Thursday


revolutionary years with dates

Like 1968 and 1989, 2013 is looking a little like the original “Springtime of Nations” in 1848, when popular rebellions against entrenched power spontaneously emerged in widely divergent societies. While the energies released in these revolutionary movements proved to be too scattered to form the basis of a new political order that could replace the established political order — and far short of the ideal Novus ordo seclorum imagined by Virgil — the high political drama of such events leaves an impression that should not be denied or trivialized.

It is the historical exception that the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Bolshevik Revolution resulted in far-reaching political changes that shaped the future of the planet entire. The first of these, the American Revolution that we celebrate today, far from being a mere ephemeral moment like the protests of today, established a political institution that was to dominate the planet, requiring less than two centuries to grow into the sole superpower in the world. Few Revolutions can boast of such an issue, but whether we want to celebrate the prescience of the Founding Fathers in pursing the expedient of regime change through political revolution and armed struggle, or whether we see this as the opening of Pandora’s Box is another matter.

How are we to understand revolution? The best summary that I have found of the nature of revolution itself is a paragraph from Sartre’s essay, “Materialism and Revolution.” This essay dates from before Sartre became a Marxist and a Maoist apologist. Mark Poster discussed the origins of this essay in the context of the post-war French communist movement and Sartre’s troubled relations with prominent French communists:

With the unrestrained polemics against Sartre from the Communists multiplying day by day, Sartre felt called upon to defend himself and his ideas. His response came in a lecture in 1945 called “Existentialism is a Humanism,” and in an article in Les Temps Modernes of 1946 entitled “Materialism and Revolution.” In these ripostes Sartre advertised his own existentialism as a true humanism, the only suitable philosophy for a liberating politics, over against the Marxism of the French Communist Party, which was a dehumanizing materialism. He proposed naively that the CP substitute existentialism for its own diamat. It was at this point in the controversy between Marxism and existentialism that the two camps were most sharply opposed and that the Communist criticisms of Being and Nothingness were most poignant. It was also at this point that Sartre was attacked by the Trotskyists because his lecture attacked Naville. Sartre’s response to the Communists was based, in general, on a defense of his concept of radical freedom as a needed ingredient in revolutionary theory: “…the basic idea of existentialism is that even in the most crushing situations, the most difficult circumstances, man is free. Man is never powerless except when he is persuaded that he is and the responsibility of man is immense because he becomes what he decides to be.”

Mark Poster, Existential Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1975, pp. 125-126

It is a salutary exercise to remind ourselves that the later Sartre was but a shadow of his former, younger self, when he defended freedom and had not yet capitulated to Marxism — a capitulation that itself might be characterized as a failure of freedom, since Sartre capitulated to the apparent historical inevitability of Marxism, and the belief in inevitability is a form of fatalism and an abandonment of freedom (mauvaise foi, no less). In any case, here’s what Sartre wrote about revolution when he still thought that human freedom was central to revolutionary action:

“…a revolutionary philosophy ought to set aside the materialistic myth and endeavor to show: (1) That man is unjustifiable, that his existence is contingent, in that neither he nor any Providence has produced it; (2) That, as a result of this, any collective order established by men can be transcended toward other orders; (3) That the system of values current in a society reflects the structure of that society and tends to preserve it; (4) That it can thus always be transcended toward other systems which are not yet clearly perceived since the society of which they are the expression does not yet exist — but which are adumbrated are in, in a word, invented by the very effort of the members of the society to transcend it.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Literary and Philosophical Essays, “Materialism and Revolution,” New York: Collier Books, 1955, p. 235

There is a lot going on in this passage. Its vision of a society that continually transcends itself through revolution is an explicit negation of Comte de Maistre’s finitistic political theory, which shows both Sartre and de Maistre in their true political colors: Sartre as a revolutionary, and de Maistre as a reactionary.

This passage also formulates a social and collective expression of what in Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone I called Sartre’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Individuals, or, more briefly, Sartre’s Principle. I contrasted Sartre’s principle as an individualistic principle to Gibbon’s principle — namely, that no assembly of legislators can bind their successors invested with powers equal to their own — which is a collective or political principle. But now I see that I could have dispensed with Gibbon and formulated the principle both in its individualistic and collectivistic forms with reference only to Sartre.

In Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone I argued that the individual principle, Sartre’s Principle, was ultimately the foundation of the freedom of societies and social wholes; in other worlds, social freedom supervenes upon individual freedom.

The nearly unique value placed upon individual liberty in the American revolution is significant here: this was a revolution that was successful because it recognized the supervenience of social liberty upon individual liberty. The French and Bolshevik revolutions gave way to terrors and atrocities because their vision was of a Rousseauian majoritarianism in which the individual was to be “forced to be free.” That didn’t turn out to well.

Many of those protesting and marching and rebelling today also believe in the possibility of society transcending itself to another order, even if they cannot precisely imagine what that order will be; these efforts are likely to be successful only in so far as they respect individual liberty as the foundation of social liberty. To the extent that this grounding of liberty in the individual is denied — indeed, in so far as it is denied in the US today by fashionable anti-individualists — these efforts will fail to bear fruit.

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Happy 4th of July!

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History Degree Zero

22 October 2012

Monday


Waiting at the End of History

for the Coming of the Zero Hour


What does French literary criticism have to do with geopolitics, geostrategy, and far future scenarios of human civilization? Everything, as it turns out.

Roland Barthes wrote a book titled Writing Degree Zero; one could say that it is a work of literary criticism, but as with much sophisticated scholarship it is more than this. French literary criticism is not a scholarly undertaking for the faint at heart.

Barthes compares what he calls “writing degree zero” to the writing of a journalist; we can similarly compare history degree zero with the history found in journalism. In journalism, nothing ever happens, and at the same time something is always happening. It is the contemporary incarnation of the cyclical conception of history, in which nothing in essentials changes even while accidental change is the pervasive order of the day. (In Italy this is called “Gatopardismo.”) This is history reduced to white noise.

Here is Barthes’ own formulation of writing degree zero:

“Proportionately speaking, writing at the degree zero is basically in the indicative mood, or if you like, amodal; it would be accurate to say that it is a journalist’s writing. If it were not precisely the case that journalism develops, in general, optative or imperative (that is, emotive) forms. The new neutral writing takes place in the midst of all those ejaculations and judgments, without becoming involved in any of them; it consists precisely in their absence. But this absence is complete, it implies no refuge, no secret; one cannot therefore say that it is an impassive mode of writing; rather, that is is innocent.”

Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977 (originally published 1953), pp. 76-77

It has been said that Barthes’ book is parochial, and certainly his central concern is French literature, and the situation (or, if you prefer, the dilemma) of the French writer. Barthes was a man of his place and time, and the book sets itself questions that scarcely resonate in early twenty-first century America: How can writing be revolutionary? We’ve come a long way since 1968.

Barthes was clearly vexed that a lot of writing by professed communists was anything but revolutionary. It was, in fact — horror of horrors — bourgeois, and little better than shilling shockers, penny dreadfuls, and yellow journalism. Barthes, then, was asking how it was possible for someone with truly revolutionary ideas to write in a revolutionary manner.

One must recall that at this time there were two kinds of writers in France: communists who supported Stalin and made excuses for him, and communists who did not support Stalin and made no excuses for him. (If you have the chance, I urge you to see the wonderful film Red Kiss, which is a bit difficult to find, but worth the effort for its illustration of the period.) The most famous literary-intellectual-philosophical dispute of the time — that between Sartre and Camus — perfectly exemplified this. Camus, not one to make excuses for anyone, said he would be neither a victim nor an executioner. Sartre, after resisting the blandishments of communism for many years, eventually became the most unimaginative of communists, defended Stalin and Mao, and had his lackeys take Camus to task in print.

