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In The Accidental World I said that individuals possess axiological uniqueness in virtue of ontological uniqueness — the very contingency of the world, the historical accidents of which we are the consequences, furnishes us with the concrete expressions of our individuality: faces, bodies, boundaries, borders — all that is ours.

It may have appeared mildly ironic to some that I should begin my trip to Japan with a meditation on individuality. Japan is, after all, known in the west as the source of the proverb that the stake that sticks up gets hammered down (出る杭は打たれる。 Deru kui wa utareru).

While Japan is stereotypically a land of stultifying conformity, Ruth Benedict’s classic study of Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, the result of wartime research commissioned by the U.S. Office of War Information, presents the reader with a sequence of dramatic contradictions of the Japanese character:

“The Japanese are, to the highest degree, both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative and hospitable to new ways. They are terribly concerned about what other people will think of their behavior, and they are also overcome by guilt when other people know nothing of their misstep. Their soldiers are disciplined to the hilt but are also insubordinate.”

Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Chapter I, “Assignment: Japan”

In other words, the Japanese are human, all-too-human. There was never a more persuasive argument for universal human nature than a detailed study of the life of a people that reveals their inner nature to be as conflicted as the inner nature of any other people.

In the same spirit of Benedict’s contradictory character traits, one would expect that the Japanese are at once both pervasively conformist and yet profoundly individualistic. The same might be said of Europeans, Africans, Latins, Americans, and so on.

What is distinctive about a people and a culture — that which is distinctively theirs and not ours — is the way in which the conflicted components of human nature are manifested in social institutions. And social institutions can vary quite significantly. Every society must find a way to keep the better part of its people fed, clothed, washed, housed, and occupied, but within these rather generous parameters there are ample opportunities for social experiments not duplicated elsewhere in the world.

Human beings, being all derived from a single speciation event, have a unity that cultural institutions do not possess. Social institutions, far more than individuals, embody the historical accidents that vary from place to place and time to time.

What we find when we travel are human beings, the same as human beings any other place on the planet, but whose lives have been shaped by the geographical and historical accidents that remain localized — unlike ourselves. We individuals do not remain localized. Like our prehistoric ancestors, we can start walking, and if we walk long enough and far enough (and maybe canoe for a while as well) we will find ourselves in another world shaped by other forces of geography and history than those familiar to us.

It is an accident that any of us happens live where we live, just as it is an accident where we happen to be born. It is partially an accident, and partially a matter of choice, where we happen to travel. If we start walking, we first find ourselves at our neighbor’s, and then our neighbor’s neighbor, and so on. Their lives are as accidental as are our lives. That they are the closest Other (and therefore representative of the narcissism of small differences) is as much an accident as where we happen to be born ourselves.

If we spend a little more time planning our expeditions, not merely setting out to walk away from our accidental home, but seeking a place in the world that agrees with our temperament, tastes, or preferences — that, too, is an accident, for while human nature (if there is any) may be traced to a single speciation event, individual temperament is an accident of history, and the places in the world that happen to offer aesthetic, intellectual, pragmatic, or other satisfaction to the individual mind do so as a matter of chance.

De gustibus non est disputandum.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One of the many famous aphorisms that have been plucked out of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” (“Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt” section 5.6). Like much in the Tractatus, this gnomic aphorism invites interpretation and can never be exhausted.

One way to construe this Wittgensteinism very broadly would be to think of it as the limits of my idiom are the limits of my world, with “idiom” construed broadly to include any way of talking about the world, and not merely a particular language. If you’re of a continental persuasion, you could say the limits of my discourse are the limits of my world. It amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Particular theories about the world are idioms for talking about the world, forms of discourse, if you will. Scientific theories are scientific idioms for talking about the world. Now, scientific theories often broaden our horizons and allow us to see and to understand things of which we were previously unaware. But a scientific theory, being a particular idiom as it is, may also limit us, and limit the way we see the world.

The limitations we take upon ourselves by thinking in terms of particular theories or speaking in particular ways are human limits that we have chosen for ourselves; they are not intrinsic limitations imposed upon us by the world, and this, of course, is something that Wittgenstein wanted to bring to our explicit attention.

