Thursday, September 30, 2004

Quality Control in the Blogosphere

Who says there is no quality control in the blogosphere?

No sooner do I blunder in my Latin than classicist Mike Gilleland is all over me like a cheap suit. I hope he doesn't find the 'cheap suit' line offensive, but I had to work it in somehow. I first heard it from a chess player: "I tried the French Defense on him but before I knew it, he was all over me like a cheap suit." Being a chess player, Mike can appreciate how one can get crushed playing the French. Nevertheless, and despite all my French-bashing, the French is my preferred defense to 1. e4. By the way, Mike tells me that his surname is not French.

To be fair, Mike pointed out my mistake in a very subtle and diplomatic way. I wrote, Si vis pacem, bellum paratum, when I should have written, Si vis pacem, para bellum. 'If you want peace, prepare for war.' Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Please read the whole of Gilleland's entry which, like all of his posts, is a gem.

The one right below it points out a mistake in Hendrickson. I have been relying on the latter's Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins for some of my posts. If memory serves, this is at least the second time Gilleland has found a mistake in Hendrickson. Perhaps Mike should give us his opinion of the book as a whole.

David B. Hart on Pornography

Jeff Hodges of Korea University informed me of this article, "The Pornography Culture," by David B. Hart. An excerpt follows.

The damage that pornography can do—to minds or cultures—is not by any means negligible. Especially in our modern age of passive entertainment, saturated as we are by an unending storm of noises and images and barren prattle, portrayals of violence or of sexual degradation possess a remarkable power to permeate, shape, and deprave the imagination; and the imagination is, after all, the wellspring of desire, of personality, of character. Anyone who would claim that constant or even regular exposure to pornography does not affect a person at the profoundest level of consciousness is either singularly stupid or singularly degenerate. Nor has the availability and profusion of pornography in modern Western culture any historical precedent. And the Internet has provided a means of distribution whose potentials we have scarcely begun to grasp. It is a medium of communication at once transnational and private, worldwide and discreet, universal and immediate. It is, as nothing else before it, the technology of what Gianni Vattimo calls the “transparent society,” the technology of global instantaneity, which allows images to be acquired in a moment from almost anywhere, conversations of extraordinary intimacy to be conducted with faceless strangers across continents, relations to be forged and compacts struck in almost total secrecy, silently, in a virtual realm into which no one—certainly no parent—can intrude. I doubt that even the most technologically avant-garde among us can quite conceive how rapidly and how insidiously such a medium can alter the culture around us.

We are already, as it happens, a casually and chronically pornographic society. We dress young girls in clothes so scant and meretricious that honest harlots are all but bereft of any distinctive method for catching a lonely man’s eye. The popular songs and musical spectacles we allow our children to listen to and watch have transformed many of the classic divertissements of the bordello—sexualized gamines, frolicsome tribades, erotic spanking, Oedipal fantasy, very bad “exotic” dance—into the staples of light entertainment. The spectrum of wit explored by television comedy runs largely between the pre- and the post-coital. In short, a great deal of the diabolistic mystique that once clung to pornography—say, in the days when even Aubrey Beardsley’s scarcely adolescent nudes still suggested to most persons a somewhat diseased sensibility—has now been more or less dispelled. But the Internet offers something more disturbing yet: an “interactive” medium for pornography, a parallel world at once fluid and labyrinthine, where the most extreme forms of depravity can be cheaply produced and then propagated on a global scale, where consumers (of almost any age) can be cultivated and groomed, and where a restless mind sheltered by an idle body can explore whole empires of vice in untroubled quiet for hours on end. Even if filtering software were as effective as it is supposed to be (and, as yet, it is not), the spiritually corrosive nature of the very worst pornography is such that—one would think—any additional legal or financial burden placed upon the backs of pornographers would be welcome.

I am obviously being willfully naïve. I know perfectly well that, as a culture, we value our “liberties” above almost every other good; indeed, it is questionable at times whether we have the capacity to recognize any rival good at all. The price of these liberties, however, is occasionally worth considering. I may be revealing just how quaintly reactionary I am in admitting that nothing about our pornographic society bothers me more than the degraded and barbarized vision of the female body and soul it has so successfully promoted, and in admitting also (perhaps more damningly) that I pine rather pathetically for the days of a somewhat more chivalrous image of women. One of the high achievements of Western civilization, after all, was in finding so many ways to celebrate, elevate, and admire the feminine; while remaining hierarchical and protective in its understanding of women, of course, Christendom also cultivated—as ­perhaps no other civilization ever has—a solicitude for and a deference towards women born out of a genuine reverence for their natural and supernatural dignity. It may seem absurd even to speak of such things at present, after a century of Western culture’s sedulous effort to drain the masculine and the feminine of anything like cosmic or spiritual mystery, and now that vulgarity and aggressiveness are the common property of both sexes and often provide the chief milieu for their interactions. But it is sobering to reflect how far a culture of sexual “frankness” has gone in reducing men and women alike to a level of habitual brutishness that would appall us beyond rescue were we not, as a people, so blessedly protected by our own bad taste. The brief flourishing of the 1970s ideal of masculinity—the epicene ectomorph, sensitive, nurturing, flaccid—soon spawned a renaissance among the young of the contrary ideal of conscienceless and predatory virility. And, as imaginations continue to be shaped by our pornographic society, what sorts of husbands or fathers are being bred? And how will women continue to conform themselves—as surely they must—to our cultural expectations of them? To judge from popular entertainment, our favored images of women fall into two complementary, if rather antithetical, classes: on the one hand, sullen, coarse, quasi-masculine belligerence, on the other, pliant and wanton availability to the most primordial of male appetites—in short, viragoes or odalisks. I am fairly sure that, if I had a daughter, I should want her society to provide her with a sentimental education of richer possibilities than that.

On Falsely Locating the Difference between Deduction and Induction

One commonly hears it said that the difference between deductive and inductive inference is that the former moves from the universal to the singular, while the latter proceeds from the singular to the universal. (For a recent and somewhat surprising example, see David Bloor, "Wittgenstein as a Conservative Thinker" in The Sociology of Philosophical Knowledge, ed. Kusch (Kluwer, 2000), p. 4.) No doubt, some deductive inferences fit the universal-to-singular pattern, while some inductive inferences fit the singular-to-universal pattern.

But it does not require a lot of thought to see that this cannot be what the difference between deduction and induction consists in. An argument of the form, All As are Bs; All Bs are Cs; ergo, All As are Cs is clearly deductive, but is composed of three universal propositions. The argument does not move from the universal to the singular. So the first half of the widely bruited claim is false.

Indeed, some deductive arguments proceed from singular premises to a universal conclusion. Consider this (admittedly artificial) example: John is a fat chess player; John is not a fat chess player; ergo, All chess players are fat. This is a deductive argument, indeed it is a valid deductive argument: it is impossible to find an argument of this form that has true premises and a false conclusion. Paradoxically, any proposition follows deductively from a contradiction. So here we have a deductive argument that takes us from singular premises to a universal conclusion.

There are also deductive arguments that move from a singular premise to an existentially general, or particular, conclusion. ‘Someone is sitting’ is a particular proposition: it is neither universal nor singular. ‘I am sitting’ is singular. The first follows deductively from the second.

As for the second half of the claim, suppose that every F I have encountered thus far is a G, and that I conclude that the next F I will encounter will also be a G. That is clearly an inductive inference, but it is one that moves from a universal statement to a statement about an individual. So it is simply not the case that every inductive inference proceeds from singular cases to a universal conclusion.

What then is the difference between deduction and induction if it does not depend on the logical quantity (whether universal, particular, or singular) of premises and conclusions? The difference consists in the nature of the inferential connection asserted to obtain between premises and conclusion. Roughly speaking, a deductive argument is one in which the premises are supposed to ‘necessitate’ the conclusion, making it rationally inescapable for anyone who accepts the premises, while an inductive argument is one in which the premises are supposed merely to ‘probabilify’ the conclusion.

To be a bit more precise, a deductive argument is one that embodies the following claim: Necessarily, if all the premises are true, then the conclusion is true. The claim is that the premises ‘necessitate’ the conclusion, as opposed to rendering the conclusion probable, where the necessity attaches to the inferential link between premises and conclusion, and not to the conclusion itself. (A valid deductive argument can, but need not, have a necessary conclusion: ‘I am sitting’ necessitates ‘Someone is sitting,’ even though the latter proposition is only contingently true.) Equivalently, a deductive argument embodies the claim that it is impossible for all the premises to be true and the conclusion false. I say ‘embodies the claim’ because the claim might not be correct. If the claim is correct, then the argument is valid, and invalid otherwise. Since validity pertains to the form of deductive arguments as opposed to their content, we can define a valid (invalid) deductive argument as one whose form is such that it is impossible (possible) for any (some) argument of that form to have true premises and a false conclusion. Since the purport of inductive arguments is merely to probabilify, not necessitate, their conclusions, they are not rightly described as valid or invalid, but as more or less strong or weak, depending on the degree to which they render their conclusions probable.

