12 February 2012
Today is Darwin’s birthday, and therefore an appropriate time to celebrate Darwin by a mediation upon his work. No one has influenced me more than Darwin, and I always find the study of his works to be intellectually rewarding. I also read (and listen to) quite a number of books about Darwin. Recently I listened to Darwin, Darwinism, and the Modern World, 14 lectures by Dr. Chandak Sengoopta. While I enjoyed the lectures, I sharply differed from many of Dr. Sengoopta’s interpretations of Darwin’s thought. One theme that Dr. Sengoopta returned to several times was a denial that Darwin had anything to say about the ultimate origins of life. Each time that Dr. Sengoopta made this point I found myself grow more and more irritated.
To say that Darwin had nothing to say about the ultimate origins of life may be technically correct in a narrow sense, but I do not think that it is an accurate expression of Darwin’s vision of life, which was sweeping and comprehensive. While it may be a little much to say that Darwin ever entertained ideas that could accurately be called “Darwin’s cosmology,” it is obvious in reading Darwin’s notebooks, in which he recorded thoughts that never made it into his published books, his mind ranged far and wide. It is almost as though, once Darwin made the conceptual breakthrough of natural selection he had discovered a new world.
In characterizing Darwin’s thought in this way I am immediately reminded of a famous letter that Janos Bolyai wrote to his father after having independently arrived at the idea of non-Euclidean geometry:
“…I have discovered such wonderful things that I was amazed, and it would be an everlasting piece of bad fortune if they were lost. When you, my dear Father, see them, you will understand; at present I can say nothing except this: that out of nothing I have created a strange new universe. All that I have sent you previously is like a house of cards in comparison with a tower. I am no less convinced that these discoveries will bring me honor than I would be if they were complete.”
Darwin, too, discovered wonderful things and created the strange new universe of evolutionary biology, though it came on him rather slowly — not in a youthful moment that could be recorded to a letter in his father, and not in a fit of fever, as the idea of natural selection came to Wallace — as the result of many years of ruminating on his observations. But the slowness with which Darwin’s mind worked was repaid with thoroughness. Even though Darwin was the first evolutionist in the modern sense of the term, he must also be accounted among the most complete of all evolutionary thinkers, having spent decades thinking through his idea with a Platonic will to follow the argument wherever it leads.
Given that Darwin himself thought that making the idea of natural selection public was like “confessing to a murder,” the fragments of Darwin’s cosmology must be sought in his latter and notebooks as much as in his published works. As for the origins of life, narrowly considered, apart from the cosmological implications of life, Darwin openly speculated on a purely naturalistic origin of life in a letter to Joseph Hooker:
“It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present. But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, — light, heat, electricity &c. present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.”
Darwin’s 1871 letter to Joseph Hooker
What has widely come to be known as “Darwin’s warm little pond” sounds like nothing so much as the famous Stanley L. Miller electrical discharge experiment.
Darwin revealed his consistent naturalism in his rejection of teleology in a letter to Julia Wedgwood, where he indirectly refers to his slow, steady, cumulative mode of thinking (quite the opposite of revelation):
“The mind refuses to look at this universe, being what it is, without having been designed; yet, where would one most expect design, viz. in the structure of a sentient being, the more I think on the subject, the less I can see proof of design.”
Darwin’s letter of 11 July 1861 to Miss Julia Wedgwood
This same refusal continues to a sticking point to the present day, since, like so much that we learn from contemporary science, appearances are deceiving, and the reality behind the appearance can be so alien to the natural constitution of thue human mind that it is rejected as incomprehensible or unthinkable. That Darwin was able to think the unthinkable, and to so with a unparalleled completeness at a time when no one else was doing so, is testimony to the cosmological scope of his thought.
One of the most memorable passages in all of Darwin’s writings is the last page or so of the Origin of Species, which touches not a little on cosmological themes. Take, for instance, the “tangled bank” passage:
“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”
Besides anticipating the evolutionary study of ecology and complex adaptive systems long before these disciplines became explicit and constituted their own sciences, Darwin here subtly invokes a law-like naturalism that both suggests Lyell’s uniformitarianism while going beyond it.