Barthes explicitly cites the style of Camus as embodying the qualities of writing of the zero degree, though I think that Barthes was so personally involved in the idea of literature that his identification of Camus as writing degree zero was not in any sense intended as a political slander — or, for that matter, as a literary slander. (I hope that more informed readers will correct me if I am wrong.)

Journalism, then, is historiography degree zero, and in so far as journalists produce (as they like to say) the first draft of history, and in so far as this first draft is subsequently iterated in later drafts of history, historiography more closely approximates the zero degree. (If you prefer reading sitreps to journalism — they’re pretty much the same thing — you can reformulate the preceding sentence.) And then again, in so far as mass journalism is consumed by a mass audience, and that mass audience goes on to create contemporary history, in a mass spectacle of life imitating art, history itself, and not merely the recounting of history in historiography, approaches the zero degree. The new neutral history — uninvolved, disengaged, absent — is the perfect characterization of the mass politics of mass man.

There are elections, there are debates, there is television news 24/7 and radio talk shows 24/7, there are still a few newspapers and magazines sacrificing dead trees, and there is of course the blogosphere resonating with the voices of the millions (like myself) who have no access to the media megaphone and who prefer the web to a soapbox. All of this feeds into the appearance that there is always something going on. But we know that almost nothing changes for all the sound and fury. It doesn’t really matter who wins the election, since the rich will still be rich and the poor will still be poor.

Have we already, then, reached history degree zero? Are we living at the end of history? Is this what the end of days looks like? Not quite. Not quite yet.

One of the most famous and familiar motifs of Marx’s thought is that history is driven by ideological conflict. It is a very Victorian, very Darwinian, very nineteenth century idea. History understood as an ideological conflict has characterized the modern period of Western history, even if it was not always obvious what people were fighting for. Sometimes it was obvious what men were fighting for, and this was especially true in the wake of revolutions: those who died to defend the American Revolution or the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution knew, to some extent at least, what they were fighting for.

For Marx, the locomotive of history was the class struggle, and it was the nature of class struggle to erupt into revolutionary action. Revolutions, as I noted above, had the property of clarifying what it’s all about. You’re on one side of the barricades or the other. Marx was right to focus on revolutions, but wrong to focus on the class struggle.

We can arrive at a more satisfactory understanding of modern history if we take social class out of Marx’s class struggle and make the class a variable for which we can substitute any political entity whatsoever. Thus we arrive at a formal conception of political struggle: a social class can struggle against a nation-state; a nation-state can struggle against a royal family; a royal family can struggle against a city-state, and so on, and so forth.

The convergence of the international system on the model of the nation-state system has given us the appearance that nation-states struggle with nation-states, and as life has imitated art — in this case, the art of political thought — we have steadily been reduced to the monoculture of a single kind of political entity — nation-states — engaged in a single kind of struggle. Francis Fukuyama called this political system “liberal democracy” and this condition “the end of the history.” I guess one name is as good as any other name; I would call it political homogenization.

In many posts I have discussed Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis (a thesis, I might add, heavily indebted to French scholarship, and especially to Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel — note that Kojève was an acquaintance of Leo Strauss and his work was translated by Allen Bloom, noted literary critic and cranky academic who wrote The Closing of the American Mind). I have pointed out that, despite the many dismissive critiques of Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, and claims of a “return of history,” that Fukuyama himself still holds a modified version of the thesis, and this is that contemporary liberal democratic society is the sole remaining viable form of political society (cf. Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics, in which I noted that Fukuyama is still thinking through his thesis twenty years on, as befits a philosopher).

As it turns out, there is a political level below that of the “end of history” and this is the absence of history — history degree zero.

A single remaining political ideology signifies History Degree One, and in the theater of political ideologies, liberal democracy is, for Fukuyama, the last man standing — but if this last man standing is a straw man, and we knock over this straw man, what then? If it can be shown that liberal democracy is a failure also, along with communism and fascism, nationalism and socialism, internationalism and fundamentalism, what comes next?

What then? Zero hour. History degree zero.

Even the end of history waits for further developments, and the future of the end of history is Zero Hour.

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Wednesday


The idea of the individual has been central to Western Civilization; we can discern its earliest manifestations in ancient Greece, when potters signed their work and bragged that they were better than other potters; we can see its further development in the Italy of the renaissance, when men of virtú like Machiavelli and Lorenzo the Magnificent forcefully asserted themselves as rightful masters of their time; we can see the new forms that it has taken after the Industrial Revolution, where the office towers of New York, like the medieval towers of San Gimignano, assert the ascendancy and priority of the individual.

Whether you love it or hate it, you have to acknowledge that the US is where individualism has reached its most unconditional realization. Some people glory in American individualism, and some despise it. If a member of the commentariat or the punditocracy wants to put a positive spin on individualism, they will call it “rugged individualism,” whereas if they want to put a negative spin on individualism, they will call it “rampant individualism.” There are plenty of examples of both of these attitudes, and I invite the reader to stay alert for these linguistic clues in future reading.

Jean-Paul Sartre said of the skyscrapers of New York City, “Seen flat on the ground from the point of view of length and width, New York is the most conformist city in the world… But if you look up, everything changes. Seen in its height, New York is the triumph of individualism… There are individuals in America, just as there are skyscrapers. There are Ford and Rockefeller, Hemingway and Roosevelt. They are models and examples.”

When earlier today I posted a longish piece on Tumblr about Appearance and Reality in Demographics, I continued to think about the recent poll results that I mentioned there, WIN-Gallup International ‘Religiosity and Atheism Index’ reveals atheists are a small minority in the early years of 21st century, as well as an earlier poll from the Pew Forum, U. S. Religious Landscape Survey, that I mentioned some years ago (in 2008) in More on Republican Disarray. In particular, I thought about how wrong prognosticators, forecasters, and social commentators have been about the development of religion in the US. There is an obvious reason for this. The US is not only a disproportionately religious nation-state (as revealed in numerous polls), it is also, as I noted above, a disproportionately individualistic nation-state, and the confluence of these ideological trends, the religious and the individualistic, means that US culture is marked by religious individualism and individual religion.

I touched on this peculiar character of religion in America — i.e., religious individualism — in my post American Civilization, in which I cited the song Highwayman, jointed performed by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings (and written by Jimmy Webb). This is an obvious pop culture example of what I am getting at, but the careful reader of classic American fiction will also reveal a religious individualism that frequently issues in pluralism, diversity, and the frankly eclectic. To put it bluntly, people believe whatever they want to believe.

Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, left to right, recorded the Jimmy Webb song The Highwayman and made a commercial success of it.

The attempt to pigeonhole American religious belief and practice always founders on the rock of religious individualism, which cannot be reliably classified in ideological terms. It is not consistently left or right, radical or traditional, liberal or conservative, activist or quietist — or, rather, it is all of these things at different times for different individuals.

Norman Rockwell’s iconic image of freedom of worship is for many a paradigmatic representation of American religiosity, which synthesizes in the single image the conformity and individualism that Sartre saw in American skyscrapers. Each worships according to his own conscience, but it just happens (I guess as a matter of pure chance) that everyone shows up at the white steepled church in the center of a picturesque American small town.

Individual religion takes the form of individual choice, and different individuals choose differently for themselves, and choose differently at different times in their life. This was one of the interesting results of the Pew Forum poll I mentioned above, which found a high level of religious observance in the US (everyone expected that), but when prying deeper found that, “More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion.”

