The Snapshot Effect

22 January 2018

Monday


Images will always be with us, but the age of the snapshot understood in its cultural and technological context, now belongs to the past. Or, if not to the past, it belongs to antiquarians and enthusiasts who will keep the technology of the snapshot alive even as it passes out of the popular mind. The snapshot inhabited that era that intervened between the age of cameras as large, bulky, specialized equipment that required a certain expertise to operate, and today’s universal presence of cameras and consequent universal availability of images — images often made available on the same electronic device that captured the image. The snapshot — presumably named for the onomatopoeic mechanical sound of the camera shutter that went “Snap!” as one took the “shot” — is, then, predicated upon a particular degree of finitude, of images more common and more spontaneous than a daguerreotype, but also less common and of more value than a smartphone selfie.

The most famous photographers of the snapshot era — for example, Henri Cartier-Bresson — become known for their candid and spontaneous images of ordinary life, sort of the still life version of cinéma vérité. Never before had so much of ordinary life been captured and preserved. Painters had always been interested in genre scenes, and the early photographers who lugged around their heavy and complex gear often followed the interest and example of these painters, but these images were relatively rare. In the age of the snapshot, images of ordinary people engaged in ordinary pursuits became as ordinary as the people and the pursuits themselves.

Part of what we mean, then, when we refer casually to a “snapshot,” is this sense of an image that spontaneously captures an ordinary moment of history, without formality or pretense, but with a documentarian’s fidelity. And once the moment is past, it remains only in the snapshot, almost a random moment fixed in time, while the persons and the events and the circumstances that once came together in the confluence of the snapshot, are now gone or changed beyond recognition.

It is partly this meaning that I want to tap into when I use the term “snapshot effect” to convey a particular idea about the human relationship to time and to history. Human life is long compared to the life of a mayfly, but it is quite short compared to the life of a redwood, and shorter still when measured against evolutionary, geological, or cosmological scales of time. What the individual human being experiences — what the individual sees, hears, feels, and so on — is as a snapshot in comparison to the world of which it is a fleeting image. A snapshot may or may not be representative of what it purports to represent; it may be a good likeness or a poor likeness. Because a snapshot is a moment snatched out of a continuum, we can only judge its fidelity if we compare it to a sufficient number of comparable moments taken from the same continuum. But the image often has the impact that it has precisely because it is a moment snatched out of time and stripped of all context. Often we resist a survey that would reveal the representativeness of the snapshot because to do so would be to deprive ourselves of the power of the isolated image.

I am going to use the term “snapshot effect,” then, to refer to the temporally narrow nature (and perhaps also the fragmentary nature) of human perception. We see not the world, but a snapshot of the world. We see not the object, but the side of the face that happens to be turned toward us when we glance in its direction. We hear not the narrative of a life, but a snippet of conversation that relates only a fragment of a single experience. We taste not the crop of strawberries, but the single strawberry that dissolves on our tongue, and judge the quality of the year’s produce by this experience. Even the grandest of grand views of the world are snapshots: to look into the night sky is to experience a snapshot of cosmology, and to recognize a geological formation is a snapshot of deep time. These snapshots reveal more than a casual glance, especially if they are attended by understanding, but they still exclude far more than they include.

Any rational individual, and any individual trained in the sciences, learns to control for the limited evidence available to us, but as carefully as we set our trap for limited evidence by rigorously controlling the conditions of our observations — observations that will count toward scientific knowledge, whereas our ordinary observations do not count because they are not so controlled — so too we also grant ourselves license to derive generalities from these observations. Ordinary experience is but a snapshot of the world; scientific experience derived from controlled conditions is an even more fragmentary snapshot of the world.

Because of the snapshot effect, we have recourse to principles that generalize the limited evidence to which we are privileged. The cosmological principle legitimizes our extrapolation from limited evidence to the universe entire. The principle of mediocrity legitimizes our extrapolation from a possibly exceptional moment to a range of ordinary cases and the most likely course of events. Conservation principles assure us that we can generalize from our limited experience of matter and energy to the behavior of the universe entire.

A recognition of the snapshot effect has long been with us, though called by other names. It has been a truism of philosophy, equally acknowledged by diverse (if not antagonistic) schools of thought, that our experiences constitute only a small slice of the actuality of the world. To cite two examples from the twentieth century, here, to start, is Bertrand Russell:

“…let us concentrate attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound. Any one else who sees and feels and hears the table will agree with this description, so that it might seem as if no difficulty would arise; but as soon as we try to be more precise our troubles begin. Although I believe that the table is ‘really’ of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colours, because no two can see it from exactly the same point of view, and any change in the point of view makes some change in the way the light is reflected.”

