The way out of philosophy runs through philosophy

There’s a phrase I’ve been thinking about for years, ever since I read it somewhere or other in Freud: “the moderate misery required for productive work.”  It struck me as plausible; someone who isn’t miserable at all is unlikely to settle willingly into the tedious, repetitive tasks that productive work often involves, while someone who is deeply miserable is unlikely to tolerate such tasks long enough to complete them.  If blogging counts as productive work, I myself may recently have represented a case in point.  Throughout the summer and into the autumn, I wasn’t miserable at all, and I barely posted a thing.  Then I caught a cold, and I posted daily for a week or so.  If I’m typical of bloggers in this respect, maybe I could also claim to have something in common with a philosopher.  Samuel Johnson once quipped that he had intended to become a philosopher, but couldn’t manage it.  The cause of his failure?  “Cheerfulness kept breaking in.”

One item I kept meaning to post notes on when cheerfulness was distracting me from the blog was a magazine article about Johnson’s contemporary, David Hume.  Hume, of course, was a philosopher; indeed, many would argue that he was “the most important philosopher ever to write in English.”  Contrary to what Johnson’s remark suggests, however, Hume was suspected of cheerfulness on many occasions.  The article I’ve kept meaning to note is by Hume scholar and anti-nationalist Donald W. Livingston; despite the radicalism of Livingston’s politics (his avowed goal is to dissolve the United States of America in order to replace it with communities built on a “human scale”) in this article he praises Hume as “The First Conservative.”  Hume’s conservatism, in Livingston’s view, comes not only from his recognition of the fact that oversized political units such as nation-states and continental empires are inherently degrading to individuals and destructive of life-giving traditions, but also from his wariness towards the philosophical enterprise.  Hume saw philosophy as a necessary endeavor, not because it was the road to any particular truths, but because philosophical practice alone could cure the social and psychological maladies that the influence of philosophy had engendered in the West.

This is the sort of view that we sometimes associate with Ludwig Wittgenstein; so, it’s easy to find books and articles with titles like “The End of Philosophy” and “Is Philosophy Dead?” that focus on Wittgenstein.  But Livingston demonstrates that Hume, writing more than a century and a half before Wittgenstein, had made just such an argument.  Livingston’s discussion of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (first published in 1739-1740) is worth quoting at length:

Hume forged a distinction in his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), between “true” and “false” philosophy.  The philosophical act of thought has three constituents. First, it is inquiry that seeks an unconditioned grasp of the nature of reality. The philosophical question takes the form: “What ultimately is X?” Second, in answering such questions the philosopher is only guided by his autonomous reason. He cannot begin by assuming the truth of what the poets, priests, or founders of states have said. To do so would be to make philosophy the handmaiden of religion, politics, or tradition. Third, philosophical inquiry, aiming to grasp the ultimate nature of things and guided by autonomous reason, has a title to dominion. As Plato famously said, philosophers should be kings.

Yet Hume discovered that the principles of ultimacy, autonomy, and dominion, though essential to the philosophical act, are incoherent with human nature and cannot constitute an inquiry of any kind.  If consistently pursued, they entail total skepticism and nihilism. Philosophers do not end in total skepticism, but only because they unknowingly smuggle in their favorite beliefs from the prejudices of custom, passing them off as the work of a pure, neutral reason. Hume calls this “false philosophy” because the end of philosophy is self-knowledge, not self-deception.

The “true philosopher” is one who consistently follows the traditional conception of philosophy to the bitter end and experiences the dark night of utter nihilism. In this condition all argument and theory is reduced to silence. Through this existential silence and despair the philosopher can notice for the first time that radiant world of pre-reflectively received common life which he had known all along through participation, but which was willfully ignored by the hubris of philosophical reflection.

It is to this formerly disowned part of experience that he now seeks to return. Yet he also recognizes that it was the philosophic act that brought him to this awareness, so he cannot abandon inquiry into ultimate reality, as the ancient Pyrrhonian skeptics and their postmodern progeny try to do. Rather he reforms it in the light of this painfully acquired new knowledge.

