Philosophy and Progress

The other day, Chris Daly of the University of Manchester published a piece at Aeon under the headline “Why Doesn’t Philosophy Progress from Debate to Consensus?

Professor Daly first discusses Thomas Kuhn’s challenge to the idea that science makes progress, limiting himself to the qualified response that, whatever the limits of science, it certainly seems to have produced a great deal more consensus among its devotees than has philosophy. I do wish Professor Daly had gone into greater depth on this point. After all, even the most restrictive definition of philosophy would have to include Plato and a more or less continuous line of thinkers from Plato’s day to ours. That gives you an enterprise that was ongoing for over two thousand years before anyone had heard of the idea of progress. It seems likely that philosophy will persist for thousands of years after that idea is forgotten, unless the human race manages to liquidate itself in the meantime. Kuhn’s model, in fact, would seem to warrant a hope that science, like philosophy, will be compatible with an understanding that all that happens over time is that you get more of some things and less of others, and in any given era the set of things that are decreasing and the set of things that are increasing will both include a mix of good and bad. On Kuhn’s account, neither science nor philosophy is dependent on a belief that history goes in a specific direction and that that direction is a desirable one.

Professor Daly goes on to list five answers traditionally given to his question:

  1. “Challenge the pessimism” by giving examples of philosophical problems that have been solved. The example which Professor Daly gives, and about which he expresses reservation, is Noam Chomsky’s claim that Newton solved the mind-body problem by positing the Force of Gravity. For Descartes, two things could not interact with each other unless they had a point of contact, and they could not have a point of contact unless they were composed of the same substance. Since mind and body seem to be different in substance, he could not explain how they could interact. By describing gravity, Chomsky argues, Newton showed that objects could interact without contact. This not only sweeps aside the proposition that bodies cannot interact without contact, but shows that there are no bodies at all in Descartes’ sense. It thereby dissolves the problem.

    Professor Daly objects that this argument only defeats Descartes’ definition of body. Physical entities do in fact exist, and mental phenomena do in fact seem to be radically different from them. So there is still a mind-body problem, even if it is not logically equivalent to the problem Descartes described.

    I would also object that Chomsky’s proposal ignores the history of the question. Whether there can be interactions among entities that are made of such different stuff that they cannot touch each other was precisely the issue when the Stoics and Epicureans argued with each other about whether humans, who are made of atoms and are therefore mortal, and gods, who are immortal and must therefore be made of something altogether different from atomic matter, can affect each other. Against the Epicurean claim that a collection of atoms could never come into contact with whatever the gods would be made of, the Stoics appealed to the laws of nature as a medium through which gods and mortals could influence each other without contact. Newton’s triumph over figures like Descartes and Spinoza repeated a battle won sixteen centuries before by Posidonius and his associates.

    If I were to give an example of a problem that philosophers had managed to solve, I would probably mention Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. That some mathematicians nowadays claim that side of Gödel’s work as exclusively their own, insisting that it is separate from the philosophy of mathematics, points to another reason why it often seems that the problems of philosophy are all insoluble- solve one, and people in other fields try to make off with it.

2. Dismiss the issue, and indeed the whole of philosophy, by claiming that “philosophical problems aren’t real problems.” This one doesn’t give Professor Daly much trouble. If the problems were just word-play, it would be as easy to make them go away as it is to solve a crossword puzzle, yet none of the people who make that claim has managed to accomplish such a solution.

3. Claim that “philosophical problems are just much harder than science problems” and therefore take more time to solve. He’s unimpressed by this one, and deals with it in a couple of short sentences.

4. Claim that the classic problems of philosophy resist solution because solving them requires us to do things to which our brains are not suited. Professor Daly calls this an “interesting piece of speculation,” and notes that the limits of human understanding are in fact a topic of empirical research. But he also finds it rather too convenient to say that solving philosophical problems is beyond our ken while “everything else we do in philosophy… is open to us.”

5. Daly’s own position is somewhere to be found in his description of the final option, so I will quote it in its entirety:

The fifth diagnosis, the one I think explains the most, doesn’t single out any one factor to explain philosophy’s lack of progress. Instead, it takes this to be the interaction effect of a cluster of things. As we saw in the case of intuitions, there’s controversy not only about the theories that philosophers devise but also about many of the methods or kinds of data that they appeal to in support of their theories. Also, philosophical problems have ‘entangled’ natures: proposed solutions to one problem require contentious assumptions about other live problems. For example, there’s a problem in saying what morality is about – what it is for actions or people to be morally good or bad. But this problem is not compartmentalised. Accompanying this problem about the nature of morality, there’s a problem about why we should accept some moral views rather than others. And, as we’ve seen, there’s also a problem about why anyone should care about morality. So, we have a nest of problems here: a definitional problem (what is morality?), an epistemological problem (how can we tell what’s moral?), and a motivational problem (why does morality matter?). Solutions to these problems will make assumptions about reality and our minds that raise fresh problems of their own, and so the issues ramify.

I’m a bit leery of Professor Daly’s emphasis on ethical theory- I am inclined to think that ethics is acceptable only as a subfield of epistemology. Lose sight of what humans can know and how they can be said to know it, and you quickly drift into the realms of theodicy.

A good paragraph from the memoirs of John Buchan

A few weeks ago, a venue around the corner from our house hosted a book sale to benefit a local charity. Mrs Acilius and I donated about 200 books, 50 compact discs, and a dozen DVDs to it. We bought about 100 books, 2 compact discs, and no DVDs. Of the books, I managed to read three and donate them back before the sale ended, and of those I’ve finished since I’ve left three in the Little Free Library in our neighbor’s front yard. So on balance, we have reduced the weight of our possessions somewhat.

Among the books I left in the Little Free Library after reading it was The Last Empire, a collection of essays Gore Vidal published in the 1990s. Most of those appeared originally in The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, or The Nation. Since I subscribed to all three of those publications during that decade, many of the pieces were familiar to me. I smiled several times when I found sentences that I still think about from time to time, more than twenty years later. But there was little chance I would want to read any of them a third time, so I didn’t hesitate to give the book away when I reached the end.