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Chap. I, “Appearance and Reality”

Russell represents the tradition that would become Anglo-American analytical philosophy, temperamentally and usually also theoretically disjoint from European continental philosophy, which might well be represented by Jean-Paul Sartre. Nevertheless, Sartre opens his enormous treatise Being and Nothingness with a passage that closely echoes that of Russell quoted above:

“…an object posits the series of its appearances as infinite. Thus the appearance, which is finite, indicates itself in its finitude, but at the same time in order to be grasped as an appearance-of-that-which-appears, it requires that it be surpassed toward infinity. This new opposition, the ‘finite and the infinite,’ or better, ‘the infinite in the finite,’ replaces the dualism of being and appearance. What appears in fact is only an aspect of the object, and the object is altogether in that aspect and altogether outside of it.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, translated by Hazel Barnes, Introduction: The Pursuit of Being, “I. The Phenomenon,” p. xlvii

Both Russell and Sartre in the passages quoted above are wrestling with the ancient western metaphysical question of appearance and reality. Both recognize a multiplicity of appearances and a presumptive unity of the objects of which the appearances are a manifestation. Seen in this light, the snapshot effect is a recognition that we see only an appearance and not the reality, and this reflection in turn embeds this simple observation in a metaphysical context that has been with us since the Greeks created western philosophy.

The snapshot effect means that our experiences are appearances, but our appreciation of appearances has grown since the time of Parmenides and Plato, and we see Russell and Sartre alike struggling to make out exactly why we should attach an ontological import to appearances — snapshots, as it were — when we know that they do no exhaust reality, and sometimes they betray reality.

The ontology of time and of history ought to concern us as much as the ontology of objects implicitly schematized by Russell and Sartre. A snapshot of time is an appearance of time, and as an appearance it does not exhaust the reality of time. Nevertheless, we struggle to do justice to this appearance — just as we struggle to do justice to our intuitions, for, indeed, a snapshot of time is an instance of sensible intuition — because the moment abstracted from time is still an authentic manifestation of time.

The “snapshot effect,” then, will be the term I will use to refer to the fact that human perceptions are a mere snapshot, perhaps representative or perhaps not, but perceptions which we tend to treat as normative, though we rarely take the trouble even to attempt to understand the extent to which our snapshot views of the world are, in fact, normative. There is, then, not only a metaphysical aspect to the snapshot effect, but also an axiological aspect to the snapshot effect, as our valuations are likely to be tied to, if not derived from, a snapshot in this sense.

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The Waiting Gambit

18 June 2015

Thursday


waiting room

What is the waiting gambit? The waiting gambit is the idea that, if we wait for the right moment, conditions will be better (whether in the moral sense or the practical sense, or both) at a later time to undertake some initiative for which conditions now are not propitious. In other words, conditions for future initiatives will improve, but conditions are not right at the present time for these same initiatives. Our patience will be rewarded, in only we can forbear from action at the present moment. Good things come to those who wait.

I have previously written about the sociology of waiting in Epistemic Space: Mapping Time, in which I observed:

While I am sympathetic to Russell’s rationalism, I think that Bergson had a point in his critique of spatialization, but Bergson did not go far enough with this idea. Not only has there been a spatialization of time, there has also been a temporalization of space. We see this in the contemporary world in the prevalence of what I call transient spaces: spaced designed to pass through but not spaces in which to abide. Airports, laundromats, bus stations, and sidewalks are all transient spaces. The social consequences of industrialization that have forced us to abide by the regime of the calendar and the time clock by the very fact of quantifying time into discrete regions and apportioning them according to a schedule also forces us to wait. The waiting room ought to be recognized as one of the central symbols of our age; the waiting room is par excellence the temporalization of space.

The waiting gambit on the largest scale, i.e., on the scale of civilization, is, quite simply, to transform the Earth entire into a waiting room, perpetually on the verge of the new world that lies beyond. Why wait, rather than act upon the future now? This deceptively simple question is quite difficult to answer adequately. I will attempt an answer, however, though it is not likely to be fully satisfying nor adequate to the subtlety of the problem. One reason this question is so complicated is that there are many dimensions of human experience that it addresses; the waiting gambit comes in many forms.