This Rockwell image of American religiosity, no less iconic but perhaps a tad more realistic than the image above, shows an inter-generational solidarity of faith that defies the cool disinterest of the hip crowd. This is, again, like the other Rockwell image above, what many people want to believe about American religious life.

While this may not sound too shocking prima facie, it would be difficult to overemphasize how historically unusual this is. One of the conflicts that marked the shift from the medieval world to the modern world in European history was that between the personal principle in law and the territorial principle in law (which latter emerges with the advent of the nation-state). Given the personal principle in law, an individual is judged according to his community. If you were a Christian on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and were accused of a crime in a Muslim country, you would be dealt with according to Christian law, not Muslim law. That how it was supposed to work, and sometimes it did work that way, and for the decentralized societies of medieval Europe the personal principle in law fit the loosely coupled structures of a nearly non-existent state.

A much less flattering portrayal of American religiosity is to be found in Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry. To reconcile the diverse imagines of Rockwell and Lewis you can imagine Elmer gantry preaching to the assembled small town congregation whose sincere faces, bowed in prayer, are depicted by Rockwell.

The personal principle in law persists today in the institution of diplomatic immunity, but apart from diplomats, those accused of a crime will be tried according to the law of the geographically defined nation-state where the crime occurred, and this legal process will have little or nothing to do with the ethnicity or traditional community of the accused individual. Again, that’s the way it’s supposed to work, though it is not difficult to cite violations of this principle.

College campuses and prisons are common sites for religious proselytizing, since young people going to college and away from home for the first time, and incarcerated persons having passed through the justice system, are particularly apt to convert to a faith not directly involved in their earlier life experience.

The personal principle in law is all about ethnicity and tradition and individual identity being defined by a traditional community, which in turn defined the individual in terms of his or her role in that community. The idea that an individual might change their religion was like suggesting that an individual could put on or take off an identity like a suit of clothes. This would have been utterly incomprehensible to our ancestors; for the US it is now a fait accompli, and the basis for the organization of our society. Just as serial monogamy has come to characterize American courtship and marriage patterns, so too serial faith choices, adopted sequentially throughout the life of the individual as that individual experiences personal crises that precipitate temporary religious identification, characterize American religious patterns.

Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American, moved from Boston to Philadelphia and thus inaugurated the quintessentially American tradition of self-reinvention through geographical mobility.

Indeed, one of the perennial themes of American life is that of personal re-invention (i.e., the putting on and taking off of identity). In the US, failure is not final. If things aren’t working out for you in Boston, you can move to Philadelphia, as Benjamin Franklin did. In a social context of personal re-invention and geographical fungibility, what counts is not one’s abject subordination to the community into which one happens to be born, but one’s cleverness and persistence in finding a place where one can feel at home. Part of this personal quest is also finding a faith in which one can feel at home, and this is not necessarily the faith of one’s parents or of one’s community.

In the context of religious individualism, orthodoxy counts for nothing. Or it counts for everything, but only because each man has his own orthodoxy, and there is no social mechanism in place in industrial-technological civilization to force the acquiescence of any individual to any other individual’s orthodoxy.

Even those who celebrate orthodoxy and who would welcome mechanisms of social control to force acquiescence to orthodoxy, cannot escape, at least while in America, the necessity of defining their own orthodoxy on their own terms. They are, in Rousseau’s terms, forced to be free, which in this context means they are forced to be religious individualists.

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Thursday


Revisiting my old friend Sartre

I can remember the first time that I came to realize that history is a powerful tool for conveying in interpretation. History isn’t just an account of the past, a chronicle of names, dates, and places, that only becomes distorted when the facts were selected and organized according to some idea that was no part of the facts as they occurred. History is always a selection of past facts and always organized according to some idea or other. No history can be complete, including all facts, so that every history is partial, and a partial selection of relevant facts means that there must be some principle of selection, and it is the principle selection of relevant facts that is the idea that governs even the most objective of histories.

This realization that history is always an interpretation came to me when I was writing extensively on the history of logic (some time in the early 1990s, I think). This may seem an unlikely point of origin for an essentially political realization, but the history of logic, no less than the history of princes and thrones and battles, is a human, all-too-human story with its distinctive protagonists who each put forward their particular version of the events that go to make up the history of logic, and which in the most tendentious accounts culminate in their work of the individual formulating the given narrative of logic.

What is true for logic is true in spades for the histories of less abstract and more human, all-too-human stories. The narratives we rely on to orientate ourselves within the world — narratives of our own personal history, narratives of our families, narratives of our communities, nation-states, cultures, civilizations, and species — are interpretations of events even when every event incorporated in the narrative is objectively and unproblematically true. Meaning and value are given to facts and events when they are made part of a story that has meaning and value for those who create stories, those who transmit stories, and those who listen to stories.

Traditional narrative history tells a story; when you begin a story, you already know what kind of story you’re going to tell — whether it’s a romance or a comedy or a tragedy — since for any of these genres a successful telling of the story requires that the genre be “set up” in the very first lines of the tale. This has been made particularly clear by Hayden White’s detailed typology of narratives in his book Metahistory, in which he sedulously distinguishes modes of emplotment, argumentation and ideology.

Even while traditional narrative history has continued to dominate popular historical writing, academic historiography has moved ever further away from narrative models of historical exposition. In several posts I have mentioned the influence of Braudel and the Annales school of historiography, which, influenced by mid-century structuralism on the European continent (think Claude Lévi-Strauss), brought a much more “scientific” approach to writing history. Braudel’s writing is so accomplished that we scarcely notice he is writing more as a scientist than an historian, but this development was only to continue and to escalate as scientific historiography migrated to the New World and had the resources of Big Science upon which to draw.

While scientific historiography possesses the gold standard in terms of objectivity and the veracity of the facts employed, science writers tend to be much less sophisticated and less subtle writers than traditional historians, so when the inevitable popularizations of ideas in the vanguard of science emerge they tend to be penned with the kind of naïve optimism one would expect of the Enlightenment, with a generous admixture of theological posturing and ham-handed moralizing (I have briefly addressed the latter two in Higgs: what was left unsaid). The result is that when scientific historiography enters the marketplace of ideas, it, too, is freighted with meanings and values that are independent of the facts presented, although the scientific framework of the discovery and exposition of the facts sometimes conceals the moral message.

Well, none of this should really be new to any of us. Any sophisticated reader is already aware of the cautions I have formulated above about interpretations versus facts, and already in the nineteenth century Nietzsche put the whole matter in a particularly unambiguous formulation when he said that, “Against that positivism which stops before phenomena, saying ‘there are only facts,’ I should say: no, it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations.” Nevertheless, my recent reflections have once again impressed me with the importance of this observation.

I have mentioned in several posts how much Sartre’s lecture Existentialism is a Humanism has influenced my thinking over the years. I was reflecting on this again recently, and the lesson that I took away from this most recent review was the importance of taking responsibility for our interpretations, including if not especially our interpretations of history.

