Friday, December 06, 2002


LI learned our probability theory from the Dover Press edition of Richard Von Mises book on same. At the time, we did not realize that Von Mises was presenting a much controverted thesis on probability -- that he represented the extreme point of the extensional school. von Mises was the brother of the conservative economist -- although, according to his biography, he was definitely not hedged about by his brother's libertarian ideology. He gave up an honor given to him by East Germany with the admission that he would have taken it if the times -- the year was 1952 -- didn't make any truck with the communists automatically suspicious.

James Rizzo, in this essay on expected utility, gives a good overview of the difference between the view that that probability refers to the frequency of the observation of an event's occurence in a series of observations, and the 'subjectivist' view, which makes a softer case for the meaning of likelihood.

"Probability is neither a simple nor innocent concept, and there have been profound disagreements, especially during the 20th century, over basic matters of definition. Although I have relatively few original things to say about the terms of these debates, my discussion cannot proceed without minimally outlining them -- for probability is where, I am arguing, decision theory stows its metaphysical baggage. I am not sure how obvious my basic point that probability is a metaphysics might seem. On the one hand, it is clear that even our everyday concept of "probability" depends on fairly specific claims about the nature of the universe (the cosmos) and its knowability. And Ian Hacking?s (1975, 1990) efforts to relate the emergence of probability to various modernist projects, like the building of the nation-state, are well-known. On the other hand, critical social theory and Marxism have paid far less attention to probability than it deserves -- if we take its metaphysics as seriously as I propose we do.

A first step in this direction would be to account for the opposition between the frequentist (objectivist) and personalist (subjectivist) definitions of probability.

In large part, frequentism represents an extension of the classical theories of Laplace and Pascal, in which probability was treated as a ratio of favorable to equally possible cases --the paradigmatic events here being series of coin tosses, dice rolls, and other recreations of the French aristocracy. Modern objectivism treats probability as the limiting value of the relative frequency with which certain events, or properties, recur within a sequence of observations. Most frequency theories (such as the one advanced by Richard von Mises) do not require this sequence of observations to be finite, i.e., it can stand in for limiting relative frequency that would be manifested by the unlimited repetition of the event. Peirce, whose theory of probability is in many respects frequentist, is quite clear on this point:

"Probability never properly refers immediately to a single event, but exclusively to the happening of a given kind of event on any occasion of a given kind. [I]tis plain that, if probability be the ratio of the occurrences of the specific event tothe occurrences of the generic occasion, it is the ratio that there would be in thelong run, and has nothing to do with any supposed cessation of the occasions.This long run can be nothing but an endlessly long run..."

Hans Reichenbach, who was also a logical positivist, was dissatisfied with a position that seemed to rule out saying things about singulars - like giving the probability of landing on Mars at a certain date. A professor Uchii has a nice site sorting through these issues. Reichenbach's compromise basically gives us a concept of possible worlds -- thus embedding a theory of probability in what will later, under Kripke, become a theory of description: i

"According to Reichenbach, the probability concept is extended by giving probability a "fictitious" meaning in reference to single events. We find the probability associated with an infinite sequences and transfer that value to a given single member of it. ... This procedure, which seems natural in the case of the coin toss, does involve basic difficulties. The whole trouble is that a given single event belongs to many sequences, and the probabilities associated with the different sequences may differ considerably. The problem is to decide from which sequence to take the probability that is to be attached "fictitiously" to the single event."

So: the point, here, is that when we are making probability claims, we have to get our theory of probability straight. And a refined version of extensional probability, one that can encompass a single event, still needs to construct a a reference class and an attribute class. The attribute class is some definite description, and the reference class is the particular, defining order of events or properties under which to classify our observations. Got that?

So what, pray tell, is William Saletan doing with his Saddameter in Slate?

The premise is the jokey one that invading Iraq is much like Wheel of Fortune -- an idea reinforced by the visual. This is, of course, in accordence with the idiosyncratic Saletan touch, tasteles and tacky, a subdeb Harvard Lampoon conceit. But it is also a completely odd exercise. Every day Saletan gives us the "odds" on invading Iraq. Well, what does this mean?

The problem is that the relationship to a reference class, here, begs the question: what is the reference class? Let's try to think this one through.

100% must refer to the certainty of invasion. But, if this is so, what does 0% refer to?

On the one hand, LI could make the case that, unconsciously, Saletan has constructed a reference class that includes all the non-USA nations. We can then assign hostility quotients to them -- Canada, for instance, would get so much, and Syria would get so much, and so on. Thus, the probability of invading Iraq would refer to the class of invadable nations.