The most familiar form of the waiting gambit on the civilizational scale is the oft-heard claim that we cannot expect to go into space until we get our house in order here on Earth. “How can we spend money on space travel when we have such pressing problems here on Earth?” This gives to the waiting gambit a moral bite: we are not worthy to go into space, because there are still problems are Earth; we have to solve our problems on Earth first, and then we can think about going into space. But is there anyone who truly believes that this Earthly utopia will ever be realized? Isn’t it pretty clear by now that there will be no Earthly utopia, no point in time when all terrestrial problems will be solved, so that waiting for the coming of the Millennium in order to initiate a spacefaring effort is as much as saying that it will never happen? There is a fundamental contradiction involved in the idea that we can do nothing and become perfect in the meantime; if we do nothing, we will not become perfect, not now, not tomorrow, and not the day after tomorrow.

The waiting gambit in its moral form is not the only possibility. There is also the pragmatic rationalization of the waiting game: acting now is impractical; if we wait, it will be easier, less expensive, and more convenient to act. Certainly there is a tension between inefficiently constructing a space-based infrastructure at present — an option we have possessed since the middle of the twentieth century — or waiting for better technologies that will enable a much more efficient construction of space-based infrastructure. If we proceed at present, it may require diverting resources from other enterprises, but if we wait we may succumb to existential risk; to commit oneself to wait is more or less to commit oneself to a principled stagnation.

There is also the argument for waiting based on safety. To act now is unsafe, but if we wait, it will be safer to act in the future. As with the terrestrial utopia argument for waiting, the safety argument for waiting becomes an excuse never to act. As we become more affluent and more comfortable, what we identify as a danger, or an unacceptable imperfection in society, shifts to ever-more-subtle and elusive dangers, so that fear plays an increasingly disproportionate role as risks decrease while fear remains nearly constant. There will always be dangers, and even as the dangers are minimized they will grow in proportion until they seem overwhelming, hence there will always be reason to continue to wait rather than to act.

It is of the essence of the waiting gambit that many different rationalizations and justifications are employed for waiting. At each stage in the process when a new justification emerges, it seems like a rational and legitimate choice to continue to wait, but viewed from a larger perspective, it becomes apparent that the waiting is merely waiting for its own sake, and the transient excuses offered for waiting change even as we wait. Once waiting becomes normative, action becomes pathological.

Can an entire civilization wait? Would we not, in waiting, create a civilization of waiting, that is to say, a civilization constituted by waiting? I do not believe that an entire civilization can wait all the while pretending it is dedicated to some future good — but only when the time is right.

Civilizations must be judged as the existentialists judged individuals. There is a passage from Sartre that I have quoted previously (in Existence Precedes Essence) that addresses this:

“…in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art. The genius of Proust is the totality of the works of Proust; the genius of Racine is the series of his tragedies, outside of which there is nothing. Why should we attribute to Racine the capacity to write yet another tragedy when that is precisely what he did not write? In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but that portrait. No doubt this thought may seem comfortless to one who has not made a success of his life. On the other hand, it puts everyone in a position to understand that reality alone is reliable; that dreams, expectations and hopes serve to define a man only as deceptive dreams, abortive hopes, expectations unfulfilled; that is to say, they define him negatively, not positively.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” 1946, translated by Philip Mairet

Similarly for civilizations: in history, a civilization commits itself, draws its own portrait, and at the end of the day there is nothing but that portrait. This is as much as saying that civilization has not an essence, but a history — something I earlier hinted at, following Ortega y Gasset in An Existentialist Philosophy of History. The principles of an existentialist philosophy of history, as with existential philosophy generally, can be adopted and adapted, mutatis mutandis, for an existentialist philosophy of civilization.

This is, as Sartre noted, a harsh standard by which to judge, whether judging an individual or a civilization. It is not comforting for those who employ the waiting gambit, whether in their own life or in the social life of a community. Nevertheless, we should accustom ourselves to the view that there is no civilization apart from the deeds of civilization. Reality alone is reliable.

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Thursday


revolutionary years with dates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday


Revisiting my old friend Sartre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday


Mario Monti said of the Euro that, “the will to make it indissoluble and irrevocable is there.” Today, perhaps yes, but what will the will be tomorrow?

Each time the Eurozone puts together another bailout package the markets follow with a brief (sometimes very brief) rally, which collapses pretty much as soon as reality reasserts itself and it becomes obvious that most of the measures constitute creative ways of kicking the can down the road, while those more ambitious measures that are more than kicking the can down the road are probably overly ambitious and not likely to be practical policies in the midst of a financial crisis.