At one point in that book, Vidal mentions The Pilgrim’s Way, a memoir by John Buchan, published under Buchan’s aristocratic alias “Lord Tweedsmuir.” As it so happened, I had bought a copy of that book at the same book sale. The back cover shows a photograph of Buchan, then Governor-General of Canada, in a car with Franklin Roosevelt, and that led me to hope that there might be something in it that would shed light on US-British relations in the late 1930s, a topic in which I take some interest. In his reference to the book, Vidal says that it does in fact do this. That one book from the sale would mention another, and that other being so obscure, seemed like such a coincidence that I felt I had to put a priority on reading the book. Now, in other pieces in the same collection Vidal had spoken highly of Mary McCarthy and Iris Murdoch, and I had picked up books by each of them at the same sale. Further, they were both more likely to produce books I would find interesting than was Buchan. So, I read those first (they were McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe and Murdoch’s Henry and Cato, neither of which I will be giving away any time soon.) I then turned to Buchan.

Mrs Acilius said that “Lord Tweedsmuir” seemed to be the stuffiest name a person could possibly have, which of course it is. The tagline on the dust jacket does nothing to dispel the impression the name would tend to create: “Lord Tweedsmuir- novelist, poet, historian, fisherman, explorer, member of Parliament, and Governor General of Canada; finest product of a great tradition, tells the story of his many-sided life reveals his intimate and reassuring philosophy.” It sounds like a book that would be so dull as to make you regret having learned to read. And indeed, most of it is pretty bad. Buchan keeps trailing off into eulogies of famous people he knew; some of those are moderately interesting, to a reader who is familiar with the person being eulogized, but the great majority of them describe individuals whose names mean little today, and these are virtually unreadable. In between the eulogies are all sorts of miscellaneous material- descriptions of rivers and streams in Scotland, generalizations about foreign affairs, alternating declarations that the law is the most intellectually stimulating of all professions and that practicing it bored him beyond endurance, an account of his preferred technique of shooting deer, dozens of glancing references to the American Civil War, and scores of Latin tags. He does not narrate the major events of his life at all- he tells us that he was married, that he and his wife are close companions and proud parents, and leaves it at that. He tells us that he was in indifferent health in the years 1912-1920, and that this limited his participation in the First World War; his chapter about that war is disjointed, and only perks up when he is detailing his maladies. But he was in uniform the whole time, and lets drop that he was on the front at the Somme for quite some time. All in all, it is a book that gives every appearance of not having been subjected to any form of editing. So I will be parting with it soon.

However, there is one paragraph I want to keep. It runs from the bottom of page 28 to the top of page 29 and describes his attitude towards philosophy as a subject:

My interests, as I have said, lay not in the search for a creed, but in the study of the patterns which different thinkers made out of the universe. I had a tidy mind, and liked to arrange things in compartments even when I did not take the arrangement too seriously. This meant that inevitably I missed much; quidquid recipitur, recipitur ad modum recipientis. My quest for truth, unlike Plato’s, wholly “lacked the warmth of desire.” It was a mental gymnastic, for I had neither the uneasiness nor the raptures of the true metaphysician. “Philosophy,” Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “is such an impertinently litigious lady that a man had as good be engaged in lawsuits as to have to do with her.” I loved the intricacies of argumentation. A proof is that while I am not conscious of ever having argued about religion, or about politics except professionally, I was always very ready to dispute about philosophy. I should have been puzzled to set down my views as to the nature of thought and reality, for they were constantly changing. I never considered it necessary to harmonize my conclusions in a system. Had I been a professed philosopher, I should have been forced to crystallize my thought, but as it was, I could afford to keep it, so to speak, in solution. “L’ineptie consiste a vouloir conclure.” I was of the opinion of the Scottish metaphysician that it is more important that a philosophy should be reasoned than that it should be true.

This does not reflect my attitude, but I find it a charming statement, and want to be able to find it again.

Some notes on Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Page numbers refer to Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, Princeton University Press, 2018.

Professor Winnifred Fallers Sullivan of Indiana University holds both a J. D. and a Ph.D in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago. In the 1990s, she testified as an expert witness in a case brought against the city of Boca Raton, Florida. Professor Sullivan testified in support of the plaintiffs’ claim that the ordinances specifying the kind of grave markers that could be used in Boca Raton’s municipal cemetery infringed their right to practice religion as articulated in Florida’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Professor Sullivan quotes (page 108) an early brief that the city’s attorneys filed in their defense of the ordinances, in which they “slipped into the habit of discussing whether the religion itself was burdened by the state, rather than whether each plaintiff’s ‘exercise of religion’ was substantially burdened” (109.) This habit, coupled with some peculiarities in the language of the statute, “attributed legal agency to the religious traditions. It brought the religions themselves into the courtroom as actors- actors who were incarnated- or not- in the various objects in the cemetery” (108.) This odd puppet show resulted in a trial in which counsel, witnesses, and judge consistently failed to understand each other. The city’s counsel spent a considerable portion of his examination of the plaintiffs trying to prove that they were not faithful adherents of the religions they professed (127) and the judge showed no deference to any form of learning brought by the various expert witnesses (133.)

Considering that “the religious traditions” (Christianity, Judaism, etc) are vast abstractions, it is little wonder that treating them as if they were the litigants in the case was so unproductive. The defense was “almost hysterical” (104) in its belief that a religious freedom jurisprudence focused on the particular claims of actual individuals with standing to sue would dissolve into anarchy, and the judge does not seem to have considered such an approach. For her part, Professor Sullivan doesn’t seem to think anarchy would be all bad. She cites approvingly Farewell to Christendom by Thomas Curry (143f.) Curry argues for a revolutionary conception of religious freedom, a “utopian challenge of radical freedom, a freedom that depends in no way upon government.” I’m no expert, but maybe before we commit to anarchism the courts could spend some time considering the particular claims that specific litigants bring before them concerning their own legally enforceable rights.

