Orders of Civilization

14 July 2020

Tuesday


Yax Nuun Ahiin I, installed as king of Tikal by Siyaj Kʼakʼ in 379 AD.

Some time ago in a grab-bag post, Thinking about Civilization, I introduced a number of ideas I had been entertaining about civilization. One of these ideas was a distinction among what I called orders of civilization, and although I was a bit hesitant about this, I have subsequently used this idea in several posts, including Suboptimal Civilizations, Addendum on Suboptimal Civilizations, and Self-Transcendence and Developmental Stages of Civilization.

Here is now I initially laid out my orders of civilization:

● Civilization of the Zeroth Order is the order of prehistory and of all human life and activity and comes before civilization in the strict sense.

● Civilization of the First Order are those socioeconomic systems of large-scale organization that supply the matter upon which history works; in other words, the synchronic milieu of a given civilization, a snapshot in time. (Iterated, civilization of the first order is a cluster, where the civilizations of the cluster exist simultaneously.)

● Civilization of the Second Order is an entire cycle of civilization, from birth through growth to maturity and senescence unto death, taken whole. (Iterated, civilization of the second order is a series, where the civilizations in the series exist sequentially.)

● Civilization of the Third Order is the whole structure of developmental stages of civilization such that any particular civilization passes through, but taken comprehensively and embracing all civilizations within this structure and their interactions with each other as the result of these structures. (Clusters and series are part of the overall structure of civilization of the third order.)

I have continued to have misgivings about whether this is a useful analytical tool in the study of civilization up until a couple of days ago, when I suddenly saw how it can be used to unwind an old problem — at least, an old problem for me. The problem in question is that of comparing civilizations so that the comparison is apples-to-apples and not apples-to-oranges. Once given a definition of civilization (which I formulate in terms of the institutional structure of large-scale social organization), all civilizations so defined have the definiens in common, and so any comparison among them is, in this sense, an apples-to-apples comparison. But the class of all civilizations can be decomposed in many ways, yielding subclasses of civilizations, and some of these can be importantly different so that we need to take account of them. What is the best way to decompose the class of all civilizations into subclasses? What decomposition yields the greatest analytical clarity?

The decomposition of the class of all civilizations that yields the greatest analytical clarity is that decomposition that allows us to give a systematic account of the inter-relationships among diverse civilizations in a way that employs a unified and coherent conceptual framework. What constitutes a unified and coherent conceptual framework is the topic for a treatise on the philosophy of science, but, intuitively, we know that we want clear, unambiguous concepts, a reasonable degree of parsimony, and classes defined by concepts that overlap very little or not at all, so that the decomposed class is exhaustively divided into its subclasses, with nothing left over and nothing that falls under two or more classes. The conceptual framework should also clearly exhibit the relationships among subclasses; when we employ the conceptual framework in question, we should know why and how the classified entities are in the classifications that they are in.

With the above in mind, I will revise my orders of civilization as follows:

● Civilization of the Zeroth Order Non-civilizations in the sense of being proto-civilizations or para-civilizations.

● Civilization of the First Order Civilization understood synchronically.

● Civilization of the Second Order Civilization understood diachronically.

● Civilization of the Third Order The development of civilization within a geographical region that involves both series and clusters in interaction.

● Civilization of the Fourth Order The development of civilization on a planetary scale.

These four orders of civilization could be further extended to five or more orders in the event of a spacefaring civilization that transcends planetary history.

The above revision isn’t all that different from my first formulation, but I needed to clean it up (and may need to further clean it up) in order to make the following point, which is primarily what I want to communicate: the institutional structure of civilization can be found at and within each order of civilization, and these institutional structures are distinct at each level, but directly related to the institutional structures at lower or higher orders. What this means is that there is an economic infrastructure, a conceptual framework, and a central project that inheres in the 0th, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th orders of civilization, each of these institutional structures is distinct from the institutional structures at the other orders, and each institutional structure is related to the institutional structures of the other orders.

What this means is that, in a sufficiently complex historical milieu of civilizations, there could be a nascent central project of civilization of the 0th order, a synchronically understood central project of a single civilization of the 1st order, a diachronically understood central project of a single civilization of the 2nd order, undergoing development and manifesting itself differently in distinct synchronic milieu, a central project of the 3rd order relevant to multiple related civilizations, whether two or more civilizations within a geographical cluster, two more civilizations in a series, or more complex historical patterns of cluster/series or series/cluster (clusters of civilizations evolve over time, a series of civilizations may diverge into a cluster of civilizations, or a cluster may coalesce into a single civilization), and a central project of the 4th order that describes the totality of planetary-scale civilization over the totality of its lifespan. These same considerations hold true for the other institutional structures of civilization, meaning they hold true also for the economic infrastructure and the conceptual framework.

Now, some examples, so I’m not just dealing in abstractions. If we take a snapshot of some civilization at a moment in time, say, the Mayan early classic period, or, even more narrowly, the arrival of Siyaj Kʼakʼ at Tikal in 378 AD, we can analyze the institutional structures at this snapshot in time and delineate the economic infrastructure, conceptual framework, and the central project. This is civilization of the 1st order. If we take the entire history of Mayan civilization, from the earliest pre-classic period to the Spanish conquest, this is civilization of the 2nd order, which can be sequenced with the Mayan archaic period (its proto-civilization, i.e., civilization of the 0th order) and with Mayan cultural continuity after the Spanish conquest (its para-civilization, i.e., also civilization of the 0th order). The central project as it is exhibited over this historical development is distinct from the central project of the early classic period when Siyaj Kʼakʼ arrived at Tikal.

Mayan civilization did not appear (or disappear) in a vacuum. Mayan civilization is part of what I call the Mesoamerican cluster, which is a cluster of multiple civilizations from the earliest civilization of the cluster, the Olmecs, to the last pre-Columbian civilization of the cluster, the Aztecs. This is where my expanded framework described above really comes into play. We can identify a Mesoamerican civilization that is the civilization of the cluster, and not of any one of the individual civilizations that together constitute the cluster. That is to say, we can analyze the institutional structure of the Mesoamerican cluster and note its common elements that appear in all of the civilizations of this cluster, such as the Mesoamerican ball game, ritual bloodletting, related languages, and related agricultural practices and staple crops.

With the Spanish conquest, the heritage of Mesoamerican civilization is integrated into expanding western civilization, which at this time was establishing a civilization of planetary-scale. We are all still part of this process, which is not yet complete, nor do we have any assurance that it will be completed, as the nascent planetary civilization of our time could still fall apart into geographically regional civilizations. Another way to state this is that we are now living through proto-civilization of the 4th, and if this proto-civilization congeals into a planetary civilization, that civilization will be civilization of the 4th order and its economic infrastructure, conceptual framework, and central project will be distinct from these institutional structures as they are exhibited at other orders of civilization.

The concepts that I have described and illustrated above are scientific abstractions, which means that they cover many different instances, none of which instances are identical in detail. They may be no perfect exemplars of any of these conceptions, but the point here is to formulate a framework on concepts within which civilizations can be analyzed and compared. If the conceptual framework clarifies our knowledge, then it is worth adopting even if only provisionally.

Let us consider some complex historical circumstances to underline the abstractness of my framework, but which also underlines its utility. Western civilization is clearly civilization of the 3rd, moving in space, developing over time, and shifting its ideals and priorities. It has conquered and assimilated numerous other civilizations in its long history, and has been involved in relationships of cooperation, competition, and conflict with many more civilizations. The development of western civilization has always been under pressure of interaction with other civilizations, from the Greeks’ defiance of the larger Persian Empire to the Cold War division of our entire homeworld during the twentieth century. This is as complex as a civilization gets without being a planetary-scale civilization and thus a civilization of the 4th order. We could call contemporary western civilization a civilization of the 4th order, but this would be a weak claim to make.

Chinese civilization has had a different history. It has been largely, though not entirely, isolated by mountains, deserts, and an ocean. Western civilization was shaped in the Mediterranean Basin by influences from Asia, Africa, and Europe in a continual exchange of persons, goods, and ideas. China was not without interaction, but these interactions were much less significant than the commerce of the Mediterranean Basin. Chinese civilization has, since its inception, been dominated by the Han ethnic group; other ethnic groups have been important — the Mongols, the Hakka, the Miao, the Tibetans, etc. — but apart from the Mongols no ethnic minority has challenged the role of the Han people in Chinese civilization. We can cite the example of the Silk Road as evidence of commerce with other civilizations, but this was a mere trickle of luxury goods. We can cite the voyages of Admiral Zheng He as evidence of exploration and discovery, but this was a comparatively short period of Chinese history. In other words, China is closer to exemplifying civilization of the 2nd order than civilization of the 3rd order, and so a direct comparison with western civilization is misleading; Chinese civilization should be compared to other civilizations of the 2nd order.

Indian civilization lies somewhere between the level of interaction that shaped western civilization and the level of isolation that shaped Chinese civilization. India has long had commercial shipping relationships throughout the Indian Ocean, in classical antiquity Alexander the Great made it as far as India, and in the early modern period Muslims conquered India and ruled as the Mogul Emperors. The Taj Mahal represents the level of syncretism of Hindu and Muslim civilization in the Indian subcontinent. But India has, to a lesser extent than China, been isolated by the Himalayas. Thus India is more difficult to classify according to my scheme, but at least with the scheme we can indicate the relative positions of western, Chinese, and Indian civilizations in regard to the geographical region in which they developed.

Islamic civilization, like western civilization (the two closely resemble each other), is a civilization of the 3rd order. Again like western civilization, it is very close to being a civilization of the 4th order, but it is still geographically concentrated in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, south Asia, and the Malay archipelago. One could say that the Arabian Peninsula was the cluster of origin for Islamic civilization, but it has now grown beyond that cluster of origin (in the same way that one could say that Europe was the cluster of origin for western civilization). Islam tends toward dominating the conceptual framework of the regions where it is influential, while western civilization tends toward dominating the economic infrastructure of the regions where it is influential, but neither of these tendencies is exclusive of the contrary influence.

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Para-Civilization

12 July 2020

Sunday


Pre-civilization non-civilization

Civilization between Non-Civilizations

Some time ago (almost ten years ago) I wrote a post about what I call proto-civilization, which I use to indicate those social and economic institutions that were the immediate precursors of actual civilization. A proto-civilization is something less than civilization, but at the same time it is something more than hunter-gatherer nomadism. Now I would like to introduce a complementary conception, which is that which follows after but which is distinct from civilization sensu stricto, and which I will call para-civilization. I find the need to introduce the concept of para-civilization as I continue my analysis of civilization and refine my formulations. In order to introduce further ideas to follow this post soon (hopefully) I now need to talk about para-civilization, as I am increasingly using this term in my other writings on civilization.

Proto-civilization

In some earlier work I had the occasion to refer to post-civilizational institutions (e.g., in Civilization Beyond the Prediction Wall, inter alia). This is essentially the same idea as a para-civilization. A para-civilization is not quite a civilization, but it appears in the aftermath of civilization. Whether a para-civilization is more than civilization or less than civilization depends on the historical context in which the para-civilization appears. The only proto-civilizations that have existed on Earth to date have been the remnants of former civilizations that have collapsed or failed, have been conquered and submerged under another civilization, or have otherwise been reduced from a functional civilization to something less than a functional civilization. For example, in the wake of the Spanish conquest of pre-Columbian civilizations of the New World, and later collapse of the pristine civilizations of North America (more from Old World diseases than by conquest), many institutions of these civilizations continued in vestigial form, and some continue to the present day. The Mayan daykeepers are vestiges of Mayan civilization. But since Mayan civilization is now long defunct, these vestiges cannot be considered civilization proper, so they can be called para-civilization. In this historical case, para-civilization is less than civilization.

