Tag: philosophy

acoustic renown

Kleos means both “glory” or “fame” and also “the song that ensures that glory or fame.” The noun is cognate with the Homeric verb kluō, meaning “I hear.” Kleos is sometimes translated as “acoustic renown” — the spreading renown you get from talking about your exploits.* It’s a bit like having a large Twitter following. In the Homeric version of the Ethos of the Extraordinary … to live a life worth living was to live a kleos-worthy life, a song-worthy life. Being sung, having one’s life spoken about, your story vivid in others’ heads, is what gives your life an added substance. It’s almost as if, in being vividly apprehended by others, you’re living simultaneously in their representations of you, acquiring additional lives to add to your meager one.

The Ethos of the Extraordinary answered that all that a person can do is to enlarge that life by the only means we have, striving to make of it a thing worth the telling, a thing that will have an impact on other minds, so that, being replicated there, it will take on a moreness. Kleos. Live so that others will hear of you. Paltry as it is, it’s the only way we have to beat back uncaring time. 

Our own culture of Facebook’s Likes and Twitter followings should put us in a good position to sympathize with an insistence on the social aspect of life-worthiness. Perhaps it’s a natural direction toward which a culture will drift, once the religious answers lose their grip. The ancient Greeks lived before the monotheistic solution took hold of Western culture, and we — or a great many of us — live after. A major difference between our two cultures is that, for the ancient Greeks, who lacked our social media, the only way to achieve such mass duplication of the details of one’s life in the apprehension of others was to do something wondrously worth the telling. Our wondrous technologies might just save us all the personal bother. Kleos is a tweet away. 

— Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex 

* “Though the gods are incessantly mentioned [in Pindar’s poems], this ethos presents a life worth living in terms that are drawn far more from the world of men. What is desired is not the attention of the immortals, but rather the attention of one’s fellow mortals. The gods come prominently into the picture because they either promote or prevent this good — that is, the achievement that brings fame — from being attained, but the good itself isn’t defined in terms of the gods. The good belongs to the world of mortals; it’s their attention and acclaim one is after.” – RNG

The achievement of coherence is itself ambiguous. Coherence is not necessarily good, and one must question its cost. Better sometimes to remain confused. 

— Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)


On the one hand, it’s good to stretch yourself intellectually; on the other hand, when you do so you might pull a muscle. In my recent essay on Cosmotechnics, I got in over my head — delightfully so, for me, but it led to at least one embarrassing error.

In my first footnote I talk about Yuk Hui’s use of the word qi and I get it wrong. I received a very kind email from a Sinologist named Nils Wieland explaining my mistake:

qi 氣 is the Qi non-Chinese speakers have heard of as some sort of energy or spirit, which Yuk Hui romanizes as Ch’i.

qi 器 doesn’t have the same popularity, it’s a standard Chinese word meaning container, vessel or instrument, and it’s the Qi from Yuk Hui’s Dao-Qi-duality.

(Both qi’s sound exactly the same, so I guess differentiating them by romanization is a good approach; what’s odd is that he chose the nowadays standard Pinyin spelling for the less famous qi – throwing people off 😉 )

Dammit! I knew something like this had to be the case; you wouldn’t believe how long and fruitlessly I googled the question. Again, this is what happens when your reach exceeds your grasp — and (trying to be meaningfully self-reflective here) I think on some level I was afraid that if I contacted a Sinologist I’d get the information but would also be told that my whole essay was nonsense. And I really wanted to write that essay.

I also have received a very kind message from Tongdong Bai, whom I quote in my essay, pointing to other work of his on the political implications (or lack thereof) of Daoism. Nils Wieland suggested some further reading too. So while I am embarrassed at my rookie error I have some interesting next steps to take in this project.


My essay in the just-out edition of The New Atlantis — if you want to read it now, please subscribe to this excellent journal, and even if you don’t want to read it at all, please subscribe to this excellent journal anyway — begins with a description of what I call the Standard Critique of Technology, or SCT. That critique has been articulated, in varying terms but with a significant conceptual unity, by a group of thinkers I very much admire, including Albert Borgmann, Ursula Franklin, Ivan Illich, and Neil Postman. An excerpt:

The basic argument of the SCT goes like this. We live in a technopoly, a society in which powerful technologies come to dominate the people they are supposed to serve, to reshape us in their image. These technologies, therefore, might be called prescriptive (to use Franklin’s term) or manipulatory (to use Illich’s). For example, social networks promise to forge connections — but also encourage mob rule. Facial-recognition software helps to identify suspects — and to keep tabs on whole populations. Collectively, these technologies constitute the device paradigm (Borgmann), which in turn produces a culture of compliance (Franklin).

The proper response to this situation is not to shun technology itself, for human beings are intrinsically and necessarily users of tools. Rather, it is to find and use technologies that, instead of manipulating us, serve sound human ends and the focal practices (Borgmann) that embody those ends. A table becomes a center for family life; a musical instrument skillfully played enlivens those around it. Those healthier technologies might be referred to as holistic (Franklin) or convivial (Illich), because they fit within the human lifeworld and enhance our relations with one another. Our task, then, is to discern these tendencies or affordances of our technologies and, on both social and personal levels, choose the holistic, convivial ones.