Professor Sullivan also recommends (158) John Bowen’s 2003 book Islam, Law, and Equality in Indonesia, a study of the interactions among three quite distinct legal systems: Islamic law, customary law, and the laws of the Republic of Indonesia.

As the title of her book would suggest, Professor Sullivan’s conclusion is that the USA’s system of jurisprudence is not competent to guarantee any special protections to religious practice (150-159.)

I would be inclined to go further than she does in this connection. My idea is that, while other freedoms can be defined in terms of the social system that exists in a given country at a given time, religion is not thus definable. Economic freedom is meaningful only in terms of the ability to act within a given system to acquire and retain the the goods and services that are of value to the people who live under that system; political freedom is meaningful only in terms of the ability to influence the existing political system so as to advance one’s interests; etc. There is, however, no rational principle we can turn to that will tell us which practices, objects, attitudes, statements, and organizational patterns the various religions that may arise within a community will decide are of importance. The range of possible sacred duties, as for that matter the range of possible intolerable blasphemies, would seem to be infinite, if not absolutely unbounded in all directions.

If this is so, it would indeed be impossible for courts to do very much to ensure religious liberty. Courts apply rules, and where there are no general principles there can be no application of rules. If we are to have a pluralistic society in which it is up to individuals to decide what practices they will or will not engage in, what objects they will or will not venerate, what attitudes they will or will not adopt, what statements they will or will not make, and what organizations they will or will not join, and if we are not to resort to a utopian anarchism, it would seem that the electorate and its representatives in the legislative bodies will have to pay attention each time individuals speak up about the religious significance they find in a given practice, object, attitude, statement, or organization, and will have to decide whether and how to adapt public policy to the interests of those individuals in regard to that point.

Sitting through the ads?

It seems likely that higher education in the USA will undergo massive changes over the next few years. I have no idea what those will be, and suspect they will be very, very bad.

One change that might be good would be an inversion of the usual schedule of courses undergraduates have been expected to take for the last 120 years. The pattern has been that they take a wide variety of courses in their first year, that the focus tightens a bit more narrowly in the second year, and that they spend the final two years concentrating on their major field of study.

This is something like the experience of going to a cinema. You sit through a bunch of miscellaneous material promoting upcoming films, urging you to buy things at the concession stand, and advertising various other goods and services, as well as warning you to behave yourself and refrain from pirating the movie or distracting your fellow movie-goers. Then you are allowed to pay attention to the feature presentation.

Colleges and universities fret endlessly about ways to fashion a coherent experience out of the courses students take in their first two years. At the same time, the faculty who teach those courses are pressured to use them to recruit students to sign up for the majors their departments offer. The result is that students emerge from the Core Curriculum or General Education or Distribution Requirements or whatever they happen to be called at the moment with the feeling that they’ve just spent a couple of years and a great deal of tuition money listening to people try to sell them stuff they didn’t want. It’s no wonder so few college graduates object when state governments defund academic programs; on the contrary, it’s amazing that states still operate institutions of higher education at all.

Now, suppose it were turned round the other way. You take courses in your major for the first two years; the third year you do several small-scale supervised projects in your major field and take courses in closely related fields; in the fourth year you do a larger scale supervised project in your field and take courses in a wide range of fields. For the last 25 years, I’ve been teaching in the Core Curriculum at a state university in the midwestern USA; most of my students are in their first two years, and most of them are 19. Plenty of students in those categories wind up with A’s, but it is the more advanced undergrads and the students who are in their 30s and older who usually have the most fun and contribute the most to class discussion. The advanced undergrads, both because they are confident that they know how to succeed in college, and because they know enough about their majors to see how they connect with other disciplines; the older students, because the authors to whose work I introduce them in the ancient Greek and Latin literature in translation courses were writing for grown-ups, and those students have the life experiences those authors expected their readers to bring with them.

As the years have gone by and tuition has spiraled up, the older students have become a rarity. If the best-case scenario for the future comes to pass and US colleges and universities either stop charging tuition altogether, or at least lower it to the same percentage of median household income it was a couple of decades ago, they might come back. If they do, I should think they would benefit from concentrating on their majors first, then doing other courses. People who’ve been away from school for a long time are often nervous about resuming the role of student. If they can get that nervousness out of the way while doing something they already know they want to do, they’ll be at their peak coming into subjects that hadn’t been on their radar. They will then get the full benefit of those courses, and their classmates and teachers will benefit from association with them.

Likewise with advanced undergrads of the usual late teens- early twenties cohort. Taking courses outside their major when they have a grip on their major and are looking forward to the next stage of their lives, they should be able to see that, however important their specialty is, there are other forms of expertise, and those forms have something to offer as well.

Louise Pound, New Humanist: What is authorship?

I’d long been vaguely familiar with the name “Louise Pound,” not only as the place where the Louise-catcher takes the stray Louises, but as an American scholar of English grammar and folklore who long taught at the University of Nebraska. Professor Pound (1872-1958) was also the first woman to serve as president of the Modern Language Association, having previously led the National Council of Teachers of English and the American Folklore Society. Pound’s personal life may also be of interest to some; a champion in several sports, she was the first woman inducted into the Nebraska Sports Hall of Fame. She had an intense emotional, and perhaps sexual, relationship with novelist Willa Cather. Also, her brother Roscoe Pound was Dean of Harvard Law School for 20 years. A biography was published in 2009 under the title Louise Pound: Scholar, Athlete, Feminist Pioneer.