Here is a passage from Sartre that I quoted previously in Of moral choices and existential choices, in which Sartre has just told a story of how a student came to him to ask whether he should stay at home to be a comfort to his mother or if he should leave to join the resistance:

“…I can neither seek within myself for an authentic impulse to action, nor can I expect, from some ethic, formulae that will enable me to act. You may say that the youth did, at least, go to a professor to ask for advice. But if you seek counsel — from a priest, for example you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise. In other words, to choose an adviser is nevertheless to commit oneself by that choice. If you are a Christian, you will say, consult a priest; but there are collaborationists, priests who are resisters and priests who wait for the tide to turn: which will you choose? Had this young man chosen a priest of the resistance, or one of the collaboration, he would have decided beforehand the kind of advice he was to receive. Similarly, in coming to me, he knew what advice I should give him, and I had but one reply to make. You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

By concluding this passage with, “no signs are vouchsafed in this world,” Sartre is not only saying that each must take responsibility for explicit decisions and actions, but also for our identification of signs and what we make of them. Contrary to Sartre’s declaration of the absence of signs, I think that most people do sincerely believe that signs are vouchsafed in this world. I have come to think of this belief in signs as a way to avoid responsibility for one’s interpretations. If one says, e.g., “a rainbow appeared in the sky as I was contemplating suicide, and I realized that this was a sign from on high that I should not kill myself,” one is surrendering one’s autonomy even while acting — the moral equivalent of keeping one’s cake and eating it too.

I don’t think that most people have a problem with the explicit judgments they formulate when they say things like, “I think…” or “I believe…” or “I have decided to…” since these are clear statements of personal responsibility for one’s decisions and actions. But interpretations can be much more subtle — in some cases, perhaps in many cases, interpretations are so subtle that they are difficult to understand as interpretations rather than as cold, hard facts.

Individuals who have never had their Weltanschauung called into question are particularly vulnerable to giving their interpretations an air of facticity. In so far as travel can place an individual into a situation in which everything formerly taken for granted is questioned (something I touched upon in Being the Other), one of the virtues of travel is to make one aware of one’s Weltanschuung, and to know that there is nothing necessary about the particular interpretations that one gives to particular states of affairs.

Of course, travel in and of itself is not enough. Some people, when they travel, surround themselves with their compatriots so that they are never exposed to an unaccustomed world without the support of like-minded fellows. People do exactly the same thing without bothering to travel: i.e., always surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals and never placing themselves in a situation in which their beliefs can be radically questioned — or even gently questioned.

Thus we see that the work of taking responsibility for our interpretations is the painful work of self-knowledge even to the point of self-alientation. For this, few have the requisite hardihood. But we must try.

For those who do possess the intestinal fortitude for self-examination that reveals interpretations as interpretations, stripping them of their spurious facticity, there is an added aesthetic benefit: it is from this point of view, seeing the world for what it is, that we are able to see and to forget the name of the thing on sees.

The uninterpreted world — what Husserl called the prepredicative world — is an ideal, and as an ideal it is likely to be elusive and difficult of accomplishment. But that is no argument against it. As Spinoza said, All noble things are as difficult as they are rare. Taking full responsibility for our interpretations is both difficult and rare, but it is a noble ideal to pursue.

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Friday


The very idea of the “human condition” is one that we might call an “existential idea,” since in the best existentialist fashion it tries to get to the root of existence. When thinkers engage with the idea of the human condition they often enter into an existentialist idiom, wittingly or (more likely) unwittingly. And it’s not just philosophers — or moderns. Pope Innocent III devoted a whole book to the misery of the human condition, in which he wrote:

Who therefore will give my eyes a fountain of tears so that I may bewail the miserable beginning of the human condition, the culpable progress of human behavior, the damnable ending of human dissoluteness. With tears I might consider what man is made of, what man does, what man will be. Man is indeed formed from earth, conceived in sin, born to pain. He does depraved things that are unlawful, shameful things that are indecent, vain things that are unprofitable. He becomes fuel for the fire, food for worms, a mass of putridness. I shall show this more clearly; I shall analyze more fully. Man is formed of dust, of clay, of ashes: what is more vile, from the filthiest sperm. He is conceived in the heat of desire, in the fervor of the flesh, in the stench of lust: what is worse, in the blemish of sin. He is born to labor, fear, sorrow: what is more miserable, to death. He does depraved things by which he offends God, offends his neighbors, offends himself. He does vain and shameful things by which he pollutes his fame, pollutes his person, pollutes his conscience. He does vain things by which he neglects serious things, neglects profitable things, neglects necessary things. He will become fuel for the inextinguishable fire that always flames and burns; food for the immortal worm that always eats and consumes; a mass of horrible putridness that always stinks and is filthy.

Pope Innocent III (Lotario de Segni, before he was Pope), De miseria condicionis humane

This passage reminds me of Sartre’s analysis of slime in Being and Nothingness. It is difficult to be optimistic about the human condition when it is phrased in terms like these.

Pope Innocent III: something of a pessimist on the human condition.

Recently in Banishing Despair I wrote the following:

In order to “cure” the episodic and transient melancholia that is native to the human condition, and which everyone feels in those moments when their vital energies are at a low ebb, we would need to change the human condition itself, and there are definite limits on the extent to which we can change the human condition.

Indeed, in order to eliminate the possibility of existential despair one would have to eliminate the very possibility of Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations, which might well come about as a result of what comes after civilization, but these latter concepts constitute civilization as an historical idea; civilization as a political idea is problematic. Human agency has its limits, and in fact the same limits to human agency that make it difficult if not impossible to alter civilization by political fiat also are the source of transient despair and despondency. After all, did not Alexander the Great cry because he had no more worlds to conquer? (Or, in the alternative version, because, of the infinity of worlds, he had not conquered even one?)

The latter part of this quote invokes a distinction that I recently made in Globalization as Political Idea and as Historical Idea. I haven’t yet arrived at an elegant formulation of this distinction between the historical and the political, but even in its nascent and inchoate state I find that I can make use of it to bring a little analytical clarity to my thoughts, and in the above I have used it to distinguish between the historical and the political senses of civilization. One might also think of these as, respectively, the descriptive and the prescriptive senses of civilization. Civilization did not come about as a consequence of an explicit decision and action taken, yet the idea has a certain usefulness to describe what in fact human beings have done, even if they didn’t know what they were doing as they did it.

We can also distinguish the historical and the political aspects of both human nature and the human condition — or, if you like, the descriptive and prescriptive aspects of human nature and the human condition. This latter formulation immediately clarifies one source of disagreement over human nature. In several posts I have discussed skeptics of human nature, Sartre chief among them. The subtext of many skeptical accounts of human nature is that, if there is a human nature, this limits our freedom. Furthermore, if the limitation of human freedom is a bad thing, then assumptions about human nature that limit freedom are undesirable. Therefore, we must deny that there is a human nature in order to defend human liberty.

Please note that I am not defending this reasoning; I am only observing that this seems to be a common subtext of critiques of human nature, and even here the reasoning remains implicit, and therefore retains the philosophical equivalent of plausible deniability. Nevertheless, I believe I am right in this, and if I am right in my analysis I need only to further observe that one can explicitly deny a prescriptive human nature that constitutes an aim toward which human being inevitably converges while accepting a descriptive human nature based only on what humans beings have been in actual fact. Even then, it is obvious that the dedicated human nature skeptic may well continue to maintain that even a descriptive account of human nature implies a continuing condition that ought to be fulfilled in the future, but if such an objection is made, it becomes even more obvious that the motivation of the objection to human nature is not based on logic or ontology, but upon a moral objection.

In another context (Human Nature and Homo Economicus) I have managed to refine my formulation of the human condition into a few (six, to be precise) reasonably clear theses:

Human nature is a function of the human condition.
The human condition is a function of la longue durée.
Therefore, human nature is a function of la longue durée.
La longue durée endures, but is not permanent.
Therefore, human nature endures, but is not permanent.
Human nature, as a function of la longue durée, reflects the paradigm of metaphysical history within which it takes shape.