Merton on Plato's Phaedo

Thomas Merton, Journal (IV, 57, 10 Oct 1960):

The superb moral and positive beauty of the Phaedo. One does not have to agree with Plato, but one must hear him. Not to listen to such a voice is unpardonable, it is like not listening to conscience or nature.

Merton's Readers

Readers of Thomas Merton, instead of taking him as an inspiration for their own quest, their own attempt at self-development, form a Merton Society! A typical human evasion and escape into the crowd.

Merton on the Monastic Journey

Thomas Merton, The Monastic Journey, p. 155:

If a solitary should one day find his way, by the grace and mercy of God, into a desert place in which he is not known, and if it is permitted to him by the divine pity to live there, and to remain unknown, he may perhaps do more good to the human race by being a solitary than he ever could have done by remaining the prisoner of the society where he was living.

The Strange Reality of Anti-Semitism

See here. Hat tip to Michael Gilleland.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Philosophusion

This is the name of a new weblog. Go here.

The Illusions of Egalitarianism

This is the title of a book by John Kekes (Cornell University Press, 2003). It looks to be one of those books that I need to assimilate thoroughly. What better way to assimilate a book than by ‘blogging’ it? Herewith, some notes on Chapter 1, with a brief foray into Chapter 2. Critical comments are in blue. I should say that I am deeply sympathetic to Kekes’ position, to the extent that I understand it. Bear this in mind when you read my critical comments below.

SUMMARY

Keke’s book is a critique of egalitarianism, a currently dominant form of liberalism. Kekes defines egalitarianism as the view that "all human beings should be treated with equal consideration unless there are good reasons against it." (p. 1) This assumes an initial presumption in favor of equal consideration. Accordingly, for the egalitarian, what needs defense is not this initial presumption, but any departure from it.

Many will take egalitarianism to be a truism. Kekes, however, denies that egalitarianism is a truism and will go on to argue that the arguments given in favor of it are unacceptable.

The issue can be focused by asking: Why should the presumption be in favor of equal treatment rather than unequal treatment given the manifold differences among people in respect of capacities and incapacities, virtues and vices, and so on? As a matter of fact, many differences are used, and rightly used, to justify unequal treatment: we don’t allow non-citizens to vote in our elections, and, among citizens, we exclude children and felons. Parents do not afford equal consideration to their own and to other people’s children. People treat friends and strangers differently. Given all the many ways in which people are unequal, and are justifiably treated unequally, why should the presumption be in favor of equal treatment? Kekes maintains that "egalitarianism is based on a cluster of overlapping illusions." (p. 2) His list includes:

  • More equality makes good lives more likely
  • Responsibility holds only for intentional actions
  • Justice requires the equalization of property
  • Everyone ought to be treated with equal consideration
  • All human beings have equal moral worth
  • Equal compassion for all is the basis of morality
  • It is immoral to have more of the basic necessities when others have less
  • Equal freedom is the fundamental political value
  • Political neutrality about the good should coexist with personal commitment to it
  • Egalitarianism is the best defense of toleration
  • The aim of political theory is to propound an ideal

Not every egalitarian is committed to all of these putative illusions, but all are to some of them.

Underpinning these illusions is what Kekes calls the optimistic faith, the assumption that "human beings are, if not basically good, at least inclined that way." (p. 4) Kekes finds the assumption in Rousseau, Kant, J. S. Mill, and John Rawls. Those who adhere to the optimistic faith do not see the origin of evil in human nature, but in corrupt political arrangements. Man is not intrinsically corrupt, but corrupted by society. Kekes believes that the optimistic faith belongs on the scrapheap alongside of the divine right of kings, the classless society, the superiority of the white race, damnation outside the church, the planned economy, and the belief in an idyllic prehistorical society. (p. 7)


In Chapter 2, Kekes gives three reasons why the optimistic faith of the egalitarian is indefensible. The first is that it is not falsifiable: "...it is held in such a way as to make it impossible to adduce evidence against it." (p. 13) Good actions are explained by saying that they spring from human nature which is inherently good. Evil actions, however, are not taken as evidence of evil in human nature, but as indicating the contingent corruption of human beings by bad or unequal political arrangements. Since all that is evil in the human condition can be assigned to bad or unequal political arrangements, there is nothing that could falsify the optimistic faith.


Kekes’ second reason for the indefensibility of the optimistic faith is that it cannot explain how political arrangements become bad or unequal in the first place. Assuming a dominant propensity for good in people, how do bad arrangements come about?


Kekes’ third reason for the indefensibility of the optimistic faith of egalitarians is that it is that it is "inconsistent" (Kekes’ word) with such facts as widespread selfishness, greed, envy, etc. (p. 14) The optimistic faith "...is a sentimental falsification that substitutes illusion for reality." (P. 14)


CRITIQUE


I’ll conclude this post with a question. How is the third reason logically compatible with the first? According to the first reason, the optimistic faith (O. F.) cannot be falsified. According to the third, the faith is falsified by various facts. Obviously, the O.F. cannot be both unfalsifiable and falsified. It looks as if Kekes must abandon either his first reason or his third reason.


There may be a problem here for Kekes and other conservatives, and a way out for the egalitarian. The latter might say that the O.F. is not a statement about human actuality, but one about human potentiality. Accordingly, what O. F. says is not that human beings are basically good in actual fact, but that they they have the potential for becoming basically and perhaps wholly good. The egalitarian might continue: The empirical facts of mass murder, slavery, etc. establish what is and has been the case, but not what must be the case. (In the First Critique, Kant says somewhere that experience teaches what is the case, but not what must be the case.) Thus the empirical facts do not prove an intrinsic corruption of human being, but leave open the possibility of a future in which human potential is realized and the good triumphs. Kekes may be assuming that the empirical facts about human behavior give us insight into human nature, into what is essential to human beings, and thus cannot be otherwise. But this raises an epistemological question: How can one know necessary truths by a posteriori means? How can one know what man must be like from facts about what he is and was like? (Compare Saul Kripke, who argued that there is a posteriori knowledge of natural necessities.)


The egalitarian might argue against Kekes as follows: (1) The O.F. is not a statement about actuality, but about potentiality or possibility. (2) If X is not actual, it does not follow that X is not possible. Therefore, (3) The facts about actual human evil do not refute O.F.; the former are not, pace Kekes, logically inconsistent with the latter.


Here is another way to approach the problem. For Kekes, O.F. is "illusory," a "sentimental falsification." (p. 14 et passim) As an illusory idea or ideal, O.F. cannot represent a genuine possibility, something attainable by human (individual or collective) effort. But how can Kekes show that O.F. is not a genuine possibility? Presumably not by pointing to past and present facts. What is the case does not prove what must be the case, and what is not the case does not prove what cannot be the case. Of course, Kekes might insist that it is an excellent induction that the future will be like the past, and that human bad behavior with continue, and take this as indicating something about human nature. In other words, he could take the regularity of behavior as being grounded in, and explained by, an invariant human nature with an invariant propensity for evil along with a propensity for good.


But this leads to a stand-off, rather than a decisive refutation of the egalitarian. This suggests that Kekes himself is adhering to an indemonstrable faith – call it the pessimistic faith or the non-optimistic faith, or the realistic faith – that human nature includes an intrinsic element of corruption that will thwart every egalitarian attempt at amelioration, and indeed will cause those attempts to bring about a worse state of affairs that the one in which we now find ourselves.


Lakoff on Conservatives and Liberals

George Lakoff, from an interview:

The whole idea of conservative doctrine is that some people are better than others, that some people deserve more. To conservatives, if you're poor it's because you deserve it, you're not disciplined enough to get ahead. Conservative doctrine requires that there be an elite: the people who thrive in the free market have more money, and they should. Progressives say, "No, that's not fair. Maybe some should have more money, but no one should live in poverty. Everybody who works deserves to have a reasonable standard of living for their work." These are ideas that are progressive or liberal ideas, and progressives aren't getting them out there enough.

What progressives are promoting is not elite at all. Progressives ought to be talking about the conservative elite. They shouldn't be complaining about "tax cuts for the rich," they should be complaining about "tax cuts for the conservative elite," because that's who's getting them.


The Hitler Channel

Some of us call the History Channel the ‘Hitler Channel.’ Why? Well, whenever one tunes in, chances are one will be viewing a program about Hitler’s women, about Josef Mengele, about Operation Barbarossa, about Erwin Rommel’s Afrikakorps, etc. This is good insofar as none of us should ever forget the depths of depravity into which humans can sink. Notice, I said ‘humans,’ not ‘Germans.’ Though it may be that there is a certain authoritarian strain in Germans that specially equips them for goose-steeping behind dictators, all of us, I’m afraid, are potential Nazis, potential Commies, and potential Islamo-fascists. (Recall the case of that nice boy ‘Jihad Johnny’ Walker from the Bay area?) Only by fortunate circumstances, individual moral vigilance, and the grace of God do any of us escape descent into barbarism.