What I had not known was that Louise Pound was, for a little while early in her career, a member of the New Humanist school led by Irving Babbitt. I had known that there was a group of New Humanists at the University of Nebraska. The only names from that group that had come to my notice were Sherlock Bronson Gass and Prosser Hall Frye. In 1989, I read all of Gass’ books, with profit. I tried to read Frye’s 1929 Visions and Chimeras, only to find that his style was fully the equal of any of the notoriously bad academic writing of the 1980s. I also knew that Frye was the editor-in-chief of the Nebraska New Humanists’ journal, The Mid-West Quarterly; assuming that his style was reflected in the standards of the journal, I had no interest in reading it. But just a few days ago, looking for something quite different, I found a book called The New Humanists in Nebraska: A Study of the Mid-West Quarterly, 1913-1918 by R. D. Stock (University of Nebraska, 1979.) There is a section in there about Louise Pound’s contributions to the journal.

Those articles make up an inquiry into the nature of authorship. The first of them, “The Literary Interregnum,” surveys the prose and poetry being produced in the English speaking world as of 1913 and finds that it is all pretty dire. Pound expresses optimism that a livelier period will soon follow:

The “centre” to which Babbitt and Pound refer is a moral center, an intuition about right conduct that Babbitt claims can be found in the literary and religious traditions most esteemed in each of the world’s major civilizations. The goal of authorship is therefore a moral goal. Moreover, while this moral goal involves some work that can be done only by individuals in the privacy of their thoughts, it is work that begins with the formation of the individual as a member of society and that leads to the merger of the most intimate parts of the individual’s mind into a stream of thought that flows, not only through society as a whole, but throughout the entire history of humankind. On this account, the proper goal of every author is that which Babbitt found in the early Buddhist texts he studied and translated.

Pound concludes “The Literary Interregnum” with several paragraphs expressing the hope that the restoration of a truly humanistic imagination, and with it a restoration of true authorship, will not come too soon. Such a restoration, she says, would be a development of a sort which in previous ages has come only after wrenching social upheavals have forced people to discard comfortable old illusions and to face unforgiving realities so clearly and for so long that they have had no choice but to adopt an entirely new, and chillingly realistic, set of ideas. It would be callous to hope for such a time of hardship to come any sooner than necessary. Besides, if the time of trial is postponed long enough, perhaps the USA will have time to catch up with the rest of the world, and “an American literature, worthy in originality and magnitude of the land and the people, embodying the national life, and finding its inspiration in the national ideals, may yet take its place among the classic literatures of the world.”

Pound’s second contribution, “Emerson as a Romanticist,” appeared in the January 1915 edition. By that time, the First World War had been underway for some months, though it was not yet clear how well it would match Pound’s description of the all-consuming disaster that can bring one epoch to a close and force its inhabitants to grope their way through the darkness into another. In Emerson and Whitman, she finds very much what one would expect a follower of Babbitt to find, an exaggerated individualism, descended from Rousseau and leading nowhere. Emerson’s “self-reliance” and Whitman’s “myself” both posit individuals as self-contained units, neither as products of society nor as pathways to the dharma.

Stock describes Pound’s final two contributions to The Mid-West Quarterly, New World Analogues of the English and Scottish Popular Ballads,” published in April 1916, and “Ballads and the Illiterate,” published later (but not available online,) Pound applies sophisticated philological analysis to cowboy ballads, minstrel songs, Civil War marching songs, and other folkloristic materials, which many critics of the period had claimed to have arisen spontaneously from social interaction among illiterate populations. Pound finds a long list of reasons to believe that the only works in these genres that were not the result of the concentrated effort of authors who had substantial training were the works which were least highly regarded, both by learned outsiders who wished to exalt them as proof that education was unnecessary for artistry, and even more so by the audiences for which they were originally intended.

In these essays, Pound continues to uphold the idea of authorship as something that begins in the formation of the individual by a specific social milieu and that leads to a joining of that milieu with a continuity that transcends it. She brings her scholarship to bear on the stages in between, on the parts of the process in which individuals do matter. She is able to identify by name the authors of many of the poems which had been alleged to be spontaneous productions of the unlettered masses; in one particularly devastating passage, she finds that a piece which John A. Lomax had claimed to have sprung unbidden from the lips of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War was in fact originally written for and published in a newspaper. Making matters worse for Lomax, it was a pro-Union newspaper, and the poem appeared there as a satire of secessionist attitudes. I should add that Pound does not say that poetic training must use written materials; her arguments could all be adapted to apply to expert bards working in an oral tradition.

Exasperated with the indefinite quality of her opponents’ arguments, Pound concludes “New World Analogues”:

This closing reference to “the cultivated world in the days of humanism” may be the only unmistakable reference to the school of Babbitt in this essay, but the whole does suggest a conception of authorship that Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and the rest of them would happily have recognized. While the author’s individual attainments and right governance in the private empire of her thoughts are not an end in themselves for these thinkers, they are nonetheless an indispensable prerequisite for the creation of literature that will serve its proper purpose. This would seem to be Pound’s view as well.

Holy hot dogs

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a “Periodicals Note,” the items that were the staple of this blog when I was posting on a daily basis about ten years ago. Most of those posts were short essays about the magazines, journals, and newsletters I was reading at the time; this one really will be just a file of notes.

It’s about a piece called “Between sacred and secular,” by Peter E. Gordon. It appears in The New Statesman for 22 December 2020.

Opening with a quick sketch of the complexity of Karl Marx’ attitude towards religion and with references to Marxist thinkers who were not content with coldly dismissive forms of atheism, Professor Gordon tells us how the major figures of the Frankfurt School saw the role of religion in social organization.

Professor Gordon cites the comparison Walter Benjamin made at the beginning of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Benjamin reminds us of the “Mechanical Turk.” The Mechanical Turk was supposed to be a robot, and it created an international sensation when it defeated Benjamin Franklin at chess in 1783. The following year, the world learned that there was a man hiding in the contraption, and that it was he who had beaten Franklin. Walter Benjamin suggests that, lurking within the apparently mechanical historical theory of Marxism, is hidden an unacknowledged set of ideas smuggled in from theology.

