It was the Romanian expatriate writer E. M. Cioran writing in French (and translated into English by the indefatigable Richard Howard) who first made me aware of Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre. Cioran’s Anathemas and Admirations has a chapter on de Maistre, the latter himself an intemperate expatriate gifted with a literary style so powerful that it wins the reader’s attention for doctrines so marginal as to be laughable — if only they had not been taken so deadly seriously by men who have died for them. But not everything in de Maistre is as trivial or marginal as his monarchism and his defense of the Ancien Régime.

Along with Edmund Burke, de Maistre (when he is remembered today) is remembered as a proto-conservative, staking out positions that would later become doctrinaire among conservative thinkers. Both were great stylists, but Burke was really a poet — did he not write one of the eighteenth-century tracts on the sublime that gentlemen of good taste wrote in those times? — while de Maistre was an original, ruthless, and brutal thinker, i.e., he was everything that a philosopher ought to be. But today de Maistre is held in low opinion because of his at times virulent racism (as though this were worse than virulent monarchism, or virulent sexism, etc.).

There are two sides of the coin of ad hominem arguments: either love or hatred of a man can lead us to embrace or reject his ideas. We need to try to see beyond both de Maistre’s fearsome if not untouchable reputation and the beauty of this style, if we are to engage with de Maistre the thinker — and this is a task worth the effort, because de Maistre has some interesting ideas that deserve exposition. His low reputation today might lead us to ignore these ideas, or his literary style might lead us to assent to ideas that, while interesting, certainly do not deserve our assent.

The intransigence of de Maistre invites the reader to shout back at him, even to shout him down, with a long and detailed catalog of the absurdities that have been perpetrated upon the world by men who believed in the doctrines that de Maistre defends. I doubt any of this would have made the slightest impression on de Maistre, whose own obvious contempt for such an approach comes across in every dismissive formulation that is presented as though no counter-veiling principle were even possible, even thinkable. With such a mind it would be utterly irrelevant to debate details; I have no doubt that de Maistre would have dismissed every challenge to his examples and instances with a contemptuous wave of the hand and a disapproving expression. In reading de Maistre, therefore, it behooves us to think only in terms of principles.

What are de Maistre’s principles? What is the essence of de Maistre’s thought? It is easy to take the wrong lesson from such a vigorous and expressive writer. The least imaginative and least creative among us read the likes of Burke and de Maistre and believe that they have found the whole meaning in a blueprint for contemporary society. But this is a mere detail, an accident of historical circumstances that might be construed in dramatically different ways in different periods of human history. What is of the essence of de Maistre’s thought is something not at all obvious, and it is his finitistic perspective.

I have previously quoted from de Maistre’s An Essay on the Generative Principle of Constitutions — a short, incisive, and suggestive work, i.e., everything that a philosophical work should be — in Fairness and the Social Contract and Why Revolutions Happen. Comte de Maistre begins his Essay by recounting the counter-intuitive nature of political science, citing several examples of putative political “common sense” and how experience has shown these to be “disastrous.” This points to an unexpected empiricism in de Maistre’s thought. Echoing but altering Thucydides’ famous aphorism, history is philosophy teaching by example, de Maistre wrote that history is experimental politics.

In the preface to his Essay, de Maistre anonymously quotes his own Considerations on France, Chap. VI. Following is how the two passages appear, first in Considerations on France:

1. No government results from a deliberation; popular rights are never written, or at least constitutive acts or written fundamental laws are always only declaratory statements of anterior rights, of which nothing can be said other than that they exist because they exist.

2. God, not having judged it proper to employ supernatural means in this field, has limited himself to human means of action, so that in the formation of constitutions circumstances are all and men are only part of the circumstances. Fairly often, even, in pursuing one object they achieve another, as we have seen in the English constitution.

And this is how they appear, in a slightly revised form, in de Maistre’s Essay:

1. No constitution arises from deliberation. The rights of the people are never written, except as simple restatements of previous, unwritten rights.

2. [In the formation of constitutions] human action is so far circumscribed that the men who act become only circumstances. [It is even very common that in pursuing a certain end they attain another.] 3. The rights of the PEOPLE, properly so called, proceed almost always from the concessions of sovereigns and thus may be definitely fixed in history, but no one can ascertain the date or the authors of the rights of the monarch and the aristocracy.