The problem with the SCT isn’t that it’s wrong — it’s admirably incisive and acute — but that it has, so far anyway, been powerless. In this essay I suggest an alternative approach — a kind of alternative to critique itself — that draws on, of all things, Daoism, approached by way of the work on “cosmotechnics” by the philosopher Yuk Hui. It’s not a definitive treatise that I have written but rather an exploration, an attempt to trace some new paths for thinking about technology and technopoly.

how he got away with it

In a lovely remembrance of Kołakowski, Roger Scruton muses on the question of how the Polish thinker “got away with” his incessant assaults on the sacred cows of modern academic thought. His critiques were persistent and incisive, and yet he made very few, if any, enemies. Scruton concludes,

Those who knew Kolakowski will remember his remarkable liveliness, achieved in defiance of long-standing physical frailty. I would encounter him, for the most part, at conferences and academic events. Nothing about him was more impressive than the humour and modesty with which he would deliver his opinions. He wore his scholarship lightly and showed a remarkable ability, until his death on 17 July 2009 at the age of 82, to respond with freshness and understanding to the arguments of others.

And perhaps this was his secret, and the explanation of the way in which he “got away with it” — that he never entered the foreground of others’ judgment as a dangerous opponent, but always as a sceptical friend. No alarm-bells sounded when he began his gentle arguments; and even if, at the end of them, nothing remained of the subversive orthodoxies, nobody felt damaged in their ego or defeated in their life’s project, by arguments which from any other source would have inspired the greatest indignation.

To be the “sceptical friend” of those with whom one argues — that’s not a bad ambition.

nature and freedom

The notion that we “have a nature,” far from threatening the concept of freedom, is absolutely essential to it. If we were genuinely plastic and indeterminate at birth, there could be no reason why society should not stamp us into any shape that might suit it. The reason people view suggestions about inborn tendencies with such indiscriminate horror seems to be that they think exclusively in one particular way in which the idea of such tendencies has been misused, namely, that where conservative theorists invoke them uncritically to resist reform. But liberal theorists who combat such resistance need them just as much, and indeed, usually more. The early architects of our current notion of freedom made human nature their cornerstone. Rousseau’s trumpet call “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains,” makes sense only as description of our innate constitution as something positive, already determined, and conflicting with what society does to us. 

— Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1979) 


Was Adorno right? This is perhaps the wrong question to ask, because philosophy at its best offers not definitive answers but the encouragement to sustain a critical posture in all our questioning.

Peter E. Gordon. I’ve been hearing some version of this line for around fifty years now. I don’t care for it. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if the best that philosophy can offer me is to “sustain a critical posture in all [my] questioning,” then to hell with it. Because that “sustaining” would be an untrammeled good for me only if I never had to make any decisions, if I never had to act on the basis of what I believe to be true.

Far too often academics talk about philosophical ideas as though they are only contemplated by professional scholars for whom what matters is getting published, not acting decisively and consequentially in the world. “Sustaining a critical posture” is perfectly fine for them, because the position you take, or decline to take, has no necessary relevance to publication. (Though to be sure, academic life being what it is, if one wants to go beyond “problematizing” to affirmation there are many, many affirmations you’d better not make.)

This is why we have seen the creation of endeavors like the School of Life — institutions built for people who can’t stop asking the philosophical questions in which professional philosophers have no interest, because they’re too busy sustaining their critical posture. Which apparently is a full-time job.

teaching the Gorgias

Tomorrow I’ll be teaching Plato’s Gorgias, and today I’ve been reviewing it. It strikes me, as it always does when I read this dialogue, that this is Socrates at his worst, and I find myself asking, as I always ask when I read this dialogue, whether Plato knew that.

Socrates’s chief opponent here, Callicles, is contemptible in his frank hedonism and lust for power, but he makes one point (482e) that I find compelling: He says that Socrates pretends to care about truth, but in fact only tries, through subtly shifting the terms of an argument, to manipulate people into admitting inconsistencies which he then pounces on. A little later on (485e) he calls this habit adolescent — and that seems right to me. Socrates offers the occasional noble speech about wanting to find the best way to live — or rather, about how he has found and embodies the best way to live — but in actual dialectical disputation seems to care only about trivial point-scoring based on shifting the meanings of words. (“Aren’t we claiming that people who feel pleasure are good? And that people suffering distress are bad?”)

No wonder Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles all get thoroughly exasperated with him, at first giving answers “on cue,” as Callicles puts it, and then simply declining to respond, so that for an extended period of the dialogue Socrates is reduced to answering his own questions. And even when Callicles starts responding again, it’s only “so that you can get on and finish the argument.” (Though later still — as Socrates doggedly pursues his cheese-paring course — he wonders, “Can’t you speak without someone answering your questions?”)

