Imagine a man sitting down and pondering the Golden Rule. He thinks through what he knows to be true, what he loves and desires, and what practices have served him well in his life. Then he imagines a world where everyone is required to think, feel and do what he knows to be best. He asks himself if he would like someone to impose these norms upon him. Yes he would. So he does unto others as he would like done unto himself.
We call “nouveau riche” the newly rich who do not know how to be rich gracefully, who clumsily act out how they think rich people are.
We need the term “nouveau puissant” for the newly powerful.
Nobody knows what it is like to be another person.
Agonistic pluralism is perhaps the most important political concept I’ve learned in the last ten years. It holds that all liberal-democratic political positions are uneasy bundles of internally contradicting principles (or, more accurately, heuristics) which will, inevitably, be interpreted differently by different people at different times, and which therefore must be resolved through a flexible process of reasoned deliberation and inquiry.
My own belief is that an individual is defined as much as anything by peculiar configurations of judgment which are irreducibly hermeneutic (interpretive) and not direct applications of algorithmic rules to empirical data. Where we seek to eliminate judgment, we seek to eliminate individuality and abandon the domain of liberalism.
Where a person believes his or her own beliefs to be purely logical and empirical (omitting the role of interpretation not only in conception, but to the unconscious selective and prioritizing actions of perception) and to be the correct understanding of the truth (omitting the crucially important dimension of pluralism, which abolishes the rule of the excluded middle from all domains but that of formal logic).
We must expect conflict. We must expect to discover some degree of validity in opposing viewpoints, even when our own correctness is self-evident. We must interpret our own no-brainer truths as brain-deficient notions. We must be profoundly suspicious of our own convictions, most of all when they are open-shut. We must be severe and follow our angst when our hearts want to follow our bliss. We must follow this road less traveled.
We must try, even though we will always fail, to be publicly symmetrical. We must cleave radically to the Silver Rule: do not do to others what is hateful to you.
We hate that asshole who is so serenely oblivious to his own peculiarly personal judgment that he cannot see how subjective his own objectivity is. And what is objective is universally binding. It is self-evident to left-illiberals that they are the most benevolent and just and that anyone to their right is either deluded or in on some conspiracy to delude the gullible. And vice versa.
Illiberalism, like fundamentalism, flourishes in its oppositional illiberalisms. Back in crazier days I called this phenomenon “Ares’s handpuppets”. Ares loves only war. He is known to play sides against each other to produce, intensify and prolong war. If you pick a side, thinking the enemy of your enemy must be your friend, you are now possessed by Ares. I am speaking figuratively here in a way far more literal than you might imagine.
One more thing: many people have begun to note a “rightward” drift in my thinking, but this drift is rightward only relative to what I have come to regard as an illiberal attitude against money in the left orthodoxy. I believe that well-cultivated economies can produce ranges of equality supportive of liberal-democracy, but I still far from believing economic wildernesses automatically produce these effects, and those who claim such are often on the predator end of the predator-prey continuum. I believe this still places me to the left of liberalism.
But the reason I have become pro-money is that there are a few liberal institutions that manage to collapse the unmanageable richness of individual judgments into manageable and quantifiable general units, and those two units are dollars and votes. Without the aid of these two units we would have no means of public self-regulation.
This is a barely-formed insight and nowhere near a carefully thought-out position, but this is how thoughts are born: as defenseless babies. To instantly attack a new insight of this kind simply because it is not yet defensible is intellectual infanticide. I feel it is time to throw it out there to toddle around in the playground of my blog. I hope you’ll play with it, and try to entertain what it could be in mature form rather than immediately murder it for the unforgivable crime of not yet being a full-grown, combat-trained ideology. Even if it doesn’t get along perfectly with your own intellectual brat. Because there’s nothing worse than parents who lose all perspective when their kid gets in a conflict with another kid. They’re all kids — yours, theirs — and we must stay adults even — especially — when we feel our own kid’s anguish with that unnerving immediacy only parents know. Note to self: read this passage to myself with acute self-accusation, again and again, until I finally get it.
I got very little from Nietzsche until I learned to read him oppositionally.
