Syllabus Listicalis

Today, I feel a need to make an arbitrary list of consequential reconceptions. These are some of the core ideas I want to put in one of the several pamphlets I have planned. I’ve named two of them: Geometric Parables and The Ten-Thousand Everythings. Maybe this is the start of a third pamphlet, Syllabus Listicalis.

  • Blindness is like rippling mercury that nullifies sight with glare and camouflage. The equation of blindness with darkness is profoundly misleading. Anyone who expects blindness to be highlighted with shadows is blind to blindness and consequently to sight. The disperception of blindness sees precisely where it doesn’t.
  • A soul is an everything among myriad everythings. It is natural to imagine a person’s soul as a body-shaped ghost, but this is an intellectually and morally corrupting confusion. Souls are better imagined as radiating into the world from a person’s physical being. The soul’s radiance continues to travel after it leaves its source and it illuminates those aspects of the world the soul finds important. Everywhere I look I see the souls of people I love: this is the root of my compulsion to give gifts. I could continue on to the subject of immortality, but let’s not.
  • Objectivity is a type of subjectivity. The idea that subjectivity is a distorted reflection of some all-encompassing objective world has catastrophic consequences. The best way to understand a person’s subjectivity is to examine its objectivity. When we speak of human “subjects” and school “subjects”, in both cases we ought to mean the word “subject” in the same sense.
  • Transcendence is entirely about the relationship between I and Other. This idea that transcendence refers to a supernatural reality behind or beyond the mundane world, is an elaborate failure to recognize otherness beyond one’s own I. Many, if not most — (and possibly all!) — notions of magic are the splatterings of souls on the walls of solipsism.
  • Tacit knowledge is not articulated, it articulates. Everything explicit, everything formed, emerges from implicit being. That which is least sayable is not passive silence, but an active capacity to say. Here speech is a metaphor for all making, all poiesis.
  • Love and dread together signal transcendence. Only dread reveals the reality of the beloved. These are not “choices”, they must be taken together, always.
  • Love is not only a matter of heart, but also of soul and of might — not separately, but always all at once. Love is done with the entirety of our being. To love God is to love the entirety of reality with the entirety of one’s being.
  • Pluralism means that even when we avoid being wrong, we are never as right as we hope.
  • Religion does not have to be conceived as it often is: the activity of an individual communing with God. Religion can, and in fact must be, broadened to comprise the continuous struggle of finite beings to relate vitally to infinite being without suppressing its infinitude. By this definition, sciences are religious activity and fundamentalisms are anti-religion.
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Update on my “LEF” political model

Since my last update on my “newish political model” I have continued trying it out on different political positions and playing with new ways to conceive the various dimensions, and I’ve developed a slightly new (and, I think, improved) way of thinking about it. The difference is in the way I am thinking about the Fraternity dimension.

If you remember my descriptions of Liberty and Equality, you might want to skip to Fraternity.

Liberty (individual autonomy): freedom of individuals versus authority of collectivities. Who determines how individuals are to think, feel and act?

+) an individual alone determines individual being;

-) the collectivity determines individual being;

0) at the center an individual determines individual being within reasonable limits set by a collectivity.

What kinds of collectivity are we talking about? According to this model any group capable of imposing its will on an individual is considered a collectivity capable of curtailing individual liberty. This differs from Political Compass, which views liberty as curtailed primarily by the federal government.

And what are reasonable limits? That is a matter of perpetual debate and dialogue to be continuously re-determined by Centrists.

Equality (power distribution): desirability of equality versus desirability of rank. How much disparity of power among individuals is acceptable and ideal?

+) each individual is given the same power and resources as every other;

-) each individual is given different amounts of power and resources according to rank;

0) at the center every individual is guaranteed a fair opportunity to acquire power and resources.

What kinds of rank are we talking about? According to this model every value system ranks differently and imposes rank according to its own logic. Societies can rank-stratify by family, class, wealth, race, education, talent, temperament, party membership — anything to which the word “deserve” can be applied. This differs from Political Compass, which casts equality issues in terms of government regulation.

And what is fair? That is a matter of perpetual debate and dialogue to be continuously re-determined by Centrists.

Fraternity (membership in political order ): essentially universal membership versus essentially exclusive obligation.

+) membership in a universal political order is automatically extended to all of humanity;

-) membership in a particular political order is restricted to a group defined by involuntary essential characteristics ;

0) at the center potential membership in a particular political order is universal, and actual membership is entirely voluntary (and not defined by essential characteristics).


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Illiberal delusions of depth

In general, the social sciences teach us more about societies of social scientists than it does society in general.


Show me an example of political or sociological “realism” — a claim of inalterable facts — and I’ll show you an ideologue with an investment in society being some particular way. It might even be the key to an intellectual’s soul.