Civilization in the strict sense

When we consider the possibilities for and fate of civilization in the future, para-civilization might be something less than civilization sensu stricto or something more than civilization. If civilization as we have known it is overtaken and pre-empted by some post-civilizational institution, or by some kind of non-civilization that is more powerful than civilization (say, an intelligence explosion and technological singularity, which is not a social institution at all, but a post-biological replacement of all social institutions), then para-civilization may be something more than civilization, and not less, as has been the case with historical examples of para-civilization.

Para-civilization

Given the definition of civilization that I employ — an economic infrastructure joined to a conceptual framework by a central project — I can then define a para-civilization as an institution following after a civilization, which latter fulfills my definition, but which former possesses an institutional structure distinct from that of civilization that fulfills my definition. In other words, a para-civilization is an institution with a simpler institutional structure, a changed institutional structure, or a more complex institutional structure than that of civilization. A simpler institutional structure could result from any of the constituent institutions that compromise civilization failing while one or some of the other constituent institutions continue in existence after a fashion. A changed institutional structure could result from one of the constituent elements of civilization being replaced by some other institution. A more complex institutional structure could result from the addition of a novel institution to the existing institutions that comprise civilization.

Post-civilization non-civilization

The above qualifications are made because civilization has repeatedly mutated over its history, in some cases changing so dramatically that one could plausibly argue that civilization as such had come to an end and a post-civilizational order was now a fact of life. This is most obviously the case with the industrial revolution, which transformed agricultural civilization, and is still transforming civilization today as I write this. However, as I analyze contemporary industrial civilization I still see the institutional structure of economic infrastructure, conceptual framework, and central project. It could be argued that the replacement of an agricultural infrastructure by an industrial infrastructure is an instance of a changed institutional structure such as described in the above paragraph, but from a sufficiently abstract point of view, both agricultural and industrial infrastructures are engaged in extracting energy from the biosphere for human ends, so that this civilizational function is invariant over time.

Civilization in an extended sense, including civilization, its precursor proto-civilization, and its subsequent para-civilization

The institutions themselves have changed — the economic infrastructure has changed most dramatically, and it has dragged the other constituent institutions of civilization along with it — but the institutional structure, and the inter-relationships among these structures, has remained essentially invariant. Therefore I argue that civilization is continuous from its earliest appearance on Earth up through the present day of industrialized civilization. However, something could conceivably occur in the future, even in the near future, that would so transform one or several of the constituent institutions of civilization, or add to these institutions, that we could no longer call the resulting social institution a civilization. It would then be a para-civilization.

Civilization between non-civilizations

The historical periodization consisting of the sequence proto-civilization–civilization–para-civilization constitutes an historical idealization not likely reflected in any actual historical civilizations, because it is an intentionally simplified abstraction for the study of civilization. A further idealized periodization would be constituted by recognizing the historical periods before and after any large scale social institutions whatever: non-civilization–proto-civilization–civilization simpliciter–para-civilization–non-civilization. The two cases in which non-civilization before and after civilization are identical and in which they are different can be distinguished, though I will not discuss this at the moment.

As non-civilizations, proto-civilization and para-civilization are distinct from suboptimal civilizations. These terms describe conditions that obtain prior to the advent of, or after the extinction of, civilization sensu stricto, and must therefore be analyzed in terms of the distinct institutional structures that they may exhibit. Therefore we distinguish between non-civilizations that are similar to civilizations, being either the precursor to civilization or the descendant of civilization, and suboptimal civilizations, having passed at least the initial threshold of civilization before experiencing conditions detrimental to the development of civilization. Suboptimal civilizations are civilization, though ruined, fallen, flawed, thwarted, or otherwise falling short of flourishing.

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Sunday


Mount Athos Carved as a Monument to Alexander the Great, 1796, by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, 1750-1819

There was once a plan to carve the likeness of Alexander the Great into Mount Athos

As Mount Rushmore has been carved with the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, and as the Crazy Horse Memorial is now being carved into Thunderhead Mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Dinocrates imagined carving Mount Athos into an enormous likeness of Alexander the Great. This is one of the most ambitious unbuilt projects known from classical antiquity.

This sculpted mountain would not only have carved the likeness of Alexander, but would have carved an enormous statue of Alexander into the mountain, such that the statue would cradle an entire city in one hand. There were many cities that there built as a result of Alexander the Great — not only Alexandria, but also a string of Greek cities across West Asia along the line of march of his army — but if the statue and city had been built at Mount Athos, this would have been the great architectural monument of Alexander’s moment in history. It was not built, however, nor even started and abandoned, so all we have is the idea of a monumental statue and city dedicated to Alexander.

Here is how it is described in Vitruvius:

Dinocrates the architect, relying on the powers of his skill and ingenuity, whilst Alexander was in the midst of his conquests, set out from Macedonia to the army, desirous of gaining the commendation of his sovereign. That his introduction to the royal presence might be facilitated, he obtained letters from his countrymen and relations to men of the first rank and nobility about the king’s person; by whom being kindly received, he besought them to take the earliest opportunity of accomplishing his wish. They promised fairly, but were slow in performing; waiting, as they alleged, for a proper occasion. Thinking, however, they deferred this without just grounds, he took his own course for the object he had in view. He was, I should state, a man of tall stature, pleasing countenance, and altogether of dignified appearance. Trusting to the gifts with which nature had thus endowed him, he put off his ordinary clothing, and having anointed himself with oil, crowned his head with a wreath of poplar, slung a lion’s skin across his left shoulder, and carrying a large club in his right hand, he sallied forth to the royal tribunal, at a period when the king was dispensing justice.

The novelty of his appearance excited the attention of the people; and Alexander soon discovering, with astonishment, the object of their curiosity, ordered the crowd to make way for him, and demanded to know who he was. “A Macedonian architect,” replied Dinocrates, “who suggests schemes and designs worthy your royal renown. I propose to form Mount Athos into the statue of a man holding a spacious city in his left hand, and in his right a huge cup, into which shall be collected all the streams of the mountain, which shall then be poured into the sea.”

Alexander, delighted at the proposition, made immediate inquiry if the soil of the neighbourhood were of a quality capable of yielding sufficient produce for such a state. When, however, he found that all its supplies must be furnished by sea, he thus addressed Dinocrates: “I admire the grand outline of your scheme, and am well pleased with it: but I am of opinion he would be much to blame who planted a colony on such a spot. For as an infant is nourished by the milk of its mother, depending thereon for its progress to maturity, so a city depends on the fertility of the country surrounding it for its riches, its strength in population, and not less for its defence against an enemy. Though your plan might be carried into execution, yet I think it impolitic. I nevertheless request your attendance on me, that I may otherwise avail myself of your ingenuity.”

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, de Architectura, Book II, Introduction, sections 1-3

There is also a parenthetical mention of this proposal in Strabo, 14.1:

“After the completion of the temple, which, he says, was the work of Cheirocrates (the same man who built Alexandreia and the same man who proposed to Alexander to fashion Mt. Athos into his likeness, representing him as pouring a libation from a kind of ewer into a broad bowl, and to make two cities, one on the right of the mountain and the other on the left, and a river flowing from one to the other) — after the completion of the temple, he says, the great number of dedications in general were secured by means of the high honor they paid their artists, but the whole of the altar was filled, one might say, with the works of Praxiteles.”

from Pope Alexander VII Kupferstich François Spierre Pietro da Cortona 1666

Several artists have been inspired by this idea, including a painting by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (top), François Spierre and Pietro da Cortona (above), and Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (below). The project, though never built, continued to live in the imagination of artists and architects.

Plate 18 from Entwurff Einer Historischen Architectur (Leipzig, 1725) by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656–1723)

Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s monumental work Entwurff Einer Historischen Architectur includes the following description of the proposed city:

Plate XVIII

Mount Athos, cut into a Gigantick or Colossal Statue

It is to Dinocrates, Architect to Alexander the Great, that historians attribute this extraordinary Project of cutting Mount Athos into the Form of a Man, who was, in his left Hand, to hold a City, capable of containing 10,000 Inhabitants, and in his Right a Cup or Basin, which was to receive all the Water, that rolled down this Mountain, and afterwards distribute it to the Sea by great Precipices, not far from the Isthmus, which Xerxes caused to be cut.

Strabo seems to be mistaken, when, speaking of the Enterprise, he names Cheromocrates as the Architect. He mentions a Design of adding another City, below the former, on the Left, thought which the Water, that flowed out of the Cup or Basin, might be made to pass.

This Project Alexander thought worthy of his Greatness, and only disapproved of it, by Reason of the Difficulties, which would have arisen, how to furnish a City thus situated, without Corn-fields or Meadows, with the common Necessaries of Life. He looked upon Dinocrates to be a great Architect, but a bad Economist.

As for the Invention of cutting Rocks into humane Forms, it is more ancient than the Age Dinocrates lived in, even though we should not give Credit to some ancient Historians, who assure us, that Sermiramis executed a Project like unto this on Mount Bagistan in Medea, where she caused a Rock of 17 Furlongs to be cut into her own and several other Figures, But what may seem more surprising to those, who are not apprised of it, is, that such a Project has been really Brought to Perfection in Suchuen, a Province of China, near to the Metropolis Chunking, on the Brink of the River Fu, where there is a Mountain cut in such a Manner as to represent the Idol Fe sitting.

Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, Entwurff Einer Historischen Architectur, Leipzig, 1725, Plate 18. I got a facsimile copy of the Entwurff by inter-library loan, and I believe that it was a facsimile of the 1737 edition with the wonderful Enlightenment title as follows: A plan of civil and historical architecture, in the representation of the most noted buildings of foreign nations, both ancient and modern : taken from the most approv’d historians, original medals, remarkable ruins, and curious authentick designs; and display’d in eighty-six double folio-plates, finely engraven : at a very great expence, by the most eminent hands : divided into five books : … / all drawn with excellent skill, and the utmost diligence by Mr. John Bernhard Fischer, of Erlach … ; first published at Leipzig, with the explanations of all the plates, in German and French, out of the best ancient and modern writers; and now faithfully translated into English, with large additional notes, by Thomas Lediard, Esq. … I scanned the pages associated with plate XVIII so that I had a copy of the text, which I have reproduced above, modernizing the spelling and punctuation, neglecting the italics, but retaining the idiosyncratic eighteenth century Capitalization. If you’re interested in more information, write me and I will send you the scans I made.

It would be interesting to find out how and why Strabo cites Cheromocrates (spelled “Cheirocrates” in the Strabo transliteration quoted above) whereas both Vitruvius and Fischer von Erlach cite Dinocrates. It could be a mere error, but Strabo cites Cheromocrates as the final architect of the famous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world. it seems unlikely that the architect of such a work would be mistaken, but there was also an implicit tradition in antiquity of attributing great works to great men. One got a larger audience for one’s book if one published it under the name of a now deceased author of great reputation, as compared to publishing it under one’s own name. There are so many interesting counterfactuals here it would be difficult to name them all. If the Mount Athos monument had been built, it might have also found its way onto lists of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and so one would expect that a work of such stature be credited to an architect already know for similar greatness.

Detail from the above plate.

Connoisseurs of music sometimes discuss the relative merits of the unfinished fragments of incomplete works by great composers. Some of these unfinished works have become renowned in their right, as, for example, with the case of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, more commonly known as the Unfinished Symphony. I have a fascination with unfinished, or, rather, unbuilt architectural designs. I can still remember the first time I saw a picture of Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Isaac Newton (which I have written about in several posts, for example, in Central Projects and Axialization), which is among the greatest examples of unbuilt architecture. Would that Dinocrates had left drawings of his plan for Alexander’s monument as Étienne-Louis Boullée drew up for Newton’s monument!

Étienne-Louis Boullée’s design for a Cenotaph for Newton, which remains unbuilt. This is perhaps one of the most famous unbuilt structures in the history of architecture.