Darwin places this law-governed naturalism in cosmological context in the last two sentences of the book, here also implicitly invoking Malthus, whose influence was central to his making the breakthrough to the idea of natural selection:
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
This famous passage from Darwin reminds me of a perhaps equally famous passage from Immanuel Kant, who concluded The Critique of Practical Reason with this thought:
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. The first starts at the place that I occupy in the external world of the senses, and extends the connection in which I stand into the limitless magnitude of worlds upon worlds, systems upon systems, as well as into the boundless times of their periodic motion, their beginning and continuation. The second begins with my invisible self, my personality, and displays to me a world that has true infinity, but which can only be detected through the understanding, and with which . . . I know myself to be in not, as in the first case, merely contingent, but universal and necessary connection. The first perspective of a countless multitude of worlds as it were annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which must give the matter out of which it has grown back to the planet (a mere speck in the cosmos) after it has been (one knows not how) furnished with life-force for a short time.”
Both Darwin and Kant invoke both the laws of the natural world (and both, again, do so by appealing to grandeur of the heavens) and a humanistic ideal. For Kant, the humanistic ideal is morality; for Darwin, the humanistic ideal is beauty, but what Kant said of morality and the moral law is equally applicable, mutatis mutandis, to beauty. Darwin might equally well have said of “the fixed law of gravity” and of “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” that he saw them before himself and connected them immediately with the consciousness of his existence. Kant might equally well have said that there is “grandeur in this view of life” that embraces both the starry heavens above and the moral law within.
Darwin did not express himself (and would not have expressed himself) in these philosophical terms; he was a naturalist and a biologist, not a philosopher. But Darwin’s naturalism and biology were so comprehensive to have spanned the universe and to have converged on an entire cosmology — a cosmology, for the most part, not even suspected before Darwin had done his work.
There is a sense in which Darwin fulfilled Marx’s famous pronouncement, from this Theses on Feuerbach, such that: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Darwin, however, did not change the world by fomenting a revolution; Darwin changed the world by thinking, like a philosopher. In this sense, at least, Darwin must be counted among the greatest philosophers.
I would be a rewarding project to devote an entire book to the idea of Darwin’s Cosmology. I know that I have not even scratched the surface here, and have not come near to doing justice to the idea. It would be a rewarding project to think through this idea as carefully as Darwin thought through his ideas.
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Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!
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14 January 2012
Yesterday in Marxist Eschatology I wrote:
Marx is the greatest exemplar of a perennial tradition of human thought that has been with us from the beginning and which will be with us as long as civilization and human life endures. This tradition wasn’t always called Marxism, and it won’t always be called Marxism, but the perennial tendency will remain. There will always be individuals who are attracted to the perennial idea that Marx represents, and as of the present time Marx remains the most powerful advocate of these ideas.
While on my other blog in Marx and Fukuyama I wrote:
With Marx, we can identify a “bend in the road” of history at which point Marx might be proved right or wrong. For some people — wrongly to my mind — this point was identified as the end of the Cold War. To my mind, it is the full industrialization of the world’s economy. Thus Marx’s thesis has the virtue of falsification.
This calls for a little clarification, since if interpreted uncharitably it might be found contradictory for Marxism to be a perennial idea and to be falsifiable, since what distinguishes a perennial idea is that it is not falsifiable — at least, not in a robust sense of falsification.
Karl Popper was the philosopher who formulated falsifiability as a criterion of scientificity (I’m not certain he was the first, be he has definitely been the most influential in advancing the idea of falsifiability, especially in contradistinction to the logical positivist emphasis on the verifiability criterion), and he discussed Marx at some length. Here’s nice summary from one of Popper’s later works:
“As I pointed out in my Open Society, one may regard Marx’s theory as refuted by events that occurred during the Russian Revolution. According to Marx the revolutionary changes start at the bottom, as it were: means of production change first, then social conditions of production, then political power, and ultimately ideological beliefs, which change last. But in the Russian Revolution the political power changed first, and then the ideology (Dictatorship plus Electrification) began to change the social conditions and the means of production from the top. The reinterpretation of Marx’s theory of revolution to evade this falsification immunized it against further attacks, transforming it into the vulgar-Marxist (or socioanalytic) theory which tells us that the ‘economic motive’ and the class struggle pervade social life.”
Karl Popper, Unended Quest, “Early Studies,” p. 45
I should point out that I agree with Popper’s arguments, and that Marxism construed in the narrow sense that Popper construed it was falsified by the events of the Russian Revolution. Lenin’s “weakest link of capitalism” theory was instrumental in the reinterpretation of Marxism that Popper mentioned. Beyond Lenin, Mao made even more radical changes by shifting the focus from the industrial proletariat to the agricultural peasant. It is a testament to the extent to which the twentieth century was not fully industrialized that it was Maoism rather than Marxism or Leninism that was the form of communism that reached the masses during the last century.