What must be given up is the autonomy principle. Whereas the false philosopher had considered the totality of pre-reflectively received common life to be false unless certified by the philosopher’s autonomous reason, the true philosopher now presumes the totality of common life to be true. Inquiry thus takes on a different task. Any belief within the inherited order of common life can be criticized in the light of other more deeply established beliefs. These in turn can be criticized in the same way. And so Hume defines “true philosophy” as “reflections on common life methodized and corrected.”

By common life Hume does not mean what Thomas Paine or Thomas Reid meant by “common sense,” namely a privileged access to knowledge independent of critical reflection; this would be just another form of “false philosophy.” “Common life” refers to the totality of beliefs and practices acquired not by self-conscious reflection, propositions, argument, or theories but through pre-reflective  participation in custom and tradition. We learn to speak English by simply speaking it under the guidance of social authorities. After acquiring sufficient skill, we can abstract and reflect on the rules of syntax, semantics, and grammar that are internal to it and form judgments as to excellence in spoken and written English.  But we do not first learn these rules and then apply them as a condition of speaking the language. Knowledge by participation, custom, tradition, habit, and prejudice is primordial and is presupposed by knowledge gained from reflection.

The error of philosophy, as traditionally conceived—and especially modern philosophy—is to think that abstract rules or ideals gained from reflection are by themselves sufficient to guide conduct and belief. This is not to say abstract rules and ideals are not needed in critical thinking—they are—but only that they cannot stand on their own. They are abstractions or stylizations from common life; and, as abstractions, are indeterminate unless interpreted by the background prejudices of custom and tradition. Hume follows Cicero in saying that “custom is the great guide of life.” But custom understood as “methodized and corrected” by loyal and skillful participants.

The distinction between true and false philosophy is like the distinction between valid and invalid inferences in logic or between scientific and unscientific thinking. A piece of thinking can be “scientific”—i.e., arrived at in the right way—but contain a false conclusion. Likewise, an argument can be valid, in that the conclusion logically follows from the premises on pain of contradiction, even if all propositions in the argument are false. Neither logically valid nor scientific thinking can guarantee truth; nor can “true philosophy.” It cannot tell us whether God exists, or whether morals are objective or what time is. These must be settled, if at all, by arguments within common life.

True philosophy is merely the right way for the philosophical impulse to operate when exploring these questions. The alternative is either utter nihilism (and the end of philosophical inquiry) or the corruptions of false philosophy. True philosophy merely guarantees that we will be free from those corruptions.

This is rather like one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s parables, from Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885).  Nietzsche’s Zarathustra preaches that the superman must become a camel, so as to bear the heaviest of all weights, which is the humiliation that comes when one discovers the extent of one’s ignorance, and the commitment to enlighten that ignorance; that he must then put the camel aside and become a lion, so that he may slay the dragon of “Thou-Shalt” and undertake to discover his own morality; and that at the last he must become a child, so that he may put that struggle behind him and be ready to meet new challenges, not as reenactments of his past triumphs, but on their own terms.  According to Livingston, Hume, like Nietzsche, sees the uneducated European as a half-formed philosopher, and believes that with a complete philosophical education s/he can become something entirely different from a philosopher:


Two items of interest to Classics types

When the world was young and I was in grad school, many of my classmates went to Rome to hang out with Father Reginald Foster.  Reggie, as they all called him, is an American priest who at that time was in charge of translating official Vatican documents into Latin.  His schedule was light in the summer, so Reggie ran a summer institute in conversational Latin.  Granted, there aren’t any native speakers of Latin around to converse with, but there is a substantial body of permanently interesting Latin literature, and it is easier to read the language if you can also speak it.

Reggie moved back to Milwaukee after Pope John Paul II died.  He teaches conversational Latin there from time to time.  No future generations of graduate students will be studying under him in Rome, but two current graduate students have revived the Rome summer program  They call it the Paideia Institute Slate magazine ran a piece about it recently.