Simply from a practical point of view, it is difficult to imagine how anyone can believe that a more comprehensive fiscal and political union can be brought about in the midst of the crisis, although formulated with the best intentions of saving the Eurozone, since the original (and much more limited) Eurozone was negotiated, planned, and implemented over a period of many years, not over a period of few days as inter-bank loan rates are climbing by the hour. Apart from this practical problem, there are several issues of principle at stake in the Eurozone crisis and the attempts to rescue the European Monetary Union.

Mario Monti was quoted in a Reuter’s article, Monti says EU hinges on summit talks outcome: report, in defense of strengthening financial and political ties within the Eurozone as a way to save that Euro that:

“Europeans know where they’re going… the markets are convinced that having given birth to the euro, the will to make it indissoluble and irrevocable is there and will be strengthened by other steps towards integration.”

Can the Euro be made “indissoluble and irrevocable”? Can anything be made indissoluble and irrevocable? I think not, and this is a matter of principle to which I attach great importance.

I have several times quoted Edward Gibbon on the impossibility of present legislators binding the acts of future legislators:

“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.

Since I have quoted this several times (in The Imperative of Regime Survival, The Institution of Language, and The Chilean Model, e.g.), implicitly maintaining that it states an important principle, I am now going give this principle a name: Gibbon’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Political Entities, or, more briefly, Gibbon’s Principle.

As I have tried to make explicit, Gibbon’s Principle holds for political entities, but I have also quoted a passage from Sartre that presents essentially the same idea for individuals rather than for political entities:

“I cannot count upon men whom I do not know, I cannot base my confidence upon human goodness or upon man’s interest in the good of society, seeing that man is free and that there is no human nature which I can take as foundational. I do not know where the Russian revolution will lead. I can admire it and take it as an example in so far as it is evident, today, that the proletariat plays a part in Russia which it has attained in no other nation. But I cannot affirm that this will necessarily lead to the triumph of the proletariat: I must confine myself to what I can see. Nor can I be sure that comrades-in-arms will take up my work after my death and carry it to the maximum perfection, seeing that those men are free agents and will freely decide, tomorrow, what man is then to be. Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish Fascism, and the others may be so cowardly or so slack as to let them do so. If so, Fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be such as men have decided they shall be. Does that mean that I should abandon myself to quietism? No. First I ought to commit myself and then act my commitment, according to the time-honoured formula that “one need not hope in order to undertake one’s work.” Nor does this mean that I should not belong to a party, but only that I should be without illusion and that I should do what I can. For instance, if I ask myself ‘Will the social ideal as such, ever become a reality?’ I cannot tell, I only know that whatever may be in my power to make it so, I shall do; beyond that, I can count upon nothing.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” (lecture from 1946, translated by Philip Mairet)

This I will now also name with a principle: Sartre’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Individuals, or, more briefly, Sartre’s Principle.

If that weren’t already enough principles for today, I going to formulate another principle, and although this is my own I’m not going to name it after myself after the fashion of the names I’ve given to Gibbon’s Principle or Sartre’s Principle. This additional principle is The Principle of the Political Primacy of the Individual (admittedly awkward — I will try to think of a better name for this): political autonomy is predicated upon individual autonomy. In other words, Gibbon’s Principle carries the force that it does because of Sartre’s Principle, and this makes Sartre’s Principle the more fundamental.

At present I am not going to argue for The Principle of the Political Primacy of the Individual, but I will simply assume that Gibbon’s Principle supervenes upon Sartre’s Principle, but I wanted to make clear that I understand that there are those who would reject this principle, and that there are arguments on both sides of the question. There is no establish literature on this principle so far as I know, as I am not aware that anyone has previously formulated it in an explicit form, but I can easily imagine arguments taken from classic sources that bear on both sides of the principle (i.e., its affirmation or its denial).

Because, as Sartre said, “men are free agents and will freely decide,” the Euro cannot be made “indissoluble and irrevocable” and the attempt to try to make it seem so is pure folly. For in order to maintain this appearance, we must be dishonest with ourselves; we must make claims and assertions that we know to be false. This cannot be a robust foundation for any political effort. If, tomorrow, a deeper economic and political union of the Eurozone becomes of the truth of Europe, this does not mean that the day after tomorrow that this will remain the truth of Europe.