Although it is good that the memory of Nazi horrors be kept alive, on the History Channel and elsewhere, it is not good that there is no comparable coverage of the crimes of Communism. There is coverage of the latter, but no comparable coverage: why are there no Hollywood movies about Communist crimes like Schindler’s List or Sophie’s Choice? The predominance of lefties in Hollywood is of course a large part of the explanation.

Idle Talk

From Franz Kafka: The Diaries 1910-1923, ed. Max Brod, Schocken 1948, p. 199:

In the next room my mother is entertaining the L. couple. They are talking about vermin and corns. (Mrs. L. has six corns on each toe.) It is easy to see that there is no real progress made in conversations of this sort. It is information that will be forgotten again by both and that even now proceeds along in self-forgetfulness without any sense of responsibility.

I have read this passage many times, and what delights me each time is the droll understatement of it: "there is no real progress made in conversations of this sort." No indeed. There is no progress because the conversations are not seriously about anything worth talking about. There is no Verantwortlichkeit (responsibility): the talk does not answer (antworten) to anything real in the world or anything real in the interlocutors. It is jaw-flapping for its own sake, mere linguistic behavior which, if it conveys anything, conveys: ‘I like you, you like me, and everything’s fine.’

The interlocutors float along in the inauthenticity (Uneigentlichkeit) of what Heidegger calls das Man, the ‘they self.’ Compare Heidegger’s analysis of idle talk (Gerede) in Sein und Zeit (1927), sec. 35.

Is War the Answer?

That depends on the question. When it was a question of stopping Hitler, war was the answer. The Nazis were not stopped by appeasement, or rational persuasion, but by a massive application of brute force. Later on, when it was question of putting the Soviet empire out of its misery, it was largely the resoluteness of Reagan and Thatcher, together with an arms build-up, that did the job. The threat of war prevented war. If I remember my Latin, Si vis pacem, bellum paratum: if you want peace be prepared for war.

It is pacifist silliness to think that genuine peace can be had by appeasement, or weakness, or capitulation. But not only is pacifism silly, it is immoral. For by failing to oppose evildoers, appeasers promote the spread of evil. Pacifists love to say that violence only begets more violence. But the constant repetition of a falsehood does not transform it into a truth. It is simply false that violence begets more violence. The violence directed against Saddam Hussein and his notorious sons Uday and Qusay has ended the violence of their regime once and for all. An even clearer example is the horrific violence wreaked upon Nazi Germany by the Allies. With the exception of a few ineffectual neo-Nazis, the Nazi scourge has been eliminated from the face of the earth -- not by appeasement, but by violence.

Sometimes we need to give war a chance.

Crude Conservatives

It is no surprise to find crude liberals. After all, liberals are big on toleration, including toleration of every manner of bad behavior. Indeed, some of them are so tolerant that they tolerate those with no respect for the principle of toleration. This is part of the explanation of why they tend to be soft on terrorism. And, since their toleration extends to the toleration of illogical thinking, they cannot see that to tolerate everything is to tolerate the rejection of the principle of toleration.

It is more of a surprise to find crude conservatives. Tucker Carlson on C-Span a while back used the ‘F’ word. Using it, he detracted from an otherwise excellent presentation, cheapening it, but also removing some of the force from a word that ought to be reserved for very special occasions. One occasionally meets people who need to be blasted with the strongest language one can muster, just as there are some folks who need shootin’ – as Clint Eastwood might put it. But just as you should never shoot a man who doesn’t absolutely need shootin’, you should never verbally blast a man who doesn’t absolutely need blastin’. And just as you can’t properly shoot a man without the right caliber of ammo, you can’t properly deliver a proper verbal blast if formerly strong words have been weakened by overuse.

So there are two reasons to avoid the overuse of harsh language. One is that it demeans its users, cheapens debate, and makes the world uglier than it already is. The second reason is that the overuse of harsh language, while coarsening its users and polluting the social atmosphere, drains these words of the punch they need to do their job on the occasions when it is appropriate to use them.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Student Relativism

Keith Burgess-Jackson has an interesting post on what I call 'student relativism.' As I see it, SR is not so much a philosophical theory as a form of psychic insulation. An outgrowth of adolescent rebelliousness, it says: 'You can't teach me anything because truth is relative; we all have our own truths.'

Not being a philosophical theory, SR cannot be refuted in the usual ways. It is a pathology that must be outgrown. Unfortunately, we live in a society in which adolescence in many extends into the twenties, thirties, and beyond. Some remain life-long adolescents in their mentality. Many of these characters are found on the Left.

A Journal Entry on Princess Di

31 August 1997. Princess Diana is dead at 36, killed last night in a car crash in a Parisian tunnel, caused by an attempted evasion of pursuing paparazzi. Her playboy boyfriend also dead. Impermanence is swift (Dogen), and human cupidity limitless. Inspires me to be more continent, more circumspect, more contemplative.

My life is a flame that can be blown out at any moment.

Since our lives can be snuffed out in a second, and since there are indications that there is a WAY OUT, we must above all investigate whether there is, after all, a WAY OUT, or whether perhaps there is NO EXIT. Simply to assume one or the other would be not only unphilosophical , but would demonstrate a strange unconcern with one's own ultimate welfare.

Mounier on Education

People without idealism are spiritually dead. But so many idealists live innocent of reality- contact in a world of earnest cliches. Emmanuel Mounier (Personalist Manifesto, pp. 111-112) tells us that "Education does not aim essentially at a profession, nor at social prestige."

This is right, but tiny is the number of those who can and will live in accordance with it. It is perhaps a silly idealism to think it could ever be otherwise.

Merton's Move from the Cenobitic to the Eremitic

In his forties, driven by a quest for inner purification, Thomas Merton begins to move away from the cenobitical to the eremitical, from the communal life to the life of the hermit.

Journal (III, 346): "I really want to live alone in simplicity and devote myself to thought and prayer." "Renounce all comfort, the reputation, the security, the American friendships which bind me here...." "To cease to be famous and let myself be forgotten, very gladly." "Break useless contacts."

Merton and Materialism

In his Journal (III, 238), Thomas Merton complains about materialistic America and "The overwhelming welter of meaningless objects, goods, activities. . ." but nonetheless returns to his monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky laden down with "a pile of paper-back books, the New Republic, Dissent, and even, with shame, Time...."

You see, Tom, without capitalism, none of this would be available, none of the trash, but also none of the good stuff: no freedom to inquire, to read anything and everything, to publish and enjoy a readership, to make a fool of yourself, or to pursue enlightenment in your beautiful monastery, healthy and well-fed, free of grinding poverty.

Laudator Temporis Acti

I share Michael Gilleland's contempt for 'scholars' who waste their time and intelligence on the likes of Michael Jackson, the crotch-grabbing, one-man melting-pot. What's next, a conference on his sister, she of the velcro-accessible mammaries?

Monday, September 27, 2004

AnalPhilosopher Heads for the Big-Time

I see that Keith Burgess-Jackson has made it onto Michelle Malkin's blogroll. Congratulations, Keith! You deserve it.

I do hope, however, that as Dr. Keith approaches the A-list, he doesn't forget us poor schleps who daily perform our humble labors, in obscurity, in the nether reaches of the blogosphere.

Overeducation

Dennis Mangan has a good post on overeducation. It reminded me of a graduate student I once had and with whom I became friends. He told me once that after he finished high school he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and get a job with the railroad. His mother, however, wanted something ‘better’ for her son. She wanted him to go to college, which he did, in the desultory fashion of many. He ended up declaring a major in psychology and graduating. After spending some time in a monastery, perhaps also at the instigation of his Irish mother, and still not knowing quite what to do with himself, he was accepted into an M.A. program in philosophy, which is where I met him. After goofing around for several more years, he took a job as a social worker, a job which did not suit him. Last I saw him he was in his mid-thirties and pounding nails.

His complaint to me was that, had he followed his natural bent, he would have had fifteen or so years of job seniority with the railroad, a good paycheck, and a house half paid for. Instead, he wasted years on studies for which he had no real inclination, and no real talent. He had no discernible interest in the life of the mind, and like most working class types could not take it seriously. If you are from the working class, you will know what I mean: ‘real’ work must involve grunting and sweating and schlepping heavy loads.

'Overeducation’ is perhaps not the right word for cases like this. Strictly speaking, one cannot be overeducated since there is and can be no end to true education. The word is from the Latin e-ducere, to draw out, and there can be no end to the process of actualizing the potential of a mind with an aptitude for learning. Perhaps the right word is ‘over-credentialed.’ It is clear that what most people want is not an education, but a credential that will gain them admittance to a certain social and/or economic status. 'Education’ and cognates are euphemisms.