David Graeber

Also of keen interest to classicists is this recent interview that economic anthropologist David Graeber granted to the website Naked Capitalism.  Graeber summarizes Adam Smith’s hypothesis that money originated as an advancement on barter systems that had prevailed before its adoption.  He then points out that in the 235 years since Smith published that hypothesis in The Wealth of Nations, observers have examined thousands of cultures in search of examples of pre-monetary barter economies, and that they have yet to find one.  Graeber concludes that Smith’s hypothesis is thereby defeated.  Societies which have not invented money do not organize markets around barter; they do not organize markets at all.  Money and markets arise together, and barter becomes widespread only when currency systems collapse.  Non-monetary societies distribute goods and services, not through markets, but through hierarchies in which obligations are based on force.  The king or chief or whatever he is has what he has because everyone else is indebted to him for protection and status, and they have what they have because of their relations with him.  When multiple authorities lay claim to the same person, they need a way of sorting out whose claim comes first and which authority is entitled to demand what deference or service.  Sometimes they develop a way of sorting those claims that involves quantifying them and making them transferable.  Once claims on a person’s deference or service can be quantified and transferred, there is a need for tokens to signify the quantification and contracts to enforce the transfer.  That is to say, there is money, and with it the dawn of market society.

Graeber makes some remarks that are similar to points that come up in some classes I teach.  For example:

Since antiquity the worst-case scenario that everyone felt would lead to total social breakdown was a major debt crisis; ordinary people would become so indebted to the top one or two percent of the population that they would start selling family members into slavery, or eventually, even themselves.

Well, what happened this time around? Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster.

And, I might add, if Aristotle were around today, I very much doubt he would think that the distinction between renting yourself or members of your family out to work and selling yourself or members of your family to work was more than a legal nicety. He’d probably conclude that most Americans were, for all intents and purposes, slaves.

When I’m talking to a class, I’m rather more emphatic than Graeber in saying that in this conclusion Aristotle was a man of his time, and that our view of wage labor as a form of freedom may be as legitimate in its own way as was the Greek view of wage labor as a form of slavery.  Partly that difference in views stems from the fact that so many slaves in ancient Greek cities were paid wages, and that those who labored side by side with free people in big workshops were paid exactly the same wages as those (nominally) free people, while American slaves were generally denied access to money.  Still, I do have a lecture that unnerves them when it ends with my remark that Aristotle would not have thought that we moderns have abolished slavery, but that we have abolished freedom.

I can’t resist quoting another bit of the Graeber’s interview.  After he derides the idea of money as a development subsequent to a barter economy, we have this exchange:

PP: You’d be forgiven for thinking this was all very Nietzschean. In his ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’ the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that all morality was founded upon the extraction of debt under the threat of violence. The sense of obligation instilled in the debtor was, for Nietzsche, the origin of civilisation itself. You’ve been studying how morality and debt intertwine in great detail. How does Nietzsche’s argument look after over 100 years? And which do you see as primal: morality or debt?

DG: Well, to be honest, I’ve never been sure if Nietzsche was really serious in that passage or whether the whole argument is a way of annoying his bourgeois audience; a way of pointing out that if you start from existing bourgeois premises about human nature you logically end up in just the place that would make most of that audience most uncomfortable.
In fact, Nietzsche begins his argument from exactly the same place as Adam Smith: human beings are rational. But rational here means calculation, exchange and hence, trucking and bartering; buying and selling is then the first expression of human thought and is prior to any sort of social relations.

But then he reveals exactly why Adam Smith had to pretend that Neolithic villagers would be making transactions through the spot trade. Because if we have no prior moral relations with each other, and morality just emerges from exchange, then ongoing social relations between two people will only exist if the exchange is incomplete – if someone hasn’t paid up.

But in that case, one of the parties is a criminal, a deadbeat and justice would have to begin with the vindictive punishment of such deadbeats. Thus he says all those law codes where it says ‘twenty heifers for a gouged-out eye’ – really, originally, it was the other way around. If you owe someone twenty heifers and don’t pay they gouge out your eye. Morality begins with Shylock’s pound of flesh.
Needless to say there’s zero evidence for any of this – Nietzsche just completely made it up. The question is whether even he believed it. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I prefer to think he didn’t.