Professor Gordon elaborates:

The image is compelling, but, like so much of Benjamin’s work, it presented an enigma rather than an explanation. Benjamin was convinced that the official Marxism of his day had lost its revolutionary potential: it had hardened into a lifeless and unreflective doctrine that conceived of progress as something inevitable, as if utopia were to be born from the steady advance of technology alone. The future would unfold out of the present smoothly and without interruption, making revolution into little more than the final, harmonious chord of human history. This, Benjamin felt, was gravely mistaken. Historical materialism could retain its critical power only if it resisted the consoling dogma of historical progress. History had to be conceived not as a continuum but as broken into pieces, every instant holding the potential for a radical beginning. 

But this idea of history-in-fragments was foreign to official Marxism. A genuinely revolutionary idea of history was possible only if the historical materialist broke the rules of Marxism and surreptitiously borrowed its notion of time from an unlikely source – theology. Like the messiah breaking in upon the world, each moment in history became a threshold to revolution. Here, then, was the meaning of the chess-playing automaton. For Benjamin, theology was no longer an illusion to be dispelled but the animating force in Marxist theory, the necessary resource if history was to be understood as a theatre of revolutionary possibility.

Benjamin’s attempt to graft together Marxism and theology proved highly controversial, and it drew criticism from partisans in both camps. The militant playwright Bertolt Brecht saw Benjamin’s penchant for mysticism as “ghastly”, while the historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem (a sceptic about Marxism) accused his friend of “self-deception”. Despite such criticism, Benjamin’s reflections on religion and politics have attracted a wide following in academic circles, not least because they unsettle conventional assumptions in liberal theory about the need to keep religion and politics in distinct spheres. And not only in liberal theory: Benjamin’s interpretation also violates the conventional understanding of Marxism as a doctrine of unapologetic secularisation. The famous lines in The Communist Manifesto saw in the advent of modernity a process that would dissolve all religious values: “All is that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.” In Benjamin’s work, this secularising requirement loses its authority, since at least one religious value remains stubbornly in place. Religion does not and cannot vanish; it becomes the animating force in historical materialism itself.


Professor Gordon cites a danger inherent in such thought:

Much depends, however, on just how secularisation is understood. Right-wing political theorists such as Carl Schmitt (a Nazi apologist) believed that no system of law can be complete if it does not appeal to the decision of a sovereign who bursts in upon the otherwise lifeless mechanism of the state like a miraculous force. This doctrine of political theology was an important inspiration to Benjamin, and it bears an obvious similarity to Benjamin’s notion of theology as the hidden animus in historical materialism. Both cases bring a risk of authoritarianism, since in a democratic polity no decision can be valid if it does not remain open to rational scrutiny and amendment. A theological principle that grounds political life but remains immune to political criticism can easily become a warrant for theocracy.


It always strikes me odd when people refer to Carl Schmitt with a phrase like “Nazi apologist.” This simultaneously goes too easy on Schmitt, who was after all a member of the Nazi Party from 1933 to 1940 and who for the first three of those years made himself conspicuously useful to the regime, and also obscures the nature of his scholarly work, since he was expelled from the party for his refusal to incorporate Nazi ideology into his writing.

At any rate, the idea of “political theology”- that political ideologies are in fact religious dogmas in disguise- was hardly original with Schmitt. It goes back millennia and is found in many cultures. Cicero, for example, develops it in depth in the second book of the de Officiis, and it is a major theme is early Confucian writings. If Irving Babbitt ever receives the recognition due him, Schmitt will no longer be even the most famous thinker of the first half of the twentieth century to have concerned himself with it. Nonetheless, Schmitt did make major contributions, and no sane person could want to become the sort of person he ended up being. So it’s worthwhile to pause and examine him as a cautionary tale.

Professor Gordon:

To avoid this risk, all values, including religious values, must be susceptible to public criticism. But this means that theological concepts have no special privilege in modern politics. They are drawn into the turbulence of public debate and they can survive only if they meet with generalised consent, including among unbelievers or members of other faiths. This proviso does not necessarily rule out the possibility of mutual instruction between religion and politics, and that line of communication has to remain open if secular society is to avoid the temptation of making secularism into something as exclusionary and dogmatic as the theocracy it fears. But under modern conditions of religious pluralism only the neutral medium of public reason can serve as the common language for such a dialogue, lest we slip back into the authoritarian framework where one religion holds sway. 


“Modern conditions of religious pluralism,” as contrasted with pre-modern European and southwest Asian conditions in which political legitimacy is dependent on status within a single religious community, of church or ummah. My references above to Cicero, Confucius, and Irving Babbitt should suffice to show that I would hope for a broader frame of historical reference, within which we can see theocratic authoritarianism, not indeed as an isolated or trivial phenomenon, but neither as the condition into which every institution classifiable as “religion” tends to resolve itself by default. Not only do we see religious pluralism in the practices of ancient Rome, of imperial China, and in the great tradition Babbitt imagined in his perennialist theory of religion, but even within religious communities great value is attached to various forms of rational inquiry and of debate.

Professor Gordon turns from Benjamin to other eminences of the Frankfurt School, first among them Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno:

Unlike Benjamin, Adorno believed that theological concepts retain their value only if they submit to the trial of secularisation. Religion is not preserved in amber; like all aspects of human experience it is vulnerable to time, and it cannot help but change as it passes into new and unforeseen circumstances. Adorno was therefore sceptical as to whether theological values that had held together the intimate communities of the ancient world could retain their validity in the fractured societies of today. “The concept of daily bread,” he wrote, “born from the experience of deprivation under the conditions of uncertain and insufficient material production, cannot simply be translated into the world of bread factories and surplus production.” Nor could he accept the Schmittian notion that, in a world that had in all other respects transformed beyond recognition, the concept of a sovereign God could somehow retain its original power. The longing for a “resolute decision”, he argued, could not suffice to “breathe back meaning” into the disenchanted world.


I’ve been meaning to read Adorno ever since I was in graduate school, umpteen years ago. This line about “the concept of daily bread” may finally get me actually to do it. When I get to that line in the prayer, the image of the bread we use for the Eucharist often pops into my head. That’s a good devotional practice, but it might be desirable to have some substantive theoretical matter to go along with it.