And this brings us to yet another principle, and this principle is a negative formulation of a principle that I have formulated in the past, the principle of historical viability. According to the principle of historical viability, an existent must change as the world changes or it will be eliminated from history. This means that entities that remain in existence must be so malleable that they can change in their essence, for if they fail to change, they experience adverse selection.

A negative formulation of the principle of historical viability might be called the principle of historical calamity: any existent so constituted that it cannot change is doomed to extinction, and sooner rather than later. In other words, any effort that is made to make the Euro “indissoluble and irrevocable” not only will fail to make the Euro indissoluble and irrevocable, but will in fact make the Euro all the more vulnerable to historical forces that would destroy it.

When I previously discussed Gibbon’s Principle and Sartre’s Principle (before I had named these principles as such) in The Imperative of Regime Survival, I cited an effort in Cuba to incorporate Castro’s vision of Cuba’s socio-economic system into the constitution as a permanent feature of the government of Cuba that would presumably hold until the end of time. This would be laughable were it not the source of so much human suffering and misery.

Well, the Europeans aren’t imposing any misery on themselves on the level of that which has been imposed upon the Cuban people by their elites, but the folly in each class of elites is essentially the same: the belief that those in power today, at the present moment, are in a privileged position to dictate the only correct institutional model for all time and eternity. In other words, the End of History has arrived.

Why not make the Euro an open, flexible, and malleable institution that can respond to political, social, economic, and demographic changes? Sir Karl Popper famously wrote about The Open Society and its Enemies — ought not an open society to have open institutions? And would not open institutions be those that are formulated with an eye toward the continuous evolution in the light of further and future experience?

To deny Gibbon’s Principle and Sartre’s Principle is to count oneself among the enemies of open societies and open institutions.

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Friday


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

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

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

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

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

Recently in Banishing Despair I wrote the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. moral corruption

2. moral perfection

3. misery

4. utopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Four conceptions of history - human nature and human condition

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Wednesday


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

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

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

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Note on Human Freedom

10 April 2010

Saturday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Diversity and Pluralism

26 January 2010

Tuesday


This is the public image of diversity, but there is in fact little tolerance for a recognition of truly diverse kinds of individuals.

At the same time that social diversity and political pluralism have become virtually unquestioned ideals and every society is expected to make at least a half-hearted attempt to put them into practice, there is less recognition than ever of what exactly constitutes diverse kinds of people. Moreover, attempts are made to homogenize different kinds of people. Let me try to explain.

'But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.' Aristotle, Politics, Book I, Chap. 5

When I read about classical antiquity I find it fascinating how many different kinds of people that there were. Everyone is familiar with Aristotle’s argument that some men are slaves by nature, and the economy of the ancient world was a slave economy, with slaves often making up half of the population of the great cities of the ancient world. But there were more than slaves. There were freedmen, for example: former slaves who had gained their freedom. They took pride in their newly won freedom and considered themselves to be a degree above the slaves that were once their fellows in bondage. And there were the freeborn, who took at least an equal pride in being born free and considered themselves to be a degree above the freedmen who had been born a slave. Not content with these diverse kinds of people, the ancients created more kinds of people by, for example, making eunuchs.

Eunuchs were common in the ancient world. The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch is a familiar New Testament story.

During the Middle Ages, kinds of people were multiplied by the elaborate feudal system with its endless degrees of social hierarchy. Moreover, the overarching institutions of the time reinforced differences among men: peasants, nobility, and churchmen were understood to have different lives and different functions in society. And in each division of society, hierarchies were instituted according to the feudal model.

A diagram of feudal hierarchy, a stratified society with different kinds of people occupying each level.

Today we are supposed to believe that in the most advanced societies that honor diversity and practice democratic pluralism that all these social constructs of distinct kinds of individuals are either illusory or have been abolished. There is, it seems, only one kind of person in the contemporary industrialized nation-state. I do not agree with this in fact nor in principle. In fact, social classes persist even when they are explicitly denied, and in principle I do not think that it is a good idea to deny that there are fundamentally different kinds of people in the world.

I visited this idea previously in Unintended consequences of Enlightenment universalism, where I discussed the fatal fallacy implicit in the idea of every man a soldier. With the industrialization of conflict that emerged decisively during the First World War, the nation-states of Europe that had been slowing taking shape since the early modern period had begun to harness the forces of nationalism, and war plans that had been taking shape since the end of the Franco-Prussian war were predicated upon the mobilization of mass man.

Trench warfare during the First World War.