This in itself, in its most tightly circumscribed formulation, I cannot reject — human action is most certainly circumscribed, and unintended consequences often outweigh intended consequences. Indeed, de Maistre’s thought here closely echoes my own formulations in terms of the permutations of human agency, and in so doing de Maistre reveals his eschatological conception of history, affirming non-human agency as the source of political constitutions.

Further to this eschatological conception, Comte de Maistre quotes the theologian Bergier:

Law is only truly sanctioned, and properly law, when assumed to emanate from a higher will, so that its essential quality is to be not the will of all [la volonte de tous]. Otherwise, laws would be mere ordinances. As the author just quoted states, “those who were free to make these conventions have not deprived themselves of the power of revocation, and their descendants, with no share in making these regulations, are bound even less to observe them.”

Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and other Human Institutions, M. the Count de Maistre, the citation is from Bergier, Traite historique et dogmatique de la Religion, III, ch. 4 (after Tertullian, Apologeticus, 45)

Bergier has here put his finger on something important, though of course the lesson I take from it is rather different than the lesson that de Maistre takes from it. The same idea finds a very different expression in Gibbon, and I have quoted this several times:

“In earthly affairs, it is not easy to conceive how an assembly equal of legislators can bind their successors invested with powers equal to their own.”

Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. VI, Chapter LXVI, “Union Of The Greek And Latin Churches.–Part III.

I have called this Gibbon’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Political Entities, or, more briefly, Gibbon’s Principle. Bergier and de Maistre invoke a distinction between laws and ordinances, with ordinances being mere human things subject to change, while laws are laid up in heaven. This is de Maistre’s realism.

The political theologizing of de Maistre is what is most predictable and least interesting in his thought; it only becomes interesting as a consequence of his finitism. The implications of de Maistre’s finitism, once extrapolated to its logical conclusion throughout his political thought, converges upon a radical finitism in political science, and this I cannot accept or endorse. More interesting than his theologizing is de Maistre’s political realism — and by “realism” I do not mean that “political realism” used in discussions of policy, that prides itself on its rejection of humanitarianism and of moral and political ideals, but de Maistre’s Platonic realism in politics that, on the contrary, raises up moral and political ideals as the only true reality.

The strong position de Maistre takes on ineffability is related to his Platonic realism: constitutions are real in a Platonic sense, but our knowledge of them is imperfect, and if we try to write them down we will only get it wrong, much as a mathematician using a compass to draw a circle inscribes only an imperfect image of a circle that represents, for pedagogical reasons, the “real” and “true” circle to which the imperfect drawing refers. The harder we try to inscribe a perfect circle, the more we are going to depart from the Platonic form of a circle, and the more we try to write down the perfect constitution, the more it departs from the Platonic form of a constitution. In de Maistre, written law is not only derivative of unwritten law, i.e., the mere appearance or a more fundamental reality, but it is, moreover, always wrong because the unwritten fundamental reality is essentially ineffable.

This is how de Maistre himself formulates it in his Essay:

1. The fundamental principles of political constitutions exist prior to all written law.

2. Constititional law is and can only be the development or sanction of a pre-existing and unwritten law.

3. What is most essential, most inherently constitutional and truly fundamental law is never written, and could not be, without endangering the State.

4. The weakness and fragility of a constitution are actually in direct proportion to the number of written constitutional articles.

This is really quite close to Brouwer’s intuitionism; indeed, we might call de Maistre’s thought intuitionistic political science. Both Brouwer and de Maistre place a strong emphasis on the ineffability of experience, and the ways in which language misleads and falsifies, but de Maistre’s ineffability is predicated upon realism while Brouwer was what we might call a proto-anti-realist. Intuitionism after Brouwer went on to inspire a generation of philosophers to formulate anti-realist positions that owe much to Brouwer’s inspiration.

Thus de Maistre’s realism coupled with finitism and an eschatological conception of history stake out a unique (or nearly unique) position in the history of thought. It would be entirely possible to formulate this Platonic realism in politics in an infinitistic context (just as de Maistre could have justified his finitism according to other conceptions but in fact chose to justify it in theological terms, invoking an eschatological conception of history), but de Maistre is thoroughly finitistic in his orientation.