Today, Mount Athos is known as a famous monastery (actually, twenty monasteries, also known as the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos). If the vision of Dinocrates had been realized, the history of Mount Athos would have been quite different, and its environs today — whether the monument and the city had survived the ages and grown into a modern city, or had it become a monumental ruin — would have a different aspect. Rather than being an entire peninsula consecrated to monasticism and a goal of Christian pilgrimage, it might have been a celebrated pagan shrine and the goal of pilgrimage in classical antiquity, and for tourists today. But one could easily formulate an alternative history in which the monument and the city were built, stood as a thriving metropolis for hundreds of years, was eventually depopulated, after which time early Christian monks settled in the ruins of the city so that Mount Athos became an monastery anyway, albeit by a more circuitous route than that by which it did in fact become a monastery.

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Plate 18 from Entwurff Einer Historischen Architectur (Leipzig, 1725) by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656–1723)

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Saturday


In What kind of war was the Second World War? I made this observation:

Knowledge inevitably involves imposing a template on the messiness of actuality in order to organize our experience rationally and coherently, so that the more systematic our organization of experience, the more knowledge we could be said to possess of this experience. Taxonomies of war seek to systematically organize our experience of war into knowledge of war, and from knowledge of war comes efficacy in waging war.

How exactly does this play out? Isn’t this a rather abstract claim to make about the messy reality of war? How does classification contribute to knowledge of war, and how does knowledge of war contribute to efficacy in waging war?

I can think of a couple of ways to argue this point, one a rather long digression through epistemology, and the other a rather shorter route through more familiar territory. I think I’ll save my epistemic exposition for another time, and at present only discuss the obvious way of cashing out this apparently abstract claim.

In brief, if we classify a war (or an operation, or a battle, or a skirmish) incorrectly, then we have located this event in a particular epistemic space, with relations to other related events and actions, and these other events and actions might bear some kind of relationship to the event in question, but these relations all will be a little off, misleading, and perhaps fatally misleading. If, on the other hand, we get the classification of the event correct, then our knowledge of that event will be reliable and not misleading. We will be able to act with confidence that are actions are based in the reality of the situation.

If you believe yourself to be fighting a war of national liberation, but you are actually allowing your nation-state to be used as a proxy war in great power competition, then you are going to be fighting the wrong war as long as you hold this erroneous belief, and the likelihood of your ultimately realizing your war aim of national liberation is rather poor. Contrariwise, if you believe yourself to be without agency, a mere pawn of external forces, whereas you are really engaged in a struggle of national liberation, or if you have a histrionic belief in being a great power engaged in a great power competition whereas in fact you are engaged in a petty struggle for the limited spoils of a banana republic, again, you will be fighting the wrong war, and you are not likely to successfully secure your war aims.

Self-deception plays a large role in this. Self-deception as it relates to warfare is relevant when political and military leaders deceive themselves, or when the masses are caught up in some madness of crowds (like the August Madness). While there is little that can be done about the madness of crowds, other than to wait for it so exhaust itself, the madness of political and military leaders is other matter. Deluded leaders can do far more harm than deluded masses, but it is also easier either to replace a deluded politician or general, or for this deluded individual to find their way back to reality.

The problem of deluded military and political leaders was presumably the motive for this advice from Sun Tzu:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

This is the Socratic imperative to know thyself, displaced into war. It is equally necessary to disillusion oneself, and to inspire delusion in the enemy, which brings us to another Sun Tzu quote that speaks to the disconnect between reality and war aims that characterizes deception:

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

All warfare is based on deception, yes, but there are two aspects of deception: not being deceived oneself, and deceiving the enemy. In the western tradition, these two ideas are incorporated into most lists of the principles of war in the form of surprise and security. Surprise is when you have successfully deceived the enemy and you are able to take the offensive to achieve your objective with the enemy on his back foot, as it were. Security is the need to take precautions so that when you have been surprised (i.e., deceived) the result is not disastrous and you can recover your position, or limit the damage in defeat. Surprise is what you get when your enemy incorrectly classifies the war (operation, battle) they are fighting, and security is what you need when you have misclassified the conflict you are in.

The history of war is filled with telling examples of delusion and deception. For an example of delusion, after the experience of trench warfare during the First World War, France responded to the threat of another German incursion by building the Maginot Line, which has subsequently become a synonym for inefficacy. But the French had simply observed the nature of the bulk of the First World War, and projected another war in the future that would also be a stagnant conflict in which defense had the advantage over offense. While the French were building the Maginot Line, the Germans were pressing forward with both the theory and practice of mobile armor. To skirt the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the Germans actually made a deal to train tank crews in Russia, where Heinz Guderian spent some time on maneuvers.

The French spent about three billion Francs on the Maginot Line. This could have purchased about 5,000 Renault R35 tanks in 1936 currency. The French could have quadrupled their tank force, with money left over to buy copies of Guderian’s Achtung — Panzer! as well as training for French tank crews. This would have served France better than spending the money on the Maginot Line, but the French were not expecting a war of rapid maneuver in which an armored spearhead penetrating a defensive line at its weakest spot would be the key to victory.

For an example of deception, prior to the Normandy landing the Allies conducted an extensive campaign of deception that involved dummy tanks and airplanes to fool German observers.The Germans knew that an assault was coming, but they did not know where exactly. We know from records obtained after the fact that in the lead up to the Allied landing that the Germans re-deployed some of their forces away from the actual landing zone to an area suggested by the deception, so that the deception was at least partially successful.

Before this, in the lead up the invasion of Sicily, one of the more elaborate deceptions of the Second World War, Operation Mincemeat, involved dropping a body with a fabricated backstory and diplomatic documents off the coast of Huelva, Spain, so that the body would wash up on the beach. It is not known if this deception ultimately contributed to the Allied victory in Sicily, but the elaborate ruse did come off as planned. For anyone who wants an introduction to espionage at its best, it is worthwhile to study the British secret services during the Second World War, as their achievements were remarkable (e.g., every German spy in England was turned by the end of the war), and Operation Mincemeat was truly inspirational, whether or not it contributed to Allied victory.

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Azerbaijani legionnaire from the 804th Azerbaijani infantry battalion

The Second World War will be studied by historians as long as human civilization endures, since the scope and scale of the conflict puts it in a class by itself, but what kind of war was it? What kind of war was the Second World War? It is a deceptively simple question, since it implies that there is some kind of taxonomy of warfare, and that the Second World War neatly fits into some taxon. Thus the question implicitly appeals to theories of war that remain unstated in the question. One could relativize the inquiry with some formulation like, “According to a Marxist perspective, what kind of war was the Second World War?” This would at least make our theoretical framework explicit, and would narrow the inquiry to a manageable scope. I’m going to tackle the subject in an open-ended way, without doing this.

A North African soldier from the Free Arabian Legion and a Cossack volunteer.

Some years ago I formulated a taxonomy of war (largely building on the ideas of Anatol Rapoport) that schematically distinguished between political war (human agency), eschatological war (non-human agency), catastrophic war (human non-agency), and naturalistic war (non-human non-agency) — I didn’t systematically develop this schema in relation to war to the point of writing a post on each kind of war, but cf. More on Clausewitz, Three Conceptions of History, The Naturalistic Conception of History, Revolution and Human Agency, and Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception (every conception of history implies a conception of war, and vice versa; moreover, every conception of war implies a conception of civilization, and vice versa). While this schematism possesses an enviable neatness (when systematically laid out), in retrospect it appears to me as being a bit too neat, and therefore not always helpfully reflective of the messiness of the actual world. And war is perhaps the messiest manifestation of the actual world.

Soldiers of the Free Indian Legion of the German Army, with a Luftwaffe Member, 1944.

If we abandon the attempt to explicitly formulate a taxonomy, we can distinguish wars of conquest, imperialist wars, resource wars, geostrategic wars, ideological wars, genocidal wars or wars of extermination, and so on. This grab bag of classifications is not unlike our classifications of science — empirical science, natural science, physical science, social science, historical science, and so on — in so far as there is no overarching conception that systematically relates the parts to each other and to the whole. For a messy world, there is a certain inevitability to messy systems of classification, but our taxonomies of classification should be no more messy than is absolutely necessary. Knowledge inevitably involves imposing a template on the messiness of actuality in order to organize our experience rationally and coherently, so that the more systematic our organization of experience, the more knowledge we could be said to possess of this experience. Taxonomies of war seek to systematically organize our experience of war into knowledge of war, and from knowledge of war comes efficacy in waging war.

The Clausewitzean approach is to define war and then to refine and elaborate the definition in order to illuminate the nature of war, rather than to converge upon a taxonomy of kinds of war. In Book Two, Chapter One of On War, Clausewitz does discuss the classification of war, and Clausewitz did note some kinds of war, for example, his distinction between absolute and real war. In Book Eight of On War Clausewitz comes to focus on the outcomes of war as persistently as he focused on the definition of war in Book One, and in focusing on outcomes Clausewitz distinguished between real war and absolute war, which latter is often assimilated to Erich Ludendorff’s conception of “totale Krieg”. (An interesting discussion of this can be found in “The Idea of Total War: From Clausewitz to Ludendorff” by Jan Willem Honig; also cf. “Controversy: Total War” by Daniel Marc Segesser.)

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-295-1560-22, Nordfrankreich, Turkmenische Freiwillige, photograph by Karl Müller

Real war, for Clausewitz (and in contradistinction to absolute war), is what we today would call limited war, but absolute war is the paradigm of war and the criterion against which any other conception must be measured, here expressed in the context of Clausewitz’s political conception of war: “If war belongs to policy, it will naturally take its character from thence. If policy is grand and powerful, so will also be the war, and this may be carried to the point at which war attains to its absolute form.” (Book Eight, Chapter 6, B) However, no great emphasis is given to the classification of war in Clausewitz. This has left taxonomies of war underdeveloped in the post-Clausewitzean literature. If Carnap was correct that scientific concepts develop from taxonomic (classificatory), through comparative, to quantitative concepts (though we are under no obligation to accept this schema of scientific development, but at least it offers a framework), then the underdevelopment of taxonomic concepts for warfare represents a failure in the development of a truly scientific understanding of war.

We can adopt the Clausewitzean approach and begin with a definition of war, which then defines the class of all wars, and then we can decompose the class of all wars into subclasses that define kinds of war. Any good taxonomy (by which I mean any taxonomy useful and fruitful for research) will involve a schematization of a complex and ambiguous reality that results in simplification. One of the most difficult aspects of scientific abstraction is finding the “just right” point between too much fidelity to empirical fact, which makes schematization impossible, and over-simplification, which falsifies empirical reality to an unhelpful extent. Ideally we would want a principled classification that decomposes all wars into a finite number of classes, each of which is mutually exclusive of the others, and each of which exemplifies an unambiguous idea. The ideal of classification is rarely realized, so we are often thrown back on a classification based on contingent properties. There are several contingent properties that characterize the Second World War and so furnish us with the most familiar, even if not rigorous, classifications. These contingent properties do not result in mutually-exclusive, non-overlapping classes, which means that there is overlap among kinds of wars. The Second World War was an industrialized war, but the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War were also industrialized wars. It was a planetary-scale war, but The Seven Years’ War and the First World War were also both planetary-scale wars. From the Second World War being a planetary-scale war it follows that it was a war fought on multiple fronts and in multiple theaters among a wide variety of combatants drawn from many nation-states. The Second World War was more a war of maneuver than attrition, more about offense and initiative than defense and stagnation. In this it differs significantly from the First World War, but resembles the Napoleonic Wars.

Beyond a haphazard classification of war by overlapping contingent properties, there are reflective taxonomies that seek to organize our knowledge of war around principles of war, but which embody no overarching conception that unifies the principles employed. This is the status of Anatol Rapoport’s distinction among political, eschatological, and cataclysmic philosophies of war, mentioned above (but which I developed in accordance with an overarching conception of agency). Another example can be found in Ian Clark’s Waging War: A Philosophical Introduction (pp. 19-23), which distinguishes six concepts of war, as follows (the headings below are Clark’s, but the explanations and commentaries that follow each heading are mine), and which I will examine in relation to planetary-scale warfare:

War as instinctive violence — This could be called the evolutionary or biological conception of war. As Freud once wrote, “…men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attack; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.” This was written long before evolutionary psychology had been formulated, but further work in evolution, biology, and psychology has underlined Freud’s assertion with voluminous evidence, including something like war fought among chimpanzees in the wild. If human beings are instinctively violent, then it should not be surprising that human beings organized by civilization should engage in organized violence on a scale proportional to their organization, and this is what was exhibited in the global industrialized wars of the twentieth century.