We very frequently mistake the idioms we employ, and the particular ways in which we understand these idioms, to constitute the very fabric of the world. When in this frame of mind we make claims for our theories that are not supported by the theories themselves, but rather reflect our particular, limited understanding of very difficult matters. This has been the case with the general theory of relativity and quantum theory, both of which are very young sciences, but which now dominate physics. Because of the dominant position of these theories, and of particular interpretations of these theories, we forget how young they are, and how far we have to go in really coming to an adequate understanding of them.

Our inadequate understanding of quantum theory, in particular, has been glossed so many times by physicists seeking to give a popular account of quantum theory that one might be forgiven for supposing that quantum theory is a form of mysticism rather than of science. (For example: “For those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.” Niels Bohr) It is inevitable that, as our understanding of the world gradually and incrementally improves, much in quantum theory that now seems inscrutable will eventually make sense to us, rather than the theory being a mere systematization of a mystery.

A recent paper in Science by Sacha Kocsis, Boris Braverman, Sylvain Ravets, Martin J. Stevens, Richard P. Mirin, L. Krister Shalm, and Aephraim M. Steinberg, Observing the Average Trajectories of Single Photons in a Two-Slit Interferometer, points to new ways of thinking and talking about quantum theory. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“A consequence of the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle is that one may not discuss the path or “trajectory” that a quantum particle takes, because any measurement of position irrevocably disturbs the momentum, and vice versa. Using weak measurements, however, it is possible to operationally define a set of trajectories for an ensemble of quantum particles. We sent single photons emitted by a quantum dot through a double-slit interferometer and reconstructed these trajectories by performing a weak measurement of the photon momentum, postselected according to the result of a strong measurement of photon position in a series of planes. The results provide an observationally grounded description of the propagation of subensembles of quantum particles in a two-slit interferometer.”

There is a good article by Jason Palmer of the BBC, Quantum mechanics rule ‘bent’ in classic experiment, about the paper and its ramifications. Palmer writes that researchers, “say the feat ‘pulls back the veil’ on quantum reality in a way that was thought to be prohibited by theory.” If one wanted to go seeking headlines, one could say something dramatic like “Scientists break the laws of quantum physics” — you get the idea.

But what has been thought to be prohibited is in large measure a limitation upon the current language of quantum theory and, to a certain extent, an artifact of particular experiments. As more sophisticated experiments are conceived and conducted, we may someday know quite a bit more about quantum theory than has been thought possible to date.

In Palmer’s BBC story there is an excellent quote from Marlan Scully of Texas A&M University:

“The trouble with quantum mechanics is that while we’ve learned to calculate the outcomes of all sorts of experiments, we’ve lost much of our ability to describe what is really happening in any natural language.”

“I think that this has really hampered our ability to make progress, to come up with new ideas and see intuitively how new systems ought to behave.”

Progress in understanding quantum theory will, as implied by Scully, ultimately take the form of being able to discuss it in natural language and to formulate the theory in an intuitively perspicuous manner. We do not yet have the language or the concepts to do this, but each advance like the recent results reported in Science bring us a little closer, chipping away at the limits of our language that currently constitute the limits on our world.

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Since writing the above I have learned that the method used in the experiment described is called “weak measurement” (as mentioned in the abstract quoted above) and has been employed in other recent experiments (as well as having been criticized quite harshly). I have written further on weak measurement in some comments on the paper Observation of a quantum Cheshire Cat in a matter-wave interferometer experiment.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Asked to recite some examples of institutions, it is not likely that language would be among the examples cited, but language is an institution, and moreover the institutions of language are the institutions of communication, cooperation, reasoning, and understanding. In so far as human experience involves communication, cooperation, reasoning, and understanding (inter alia), it is pervasively linguistic. That is to say, human experience is institutionalized in language.

I find the institutionalization of human experience in language interesting at present because language provides an excellent example of the distinction between formal institutions, based on an explicit social contract, and informal institutions, based on an implicit social contract, that I recently discussed in Twelve Theses on Institutionalized Power. Roughly speaking, spoken language is an informal institution while written language is a formal institution. We ought also to note in this context that spoken language has a deep history that goes far back into the Paleolithic, may be coextensive with biologically modern human beings, and which may also be shared by other species (both extant and extinct). On the other hand, written language is historically recent (from the perspective of the longue durée), emerging within the Agricultural Paradigm, seems to be exclusively human, and marks the distinction between prehistory and history proper (at least, in traditional historiography).

