…reality is like this (ontological background), therefore I am like this (practical foreground)…
…being like this (practical background) demonstrates to me that reality is like this (ontological foreground)…
…reality is like this (ontological background), therefore I am like this (practical foreground)…
…being like this (practical background) demonstrates to me that reality is like this (ontological foreground)…
“Nature likes to hide” – Heraclitus
“As an object-oriented ontologist I hold that all entities (including “myself ”) are shy, retiring octopuses that squirt out a dissembling ink as they withdraw into the ontological shadows…” – Morton
“Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: ‘There is something arbitrary in the fact that he came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.’ Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.” – Nietzsche
“The second way in which Harman attacked the problem was by a thorough reading of the startling tool-analysis in the opening sections of Heidegger’s Being and Time. This reading demonstrates that nothing in the ‘later’ Heidegger, its plangency notwithstanding, topples the tool-analysis from the apex of Heidegger’s thinking. Heidegger, in other words, was not quite conscious of the astonishing implications of the discovery he made in the tool-analysis: that when equipment—which for all intents and purposes could be anything at all—is functioning, or ‘executing’ (Vollzug), it withdraws from access (Entzug); that it is only when a tool is broken that it seems to become present-at-hand (vorhanden). This can only mean, argues Harman, that there is a vast plenum of unique entities, one of whose essential properties is withdrawal—no other entity can fully account for them. These entities must exist in a relatively flat ontology in which there is hardly any diference between a person and a pincushion. And relationships between them, including causal ones, must be vicarious and hence aesthetic in nature.” – Morton
“The level of outrage is so high. It feels like talking to anyone, anywhere, in 2018 is just landmine hopscotch.” — Tina Fey, on David Letterman’s My Next Guest Needs No Introduction
It seems many folks I talk to these days believe disrespect is a kind of deduction from a person’s fund of social capital. If a person already possesses a great fortune in social capital — in the form of privilege, or prestige, or power — they can spare such withdrawals of respect.
And if they’ve inherited this social capital fortune from previous generations, and never earned it themselves, is it really theirs to have? And was the fortune accumulated legitimately? Perhaps they deserve to be divested of this ill-gained social capital. And look how impoverished other groups are… redistribution of respect is not only permissible, it is required!
Where did this belief come from? Were other conceptions of respect considered? Why did this way of seeing things prevail?
Do the people who use this “fund model” of respect even know they are using it? Are they aware that other conceptions are possible? Or that these models have practical consequences?
Here is my view on the matter:
Disrespect is immediately and intrinsically painful.
What do I mean by disrespect? I mean being regarded as unworthy of consideration. A disrespected person’s thoughts, feelings, interpretations, judgments and intentions do not matter.
When we amass power, wealth, prestige, etc. one of the primary benefits is receiving respect. If respect is withheld, we tend to use our other resources to regain it. This is where honor, revenge, etc. enters the picture.
Wherever a person seems able to absorb acts of disrespect with dignity, this does not come from some mysterious store of respect — it comes from a place of benevolent contempt. The disrespected person cares too little about the disrespectful person to even acknowledge the slight. It is this aloofness that creates the illusion of a prestige fund among folks who misunderstand the nature of respect.
So no, we cannot draw on some mysterious fund of social capital to balance out disrespect any more than we can draw on a fund of past pleasures to absorb pain.
The problem I see with the forms of disrespect I see permeating and dominating our society is the disrespect precludes all civil appeals.
Normal human indignation at being treated with disrespect is derided as “fragility” or demographic “rage”. And reasoned arguments against such treatment are summarily dismissed as self-interested “motivated reasoning” unworthy of consideration.
No normal people, and least of all people who respect enough to desire mutual respect, can tolerate this for long.
This is an incredibly dangerous situation, and it is caused by philosophical ignorance: never reflecting on hw we think or how we might think differently and better.
I was extremely saddened watching Hanna Gadsby’s Netflix special a couple of nights ago. My wife and I were watching her, and we agreed: we liked her. We weren’t cracking up, but we found her interesting and we cared about what she was saying. But then… as she began to move from relating her intensely personal story, to interpreting and generalizing her experiences, things went in a dark and starkly impersonal, political direction — to a collectivist, highly formatted, standardized diagnosis of her life’s pain. Who was her villain who broke her down? Was it anti-gay fundamentalists? Was it ideologues who refuse to engage with other people as individuals, preferring instead to view them as examples of some despised category? Was it people who succumbed to their tribe’s default hostility and prejudice instead of following their own consciences?