Professor Gordon then gives a couple of paragraphs to Max Horkheimer, who late in his career rejected Adorno’s idea that religious values could survive only if they made a “migration into the profane” and re-emerged in a secular idiom. Horkheimer decided that only a theistic worldview could offer hope to those subjected to the social conditions of the late twentieth century:

In his admiring foreword to The Dialectical Imagination (1973), Martin Jay’s now-classic study of the Frankfurt School, Horkheimer went so far as to imply an intimate bond between religion and critical theory. The essence of religion, he claimed, is the yearning for the “wholly other”, the hope that “earthly horror does not possess the last word”.


Professor Gordon concludes with two paragraphs about Jürgen Habermas. Habermas “upholds Adorno’s requirement of a migration into the profane” in his conception of a “learning process” in which religious values are reconfigured into secular ones. This is supposed to allow for a “dialogue between religion and reason” that will clear the way for a pluralistic society, “though such a dialogue can only proceed within the framework of a secular state.”

Ought we to believe in Sasquatch?

Whether Sasquatch exist or not, it would be morally wrong for us to believe that they do. Last month, I posted a thread on Twitter explaining why.

I suppose everyone living in the USA or Canada has heard of the Sasquatch; others may not be aware that there is a more-or-less ancient body of legends that a race of hairy anthropoids live in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. “Sasquatch” is apparently derived from a Salish word for these anthropoids. Because of their rumored size, and perhaps because of stories about mysterious footprints found in areas they are said to frequent, the Sasquatch are also known as “Bigfoot.”

Here’s a link to the article that prompted the thread, and here’s the thread itself.

Let’s take the idea of Sasquatch at face value for a moment. One of these propositions must be true:
A. Sasquatch do not exist.
B. Sasquatch do exist.
What are the implications of these propositions?

If A, and if we take it as axiomatic that we ought not to believe in the existence of non-existent beings, it follows that we ought not to believe in the Sasquatch.

If B, then there is a species of megafauna that has eluded human attention throughout the millennia that it has existed in areas adjoining dense human populations. This would require extraordinary intelligence, organizational ability, and self-discipline.

Indeed, a species with these capabilities would certainly be capable of waging warfare against humans to defend the habitat of which humans continually deprive them. Yet there is no reason to believe that any Sasquatch has ever harmed a human.

Therefore, if Sasquatch exist, it must be the case that they have dedicated themselves above all to preventing humans from knowing that they do.

Considering that they have done nothing to harm us, and we have done a great deal to harm them, it would be the least we could do to honor their wishes by not believing in them.

That the debate about Sasquatch is not conducted in these terms strikes me as proof positive that those who participate in it do not take the idea of their existence at face value, but are acting out the sorts of dramas that the book and review linked above describe.

Originally tweeted by Acilius (@losthunderlads) on October 10, 2020.

The first documentary film about the Sasquatch I ever saw was a 1977 episode of In Search Of, a TV series narrated by Leonard Nimoy and presenting outré explanations of various legendary topics. Extraterrestrial contact was a favorite hypothesis.

I would say that this show is in a way the ideal introduction to the topic. Not only does it display the overheated mental atmosphere that often accompanies debates about whether the Sasquatch exist, but it also exposes some excellent reasons why any Sasquatch who do exist would be wise to conceal themselves from humans. Most dramatic of these is a moment about 17 minutes in, when Professor Grover Krantz of Washington State University explains his opinion that it doesn’t matter if his research drives the Sasquatch to extinction. So long as their existence is unknown to science, Krantz declares, they may as well be extinct now. I, for one, would not like to be noticed by a species with enormous destructive capacity, prominent members of which are incapable of seeing any value in lives unconnected with their own.

Three Youtube videos

I may start posting substantive things again in the near future. On the other hand, I may not. For now, here are my three favorite YouTube videos from 2020 so far:

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain featuring Laura Currie, The Lovecats

The Phoenix Chamber Choir, For the Longest Time

Thereminist Gregoire Blanc, pianist Émilie Couturier, and cellist Paul Colomb perform Saint-Saens’ “Aquarium

Read the full post »

What you don’t know

On 29 April, USA Today published an op-ed in which former prosecutor Michael J Stern laid out several arguments against taking at face value Alexandra Tara Reade’s claim that Joseph R. Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993. All of Mr Stern’s arguments are equally brilliant.

Consider point #7, “Compliments for Biden,” in which he declares that he finds it “bizarre” that Reade said positive things about Biden at various points in the years after the alleged assault. That leads to point #8, “Rejecting Biden, Embracing Sanders,” in which he denounces her for having made an “unbridled attack on Biden,” showing bias against him. So by saying positive things about Biden, Reade discredited her claim to have been abused by him; by saying negative things about Biden, she discredited her claim to have been abused by him. Stern is charitable enough to refrain from mentioning the many times over the years when she wasn’t talking about Biden at all, and explaining how they discredit her claim to have been abused by him.

The fact that, after Senator Elizabeth Warren withdrew from the presidential race, Reade supported Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign comes up again in point #11, “Suspect timing.” Reade timed the disclosure of her allegations to the maximum benefit of the Sanders campaign. By releasing her first public statement of her gravest charges against Biden on 25 March, three weeks after Super Tuesday and at the height of the public confusion surrounding Coronavirus, Reade ensured that they would not receive widespread attention until Sanders had withdrawn from the race and was trying to craft an endorsement of Biden that would deliver as many of his supporters as possible to the former vice president. Clearly, this was a gift to the Vermont senator.

Point #5, “Memory lapse,” is just as telling. After a mere 27 years, Reade claims to be unable to recall the precise date, time, and location within the corridors of the Senate office buildings where the alleged assault occurred. Stern derides this as “amnesia about specifics.” Surely, a shocking incident like that, coming entirely out of the blue, with no connection to any frame of reference she had established concerning Biden and her place on his staff and turning her world upside down in a matter of seconds, is the sort of thing that human minds process clearly and calmly. How could she not have the full details at her command?