Now, one way to explain this is to say that Socrates’s three interlocutors are completely lacking in the philosophical temperament — like many of their fellow Athenians, who will, we are sometimes reminded obliquely in this dialogue, eventually put Socrates to death — and that my own sympathy with their exasperation suggests that I lack that temperament as well.

But if so, why does Plato have Socrates make so many arguments that (as every decent commentary points out) are simply bad? Just to emphasize the contempt that Socrates has for these people? That doesn’t seem likely.

The Gorgias is a very strange dialogue and poses all sorts of pedagogical difficulties. Because if what I have said here about Socrates and his interlocutors is correct, no one in this dialogue makes good arguments.

Nietzsche and Montaigne

Today I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion of my friend Rob Miner’s new book Nietzsche and Montaigne. This is the outline of my talk.

On Health

Introductory thoughts

  • First of all, what a superb book this is!
  • My learning is not comparable to Rob’s, so all you’ll get from me is a kind of riff on a theme that, when I was reading Rob’s book, struck me as especially interesting, and that theme is health.
  • The question of what makes for a healthy human life — and I want to stress the importance of this idea of health as opposed to something like Aristotelian eudaimonia, — is an essential one for Montaigne, and Nietzsche picks up on that, at first endorsing but ultimately revising Montaigne’s understanding.
  • I’m going to unpack that claim very briefly and suggestively here, and claim (there’s no time today to argue) that insofar as the two thinkers differ, Montaigne has the better of it.

Health in Montaigne

  • As Rob writes (p.45):
    • “Montaigne understands philosophy as a power or virtue that dwells in the soul, making it and the body healthy. It aims to have a certain effect on its practitioner. What is this effect? Philosophy, he writes, ‘should make tranquility and gladness shine out from within, should form in its own mold the outward demeanor, and consequently arm it with graceful pride, an active and joyous bearing, and a contented and good-natured countenance.’ [The anticipation of Nietzsche’s designation of true philosophy as a “gay science” should be obvious. Rob now comments,] Here two aspects of the human person are distinguished: an inward and an outward. Philosophy brings these aspects togerther, so that the outward expresses the inward, resulting in the rare condition that Montaigne calls ‘healthy.’ Health is the condition that philosophy brings about; it is not the default condition.”
    • Rob then quotes a passage from the essay “Of Presumption”: “The body has a great part in our being, it holds a high rank in it; so its structure and composition are well worth consideration.”
  • Now, I would like to suggest — and I make this suggest under correction by nobler minds — that in his later essays Montaigne shifts this emphasis somewhat. Consider this famous passage from “Of Repentance”:
    • “Meanwhile I loathe that consequential [or ‘accidental’] repenting which old age brings. That Ancient who said that he was obliged to the passing years for freeing him from sensual pleasures held quite a different opinion from mine: I could never be grateful to infirmity for any good it might do me…. Our appetites are few when we are old: and once they are over we are seized by a profound disgust. I can see nothing of conscience in that: chagrin and feebleness imprint on us a lax and snotty virtue. We must not allow ourselves to be so borne away by natural degeneration that it bastardizes our judgement…. My temptations are so crippled and enfeebled that they are not worth opposing. I can conjure them away by merely stretching out my hands. Confront my reason with my former longings and I fear that that it will show less power of resistance than once it did. I cannot see that, of itself, it judges in any way differently now than it did before, nor that it is freshly enlightened. So if it has recovered it is a botched recovery. A wretched sort of cure, to owe one’s health to sickliness.”
    • He then argues for a kind of commensurate exchange of virtue between the mind and the body: “Let the mind awaken and quicken the heaviness of the body: let the body arrest the lightness of the mind and fix it fast.”
    • And at this point Montaigne does something rather unusual, for him — he quotes a Christian authority, St. Augustine, from the City of God: “He who eulogizes the nature of the soul as the sovereign good and who indicts the nature of the flesh as an evil desires the soul with a fleshly desire and flees from the flesh in a fleshly way, since his thought is based on human vanity not on divine truth.”
  • So I think Montaigne may have reached a position near the end of his life where he might not believe, as he once did, that “philosophy [is] a power or virtue that dwells in the soul, making it and the body healthy.” He might say rather that whether one is capable of philosophy depends as much on the “power or virtue” of the body as to the excellence of the mind — and that, by ignoring this fact, we come to think that we have become true philosophers, fully enacting our philosophical commitments, when in fact we have only suffered debilitation of the body. We interpret bodily disease as mental strength.
  • Montaigne does not seem to think that we can do anything about this: we cannot make the body strong again when through old age or some other affliction it begins to fail. But we can at least know our own true condition.