No, Gadsby reflexively reached for the crowd-pleasing all-purpose punching bag category that the identitarian left never tires of blaming and abusing for all injustice in the world: the Unholy Trinity of identity intersectionality: whiteness/maleness/heterosexuality. Sadly, I am pretty sure this is what her core audience responds to most powerfully in her “challenging” comedy, the part that dittos and reinforces how they already feel and think. They love how gratifyingly unchallenging it is. It is for them how Left Behind paperbacks and Jesus camps are for fundamentalist children.
And Gadsby is quite happy to alienate examples her despised category: “The only people I don’t reach on a very personal level are straight white men. They don’t really need another entertainer dedicated for them exclusively, so they’re fine.”
And here also she marches the party line: It is not the intrinsic offense of open scorn that offends the white male heterosexual… no, it is the thwarting of unbridled entitlement, that something in this world dares to be for someone else! It is not a constant barrage of generalized disparagement that is disheartening… no, it is that this disapproval signals the requirement to share unequally distributed power with other categories for a change. It is not frustratingly unjust that the people advancing these arguments scornfully reject objections to those arguments ad hominem — it is that these arguments threaten their hegemony. They’re just too unaware of the fact that their collective interests avoidably produce delusion and motivated reasoning to comprehend why their perceptions are invalid and their reasons unworthy of consideration.
This is not, as so many young leftists like Ezra Klein insist, a question of how far liberalism ought to be taken, a matter of where the line between moderate and extreme ought to be draw. Klein doesn’t take liberalism gone too far, he doesn’t take it far enough, or even allow it to go anywhere. His worldview is, in fact, radically anti-liberal. Klein has characterized objections to his approach to anti-racism as anti-anti-racism, but what he practices is not anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-prejudice, but in fact a theoretically justified enthusiastic embrace of prejudice and illiberalism. What Klein calls an “anti-anti-racist”, a liberal would call an anti-racist — a principled opposition of both Klein’s and Trump’s superficially different forms of demographic discrimination.
If we come out of this ordeal intact, we will look back at the illiberalism of the left with the same horror as we do the illiberalism of the right. It is, in fact, evil, and like all evil, it justifies, intensifies and galvanizes its counterpart. In Greek mythology, Ares was known to play both sides of a conflict to generate war. It is abundantly clear to all who are not actively possessed by illiberal left-wing or right-wing ideology that we have an illiberal feedback loop squalling itself up to full war volume.
We do not overcome an evil by simply reversing it. Evil always must be overcome. This unfortunately requires changes to how we think, not just what we think. Changing our opinions is not changing our minds.
I believe many people have become discouraged and angry that racism, sexism and homophobia still exist despite decades of effort to eradicate it, and that the once nearly ubiquitous faith that liberal strategies will overcome them is now in question if not outright rejected.
Increasing numbers of leftists are now rejecting the liberal commitment to remap our identities to encompass all fellow persons. A liberal will not tolerate seeing a fellow person, of any category — demographic, psychographic, ideological, or otherwise — suffering violation of individual rights. Only one category matters: individual. If it happens to someone, anyone, it is happening to a person like me: a fellow individual.
This means crimes are not done to groups, and certainly not to categories! And crimes are not done by groups much less by categories. (I cannot stress this enough: wherever a mind is inclined to see categories acting and being acted upon, that mind is succumbing to solipsism, responding to ideas instead of mind-transcending realities.) This is why Hannah Arendt said that “the physical extermination of the Jewish people… was a crime against humanity, perpetrated upon the body of the Jewish people.” Crimes are committed by individuals against individuals, even when — especially when — those individuals believe they are acting on behalf of a category against a category, for the sake of justice.
So, absolutely not: We will never overcome prejudice against groups of people by balancing them out with counter-prejudices. We will not overcome shame of being categorized as some despised thing by heaping shame on the category of person who made us feel ashamed. Martin Luther King said it best: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
One of the ideals I somehow absorbed or derived or instaurated from Nietzsche is the concept of Olympian pluralism.
For a passionate practical worldview to be divine — as opposed to titanic — it must maintain loyalty to a deeper uniting and transcendent practical worldview, that which keeps it in community with other practical worldviews and makes it an organ within a cultural organism.
A titan is incapable of participation in something it conceives as greater than itself and inclusive of itself, of which self is entirely constituted, and functions in defiance of its true relationship to the grounds of its own existence, reality. Titanism is ontological cancer.
Liberal-Democracy is America’s Olympus.
The leftist identitarian insistence that white heterosexual masculinity is an identity, its eagerness to impose this identity on people who reject such identities, and its habit of using its own peculiar justificatory logic to strip involuntary members of this identity group of all rights to protest the imposition of identity on the basis of the protesters’s identity is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
It is a serious offense to impose an unwanted identity on another person. “No, you are not who you claim you are; you are what I say you are.”