War as divination or legal trial — We could also call this “war as a decision procedure.” In so far as the decision procedure of war invokes divine sanction on its side, it also becomes an eschatological war, but it is at least arguable that its eschatological character is epiphenomenal in the context of war as a decision procedure. The point is to settle a dispute, and in so far as war has a decisive outcome (which is not always the case), the dispute is settled and the procedure of war has yielded a decision. In the case of a planetary-scale war of multiple theaters, there are multiple decisions simultaneously in pursuit of decision, and it cannot be expected that all of these outcomes will be decisive. This implies that planetary-scale war rarely if ever achieves an outcome that largely decides outstanding issues, hence the Second World War was followed by the Cold War.

War as disease — This closely corresponds to what Anatol Rapoport called the cataclysmic philosophy of war, but Clark makes a distinction between war as disease and war as cataclysm: a disease can be cured, whereas a cataclysm usually cannot be prevented, so that mitigation efforts focus instead on limiting the damage and cleaning up after the fact. War as disease suggests a cure, and is therefore an abolitionist conception, but it also suggests the possibility of pandemic. If human beings, or human societies, are infected with the disease of war, then war will be spread like a disease, and at times that disease will take on the properties of a pandemic. War understood as a pandemic is planetary-scale war of planetary-scale civilization.

War and social change — Clark glosses war as social change as war being either a measure or a means of social change. Although Clark mentions Comte and Schumpeter (focusing on economic development), this is essentially a Hegelian conception (or, if you prefer, a Marxist conception), since it is conflict that pushes the social dialectic forward; we cannot make social change without fulfilling all of the steps of the dialectic. If we look how far we have come, driven by conflict, it appears as a metric of that development; if look forward to social change yet to come, conflict appears as the means by which such change can be brought about. If we look forward to a planetary civilization, then only a planetary-scale dialectic, which involves planetary-scale war, can secure that end. This was once made very clear in some varieties of Marxism, which insisted that the peace of the communist millennium could come only after the world entire had experienced proletarian revolution and the planet entire has been unified on communist economic principles.

War as a political instrument of the state — This conception perfectly embodies the political philosophy of war, which we usually identify with the work of Clausewitz. For the political conception of war to culminate in a planetary-scale war, the political framework must be planetary, and this planetary-scale political framework has been taking shape since the Age of Discovery, with the industrial revolution providing the technological means for effectively acting on a planetary scale at human time scales. It could be argued that it was only the twentieth century that this framework and its means came to maturity, and as soon as this maturity was achieved, planetary-scale wars were waged. This argument, however, minimizes the role of human agency (it makes war look as inevitable as a violent instinct), which agency is one of the key features of the conception of war as a political instrument. In other words, there is an interesting overlap between the most agency-centered conception of war and the least agent-centered conceptions of war.

War as regulator of the international system — This might also be called war as the invisible hand, as the parties waging war are, by waging war, performing a function that restores the balance of power, though through no intention or plan of the parties to the conflict (Clark does not make this connection). If war is waged as the action of the invisible hand of the international system to maintain its own viability and stability, then we would also expect instances of “market failure” in which the invisible hand ceased to function. In cases of political failure (say, the failure of conception of war as a political instrument, above), the wars waged in the wake of political failure would fail to restore balance of power and confer viability and stability on the international system, cascading into planetary-scale war now free of the mechanisms that had once governed its scale and conduct (being much like the concept of war as a disease).

In the above taxonomy, there is no obvious place for what Rapoport called the eschatological philosophy of war, except as briefly mentioned under war as divination, where the eschatological aspect is epiphenomenal. We could place eschatological war under instinct or divination or elsewhere; the point isn’t to find a place for it, but to point out how haphazard taxonomies usually miss something important and fail to fully clarify that which they exhibit as central. Still, some attempt to give order to our experience is better than no attempt at all. Sometimes the only way to proceed is to work with a haphazard framework, revising and refining it with further experience and evidence, until either it converges on an effective taxonomy, or the additional experience and evidence forces a model crisis and a paradigm shift, with a new taxonomy emerging from the paradigm shift.

As the largest war of human history in scope and scale, the Second World War was also the messiest war, and therefore the most difficult to classify, but in hindsight (because of its salience in our consciousness of war) it has become a war understood in schematic terms in which the messiness is progressively erased from historical memory. Even the Cold War, in all its complexity, was simpler than the Second World War, because of the planetary-scale division between the US and the USSR was, at its basis, an us-against-them conflict, and could be reduced to this schematic dyad. The Second World War cannot be reduced to a dyad; it was a war with many fronts, many theaters, many belligerents, and many motivations for participation. When Nazi Germany set its war machine in motion and it was evident to all that this was a formidable force, there was probably a strong sense of inevitability about ultimate German victory in the war. When Poland and France had fallen and the British had retreated at Dunkirk without any means of striking the Germans except for their long-ranger bombers, and with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact keeping the Soviet Union out of the war, “Fortress Europe” looked secure, and the burden fell upon those on the outside Fortress Europe to penetrate its defenses. When the Allies did begin to penetrate the defenses of Fortress Europe, and the Soviet Union entered the war after Operation Barbarossa, the Germans had to seek more manpower for their armies.

Bosnian soldiers of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS “Handschar”

It was a relatively straight-forward matter to recruit from Soviet and Soviet bloc POWs, as many of them were passionately anti-Bolshevik and had no love for the Soviet Union. Promised the opportunity to fight for the freedom their native homelands from Soviet tyranny, many joined. These volunteers were opportunistic, not ideological. The volunteers from western European nation-states, by contrast, were more ideologically driven, though not always in the way one might guess. There were two Waffen-SS divisions of Scandinavian volunteers, the 5th Wiking and the 11th Nordland, and the different circumstances of the Scandinavian nation-states, which were very different indeed, influenced the character of the volunteers for Germany. The Finns fought the Russians in the Winter War of 1939, and thousands of Swedes volunteered to fight in Finland against the Russians, so when Hitler violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and went to war with the Russians, Finland became an ally of Germany (until the Moscow Armistice of 19 September 1944), one of the Axis powers, and Finland then became a “pipeline” for fighters to join the Axis cause. Sweden remained resolutely neutral throughout the war, but Norway was occupied up until the very end, and occupied Norway was governed by Vidkun Quisling, whose name has become synonymous with treachery. Quisling was an interesting figure, as he was not an opportunistic fascist nor even an anti-Semitic fascist; Quisling belonged more to ideological fascism, and even to the mystical and esoteric side of Nazism; one suspects he would have been much more comfortable with Heidegger than with Hitler or Himmler.

Soldiers of the Turkestan Legion.

The German use of foreign legions was no doubt utterly cynical, which is to say, it was pragmatic; it was equally cynical (i.e., equally opportunistic) on the part of those who sought to hitch their wagon to a star by jumping on the bandwagon of what seemed to be the most powerful military force on the planet. The Origins of the Second World War by A. J. P. Taylor, argued that Hitler himself was an opportunist, not driven by fanaticism or an insane lust for destruction, but was responding to geopolitical imperatives to which any German politician would have had to answer. Taylor’s book was controversial in the extreme (the response to it was not unlike the intensity of the response to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem), and only time will tell its eventual reputation. Taylor’s arguments aside, we should question the idea that any war — and most especially a war as large and as complex as the Second World World — must be pigeon-holed as one and only one kind of conflict. There is the possibility that a war might be one kind of war for one of the combatants, and another kind of war entirely for another of the combatants. This is most obviously the case when a war of extermination on the part of one party to a conflict is a war of survival for the other party; those fighting only to survive need not exterminate their rivals, though they may well come to desire this end. However, it also can be the case that, when an ideological war is being fought by two or more parties of the conflict, other parties join the conflict for opportunistic reasons. This was manifestly the case during the Cold War, when the US and the USSR were locked in an ideological struggle, but third world proxy wars which the great powers attempted to contain within ideological bounds inevitably became mired both in local struggles as well as opportunistic conflicts.

Chiang Wei-kuo, adopted son of Chiang Kai-shek, attended a German military academy and commanded a Panzer unit during the Austrian Anschluss in 1938.

Because of the diversity and multiplicity of war, there is no unity and clarity of purpose at the largest scales. For a fire team of soldiers caught in a skirmish, there is perfect unity and clarity of purpose, but this purpose doesn’t scale beyond a certain limit. The grand strategies of nation-states, kingdoms, and other political agents, constitute clarity of purpose in so far as the grand strategies themselves are clear, and impose a measure of clarity on those wars that have their origins in grand strategy, but, once a war has started, the grand strategy of any one of the parties to the conflict cannot contain the conflict within the grand strategy parameters of the originating party. The grand strategy can continue to guide developments in a war as it progresses, and so can confer a rough directionality on the conflict, but even this directionality can evaporate if the political agent attempting to pursue its grand strategy begins to lose the conflict. Precisely this occurred in the Second World War. The ideological aims of the Nazi party were rendered ambiguous by the growing scale of the conflict, and eventually become meaningless. Whether the ideological aims of political parties were ever causes of events, or whether they were, rather, responses to events — symptoms of a disease, as it were — may be a chicken-and-egg problem.

Original caption: “Treu der Kosaken-Tradition Oberfeldwebel Nicolas Balanowski, kämpft wie viele seiner Landsleute, in den Reihen der landeseigenen Verbände gegen seine früheren Unterdrücker, den Bolschewisten. Getreu der alten Kosakentradition, trägt er noch immer die Kosaken-Mütze.” In English: “True to the Cossack tradition, Sergeant Nicolas Balanowski, like many of his compatriots, fights in the ranks of the state’s associations against his former oppressors, the Bolsheviks. True to the old Cossack tradition, he still wears the Cossack hat.”

The Second World War was many wars — Theodore Ropp wrote that, “The Second World War consisted of four related major wars, each presenting separate military-political problems.” (War in the Modern World, New York: Collier, 1971, p. 314) — and these many wars of the Second World war each had a distinctive character, hence even more diversity and multiplicity than are typically to be found in smaller conflicts. On the western front, it was a straight-forward political war of the kind that had repeatedly erupted between Germany and France; on the eastern front it was a war of extermination, not unlike the German campaign in German Southwest Africa or the British campaign against the Boers during the Boer War. On the northern front, it was a static war of occupation in Norway, while on the North African front it was a mobile war of mechanized armor against mechanized armor, and in the Pacific Theater further complexities were added by the multiplicity of colonial powers and their subject peoples who were involved.

One useful distinction that can be made among kinds of war is that between methods of war on the one hand, and, on the other hand, kinds of war based on causes and objectives (which, for purposes of brevity, I will call causal taxonomies). In my post Hybrid Warfare I included a list of seventeen distinct forms of warfare recognized by the US DOD and NATO — Antisubmarine Warfare, Biological Warfare, Chemical Warfare, Directed-Energy Warfare, Electronic Warfare, Guerrilla Warfare, Irregular Warfare, Mine Warfare (also called Land Mine Warfare), Multinational Warfare, Naval Coastal Warfare, Naval Expeditionary Warfare, Naval Special Warfare, Nuclear Warfare (also called Atomic Warfare), Surface Warfare, Unconventional Warfare, and Under Sea Warfare — all of which are methods of warfare, constituting a methodological taxonomy. Needless to say, the US DOD and NATO do not recognize wars of extermination as a distinct mode of warfare, but it could be conceived as such. More importantly, these methods of war tell us very little about causal taxonomies of war, even when methods and outcomes are mutually implicated (as in genocidal wars of extermination). The taxonomy of war employed by Ian Clark, discussed above, clearly draws a connection between methodological taxonomies and causal taxonomies, as each kind of war suggests methods of waging war, or methods of mitigating war, but for Clark, as I read him, it is the causal taxonomies that are fundamental, and the methods of waging war follow from these causal imperatives. Methodological taxonomies may satisfy war planners and unify soldiers and command structures, but they do not touch on the motivations of the mass societies of planetary civilization to wage war.