In these theses I have attempted to show that way in which human nature and the human condition are inextricably linked, but returning to the problem of human nature from the perspective of the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive concepts, we need to separate the two again in order to ask four questions:

1. What is human nature descriptively? (What is human nature in fact?)

2. What is human nature prescriptively? (What ought human nature to be ideally?)

3. What is the human condition descriptively? (What is human nature in fact?)

4. What is the human condition prescriptively? (What ought the human condition to be ideally?)

While these are very large and very general questions that could not be satisfactorily answered short of several treatises, we can, however, get a sense of what is usually assumed by these modalities of human life, and we can do so in one or two words each, as follows:

1. moral corruption

2. moral perfection

3. misery

4. utopia

Some immediate observations can be made about this rather schematic summary. If the misery of the human condition follows from the moral corruption inherent in human beings, we call this original sin. If, on the other hand, the moral corruption of human beings follows from the misery of the human condition, then we have a position more or less like that of Rousseau, which is sometimes identified with the perfectibility of humanity. Further, if a utopian human condition would follow from the moral perfection possible for human beings, this is an affirmation of individual agency, and thus, in a sense, the antithesis of the idea of original sin and of the doctrine of salvation through grace alone. If, on the other hand, the moral perfection of human beings would follow from a utopian human condition, then we have something like behaviorism.

Now, of course I realize that by using “loaded” religious terminology like “original sin” that I am inviting misunderstanding, but I am willing to take this risk in order to place these concepts in historical context, which is to say, to place them in a larger context than that of our immediate concerns today. I want to get at the root of the idea, and sometimes the quickest way to the root is to use the term that will he instantly understood and which has the strongest emotional impact. From my point of view, the idea of original sin is just one of many exemplifications throughout human history of a conception of human nature as essentially evil. Many have believed this, but many also have believed that human nature is essentially good.

Similarly, there have always been those who believe that human beings are utterly at the mercy of circumstances (this position could be identified with what I have elsewhere called the cataclysmic conception of history) and who may therefore be considered behaviorists, since they believe that individuals and human nature are shaped by larger forces. Similarly again, there are always those who believe in the power of individuals not only to change their own lives, but also to change the lives of others. In its pure form, I have called this the political conception of history. There are all, then, differing conceptions of human agency, and therefore exrpessions of agent-centered metaphysics.

Whether or not you think it is worthwhile to attempt to change the human condition will have a lot to do with your attitudes to these questions, which I strongly suspect is largely a function of temperament. If you instinctively believe that human beings are at the mercy of forces we do not control, then you are more likely to believe that the human condition changes us than that we can change the human condition. But further complications arise, since the world may not be uniformly open to change; there may be things that we can change, and things that we cannot change, and so forth.

A distinction must be made between that which is amenable to change and that which can be changed. The difference here is the difference of agency. That which is merely amenable to change may or may not be changed as the result of the intervention of human agency (or the agency of any sentient being, human or otherwise, including successor species). That which can be changed is susceptible to human agency and admits of definite results. The future is amenable to change, but anything that we do to change the future may or may not have the intended consequences. topography can be changed; human agency can devise and carry out changes to the landscape in which intentions are concretely realized with a high degree of accuracy. These two examples are not picked at random: history and geography together are the unavoidable concomitants of political science; history is merely amenable to change, while geography (at least in some instances) can be changed.

We can and do change topography every time we build a highway or blast a tunnel. This changes our relationship to the land, but it does not change the arrangement of the world’s land masses. However, the combined effect of our construction of a transportation infrastructure may have the practical consequence of annihilating distance and thus making geography nearly irrelevant to the further development of human affairs. In this sense, even geography changes. Certainly human geography changes as rapid transit and mass transit moves populations. Here we have effected social change as a result of our ability to nullify geography.

With history, we are much less free, much less in control. History is infinitely flexible and highly amenable to change, but we cannot change history and walk away, expecting everything to remain the same. Even when we remain continuously and constantly engaged in the process of history (i.e., even when we don’t walk away), unintended consequences may pile up to the point that we simply cannot sustain our effort and we must surrender before the forces of history, allowing ourselves to be changed by it, rather than effecting the intended change. Here we have failed to effect social change as a result of our inability to nullify history.

Implicit within the idea of social change in the interest of social justice (and this is usually how the idea of social change is framed) is the idea that effecting a change in the human condition will effect a change in human nature. The possibility that the human condition might be changed and human beings would persist in stubbornly acting out their human nature regardless of circumstances is incoherent from this point of view. In other words, the idea of social change is antithetical to that of original sin.

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Four conceptions of history - human nature and human condition

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Wednesday


Sartre’s lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism” has had a significant influence on my thinking. I’ve read it many times, and I have thought about its themes throughout my adult life.

Here is a passage from the lecture that has struck me in particular, where Sartre has just told a story of how a student came to him to ask whether he should stay at home to be a comfort to his mother or if he should leave to join the resistance:

“…I can neither seek within myself for an authentic impulse to action, nor can I expect, from some ethic, formulae that will enable me to act. You may say that the youth did, at least, go to a professor to ask for advice. But if you seek counsel — from a priest, for example you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise. In other words, to choose an adviser is nevertheless to commit oneself by that choice. If you are a Christian, you will say, consult a priest; but there are collaborationists, priests who are resisters and priests who wait for the tide to turn: which will you choose? Had this young man chosen a priest of the resistance, or one of the collaboration, he would have decided beforehand the kind of advice he was to receive. Similarly, in coming to me, he knew what advice I should give him, and I had but one reply to make. You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

It was saying things like this that gave Sartre in particular (and existentialism in general) a reputation for being amoral. Is that all there is to say — invent?

Thinking of this recently I realized that a rough distinction can be made between what I will call existential choices and moral choices. Of moral choices we can reasonably (and coherently) ask whether the choice an individual makes is right or wrong. I will define existential choices as those choices of which it is not as reasonable, or perhaps even incoherent, to ask whether the choice, once made, was right or wrong.

An existential choice might fail to have a right or wrong response because there are moral (and presumably equal) reasons on both sides of the question. This is obviously an instance of moral choice and existential choice overlapping. It is important that we recognize such a category of choices, because so much of life consists of choices regarding which there are moral claims on both sides of the question, and no one side or the other is obviously the side of greater good or lesser harm. I will call these choices impure existential choices.

The scenario that Sartre outlines in his lecture is, as I see it, an impure existential choice. There are valid moral reasons for the student to remain to support his mother, and there are valid moral reasons for the student to leave to join the resistance. Neither the reasons on one side of the other, however, seem to preponderate.

Pure existential choices, on the other hand, are when moral issues are not at stake (or, at least, not so clearly at stake). Those pure existential choices that involve life-altering events are obviously of most interest to us. When you choose to marry, if you do so choose, and whom you choose to marry, is an existential choice. There is no right or wrong answer, and it would be misleading in most cases to identify marriage as a moral choice. But it is a life-altering choice, and that makes it an existential choice of some moment. And we can see from the example of marriage that trying to transform an existential choice into a moral choice is probably a mistake. Imagine saying to yourself, “I ought to marry this person,” rather than, “I would love to marry this person.” It is hard to imagine a circumstance in which a marriage contracted under moral duress, i.e., obligation, could be a happy or successful marriage.