John Ray 'Deconstructs' George Lakoff

Dr. John Ray writes:

I saw your good observations on Lakoff. I did something similar a while back. I also linked to you on Education Watch last Friday.

BV: Ray's piece is similar, but much, much better. Check it out.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Trilling on Orwell on the Liberal Intelligentsia

In preparation for a trip next year to Spain, I am boning up on things Spanish. Hence my recent references to Unamuno, Zubiri, and the Spanish Civil War. An essential text anent the latter is George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. The 1952 American edition I am holding in my hands contains a superb introduction by Lionel Trilling which is missing in later editions. Here are some quotations from it:

We may say that it was on his affirmation of the middle-class virtues that Orwell based his criticism of the liberal intelligentsia. The characteristic error of the middle-class intellectual of modern times is his tendency to abstractness and absoluteness, his reluctance to connect idea with fact, especially with personal fact. (pp. xv-xvi)

...The gist of Orwell’s criticism of the liberal intelligentsia was that they refused to understand the conditioned nature of life. (p. xvi)

...These men [H.G. Wells, et al.] had trained the political intelligence of the intelligentsia, who now, in their love of abstractions, in their wish to repudiate the anachronisms of their own emotions, could not conceive of directing upon Russia anything like the same stringency of criticism they used upon their own nation. Orwell had the simple courage to point out that the pacifists preached their doctrine under condition of the protection of the British navy, and that, against Germany and Russia, Ghandi’s passive resistance would have been of no avail. (p. xvii)

Trilling now quotes Orwell:

The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power.

During the past twenty years the negative faineant outlook which has been fashionable among the English left-wingers, the sniggering of the intellectuals at patriotism and physical courage, the persistent effort to chip away at English morale and spread a hedonistic, what-do-I-get-out-of-it attitude to life, has done nothing but harm. (p. xvii)

Back to Trilling:

...Toward the end of his life Orwell discovered another reason for his admiration of the middle-class virtues and his criticism of the intelligentsia. Walter Bagehot used to speak of the political advantages of stupidity, meaning by the word a concern for one’s own private material interests as a political motive which was preferable to an intellectual, theoretical interest. Orwell, it may be said, came to respect the old bourgeois virtues because they were stupid – that is, because they resisted the power of abstract ideas. . . . he began to fear that the commitment to abstract ideas could be far more maleficent than the commitment to the gross materiality of property had ever been. The very stupidity of things has something human about it, something meliorative, something even liberating. Together with the stupidity of the old unthinking virtues it stands against the ultimate and absolute power which the unconditioned idea can develop. The essential point of Nineteen Eighty-Four is just this, the danger of the ultimate and absolute power which mind can develop when it frees itself from conditions, from the bondage of things and history.

But this, as I say, is a late aspect of Orwell’s criticism of intellectuality. Through the greater part of his literary career his criticism was simpler and less extreme. It was as simple as this: that intellectuals did not think and that they did not really love the truth. (pp. xvii-xix.)

Saturday, September 25, 2004

From the Mail: Pointlessness of Debate?

John Gallagher writes:

As much as I enjoy debating with my conservative friends, I realize that it is, by and large, a waste of time. No one will convince anyone that they are wrong. Hell, we can't even agree on factual matters half the time, such as whether there is any proven meaningful connection between Iraq and Al Queda. Sources that I might present are usually dismissed as from the "liberal media", sources that they present, I am inclined to dismiss as from sources that are conservatively biased. There is no common ground on which to argue constructively. I am now convinced that liberals and conservative occupy alternative universes that happen to share the same space-time.


BV: I don't consider debate to be a waste of time even if the interlocutors cannot convince each other. Speaking for myself, I am constantly refining and revising my arguments and seeing things that I missed before. It sometimes happens that I modify my views. I see debate as a way of testing one's views.

As I see it, there are three main reasons to front one's ideas. (1) To persuade fence-sitters and bring them over to one's side. (2) To reinforce the 'already converted' in the tenets of the 'true faith' and provide them with further 'ammunition.' (3) To oppose and check those that one takes to have incorrect views and in so doing further refine one's position.

There is also a meta-level consideration. I am fascinated by, and want to understand, the nature of disagreement as such. So even as I argue P to John's ~P, I am reflecting on this diagreement as such and wondering whether it might rest on false assumptions we are both making, or some deeply ingrained antinomian structure of the discursive mind, and so on. Maybe old Sextus Empiricus was right after all, and the correct way to live involves a universal epoche of all doxastic formations.

Review of Collier and Horowitz, eds. The Anti-Chomsky Reader

Go here.

Verbal Inflation/Deflation

Why use ‘reference’ as a verb when ‘refer’ is available? Why not save bytes? Why say that Poindexter referenced Wittgenstein when you can say that he referred to the philosopher? After all, we do not say that X citationed Y, but that X cited Y. (And please don’t confuse ‘site,’ ‘sight,’ and ‘cite.’)

You will not appear learned to the truly learned if you use ‘reference’ as a verb; you will appear pseudo-learned or pretentious. Of course, if enough people do it, it will become accepted. But what is accepted ought not be confused with the acceptable in the normative sense of the latter term. Admittedly, using ‘reference’ as a verb is no big deal. But it is uneconomical, and linguistic bloat, like other forms, is best avoided. This rule, like all my rules and recommendations, is to be understood ceteris paribus. Thus there may be an occasion on which a bit of bloat is what is needed for some rhetorical purpose. Good writing cannot be reduced to the mechanical application of a set of rules. You won’t find an algorithm for it. Language Nazis like me need to remind ourselves not to become too pedantic and persnickety.

Curiously enough, the same people who are likely to engage in verbal inflation will also fall for the opposite mistake. They will speak of Nietzsche quotes when they mean Nietzsche quotations. ‘Quote’ is a verb; ‘quotation’ a noun. ‘Nietzsche quotes’ is a sentence; ‘Nietzsche quotations’ is not. Perhaps I should be grateful that no one, so far, has used ‘quotation’ as a verb: Poindexter referenced Nietszche in his footnotes, and quotationed him in his text.

Now consider ‘criticize,’ ‘criticism,’ and ‘critique.’ One verb and two nouns. Don’t say: She critiqued my paper; say she criticized it. And don’t confuse a criticism with a critique. A correspondent once made a pusillanimous criticism of an article of mine, but referred to it as a critique. That’s a case of objectionable verbal inflation.

On a more substantive note, realize that to criticize is not to oppose or contradict, but to sift, to assay, to separate the good from the bad, the beautiful from the ugly, the true from the false, the demonstrated from the undemonstrated and the indemonstrable.

Note also that the Left does not own critique. There is critique from the Right, from the Left, and from the Middle. Resist the hijacking of semantic vehicles. We need them to get to the truth, which is not owned by anyone.








On 'Boning Up'

A friend from graduate student days once opined that the expression ‘to bone up’ originated from the notion of getting one’s bone, or manly member, up over a subject-matter, i.e., getting aroused by it. He delivered himself of this opinion half-facetiously on the occasion of my mentioning that I had to ‘bone up’ on my Descartes in preparation for a meeting with one Veronique, an exotic Descartes scholar with whom I was reading Meditationes de Prima Philosophiae. It is clear that my friend’s etymology falls into the pseudo category.

Turning to Hendrickson for enlightenment, we find this:

It [‘bone up on’] was first used in the 1860s by collegians, and they apparently first spelled the bone in the phrase Bohn, probably referring to the Bohn translations of the classics, or "trots," that they used in studying. British scholar Henry George Bohn (1796-1884) was the author and publisher of many books, including the "Classical Library." (Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, p. 91)
Lest anyone get carried away, Professor Bohn bears no responsibility for ‘bonehead’ or ‘pull a boner.’ (Cf. Hendrickson, p. 91)

No Sniveling!

Times were often very rough for me but I can honestly say that I never felt abused or put-upon. I never felt, as some have, that I deserved special treatment from life, and I do not recall ever complaining that things were not better. Often I wished they were, and often found myself wishing for some sudden windfall that would enable me to stop wandering and working and settle down to simply writing. Yet it was necessary to be realistic. Nothing of the kind was likely to happen, and of course, nothing did.

I never found any money; I never won any prizes; I was never helped by anyone, aside from an occasional encouraging word – and those I valued. No fellowships or grants came my way, because I was not eligible for any and in no position to get anything of the sort. I never expected it to be easy.

Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man, Bantam, 1989, p. 180.

Framing the Issue of Framing

Brandon over at Siris has a very good post on framing.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Nietzsche, Truth, and Pragmatism

What is Nietzsche's doctrine of truth? Whatever it is, it is not a pragmatic theory. Or at least that is what this post will argue.