It is an even more serious offense to draw ad hominem conclusions based on imposition of categorization. “Because you belong to this category, you are not able to do or know what you claim you can do or know.”
Refusing to hear a person’s appeal to having an identity and its implications imposed upon them on the basis of that identity and its implications leaves a person with no reasonable recourse. “You would protest being identified as a member of this category, because it is in your interest to evade that identification!”
And then, finally, when the implication of the imposed identity is being treated with disrespect — beyond the disrespect of being aggressively subjected to imposition of an unwanted identity and its implications despite protests — the situation encourages political group identity formation.
Identitarianism breeds counter-identitarianism. Who knows “who started it”? Who even gives a shit? I see it all as one incredibly toxic, cynical, circular and retrogressive political worldview: Identitarianism.
I am deeply disgusted hearing my former allies on the left succumbing to this base nonsense. It seems normal only because it has become so common. And the more common it becomes the more necessary and unavoidable it seems.
There is only one moral response: liberalism.
Every individual has a right — a human-given right — to be an individual. No individual gets to decide for another who or what they are.
Wherever groups deny individuals their rights of individuality — including their right to choose the groups with whom they ally and identify — liberals must stand together to defend individuality.
Any person who dares tell me that Liberalism is not my true identity, and that my true identity is why they’ve decided it is has lost rights to my respect.
I enjoy the etymological implications of “concept”, “synthesis” and “comprehend” and I’ve taken these implications as hints indicating how these words can be used in a complementary and systematic way.
Concept means taking together. A concept is a tacit, formless capacity to recognize a complex phenomenon as a particular something.
Synthesis means putting together. Syntheses are formal (in the sense of “having form”). Most of what we call “concept” I would call conceptually-directed synthesis: using a tacit conceptual understanding to synthesize words with the intent to indicate the very concept that guided the assembly of words. But we can also play with syntheses in order to acquire a concept, a process well known to researchers in pursuit of original theory.
Comprehension is grasping together: conceptually recognizing a complex phenomenon as something, and then viewing the simpler components of the complex whole as parts of the whole, each related to the others and to the whole in a way illuminated by the concept.
By the way, if all this smells a little Hegelian, that’s because I’m reading Walter Kaufmann’s book on Hegel. Some of my most extraordinary reading moments were mediated via Kaufmann’s translations. (I remember my friend Shaffer asking me how I knew it was Nietzsche I was responding to so powerfully and not some distorted Kaufmann image of Nietzsche. My answer was that it was my reaction that was primary, so I was fine being considered a fanatical enthusiast of Kaufmannietzsche, which was actually pretty damn pomo of my as-yet-prepomo self.) This, plus several strikingly gorgeous bits of original thought scattered through the preface I was reading, made me suddenly curious about who Walter Kaufmann. I realized I couldn’t even match this familiar voice to a face. And what do you know? The wikipedia article on him provided me yet more material supporting my Jewish conversion.
What if I cast left versus right in terms of effort required to maintain equality or inequality?
The further left one’s ideology leans, the more one believes that equality with others should require no effort. Enforced preexisting equality of all people is the ideal.
The further right one’s ideology leans the more one believes inequality should be maintained effortlessly. Enforced preexisting rank among all people is the ideal.
A centrist — at least an agonistic centrist — wants to see equal access to an unstable system of inequality, where all individuals have an equal chance to move up or own the social order based on the effort they expend. Work and rise; slack and sink.
effortless egalitarianism <–> effortful achievement <–> effortless rank
I think this is a flawed and maybe vapid idea, but I can’t decide how flawed yet, because my damn cat woke me up two hours early and I’m too groggy to attack myself properly. The questions I plan to confront myself with are: Enforced by whom, exactly? State, obviously, but I think the state is only one kind of organization with enforcement powers. What about the ANT idea of creation of irreversible processes that produce stability and gradually decrease requirements to expend effort? How much stability is permissible. Here I might even lean right of center! But then… how do we ensure equal access to mobile inequality if stable inequality becomes entrenched inequality? A libertarian would argue that removing all state involvement would naturally produce the ideal balance here, but I’m not ready to assume that. It’s too tidy, and tidiness excites my skepticism.
One of the great pleasures of reading Richard Rorty is experiencing his precise neglect of nonhuman actors. The man lived in a wordworld of free-floating humans whose sole purpose was conversation. It helps make what I learned from Bruno Latour extra tangible, that what we converse about is rooted as much in our tacit interactions with things and people as it is in the explicit content of our language.