Health in Nietzsche

  • In a crucial passage near the end of his book, Rob returns to the matter of health — not for the first time, mind you — and explores the notion of “great health” that Nietzsche introduces late in The Gay Science (#382). There are many things that one could say about this exceptional section of Nietzsche’s great transitional work.
    • Nietzsche introduces the concept thus: “We who are new, nameless, hard to understand; we premature births of an as yet unproved future – for a new end, we also need a new means, namely, a new health that is stronger, craftier, tougher, bolder, and more cheerful than any previous health.” (Note the persistent emphasis, which wwe see also in Montaigne, on cheerfulness).
    • And at the end of the section he suggests that only great health can produce a new great seriousness: “the ideal of a human, superhuman well-being and benevolence that will often enough appear inhuman for example, when it places itself next to all earthly seriousness heretofore, all forms of solemnity in gesture, word, tone, look, morality, and task as if it were their most incarnate and involuntary parody – and in spite of all this, it is perhaps only with it that the great seriousness really emerges; that the real question mark is posed for the first time; that the destiny of the soul changes; the hand of the clock moves forward; the tragedy begins.” (Isn’t that last clause rather startling?)
    • But I want to focus on something else in the section, something almost buried and yet vital: “Anyone who wants to know from the adventures of his own experience how it feels to be the discoverer or conqueror of an ideal, or to be an artist, a saint, a lawmaker, a sage, a pious man, a soothsayer, an old-style divine loner – any such person needs one thing above all – the great health, a health that one doesn’t only have, but also acquires continually and must acquire because one gives it up again and again, and must give it up!”
  • Why must one give it up, and what does that mean?
    • Here we need to turn to Nietzsche’s last book, Ecco Homo, where he quotes the entirety of the section of The Gay Science I have just explored, and connects it to Zarathustra as an ideal type: he says that “great health” is the physiological precondition of Zarathustra, and therefore of what Nietzsche wants to be.
    • And yet, still in Ecce Homo, immediately after citing this passage Nietzsche writes, “Afterwards” — that is, after writing the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, or as Nietzsche would say after “finding” it — “I lay ill for a few weeks in Genoa. This was followed by a melancholy spring in Rome, when I put up with life — it was not easy.” This does not sound like someone in great health!
    • But his point here is that the achievement of something great inevitably depletes one’s energies, is costly to one’s health. When walking in the mountains to “find” his book, he says, “my muscular agility has always been at its greatest when my creative energy is flowing most abundantly. The body is inspired: let’s leave the ‘soul’ out of it… I could often be seen dancing; in those days I could be walking around on mountains for seven or eight hours without a trace of tiredness. I slept well and laughed a lot — I was the epitome of sprightliness and patience.”
    • Then came what he calls the crisis: “everything great, be it a work or a deed, once it has been accomplished, immediately turns against whoever did it. By virtue of having done it, he is now weak — he can no longer endure his deed, can no longer face up to it. To have something behind you that you should never have wanted, something that constitutes a nodal point in the destiny of humanity — and from then on to have it on top of you!… It almost crushes you.”
    • A little later Nietzsche says of this kind of experience: “This is how a god suffers.” But another way to put the point is: Because I suffer so profoundly, I must be a god.

Concluding thoughts

  • So let me now try to draw these threads together.
    • For Montaigne, it is surely true that health is mens sana in corpore sano, but because we are mortal, because we age and decline, the healthy mind must also be one that accommodates itself to the body’s inevitable changes. This means that a healthy mind in a less-than-healthy body must seek a kind of self-knowledge that is hard for prideful human beings, who always want to give themselves credit they don’t deserve. Montaigne believed that one should always, as the Stoics taught, strive to live “according to nature,” and since it is our nature to grow old and feeble before we die, that Stoic mandate requires a certain ironic acceptance of declining powers. This is the kind of health appropriate to a changeable mortal.
    • For Nietzsche, by contrast, this might be all well and good for the “higher cattle” — but not for one who aspires to the great seriousness. For one of the Zarathustra type, life is an endless dialectic of boundless, ecstatic energy and exhausted disease. Indeed, this is, I think what great health is: not the energy alone, but the energy and the exhaustion in inevitable exchange.
    • And this is why it is impossible to conceive of Nietzsche as an old man.

Plutarch and the end of the oracles

In my History of Disenchantment class, we’ve been discussing Plutarch’s essay on the cessation or the silence or the failure of the oracles. (The key word there, ekleloipoton, seems to be an odd one — I’m trying to learn more about it.) I read it long ago, but this is the first time I’ve taught it, and goodness, what a fascinating piece of work.

It was widely recognized in Plutarch’s time (late first and early second century A.D.) that the great oracles of the ancient world — the most famous of them being the one at Delphi, of course — had largely ceased to provide useful guidance or had fallen silent altogether. Some of the once famous shrines had been abandoned and had fallen into ruin. But no one understood why this had happened. Plutarch’s “essay” is a fictional dialogue — narrated by one Lamprias, who also takes the leading role in the conversation and may well be Plutarch’s mouthpiece — in which a group of philosophically-inclined men debate the possible reasons for the oracles’ failure.

In the opening pages of the dialogue, some of the participants deny that there is any real problem. They point to the inaccessibility of some of the shrines, and the lack of population in the surrounding areas: for them the issue is merely one of low demand leading to low supply. But this view is not widely accepted; most of the philosophers are uneasy about the oracles and feel that something is up. And after all, if low demand leads to low supply, why is there low demand? Even if the oracles are located in remote places, surely people would take the trouble to make a pilgrimage there if they believed that by doing so they could receive wise guidance for their lives.