The leaders of these nation-states convinced themselves that one could make a soldier by taking a farmer away from his plow, a factory worker off the assembly line, a student out of a university, or any one from any occupation, give them a gun and drill them for a few weeks or months, and send them to the battlefield. Gone were the days of Enlightenment-era professional armies that won their battles by maneuver; the day of mass war waged by mass man had arrived.

In Unintended consequences of Enlightenment universalism I went on to say:

The idea of every man a soldier is as unrealistic as the idea — once advanced as the inevitable result of industrialization’s increasing living standards and decreasing work hours — of every man a man of leisure or every man an artist, or, for that matter, every man a wage earner (the present paradigm of industrial society), every man a yeoman farmer (the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy), or every man a peasant (the reality of pre-modern, pre-industrialized civilization).

One of Sartre’s lesser discussed works, Anti-Semite and Jew, also takes on this issue, though from a different point of view of course. That this book is little noticed today (maybe people think that the “Jewish Question” is an outmoded issue from the past) is unfortunate, because the work is a brilliant elucidation of how prejudice functions in society. It would have been more accurate to title the book A Phenomenology of Prejudice. Sartre takes as his example the Jew in western European society, but his argument is valid, mutatis mutandis, for any minority population embedded in a dominant population. What is brilliant about the work is that it resists the familiar oversimplifications that we hear every day in the popular media.

Sartre delineates both the perspective of the anti-Semite and the Jew, and then he goes on to describe the “defender” of the Jew: the democrat. The democrat defends the civil rights of the Jew, but does so at the expense of denying the Jew his Jewishness. But if one holds that there is only one kind of person in a contemporary nation-state, then there is nothing that it is to be a Jew, nothing distinctive about being a Jew (or being anything else, for that matter), and we can, like Sartre’s “democrat” deny the Jew his Jewishness, and in good conscience that we are doing the “right” thing. Obviously, I can’t do justice to Sartre’s work in a paragraph. You need to read it for yourself. And it is well worth reading.

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Tuesday


Civilization, like the world itself, is always a work in progress, perpetually under construction.

When we use the word “civilization” we usually think of it as naming a thing. Moreover, it is usually the function of nouns in English to name things, and the Cambridge online dictionary defines the suffix “-ization” as “used to form nouns from some verbs.”

Interestingly, the same Cambridge online dictionary has two definitions of civilization. One is “civilization noun (DEVELOPED SOCIETY)” (the definition: “human society with its well developed social organizations, or the culture and way of life of a society or country at a particular period in time”) and the other is “civilization noun (PROCESS)” (the definition: “the process of educating a society so that its culture becomes more developed”). I will not take the time to criticize dictionary definitions, as these are soft targets, but I will point out that we would do well to think of civilization as much as a process as as a thing.

In the spirit of civilization as a thing, another online dictionary defines the suffix, “-ization” as “the act, process, or result of making or doing” giving “realization” as an example. In this sense, “civilization” may be defined as “the act, process, or result of making civil.” As far as dictionary definitions, this isn’t too bad. It has been said that philosophical inquiry ends with definitions rather than beginning with them, so we shall not take this as a point of departure, but as a signpost along the way of seeking an adequate philosophical definition of civilization.

It is a somewhat similar case with the word “industrialization,” though I am inclined to think (without any opinion research to back it up) that people are more likely to think of industrialization as a process than of civilization as a process. Perhaps part of this tendency (if there is, in fact, any such tendency) is that in the world today we can see the process of industrialization going forward and gradually transforming societies, whereas civilizations seem to be a given, almost a fact of nature.

Perhaps civilization suffers from from Sartre called the spirit of seriousness — the idea that values (in this case, the values that constitute civilization) are ready made, that is to say, already out there in the world for us to seize, but not something we make for ourselves. I would say that we do, in fact, make civilization for ourselves, and we should accustom ourselves to thinking in this mode. Many of Sartre’s most famous deliverances on the human condition could be reformulated, mutatis mutandis, to address civilization. To whit:

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that civilization first of all exists, encounters itself, surges up in the world — and defines itself afterwards.

And…

The genius of civilization is the totality of the works of civilization, outside of which there is nothing. Why should we attribute to civilization the capacity to produce yet other works of genius when that is precisely what it did not produce? In history, a civilization commits itself, draws its own portrait, and there is nothing but that portrait.

Such Sartrean formulations of civilization could be multiplied with a minimum of effort. It would be both potentially enlightening and amusing to do so, but I will leave such extrapolation to the interested reader.

If you like you could call this an existentialist conception of civilization.

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