I think Latour made (somewhat) immediate sense to me because his own thinking was formed on his experiences doing ethnography in biology laboratories, and that happens to be my own sole exposure to scientific activity, which, fortuitously was 1) participatory, and 2) frustratingly contrary to my positivistic expectations.
One thing I have discovered about myself over the decades is I am a highly concrete thinker. Anyone who thinks I’m “abstract” is just too psychologically removed to realize how concretely immediate philosophical problems are for me. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, philosophical problems are “how do I think out this mess?” problems. If you are one of those unfortunate souls who must be supplied with a defined problem and a mature vocabulary to think, you’ll never experience philosophy, only its conclusions. One of my greatest worries about our times is this: I fear most students who could be philosophical are fed such philosophical conclusions (what x believed and argued) and never encounter the perplexities that motivate philosophical activity, driven by the “stick” of intense anxiety and the “carrot” of faith that something potentially knowable in principle but as-yet-unknowable in fact is uncannily right there. This awe-ful experience is what a religious soul should follow, not bliss. Following bliss turns you into yet another insufferable meditating narcissist with nothing better to do but to cultivate inner peace and emit positive vibes, in the manner of that expensive bronze buddha statue you ordered from dharmacraft.com, the one that looks just perfect sitting in the center of that zen garden you made meditatively, raking rocks, carrying water, inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, exhaling, really being present in the moment, and contemplating the superiority of doing the work instead of wasting your time conceptualizing. Fuck that so much. I am about to discuss misnorms of science, but this religion as seeking peace is a common misnorm of religion, and I detest it. But now I’m two self-indulgent digressions deep.
Back to being concrete. I have discovered working as a human-centered designer that when people talk semi-abstractly about concrete stuff of business — processes, technologies, budgets, etc. — until I’ve seen the people interacting with the systems, following processes, I do not get any of it at all. My mind just rejects it. It connects with nothing, and it all evaporates like a routine dream. I have to go stand on the rough ground, talk to people, ask questions, get confused and then unconfused and try to converse with people about what I’ve learned to develop the kind of working knowledge I need to design well. It’s mostly a disability, but like so many disabilities it produces compensatory alternative capabilities, and makes me “differently abled”. My differently-abled superpower is knowing exactly what I’m talking about, and even better, projecting my mastery of the materials to folks too dull or lazy to process the content of my talking. This applies to design, to philosophy, to religion, and happily, thanks to my brief immersion in laboratory life, to how science actually works.
I was hired to work part-time in a lab for a medical university. Mostly, I did a lot of boring basic IT stuff, but I did get to do one legit scientific task. My job was to use my limited PASCAL programming skills to make a program to measure the twitching of mouse heart cells.
I think I’ve described this before, but this time I want to describe it explicitly expanding that pat “measure the twitching of mouse heart cells” into the kind of actor-network Latour delights in tracing out.
First, let’s expand mouse heart cells. Unfortunately, I was not there to observe how labs work, so I never found out how the lab mice were procured, shipped, stored, etc. All I know is when it was time to do this experiment, lots of mice were brought into the laboratory and situated at the end of the lab benches, along with big vats full of liquid nitrogen. The lab benches were equipped with specially designed rodent guillotines. The lab techs would behead a large number of mice, cut out their still-beating hearts and plop the hearts into the liquid nitrogen. The frozen hearts were then somehow pulverized. I always avoided seeing these activities, so I cannot describe the specifics. The pulverized hearts were placed in a centrifuge, I believe to separate out the various kinds of heart cells. Some particular kind of heart cell (which was the focus of the study) was extracted. The extracted cells were placed in a dish with a collagen ring (no idea how these were produced, but a good ANT researcher would find out that, too) and I’m guessing they were placed in some controlled environment where the heart cells could grow together onto the collagen rings. And, disgustingly, and for biologists, fascinatingly, they would twitch.
Now, let’s expand “measure the twitching”. The heart-coated collagen rings were put onto an electronic caliper. This caliper would return some raw number between zero and some large binary-convenient number, probably 65,535. No constriction is zero, full constriction is 65,535. My program would, when told to start, would capture all these numbers at some interval of time I can’t remember, until it was told to stop, at which time it spat out the average twitch, converted to some unit which I also cannot remember, by a formula which I believe might have originated with the manufacturer of the caliper, but which was handed down to me by a series of forwarded emails. And just to give a sense of time, I checked my email by telnetting to a mainframe operated through command line. I hope this makes my forgetting of details more forgivable.