Once the foundations of liberalism erode away, and public opinion starts asking hard questions of public truths grown complacent through luxuriation in universal acceptance, the truth of liberal values are anything but self-evident. They epitomize vapid conventionality, and all-too-conveniently, most of the people who continue to uphold them do so through inertia and timidity.

In times like these it almost requires a radical’s personality to excavate the layers of pious dust and quotidian debris that settle over generally accepted moral facts and to burrow into the ground where the wellsprings of liberal morality still flow clear. It turns out, these apparent self-evident (that is, long unexamined) moral principles, such as the ultimate value of the individual, the importance of free speech, thought and action, the exercise of reason, and above all, pluralism are not in the least self-evident once they are flooded in long-suppressed illiberal light and tag-team interrogated by left-wing and the right-wing inquisitors.

Fact is, liberalism was never the natural and inevitable state of society once tyrants are removed from the scene, but rather humankind’s hardest-won accomplishment. But the belief that liberalism exists with mere removal of impediments has led to the neglect of liberal education, and especially a self-aware philosophical explanation of morality.

Instead, the last several generation were rigorously trained to emote on demand: to sympathize as intensely as possible at sacred signifiers of its tribe (generally of categories of people) and to produce anger in equal amounts at the tribe’s categorical enemies, who are those who fail to produce the requisite emotions at key symbolic stimuli. Every tribe can produce its own elaborate supporting theories, including its own homegrown theories on why the other tribe’s theories are nonsensical and the result of nefarious influences.

And bystanders who decided to spare themselves all indoctrination and believe themselves independent observers fared no better. In fending off miseducation, they fend off necessary education as well, and fall into ideological traps they are ill-prepared to detect or to escape once they learn whatever “the truth” their habitual reading conceptually habituates them to understand.

At this point I am interested neither in expounding nor defending my views for people who are by nature or second-nature unsympathetic to liberalism. Instead, I plan to continue my private project of exposing the wellsprings of liberalism to those who have already learned to love them. And I do mean learn to love, because love of liberalism is either learned or latent, never accessible to naive or misled minds.

But it is true: as a liberal I do owe my fellow-citizens an account. But I do not owe it on their philosophical terms or their schedule. These are the things you learn when you work at education, which is another word for allowing learning to change you.

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Mark Lilla on the trajectory of ideologies

From Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind: “Successful ideologies follow a certain trajectory. They are first developed in narrow sects whose adherents share obsessions and principles, and see themselves as voices in the wilderness. To have any political effect, though, these groups must learn to work together. That’s difficult for obsessive, principled people, which is why at the political fringes one always finds little factions squabbling futilely with each other. But for an ideology to really reshape politics it must cease being a set of principles and become instead a vaguer general outlook that new information and events only strengthen. You really know when an ideology has matured when every event, present and past, is taken as confirmation of it.”

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Mark Lilla on political thought today

From Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind (2nd edition): “Never since the end of World War II, and perhaps since the Russian Revolution, has political thinking in the West seemed so shallow, so clueless. We all sense that ominous changes are taking place in Western societies, and in other societies whose destinies will very much shape our own. Yet we lack adequate concepts and even vocabulary for describing the world we now find ourselves in. More worrisome still, we lack awareness that we lack them. A cloud of willful unknowing seems to have settled on our intellectual life. This, it seems to me, is the most significant development since The Reckless Mind was published [on September 9, 2001], and the first thing we need to understand about the present.”

I cannot wait to read Lilla’s latest book, The Once and Future Liberal, due August 15, 2017.

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Muffled by novelty

If you wish to say something truly novel, you’ll need to choose between 1) stating it in familiar terms so that people misunderstand what you say and at best accept a banal misunderstanding as true, or 2) to state it in unfamiliar terms so that people at least understand that they do not understand, but at the cost that they will regard you as confused, pedantically technical, impractically abstract or a charlatan.

Only those who stay very close to established truth get listened to as a peer — a peer who has something valid to impart.

Those who stray too far from established truth are shunned and silenced by being despised or exalted or, by some weird combination of the two, diagnosed as clinically eccentric.


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Schemas and coinages

One advantage of being a schematic thinker is the technique exposes gaps in our vocabularies, conceptual spaces deprived of language that create intellectual blindspots (schemoscotomas?) for those whose thought is primarily verbal.

In encountering these wordless conceptual spaces my approach has been to find close matches or to resort to descriptive language to indicate what I mean. Today I’m thinking a better approach would be to simply invent words to fill in these spaces. This is likely to change the tone and substance of my work.

Some time ago my friend Jokin told me a beautiful Basque saying: “What has a name is real.” I believe that we need to invest some badly needed ideas with the reality of language, and I think it is the task of philosophy to do so.

More to come.


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