I had to want urgently to know exactly what he was explaining and what he was implying, not only at the aphorism-level, but the book- and corpus-level, and be equally ready to fight for or against it, depending on my own soul’s response. I took sides against nobility, while experiencing its value and profound importance — to me, personally, in the very act of opposing it.
“We are losing a fantasy — … — and a person losing a fantasy is a very dangerous person.” — Tim Morton
“He has some weird opinions, and weird opinions about himself and his opinions, but we like him, anyway.”
Just because a person shouldn’t be believed, it doesn’t mean that person shouldn’t be listened to.
It is dehumanizing for a person to be judged as not worth listening to, and it is inhumanizing to make oneself the judge of whose voice is heard and whose is silenced.
People are astonished when I say nobody should always automatically be believed about anything, but that all people should always automatically be heard.
What? The right to a trial is a fundamental principle of liberalism!
And people want to give even more emphasis to STEM disciplines. As if the main problems of humankind are technical problems. As if even more technology will save us from our social problems.
When the goal of educating citizens is lost, and education becomes training employees for industry, or worse, credentialing employees for employment, this is what happens.
I told my friend to write her resume to idiots in a hurry: Speed it up and dumb it down.
Seems like a generally decent life-principle, so.
In Irreductions, Bruno Latour (echoing Lacan?) said “The real resists.”
Should we call the reciprocal complement to existentialism resistentialism? We exist, others resist our existence, we resist back, and so on…
We stand on the shoulders of titans, and it is only from that height that we can survey the damage we did.
Our current privileged perspective on justice is merely the top layer of layers upon layers of former justice which can now be seen as unjust. Knock it all down and we will become base again. Build upon where we are and we will still be judged by future generations, who will look down upon us and see how we came up short.
Anaximander’s maxim: “Beings must pay penance and be judged for their injustices, in accordance with the ordinance of time.”
His eviction notice was his own overwhelming desire to get out. He had to leave this place immediately. It was not a matter of escaping here; it was a matter of being there, a there unknown apart from its distance, a distance from which he could see home whole against the sky, a distance prescribed to those who wish to love perfectly.
He stripped some bark from a nearby tree. On the bark’s smooth inner wall he created a map. He paused to admire it, and indulged a pompous urge to declare it good. Then he set off to survey the edges of the world. As he traveled and traced out his path on his map, the shape that emerged was good news. With a completed map he would finally leave his home behind.
In the end,
the trees will grow like snakes,
splitting and sloughing bark,
bending in coils of green heartwood;
and the snakes will grow like trees,
depositing skin under skin,
and in their turgid leather casings,
they will lie about on the ground
like broken branches.
(Original here. Improved?)
If you think being right is a matter of avoiding being wrong, you’ll neglect a more important and more interesting challenge: trying to be even more right than you already are.
The deepest religious conversions do not have the structure of mere reversal, negation or inversion — they change the terms such that one’s old understandings are seen as simply missing the mark, being beside the point. It is less, “I was wrong, but now I’m right,” and more “I wasn’t right enough, and now I’ve become more right.”
Understandings, by the way, should not be confused with the doctrines we affirm as true. The strongest and least noticed effect of an understanding is what we see when we look and what questions arise from what we see, and these are limited by what questions we know how to ask.
If we use the optical metaphor of a perspective, the lines of inquiry are the perspectival grid that draw our eyes to a vanishing point on a horizon, suggested in the general thrust of our questions, defined by our standpoint but appearing to belong to the scene itself. Only movement around the scene reveals the relationship between seer, seen and scene.
I’m no fan of Plato, but:
Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads.
Peripatetic philosophy entails actively getting up and seeing from many angles.
I’ve called my metaphysic a “metaphysic of surprise”. To get what I mean by this, it is helpful to keep in mind the basic terms of my metaphysical conceptualization, which are 1) metaphysical reality versus 2) our understanding of reality which is truth.
In my view truth is an adequate-as-possible person-reality interface, true to the degree that it affords effective interaction, and never an exhaustive symbolic representation of reality as naive thinkers (at least in our culture) seem to reflexively assume. Truth is more like a well-designed, well-made tool than it is a tiny symbolic duplicate of reality we carry around inside our heads. Not to exclude tiny symbolic models, since maps are among our most useful tools, just that a map is only one of many useful tools, and maybe not even the most typical one.
