman Catholic church has come a long way since sackcloth and St Francis. These days eight euros in every thousand paid by taxpayers in Italy each year, known as the otto per mille, go to form a common fund, most of which is allocated to the Italian Episcopal Conference (Conferenza Episcopale Italiana, or CEI). The Episcopal fathers’ takings for 2004 amounted to 936.5 million euros: 87.25% of the total fund. But the Church also enjoys much additional income aided by tax exemptions on its various commercial activities. Despite some brave effort to rectify the situation, which produced the inevitable Vatican outcry, there was recently cross-party agreement in the Italian parliament not to disturb this cosy arrangement.
 
––When the Vatican can’t steal as much as it would like, it calls thief; when it craves more power it cries persecution. (December 2005)
 
The weight of Italian scholarship
Why is it that when I imagine an Italian academic with a book in his hands I always picture him estimating its weight? A culture conditioned by a peasant background of weighing agricultural produce does not alone provide the answer. The Chinese have a similar background, yet the idea of a Chinese academic weighing books does not suggest itself in the same way. In a short story ("La ciociara") Moravia has a maid restore the books she stole from a professore in weight. Now this reflects something deeply and peculiarly Italian. (December 2005)
 
Mencius, Christ, Einstein & Russell
Christ is said to have said: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18: 3-4). Consider the shallowness of Bertrand Russell’s response: “Christ tells us to become as little children, but little children cannot understand the differential calculus, or the principles of currency, or the modern methods of combating disease.” This from arguably the greatest analytic philosopher of the twentieth century. While I entirely share Russell’s arguments against Christianity, I fail to see how he could so completely have missed the point here – assuming, of course, that he was “in good faith”. Compare Mencius (IVB: 12), writing in the fourth century BC: “The great man is he who retains the heart of a child” and, more recently, Albert Einstein: “Study and the general pursuit of truth and beauty is an activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.” (December 2005)
 
Intellectual immunity to appearances
Give a criminal a collar and tie, a few technical terms and a television camera and he will at once find a gullible audience prepared to believe him. The conscious development of intellectual immunity to a speaker's prestige, physical appearance and style of speech is the first prerequisite for evaluating his arguments correctly. (December 2005)
 
Singular Siamese relation
He used the word ‘lamb’ as an invariable grammatical form of endearment when addressing his Siamese cats (e.g. 'What are those two lamb up to?') and took offence if anyone tried to emulate him. (December 2005)
 
Boxing clever
I generally find I have far more respect for a boxer who enters the ring to earn a living than for a professor who enters the classroom. The notion of an honest encounter on an equal footing provides at least part of the explanation. (December 2005)
 
Philosophy comedy
Philosophy is a half step to comedy. This ought to be understood as a term of praise. (December 2005)
 
Hell hath no fury
A fine father, philosopher and family man first fraudulently framed and defamed then blindfolded, boycotted and dumped in the desert with all the phylogenetic fury of his female family firing squad? Evidently he must have been doing something right. (December 2005)
Imperato, Italian corruption and the Vatican
White House contender for the 2008 US presidential elections Daniel Imperato has reportedly described Italy as “very corrupt” – an understatement. The Vatican, he suggests, could play a key role in helping Italy rid itself of corruption – a pipedream, rather like recruiting Adolf Hitler to eradicate anti-semitism in Nazi Germany. (January 2006)
 
Corrupt Italian synonymy
The adjective ‘Italian’ already contains within itself the concept of corruption in a unique way that ‘American’, ‘French’, ‘German’ or ‘English’ do not. Could ‘Italian’ perhaps be a synonym for ‘corrupt’? Certainly not, as is demonstrated by attempting to apply the principle of substitutability salva veritate of co-extensional predicates. We could hardly talk of a corrupt salami transferring public cash to offshore private bank accounts, at least not in any literal sense. (January 2006)
 
Berlusconi no politician
When Silvio Berlusconi won the 2001 Italian political elections, it was as though he had campaigned with a permanent placard saying ‘I am not a politician’. And that is why he was voted in. What does this tell you about Italian politics? (January 2006)
 