However, I think that there is a species of Marxism that lies between Popper’s narrowly conceived Marxism and the vulgar Marxism reinterpreted in the light of apparent falsification, and this is a Marxism that has been generalized beyond the historically specific conditions of the Russian Revolution, and even beyond the Cold War, which had almost nothing to do with democracy or communism and almost everything to do with national rivalry and the great game of power politics.
I have called a generalized Marxism a species of Marxism, and herein lies to clue to the distinction between Marxism and a perennial idea in the strict sense. Marxism (of one variety or another) is a species that falls under the genera of collectivist political thought. The latter — collectivist political thought — is a perennial idea, and lies beyond falsification. It is neither true nor false, but an ongoing influence, just like its implied contrary, which is individualist political thought. Individualism also lies beyond falsification, and is neither true nor false but remains an ongoing influence in human affairs.
Most forms of capitalism are individualist in orientation, though not all: oligarchical capitalist societies (like medieval Venice) had little to do with individualism. Thus a generalization of capitalism does not always lead to individualism. A generalization of capitalism, depending on its subtle differences in tone of market activity from one society to another, may lead to individualism, but it may also lead to a profoundly hierarchical crony capitalism, or to some other socio-economic formation.
Speaking generally for ideas, and not just communism and capitalism, and indeed not just political and economic ideas but all ideas, the generalization of an historically situated and therefore specific idea usually leads to a perennial idea if the generalization is sufficiently radical. The generalization of capitalism may or may not lead to individualism, but it will eventually lead to some perennial idea which lies beyond falsification, whether that idea is patriarchalism or something else. The generalization of Marxism, I think, leads more directly to a perennial form of collectivist thought, which at its greatest reach of generality is scarcely distinguishable from a vague sentimental connection to others.
The species of Marxism that I have posited — midway between Marxism narrowly conceived and Marxism generalized to the point of a vague feeling of cooperative common cause — is falsifiable, but it is not falsifiable by experiment. It is only falsifiable by history. It shares this property with other theses in the philosophy of history. This is one of the fundamental distinctions between the natural sciences and at least some of the historical sciences: theses in some of the historical sciences are falsifiable, but they are not falsifiable on demand. One can only wait and see if they are eventually falsified. With the passage of time the inductive evidence of an unfalsifiable thesis in the philosophy of history increases, but is never confirmed. Thus the philosophy of history, contrary to most expectations, is the most science-like of the branches of philosophy.
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13 January 2012
Why do I keep writing about Marx? I have already discovered that repeatedly writing about Marx confuses people. Indeed, it confuses some people so completely that if you write a long, detailed criticism of some Marxian idea, those who don’t take the time to read or don’t have the capacity of understand simply assume you’re a Marxist because you’re writing about Marx. Why not get “Karl Marx” tattooed across my knuckles, then? It’s a fun idea. People who read me, but don’t read me closely, sometimes think I’m a Marxist, while people who see me but don’t look closely sometimes think I’m a John Bircher. Really. I was in a coffee house in a trendy part of Portland some years ago having a long and detailed conversation about logic with a friend, and someone asked us if we were from the John Birch Society. I guess it must have been due to our clean-cut looks and the moral earnestness of our discussion. I once asked one of my sisters why people often mistake me for a reactionary, and she said I wasn’t “flying the flag,” and that if I wore my hair in dreadlocks and dressed the part, people would probably think differently. I realized later how right she was.
For my part, I continue to write about Marx because Marx is the greatest exemplar of a perennial tradition of human thought that has been with us from the beginning and which will be with us as long as civilization and human life endures. This tradition wasn’t always called Marxism, and it won’t always be called Marxism, but the perennial tendency will remain. There will always be individuals who are attracted to the perennial idea that Marx represents, and as of the present time Marx remains the most powerful advocate of these ideas. And so it is necessary to grapple with Marx. I might even be willing to go so far as to say of Marx what Hegel said of Spinoza: To be a philosopher, one must first be a Marxist.