But we doubt this is Saletan's point. Although he believes that odds talk is self-explanatory, LI thinks that Saletan's assumption is much more revealing than his exercize. The relevant reference class, in LI's opinion, is the punditocracy sense of the certainty of an Iraq invasion. The odds, in other words, refer to another level of odds. And that refers to the penchant, among the punditry, for belligerence or pacifism. So 100% would be, say, the Weekly Standard editorial board, and 0 would be,, say, Hans Blix p.r. man. With the in betweens probably being those who are pacifistic but think the US will invade Iraq, those who are belligerent but think Bush will chicken out, and so on.

You'll notice the large divergence between the reference classes. They don't, actually, share any members. Well, this doesn't surprise us. Saletan, for all his snobbery about the great unwashed that live outside his zip code, has never shown himself to be a very bright bulb himself. That the odds thing continues to take up space on the Slate site is a little amazing to me, however, since Slate prides itself on running nit-picky pop sci features that knock down buncomb in other forums.

Wednesday, December 04, 2002


James and Dickens

Only a short time ago it might have been supposed that the English novel was not what the French call discutable. It had no air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself behind it-of being the expression of an artistic faith, the result of choice and comparison. I do not say it was necessarily the worse for that; it would take much more courage than I possess to intimate that the form of the novel, as Dickens and Thackeray (for instance) saw it had any taint of incompleteness. It was, however, na�f (if I may help myself out with another French word)... -- Henry James, The art of fiction.

LI, yesterday, contended that the first chapter of Our Mutual Friend could be put up against Dickens great first chapters -- that of Bleak House, of David Copperfield, and of Great Expectations. Of these, OMF is most like BH in its blending together of nature -- in the case of Bleak House, London fog; in the case of OMF, the Thames River -- and the polis. The London fog in which the bodies of the dispossessed rather bob, and become alternately trackless and to be tracked -- become, that is, objects upon which there is an interest in tracking -- makes of the first chapter of BH something on the order of the musical overture to an opera, rehearsing a set of motifs that will assume greater import later, as these motifs structure the dramatic situation of the songs. That sense of tracking and tracklessness, and the implication of texture in which the trace is supported, or erased, is even more marked in OMF. The first chapter begins on the Thames, with some unnamed thing, which by numerous hints assumes, eventually, a form of some horror to the reader, is being towed behind a boat that is powered by a girl. The unexpected conjunction of the girl, the boat, and her scavenger father gives us, who have read Dickens before, the idea that sentiment, here, will be wound by Dickens art of exaggeration, juxtaposition, and comparison into the sort of grotesque that makes Dickens novels, sometimes, seem to lurch, rather than to progress.

Henry James review of the book in the Nation is a startling shot across the bows, from its first condemnatory sentence to its last. James does not chose, at this point, to clutter his judgement with the tone of retraction and balance that becomes, later, his signature style. In this review, however, James sentences are definitely more in the way of bullets, those most unretractable of the things one might shoot across the bow, rather than, as it sometimes seems in his latter essays and fictions, the murmurs of a foggy judge on a winter night in the uncertain light of a dying fire. Here's how the review pops off -- really, in the manner of some kid on the streets of Boston bringing down a Beacon Hill bourgeois:

"Our Mutual Friend is, to our perception, the poorest of Mr. Dickens's works. And it is poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion."

After such a death sentence, James reads out a bill of particulars that alternates between the insinuation of senility and the insinuation of pandering. This is from the second graf:

"To say that the conduct of the story, with all its complications, betrays a long-practised hand, is to pay no compliment worthy the author. If this were, indeed, a compliment, we should be inclined to carry it further, and congratulate him on his success in what we should call the manufacture of fiction; for in so doing we should express a feeling that has attended us throughout the book. Seldom, we reflected, had we read a book so intensely written, so little seen, known, or felt."

There is one aspect of OMF that seems, in particular, to have stirred up the acids in James' soul -- it is the treatment of Miss Jenny Wren. Here's James' inimitable prosecutory description:

"What do we get in return for accepting Miss Jenny Wren as a possible person? This young lady is the type of a certain class of characters of which Mr. Dickens has made a speciality, and with which he has been accustomed to draw alternate smiles and tears, according as he pressed one spring or another. But this is very cheap merriment and very cheap pathos. Miss Jenny Wren is a poor little dwarf, afflicted, as she constantly reiterates, with a "bad back" and "queer legs," who makes dolls' dresses, and is for ever pricking at those with whom she converses, in the air, with her needle, and assuring them that she knows their "tricks and their manners." Like all Mr. Dickens's pathetic characters, she is a little monster; she is deformed, unhealthy, unnatural; she belongs to the troop of hunchbacks, imbeciles, and precocious children who have carried on the sentimental business in all Mr. Dickens's novels; the little Nells, the Smikes, the Paul Dombeys."