Comte de Maistre uses an eschatological conception of history to provide the ideological superstructure of justify his theological exposition of finite human agency, but he could make the same point invoking a cataclysmic conception of history or a naturalistic conception of history. Even a modified and qualified formulation of the political conception of history, which makes human agency fundamental and central to history, would be consistent with de Maistre’s finitism, so that the theological justification, however much weight de Maistre himself might have attached to it, is of little intrinsic interest. The point I am making is that de Maistre’s theology is dispensable in defining his theory, while de Maistre’s finitism is indispensable.

Joseph de Maistre’s finitistic political theory represents something of an antithesis to an infinitistic conception of political society such as I outlined in what I called Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics (and something I touched upon again in Addendum on Technological Unemployment).

I hope to return to this idea in future posts, and to be able to show why this is important, because I know that this sounds rather recondite and marginal, but it is neither. One of the most persistent themes of Western historiography in the modern period is the idea of progress, which is attacked at least as often as it is put forward as an interpretation of history (not long ago in Progress, Stagnation, and Retrogression I mentioned my surprise that Kevin Kelly offered an explicit defense of historical progress in his book What Technology Wants). A finitistic conception of history knows nothing of progress; we must have an infinitistic conception of history before the idea of progress can even have meaning for us. This, however, is a complex idea that requires many qualifications and therefore independent exposition. I will leave that for another day.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Ludwig Wittgenstein and L. E. J. Brouwer

Brouwer and Wittgenstein were contemporaries, with the whole of Wittgenstein’s years contained within those of Brouwer’s (Wittgenstein lived 1889 to 1951 while Brouwer lived the longer life from 1881 to 1966). It is mildly ironic that even as Brouwer’s followers were playing down his mysticism and trying to extract only the mathematical content from his intuitionist philosophy (even the faithful Heyting distanced himself from Brouwer’s mysticism), Wittgenstein’s writings reached a much larger public which resulted in the mystical content of Wittgenstein’s works being played up and the early Wittgenstein himself, very much the logician following in the tradition of Frege and Russell, presented as a mystic.

Not only were Brouwer and Wittgenstein contemporaries, but we also know that Brouwer played a little-known role in Wittgenstein’s return to philosophy. After having written the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and then disappearing into the mountains of Austria to become a village schoolmaster in Trattenbach, some of those philosophers that continued to seek out Wittgenstein in his self-imposed exile convinced him to go to a lecture in Vienna in March 1928. The lecture was delivered by Brouwer (Brouwer gave two lectures; Wittgenstein is said to have attended one of them). Wittgenstein was said to have listened to the lecture with a surprised look on his face (sort of like G. E. Moore saying that Wittgenstein was the only student that looked puzzled at this lectures). So it may be the case that Brouwer played a pivotal role in the transition from the thought of the early Wittgenstein to the thought of the later Wittgenstein. (Matthieu Marion has argued this thesis.)

Wittgenstein’s distinction between saying and showing, a doctrine that dates from the Tractatus (cf. sections 4.113 and following), is often adduced in expositions of his alleged mysticism. According to Wittgenstein’s distinction, some things can be said but cannot be shown, while other things can be shown but cannot be said. While to my knowledge Wittgenstein never used the term “ineffable,” that which can be shown but cannot be said would seem to be a paradigm case of the ineffable. And since Wittgenstein identified a substantial portion of our experience as showable although unsayable, the ineffable seems then to play a central role in his thought. This puts Wittgenstein firmly in the company of figures like, say, St. Symeon the New Theologian (also, like Wittgenstein, an ascetic), which makes the case for his mysticism.

An extract from St. Symeon on the ineffable: “The grace of the all-holy spirit is given as earnest money of the souls pledged in marriage to Christ. Just as a woman without a pledge has no certainty that the union with the groom will occur within a certain length of time, so does the soul have no firm assurance that it will be re-united to its God and Master for all eternity. The soul cannot be certain that it will achieve this mystic, ineffable union nor that it will enjoy its inaccessible beauty if it does not have the pledge of His grace and does not consciously have that grace within.” (Krivocheine, Basil and Gythiel, Anthony P., In the Light of Christ: Saint Symeon, the New Theologian 949–1022, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986, p. 367)

Brouwer was a bit more explicit in his doctrine of ineffability than was Wittgenstein, and he repeatedly asserted that the language of mathematics was a necessary evil that approximated but never fully captured the intuitive experience of mathematics, which he understood to be a free creation of the human mind. This comes across both in his early mystical treatise Life, Art, and Mysticism, which is pervaded by a sense of pessimism over the evils of the world (which include the evils of mathematical language), and his more technical papers offering an exposition of intuitionism as a philosophy of mathematics. But, like Wittgenstein, Brouwer does not (to my limited knowledge) actually use the term “ineffable.”