Planetary-scale war like the Second World War was not possible until there was planetary-scale civilization. The planetary-scale war that was the Second World War was both enabled by planetary-scale civilization and ultimately extended planetary-scale civilization (suggesting Clark’s war as social change), as became clear in the post-war period when there was a new impetus to create planetary institutions — the UN, the EU, and eventually the WTO and the World Criminal Court, inter alia. As I have argued on many occasions, our planetary-scale civilization is not politically or legally unified, although it is culturally, technologically, economically, and scientifically unified. Within a planetary-scale civilization, Huntington’s “clash of civilization” thesis is meaningless, and therefore stillborn. On a planet well on the way to integrating planetary-scale civilization there could be wars that break out between and among partially assimilated remnants of civilizations (formerly isolated regional civilization), which would constitute the trailing edge of Huntington’s clash of civilizations, and which latter could be said to have peaked in the 16th or 17th century. In this planetary context one can certainly imagine conflicts over control of Makinder’s world-island (“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland. Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island. Who rules the World Island commands the World.”), which would be essentially planetary-scale wars with planetary-scale methods and objectives, but which were not wars breaking out along the fault lines of civilizations.

Another way to think about wars in terms of outcomes (causal taxonomies) is that at least part of what makes a war the kind of war that it is, is the kind of peace that is possible following upon the end of the war (the actual outcome in contradistinction to the envisioned outcome, i.e., the war aim). While a war may begin with clear war aims, the war itself may cloud these war aims or make their achievement impossible, so that the actual outcome of the war is no longer recognizably related to the war aims of any of the parties to the conflict at the initiation of hostilities. In the case of the Second World War, the peace that followed was itself a war: the Cold War. Planetary-scale peace at the end of planetary-scale war came at the cost of small-scale regional wars and an arms race on a planetary scale. The decisive defeat of the Axis Powers was an unambiguously achieved war aim, but it was achieved by allies that were as ideologically opposed to each other as they were opposed to the Axis Powers. This set the stage for the conflicts to follow. Peace and reconstruction was geographically regional (not on a planetary scale, like the war itself) and was ideologically driven to a much greater extent than the pragmatic conduct of the war itself. Before the war was over Ernst Jünger had written, “It may safely be said that this war has been humanity’s first joint effort. The peace that ends it must be the second.” (The Peace, Hinsdale: Henry Regnery, 1948, p. 19) This was not to be the case, though FDR and the US tried to realize this ideal.

Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt in Paris.

A familiar narrative (especially to Americans) is that the Second World War was “The Good War” that was fought by the “greatest generation” (i.e., it was a just war, to invoke an Augustinian conception). This propagandistic conception of the Second World War is, in a sense, the mirror image of the Second World War as a great ideological conflict between lofty ideals on the one hand, and, on the other hand, naked evil, belies the pragmatism with which the war was fought and alliances were made, in which the war was rather a conflict driven by geopolitical imperatives — admittedly, geopolitical concerns extrapolated to a planetary scale, but still a conflict more about the distribution of ocean basins and mountain ranges than about ideology. The narrative of the Second World War as “The Good War” that was fought by the “greatest generation” elides the catastrophic policy failures of both the First and Second World Wars, and the peace settlements that followed upon them, which were arguably invidious to the grand strategies of the western nation-states. The Cold War was necessitated by the failed outcome of the Second World War in the same way that the Second World War was necessitated by the failed outcome of the First World War. However, it is at least arguable that the Cold War was fought more effectively than the world wars of the first half of the twentieth century.

The General Assembly of the United Nations Convenes for the first time on 10 January 1946 in London.

The ability of human beings to conceptualize and to act upon planetary-scale ideals is noble and inspiring, but a failure to distinguish between ideals that can be brought into being at the present, and ideals that must wait for another time, when conditions are right for their realization, constitutes a failure of wisdom at least proportional to nobility of conceptualizing an unattainable ideal. When Wilson arrived in Paris in 1919, and when FDR traveled to Yalta in 1945, both American presidents were prepared to make major strategic concessions in order to bring robust international institutions into being, and this willingness to sacrifice US national interests to a larger vision for peace on a planetary scale, following upon war on a planetary scale, put the US at a disadvantage. The outcome could well have been better for all if these presidents had exclusively focused on US national interests and the national interests of US allies rather than upon a trans-national ideal. Other parties to the negotiations in Paris and Yalta cannot be blamed for taking advantage of US willingness to bargain away its interests, and the interests of its allies, in order to secure the future of international institutions, which no one else took seriously. Of course, it must also be noted that both Wilson and FDR believed that the successful implementation of these international institutions would be in the strategic interest of the US, and many would argue that the US, as the leading post-war international power, got at least part of what it bargained for in the form of international institutions.

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In my Addendum on Naturalism Purged of Metaphysical Fallacies I proposed an analogy between the role of Scholasticism in the medieval work with the role of naturalism in the modern world:

“Naturalism stands in relationship to 21st century philosophical thought as scholasticism stood in relation to 13th century philosophical thought: it is the background conceptual framework (usually itself imperfectly and incompletely articulated, but nevertheless pervasively present) that underlies most explicit philosophical formulations. In the same way that it would be difficult to identify the exact content of scholasticism in the 13th century, it would be difficult to identify the exact content of naturalism today, and this is to be expected from a fundamental philosophical orientation in its ascendancy.”

One could argue that we are already seeing the beginnings of the breakdown of naturalism. In 2012, when Thomas Nagel published Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, the book came in for surprisingly harsh criticism, simply for Nagel being a philosopher of his stature questioning the now received presumption of physicalism. This controversy over Nagel’s book, however, is a conflict internal to naturalism — specifically, a conflict between a narrowly conceived physicalism (but still conceived within the framework of naturalism) and any alternative (but still naturalistic) explanatory framework. There are any number of naturalistic interpretations of mind (or consciousness, if you prefer), so that insisting upon an eliminationist account seems unnecessarily extreme, as though there were something more going on here than the mere formulation of a philosophical position. The eliminationists protest too much.

Just as logical positivism was a particularly narrow form of naturalism in the early twentieth century (similar in many respects to contemporary physicalism), physicalism is the particularly narrow form of naturalism prevalent today. Perhaps it is the character of naturalism to be repeatedly expressed in minimalist forms like this until their manifest inadequacy has been demonstrated to the current generation of philosophers. Minimalist forms of naturalism have the virtues of parsimony, both ontological and theoretical, and the kind of elegant argumentation often associated with parsimony, but there are limits beyond which minimalism passes from being merely austere to being downright perverse and no longer being parsimonious in terms of what it requires that one believe.

A conceptual framework as robust as naturalism can be expected to endure for many centuries, as indeed the Scholastic conceptual framework endured for many centuries. The efflorescence of the Scholastic synthesis (as it is sometimes called) is usually associated with the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas, with the work of William of Ockham marking the unraveling of the Scholastic synthesis. But while the Scholastic synthesis may have declined in the late middle ages, with its replacement with the rising scientific synthesis (part of the rise of naturalism) in the early modern period, the better part of the European conceptual framework remained essentially Scholastic for hundreds of years yet to come.

E. M. W. Tillyard’s classic study The Elizabethan World Picture emphasized the essentially medieval character of the Elizabethan world picture (“…it was still solidly theocentric, and that it was a simplified version of a much more complicated medieval picture…”), and Carl Becker’s equally famous lectures The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, extends the influence of the Scholastic conceptual framework into the Enlightenment: “…the underlying preconceptions of eighteenth-century thought are still, allowance made for certain important alterations in the bias, essentially the same as those of the thirteenth century.” (From the final paragraph of lecture 1.) If we are permissive in the range of dates we give for Scholasticism, this was a conceptual framework that endured for well over a thousand years, and fifteen hundred years by some measures.

The replacement of Scholasticism by naturalism begs the question as to what conceptual framework eventually will follow naturalism, when naturalism itself follows Scholasticism into the dustbin of history. Suppose after another several hundred years, when the naturalistic conceptual framework has run its course and has been exhausted, that some other conceptual framework begins to replace naturalism, a process as gradual and as piecemeal as the replacement of Scholasticism by naturalism. What might this post-naturalism conceptual framework look like? Can we even imagine such a thing, or are we too much the products of naturalism ourselves that we cannot free ourselves from it even if we try to do so?

Merely to ask the question is to build certain assumptions into our conception of history. There is, most obviously, the presupposition of the possibility of a sequence of co-equal conceptual frameworks, the later frameworks supplanting the earlier, but not being an improvement over the earlier (or a decline compared to the earlier framework). This is somewhat like the Thomas Kuhn idea of a paradigm, which has prompted an enormous commentary. There is also the related presupposition that there will be a sequence of conceptual frameworks like this, rather than a linear development in which the human conceptual framework comes to maturity, and, having come to maturity, can only decay and then disappear—but this decline and disappearance is part of an organic life-cycle of conceptual frameworks, and not an arbitrary sequence of conceptual frameworks in which the historical process of succession is essentially irrational.

If we make these presuppositions about one conceptual framework following another without rhyme or reason, why not go even further? Why not posit a cyclical development of conceptual frameworks, such that framework A is followed by framework B, framework B is followed by framework C, but human beings have run out of new ideas at this point, so that framework C is followed once again by framework A (or its functional equivalent), and so on, ad infinitum. One could even argue that the conceptual framework of classical antiquity was more-or-less naturalistic, so that the rise of naturalism with the scientific revolution was actually the recrudescence of naturalism. Thus when this current age of naturalism has exhausted itself, we are likely to see the recrudescence of non-naturalism, mysticism, and mythology. In fact, the sharp criticism of Nagel might be credited to a concern on the part of his critics that any non-reductive, non-physicalist theory of mind was the opening of a Pandora’s box of mystification, which lid needs to be kept firmly shut so as to avoid the return of a non-naturalistic conceptual framework (a slippery slope fallacy).

N.B. — Nagel’s critics may well be right: those who hope for a future of rationalist and Enlightenment values may have a legitimate reason to be concerned about the influence of such a book from a prominent philosopher. In the same way that A. J. Ayer was said to have had a deathbed conversion (the circumstances of which are insufficiently known to the public to make sense of the contradictory accounts that have been published—cf. “An Atheist Meets the Masters of the Universe” by Peter Foges and An Analysis of the Near-Death Experiences of Atheists), and in the same way that Bertrand Russell’s casual mention of “Christian love” was immediately taken as a sign that Russell himself now had a more charitable view of traditional systems of belief (what Russell said was, “The thing I mean — please forgive me for mentioning it — is love, Christian love or compassion. If you feel like this, you have a motive for existence, a guide in action, a reason for courage, an imperative necessary for intellectual honesty”; Russell briefly addressed the response to this passage in his essay, “What is an Agnostic?”), Nagel’s book is viewed by some as a means to worm their way into otherwise reasonable discussions in order to strike a blow for unreconstructed supernaturalism.

By definition, any conceptual framework that follows naturalism but which is not itself naturalism would be non-naturalistic, though it would not necessarily be non-naturalistic in the sense of being supernaturalistic. A post-naturalistic conceptual framework would be, by definition, non-naturalistic, but we are only limited to non-naturalistic supernaturalism if we believe that there are no further conceptual possibilities for human beings, i.e., if we are unable to conceive of any non-naturalism that is not supernaturalistic, which I will here assume posits the existence of a realm of reality inaccessible to empirical investigation. Whether or not we can conceive of a non-supernatural non-naturalism remains an open question at this time—not surprisingly, as comparatively little effort (to my knowledge) has been invested in the possibility.