It is tempting to read Nietzsche as a sort of pragmatist about truth: what we call 'truths' are conventions established in accordance with the pragmatic or instrumental considerations that make up the conditions of our life. (See R. Schacht, Nietzsche, RKP, 1983, pp. 72-82.) Numerous passages can be cited in support of this pragmatic interpretation, e.g., "The criterion of truth resides in the feeling of power." (WP #534) This could be construed as saying that a belief is true if and only if it is life-enhancing or life-promoting, where "life-promoting" does not mean merely life-preserving, but something like life-augmenting. Nietzsche frequently remarks that the will to power is not a mere will to survival. Hence on this criterion he would be saying more than that true beliefs are true in virtue of their survival value. But if this is a sort of pragmatism, it is not a pragmatism along the classical lines of William James or C.S. Peirce. There are at least three reasons for this.

There is first of all Nietzsche's repeated insistence that "untruth is a condition of life." (BG&E sec. 4) This makes it difficult to assimilate Nietzsche to the Jamesian view that "the true is whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief..." (Pragmatism, p. 76); that the true is "only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as 'the right' is only the expedient in the way of our behaving..." (p. 222) For Nietzsche seems to be saying precisely the opposite. The sense of "untruth is a condition of life" seems to be that the holding of false beliefs is a necessary condition of human flourishing. Thus in his polemic against Kant (BG & E, sec 11) Nietzsche does not deny that there are such synthetic a priori judgments as that every event is caused; his claim is rather that "such judgments must be believed to be true, for the sake of the preservation of creatures like ourselves; though they might, of course, be false judgments for all that!" He goes on to say that they are false, and that although we "have no right" to them, they belong nevertheless to the "perspective optics of life."

Logic and mathematics are also falsifications of the world. "Logic...depends on presuppositions with which nothing in the real world corresponds, for example on the presupposition that there are identical things..." (HAH 16) The radicality of this should not be missed: Nietzsche is saying that nothing in the real world is self-identical at a time or over time. All such identities are linguistic fictions that falsify the real world. If so, the concept of number is a fiction, and with it the whole of mathematics. (HAH 22)

Nietzsche's position thus seems to be that there are certain beliefs (e.g., 'Every event has a cause,''Everthing is self-identical') that are perspectivally true but non-perspectivally (absolutely) false. The holding of such non-perspectivally false beliefs is necessary for our preservation and flourishing, and to this extent good for us. The difference from James' pragmatism should now be obvious. Whereas James identifies "the true" without qualification with the "the good in the way of belief," i.e., what it is good for us to believe, Nietzsche identifies the perspectivally true with what it is good for us to believe. This implies that, while for James it is the true that is good for us to believe, for Nietzsche it is the false that is good for us to believe. This, I take it, is the sense of "untruth is a condition of life."

A second reason why Nietzsche is not a pragmatist is that he does not share the typical pragmatist faith that objectivity is attainable at the ideal limit of inquiry. James speaks in this connection of the absolutely and unalterably true as the "ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge." (pp. 222-3) Peirce waxes eloquent about the "great hope" "embodied in the conception of truth and reality," namely that truth is "the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate..." (Philosophical Writings of Peirce, p. 38)

Recently, Hilary Putnam has sounded this theme: the true is what is rationally acceptable at the ideal limit of inquiry. (Reason, Truth and History, p. 55) But surely Nietzsche has neither faith nor hope in the ultimate convergence of all perspectives at the ideal limit of inquiry. He would most likely see such an epistemological eschaton as a secular substitute for a soteriological eschaton: yet another vestige of Christianity that cannot survive the death of God.

Thirdly, and most fundamentally, Nietzsche would deny that convergent truth and objectivity are even values, something that James, Peirce and Putnam take for granted. This is what makes his scepticism so radical and so fascinating. Nietzsche doesn't merely question whether nonperspectival truth is attainable; he questions whether the attaining of it would be good for us. His attitude toward truth is similar to his attitude toward Christianity. His point is not that truth would be a good thing if it could be had, but that it is not a good thing whether or not it can be had. The related point against Christianity is not that the values it enshrines cannot be realized, but that these values are anti-life, hence ought not be realized.


On Used Books, Student Underlining,and Marginalia

My library extends through each room of my house, except the bathrooms. (I suspect that in the average household, where the only purpose of reading could be to inspire excretion, it is the other way around.) If I weren’t pro-Israel I would say that my library commits territorial aggression against my wife’s ‘Palestinian’ books; her few shelves are either occupied territories or under threat of occupation. My bibliomaniacal blogger-buddies Mangan and Gilleland would turn green with envy if ever they laid eyes on my library. So I shall have to protect them from descent into this, arguably the deadliest, of the seven deadly sins.

Many of my books were acquired on the cheap from used bookstores in college towns such as Boston-Cambridge and Bloomington. I used to really clean up when disgruntled graduate students packed it in, dumping costly libraries purchased with daddy’s money into the used book dens.

Among the used books I scored were plenty of copies of philosophical classics used in undergraduate courses. I always used to get a kick out of the marginalia, if you want to call them that. Mostly it was the absence of marginalia that caught my eye, an absence corresponding to the paucity of thought with which the reading was done. The rare marginalium was usually pathetic. Here is a passage from Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (1794):


Revelation is a communication of something which the person to whom that thing is revealed did not know before. For if I have done a thing or seen it done, it needs no revelation to tell me I have done it or seen it, nor to enable me to tell it or to write it. (LLA, p. 13)

That’s not the best writing in the world, but the thought is clear enough. Our brilliant student’s comment? "Word Play!" ‘Word Play!’ is ever on the lips of boneheads who cannot or will not comprehend any piece of well-constructed prose. The litany of the blockhead: Wordplay! Semantics! Hairsplitting!

One good thing about student marginalia was that it never extended very far since the reading never extended very far: the obscene magic marker underlining typically ceased three or four pages into the text.

One of the many drawbacks of teaching is that one could never get the little effers to do the reading especially if one used primary sources, refusing to dumb things down with comic books, A/V 'aids,' etc.: once they saw that genuine effort was demanded, they wimped out. All my preaching about being athletes of the mind availed nothing, falling on dead ears, like pearls before swine. Or am I being too harsh?

Harsh or not, it is blissful to repose in my Bradleyan reclusivity, far from the unreality of the classroom.


Thursday, September 23, 2004

Pipes on Profiling

Daniel Pipes here makes a case for profiling.

By the End of the Century Europe Will Be Islamic

That's according to Bernard Lewis. See here (in German).

Lakoff on How Conservatives Use Language to Dominate

I am grateful to John Gallagher for sending me this link to an interview with George Lakoff.
I reproduce some of it below, with my comments in blue.

Interviewer asks: Back up for a second and explain what you mean by the strict father and nurturant parent frameworks.

Lakoff responds: Well, the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better.

BV: Shades of Rousseau. People are intrinsically good; society is the problem.

Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.

BV: I fail to see how any of this "follows" (Lakoff's word) from his premise that children are born good and can be made better by their parents. How does he justify the leap from particular parents who nurture their children to Big Government as the 'parent' of all of us?There is no justification at all. It is aus der Pistole geschossen, shot out of a pistol, to borrow a phrase from Hegel.

And notice all the wonderful things that Lakoff associates with Big Government all the while ignoring the fact that the latter is inimical to some of them. For example, civil liberties are endangered by Big Government -- as 'progressives' will themselves point out when it comes to criticizing John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act.

The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good.

BV: Partially correct, but unfair. Lakoff is engaging in a silly oppositionalism. Conservatives don't say the opposite of what 'progressives' say: they don't say that children are born bad, but that they are born with deep-rooted tendencies to BOTH good and evil, and that it is therefore naive and dangerous to assume that they are naturally good.

The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong.

BV: Biased. Tells his wife what to do? Then why are Tammy and Michelle conservatives? I don't reckon that Michelle lets her husband tell her what to do.

The only way to do that is through painful discipline — physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline.

BV: More bias. The only way? No, but a way that is sometimes necessary.

The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.

'Taxes are what you pay to be an American, to live in a civilized society that is democratic and offers opportunity, and where there's an infrastructure that has been paid for by previous taxpayers.'
-George Lakoff


So, project this onto the nation and you see that to the right wing, the good citizens are the disciplined ones — those who have already become wealthy or at least self-reliant — and those who are on the way. Social programs, meanwhile, "spoil" people by giving them things they haven't earned and keeping them dependent.

BV: Surely this is largely true.

The government is there only to protect the nation, maintain order, administer justice (punishment), and to provide for the promotion and orderly conduct of business. In this way, disciplined people become self-reliant. Wealth is a measure of discipline. Taxes beyond the minimum needed for such government take away from the good, disciplined people rewards that they have earned and spend it on those who have not earned it.