The problem for me was that these twitches were all over the place. The data seemed ludicrously messy. So being a 20-something smart ass I provided a list of averages calculated a number of different ways (mean, median, and other basic math known even to liberal arts students). I thought I was part of some pretty lame science. Science was supposed to be far more orderly and elevated. I’m not sure which number they used, or even if they used it as written. It had to have been enraging to use. I cannot believe I made it through my youth without being beaten up by an angry mob of reasonable people, but I continue to feel grateful I was spared what I deserved.
Presumably the numbers were recorded, visualized, situated in a paper, submitted journals, juried, and hopefully published, widely cited and used as evidence supporting more research funding, and increasing the prestige and salaries of my bosses. I learned this part only years later reading Latour. Back then I was just trying to earn $5/hour so I could pay my part of the rent for the ratty roach-infested un-air conditioned mansion I inhabited with six other classic late-80s era slackers.
But the more important thing I learned from Latour and other ANT people is that this was real, legitimate science! All these tenuous connected physical linkages, translations from movements to numbers to units to averages to graphs to inferences to arguments to papers to prestige to dollars, these bizarre supplies all converging in one place for obscure purposes — this is science as it is normally done. So many non-human actors — not only mice and instruments and programs, but concepts, procedures, aspirations — were in play here to produce something scientists could discuss. My standards of “good science” were misnorms, causing me to condemn science as it really works on the basis of standards that would condemn all science if viewed close-up.
And I believe Richard Rorty, through sheer practical ignorance, never heard the babble of the nonhuman actors in the human-language conversations among scientists.
I wouldn’t either if it weren’t for my random part-time job at the med school lab.
The reason I still adore Richard Rorty’s writing, despite the key omission I just described, is how precise it is and how well his ideas hold if you insert the omitted considerations the right way. I always read him with “what about the non-human interlocutors?” at the ready. And when I plug in my answer, the thoughts work correctly.
And this helps me grasp the importance of Actor-Network Theory as the talented heir to Pragmatism — a basically wonderful way to think that functions even with incomplete parts. And Pragmatism is the philosophical champion of Liberal Democracy, which is the political vision I love. And then I remember that the United States of America, the first nation founded on philosophical argument, was also the nation where Pragmatism was discovered-created-instaurated and then I get to feel intense patriotism like a normal person.
I need to replace my American flag bumper sticker on my car. It was lost when my bumper was repaired.
Maybe I’ll make some PRAGMATISM flag stickers. Text me if you made it to the end of this wildly rambling post, and I’ll get one printed for you, too.
We are going to work this crisis of American politics out, in our characteristic American way. Back to Liberalism. Let’s deepen and strengthen Liberalism in our return, by recognizing our fellow non-human citizens, given voice through science.
It seems that in the 19th Century “metaphysical need” for “metaphysical comfort” was more common than in the 20th Century, where the needs and comforts were anti-metaphysical.
This strikes me as an ontological analogue to the epistemological struggles (or were they actually also ontological struggles regarding the being of knowledge?), which concluded that if knowledge as we conceive it cannot exist, then knowledge itself is impossible, resulting in vulgar relativism.
If God as we conceived him and used him is no longer believable, then God is impossible: vulgar atheism.
objectivism : relativism :: idolatry : atheism
pragmatism :: religion
So many colons.
Every authentic religion eventually produces its own fundamentalism.
An authentic religion is a finite self’s whole-being response to infinite being. It is both actively receptive and receptively active toward reality which no self can contain, which contains all selves, in which self participates as one spark among myriad fellow-sparks, who are respected as messengers from beyond self. Religion is an aid for keeping a self responsive to infinite being. Religious existence is uncomfortable, elusive and perpetually challenging, and formal religion provides a moderate degree of comfort, definition and assistance in maintaining such an existence.
Fundamentalisms result when the basic toward-infinity response is forgotten and unconsciously replaced with a within-me set of concepts. The religion is everted, and all religious concepts are flipped with respect to their “image schema” relationships. Let’s just call this process dysfinition and the resulting state of mind dysfinitude.
In a state of dysfinitude, infinite reality is packed inside a self’s finite mind. Fellow participants in infinity are packed inside the mind as well, becoming messengers of what is already known, either a confirmation of truth or a known bearer of falsehood. And the locus of religious texts — always addressed to and read from and primarily applicable to the first-person self — is shifted to the third-person. One’s own known doctrine addressed to third-person others, to whom it is addressed, for whom it is read and applied. The Golden Rule is deformed to mean that everyone else is obligated to treat me however I believe is right to treat others, whether they like it or not.
How does dysfinitude happen? Miseducation. Students are no longer taught the relationship to infinite being through participation in religious existence. Instead they finished religious forms are thrust into their hands to master without ever first experiencing a need for such forms, which is the only way to recognize their purpose.