When the wrong man says the right things
Roman Catholic pontiff Joseph Ratzinger once again calls for truth, justice and freedom. Yet this man represents a Church which has for two millennia used priestly power to transubstantiate truth into falsehood, justice into injustice and freedom into subordination. In matters of religious faith, at best, the believer or speaker may have rectitude but not his words. Here, ironically, the words have rectitude but not the speaker. (January 2006)
 
Truth, saying and being in Aristotle
Aristotle defined truth as follows: "To say that what is is not, or that what is not is, is false; but to say that what is is, and what is not is not, is true." (τ μν γρ λγειν τ ν μ εναι τ μ ν εναι ψεδος, τ δ τ ν εναι κα τ μ  ν μ εναι ληθς. Metaphysics, 1011b). Now, almost 2,400 years later, what most needs stressing is the "saying" part of his definition and its rightness, or rectitude, i.e. not just the supposed fact of the way things stand, but our rectitude in asserting so. (January 2006)
 
The non-lynching of Bush
Either a very large number of Americans are cowards and hypocrites or else they do not authentically believe that George W. Bush is a warmonger who has needlessly caused the deaths of many innocent people. It is scarcely credible that deep democratic conviction is responsible for their continuing failure to lynch Mr Bush or remove him forcibly from office. (January 2006)
 
Weeping your way to tenure
An English linguistics professoressa, whose name I had better not mention but who bears a striking resemblance to the Quaker depicted on a well-known brand of porridge oats, once informed me that she decided to award an associate professorship to a poor young lady because she had wept profusely before the examining commission. Next time you apply for a tenured teaching post at an Italian university be sure to take your weeping tablets with you. (January 2006)
 
Why life is not a waste of time
To those of us whose vision of life is unimpaired by religious belief or similar superstition the thought may sometimes occur that all human existence is a sheer waste of time. Yet this cannot be so, for it implies the possibility of being able to spend our time more profitably otherwise than in human existence. (February 2006)
 
No truth without rectitude
When it happens to be raining: a random configuration of debris on a seashore seems to spell 'pluit'; a worm traces out 'llueve' in the wet sand; a parrot screeches 'piove'; or a Chinese friend has you blindly repeat 'xia yu'. Or, in different circumstances, a tape-recorder switches itself back on automatically after a power cut and emits the words 'There's no one in this room' when this happens to be the case. At a dissertation viva a student recites statements correctly and in context without understanding exactly what they mean. As we move up the scale from inanimate to human, each case could, qua grammatical sentence, constitute a formal truth and grist for the logician's mill. But rightness of assertion, or rectitude, is to varying degrees crucially lacking in all six. Here truth is conferred or manufactured a posteriori by the competent observer. There can therefore be no truth where this rightness or rectitude is missing. Now since there can be degrees of rectitude, there must also be degrees of truth. Truth should therefore be viewed as both scalar and dependent on rectitude.
 
––He was one of those academic philosophers who would hang his coat and heart on a cloakroom hook before entering the lecture hall. (February 2006)
 
Truth and counterfactual conditionals
'If he had had enough money, he would have bought the car.' Both antecedent and consequent are false and the claim is objectively unverifiable. Yet it may still possess truth in proportion to rightness of assertion. That truth in such cases is more dependent on rectitude than correspondence may be seen even more clearly from the following seemingly absurd statement by a reliable witness who knew Jack well: 'Jack would have been happy that you attended his funeral' where I am attending Jack's funeral. (February 2006)
 
Capitalising on God and the Church of England
The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the Church of England’s general synod have finally seen the light. They vow they will now withdraw their three-and-a-half million euro investment in Caterpillar earth-moving equipment and so refrain from supporting the ongoing illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Meanwhile the Church will leave its remaining one-billion euro share investment intact, thus providing a fair guide as to just how much money is required these days to satisfy God’s needs. (February 2006)
 
Female inequality in Italy
Regrettably Italy still offers women no real recognition of equality. In separation and divorce cases a working wife can drive a horse and cart through the law with impunity whereas the husband is treated as an economic carthorse and keenly pursued for the slightest suspected irregularity. Equality evenly applied to women in Italy would inevitably result in mass candidacy for incarceration. (February 2006)
Read more at Pacitti's regular column on JUST Response: Notes & Comments.