From that framework, I can see why Schwarzenegger appealed to conservatives.
Exactly. In the strict father model, the big thing is discipline and moral authority, and punishment for those who do something wrong. That comes out very clearly in the Bush administration's foreign and domestic policy. With Schwarzenegger, it's in his movies: most of the characters that he plays exemplify that moral system. He didn't have to say a word! He just had to stand up there, and he represents Mr. Discipline. He knows what's right and wrong, and he's going to take it to the people. He's not going to ask permission, or have a discussion, he's going to do what needs to be done, using force and authority. His very persona represents what conservatives are about.

You've written a lot about "tax relief" as a frame. How does it work? The phrase "Tax relief" began coming out of the White House starting on the very day of Bush's inauguration. It got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for "relief." For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going.

BV: A reliever is a hero? Quite a stretch.

So, add "tax" to "relief" and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain. "Tax relief" has even been picked up by the Democrats. I was asked by the Democratic Caucus in their tax meetings to talk to them, and I told them about the problems of using tax relief. The candidates were on the road. Soon after, Joe Lieberman still used the phrase tax relief in a press conference. You see the Democrats shooting themselves in the foot.

BV: This is bullshit. Taxes are a burden, and we naturally speak of being relieved of burdens. There is no call to bring in heroes and villains. 'Tax relief' is an innocuous phrase. It does not beg any questions, or import any bias, or betray any 'spin.'

A typical leftist, Lakoff just assumes without any attempt at proof that the individual wealth-producer must justify his keeping of his wealth. But it is the other way around: the government must justify its taking of his wealth, often for purposes that the individual finds morally offensive.

So what should they be calling it? It's not just about what you call it, if it's the same "it." There's actually a whole other way to think about it. Taxes are what you pay to be an American,

BV: So before 3 February 1913, when the 16th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, the amendment that ushered in the income tax, Americans were not Americans?

to live in a civilized society that is democratic and offers opportunity, and where there's an infrastructure that has been paid for by previous taxpayers. This is a huge infrastructure. The highway system, the Internet, the TV system, the public education system, the power grid, the system for training scientists — vast amounts of infrastructure that we all use, which has to be maintained and paid for. Taxes are your dues — you pay your dues to be an American. In addition, the wealthiest Americans use that infrastructure more than anyone else, and they use parts of it that other people don't. The federal justice system, for example, is nine-tenths devoted to corporate law. The Securities and Exchange Commission and all the apparatus of the Commerce Department are mainly used by the wealthy. And we're all paying for it.
So taxes could be framed as an issue of patriotism.

BV: It would take a long time to respond to this. I would question the dues analogy for one thing. We would have to delve into empirical questions, such as how much money does the SEC consume as opposed to the food stamp program, which the wealthy do not make us of? And so on. And let's not forget who pays the taxes. It's the rich who pay the lions share of the taxes. If taxes are dues, then maybe they should join a different club.

It is an issue of patriotism! Are you paying your dues, or are you trying to get something for free at the expense of your country? It's about being a member. People pay a membership fee to join a country club, for which they get to use the swimming pool and the golf course. But they didn't pay for them in their membership. They were built and paid for by other people and by this collectivity. It's the same thing with our country — the country as country club, being a member of a remarkable nation. But what would it take to make the discussion about that? Every Democratic senator and all of their aides and every candidate would have to learn how to talk about it that way. There would have to be a manual. Republicans have one. They have a guy named Frank Luntz, who puts out a 500-page manual every year that goes issue by issue on what the logic of the position is from the Republican side, what the other guys' logic is, how to attack it, and what language to use.

What are some other examples of issues that progressives should try to reframe?
There are too many examples, that's the problem. The so-called energy crisis in California should have been called Grand Theft. It was theft, it was the result of deregulation by Pete Wilson, and Davis should have said so from the beginning.

BV: Win by linguistic hijacking!

Or take gay marriage, which the right has made a rallying topic. Surveys have been done that say Americans are overwhelmingly against gay marriage. Well, the same surveys show that they also overwhelmingly object to discrimination against gays. These seem to be opposite facts, but they're not. "Marriage" is about sex. When you say "gay marriage," it becomes about gay sex, and approving of gay marriage becomes implicitly about approving of gay sex. And while a lot of Americans don't approve of gay sex, that doesn't mean they want to discriminate against gay people. Perfectly rational position. Framed in that way, the issue of gay marriage will get a lot of negative reaction.

BV: Here Lakoff the leftist displays the characteristic elitism of the Left. He thinks the folks are stupid and cannot grasp the issue of gay marriage. The folks think that marriage is about sex?

But what if you make the issue "freedom to marry," or even better, "the right to marry"? That's a whole different story. Very few people would say they did not support the right to marry who you choose. But the polls don't ask that question, because the right wing has framed that issue.

BV: Be serious! The issue is not freedom to marry. The issue is whether or not society should sanction 'marriages' between people of the same sex. 'Gay marriage' describes the issue accurately, whereas 'freedom to marry' obfuscates the issue.

One can see from this how leftists are out to win at all costs. Lakoff simply wants a formulation that allows his side to win regardless of whether or not that formulation accurately labels the issue in question.

Do any of the Democratic Presidential candidates grasp the importance of framing?

BV: Call it 'verbal obfuscation' rather than 'framing.' Don't posture as if you are making a contribution to lingustics here when what you are doing is purely ideological.

None. They don't get it at all. But they're in a funny position. The framing changes that have to be made are long-term changes. The conservatives understood this in 1973. By 1980 they had a candidate, Ronald Reagan, who could take all this stuff and run with it. The progressives don't have a candidate now who understands these things and can talk about them. And in order for a candidate to be able to talk about them, the ideas have to be out there. You have to be able to reference them in a sound bite. Other people have to put these ideas into the public domain, not politicians. The question is, How do you get these ideas out there? There are all kinds of ways, and one of the things the Rockridge Institute is looking at is talking to advocacy groups, which could do this very well. They have more of a budget, they're spread all over the place, and they have access to the media.


The Pajamaheddin

For a good TCS article on the blogosphere and the pajamaheddin, go here. A tip of the hat to Bill Keezer. In case anyone is interested, I haven't worn pajamas since I was eight years old or so. I sleep stark, staring, bare nekkid. Same when I nap: if you are going to nap at all, why not do it right? I blog in the modern-day equivalent of a loincloth.

Girding My Loins for Battle

With Tammy on one arm, and Michelle on the other, I am ready to enter the fray.

Two Rules for the Acquisition of Books

Rule 1: Never buy a book you haven’t read.

Rule 2: Never buy a book you will read only once.

On Books

A book is a man at his best. Who knows what Plato was like in the flesh? Maybe he suffered from halitosis. Perhaps he was unbearably domineering. But in his books I have him at my beck and call, for instruction, uplift, or just to keep the pre-Socratics from improperly fraternizing with Aristotle.

Each book on my shelves is a window, a window opening out upon a world. From Aristotle to Zubiri, window after window, world upon world . . .

Louis L'Amour and His Library

My library is not simply an accumulation of books. Each book has its reason for being there, and there is no deadwood on those shelves. Those I have are what I believe to be the best in their field, and if not that, they at least have something of value to offer. I have no book I could not read again with profit, and most of them require rereading. Occasionally, when not too pressed to get on with a story, I will go along the shelves, take down a half-dozen books, and just browse through them.

In my books, men long dead, such as Aristotle, Maimonides, Josephus, and Ibn Khaldun, offer their thoughts freely. . . .

Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man, Bantam, 1989, p. 184.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Opinions and Peace of Soul

Dennis Mangan writes:

G. C. Lichtenberg said that the only thing necessary for peace of soul is to have no opinions whatever, and it is often very tempting to go that route. I've agonized at times over the effect something I've written is going to have on someone, and I have not always been very diplomatic in language. So for now I will just carry on, and hope that I learn from my mistakes as I go.

Being a logic-chopper (better than being an Islamo-headchopper!), I cannot resist submitting Lichtenberg's aphorism to analysis. I think it is just false. Having no opinions is sufficient, but not necessary, for peace of soul. One can hold and express opinions and have peace of soul as well. Case in point, me. When I meditate successfully, I flush all discursive formations (that includes opinions) from my mind. I attain peace of soul, albeit of a somewhat low grade. But I still have all the opinions that I have worked out, including opinions about meditation, its usefulness, etc. -- its just that they are being held dispositionally rather than occurrently. I may not be en-acting them, but they are there to be en-acted.

And when one is not meditating, one can still hold opinions in a manner consistent with peace of soul by holding the opinions in a detached way. Such detachment is not easy to achieve, but it can be achieved.

I grant, however, that if one were to disembarrass oneself of all opinions likely to stir up controversy, one would achieve a sort of peace of soul -- but would it be a peace worth having?
I say no. What is of value is the peace that "surpasseth all understanding," not the peace that is beneath all understanding. There is an infralogical and a supralogical peace. Go for the latter.
I hope I am not being too cryptic.