Anyway it only makes sense if you assume those premises; that all human interaction is exchange, and therefore, all ongoing relations are debts. This flies in the face of everything we actually know or experience of human life. But once you start thinking that the market is the model for all human behavior, that’s where you end up with.

If however you ditch the whole myth of barter, and start with a community where people do have prior moral relations, and then ask, how do those moral relations come to be framed as ‘debts’ – that is, as something precisely quantified, impersonal, and therefore, transferrable – well, that’s an entirely different question. In that case, yes, you do have to start with the role of violence.

Nietzsche may once have been overrated as a political thinker, but I believe that he is now seriously underrated in that wise.  So the bit above made me happy.

Tag, you’re Hitler

The 7 June 2010 issue of The Nation includes a review of some book about Ayn Rand. 

The part of the review that I wanted to note came about halfway in, where the reviewer, Corey Robin, quotes some remarks from Hitler and Goebbels that sound eerily like things Rand and the heroes of her novels habitually said.  Applying the Führerprinzip to the world of economics, Hitler in 1933 told an audience of business leaders:

Everything positive, good and valuable that has been achieved in the world in the field of economics or culture is solely attributable to the importance of personality…. All the worldly goods we possess we owe to the struggle of the select few.

Robin has an easy time finding examples of Rand saying very similar things.  Robin goes on:

If the first half of Hitler’s economic views celebrates the romantic genius of the individual industrialist, the second spells out the inegalitarian implications of the first. Once we recognize “the outstanding achievements of individuals,” Hitler says in Düsseldorf, we must conclude that “people are not of equal value or of equal importance.” Private property “can be morally and ethically justified only if [we] admit that men’s achievements are different.” An understanding of nature fosters a respect for the heroic individual, which fosters an appreciation of inequality in its most vicious guise. “The creative and decomposing forces in a people always fight against one another.”

Again, Robin can open Rand’s works almost at random and find passages that are almost identical to these translations. 

Robin attributes these similarities to the common influence of Nietzsche on Rand and the Nazis.  Certainly Rand did study Nietzsche’s works; and certainly there were periods when the Nazis tried to use Nietzsche’s name.  But I think that there is a simpler explanation. 

The Nazi party existed for about 25 years.  It ruled Germany for half that period.  During those years, Hitler, Goebbels, and the other Nazi princes made speeches and issued other public statements numerous enough to fill a library.  That Robin can rummage through those countless pages and find a few remarks that sound eerily reminiscent of the works of Ayn Rand tells us nothing about Rand and next to nothing about the Nazis. 

As a critique of Rand’s ideas, Robin’s argumentum ad Hitlerem is ludicrously unfair.  As a way of playing a game with Rand and her acolytes, however, it can be justified by the old maxim “turnabout is fair play.”  In 1963, Rand gave a speech titled “The Fascist New Frontier.”  In this speech, she claimed that the strongest influence on the ideology of the administration of President John F. Kennedy was not Marx or Keynes or Harold Laski, as the president’s right-wing critics sometimes claimed, but that the Kennedy administration was a fascist group.  To support this claim, she juxtaposed snippets of President Kennedy’s public statements with snippets of similar-sounding statements from Hitler, Goebbels, Mussolini, etc.  So, if President Kennedy or his spokesmen said that ideological labels were of little importance, or that personal sacrifice was the index of patriotism, or that strong leadership is essential for national greatness, she would track down some remark from some Nazi or Fascist making the same point.  That the Nazis and Fascists did not invent these ideas, that they have been commonplaces of political discussion for centuries and may very possibly be true, did not seem to her to matter very much.  In Rand’s view of history, Naziism was simply an unfolding of ideas that were already fully developed in the philosophies of thinkers like Kant and Plato.  So, the fact that an idea was familiar long before the end of the First World War doesn’t excuse it from being a symptom of Fascist orr Nazi ideology.   