This way of thinking about truth is what Dewey called “instrumentalism”. As a designer, my ears prick right up at this notion: tools ought to be designed, but all too often they are only engineered, with the result that only fellow engineers can master them. Is this not the case with philosophies? Philosophy needs a Steve Jobs to barge in and demand that we design our philosophies intentionally to be useful, usable and desirable for the people who use them, and understand the world through them, and (if the tool is well-designed and well-made) will become such a fine extension of our own being, we will forget we are using them at all and simply experience reality as our philosophy presents them, as self evidently what it is.
But no matter how solid our craftsmanship we can never avoid the reality or reality. Reality will always glow beneath the surface of what we make of it, through the seams, the worn spots, the flaws, the cracks that form from careless use. And reality can also erupt through truth and shock us with both its reality and with how our truth cannot deal with it. We get truly locked up because we don’t think about using truth, we think with our truth, and when reality breaks our truth, thinking simply can’t work. We can’t even talk about what is happening unless we have tools for accounting for such breaks. We can even experience total breaks where our entire truth is experienced as broken, which paradoxically allows us to know the truth about truth. We never know truth better than we have none. This is when religion happens. This is when mystery is here.
This is when the conceptual schema that give us the sense the world is comprised (com+prise, together-grasp) can be seen in its provinciality, as something (literally) incomprehensibly vast, defying not only quantity but quality — in other words, infinity — is known in the most non-comprehending way. Should the word be suprehended? At any rate, we can be utterly certain that we are surrounded by a reality that defies our current understanding and expectations. Etymologically, surprise means beyond–grasp which has a fine double-meaning of being beyond one’s grasp or of being in the grasp of the beyond. Being surprised can be viewed as comprehending turned inside-out.
Magic is wisdom splattering against the inner wall of a philosophy.
Ritual is performed symbol.
Metaphysically, I am a mystic.
Ethically, I am, at bottom, and maybe only at bottom, Reform Jewish.
Somehow, not exactly epistemologically, I am a Deweyan pragmatist, an Instrumentalist. I suspect I believe epistemology is one huge category mistake. Maybe my ontology of truth is pragmatist. My politics certainly are pragmatist. If you are asking “and therefore…?”, the pragmatic consequence of my pragmatism — its cash value — is that I analyze the meaning of beliefs using pragmatist method.
Oh! Epistemologically, I am scientific. But this is less a matter of “how do we know” and more an ethic of what must be done in order to expect to have one’s beliefs considered true by others.
Ontologically, I suppose I am a phenomenologist, as long as the fact that I am a mystic realist is kept in mind.
Anthropologically, I am Nietzschean.
It is hard to live with me, especially before noon.
Some lusts are nothing more than impersonal appetite. Some lusts are nothing less than a profoundly personal drawing into otherness.
Was it (only) insatiable greed or was it (also) need to sail over the map’s edges?
To reduce the latter to merely the former is to obsolete the possibility of genuinely new life. The biting flies of irritability can drive you here and there, but never over into anywhere truly new.
Of all objects of envy, inspiration is the most enviable. Of all kinds of envy, envy of inspiration is the most damaging, to both the envying and the envied. “If I cannot be the light, let there be no sight.”
“Feeling pretty cockeyed, are you, after so much spying into places where you have no business?” said a hated and jovial voice. “Even if you were to rack your brains, you couldn’t pay me back in a hundred years for this revelation. One hell of an observatory, eh, Borges?” Carlos Argentino’s feet were planted on the topmost step. In the sudden dim light, I managed to pick myself up and utter, “One hell of a — yes, one hell of a.” The matter-of-factness of my voice surprised me. Anxiously, Carlos Argentino went on. “Did you see everything — really clear, in colours?” At that moment I found my revenge. Kindly, openly pitying him, distraught, evasive, I thanked Carlos Argentino Daneri for the hospitality of his cellar and urged him to make the most of the demolition to get away from the pernicious metropolis, which spares no one — believe me, I told him, no one! Quietly and forcefully, I refused to discuss the Aleph. On saying goodbye, I embraced him and repeated that the country, that fresh air and quiet were the great physicians.