To my blogger-buddy Mangan I would say that he ought not worry too much about what other people say or think about him. I myself admire his cojones for taking strong stands on issues of importance. To me, it is self-evident that truth counts for more than human feelings. If people are offended, that is their problem. And if anything is clear, it is that there are huge numbers of people nowadays who are inappropriately offended: offended by things that they ought not be offended by. Consider the student who is offended by a teacher who, simply doing her job, corrects spelling and grammatical mistakes. Or a PC-head who is offended by a reference to a certain promontory as 'Squaw Peak' when that is the name for it. Or an anti-Semite who is offended by the fact that I merely look like a Jew. Or another PC-bonehead who thinks that the purely descriptive phrase, 'illegal alien,' is derogatory.

These people need to be opposed, and there is no way to oppose them without making enemies. But if one values truth, then one has to run the risk of making enemies.

So blog on, but with detachment from the outcome.

Carbo Man Vindicatus Est

Atkins be damned, the diet not the man. May he rest in peace.

Essential Reading from V.D. Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson, Our Moral Quagmire.

Louis L'Amour on Success and Books

Success often means security, safety in your home, safety in your possessions. To me success has meant just two things: a good life for my family, and the money to buy books and continue the education of this wandering man who has ceased to wander except in his memory, his thoughts, and the books he writes.

Books are precious things, but more than that, they are the strong backbone of civilization. They are the thread upon which it all hangs, and they can save us when all else is lost.

Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man, Bantam 1989, p. 166.

The Trouble with Continental Philosophy #4: Levinas

My fourth example of Continental obscurity comes from a philosopher I mainly respect, Emmanuel Levinas. The following passage is from Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, tr. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985. It first appeared in French in 1982. It goes without saying that the numerals in brackets are my interpolation.

[1] The "invisible God" is not to be understood as God invisible to the senses, but as [2] God non-thematizable in thought and nonetheless as [3] non-indifferent to the thought which is not thematization, and [4] probably not even an intentionality.

Got that?

Ad 1. To be properly formulated, this first clause must contain a word like ‘merely’ right after ‘understood.’ God is obviously invisible to the senses, and a formulation that suggests that he is not is inept. This sort of mistake is often made. For example, if what you want to say is that religion is not merely matter a matter of doctrine (because it is a matter of practice as well), then don’t say: Religion is not a matter of doctrine. For if you say the latter, then you say something that is just plain stupid. I know that Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein seem to be saying precisely that in some places. Draw whatever conclusion you like.

Ad 2. We are being told that God is non-thematizable in thought. In plain English: God cannot be a theme or topic or object of thought. I am very sympathetic to this idea if what is intended is that God cannot be reduced to a mere object of thought whose being is exhausted by his objecthood. But since we are talking about God right now, there is some sense or other in which God is an object of thought. In some sense, we are thematizing God; we are thematizing him as a being whose being surpasses his thematicity.
You will note that I am now starting to write like a Continental philosopher. I know the idiom and can break into it when it suits me. I know their typical moves, althought they wouldn’t say ‘move’ inasmuch as that suggests something rigorous and logical like chess – and we can’t have that. The point, however, is that there is a problem here, and Levinas and Co. don’t do enough -- or much of anything -- to bring it into the open. The problem is to explain how we can think correctly of God as nonthematizable in thought if God has this property. Or at least that is one aspect of the problem.

Ad 3. We are being told that there is a non-thematizing or non-objectifying mode of thinking and that God is non-indifferent to this mode of thinking. But what does ‘non-indifferent’ mean? Does it mean not different, so that the non-objectifying thinking of God just is God? Or does it perhaps mean that God cares about this mode of thinking? Who knows? And that’s the problem. Levinas takes no pains to be clear about what he means.

Ad 4. Finally, we are informed that the non-objectifying mode of thinking is "probably not even an intentionality." ‘Intentionality’ is a philosopher’s term of art for the peculiar of-ness, aboutness, or directedness of (some) mental states to their objects. So what Levinas is saying is that the non-objectifying mode of thinking lacks aboutness. But then what is it? Something like a mute sensory state, a pain, for example? Clearly, there is some sense in which a non-objectifying mode of thinking about God is about God – and about nothing else. This sense needs clarification.

To sum up. I am not trying to ‘refute’ Levinas. I am not charging him with incoherence or self–contradiction. What I am objecting to is the lack of time and energy spent on clarification, and on setting forth clearly the problems and questions implied by his ideas. Brentano, Husserl, and the early Sartre were clear-headed thinkers. After that, the early standards go by the board.








Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Mangan Quotes O'Hear

Dennis Mangan quotes philosopher Anthony O'Hear on equality of rights. This is a book I aim to get my hands on. And thanks Dennis, for recommending Antony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War, which I have acquired and am now reading.

Commies and Criminals

Joy of Knitting is a regular stop for 'purls' of wisdom. Here is a recent example.

Henri Frederic Amiel on the French Mind

22 December 1874. Written in the South of France. – Gioberti says that the French mind assumes only the form of truth and, by isolating this, exaggerates it, in such a way that it dissolves the realities with which it is concerned. I express the same thing by the word speciousness. It takes the shadow for the object, the word for the thing, the appearance for the reality and the abstract formula for the truth. It does not go beyond intellectual assignats. Its gold is pinch-beck, its diamond paste; the artificial and the conventional suffice for it. When one talks with a Frenchman about art, language, religion, the State, duty, the family, one feels from his way of talking that his thought remains outside the object, that it does not enter its substance, its marrow. He does not seek to understand it in its inwardness, but only to say something specious about it. This spirit is superficial and yet not comprehensive; it pricks the surface of things shrewdly enough, and yet it does not penetrate. It wishes to enjoy itself in relation to things; but it has not the respect, the disinterestedness, the patience and the self-forgetfulness that are necessary for contemplating things as they really are. Far from being the philosophic spirit, it is an abortive counterfeit of it, for it does not help to resolve any problem and it remains powerless to grasp that which is living, complex and concrete. Abstraction is it original vice, presumption its incurable eccentricity and speciousness its fatal limit.

The French language can express nothing that is budding or germinating; it depicts only effects, results the caput mortuum, and not the cause, the movement, the force, the becoming of any sort of phenomenon. It is analytical and descriptive, but it does not make one understand anything. . .

The thirst for truth is not a French passion. In everything, what appears is more relished than what is, the outside than the inside, the style than the stuff, the glittering than the useful, opinion than conscience. . . .

From The Private Journal of Henri Frederic Amiel, tr. Brooks and Brooks (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1935), pp. 428-429.

Monday, September 20, 2004

From the Mail: Deleuze and Relativism

Dr. Vallicella,
I just have a minute, but I wanted to run something by you in regard to your post on Deleuze (Ad.2.) You claim that it is false that genealogy is opposed to relative values. I don't think things are so clear cut. Certainly, Deleuze and company's (Derrida, Foucault, etc.) rejection of any a priori account of subjectivity or human nature undermines moral absolutes. On this basis it is often said that Deleuze and company advocate relativism. But, I don't think it is as simple as this. Relativism, it seems to me, presupposes an a priori account of the individual/human nature, doesn't it?

BV: Why does relativism presuppose this? We are talking about axiological or value relativism. The value relativist rejects the notion that values are absolute, holding instead that they are relative to some parameter X, where X might be an individual person, or a society, or a class within a society (the proletariat, the bourgeoisie), or an historical epoch, or a species of animal, etc. Why should this presuppose any account of human nature? Even if there is no fixed human nature, values could be relative to acts of human valuation.

It's worth noting that 'a priori' is an epistemological term. So an a priori account of human nature would be one knowable a priori. The ontology of humans, however, could be such that they have an essential structure, but one that was knowable only a posteriori. If I know that p a posteriori, it doesn't follow that p is only contingently the case.

As I understand it, relativism typically presupposes a kind of atomistic individualism of the sort associated with contemporary liberal political theory.

BV: Why should it? It would if the relativist said that values are relative to the individual -- but that is only one kind of value relativism. Values could be relative to the social substance of which the individual is a mere accident, and thus not an independently existing 'atom.'

If Deleuze rejects any a priori or static account of human nature, then it follows that he rejects the atomistic conception of the individual presupposed by relativism.

BV: I think this is a non sequitur. If someone rejects a static account of human nature, he could still hold an atomistic conception of the individual: he could say that, at ontological bottom, what we have are individual 'atoms' whose nature is malleable.

Thus, genealogy is opposed to the relativity of values. Genealogy aims to undermine the very presuppositions that underlie the relativism/absolutism debate itself. Do you think this is a plausible reading of what Deleuze is up to?

BV: I'm none too clear about what Deleuze is up to -- and that is part of my criticism of him and his Continental colleagues. The important question, however, is whether or not Nietzschean genealogy is, or implies, a species of value relativism. To me it is obvious that it is and does. Values are relative to quanta of ascending or descending life-force. Obviously, for N. there is no substantial self, no soul, no I or ego substantially construed. In Pali Buddhist terms, he is promoting anattavada. (Although of course N. rejects Buddhism as nihilistic and decadent.) So if you took value relativism to be identical to relativism of values to individuals construed as metaphysical substances, then N. would not be a relativist. But as I have already shown, relativism about values cannot be so identified.