I have myself benefited greatly from making the attempt, over many years, and going over the same ground time and again, to imagine forms of emergent complexity not realized on Earth, as well as forms of civilization not yet realized. At first, one is simply lost when questioning fundamental presuppositions, but, if persistent, one can begin to make very small changes in one’s presuppositions, like a hole in the dike of pervasive matters of fact with no countervailing experiences, and, once imagination begins flowing ever so slowly through these holes in the dike, the dike itself becomes unstable and one can begin to picture scenarios in which the dike is washed away and the landscape appears transformed.

Thus would it be in any attempt we could make today, with naturalism at the fullness of its power, waxing in its influence, to conceive of a non-naturalistic conceptual framework. This is not a project to be taken up lightly, but a kind of meditation to which one might return repeatedly over many years as a longitudinal thought experiment on the emergence of a radically new conceptual framework. However, the fact that a naturalistic conceptual framework likely would be gradually replaced by a future non-naturalistic conceptual framework, in a piecemeal fashion, could be our point of entry into another way of thinking about the world. If we could identify isolated non-naturalistic concepts with some future promise (I can offer no instances at this time, so my positing of such concepts must remain non-constructive for the time being), we could take these promising concepts and attempt to construct with them and around them a conceptual framework that extends, elaborates, and applies this promising non-naturalistic concept. Eventually, a conceptual framework begins to form, and, when sufficiently elaborated, some other concepts within that framework present themselves as those concepts whose initial adoption would form the basis of gradual adoption of the framework entire.

This thought experiment implies another thought experiment, to which it is related, but with which it is not identical, that that is the thought experiment of a radically novel form of emergent complexity appearing within the emergent complexities familiar to us on Earth. This is a distinct but overlapping thought experiment with that which seeks to project a future non-naturalistic conceptual framework because a conceptual framework could be a novel emergent, but it not necessarily a novel emergent complexity. And the most radical forms of novel emergent complexity would not be anything as predictable and projectable as a novel conceptual framework. Thus in attempting to imagine a new form of emergent complexity coming into being we might consider radically new conceptual frameworks, but we would also want to go beyond this and try to conceive of emergent complexities that would have nothing whatsoever to do with conceptual frameworks, that are already familiar to us in several distinct forms.

The obvious kinds of emergent complexity (i.e., those that are predictable and projectable) that may arise on Earth would be those that develop from the already elaborated emergent complexities of consciousness, intelligence, technology, and social organization. For example, a new and unprecedented form of civilization. Possible instances are not difficult to formulate. A human civilization off the surface of Earth, whether on another planet (or on a moon), or in an artificial environment maintained in outer space, would be absolutely unprecedented: there has never before been a human civilization in outer space. Nevertheless, the existence of human civilizations on Earth gives us a clear template for constructing human civilizations in outer space, no matter how unprecedented such a development may be. This would constitute a predictable and obvious form of emergent complexity not yet realized but potentially looming large in the human future, and so it is with many of the more imaginative futurist scenarios, such as the emergence of machine consciousness, and all that implies, or our contact with another civilization from elsewhere in the universe, and so on.

Now let us try to set aside these obvious extrapolations of emergent complexity as we know it on Earth today and attempt to conceive a novel emergent complexity that is not only unprecedented, but which would be completely unexpected and as close to being incomprehensible as human cognition will allow us to conceptualize—a thought experiment on a radical new emergent, as different from mind as mind is different from the organisms upon which mind supervenes.

Say, for example, that the ocean begins to turn poison, and ocean food webs begin to collapse. Imagine that an enormous red tide algal bloom, of a slightly different chemical composition than familiar algal blooms, is the culprit, but the poison, while deadly to life as we know it, is some other kind of emergent complexity, another kind of chemical complexity, which is arising on the basis of existing chemical complexity in the oceans, and by establishing itself as the new chemical regime on Earth, becomes the basis of further kinds of emergent complexity that supervene upon it. Human beings might stand helplessly by, or we might frantically but ineffectually attempt to intervene, even as the chemistry of the world’s oceans changed and rendered our biology archaic, as though we belonged to a bygone era of Earth’s history. The nature we know today would be replaced by the nature that will represent the Earth in future ages, and this, too, would be a kind of post-natural world, and understanding it might require a post-naturalistic conceptual framework, if any human beings remained to possess a conceptual framework.

A scenario not unlike this unfolded on Earth billions of years ago. The Great Oxygen Catastrophe was a kind of poisoning of the environment on a planetary scale, though it was the poisoning of the atmosphere for the anaerobic organisms that had dominated the biosphere up to this time. Later, with the atmosphere enriched with oxygen, other kinds of life evolved that employed oxygen in metabolic processes, turning this poison to their advantage. Now imagine an oceanic parallel to the Great Oxygen Catastrophe — the Great Oceanic Catastrophe — that would leave our Earth as unrecognizable as our reconstructions of the earliest stages of Earth’s history are unrecognizable to us today. I attach no particular importance to the scenario I have just briefly sketched; it is intended only as an example, since examples of counterintuitive counterfactuals are difficult to come by, and I wanted to offer something concrete, and not merely leave the reader hanging.

I am not expecting the foundations of a new conceptual framework to begin to take shape tomorrow, nor do I expect to wake up tomorrow and hear news of a mysterious and ominous new oceanic anomaly. Indeed, I do not expect these events, or events of a similar magnitude, to begin to unfold in hundreds or perhaps even in thousands of years. So in discussing “the coming age of post-naturalism” I mean only that post-naturalism is “coming” on geological and cosmological scales of time, and to think of phenomena on this scale in terms of a human scale of time is not merely misleading, but actually fallacious.

The Age of Post-Naturalism will not arrive for several centuries at earliest, even if the conceptual framework of our civilization is such as can be replaced at regular intervals. And if naturalism is the mature conceptual framework for beings such as ourselves, then naturalism will endure as long as a civilization endures that can maintain the level of development that allows for the mature expression of the human intellect to remain. If we maintain our developmental accomplishments at the current stage of civilization that we enjoy today, or better, then naturalism would be our final conceptual framework, and this would be true also if our civilization were abruptly cut short by some terrible catastrophe. If, on the contrary, our level of civilization declines, our conceptual framework would almost certainly decline along with civilization. However, it is possible that this decline could be found in parallel with another traditional of thought gaining historical momentum. E. M. W. Tillyard, as quoted above, characterized the Elizabethan world picture as constituting a simplified iteration of the medieval world picture, but we also know that, at the same time, the scientific and naturalistic world picture was just then coming into being, parallel with the declining medieval world picture.

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Sunday


One of the most annoying constructions of contemporary sociology is Richard Florida’s conception of the “creative class.” Florida isn’t necessarily wrong in his claims, and indeed I am sympathetic to some of his arguments, though much of his analysis turns upon taking a naïve conception of creativity and moving the goal posts so that this intuitive conception of creativity comes to be bestowed upon patently uncreative individuals who pad the ranks of the corporate hierarchy. By marginalizing a “Bohemian” creative class and putting at the center of his analysis the suits who congratulate themselves on being creative, he has arguably misconstrued the sources of creativity in society, but that is not what I want to focus on today.

Here is how Florida defines his “creative class”:

“I define the core of the Creative Class to include people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music, and entertainment whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content. Around this core, the Creative Class also includes a broader group of creative professionals in business and finance, law, health care, and related fields. These people engage in complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgment and requires high levels of education or human capital. In addition, all members of the Creative Class — whether they are artists or engineers, musicians or computer scientists, writers or entrepreneurs — share a common ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit.”

Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited, second edition, pp. 8-9

Florida’s use of the phrase “high human capital individuals” (employed throughout his book) begs the question as to who exactly are the low human capital individuals. Needless to say, formulations like this are self-congratulatory to the point of delusion, because no one who uses the phrase “high human capital individuals” believes themselves to be anything other than a high human capital individual. Here Nietzsche is relevant, though what he said of philosophers must now be applied to sociology: It has gradually become clear to me what every great social science up till now has consisted of — namely, the personal confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious memoir.

We need not employ Florida’s annoying formulations. Let’s consider another approach to essentially the same idea. Take, for example, Marx’s version of the “creative class”:

“Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost, was an unproductive worker. On the other hand, a writer who turns out work for his publisher in factory style is a productive worker. Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as the activation of his own nature. He later sold his product for £5 and thus became a merchant. But the literary proletarian of Leipzig who produces books, such as compendia on political economy, at the behest of a publisher is pretty nearly a productive worker since his production is taken over by capital and only occurs in order to increase it.”

Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, London et al.: Penguin, 1976, p. 1044

Clearly, Marx here evinces no romantic notions of the creative genius in isolation, praising the Leipzig hack over the genius of Milton. And this is Florida’s conception of “creativity” in a nutshell, nearly indistinguishable from “productivity” as used in contemporary economics. One can imagine in one’s mind’s eye Richard Florida reading this passage from Marx and nodding his head with an odd grin on his face.

Suit-and-tie guys who are “knowledge workers” in their own imaginations, but in who are in reality time-servers in a corporate hierarchy, are the members of the “creative class” who are fulfilling the function that Marx assigned to the Leipzig hack. In other words, the same kind of people who, fifty years ago would have been reading the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, are the same people who still today are reading the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, but now they fancy themselves to be part of the “creative class” and they take micro-doses of LSD when they go to Burning Man each year to “unleash” their creativity.

But this is exactly the kind of “creative class” that the global economy wants and needs; Marx had put his finger on something important when he raised the Leipzig hack over Milton. The less creative you are, and the more you have adapted yourself to be a creature of the institutions you are serving, the more successful you will be (according to conventional measures of success) and the more money you will make.

The pedestrian fact of the matter is that industry — whether something as flashy as the film industry or something as prosaic as the energy industry — advances mediocrities to its top positions. Usually the top people are mediocrities with some redeeming qualities, or a hint of limited talent, but still mediocrities. The truly creative types know that mediocrities are being advanced beyond them and taking the top positions in the industry, and that there is nothing that they can do about this. These truly creative types aren’t living the life of the one percent; indeed, they aren’t living the life the ten percent. Most of them make less than six figures, and there are probably many plumbers, sheet rockers, electricians, and truck drivers who make a lot more than them, and who have no massive college debt hanging over their heads.

The Bohemian creatives, the ones actually creating things, find themselves in the position of performing alienated labor at the behest of their corporate masters, who neither understand nor appreciate them. Having failed to learn one of the simplest lessons in life — that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar — the lowest strata of the creative class spew their resentment at every opportunity. (The dirtbag left today might be thought of as part of a Bohemian fringe of creative types, though at the political end of the creative spectrum.) They are so convinced of their own virtue that they are unable to see or to comprehend that they themselves have become the bitter, punitive gatekeepers that as “creatives” they presume to despise.

Resentment, it seems, flows uphill. By creating a permanently resentful underclass, which is the basis of the entirety of society (because the underclass have the jobs that keep industrialized civilization functioning), the resentful underclass creates a popular culture derived from this pervasive resentment, and this pervasive popular culture resentment eventually finds its way into the routines of comedians, into television, into films, and ultimately into élite cultural institutions, which imagine themselves setting the cultural and aesthetic agenda, but which in fact respond like reactionaries to the authentic energies of the lower classes.

The phenomenon of resentment flowing uphill manifests itself powerfully among the “creative class.” As we have seen, the most creative members of the creative class experience the appearance of fame but the financial reality of entry-level positions, so that they belong to the permanent underclass and its bitterly resentful view of the world, which is a view of the world from the bottom up. They are well aware of their low financial status, and that they do not share in the rewards of the uncreative members of the “creative class.”

Ultimately, the resentment of the creative class and the bourgeoisie becomes, over time, the resentment of the élites, and this is when we know that society is rotten from top to bottom. When those who have been given every advantage and every preferment in life are bitter and angry about their world, clearly something has gone off the rails. Of course, the resentment of the élites is expressed in a distinctive way, filtered through their thinly-veiled dog whistles and symbols, but not only is it there to be seen, as clear as day, but also pervasively present throughout the institutions that they superintend.