I have on many occasions written about the eschatology implicit in Marx, which is a pretty straight-forward secularization of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. Recently in Missing the point I used this famous phrase to describe the dead-end ritualism of mass labor under advanced industrialized capitalism, but it is just as true of Marx’s original vision. Some time ago I quoted a famous passage from Bertrand Russell to this end (Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization). This post was cited in a discussion on The Rational Responders web site. No one told me about the discussion; I found it by following the links back from hits to my post. Some seemed to agree with me, while others thought I got it all wrong, and Russell too.
It was one of the central features of Karl Löwith’s philosophy of history that modernity itself consists of a number of secularizations of originally theological concepts, and Löwith clearly implied that this rendered much modern thought essentially illegitimate. This implication was sufficiently clear that Hans Blumenberg wrote a long book, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, in order to rebut Löwith. Unfortunately, Löwith and Blumenberg are not well known in Anglo-American analytical philosophy, so their works are little discussed. Marx seems to slot in well with Löwith’s secularization thesis, but if secularization is a legitimate historical process, what’s the problem?
I just argued yesterday in Areté and Selection that the medieval world was the direct ancestor of modernity, and if this is indeed the case, then no one should be surprised that many modern concepts of our secular civilization are secularizations of medieval concepts derived from a primarily theological civilization. This is just what happens when a theological civilization gives way to a secular civilization. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I think that I will begin referring to that which preceded industrial-technological civilization as religio-philosophical civilization.
In any case, to get around to my main point of today’s post, I was thinking about Marx’s own conception of Marx’s communist millennium that would be a worker’s paradise in which:
“…nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, A. Idealism and Materialism
Marx was careful to be vague about the coming worker’s paradise under communism partly because he didn’t want to held to any overly-specific predictions, and partly because he wanted to avoid being called a Utopian. In social science circles, to be called a Utopian is the end the discussion with one’s exclusion as a serious thinker. Marx knew it, dismissed other social theorists himself as utopians, and forcefully argued that communism would come about as a result of inevitable historical processes, not in order to fulfill our dreams of a more just social order in the future.
In other words, Marx’s conception of communism is closely parallel to the line I have consistently argued about the industrial revolution, and, by extension, globalization, since I have also argued that globalization is simply an extension of the industrial revolution — its continuation, and eventually, some decades hence, its completion and fulfillment.
The industrialization of the world’s economies has not come about because of utopian plans for a better, healthier, and more just society, and it did not come about as the result of the nefarious plotting of hidden powers who pull levers behind a curtain. The industrial revolution came about as an historical process that escalated due to a feedback loop of science, technology, and industry. This process is still incomplete. As the process continues its march around the globe — again, not as the result of utopian dreams or evil conspiracies — it creates what we now call globalization, as institutions that first appeared in Western Europe begin to appear elsewhere in the world. But the institutions are symptoms, not causes. People who see only the surface of things see the institutions of industrialized societies as the causes of changes; they are not the causes; these institutions follow from deep structural changes in economic organization.
I don’t think that Marx would have disagreed with me too strenuous only this, and I don’t think that he would disagree all that much with the next claim I will make. I have called the industrial revolution a macro-historical revolution, as it initiates a new stage in human history. There have only been two previous fundamentally distinct forms of human society, and these were hunter-gatherer nomadic societies, and settled agricultural societies. If communism had come about as Marx believed it would come about, then this too would have qualified as a fundamentally new form of human society, and communism would have inaugurated a new macro-historical division. The material conditions of life would have changed for the greater part of humanity. This is simply to put Marx’s idea in my terminology.
I have also argued that Marx’s theory has not really received its experimentum crusis, because the industrial revolution has even in our time not yet been completed. We cannot say that Marx was wrong in his essential argument until globalization has transformed the world entire into an industrialized economy, and then, under these conditions, no communist revolution occurs that expropriates the expropriators. People who still argue today about whether Marx was right or wrong, whether he has been refuted or validated by history, are missing the point: the conditions do not yet obtain under which Marx can be judged to be right or wrong. Thus Marxism must remain an open question for us if we are going to maintain our intellectual integrity.
Given, then, that the fulfillment of Marx’s prophecy is still a live option for history, I ought to count it among the macro-historical possibilities that I began to delineate in Three Futures, where I identified singularization, pastoralization, and extraterrestrialization as historical forces that could sufficiently transform the basic organization of human societies to the point that a new macro-historical division is defined by the transformation. I ought, then, to speak of four futures, except that I am working on another possibility that I hope to discuss soon, which would define five futures — or, better, five strategic trends that suggest transformation on the civilizational level if extrapolated to a sufficient degree.