To one of the participants, the answer to the whole problem is obvious: The gods are angry at us for our wickedness and have punitively withdrawn their guidance. But, perhaps surprisingly, no one finds this a compelling explanation. For one thing, it’s not clear to them there was any less wickedness in the earlier eras when the oracles flourished; and more to the point, are oracles given by the gods in the first place?

If they are, then shouldn’t they continue forever, since the gods themselves are immortal, unless they are specifically withdrawn? Not necessarily, says one: “the gods do not die, but their gifts do” — a line he says is from Sophocles, though I don’t know its source. Maybe the oracles lived their natural course and have now fallen silent, as one day we all will.

But what if oracles do not come from the gods, but rather from daimons? In that case the oracles might die because the daimons do. This leads to a long discussion about whether daimons are mortal, and if mortal or not whether they are necessarily good. (The one truly famous passage from this essay — in which someone recounts a story about a sailor instructed to pass by an island and cry out “The great god Pan is dead” — assumes that Pan was not a god but rather a daimon, the son of Hermes by Odysseus’s famously loyal wife Penelope.)

And this in turn leads to a very long conversation about the beings that populate the world and whether there might be other worlds populated differently and, now that we think about it, how many worlds are there anyway? (The most popular answer among the discussants: 185.) As I told my students, this is by modern standards a bizarre digression, especially since it takes up about half the dialogue, but our standards were not those of Plutarch’s time; and in any case the discussants might plausibly say that we can’t come up with a reliable solution to the puzzle of the silenced oracles unless we have a good general understanding of the kind of cosmos we live in.

In any event, the discussion eventually circles back around to the initial question, and in the final pages Lamprias gets the chance to develop the argument that he has been hinting at all along. In brief, he contends that oracles are always situated in or near caves because from those caves issue “exhalations of the earth”; and that certain people with natural gifts and excellent training of those gifts may be sensitized to the character of those exhalations, and in that way come to some intuitive and not-easily-verbalized awareness of what the world has in store for people. It’s almost a Gaia hypothesis, this idea that the world as a whole acts in certain fixed ways, and those “exhalations” attest to the more general movements of the planet. But these processes are, like all processes in Nature, subject to change over time. As a spring might dry up, or a river after flooding alter its course, so too the conditions for such exhalations might change so that there is nothing for even the most exquisitely sensitive and perfectly trained priestess to respond to.

The first and overwhelming response to Lamprias’s explanation is: Impiety! One of the interlocutors comments that first we rejected the gods in favor of daimons, and now we’re rejecting daimons in favor of a purely natural process. That is, Lamprias’s position is fundamentally disenchanting. To this Lamprias replies that his position is not impious at all, because they had all agreed earlier that in addition to humans and daimons and gods, none of whom create anything, we also have, abobe and beyond all, The God, “the Lord and Father of All,” and He is he first cause of all things, including exhalations of the earth and priestesses.

But whether it’s impious or not, Lamprias’s account is disenchanting, because it removes power from spirits and gods and concentrates them in a single transcendent Monad. His monotheism is a big step towards the religion of Israel, which tells us in the very first words of its Scriptures that the sun and moon and stars are not deities at all, but rather things made by YHWH, who alone merits our worship. Lamprias’s position, like that of the Jews, looks to those accustomed to polytheism as a kind of atheism. And by their standards that’s just what it is.

“in fact the mind was poorly understood”

Astounding, really, that Michel could consider psychology any kind of science at all. So much of it consisted of throwing together. Of thinking of the mind as a steam engine, the mechanical analogy most ready to hand during the birth of modern psychology. People had always done that when they thought about the mind: clockwork for Descartes, geological changes for the early Victorians, computers or holography for the twentieth century, AIs for the twenty-first…. and for the Freudian traditionalists, steam engines. Application of heat, pressure buildup, pressure displacement, venting, all shifted into repression, sublimation, the return of the repressed. Sax thought it unlikely steam engines were an adequate model for the human mind. The mind was more like — what? — an ecology — a fellfield — or else a jungle, populated by all manner of strange beasts. Or a universe, filled with stars and quasars and black holes. Well — a bit grandiose, that — really it was more like a complex collection of synapses and axons, chemical energies surging hither and yon, like weather in an atmosphere. That was better — weather — storm fronts of thought, high-pressure zones, low-pressure cells, hurricanes — the jet streams of biological desires, always making their swift powerful rounds…. life in the wind. Well. Throwing together. In fact the mind was poorly understood.

— Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars

the moral ideal

When the guide of conduct is a moral ideal we are never suffered to escape from perfection. Constantly, indeed on all occasions, the society is called upon to seek virtue as the crow flies. It may even be said that the moral life, in this form, demands a hyperoptic moral vision and encourages intense moral emulation among those who enjoy it…. And the unhappy society, with an ear for every call, certain always about what it ought to think (though it will never for long be the same thing), in action shies and plunges like a distracted animal….