Robin’s invocation of Nietzsche may suggest a similar theory of history, but the rest of the piece shows a different view.  Robin praises Aristotle at length:

Unlike Kant, the emblematic modern who claimed that the rightness of our deeds is determined solely by reason, unsullied by need, desire or interest, Aristotle rooted his ethics in human nature, in the habits and practices, the dispositions and tendencies, that make us happy and enable our flourishing. And where Kant believed that morality consists of austere rules, imposing unconditional duties upon us and requiring our most strenuous sacrifice, Aristotle located the ethical life in the virtues. These are qualities or states, somewhere between reason and emotion but combining elements of both, that carry and convey us, by the gentlest and subtlest of means, to the outer hills of good conduct. Once there, we are inspired and equipped to scale these lower heights, whence we move onto the higher reaches. A person who acts virtuously develops a nature that wants and is able to act virtuously and that finds happiness in virtue. That coincidence of thought and feeling, reason and desire, is achieved over a lifetime of virtuous deeds. Virtue, in other words, is less a codex of rules, which must be observed in the face of the self’s most violent opposition, than it is the food and fiber, the grease and gasoline, of a properly functioning soul.

So Robin praises Aristotle precisely for his sense of change and development, his attempt to explain how the same action or idea can have different significance in different circumstances.  Robin thus jettisons the idea that gives Rand an excuse for her method of using quotations from historical villains to play “gotcha” with her adversaries.  The comments Robin quotes may drip with menace when we reflect on their source; spoken by another person in another setting, the same words might be rather anodyne, or even true.  For example, the claim that “Private property ‘can be morally and ethically justified only if [we] admit that men’s achievements are different'” would seem to be eminently defensible, even if words to that effect once appeared in a speech delivered by history’s least defensible man.

How not to write a blog post

Here Mencius Moldbug provides an example of what I try to avoid doing when I write a post. 

1.  It’s very long, 32 screens of text. 

2. It starts with a series of acronyms that are neither generally familiar to the public nor explained anywhere in the text. 

3.  It deals with a wide range of topics.  The terms “Right” and “Left” as applied to politics, the advantages of royalism over democracy, Carlyle’s theory of the state, the ongoing financial crisis, the relationship of money to value, the evils of John Maynard Keynes, the supreme importance of a strong state, the virtues of corporate CEOs, the mental illnesses of Hitler and Stalin, the evils of separation of powers, and the impossibility of changing anything for the better. 

4. It contains strong claims about many matters which the author does not appear to understand.  Making an analogy between political systems and stellar evolution, he say that “Betelgeuse, of course, will end in supernova”; a commenter points out that Betelgeuse is not massive enough to end this way.  He lumps all proposals to respond to economic difficulties by loosening the fiscal policy of the government under the label “Keynesian,” then attacks John Maynard Keynes for them, regardless of what Keynes actually said or what theories the proposals in question may actually reflect.  He claims that all systems which divide of powers within the state violate the Roman strictures against  imperium in imperio,  ignoring the rest of Roman political thought and the whole practice of the Roman Republic. 

These four flaws all point to the same thing: the author of this post needs an editor.  An editor would have assigned him a maximum length; would have blue-penciled the acronyms; would have insisted on a coherent arc of development; and would asked the author for the basis of his factual claims.  It’s a shame this person blogs instead of submitting his work to an editor, because the piece contains several interesting points as well. 


The Atlantic Monthly, July/ August 2008

The cover story of this issue asks “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”  If that article had run in The New Yorker, it would have begun with the sentence that in fact opens its 11th paragraph:  “Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter- A Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise.”  That story closes with Nietzsche observing that “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”  The article draws on recent neurological findings about the malleability of the adult brain to expand on Nietzsche’s insight, suggesting that just as those findings suggest that literacy triggers a large-scale rewiring of brain circuitry, so the web can be expected to give rise, not just to a new kind of research method, but to a new kind of human mind.  Homo Googlieticus, perhaps.  

Hanna Rosin’s “American Murder Mystery” notes the changes in the geographic distribution of crime reports in American cities in recent years and suggests a correlation between these changes and the breaking up of the big housing projects of the Great Society era.  As the poor have spread out through Section 8 housing programs, not only have the criminally-inclined among them come along; the old gangs that terrorized the projects have been dispersed and ambitious young thugs have seen an opportunity to create new gangs.  Creating a new gang tends to be a hyper-violent process, leading to spikes in homicide rates in midsize cities around the USA. 