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27 April 2009
This morning on twitter I jotted down a few quick notes that partially reflect the fact that I am presently listening to a couple different books about war: Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden, by Marshall de Bruhl, and A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954 – 1962, by Alistair Horne.
As I was capturing a few thoughts about contemporary warfare, it dawned on me that my thoughts on war can be given an interesting Marxist formulation. If there is anyone who reads this forum on a regular basis you will know that, despite my clear differences with Marx, I often end up citing and quoting him, and I will further develop my quasi-Marxist reflections today.
One of the features of Marx’s thought that retains its value despite the problematic nature of so much Marxist theory is that of the distinction between economic base and ideological superstructure. There should be a name for this distinction and the view of society that it implies, but I am not sufficiently up on Marxist studies to know if there is a term that is commonly used within the discipline, so at present I will refer to it as “the economic interpretation of history”.
I wrote about this last week in relation to Joseph Campbell’s use of the phrase, and there I said that I didn’t know exactly what Campbell meant by it. Well, this is as good a meaning as any for the phrase, and indeed I think it sums up the idea Campbell meant to criticize quite nicely. We could even say (with a certain flourish) that the fundamental theorem of the economic interpretation of history is that the ideological superstructure of a society is completely determined by the economic base of the same society.
This uncompromising statement of the fundamental theorem of the economic interpretation of history is a perfect instance of reductionism as well as of constructing a theoretical absolute. Reductionism is mostly out of favor among contemporary thinkers, though it is not without its advocates, and constructing a theoretical absolute can be little different than erecting a straw man. There are obvious re-formulations of this theorem that are far less rigid, and thus far more likely to be true, or, at least, to have some truth in them. For example, we could say that the economic interpretation of history is the principle that ideological superstructure is mostly determined, or somewhat determined, by economic base. Or, hedging even more, that ideological superstructure is determined at least in part by economic base. It would be foolish to deny the latter outright, so we see that between an absolutist and uncompromising statement of a principle, and a thoroughly hedged statement there can be the difference between night and day.
But rather than conditionalize, compromise, or hedge, I would like to go in the direction of greater abstractness and generality. In other words, I would like, for the moment, to pursue an even more thorough-going reductionism, all in the interest of philosophical principle.
When thinking about it this morning, I was struck by the obvious fact that Marx’s formulation of the economic interpretation of history can be generalized. Rather than limiting our foundations to economic foundations, any social system whatever can be seen as the social base of a society, while any cultural or intellectual expression of a people is a wider field of ambition than political ideology in the narrow sense. Thus a generalization of Marx’s principle would be that social conditions determine the life of the mind. Once again, if we hedge and say, “Social conditions, at least in part, determine the life of the mind,” we have a proposition with which few will disagree.
Now, to war. War is one form of social organization. Indeed, it is a pervasive form of social organization throughout human history. There are important respects in which war is an expression of human culture. It is then to be expected that the social conditions of a society at war are expressed in the methods by which that society makes war.
Since the end of the Second World War, there was been much discussion of strategic bombing. An explicitly philosophical treatise has been written to denounce it as immoral (A. C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime?). Caleb Carr denounces it in his The Lessons of Terror. Firestorm, mentioned above, questions the utility and rationale of strategic bombing. But, if I am at least partly right, it is misleading to try to understand strategic bombing in exclusively moral or political terms. Strategic bombing is an expression of our culture.
Once we see it in this context, it seems rather obvious. Hannah Arendt is especially remembered for her argument that twentieth century totalitarianism and fascism is a political outcome of the emergence of mass man in history. I would argue that mass warfare is also a nearly inevitable historical outcome of the emergence of mass man. Today we have mass war for mass man. It may be horrific, but it is not to be treated as some kind of anomaly: this style of warfare perfectly matches the structure of society today.
For the record, below are my Twitter posts from this morning, laying the above out with a certain succinctness:
1. Influencing policy through mass terror could have no place before popular opinion was crucial to the formulation of policy.
2. The limited war of earlier ages corresponded to the drastically limited sovereignty of non-democratic institutions.
3. Where vox populi is law, to shift the feeling or perceptions of the people, through terror or other means, is a coherent strategy.
4. Twentieth century campaigns of mass death and strategic bombing are brought into being (not justified) by popular sovereignty.
5. The ideological superstructure of modern war (mass war) supervenes upon the social and economic base of modern human life (mass man).
6. Mass war is a product of the Age of Mass Man.
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