There is another ellipsis common to both Brouwer and Wittgenstein, and that is despite Brouwer’s openly professed intuitionism, which can be considered a species of constructivism (this latter is a point that needs to be separately argued, but I will only pass over it here with a single mention), and despite the strict finitism of the later Wittgenstein, which can also be considered a species of constructivism, neither Brouwer nor Wittgenstein employ Kantian language or Kantian formulations. No doubt there are implicit references to Kant in both, but I am not aware of any systematic references to Kant in the work of either philosopher. This is significant. Both Brouwer and Wittgenstein were philosophers of the European continent, where the influence of Kant remains strong even as his reputation waxes and wanes over the generations.

Kant was an early constructivist, or, rather, a constructivist before constructivism was explicitly formulated, and therefore sometimes called a proto-constructivist — although I have pointed out an obvious non-constructive dimension to Kant’s thought despite his proto-constructivism (which I do not deny, notwithstanding Kant’s non-constructive arguments in the first Critique). Kant’s classic proto-constructivist formulation is that the synthetic a priori truths of mathematics must be constructed, or “exhibited in intuition.” It is this latter idea, of a concept being exhibited in intuition, that has been particularly influential. But what does it mean? Obviously, a formulation like this has invited many interpretations.

The approaches of Brouwer and the later Wittgenstein could be considered different ways of exhibiting a concept in intuition. Brouwer, by casting out the law of the excluded middle from mathematics (at least in infinitistic contexts), assured that double negation was not equivalent to the truth simpliciter, so that even if you know that it is not the case that x is false, you still don’t know that x is true. (On the law of the excluded middle cf. P or not-P.) The later Wittgenstein’s insistence upon working out how a particular term is used and not merely settling for some schematic meaning (think of slogans like “don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use” and “back to the rough ground”) similarly forces one to consider concrete instances rather than accepting (non-constructive) arguments for the way that things putatively must be, rather than how they are in actual fact. Both Wittgenstein’s finitism and Brouwer’s intuitionism would look with equal distaste upon, for example, proving that every set can be well-ordered without actually showing (i.e., exhibiting) such an order — also, the impossibility of exhaustively showing (i.e., exhibiting in intuition) that every set can be well-ordered if one acknowledges an infinity of sets.

I give this latter example because I think it was largely the perceived excesses of set theory and Cantor’s transfinite number theory that were essentially responsible for the reaction among some mathematicians that led to constructivism. Cantor was a great mathematical innovator, and his radical contributions to mathematics spurred foundationalists like Frege (who objected to Cantor’s methods but not his results) and Russell to attempt to construct philosophico-mathematical justifications, i.e., foundations, that would legitimize that which Cantor had wrought.

The reaction against infinitistic mathematics and foundationalism continues to the present day. Michael Dummett wrote in Elements of Intuitionism, a classic textbook on basic intuitionistic logic and mathematics, that:

“From an intuitionistic standpoint, mathematics, when correctly carried on, would not need any justification from without, a buttress from the side or a foundation from below: it would wear its own justification on its face.”

Dummett, Michael, Elements of Intuitionism, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 2

In other words, mathematics would show its justification; in contrast, the foundationalist project to assure the legitimacy of the flights of non-constructive mathematics was wrong-headed in its very conception, because nothing that we say is going to change the fact that non-constructive thought that derives its force from proof, i.e., from what is said, does not show its justification on its face. Its justification must be established because it does not show itself. This is what “foundations” are for.

Note: There is also an element of intellectual ascesis in Dummett’s idea of a conservative extension of a theory, and this corresponds to the asceticism of Wittgenstein’s character, and, by extension, to the asceticism of Wittgenstein’s thought — asceticism being one of the clear continuities between the earlier and the later Wittgenstein — like the implicit development of constructivist themes.