If you consider the possibility of self-imposed exile or of staying in your country of origin, this is a pure existential choice, and if you do choose self-imposed exile, you must then also choose a destination for your exile, and this is another pure existential choice. You will have a profoundly different experience of life if go to India or if you go to Peru, thus the choice marks a bifurcation in life, and it is difficult (or misleading) to invoke moral reasons for the choice made.

A pure existential choice is a bifurcation in life. A small bifurcation constitutes what philosophers formerly called the “liberty of indifference,” such as whether you sleep on your right side or your left side. Such existential choices may leave the rest of one’s life intact and largely untouched.

A great bifurcation changes everything that follows. A pure existential choice in an important matter sets the course for the rest of your life; it also turns aside from unexercised options in life that pass into the twilight of unactualized possibilities: experiences we never had, people we never met, places we never went, meals we never ate, music we never listened to. This is the domain of sentiment, of yearning, and of regret.

Pure moral choices do not preclude the possibility of pure existential choices, and vice versa: pure existential choices do not preclude the possibility of pure moral choices.

Most of the choices we make is life are mixed — so mixed as to make them impossible to classify. What I want to do here is simply explicitly recognize the possibility of pure existential choice as a domain of human experience.

It is perhaps paradoxical to point out that theory choice is often an existential choice. This is significant, not least because theory choice has come to play a significant role in philosophy at least since Thomas Kuhn’s work on scientific revolutions. One of the controversial conclusions that Kuhn’s theory was taken to imply was that choice among theories was essentially irrational. But if theory choice in science is arbitrary, how can it maintained that science is a more-or-less accurate explanation of the world? I hope that the paradoxical character of the assertion that theory choice is an existential choice will become obvious in what follows.

If a theory is chosen on the basis not of its truth but on its presumed moral merits (with “moral” understood in the narrow sense of virtues specific to human beings), we know intuitively that such a theory lacks the minimum theoretical legitimacy one would require of a theory. A theory must be chosen for theoretical reasons, or it is no theory worthy of the term.

This is an important point, because it implicitly plays and has played a prominent role in the political debates of our time. Social, political, and economic theories have been advanced and advocated on the presumed benefits of their moral merits, and not on the basis of the merits of these theories as theories. This has almost always been the case with theories of utopian social organization that in practice become dystopian horrors. Favoring a theory for its presumed (and narrowly defined) moral consequences may not be necessarily bad for theory and bad for the moral condition of humanity, but I can’t think of a particular instance when such a choice was anything other than bad.

However, we can say that a good theory is a true theory (or an objective theory, or that it possesses some other theoretical virtue), in which case a theory chosen on the basis of its moral merit — i.e., on the basis of its specifically theoretical virtues — possesses the theoretical legitimacy to pass muster as a theory. In recognizing this (if, in fact, one does recognize this), we recognize that theory choice is an existential choice, not a moral choice.

If we consider, for example, various theories of justice — retributive, distributive, procedural, restorative, organizational (which I would prefer to call institutional), and transformational — each has its advantages and disadvantages (moral and otherwise). It is very difficult to say, on the whole, whether any one theory of justice is morally better than another. So we choose our theory of justice on the merits, as they say.

This makes a choice of a theory of justice an impure existential choice, with moral considerations weighing in on both sides of any theory of justice, but no clear preponderance of moral weight on one side of the question of the other. Lacking clear moral preponderance, the choice of a theory of justice to adopt, while freighted with moral concerns becomes a de facto existential choice in which it is incoherent to ask whether the choice was right or wrong.

To sharpen the counter-intuitive paradox this can be made even more personal by considering theories of ethics: each ethical theory has advantages and disadvantages. Also, we cannot coherently step outside ethics and ask which of these ethical theories is right or wrong, for to ask whether something is right or wrong is to presuppose an ethical theory, and if we have presupposed an ethical theory we can, in turn, inquire about the choice of this theory.

Thus ethical theory choice is a pure existential choice. In so far as you choose a particular ethical theory (and in so far as you organize your moral experience you have a moral theory, whether or not you know it), you make an existential choice in which it is logically impossible to invoke moral reasons for the choice without becoming involved in an infinite regress.

When we move on to less personally poignant classes of theories — physical theories, mathematical theories, metaphysical theories, and so on — our choice of theory is only rarely (if ever) a moral choice. Theory choice is primarily an existential choice, and that is as much as to say that it is a rigorously amoral choice.

Theories shape our world. Theories organize our knowledge and experience, and in so doing organize our lives. In so far as theories shape our world and organize our lives, it would be difficult to name any more profound decision an individual makes than the theories that they adopt, and yet these theoretical choices are mostly existential choices.

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A Note on Human Freedom

10 April 2010

Saturday


The ideas that we have of things often trump the reality of the things in themselves. The idea we have of human freedom or the idea we have of human nature can end up being more powerful than human freedom or human nature are in themselves.

I have several times cited Sartre’s contention that there is no such thing as human nature. In Existence precedes Essence and Human Nature I quoted at length from Sartre’s famous “Existentialism is a Humanism” lecture to the effect that “If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.” In his later life, after he became a Marxist, Sartre repudiated his earlier absolutizing of human freedom, but certainly the earlier Sartre is more interesting that the later, compromised Sartre.

I have also had occasion to point out one could say that, for Sartre, human nature is simply identical to this absolute freedom he posits. Now I see that an absolutely free human nature is free to conceive of itself as unfree: human nature is nothing but human freedom, but human freedom is constrained both by material circumstances as well as by an idea of an authentic human nature, and these constraints in turn become de facto human nature. These constraints on human freedom are not necessary constraints; they do not inherently, ontologically limit human freedom. Nevertheless, they do constrain human freedom as a part of what Sartre called man defining himself.

As we all know so well, material circumstances vary considerably among individuals and social classes of individuals, so that what functions as a constraint for one individual or for one social class functions as a facilitation for another individual or another social class.

The idea of human nature that we entertain as a consequence of our place in history and society lacks the vulgar directness of material constraints, but for the same reason is all the more pervasive because abstract and apparently inevitable, as belonging to the realm of ideas rather than to the realm of things in an ever-changing Heraclitean flux. Our individual human nature is free, and because it is free we can impose upon it an idea of human nature. Because we are free, we are free to entertain any idea we like. But because we find ourselves in the midst of an existential context of family, community, society, and political subdivisions of humanity — that is to say, we find ourselves in history — we are likely to find in these pervasive, enveloping milieaux some already existing idea of what a man should be, or what a human being should be.

These twin constraints on human freedom — the material constraints that are imposed upon us and the intellectual constraints that we impose upon ourselves — are nicely summed up in a passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, when she recounts her first and only meeting with Simone Weil:

“She intrigued me because of her great reputation for intelligence and her bizarre outfits… I managed to get near her one day. I don’t know how the conversation got started. She said in piercing tones that only one thing mattered these days: the revolution that would feed all the starving people on the earth. I retorted, no less adamantly, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to help them find a meaning in their existence. She glared at me and said, ‘It’s clear you’ve never gone hungry.’ Our relations ended right there. I realized she had classified me as a high-minded little bourgeoise, and I was angry.”

In this exchange Weil represents the hard facts of materially imposed constraints on life — viz. hunger — while de Beauvoir represents the intellectual constraints upon life — viz. meaning. The early Sartre, with his emphasis upon the freedom of consciousness, is given voice by de Beauvoir; the later Sartre, with his emphasis upon the force of circumstances and practical ensembles, is already anticipated by Weil.