Benjamin Schwarz goes to Brazil (home of our old friend Benjamin Swartz, but that’s a different story) and looks at the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer.  In his first sentence, Schwarz declares that Brasilia “was a heroic and inhuman scheme.”  Leaning on Styliane Philippou’s book Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence, Schwarz defends Niemeyer as a blithe spirit who “offered a jaunty alternative to the geometric severity of the International Style” and whose “highest achievements are profoundly informed by a Brazilian aesthetic, which has long made sinuous forms a basic element of its vocabulary.”  Such buildings as the presidential palace, the Foreign Ministry, and the Supreme Court move Schwarz and Philippou to heights of lyrical rapture.  Even so, Schwarz describes Brasilia as “an awful city,” an “horrendous error,” “a colossally wrong turn in urban planning,” “soullessly set in immense paved fields that offer few places to sit and little refuge from the blinding sun.”

The Atlantic Monthly, June 2008

A lively, pleasant read this month. 

Some articles about Barack Obama.  Joshua Green’s “The Amazing Money Machine” leads to the idea that no two successful presidential candidates use the same fundraising model.  Marc Ambinder’s “HisSPACE”, about Obama’s ideas on using the Internet to make government operations more visible, contains this sentence:

Communication and transparency are virtues only up to a point; as students of bureaucracy know, both eventually become an enemy to efficiency. 

But of course it is precisely at the point where transparency becomes an enemy to efficiency that it becomes a virtue.  The last thing we want is a really efficient bureaucracy.  An inefficient bureaucracy is a nuisance, a waste, a headache.  A truly efficient bureaucracy can make life so easy for its clients that it leaves them no opportunity to achieve or create anything.   

Transparency is like all other institutions of democracy: worth everything in the fighting for, worth nothing once achieved.   Even a moderately efficient bureaucratic system can absorb the formalities of democracy and domesticate them thoroughly.  Nietzsche wrote about this several times.  In Twilight of the Idols, he issues his customary harsh dismissal of the institutions of liberalism (“reduction to the herd animal!”,) but does then qualify his contempt:

As long as they are still being fought for, these same institutions produce quite different effects; they then in fact promote freedom mightily.  Viewed more closely, it is war which produces these effects, war for liberal institutions which as war permits the illiberal instincts to endure.  And war is a training in freedom.  For what is freedom?  That one has the will to self-responsibility.  That one preserves the distance which divides us.  That one has become more indifferent to hardship, toil, privation, even to life.  That one is ready to sacrifice men to one’s cause, oneself not excepted.  Freedom means that the manly instincts that delight in war and victory have gained mastery over the other instincts- for example, over the instinct for “happiness”… How is freedom measured, in individuals as in nations?  By the resistance which has to be overcome, by the effort it costs to stay aloft. (from section 38, as translated by R. J. Hollingdale in the Penguin Classics version)

Needless to say I would not endorse any of this without reservation.  But I do believe that the proper growth of the human person requires freedom; that “the will to self-responsibility” is a major part of freedom; that freedom can exist only where all power has definite limits; and that the only thing capable of limiting power is conflict with an opposing power.  Conflict itself, not documents or other formalized procedures resulting from conflict, is what ensures freedom.   

Gregg Easterbrook’s “The Sky is Falling” looks at the possibility of a disastrous meteor strike, analyzing as an example of inefficient bureaucracy NASA’s failure to live up to Congress’ mandates to map the inner solar system.  Locked into a metric which calculates success as a function of the number of astronauts deployed, the space agency wastes billions pointlessly repeating its Nixon-era triumphs, leaving undone work that might, quite literally, save the world. 

“In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” gives “Professor X” the opportunity to speak the unspeakable- some of the students he teaches in two-year colleges are wasting their time taking classes when they would be better off working.  Not that it’s their fault; jobs which never involve a bit of research or sustained sequential reasoning now routinely require four-year degrees.