I believe Leftist Identitarianism is the fundamentalist deformation of postmodernism.
It is important that every individual American citizen recognizes that somewhere in their life on some vitally important matter they hold a minority opinion, and that if it weren’t for our collective commitment to individual liberty, they would be vulnerable to majority tyranny. This point of conscious vulnerability in an individual is the fulcrum for moving them toward recognizing the need to defend the rights of others who, like themselves, are members of a minority group needing protection from fellow citizens.
To deny or dismiss as trivial these points of conscious vulnerability for all but a defined canonical set of “real” identities based exclusively on race, gender and sexual orientation is wrong on multiple levels. First, the canon glaringly incomplete. What about identities based on class and ideology? Second, is it not a betrayal of liberalism to decide on the basis of your classification scheme what another individual can or cannot do? But worst of all it makes zero political sense! Why alienate potential allies? We need more identities, a proliferation of minority identities to spread the passion for protecting all minority interests.
If we do not show the majority of Americans the importance of liberalism to their own lives and their own interests, this liberal democracy will continue to devolve into an illiberal democracy.
“When a poet is not in love with reality his muse will consequently not be reality, and she will then bear him hollow-eyed and fragile-limbed children.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
It seems to me that few people agree with me on what a philosophy is. It is not that they disagree, but rather that they have done so little philosophy themselves that they lack any capacity to agree or disagree. They have not developed a capacity to understand what philosophy is as I understand it.
They have not even developed a capacity to look into why they ought to hear me out on how I think of it, not only for the sake of understanding something new, but for the sake of friendship.
Here is how I understand philosophy:
Philosophies are not reducible to assertions. Philosophies are not even reducible to language.
Language and assertions belong to the praxis of a philosophy. Yet a philosophy is not even reducible to its praxis.
Philosophies produce praxis, but they are “behind” praxis, moving and shaping perceptions and conceptions, values and emotions, recognitions and responses. Or let’s say they stand-under these things as capacities for conception, action and feeling: a repertoire of possibilities of understanding the world which activate long before we find words for them, because these capacities are who find our words for us. These capacities are what constitute our soul.
But don’t we primarily read or hear philosophy? — Yes, but we do not receive it the way people expect to receive ideas. The normal priority of comprehension is reversed. Normally, when we struggle to understand difficult material, we do so in order to grasp factual content. With philosophy, we struggle to grasp the factual content in order to gain new ways to understand.
Engaging philosophical writing is a mimetic linguistic activity intended to expand our repertoire of understandings, which enriches our awareness of and capacity for pluralism, which I call pluralistic sense.
Finite truths overlap in reality’s infinitude. The myriad finite truths are one part of reality. Our pluralistic sense permits us to relate to this overlap with sublime irony. Each of us is a soul among souls, overlapping with souls, swimming in souls, but each of us only gets one. Or at least only one at a time.
Doing philosophy is the effort to densify one’s soul.
For nearly ten years, I have been uncomfortable with the phenomenological term “horizon”. I think it is because this metaphor suggests that what we cannot see is invisible because it is distant.
The metaphor is not without merits. I like the implications that distant things are obscured by the curvature of the very land upon which we stand. I like that the pragmatic consequence of a horizon is a requirement to get peripatetic. Stand up and move and view things from some other perspective.
But as a young adult I spent too many hours seated in meditation, mining the sensations in my body and mind for insight into being to believe ignorance is primarily a distant thing.
And I have suffered too many ocular migraines, and far too often “seen” the blindspots in my eyes burst into bloom and cover my entire field of vision with nothingness, which is not black. Black is something that marks something missing. Blindness is nothing, including nothing being there but also nothing missing.
Too much we don’t know is close to us and in us. I think much of our ignorance takes the form of insufficient density, not only in our factual knowledge but in our capacities to know.
Our souls can lose density if we do not strain them. They can become inflexible, osteoporotic and brittle. We move only one way and see only one way. Trying to move and see other ways is uncomfortable and feels wrong. So we fend off enemies, and refuse to hear any validity in what they say. And as we become brittler, our enemies increase. We begin to discover unacceptable beliefs in our friends. We cling to fondness, but we can no longer converse without fear that words will break our bones.
One of my fundamental beliefs is that most misunderstandings are misunderstood as factual disagreements, when in fact the disagreements are artifacts of different modes of understanding. So some of my friends pore over sociological and psychological studies, because sociology gives us substantial scientific evidence for belief, unlike philosophy which only speculates and doesn’t provide enough factual meat. It takes philosophical thought to see what is dangerously ignorant about this kind of epistemology which says philosophy is “too abstract”. Other friends like to bravely entertain forbidden facts — facts which, if properly weighted and thoroughly considered, would wake us up to an imminent emergency requiring immediate action. The facts all point to ominous actors we cannot see directly, but a thorough connecting of dots leaves a lacuna the shape of diabolical intention.