But it was not only the later Wittgenstein who reacted with others against Cantor. It seems to me that the saying/showing distinction of the Tractatus is a distinction not only between that which can be said and that which can be shown, but also a distinction between that which is established by argument, possibly non-constructive argument, and that which is exhibited in intuition, i.e., constructed. If this is right, Wittgenstein showed an early sensitivity to the possibility of constructivist thought, and his later development might be understood as a development of the constructivist strand within his thinking, making Wittgenstein’s development more linear than is often recognized (though there are many scholars who argue for the unity of Wittgenstein’s development on different principles). The saying/showing distinction may be the acorn from which the oak tree of the Philosophical Investigations (and the subsequently published posthumous works) grew.

For the early Wittgenstein, the distinction between saying and showing was thoroughly integrated into his idea of logic, and while in the later sections of the Tractatus the mysticism of what which can only be shown but cannot be said becomes more evident, it is impossible to say whether it was the logical impulse that prevailed, and served as the inspiration for the mysticism, or whether it was the mystic impulse that prevailed, and served as the pretext for formulating the logical doctrines. But the logical doctrines are clearly present in the Tractatus, and serve as the exposition of Wittgenstein’s ideas, even up to the famous metaphor when Wittgenstein says that the propositions of the Tractatus are like a ladder than one must cast away after having climbed up and over it.

Just as there is a mathematical content to Brouwer’s mysticism, so too there is a logical content to Wittgenstein’s mysticism. It is, in fact, likely that Wittgenstein’s distinction between saying and showing was suggested to him by what is now called the “picture theory of meaning” given an exposition in the Tractatus. Few philosophers today defend Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning, but it is central to the metaphysics of the Tractatus. For Wittgenstein, the logical structure of a proposition can be shown but not said. Since for Wittgenstein in his Tractarian period, “The facts in logical space are the world” (1.13), and “In the proposition the thought is expressed perceptibly through the senses” (3.1) — i.e., the proposition literally exhibits its structure in sensory intuition — thus, “The proposition is a picture of reality.” (4.01) One might even say that a proposition exhibits the world in intuition.

Today these formulations strike us as a bit odd, because we think of anything that can be formulated in logical terms as a paradigm case of something that can be said, and very possibly also something that may not be showable. For us, logic is a language is among languages, and one way among many to express the world; for the early Wittgenstein, on the contrary, logic is the structure of the world. It shows itself because the world shows itself, and after showing itself there is nothing more to be said. The only appropriate response is silence.

As we all know from the final sentence of the Tractatus, whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent. According to the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, all scientific questions can be asked and all scientific questions can be answered (shades of Hilbert’s “Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen.” — which Per Martin-Löf has called Hilbert’s solvability axiom, and which is the very antithesis of Brouwer’s rejection of the law of the excluded middle), but even when we have answered all scientific questions, the problems of life remain untouched.

As implied by the early Wittgenstein’s insistence upon the solvability of all scientific questions, the metaphysics of Brouwer and Wittgenstein were very different. Their common constructivism does not prevent their having fundamental, I might even say foundational, differences. Also, while Wittgenstein comes across in a melancholic fashion (a lot like Plotinus, another philosophical mystic), he is not fixated on the evils of the world in the same way that Brouwer was. If both Brouwer and Wittgenstein can be called mystics, they are mystics belonging to different traditions. Brouwer was a choleric mystic while Wittgenstein was melancholic mystic.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Evening in the Country

21 February 2010


I find myself again in rural Clatsop County, where it was a beautiful day and a beautiful evening. The dogs and I went for a walk at dusk and I tried to capture some of the ambiance of the moment with some photographs. There is always much more, and much more detail, than any camera can reveal. And my camera gives only the digital equivalent of snapshots. Better than nothing, of course. A snapshot is at very least a memorialization of the moment, if not the capture of the moment itself. The moon is half full, and now that it is fully dark outside the moon is bright enough that the stars are dimmed in comparison. I cannot see the Milky Way tonight; that is a sight that no camera can capture.

Nothing quite captures the moment, of course, but one hopefully gets a sense, however imperfectly, of what is essentially ineffable. One takes a picture, or writes a few words, or even writes a piece of music inspired by natural beauty, and one can do no more than this. To produce something so inspired is essentially a gesture toward the beauty but can’t be considered to have captured that beauty. As I wrote recently in The Mind’s Singular Function and Purity of Mind is to Think One Thing, there is an chasm that separates the object of inspiration and the consequence of inspiration. Here there can be no identity.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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