Apparently, it isn’t enough to rule the world and to enjoy a standard of living that is the envy of the masses; more than this, one must have the acquiescence of those masses in their subjection to the rule of élites. Mere compliance and conformity is not enough; there is also to be some formal recognition that the élites deserve their status and are making the best choices for the rest of us. (We live in a meritocracy, right?) When this recognition is not forthcoming, we glimpse the resentment of the élites for those they fancy the low human capital individuals.

It is a fascinating commentary on the resentment of the élites who grow out of a “creative class” that Nietzsche’s analysis of ressentiment crucially turns upon creativity:

“The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself’; and this No is its creative deed. This inversion of the value-positing eye — this need to direct one’s view outward instead of back to oneself — is of the essence of ressentiment: in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all — its action is fundamentally reaction.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, section 10

This is a dialectic of creativity, in which creativity has nothing to work on, so it works on nothing — ressentiment is the creation of new values from nothing. It is an ex nihilo morality par excellence. Nietzsche once wrote of the finest flower of ressentiment, as related by Walter Kaufmann:

“Among the exceedingly few discoveries made in recent times concerning the origin of moral value judgments, Friedrich Nietzsche’s discovery of ressentiment as the source of such value judgments is the most profound, even if his more specific claim that Christian morality and in particular Christian love are the finest ‘flower of resssentiment’ should turn out to be false.”

From Walter Kaufmann’s introduction to his translation of On the Genealogy of Morals

Today our finest flower of ressentiment is the resentful élite who rule over us with a bad conscience — the creative class, the powerful, the educated, the well connected, the wealthy — and who never tire of reminding us of how deeply we have disappointed them. This is the kind of contempt that is exhibited when urbanites speak of “white trash” or some such similar social construct that expresses the bitter hatred of the privileged for the downtrodden. Both in the US and the UK, the political parties that formerly represented the interests of the working classes have been transformed in the past half century into parties that represent urbanized professionals, and they do not even bother to veil their contempt for the working class, who now appear to them as a distasteful embarrassment at best, a contemptible mass at worse, fit only to be ridiculed and despised.

In a Nietzschean analysis, one would expect that it would be the creative few who would be de facto Übermenschen, and so possessed of the virtues of the Übermensch — or, if you prefer, the virtù of the Übermensch — therefore these few would be among the least resentful elements in society, because the Übermensch expends his energies. If we were a society dominated by a truly creative class, we should be a society and an economy of supermen, creating new values and spontaneously releasing any pent up energies, but it is ressentiment that rules the present. Why?

The artificiality of our institutions, which demands that the ruling élites must bend the knee to democratic forms and make a pretense to upholding the rule of law that, in theory, binds their actions no less than ours, constitutes the hostile external world against which the ruling élites react, the Other that is Outside and Different. The creative deed of the élites of the creative class is its emphatic “No!” directed against the world from which it seeks to distinguish itself. Robbed of triumphant affirmation, they must rule without appearing to rule, and the reality of power coupled with its seeming denial is creating new values even now, though these are values that only can be savored in submerged and secret places — that is to say, in the hearts of the members of the creative class.

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Monday


In his book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls presented several highly influential doctrines that have come to be widely discussed. Rawls says that justice is fairness, and his method for arriving at fairness in social structures is that these structures should be formulated from behind a “veil of ignorance,” with that ignorance being the ignorance of the individual as to their place in the society in which they would live. The method that Rawls formulated is a thought experiment called the “original position.” Here’s how he stated it:

“In justice as fairness the original position of equality corresponds to the state of nature in the traditional theory of the social contract. This original position is not, of course, thought of as an actual historical state of affairs, much less as a primitive condition of culture. It is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice. Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances. Since all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain.”

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 11

As noted in the above quote, this stands in the tradition of “state of nature” thought experiments familiar from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Pufendorf. State of nature or original position thought experiments posit a time before human societies existed — a blank slate upon which human beings were free to write as they pleased — so as to try to imagine how the existing societies with which we are familiar came into existence.

Many formulations of visions of the human future (including spacefaring futures) implicitly incorporate something like Rawls’ thought experiment without even realizing that this is what they are doing. Outer space as a place for human activity and achievement gives us the same opportunity as state of nature thought experiments to reflect on counterfactual human societies against a backdrop that has been putatively purged of contemporary social presuppositions, though, with outer space, applied symmetrically to the future instead of the past. In so far as we perceive outer space as a blank slate, and in so far as we attempt to project a future upon outer space as though it were a blank slate for future human spacefaring societies, then outer space takes on the properties (or, rather, the lack of properties) of a blank slate.

In the case of outer space, we try to imagine how existing societies with which we are now familiar will pass out of existence and be replaced by some future society. Since the advent of spacefaring futurism (probably traceable to the Golden Age of Science Fiction) outer space became a place where human beings could project what was best in themselves in order to cultivate a hopeful future. Early science fiction such as Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells was markedly dystopian, but the genre rapidly transformed into an optimistic and expansive vision of the future. With this minimal framework of sapcefaring and optimism and progress toward a better future, outer space became a blank slate for human hopes and dreams. For a time, utopianism reigned, but when the simple utopianism faded, it was replaced sometimes by dystopianism, but, more interestingly to me, by the idea of outer space as the kind of blank slate for a better tomorrow in spite of the problems we have today.

This latter conception is something I have personally encountered many times. The idea seems to be that human beings have made many mistakes on Earth so that outer space is a “second chance” for humanity and we consequently have a moral obligation to only establish human societies away from Earth when we are fully prepared to do a better job than we have done on Earth — hence the waiting gambit. Sometimes this position is presented such that humanity does not deserve to establish a presence beyond Earth, because we have made such a mess of things here.

Here the “original position” has been transposed with a “final position” for human society — the ultimate form that human society is to take, projected onto a spacefaring future in which outer space is the setting for a perfect society that has not been realized on Earth, and which cannot be realized on Earth because of our history. Thus the “final position” takes the form that it does because the “original position” was corrupt. This is very much in the spirit of Rousseau, who saw the original foundations of human society to be corrupt, and this inherited corruption (not of the individual, who, according to Rousseau, is naturally good, but of social institutions) has been passed down to all subsequent human societies. Thus outer space presents itself as a domain free from this inherited corruption where a “final position” can be brought into being, and humanity can, for the first time in its history, realize a righteous society.

It is interesting to note that this is in no sense a revolutionary view, as it imagines human beings confined to the purgatory that is Earth for an indefinite period of time until the sins of the youth of our species have been burned and purged away. Only when we have fully completed our penance — a gradual and excruciatingly incremental process — and become perfect, do we deserve to take the next step and inhabit the blank slate of outer space as newly innocent beings, a humanity that has made itself innocent, and thus worthy of the final position, through great moral effort.

A revolutionary view, in contradistinction to this moral incrementalism, would be that the final position is there before us, suspended in the air like Macbeth’s dagger, which we can reach out and grasp at any time. We can, in this view, attain the final position simply by taking a sequence of revolutionary steps that will transform us and our world because we have the boldness to take these steps. This revolutionary moralism vis-à-vis the final position would fit well with what I have called an early spacefaring breakout in The Spacefaring Inflection Point (and further elaborated in Bound in Shallows: Space Exploration and Institutional Drift).

An early and sudden inflection point in the development of spacefaring civilization could be both the revolutionary step required to put in place the final position as well as the advent of a new kind of civilization. This view seems more historiographically justified that the more prevalent incrementalist view, but I have only ever heard the incrementalist view — though, I ought to say, I know of no one who has formulated the incrementalist view in the full sweep of the vision. One usually gets only bits and pieces of the vision, which leaves its advocates with a certain plausible deniability in regard to the future final position implicit in their conception of human destiny in outer space.

It may sound like I am here advocating one conception of the final position over another, but I find both to be as profoundly mistaken as original position or state of nature thought experiments. While I think there is something to be learned from both thought experiments — the original position and the final position — I regard them as being as Rawls has characterized them, “…a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice.” Hypotheticals have a value, but that value is not absolute. Moreover, we know that hypotheticals, whether past or future, are not actual depictions of the past or accurate predictions of the future; they are scenarios that allow us to rehearse certain ideas as they might play out in practice.

In practice, there are no blank slates. Human societies don’t arise from nothing; they arise from prior societies, and these societies can be traced backward in time to long before human beings existed. The same is true of our brain and our intelligence, that we use to shape our social order: both have a deep history in the biosphere, but both bear the lowly imprint of their origins. We can’t even say, as Nietzsche said, that all this is human, all-too-human, because it all precedes humanity. It is terrestrial, all-too-terrestrial.

There was no paradisaical state of nature to which we might dream that we can return (if only we could deconstruct the injustices of human social institutions, which seems to have been Rousseau’s position), and there will be no final position of a perfectly just human society in the future, whether on Earth or in space. Both ideas are painfully naïve, and if we are ever to make real progress, and not the imaginary progress of utopias safely compartmentalized in the distant past or the distant future, we must disabuse ourselves of the idea that humanity is ever going to be anything other than human, all-too-human. Justice and morality did not reign in the past, and they are not going to reign in the future, whether on Earth or in space, world without end. Amen.

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Note added Friday 28 February 2020: A perfect example of the blank slate of outer space can be found in the recently announced contest for a design for a city of a million persons on Mars, Mars City State Design Competition Announced. The text of the announcement includes this: “How, given a fresh start, can life on Mars be made better than life on Earth?”

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I have previously written a number of blog posts on the idea of the blank slate, including:

The Metaphysical Blank Slate: Positivism and Metaphysical Neutrality

Addendum on the Metaphysical Blank Slate

Further Addendum on the Metaphysical Blank Slate

Blank Slate Cosmology

Of Vacuity and Blankness

Two (or Three) Metaphysical Themes

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Fifty Years of Civilisation

31 December 2019

Tuesday


Kenneth Clark, 1903-1983

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Fifty years ago, in 1969, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View was first broadcast on television, and the book based on the series was published in the same year. In my Centauri Dreams post of last Friday, Bound In Shallows: Space Exploration and Institutional Drift, I pointed out that the same year in which Clark’s documentary first aired, the Space Race reached its culmination in the Apollo moon landing: “In his Civilisation: A Personal View, Kenneth Clarke noted that, ‘Great movements in the arts, like revolutions, don’t last for more than about fifteen years.’ In so saying, he might well have been speaking of the Founding Era of space exploration, a revolution through which he had just lived as he spoke these lines.”

Clark’s Civilisation was never intended to be a scholarly study or to break new ground, theoretically speaking. In the first few minutes of the first episode Clark says he doesn’t know what civilization is or how to define it — but he does apparently know it when it sees it, and Exhibit A is Notre Dame de Paris. And Clark’s background as an art historian meant that his focus was on the masterpieces of the art of western civilization, which is a more narrow focus than civilization itself. Nevertheless, as readers of my blog are likely to know, Clark’s television series and book have had an outsized influence on my thought concerning civilization, and I find myself returning time and again to Clark’s deceptively simple formulations, which conceal a great deal of wisdom often lacking in more academic treatments.

Clark’s art historical conception of western civilization unsurprisingly entailed his dismissing scientific historiography with a wave of the hand (so to speak), but I can’t fault him for this. It’s not my approach, but Clark’s perspective is still worth listening to despite this. Sometimes a narrowly focused perspective reveals to us aspects of a phenomenon that we would not have noticed otherwise. So it is with Clark and civilization: the focus on art as the manifestation of civilization makes us aware of historical processes we might otherwise have neglected or even rejected.