J. L. Borges, The Aleph
At the beit din for my conversion one of the rabbis asked me “do you even believe in God?” I gave an ironic but completely sincere answer. I guess they accepted it because I’m Jewish now, but that question has stayed with me since, and I suppose that is because maybe I didn’t accept my answer. I did not nail that question, nor did I nail several other key questions, especially not “How would you explain Judaism to someone who doesn’t know what it is?”. I hit these nails sideways and bent them all up. I want a do-over, but I think you only get one shot. But somehow I perceive this lingering dissatisfaction and feeling of lost opportunity as a good thing. I believe this might be a Jewish attitude along the lines of “there is nothing fuller than a broken heart.” In that anxiously optimistic spirit, I will put my unease to work and try to unbend the “do you even believe in God” nail. Here it goes…
Being a devout Pragmatist, I will go directly to the Pragmatic Maxim and ask what the practical consequences are to a statement to understand what it means. This is what William James called the “cash value”. My friend Mónica has an even more pragmatic version of Pragmatic maxim, which she expresses not as a maxim or a concept but, in a profoundly Pragmatist manner, the practice of asking: “AND THEREFORE…?”
So I believe in God, and therefore we are morally obligated to live toward alterity. We must live as a part of a reality that includes and exceeds us, and expects us to do so.
The evidence is all around us, and inside us. When we encounter a person who views us egocentrically as merely what we are to them — either useful or useless to their purposes, amounting to what they’ve deduced from their beliefs about us — apparently missing the fact of our own reality, purposefulness and autonomy we feel indignation. The indignation intensifies if we realize they prefer the imagined role they’ve assigned us to the more surprising, resistant and disruptive reality of who we are, and they seem resistant to noticing otherwise. And if they are in a position to enforce the role they have assigned as so we must cooperate and perform it, indignation can devolve to resentment or wrath.
Despite what many are currently saying, every person has this experience. It is intrinsic to the human condition.
Also intrinsic to the human condition is inflicting this indignation on others, by reducing others to roles we have imagined. (Sometimes we even pull this off by reducing them to mere reducers — people who have no experience of being reduced to a category not of their choosing and forced to play it, and who therefore are ignorant of the matter, incapable of understanding, unable to be reasoned with, and who can only be reformed through counter-domination. To meet this with indignation is not “fragility”, nor is it rage at having to share power. No: this is normal human indignation at being reduced to an imagined category, and then having one’s indignation reduced to vicious ignorance.)
So, when we do the same to others and take them as nothing more than what we imagine them to be — and, again, every single one of us constantly does this to others! — we are met with indignation. We are called upon to do something about it, to converse, to hear, to rectify and reconcile: to make teshuva. To return to a state of mutually acknowledged reality that includes each of us while infinitely exceeding each and all of us. I see teshuva as attempting mutual atonement. The infinite is no longer infinite to us if we exclude anyone from it, so full atonement is impossible without teshuva.
To believe as I do that this indignation is legitimate and warranted by more than utilitarian self-interest, biological drives or cultural norms strongly implies a reality that wants something of us. This wanting-from-us is the difference between a Godful and Godless reality. That is my “and therefore.” Therefore we must perpetually atone with God by atoning with all fellow-participants in the at-one God’s being.*
(Note: lately I am including non-humans in this process of perpetual atonement. Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, Tim Morton and Graham Harmon have me worried I have been “objectifying” objects!)
Any person subjected to the categorial disrespect we call bigotry will experience indignation. A self-respecting disrespected person is likely to protest the bigotry and attempt to reason with their persecutors.
If the indignation of the disrespected is also disrespected, their appeals to reason are ignored, condemned or mocked, and the rejection of the protest against bigotry is itself justified by the logic of bigotry, the indignation will be compounded, and the conflict will escalate beyond reason, because reason cannot function in the absence of respect.
By reason, I do not mean mere logic. Reason is deeper than logic in that it includes the possibility of dialogical epiphany, which reveals new grounds for new understandings, new beliefs and surprising new logical conclusions.
As long as we refuse to entertain and act on the possibility that we might experience an epiphanic insight, we cannot respect, nor can we reason, nor can we reasonably hope for peace.