Too often the excessive pursuit of one ideal leads to the exclusion of others, perhaps all others; in our eagerness to realize justice we come to forget charity, and a passion for righteousness has made many a man hard and merciless. There is indeed no ideal the pursuit of which will not lead to disillusion; chagrin waits at the end for all who take this path. Every admirable ideal has its opposite, no less admirable. Liberty or order, justice or charity, spontaneity or deliberateness, principle or circumstance, self or others, these are the kinds of dilemma with which this form of the moral life is always confronting us, making a see double by directing our attention always to abstract extremes, none of which is wholly desirable.

— Michael Oakeshott, “The Tower of Babel”

Kuhn’s world

This is very good by Philip Kitcher on Errol Morris’s rather misguided attack on Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When I teach Kuhn I always try to show my students that there is a big difference between (a) epistemology and (b) the sociology of knowledge, and what people think about Kuhn largely depends on which of those two genres Structure belongs to.

Aristotle the colonizer

Agnes Callard:

Recently a historian of philosophy named Wolfgang Mann wrote a book called The Discovery of Things. He argues, just as the title of his book suggests, that Aristotle discovered things. It’s a bookabout the distinction between subject and predicate in Aristotle’s Categories—between what is and how it is. You may not have realized this but: someone had to come up with that! Many of the things that seem obvious to you—that human beings have basic rights, that knowledge requires justification, that modus ponens is a valid syllogistic form, that the world is filled with things—people had to come up with those ideas. And the people who came up with them were philosophers.

So you are pretty much constantly thinking thoughts that, in one way or another, you inherited from philosophers. You don’t see it, because philosophical exports are the kinds of thing that, once you internalize them, just seem like the way things are. So the reason to read Aristotle isn’t (just) that he’s a great philosopher, but that he’s colonized large parts of your mind.

what philosophy is for

Jean-Paul Sartre was working furiously on his second play, Les Mouches (The Flies), while finishing his major philosophy treatise, L’Être et le néant (Being and Nothingness). Jean Paulhan had convinced Gallimard to publish the 700-page essay even if the commercial prospects were extremely limited. However, three weeks after it came out in early August, sales took off. Gallimard was intrigued to see so many women buying L’Être et le néant. It turned out that since the book weighed exactly one kilogram, people were simply using it as a weight, as the usual copper weights had disappeared to be sold on the black market or melted down to make ammunition.

— Agnès Poirier, via Warren Ellis

the wisdom of Xún Zǐ

On his blog this morning, Rod Dreher publishes a fascinating letter from a reader in China, who suggests that the work of Xún Zǐ might be a good entryway into Chinese culture.

As it happens, I wrote about Xún Zǐ in my book on original sin. I introduce him after briefly describing the thought of Confucius’s disciple Mencius, who believed that human beings are intrinsically good. Here’s the relevant passage:

But some generations later there came along another great sage, one who also considered himself a faithful disciple of Confucius, who believed that Mencius had gotten it all wrong. His name was Xún Zǐ (310-237 BCE), and it is probably not coincidental that he lived in what has long been called the Warring States Period, when the unifying power of the Zhou dynasty was weakening and the social order crumbling. “The nature of man is evil,” Xún Zǐ wrote; “man’s inborn nature is to seek for gain. If this tendency is followed, strife and rapacity result and deference and compliance disappear. By inborn nature one is envious and hates others. If these tendencies are followed, injury and destruction result and loyalty and faithfulness disappear.” If we feel a pang of compassion or anxiety for a child falling into a well, that is because the life or death of that child does not affect our interests — we do not gain by it. If we knew that we would gain by that child’s death, then not only would we feel no anxiety, we’d give the kid a good push.

But then, someone might say, people often, or at least sometimes, do virtuous deeds. If our nature is evil, where does goodness come from? Xún Zǐ has a ready reply: “I answer that all propriety and righteousness are results of the activity” — this word carries connotations of creativity and artifice — “of sages and not originally produced from man’s nature…. The sages gathered together their ideas and thoughts and became familiar with activity, facts, and principles, and thus produced propriety and righteousness and instituted laws and systems.”

So it would seem that the news from Xún Zǐ is not so bad after all, and not so different from the model of Mencius. Yes, we have an innately evil nature, and come into this world predisposed to greed and strife; however, these tendencies are correctable by the judicious enforcement of well-made laws. The one thing needful is that the sages, who have “gathered together their ideas and thoughts and became familiar with activity, facts, and principles,” are the ones given charge of “laws and systems.” Philosophers rule — or should.

So for Xún Zǐ inborn evil is not so much a curse as an annoyance. Thanks to basic human intelligence, which allows us to see when things aren’t working properly and then take the necessary steps to address the problems, we can find sages (“sage-kings,” he later says) to establish laws and social structures that mitigate evil and build up good. And, not incidentally, Xún Zǐ believes that “Every man in the street possesses the faculty to know [humanity, righteousness, laws, and correct principles] and the capacity to practice them.” Therefore, almost anyone can become a sage; there is no reason why there should ever be a shortage of them.