This is the most striking passage in James' review, at least if we read it in the light of James' future work. The review was written in 1865. Interestingly, when James came to write a novel on the scale of one of Dickens -- namely, Portrait of a Lady, in 1881 -- he choses, in Ralph Touchwood, the benefactor of Isabella Archer in the novel, to present us with just such an unhealthy and deformed creature, all the way down to the queer legs. In fact, James, as well as Dickens, choses to carry out all the sentimental business with a more decorous train of precocities. LI can't, at the moment, recall a definite Jamesian hunchbacks, but the mysteriously sick abound -- the supreme instance being Milly Theale, in Wings of the Dove. In the preface to that novel, written in 1902, James might almost have been thinking of his review of OMF almost forty years before, speaking of the crystal of inspiration in these terms:

"It [the idea of the story] was formed, I judged, to make the wary adventurer walk round and round it--it had in fact a charm that invited and mystified alike that attention; not being somehow what one thought of as a "frank" subject, after the fashion of some, with its elements well in view and its whole character in its face. It stood there with secrets and compartments, with possible treacheries and traps; it might have a great deal to give, but would probably ask for equal services in return, and would collect this debt to the last shilling. It involved, to begin with, the placing in the strongest light a person infirm and ill--a case sure to prove difficult and to require (vi) much handling; though giving perhaps, with other matters, one of those chances for good taste, possibly even for the play of the very best in the world, that are not only always to be invoked and cultivated, but that are absolutely to be jumped at from the moment they make a sign."

So what, our longsuffering and probably fewer readers might be asking, is your point, LI? We don't, exactly, have one today -- there are times when having a point, as my old Dad used to say, following George Wallace, just makes you pointy headed. So we are entertaining the first drafts of speculation, and without trying to weave it into the denser texture of an argument. Speculation, pursued to a certain degree of exhaustion, merely evaporates, as though it had reached some scientifically calculable temperation of cognition that determines a change in the phase of the thing. Which point has been here, we think, reached.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002


My friend S. and I were talking about Christmas movies. I mentioned a cartoon version of the Christmas Carol that I remember, still, with great affection -- the affection one feels for those tv shows of childhood in which the memory is less of the show itself than of the very experience of watching it, of being, in retrospect, that small body so consciously cocooned in the warmth, the sofa, the pjs, the accumulated stuff -- embodying a family history of purchases, breakages, hobbies taken up and abandoned, and the crude taste for the adornments of mass merchandizing characteristic of middle class America - of some room in your house that is all turned, like the minds eye gazing at the image of the self, towards the pictures that might show on the tv screen, that box's weirdly animating presence, while outside the window the clouds are gray, low and full of the odious promise of chill.

My friend S. is from Istanbul. She had never heard of the Christmas Carol.

Now, this didn't surprise me -- I had the misfortune to tell her the story of Christmas, as it is derived from Luke, once. She found the whole thing an amalgam of tedious nonsense, too long by half and unrelieved by the poetry that, for me, at least, makes the whole myth emotionally weighty. So I didn't know what she would make of the Christmas Carol. We rented an eighties version, starring George Scott as Scrooge. Scott was his usual scenery eating self -- which was all to the good, since the rest of the movie was a fat, suet pudding of theatrical Victorianism. The actors had that look of constraint as they mouthed various of the sentimental pieties Dickens attributes to his walk on characters, as though they couldn't believe it, either. Scott, who has all the good lines -- well, almost all -- the spirits of Christmas past and present also get off a boutade or two -- went through the puddingness like an electric carving knife.

Still, I was really moved. I mean, to tears, gentle tears, moved at Scrooge's immersion in the ruin of his life, and his redemption, and the way that redemption, for a brief moment, seems indissolubly connected to the redemption from misery of the poor, the working class, and the system that paid so little to so many and so much to so few.

S. was moved too. I was glad to see this.

It has been a long time since I've read Dickens, so yesterday I went hunting around for Dombey and Son, and began to read it. I've read almost all of Dickens novels at one time or another. Dombey and Son, and Little Dorrit, are the two major ones that defeat me. Reading the first chapter of Dombey and Son, I realized that it was going to defeat me again. So I turned, instead, to one of my favorites -- Our Mutual Friend. The first chapter of that novel is one of the best in all of Dickens, a writer who was very conscious of first chapters. After all, the sale of a serialized novel depends greatly on the appeal that exists, from the first, in that opening. No time for the long haul -- for the gradual winding in of your audience. I'd put that chapter against David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Great Expectations.

At the time it was published, however, Our Mutual Friend received withering blasts of criticism -- especially from the young Henry James. Tomorrow's post will be about the ferocity Dickens work aroused in James, who read it as exactly the kind of thing that would never do; and that, still, with the great reading public, did. In my opinion, James is the greatest artist of the English language novel, but Dickens is a much greater writer -- a matter I should sort out some time.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

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