Under point #2, Stern gives us “Implausible explanation for changing story.” This is just as much to his credit as are the other points. Reade claims that, when she told the Union newspaper of Nevada County, California in April of 2019 that Biden’s sexual misconduct towards her had extended to unwanted shoulder rubs and left out the part about his hand in her genitalia, she was intimidated by the reporter’s demeanor. Stern finds it “hard to believe” that a reporter for the Nevada County Union would be reluctant to run with a scoop in the form of a lone woman accusing the Democratic presidential front-runner of sexually assaulting her. As is well-known, all newspapers operate exactly like the ones in movies from the 1940s, and when reporters run into the press room with stories like that the editors shout “Hold the presses!” and all the staff toss their fedoras in the air so that the big cards labeled “Press” fall out of the hatbands.

Point #6, “The lie about losing her job,” is where Stern shows what a fine legal mind he has.  Reade at one point said she was fired, but at another point said that she quit because unreasonable demands were placed on her. Since the unreasonable demands in question were insistence that she act as a cocktail waitress at a party that would likely be attended by Biden’s friends Edward M Kennedy and Christopher Dodd, at a time when every staffer on Capitol Hill was aware of a story that Dodd and Kennedy had a few years earlier sexually assaulted a woman acting as a cocktail waitress might somehow be relevant to this issue if there were such a legal concept as “constructive dismissal,” covering cases where an employee is forced to quit.  But hey, there must not be any such concept! Stern is a lawyer of some kind, after all, and he’s obviously never heard of it.

Point #3, “People who contradict Reade’s claim,” is also very compelling. Stern lists three people who emphatically deny, not exactly Reade’s claim to have been sexually assaulted by Biden, but her claim that she filed a complaint about such an assault at the time. These three people are all very distinguished and credible. In those days, they all held top posts in the office of Delaware’s senior US senator. One of them was himself later appointed to the US Senate to succeed to succeed that senator, and all of them are likely to be among the most influential figures in Washington if the Democratic nominee is elected president this year. Also, they all know Joe Biden well, and say that he is the kindest warmest bravest most wonderful human being they’ve ever met, and that it is simply impossible for him to have done something like this. By golly, if that isn’t convincing evidence that ol’ Joe is a good egg, I don’t know what is!

If any doubt did remain about ol’ Joe’s fundamental goodness and decency, Stern’s point #14, “Lack of other sexual assault allegations,” should dispel it. Stern writes, “It is possible that, in his 77 years, Biden committed one sexual assault and it was against Reade. But in my experience, men who commit a sexual assault are accused more than once.” No doubt Stern’s experience as a prosecutor in Detroit and Los Angeles included many suspects who had been US senators since the age of 30 and whose alleged victims hoped to make careers in politics and government, so that’s a great point.

Point #4, “Missing formal complaint,” is so important, so important. Reade did not save a copy of the formal complaint she claims to have filed in 1993. It’s not as if Biden’s office would have saved a copy of such a complaint, or as if those papers are archived somewhere. Nope, the only way such a complaint will ever become public is if Reade herself has kept a copy of it.

Why would Reade omit such an important item from her records, knowing that Senate offices don’t have filing cabinets? Stern suggests an answer to that question in his point #10, obliquely titled “Believe all women?” He tells us that “Reade’s wild shifts in political ideology and her sexual infatuation with a brutal dictator of a foreign adversary raise questions about her emotional stability.” Yes indeed, we must always remember that women who have been sexually assaulted by powerful men and who have seen their hopes and dreams fall apart in consequence of such assaults are always models of emotional stability. Only someone who has not suffered such abuse would be so scatterbrained as to neglect to save a copy of the formal complaint she submitted concerning it.

Stern’s point #9 raises questions about whether Reade can really be considered educated at all. Under the heading “Love of Russia and Putin,” he cites an article in which Reade both says that she thinks Vladimir Putin is handsome, and that she is unconvinced by claims that Russian intelligence services interfered in the 2016 US presidential election to an extent that Russia should be considered hostile to the USA. As is well-known, Putin is not at all handsome, and all persons of true learning are amateur counter-espionage enthusiasts who attribute the election of Donald Trump to the machinations of the Kremlin. That Reade does not grasp these points raises the question of whether she could be trusted to correctly identify her assailant if she were in fact attacked. How can she be sure a Russian bot posting memes on Facebook didn’t attack her?

Point #12, “The Larry King call, and point #13, “Statements to others,” deal with secondhand reports of remarks Reade has made to various people at various times concerning her experiences with. The “Larry King call” was a call Reade’s mother made to the Larry King Show on CNN in 1993. Stern transcribes the whole thing:

I’m wondering what a staffer would do besides go to the press in Washington? My daughter has just left there after working for a prominent senator, and could not get through with her problems at all, and the only thing she could have done was go to the press, and she chose not to do it out of respect for him.

Stern says:

Given that the call was anonymous, Reade’s mother should have felt comfortable relaying the worst version of events. When trying to obtain someone’s assistance, people typically do not downplay the seriousness of an incident. They exaggerate it. That Reade’s mother said nothing about her daughter being sexually assaulted would lead many reasonable people to conclude that sexual assault was not the problem that prompted the call to King.

What a well-taken point! Reade’s mother had several seconds to lay out her case to King and his two guests before they hustled her off the phone to make a quick response and cut to commercial, more than enough time to present all the details in a way that would both preserve her daughter’s dignity and convey the seriousness of the matter. Very suspicious!

The “Statements to others” that Stern considers under point #13 include three people who said, when all she was telling the press was that Biden had touched her neck and shoulders inappropriately, that she had told them that in the 90s, and who, when she began to say that he had also grabbed her genitalia, then said that she had also told them about that part back in those days. Stern also mentions that she had given the press an “apparently exhaustive” list of people she had told about the incident in the 90s, and that those three people were not on that “apparently exhaustive” list. Reade doesn’t seem to have said that the list was exhaustive, but it was “apparently” so to the eagle eyes of Mr Ex-Prosecutor. Can’t fool him!