It’s Xún Zǐ’s matter-of-factness that’s noteworthy here, and really rather attractive. What his philosophy indicates is that one can have a very low view of human nature without being what William James, in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) calls a “sick soul”: a person tormented by consciousness of sin and helpless in the face of temptation. James spoke of such people as “these children of wrath and cravers of a second birth,” and it was almost axiomatic to him that their personality is antithetical to the confidence and assurance and warmth of what he calls “the religion of healthy-mindedness.” But Xún Zǐ, for all his insistence on the depths of our innate sinfulness, seems the very embodiment of healthy-mindedness. How is this possible? It turns out that what matters more than your view of “human nature” is your view of the relative importance of nature and nurture. For Xún Zǐ human nature is evil, but nature is also easily controllable and eminently improvable. All you have to do is put the philosophers in charge.

two quotations on the shape of lives

The problem of meaning is created by limits, by being just this, by being merely this. The young feel this less strongly. Although they would agree, if they thought about it, that they will realize only some of the (feasible) possibilities before them, none of these various possibilities is yet excluded in their minds. The young live in each of the futures open to them. The poignancy of growing older does not lie in one’s particular path being less satisfying or good than it promised earlier to be — the path may turn out to be all one thought. It lies in traveling only one (or two, or three) of those paths. Economists speak of the opportunity cost of something as the value of the best alternative foregone for it. For adults, strangely, the opportunity cost of our lives appears to us to be the value of all the foregone alternatives summed together, not merely the best other one. When all the possibilities were yet still before us, it felt as if we would do them all.

— Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations

We live out our lives, both individually and in our relationships with each other, in the light of certain conceptions of a possible shared future, a future in which certain possibilities beckon us forward and others repel us, some seem already foreclosed and others perhaps inevitable. There is no present which is not informed by some image of some future and an image of the future which always presents itself in the form of a telos — or of a variety of ends or goals — towards which we are either moving or failing to move in the present. Unpredictability and teleology therefore coexist as part of our lives; like characters in a fictional narrative we do not know what will happen next, but nonetheless our lives have a certain form which projects itself towards our future. Thus the narratives which we live out have both an unpredictable and a partially teleological character. If the narrative of our individual and social lives is to continue intelligibly — and either type of narrative may lapse into unintelligibility — it is always both the case that there are constraints on how the story may continue and that within those constraints there are indefinitely many ways that it can continue.

— Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd. ed.

I find it amusing to reflect on the idea that mankind may sometime soon grow tired of reading and that writers will do so too, that the scholar will one day direct in his last will and testament that his corpse shall be buried surrounded by his books and especially by his own writings. And if it is true that the forests are going to get thinner and thinner, may the time not come one day when the libraries should be used for timber, straw and brushwood? Since most books are born out of smoke and vapour of the brain, they ought to return to smoke and vapour. And if they have no fire of their own in them, fire should punish them for it.

Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator”

The education of German youth, however, proceeds from precisely this false and unfruitful conception ofculture: its goal, viewed in its essence, is not at all the  free cultivated man but the scholar, the man of science, and indeed the most speedily employable man of science, who stands aside from life so as to know it unobstructedly; its result, observed empirically, is the historical-aesthetic cultural philistine, the pre­cocious and up-to-the-minute babbler about state, church and art, the man who appreciates everything, the insatiable stomach which nonetheless does not know what honest hunger and thirst are. That an education with this goal and this result is an anti-natural one is apprehensible only to one who has not yet been fully processed by it; it is apprehensible only to the instinct of youth, for youth still possesses that instinct of nature which remains intact until artificially and forcibly shattered by this education.

— Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”

Code Fetishists vs. Antinomians

Charles Taylor explains many (most?) internet debates — and a great many others from the past two hundred years. If you ever wonder why people on Twitter (serious people, not mere trolls) can get so extreme in their policing of deviations from approved behavior, see “The Perils of Moralism,” in Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays (emphases mine):

Modern liberal society tends toward a kind of “code fetishism,” or nomolatry. It tends to forget the background which makes sense of any code — the variety of goods which rules and norms are meant to realize — as well as the vertical dimension which arises above all these.

We can see this above in relation to contemporary Anglo-Saxon moral philosophy, as well as in the drive to codification in liberal society. But the sources go back deeper in our culture. I want to argue that it was a turn in Latin Christendom which sent us down this road. This was the drive to reform in its various stages and variants — not just the Protestant Reformation, but a series of moves on both sides of the confessional divide. The attempt was always to make people over as more perfect practicing Christians, through articulating codes and inculcating disciplines. Until the Christian life became more and more identified with these codes and disciplines.

In other words, this code-centrism came about as the by-product of an attempt to make over the lives of Christians, and their social order, so as to make them conform thoroughly to the demands of the Gospel. I am talking not of a particular, revolutionary moment, but of a long, ascending series of attempts to establish a Christian order, of which the Reformation is a key phase…. (351)

Code fetishism means that the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code. Kant proposes perhaps the most moving form of this (but perhaps the capture wasn’t complete in his case). His followers today, be they Rawls or Habermas or others again, carry on this reduction (although Habermas seems to have had recent second thoughts).