To a certain extent, the absolute freedom that the early Sartre expressed was more true in his milieu than it had been for previous generations. In a stable society, the idea of human nature is also stable. But from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, previously existing society and its social conventions were profoundly called into question. The Industrial Revolution changed societies and changed the social roles and life histories of individuals. I noted in Social Consensus in Industrialized Society that ever since the Industrial Revolution those societies that have industrialized have sought some kind of social consensus by which to live in industrialized societies. Two paradigms (or, if you prefer, two models) of industrialized life were tried and found wanting. The advanced industrialized regions of the world are still groping after the formulation of a third paradigm of life in industrialized society.

In times of social change the gap between the individual’s absolute freedom and the idea of human nature that he may impose on himself narrows: freedom has greater range to express itself, and the idea of human nature itself becomes more fluid and open to revision. In times of long term social stability (say, the tens of thousands of years of anatomically modern human existence prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, or the period from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution), human nature becomes an idée fixe and the gap between ideal, absolute human freedom and the idea of human nature becomes greater the longer these conditions obtain. This is one of the sources of acculturation to absence of change that I discussed in my Political Economy of Globalization.

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Sunday


On the flights from Tampa to Portland I started reading Herbert Marcuse’s essay on Sartre, “Sartre’s Existentialism” from 1948, collected in Marcuse’s Studies in Critical Philosophy.

Herbert Marcuse (19 July1898 – 29 July1979) had difficulty suppressing his contempt for Sartre's early existentialism.

In reading Marcuse on Sartre (with the subtle, sublimated hostility of a Marxist to the early Sartre, who went out of his way to distance himself from Marx and Marxists), it occurred to me that what we could call historical existentialism or historical naturalism are the heirs and continuators of historical materialism. That is to say, they are (or would be, if they were systematically formulated) the philosophical development of Marx’s historical materialism in the light of subsequent philosophical developments.

An existentialist philosophy of history begins from the premiss that existence precedes and creates essence — thus every conception of history that has recognized that individuals and societies are shaped by geography, topography, landscape, and earlier history is history understood in terms of existence preceding essence. Earlier history is, in its turn, a function of earlier naturalistic forces that have shaped that history. Ultimately we must trace this chain of earlier histories backward to the point that human history disappears imperceptibly into natural history.

This idea of an existentialist philosophy of history is very much in the same spirit of what I recently wrote in A Formulation of Naturalism, and, in fact, is not only in the same spirit but may be considered an extension of that post. In that post I argued that contemporary philosophical naturalism could be considered a conservative extension of materialism: naturalism is materialism wherever materialism was adequate, and only goes beyond materialism where materialism fails. Just above I suggested that historical naturalism and historical existentialism are synonymous. In so far as historical existentialism — in which historical existence precedes historical essence — is simply another formulation of historical naturalism, and in so far as naturalism is a conservative extension of materialism, historical naturalism “naturally” becomes a conservative extension of historical materialism.

I make no claim for the novelty of the position stated above; it is nothing but an alternative way to formulate the geopolitical perspective that current events must be seen in the context of history, and history must be seen in the context in which history is made, and that context is geography. I have only cast the net a little wider, and the more comprehensive nature of the thesis makes it appear that much more radical. This is one of the virtues of abstract and general thinking: once particular issues are framed in these terms, matters otherwise only implicit become explicit.

Perhaps more problematic yet is that I should burden the above formulation with the tag “existentialist”, since existentialism suffered from the irredeemable fate of becoming a briefly popular sensation in the middle of the twentieth century, so that it now sounds terribly dated. On the one hand, I should not allow popular taste to prejudice a valid philosophical position. On the other hand, it could be argued, in a similar spirit to the argument in made in A Formulation of Naturalism that the essential conceptions of existentialism have been superseded by more recent, and more accurate, philosophical formulations. For the moment, I will allow the label to stand.

I have, in this forum, several times quoted Ortega y Gasset’s famous line that man has not an essence but a history. This is also in the spirit of an existentialist philosophy of history. One might take Ortega y Gasset’s bon mot as an alternative formulation of Sartre’s famous dictum that existence preceding essence. In both, the emphasis falls upon man’s historical, temporal, actual existence and denies that there is any eternal, essential nature of man. In so far as Ortega y Gasset’s formulation sharpens the point by denying the essence that Sartre delayed and subordinated, he sharpens it to a point that an existentialist philosophy of history so conceived comes into conflict with other conceptions of history.

Recently in The Incommensurability of Civilizations and Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations I wrote, “Each civilization is not only distinct, but each is based on a distinct idea of civilization.” And, citing a particular example, “We can explain both the continuity and the periodizations of Western civilization by reference to a basal ideal that changes over time.” Now, in so far as the idea of a civilization is similar to the essence of man (and, while the two are clearly distinct, I think it is fair to say that each conception is integral with the other), and in so far as an existentialist conception of history requires that we abandon any essence of man, then an existentialist conception of history, it would seem, must abandon all pretense of history that makes reference to idea, ideal, and essence.

This is the dilemma that faces me now. I do not say that these two approaches cannot be reconciled and rationalized, but I do say that some effort at conceptual clarification is necessary to that reconciliation and rationalization.

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Saturday


The arch-atheist Jean-Paul Sartre

Despite having posted on this twice recently in A Note on Sartre’s Atheism and More on Sartre’s Atheism, I haven’t yet finished with this (as though one could ever be finished with an idea!).

I have, in a couple of posts, quoted a line from Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” lecture that ends with I must confine myself to what I can see:

I do not know where the Russian revolution will lead. I can admire it and take it as an example in so far as it is evident, today, that the proletariat plays a part in Russia which it has attained in no other nation. But I cannot affirm that this will necessarily lead to the triumph of the proletariat: I must confine myself to what I can see.

For corroboration from a fellow Frenchman and a fellow novelist consider this from Balzac’s Louis Lambert (not his most admired novel, but perhaps his most philosophical novel), delivered by the novel’s protagonist:

“To think is to see,” he said one day, roused by one of our discussions on the principle of human organization. “All science rests on deduction, — a chink of vision by which we descend from cause to effect returning upward from effect to cause; or, in a broader sense, poetry, like every work of art, springs from a swift perception of things.”

Honoré de Balzac, Louis Lambert, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1889, p. 39

Fellow Frenchman and philosopher Descartes offers more than corroboration: he stands at the foundation of the tradition from which both Balzac and Sartre come. In his most systematic work, the Principles of Philosophy (Book I, ix), Descartes presents an all-encompassing conception of thought, as is appropriate for the philosopher who is the locus classicus of the cogito:

By the word thought, I understand all that which so takes place in us that we of ourselves are immediately conscious of it; and, accordingly, not only to understand (INTELLIGERE, ENTENDRE), to will (VELLE), to imagine (IMAGINARI), but even to perceive (SENTIRE, SENTIR), are here the same as to think (COGITARE, PENSER). For if I say, I see, or, I walk, therefore I am; and if I understand by vision or walking the act of my eyes or of my limbs, which is the work of the body, the conclusion is not absolutely certain, because, as is often the case in dreams, I may think that I see or walk, although I do not open my eyes or move from my place, and even, perhaps, although I have no body: but, if I mean the sensation itself, or consciousness of seeing or walking, the knowledge is manifestly certain, because it is then referred to the mind, which alone perceives or is conscious that it sees or walks.

On the one hand, one can view these accounts as tributes to the visible and the tangible, except that Descartes, who stands at the origin of the tradition, can in no way be assimilated to materialism. On the other hand, and more interestingly, all of these accounts can be understood as expressions of various degrees of constructivism — mostly unconsciously formulated constructivism, but nevertheless an awareness that our thought must be disciplined by experience in a rigorous way if it is not to go terribly wrong. This is also a Kantian orientation, as we observed in Temporal Illusions, and Kant is counted as an ancestor of contemporary constructivism.