Continental philosophers, especially the French, are out to supersede all the old dualisms. They get this urge from Heidegger. Unfortunately, it is always more rhetorical gesture than actual demonstration. Taking their cue from Heidegger, Continental philosophers are always out to 'overcome' - ueberwinden, Ueberwindung, die Ueberwindung der Metaphysik, usw. -- something, whether a traditional distinction or their predecessors, or all previous overcomings. As for the relativism/absolutism opposition, I do not see that anyone yet has 'overcome' it.

Best, Chris Blakley

Thanks for writing -- and for reading.

Democracy and Stupidity: More on One Man, One Vote

Idiot (that's what he calls himself!) over at No Right Turn in a post on Democracy and Stupidity writes:

The Maverick Philosopher considers the democratic principle of "one man, one vote" to be "highly dubious":

Suppose you have two people, A and B. A is intelligent, well-informed, and serious. He does his level best to form correct opinions about the issues of the day. He is an independent thinker, and his thinking is based in broad experience of life. B, however, makes no attempt to become informed, or to think for himself. He votes as his union boss tells him to vote. Why should B’s vote have the same weight as A’s? It is self-evident that B’s vote should not count as much as A’s.

Philosophy, et cetera agrees, arguing that "democracy is only valuable to the extent that it tends to produce and preserve a liberal society" and that in an ideal system, the opinions of those who are more intelligent and well-informed would count for more than those who haven't got a clue.

The problem here is that both are fundamentally mistaken about the purpose of democracy. Democracy is not about making good decisions - it's about making our decisions. It is not a system for aggregating information and reaching a rational decision about what we should do - it is a system for moderating conflicting interests.

Any moral justification for democracy rests on two assumptions: firstly, that people have interests, and secondly, that no-one's interest counts for more than anybody else's. The first is simply a recognition of fact. The second is a statement of fundamental moral equality, and can be taken as axiomatic or justified on the basis of consistency (if I want my interests to count, then I must agree that everyone else's do as well). Note that there's nothing in here about whether you are intelligent, rational, or well-informed - all that is important is that you have interests (and bother to express them). So "one man, one vote" is justified regardless of intelligence or ability on the basis that stupid people have interests too.

Those interests may be ill-informed, based on shoddy reasoning or false axioms, but none of that matters. An interest is an interest is an interest, and if we're committed to moral equality, then all must be counted.

BV: If all interests must be counted equally, then I wonder if this doesn't entail that voting privileges must be extended to all mentally competent people who can read and write. Obviously, children have interests and a stake in their societies: their welfare will be affected, for good or ill, by the decisions made about health care, education, military conscription, and so on. So it looks as if NRT's view that "no-one's interest counts for any more than anybody else's" implies that the vote should be given to children starting say at the age of seven or eight. For on NRT's scheme, they could not be excluded from voting on the grounds of inexperience, lack of knowledge, or psychological immaturity.

Criminals also have interests and a stake in what goes on in their societies so it appears that there would be no principled way to exclude them from voting.

If these indeed are consequences of NRT's position, then I would take them to be reductiones ad absurdum of it.

I would also point out that a person's having an interest does not entail his knowing his short-term or long-term best interest. Injudicious and misinformed people could easily vote against their own best interests. This is part of the reason why giving the vote to children does not make sense. There is also an issue about common interest version individual interest. A wise voter considers what is in the common good, and not merely what is in his individual good at the moment. Thus a wealthy voter may vote against a repeal of an estate tax on the ground that leaving it in place would be better for the society as a whole even though it would reduce the amount of money transferred to his heirs.

(There's also a pragmatic justification for democracy, resting on purely Hobbesean assumptions that people have interests and are sufficiently equal in physical ability to make counting heads a quick and painless way of determining who will win should things come to blows. On this account, stupid people get to vote because otherwise they may try and kill us. This has nothing to do with morality or rationality, of course - it's all about power and force and violence - but as someone who seeks ultimately to ground political theory in facts about the world, it has a certain appeal).

While I'm not sure about Maverick Philosopher, judging from his suggestions regarding competency tests, Philosophy, et cetera's underlying concern seems to that stupid people may not know what their interests are or how best to advance them. There's a name for this - "false consciousness" - and it's extremely surprising to see a self-professed liberal espousing it. A core tenet of liberalism is that people are the best judges of their own interests, and this rules out any second-guessing.

If we are concerned about voter ignorance, then the answer is to educate them, both through public information campaigns (and vigorous media debate) at election time, and by using universal public education to give people better bullshit detectors and make them better judges of their own interests in the first place. But as liberals, the last thing we should do is try to look inside people's heads or presume to make their choices for them.
See also:Liberalism, "false consciousness" and deceptionWhy not Kant?posted by Idiot at 2:27 PM

How can you be clever in a meatgrinder?

Jack Kerouac on the road with his mother:

Who are men that they can insult men? Who are these people who wear pants and dresses and sneer? What am I talking about? I'm talking about human helplessness and unbelievable loneliness in the darkness of birth and death and asking "What is there to laugh about in that?" "How can you be clever in a meatgrinder?" "Who makes fun of misery?" There's my mother a hunk of flesh that didnt ask to be born, sleeping restlessly, dreaming hopefully, beside her son who didnt ask to be born, thinking desperately, praying hopelessly, in a bouncing earthly vehicle going from nowhere to nowhere, all in the night, worst of all for that matter all in noonday glare of bestial Gulf Coast roads -- Where is the rock that will sustain us? Why are we here? What kind of crazy college would feature a seminar where people talk about hopelessness forever?

Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), Desolation Angels, 1960, p. 339.

Compare Mexico City Blues, 1959, 211th Chorus:

The wheel of the quivering meat conception . . .
. . . I wish I was free of that slaving meat wheel
and safe in heaven dead.

Sad Paradise of the American Night

The Big Engines
In the night --
The Diesel on the Pass
The Airplane in the Pan
American night --
Night --
The Blazing Silence in the Night,
The Pan Canadian Night --
The Eagle on the Pass,
The Wire on the Rail,
The High Hot Iron
of my heart.

The blazing chickaball
Whap-by
Extry special Super
High Job
Ole 169 be
floundering
Down to Kill Roy.

Jack Kerouac, Mexico City Blues, 146th Chorus


The Trouble with Continental Philosophy #3: Zizek on Christian Universalism

Slavoj Zizek in On Belief (Routledge, 2001, pp. 143-144) has this to say:

What is perceived here as the problem is precisely the Christian universalism: what this all-inclusive attitude (recall St. Paul’s famous "There are no men or women, no Jews and Greeks") involves is a thorough exclusion of those who do not accept inclusion into the Christian community. In other "particularistic" religions (and even in Islam, in spite of its global expansionism), there is a place for others, they are tolerated, even if they are condescendingly looked upon. The Christian motto "All men are brothers," however, means ALSO that "Those who are not my brothers ARE NOT MEN." [Emphasis in the original.] Christians usually praise themselves for overcoming the Jewish exclusivist notion of the Chosen People and encompassing all of humanity – the catch here is that, in their very insistence that they are the Chosen People with the privileged direct link to God, Jews accept the humanity of the other people who celebrate their false gods, while Christian universalism tendentially [sic! tendentiously?] excludes non-believers from the very universality of humankind.

What a delightfully seductive passage!

What Zizek is saying here is that the Christian universalism expressed by "All men are brothers" excludes non-Christians from the class of human beings. Zizek supports this surprising assertion with an argument. Made explicit, the argument is that
1. All men are brothers
Therefore
2. All who are not my brothers are not men.
But
3. All who are not Christians are not my brothers.
Therefore
4. All who are not Christians are not men.


Having made Zizek’s argument explicit, we can easily see what is wrong with it. The problem is (3). Without (3), one cannot validly infer the conclusion (4). But (3) is false: no Christian holds that all who are not Christians are not his brothers; they are his brothers whether or not they accept Christianity. For whether or not they accept Christianity they are sons of a common Father, God. Or if you insist that (3) is true, I will say that there is an equivocation on ‘brother’ as between (2) and (3). In one sense, two people are brothers if they have a common father. In this sense, all men are brothers if they have a common father, i.e., God. In a second sense, two people are brothers if they are members of a common organization or religion. Two teamsters, for example, are union brothers even if they do not share a common earthly father. The same for two members of the Muslim Brotherhood.


In sum, Zizek makes a highly dubious assertion and then tries to support it with a worthless argument.

It is important to see that he really is giving an argument in the above passage, but that, like many Continentals, he argues in a slip-shod, half-baked way. It’s as if he wants the advantange of an argument without having to do the hard analytic work. In this regard, the above passage is characterisitc of a lot of Continental philosophy.