Under point #15, “What remains,” Stern remarks that no video recordings were made and that no other circumstantial evidence of the alleged incident survives, and there are no witnesses aside from Reade and Biden. Some prosecutors would say that, because all we have are two people, one of whom says X while the other says not-X, the legal system cannot come to any conclusion about what did or did not happen. Since many millions of people are at this moment weighing the question of whether to vote for Biden to be president of the United States, the lack of a conclusion to this question might be deeply troubling. Indeed, we could imagine criminal lawyers, whether prosecutors or defense counsel, coming up against the limits of what their profession allows then to classify as knowledge and feeling great unease.

No such anxieties cloud the mind of our gallant Mr Stern, however. He has produced his fifteen arguments, each as powerful as the next, to assure himself and all potential Biden voters that the allegations Ms Reade has brought are of little moment, and a vote for the presumptive Democratic nominee can be cast with the same placid conscience that prosecutors can bring to their work.

And so we end with Mr Stern’s first point: “Delayed reporting… twice.”   Who could possibly be reluctant to go to the authorities with a account of sexual assault, knowing that the professional fraternity that decides which cases will be brought is represented by so wise and reasonable a man as Mr Stern? Surely, no one can say that ours is a rape culture with men like him in charge.

What would-be cyberbullies did in the 1930s


William Joyce “was a tiny little creature and, though not very ugly, was exhaustively so.” 

Lately I happened upon a copy of Rebecca West’s 1945 book The Meaning of Treason. Most of the book is about William Joyce, a British fascist rabble-rouser of the 1930s, who became famous during the Second World War when his propaganda broadcasts from Germany earned him the moniker “Lord Haw Haw” and led him to death on the gallows at Wandsworth Prison shortly after the war’s end.

The book is largely composed of reprinted articles that West wrote for The New Yorker while covering Joyce’s trial; this has its unfortunate results, as the book is weighed down both by the repetition of elements that are reintroduced for readers who had missed a previous week’s issue and by lengthy arguments about points that have not retained their interest over the decades. Still, there are marvelous bits; for example, when she describes seeing Joyce for the first time in a courtroom: “The strong electrical light was merciless to William Joyce, whose appearance was a surprise to all of us who had not seen him before. His voice had suggested a large and flashy handsomeness. But he was a tiny little creature and, though not very ugly, was exhaustively so.”  (Page 4, Rebecca West, The Meaning of Treason, Viking Press, 1945, 1948 [4th Printing])

The core of the book is contained in two long paragraphs towards the middle. I will quote those in their entirety, since they reflect not only on what William Joyce did between leaving Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in 1937 and defecting to Germany in 1939, but also on what a great many people who are more like him than they would perhaps care to admit spend their free time doing today:

Joyce, working alone, worked frantically. He spoke to every society that would let him inside its doors, in the warmer weather he had an open-air meeting every day, and sometimes several in one day. It was as if he were trying to leave an impression on the public mind that could be counted upon to endure; and indeed he partially succeeded in this aim. An enormous number of people in the low-income groups heard him speak, some during the years when he was with Mosley, and even more during the period when he was his own master. Many people in the higher-income groups had also their contact with Joyce, but they did not know it. Anybody who was advertised as a speaker at a meeting appealing for funds or humane treatment for refugees from Nazi persecution would receive by every post, for many days before the meeting, threatening messages, couched always in the same words, and those words always so vague that the writers of them could not have been touched by the law. They were apt to come by the last post, and the returning householder, switching on the light, would see them piled up on the hall table, splinters from a mass of stupidity that might not, after all, be finite and destructible, but infinite and coterminous with life. Their postmarks showed that they came from Manchester, Bristol, Bournemouth, Bethnal Green, Glasgow, Colchester. All over the country there were those who wished that the stranger, being hungry, should not be fed, being naked should not be clothed. Goats and monkeys, as Othello said, goats and monkeys; and the still house would seem like a frail and besieged fortress.

This device was the invention of William Joyce. The people who heard him in the streets sometimes saw this alliance with crime displayed. A number of his meetings were provocative of the violence he loved; he was twice tried for assault at London police courts during the year preceding the outbreak of the war, though each time the wind that sat in so favorable a quarter for Fascists blew him out with an acquittal. But at many others of his meetings he used all his powers, his harsh, sneering, cajoling, denatured, desperate voice, his quick and twisting humor, his ability to hammer a point home on a crowd’s mind, to persuade the men and women he saw before him of the advantages of dictatorship, the dangers of Jewish competition and high finance, the inefficiency of democracy, the greatness and goodness of Hitler, and his own seriousness. His audiences were not much interested in his arguments and were shrewd enough in their judgement of him. Many remembered him seven years afterwards. Only a very few said, “I liked him.” Most said, “He has the most peculiar views, but he really was an extraordinary chap,” or some such words. “Extraordinary” was what they called him, nearly all of them. This impression might not have served Joyce so ill had the days brought forth what he expected. If the Germans had brought him with them when they invaded England and had made him their spokesman, many Londoners might have listened to him with some confidence because he was a familiar element in a scene that conquest would have made terrifying in its unfamiliarity; and they might have felt awe, and perhaps, still more, confidence, because there was something of the wizard in the little creature.

(Pages 98-100)

What a marvelous way of expressing the effect of being a target of a campaign of harassment: “splinters from a mass of stupidity that might not, after all, be finite and destructible, but infinite and coterminous with life… and the still house would seem like a frail and besieged fortress.” And what effort and organizational ability it must have taken William Joyce and his fellows to inflict this on people in the days before the Internet. West’s description of the menacing letters “piled up on the hall table” suggests that the target of the threat has servants who bring her mail in for her, as the variety of postmarks indicate that Joyce had associates in his “National Socialist League” who helped him produce and distribute the letters. Nowadays, of course, Twitter has taken over all that work, acting as mailroom staff both among those issuing and those receiving threats.