Skeptics have always demanded that truths be exhibited. We saw this in our previous posts about Sartre’s atheism, taking Doubting Thomas as the paradigm of the skeptic, who must needs touch the wounds of Christ with his own hands before he will believe that it is the same Christ who was crucified and subsequently risen.

It is a feature of constructivist thought, and most especially intuitionism, to reject the law of logic that is called (in Latin) tertium non datur or the Law of the Excluded Middle (LEM, or just EM). This simply states that, of two contradictory propositions, one of them most be true (“P or not-P“). Intuitively, it seems eminently reasonable, except that we all know of instances in ordinary experience that cannot be adequately described in a black-or-white, yes-or-no formulation. Non-constructive reasoning makes unlimited use of the law of the excluded middle, and as a consequence holds that all propositions have definite truth values even if we haven’t yet determined the truth value or even if we can’t determine the truth value. This can lead to strange consequences, like the famous Aristotelian example of the sea fight tomorrow: either there will be a sea battle tomorrow or there will not be a sea battle tomorrow. We don’t know at present which is true, but if we accept the logic of non-constructive reasoning, we will acknowledge that one of these propositions is true while the other is false.

The law of the excluded middle implies the principle of bivalence — the principle that there are two and only two logical values, namely true and false — and bivalence in turn implies realism. Realism as a philosophical doctrine stands in opposition to constructivism. Plato is the most famous realist philosopher, and believed that all kinds of things were real that common sense and ordinary experience don’t think of as being “real,” while at the same time disbelieving in the reality of the material world. Thus Plato is something of an antithesis to the kind insistence upon the tangibility and visibility upon which the skeptic and the materialist rely.

It is interesting, then, in the context of Sartre’s atheism and his insistence upon relying upon the seen, which we have now come to recognize as a kind of constructivism, to contrast the very different viewpoint represented by William James. One of James’ most famous essays is “The Will to Believe” in which he lays down the criteria for legitimate belief even where sufficient evidence is lacking. William James offers, “a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” Among the criteria that James invokes is when a choice is forced, which he describes like this:

…if I say to you: “Choose between going out with your umbrella or without it,” I do not offer you a genuine option, for it is not forced. You can easily avoid it by not going out at all. Similarly, if I say, “Either love me or hate me,” “Either call my theory true or call it false,” your option is avoidable. You may remain indifferent to me, neither loving nor hating, and you may decline to offer any judgment as to my theory. But if I say, “Either accept this truth or go without it,” I put on you a forced option, for there is no standing place outside of the alternative. Every dilemma based on a complete logical disjunction, with no possibility of not choosing, is an option of this forced kind.

Logical disjunction is another name used for the law of the excluded middle. Here James reveals himself as a realist, if not a Platonist, in matters of the spirit, just as we saw that Sartre revealed himself as a constructivist, if not an intuitionist, in matters of the spirit. The point I am making here is that this is not merely a difference of belief, but a difference in logic, and a difference in logic and reaches up into the ontology of each and informs an entire view of the world. People tend to think of logic, if they think of logic at all, as something recondite and removed from ordinary human experience, but this is not the case. Logic determines the relationship that we construct with the world, and it organizes how we see the world.

Nietzsche wrote in a famous line (or, perhaps I should say, a line that ought to be more famous than it perhaps is) that the nature and degree of an individual’s sexuality reaches into the highest pinnacles of his spirit. I agree with this, but I would add that the nature and kind of an individual’s logic — be it constructivist or non-constructivist — also reaches into the highest pinnacles of his spirit and indeed informs the world in which his spirit finds a home… or fails to find a home.

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Sunday


Plato, who said that the definition of being is power — the power to affect or be affected.

Yesterday in Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being I raised the possibility in connection with Abbagnano’s interpretation of Plato’s definition of being that we can distinguish being-at-an-instant from being defined in terms of some discrete period of time during which the existent in question affects or is affected by other existents.

Nicola Abbagnano, 15 July 1901 – 09 September 1990, who re-interpreted Plato on being as power in terms of being as possibility.

Being-at-an-instant is a highly abstract conception, though it has the virtue of simplicity: it is a minimalist conception of being. A snapshot of being cannot exist independently of a being extended in time. As Sartre put in it in Being and Nothingness (since we have already invoked Sartre in our discussion of being): “M. Laporte says that an abstraction is made when something not capable of existing in isolation is thought of as in an isolated state. The concrete by contrast is a totality which can exist by itself alone.” (p. 33) While there are potential problems with this formulation, it is suggestive.

Jean-Paul Sartre, who was better known for existence than abstraction, nevertheless had an interesting suggestion about abstraction.

At the other end of the great chain of being, and equally abstract, is the idea of a totality of being. This, presumably, would differ from being-at-an-instant by exemplifying being-for-eternity. As it is difficult for me to imagine how this might work, and lacking a ready-to-hand definition of eternity, I will simply mention it in passing. Of greater interest, for its obvious naturalism, would be the totality of being for a given existent: in so far as we can individuate any given existent, all the other existents it has affected for been affected by in the course of its existence would constitute the totality of being for that existent.

The Great Chain of Being illustrated as a stairway from lower orders of being to higher orders of being: we tend to think of the great chain of being in terms of objects in relation to each other, but we can also think of it in terms of the temporal duration inhabited by objects, from the ephemeral to the eternal.

Having defined these extremes of the scope of being, from being-at-an-instant to the totality of being for an existent, we might further classify beings according to the difference between the former and the latter. That is to say, some beings we change dramatically from one moment to another and from one stage of life to another, so that in the course of their existence a great gap will open between being-at-an-instant and their totality of being, while for other existents totality of being is depart only slightly from being-at-an-instant.

Among the many possibilities of being that the above classifications suggest, we can posit a being that does in fact affect all beings and is in turn affected by all beings, and it is interesting to note that this could be considered a novel formulation of the traditional object of theology. This is perhaps the only conception of totality that actually approaches a totality that can exist on its own, and therefore counts as “concrete.”

It could be argued that at the moment of the big bang, the progenitor singularity of the big bang was, for an instant, affected by everything in the universe, and in turn affected everything in the universe. That is to say, at the moment of the big bang, the universe was instantaneously identical to the object of traditional Western theology (though strictly speaking this ought to be considered a variety of pantheism). Theists have not been slow to point out the apparent theological overtones of the big bang, and we could indeed characterize the big bang as a secularization (after the manner of Karl Löwith) of creatio ex nihilo. At this point we are in need of some serious philosophical thinking, but the pursuit of serious philosophical thinking in cosmology is problematic.

Karl Löwith argued that many modern concepts are secularizations of theological concepts.

Cosmology is a science that has that distinction of being at the fine end of the scale as quantitatively precise as astronomy, of which it is a natural extrapolation. But at the grand end of the scale, the further that cosmology departs from the readily grasped quantifiable conceptions of astronomy it finds itself entangled in traditional philosophical concepts, but since the practitioners of cosmology usually come from a scientific background they battle valiantly against having their discipline construed as philosophical (and therefore, in their eyes, as merely speculative and without practical utility). Thus philosophical questions regarding the nature and origin of the universe are treated as if (and one must here keep in mind Vaihinger’s sense of the Als-Ob) they were quantifiable and experimentally verifiable scientific questions when they are not. The result is confusion.

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Hans Vaihinger who formulated the doctrine of the as-if (Als-Ob).

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Grand Strategy Annex

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