I think the imminent emergency is that everyone already knows everything, at least in outline, including the obvious fact that their enemies know nothing. No need to listen — there is no point. In fact, listening is folly. Force is the only suitable response. Both sides think they have the numbers to force their will if things go to plan, and if they don’t… well, truth is on their side and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
We have failed to teach our children to be citizens in a liberal democracy. Now there is too little tolerance and no willingness to fight for a fellow citizen’s right to disagree with us.
And we have failed to teach our public intellectuals philosophy. There is desperately little pluralistic sense in the upper reaches of our culture. What is known as Political Correctness systematically cultivates brittleness in our elite class by prohibiting all discomfort of pluralism. We are manufacturing narrow ideologues who experience disagreement as life-threatening.
I need to own my reaction to the rhetoric of the mainstream Left a little more, I think. It is not only about how Trump folks react to the way they are portrayed and addressed by the left. I am also alienated by it as well, and I believe this gives me insight into what is happening.
I have this incredibly wise little how-to book called Difficult Conversations that my company had me read back in 2011. One principle in this book stood out to me when I read it: if you are in a tense conversation with someone, attributing motives to their word and actions shuts down the dialogue. When I told Susan about it we decided to make this one of the basic agreements of our marriage.
My concern with the way identity politics operates, there is a readiness — even an eagerness — or is it a habit that has become reflexive? — to immediately reach for a psychology that tells us the real motives of anyone to our right, despite what they say, or even what they privately think. Further, we apply this psychology differently depending on how we classify them, and again regardless of how they publicly classify themselves or how they understand themselves.
The experience of being treated this way is deeply offensive, and it might even touch on the essence of offense: being treated as if what we say does not matter, and worse being treated that way because of what someone else had decided we are. If this is not Othering, what is?
Now, I cannot prove to anyone who decides that the words I have just said are only a semiconscious or unconscious tactic for preserving my identity group’s power, and not, as I claim (and possibly even believe) the appeal from one individual to another to be respected, heard and conversed with as a fellow individual who might (despite how they categorize me) have things to teach you as well as learn from them. Maybe, if dialogue with me fails they will have no choice but to reach for theories to explain why I refuse to converse with them as a true equal. But if they reach for that theory before we even get going, it will be me searching for reasons why they are unwilling to treat me as an equal.
One more note, spoken in the language of Judeo-Christianity: if racists attack you with racist ideas, does it make sense to balance their racism with an equal-but-opposite counter-racism? Can that even be called antiracism? To liberals, this seems to be just another form of racism requiring a principled liberal stance against all dehumanizing reduction of individuals to categories. It is very difficult to do this. It is extremely tempting when faced with prejudice to pick up the sword of prejudice and start fighting. Liberalism, the modern heir to the long refinement of Jewish tradition universalized and disseminated throughout the world by Jesus and his followers, calls us to transcend the conflict and instead of fighting racists with counter-racism, to fight racism with respect, dialogue, reason and rigorous demonstration.
The political foundation of liberal democracy is democracy, but the philosophical foundation of liberal democracy is liberalism.
A majority of citizens must actively want a sphere of liberties protected by liberalism more than it wants to impose its collective will on individuals within that sphere. If the majority decides it wants to determine how individuals are to live, speak and think more than it wants individuals to choose for themselves, liberalism will be voted out of existence, law by law.
But liberalism is a difficult worldview to acquire and keep. It must be taught and cultivated.
An educational program that views its mission in terms of preparing its students for the labor market, or worse, qualification for entering it — a prosperity ticket — will mistake training for education and create qualified workers and illiberal citizens.
A semi-formed thought to entertain: If the the primary goal of liberalism is optimal distribution of judgment throughout society, then optimal distribution of material resources might be one means to that end. But this means must be balanced against the ultimate question every liberal must unceasingly ask: who decides? Whose judgment prevails? Or to put it more liberally, by what procedure is the decision made? To say “by the market” is to beg the question. To say “by ballot” is to forget the essential tension between liberalism and democracy. To say “by judicial ruling” is to forget the tension in the opposite direction.
In liberal democracy there are no easy answers, and appearances to the contrary signal a misframing of controversies, perhaps symptomatic of blindness to the liberal-democratic metaphysic. To put it in language popularized by “design thinking”, it is leveling down wicked social problems into tame technical ones.