My own thought over the past year in particular has re-focused my interest on art, as I have come to see aesthetics as playing a central role in western civilization. I made this argument in Science and the Hero’s Journey, in which I wrote:

“The philosophical presuppositions about beauty have given art a distinctive role in western civilization. Art is about appearances, which made art profoundly problematic for Plato (and others), but western civilization converged upon a compromise solution such that the beautiful is a revelation of the truth by way of appearance. It is not the case that any appearance whatsoever is revelatory of the truth, but specifically it is the beautiful that is the revelation of a deeper truth. If we make the effort to transcend appearances and to gaze on reality in itself — to look upon beauty bare, as Edna St. Vincent Millay said of Euclid — this is the highest form of beauty. This is also the beauty that Plato ascribed to seeing the Forms in and of themselves, not through an imitation of an imitation.”

I have planned to expand upon this at some point in an exposition of the central project of western civilization — the kind of inquiry that Clark made possible for me. I suspect that Clark will remain important to me, however far afield I take the ideas that began to develop in me as a consequence of Clark’s work. Not everyone today shares my view of Clark’s Civilisation.

If you simply do a search on “Kenneth Clark Civilisation” you will find online any number of opinions about Clark’s series and book — some of them in praise of, some of them critical, some of them downright petty, little more than individuals who want to demonstrate their confidence in their own cleverness by irony, sarcasm, and iconoclasm — from all the major newspapers and magazines of our time. None these can match Clark’s own self-criticisms in the Forward to the book. After acknowledging the many limitations of his presentation, he asked himself if he should have dropped “Civilisation” as the title, given that his was no comprehensive survey of civilization:

“Should I then have dropped the title Civilisation? I didn’t want to, because the word had triggered me off, and remained a kind of stimulus; and I didn’t suppose that anyone would be so obtuse as to think that I had forgotten about the great civilisations of the pre-Christian era and the East. However, I confess that the title has worried me. It would have been easy in the eighteenth century: Speculations on the Nature of Civilization as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised Life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day. Unfortunately, this is no longer practicable.”

Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation, Forward

Clark’s Enlightenment era title — Speculations on the Nature of Civilization as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised Life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day — would have been the perfect title for the unwritten seminal work on a science of civilization that I suggested as a thought experiment in Thought Experiment on a Science of Civilization.

Given the tenor of contemporary opinion on Clark’s Civilisation, this is a series that could not and would not be made today. Similarly, intimations of a spacefaring future implicit in the Apollo program as it landed human beings on the moon in 1969 could not and would not be realized today. But at this moment in time fifty years ago, we could look back in gratitude and look forward in hope and anticipation. As we all know, 1969 was also a turbulent time politically and militarily. No doubt fifty years ago it felt like the world was in chaos, that modern times had little in the way of gratitude or hope, and that the lucky ones were those safely in the past when the certainties of life went unchallenged. It can only be seen as I have portrayed it in hindsight.

There is a sense in which 1969 is a pivot point of recent history. Clark was able to look behind us at where western civilization has been, and the Apollo moon landings seemed to look ahead toward the direction that western civilization seemed to be taking. During what I have called the Founding Era of space exploration — Sputnik to Apollo — the future seemed as open to us as history opens the past to us. Space exploration gave us a clear direction and populated a future history for humanity in a way that was eminently comprehensible despite its utter novelty in comparison to all that we have known on Earth. Poised at that crucial year, the whole of history opened up all around, as past and future were simultaneously manifested themselves to us.

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Wednesday


Storage has always been a problem for electricity, as batteries are large and heavy, expensive to manufacture, and limited in the quantity of electricity they can store and for how long they can store it. As a result of the limits of batteries, electricity production, distribution, and supply on an industrial scale has not involved any storage mechanism at all. The vast bulk of electricity is produced and simultaneously consumed, so that the electrical generation infrastructure has been constructed around the awkward requirements of having the start up and shut down entire generating facilities as demand waxes and wanes. This is an unhappy compromise, but it has been made to work for more than a century as the industrialized economy has expanded both quantitatively and qualitatively, and the use of electricity has expanded into sectors previously entirely reliant upon fossil fuels.

Electrical motors were already being developed in the 1820s, and before the first workable prototype diesel engine was operational in 1897, electrical motors had progressed to the level of sophistication of Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky’s three phase current and asynchronous motor with squirrel-cage rotor. But the twentieth century was to belong to fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine, and it was with these technologies that industrialized civilization grew to the planetary scale we know today.

The father of all diesel engines.

The early and rapid convergence of industrialized civilization on the use of fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas — was, at least in part, a function of the ease of storage of fossil fuels. The ease of storage also meant ease of transportation, which made fossil fuels ideal for the transportation industry, and they still are. Coal and oil in particular are easily stored for significant periods of time without loss of energy value and without elaborate technological methods. Natural gas isn’t much more difficult to store, but when liquefied the technology becomes a bit more complex and safety becomes more of an issue.

Fossil fuel storage also meant the possibility of continuous operation. Here we see the origin of the 24/7 always-on world that we know today. This is historically very recent, and the exception rather than the rule. As long as the machinery could be built to tolerances that allowed for continuous operation, a sufficient supply of fuel could power an engine non-stop. Ships and trains could operate for days or weeks if necessary. Nothing needed to be turned off. Industries could operate without regard to the any of the natural circadian and seasonal rhythms that had ruled human life since before we were human. And they did so. Shift work was born, and the dark Satanic mills that offended William Blake and Robert Southey ran night and day.

One of Blake’s dark Satanic mills?

Prior to the industrial revolution, energy infrastructure intermittancy was a fact of life, and the industrial processes of pre-industrial society (paradoxical, yes, but not a contradiction) were constructed around the fact of intermittancy. Everyone accepted (because they had to accept) that the stream that turned the waterwheel at the mill was reduced to a trickle in the summer. The solution was to build a mill pond that would store an amount of water, so that the mill could be put into service, at least on a “surge” basis, even when water flow was at a minimum. Even with a mill pond, the use of a water mill was limited in the summer months in comparison to other seasons. Hence mill production was often seasonal. This has been the case for thousands of years. Recent research into the ruins of the Roman water mill at Barbegal has suggested that this mill operated seasonally (cf. The second century CE Roman watermills of Barbegal: Unraveling the enigma of one of the oldest industrial complexes by Gül Sürmelihindi, Philippe Leveau, Christoph Spötl, Vincent Bernard, and Cees W. Passchier).

Everyone accepted, and accepted with equanimity, that windmills worked only when the wind blew. As a consequence, windmills were constructed at locations with the steadiest winds, but even then there would be becalmed days when the windmill wouldn’t be grinding any grain or pumping any water, and there would be days when the wind was dangerously strong and the vanes of the windmill had to be secured so that it wouldn’t be destroyed.

La Bretagne at Brest harbor, 19th century.

Everyone also accepted that international commerce was dependent upon the wind. The intermittancy of the wind did not prevent a planetary-scale economy emerging after the Columbian Exchange. Much shipping in the Age of Sail was seasonal, but when it absolutely, positively had to be there at the earliest possible time, sailors could beat to windward and make progress whatever the season. On the other hand, when sailing conditions were poor and no particular urgency was felt, sea voyages that usually took weeks could drag on for months at a time. Commerce had to accept a certain flexibility in delivery times, as some shipments would come in a few days earlier than expected, and some would be delayed for days, weeks, or months.

With a planetary-scale communications network, we no longer rely upon shipping for news and information; shipping, like railroads, is about freight, and freight can wait. Just as the electrical grid will incrementally transform from fossil fuels to renewable fuels, our transportation infrastructure could be transitioned from fossil fueled container ships to a larger number of smaller sailing ships, perhaps robotically piloted, that take longer to get to their destination, but which would take more efficient routes around the globe, reserving powered movement for specific circumstances like getting stuck in the doldrums or getting into port. Our planetary-scale communications network also allows for communication with ships at sea, so that production schedules can be continuously updated on the basis of the known location of materials in transport. We don’t have to wait at the harbor’s edge with a spyglass and then rush to make a deal after a sail has been spotted on the horizon, as was once the case.

The Cousteau Society’s Alcyon employed turbosails — a sailing technology that could be employed in shipping.

It is lazy thinking to raise the problem of intermittancy to a major barrier to the adoption of renewable resources. Energy infrastructure is tightly-coupled with social structures, and social structures are tightly-coupled to energy infrastructures. This coupling of social and energy structures throughout the history of civilization has not been as tight as the coupling between agriculture and civilization. However, if we rightly understand agriculture as a form of energy (food literally being fuel for human beings and for their beasts of burden), then we can see that tightly-coupled energy and social infrastructures have been definitive of civilization since its inception. And both structures admit of flexibility when flexibility is necessary to continue the ordinary business of life; there is some “give” in both society and energy use.

These two structures — energy infrastructure and social structure — roughly coincide with the institutional structure I have used to define civilization: namely, an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project (cf. my previous post, Five Ways to Think about Civilization, for more on this). In the foregoing, what I called “energy infrastructure” roughly corresponds to economic infrastructure, as it also roughly corresponds to what Robert Redfield called the “technical order,” while what I called the “social structure” roughly corresponds to intellectual superstructure, as it also roughly corresponds to what Robert Redfield called the “moral order” (more on this in a future post). While all of these orders and structures can be distinguished in a fine-grained account, our account is undertaken at the scale of civilization, and so we are looking at the big picture, at which scale these different concepts coincide sufficiently closely that we can disregard their differences.

In the same way that individuals who live in very large cities like Tokyo or New York or Paris understand that it is impracticable for all but the wealthiest to drive a car, so that most individuals must use mass transit, on a planet with more than seven billion individuals using the energy infrastructure, individuals will need to adjust their expectations for instantaneous gratification. Industries, too, will need to adjust their expectations in the convergence of the global economy on sustainable practices. And, make no mistake, these adjustments will happen in the fullness of time. How it happens will be a matter of historical process, and many distinct scenarios for the transition of the terrestrial electrical grid to sustainable and renewable fuels are still possible; we are not yet locked in to any particular compromise.

Germany has come in for much criticism for its de-nuclearization program, which has meant that they have had to re-start some coal-fired power plants in order to maintain contemporaneous energy supply expectations. A number of energy experts regard the Germans as deluded, and believe that renewable resources can never meet the demands of an industrialized economy. I cannot wave away the problems of scaling and intermittency with a magic wand, but with adjustments to the industrial infrastructure and improved renewable technologies coming online, the two will eventually meet in the middle. However, those who ridicule renewables as impractical also cannot wave away the problems with their solutions with a magic wand. The most common answer to carbon-free electric generation is to ramp up nuclear power production. This comes with problems of its own. While I strongly support the development of advanced nuclear technologies, I do not delude myself that the public is going to suddenly embrace nuclear power and forget about the dangers. The Germans proved to be overly-optimistic over what can be done today with renewables, but this does not call the transition to renewables into question in the long term.

It is not at all clear that the public would prefer the dangers of nuclear power to the dangers of climate change, and both issues are so emotionally charged that it would be nearly impossible to take an honest poll on the question.

A continental-scale energy grid could greatly mitigate intermittency. If it’s not sunny somewhere on a continent, it is likely to be windy somewhere. However, even at a continental scale there will be becalmed nights when there is neither sunshine nor wind. The larger the surface area of the planet that is covered by an interconnected electricity grid, the more that these low points of intermittency can be minimized, but they cannot be entirely eliminated. For these minimized intermittancy low points, existing hydropower infrastructure could be used with a minimum of modification to store power. During peak periods of intermittent electricity supply, water could be pumped from lower elevations to fill a dam, which can then later be used to generate hydropower during times of peak demand.

A planetary-scale energy grid could eliminate intermittency, since the sun is always shining somewhere in the world. I made this point previously in a blog post from a few years back, A Thought Experiment on Collective Energy Security. As I said in that post, we do not have the technology and the engineering expertise for a planetary-scale electricity grid, and with a planetary electrical grid, the political challenges would probably be greater than the technological problems. However, we also do not have, at present, the technology and engineering expertise for advanced nuclear, and we don’t have the technology and engineering expertise to run an industrial economy on renewables. All of these technologies, however, are on the cusp of fulfilling their intended function, and significant capital investments in any one energy future could accelerate its practical availability.

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