Modern culture is marked by a series of revolts against this moralism, in both its Christian and non-Christian forms. Think of the great late nineteenth-century reaction in England against evangelical “puritanism” that we associate with names as diverse as Arnold, Wilde, and later Bloomsbury; or think of Ibsen; or of Nietzsche and all those who follow him, including those rebelling against the various disciplines that have helped constitute this modern moralization, such as our contemporary, Michel Foucault.

But these reactions start earlier. The code-centered notion of order and its attendant disciplines begin to generate negative reactions from the eighteenth century on. These form, for instance, the central themes of the Romantic period. Many people found it hard to believe, even preposterous, that the achievement of this code-bound life should exhaust the significance of human existence. It’s almost as though each form of protest were adding its own verse to the famous Peggy Lee song: “Is that all there is?” (353)

One can, of course, and perhaps even should, question Rorty’s account of the various ways in which people are socialized into assuming the existence of non-contingent patterns. After all, it is also possible for one’s socialization to pull the other way – away from a recognition of pattern rather than towards it. I know of no more powerful illustration of this point than the concluding pages of V. S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, a memoir of his first visit to his ancestral homeland. “The world is illusion, the Hindus say,” and Naipaul reflects that while he was in India he had come close to the “total Indian negation”: during the year that he lived on the subcontinent it had very nearly “become the basis of thought and feeling.” But, back in Europe, he can no longer find that “basis,” no longer share that “negation” – yet he is not sure whether he has recovered the proper orientation to his life or lost it: “And already … in a world where illusion could only be a concept and not something felt in the bones, it was slipping away from me. I felt it as something true which I could never adequately express and never seize again.” The possibility that people born and educated in the West in our time might be culturally formed in such a way that contingency is what they “feel in their bones” — so that a belief in the world as illusion, or in the providence of a just God, is at most a mere “concept” — is one that people like Rorty never take seriously, even if their theory obliges them to an acknowledgment of it.

— That’s me, from Looking Before and After. For some reason I’ve been thinking lately about this issue.

The engagement of understanding is, then, a continuous, self-moved, critical enterprise of theorising. Its principle is: Never ask the end. Of the paths it may follow, some (we may suppose) will soon exhaust their promise. It is an engagement of arrivals and departures. Temporary platforms of conditional understanding are always being reached, and the theorist may turn aside to explore them. But each is an arrival, an enlightenment, and a point of departure. The notion of an unconditional or definitive understanding may hover in the background, but it has no part in the adventure…

Here, theorizing has revealed itself to be an unconditional adventure in which every achievement of understanding is an invitation to investigate itself and where the reports a theorist makes to himself are interim triumphs of temerity over scruple. And for a theorist not to respond to this invitation cannot be on account of his never having received it. It does not reach him from afar and by special messenger; it is implicit in every engagement to understand and is delivered to him whenever he reflects. The irony of all theorizing is its propensity to generate, not an understanding, but a not-yet-understood.

— Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct (1975);  cited here as a possible, rare instance of an ‘absolute secularity’, incorruptible by revelation, only for a commenter to point out at once how similar it is to both some kinds of reading and some kinds of religious belief. (via unapologetic-book)

The other thing for which I am grateful to philosophy is that, at least in the world in which I first sought to make a name for myself, one was required to write clearly, concisely, and logically. Wittgenstein said that whatever can be said can be said clearly, and that became something of a mantra for my generation. At one time, the British journal Analysis sponsored regular competitions: some senior philosopher propounded a problem, which one was required to solve in 600 words or less, the winner receiving as a prize a year’s subscription to the magazine. Here is an example of the kind of problem, propounded by J. L. Austin, that engaged Analysis’s subscribers: “What kind of ‘if ’ is the ‘if ’ in ‘I can if I choose?’ ” (Hint: it cannot be the truth-conditional “if ” of material implication, as in, “If p, then q.”)

I tried answering all the problems, and never won a prize. But the exercise taught me how to write. The great virtues of clarity, concision, and coherence, insisted upon throughout the Anglo-American philosophical community, have immunized the profession against the stylistic barbarity of Continental philosophy, which, taken up as it has been since the early 1970s by the humanistic disciplines—by literary theory, anthropology, art history, and many others—has had a disastrous effect, especially on academic culture, severely limiting the ability of those with advanced education to contribute to the intellectual needs of our society. It is true that analytical philosophers, reinforced by the demands of their profession to work within their constricting horizons, have not directly served society by applying their tools to the densely knotted problems of men, to use Dewey’s term for where the energies of philosophy should be directed. At one point it became recognized that “clarity is not enough.” It is not enough. But the fact that it remains a stylistic imperative in most Anglo-American philosophy departments means that these virtues are being kept alive against the time when the humanities need to recover them.

— Arthur C. Danto (available to subscribers only, I think)