To say about any social problem, “this problem has an obvious solution, and if people would get out of my way and let me solve it, they would see I’ve been right all along” contains a self-delegitimization.
“As soon as a religion comes to dominate it has as its opponents all those who would have been its first disciples.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
My older daughter has joined a reading group studying gentrification, and we’ve been having sporadic conversations on the topic of economic and cultural transformation of neighborhoods. I’ve also been reflecting on some similar transformations I have seen in my life, in particular what happened to the field of UX over the last 25 years — not only the methods, the culture, the politics of the field, but also the qualities and quality of the output of the field. From where I stand I see an explosion of productivity, unceasing change and novelty, and a dramatic diminishment of genuine excitement. There is a lot of force and motion, but somehow without much energy and life. Today, I see this in terms of disciplinary gentrification…
Any novel situation presenting new problems without established methods for resolving them will attract a particular kind of mind drawn to experimentation and improvisation, groping by intuition and tolerant of ambiguity, perplexity and anxiety, (and perhaps repelled by routinization, methodological constraints and prioritization of efficiency over exploration). Let’s call this type “pioneering intuitive”. The field is still more or less open, and this openness attracts intuitive pioneers exactly the way an open plain attracts settling pioneers.
Once the novel situation has been worked on long enough, the experimentation pays off, through development of general approaches to identifying, framing and resolving particular species of problems within the situation. The field develops language and reusable methods, guided by common heuristics. The open field becomes a discipline.
As the discipline matures, more and more methods continue upon the path Roger Martin describes in The Design of Business. What began as a mystery, and gradually developed as general methodology, now formalizes into an established methodology, with defined roles, procedures, specialized tools, technical language, and products. More and more, judgments guided by rules-of-thumb are sharpened into decisions determined by defined rules and criteria. There’s less need for deliberation and experimentation (though these things never completely disappear). The discipline now attracts experts who can march into a problematic situation, quickly diagnose it, provide a set plan using proven best practices and then efficiently resolve the problem effectively. At this point, the discipline becomes highly attractive to other experts who view competence almost exclusively in terms of expertise of this stamp.
It is important to note, experts are a type — a kind of mind very different from the intuitive pioneer type. Experts are analogous to the specialist tradesmen who flocked to western cities after the cities grew out of isolated trade posts. Experts want to ply their trade and their greatest joy is productivity, meeting set goals, honing skills, growing organizations and reaping the rewards of their work.
Once a field develops this far, it begins to lose the qualities that attracted the first wave of practitioners. And in fact it starts to drive them away. Seeing smoke from a neighboring cabin is unsettling because this signals change — change back into the regulated, routinized highly constrained and controlled existence the pioneer fled out into the frontier.
For experts, experimentation, reflection, deliberation, openness, indefiniteness, improvisation — those are means to an end of developing a mature, predictable, repeatable and highly efficient discipline. For intuitive pioneer types, these indeterminate qualities are the challenge of the work, and the primary pleasure of it. They begin to move away into other types of problems that have not (yet) become the domain of experts. And the field left behind has all the qualities that gentrified neighborhoods have. They’re stylishly and respectably cool, safe, highly valued and powered by ambition and accomplishment, but nothing deeply unexpected, daring or surprising can happen there anymore. The weirdos have moved on. Something is lost — some intangible feeling of inspiration and life has dampened out — and the products seem less interesting despite their increasing flawlessness.
This happens to all kinds of spaces — physical, cultural, intellectual — and they happen on all scales. Cities, nations, civilizations, questions, topics, fields of study, companies, industries, economies.
Our humanity is bound up with freedom of interpretation.
The capacity to interpret and respond effectively is what is meant by the word judgment.
To the degree an individual’s capacity to interpret is denied and interpretations suppressed, that person’s individuality and humanity is denied.
Society always requires some degree of denial — tempering — of individuality, but the proper degree is contestable and is a matter of judgment. The belief that such tempering is unnecessary and unjust might sound liberal, but in fact is typically the result of illiberal privileging of one’s own judgment over the judgment of others who might experience excesses of untempered individuality as interfering with their attempts to live a reasonably peaceful life. The belief that the tempering of individuality can be settled unambiguously and rendered incontestable by laws or rules is also illiberal, because this belief generally presumes the objective correctness of one’s own interpretation of law.
Forms of liberalism that try to create conditions of material and social equality according to a single privileged interpretation of fairness are not only shallow, but they inevitably degrade into illiberal leftism. Deep liberalism is democratic and agonistic.
Are you a liberal? Ok, then: Where are you prepared to make painful concessions to public will? Where will you sacrifice intense superficial convictions to your deeper loyalty to liberal principles?