The institution of language demonstrates quite vividly how implicit social contracts can and do change quite rapidly, and, more importantly, more rapidly than explicit social contracts. The formal institutions of explicit social contracts often possess explicit mechanisms for recognizing change (for example, in relation to language, whether or not an English word appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, or, in French, whether some usage is recognized by L’Académie française) — a due process, as it were, that is most familiar in the case of the explicit social contract of legal codes. The existence of explicit mechanisms for change suppresses spontaneous change, whereas spoken language thrives on spontaneous change.

One of the most familiar ways in which inter-generational conflict is expressed is in the different linguistic usages of older and younger generations. The implicit social contract of spoken language can be spontaneously changed by a single clever remark, coinage, or pronunciation. Since the ordinary business of life is largely driven by the fashion of the moment, a spontaneous change may be picked up and imitated by others quite quickly (this is now known as “going viral”). I read somewhere that the Castilian Spanish shift to pronouncing “s” and “c” with a lisp (i.e., pronouncing them as “th” as in “Barthelona,” which some Castilians say, but no Catalonian says) was the result of the imitation of a particular aristocrat who spoke with a lisp.

With the example in mind of language expressed both as a formal and as an informal institution, it is then interesting to consider socio-political social contracts in this context. I think we find that, as with language, implicit social contracts can and do change with some degree of rapidity, while explicit social contracts tend to change much more slowly. As observed above in relation to the law, if due process must be followed in, for example, changing the constitution of a nation-state, this will happen much more slowly than political opinion changes in those areas of social and political life not subject to formal institutions. At times this tension between formal and informal institutions, and their different rates of change, can result in revolution, when the implicit socio-political contract has changed very rapidly over a large proportion of a population even while the explicit socio-political contract has not changed (or not changed enough to satisfy public opinion).

In a couple of posts (The Totemic Paradigm and Why Revolutions Happen) I have mentioned Nietzsche’s idea of a “morality of mores” (In German: “die Sittlichkeit der Sitte”, also translated as the “morality of custom”), which Nietzsche compelling described thus:

“…those tremendous eras of ‘morality of custom’ which precede ‘world history’ as the actual and decisive eras of history which determined the character of mankind: the eras in which suffering counted as a virtue, cruelty counted as a virtue, dissembling counted as a virtue, revenge counted as a virtue, denial of reason counted as a virtue, while on the other hand well-being was accounted a danger, desire for knowledge was accounted a danger, peace was accounted a danger, pity was accounted a danger, being pitied was accounted an affront, work was accounted an affront, madness was accounted godliness, and change was accounted immoral and pregnant with disaster!”

Nietzsche, Daybreak, Preface, section 18

In his lectures, Joseph Campbell does not use Nietzsche’s terminology, but it is obvious in describing the rituals of early human societies that he has something very similar in mind, especially in his discussions of what Yeats called the “primary mask” that societies impose upon their members. Many of these rituals of social initiation and communal conformity are horrendous to modern eyes, and they embody much of what Nietzsche described in the above-quoted passage.

The social rituals of proto-civilizations lack the intellectual and conceptual infrastructure to emerge as fully formal institutions; however — and this is important — these institutions were formalized in the only way that it was possible to formalize an institution prior to the emergence of written language and explicit legal codes: by way of ritual. The extreme taboos that applied to the violation of ritual was itself a reaction to how easily practices can change when there is no permanent point of reference (like a written text) to secure consistency over time. One could argue the horror of pre-literate ritual culture was given its horrendous form precisely because it had to make an unforgettable impression at a time when there was no other way to preserve tradition.

Which brings us back to the evanescent nature of implicit social contracts. When I was musing over the above ideas yesterday, I realized that the only reason that we have in our history the “morality of mores” and horrific initiation rituals is because of the all-too-real and constant possibility of change. That is to say, these are reactionary developments — a social embodiment of the Freudian Verneinung, i.e., the negation that in its violence paradoxically confirms exactly what it seeks to deny: “I had a dream of an old man, but it was not my father!”

The situation of early peoples attempting to preserve their traditions and way of life — preserving life itself, as it were, the only life than they knew — was deeply problematic, and they knew it. They did what they could with their limited technology to preserve what could be preserved, but this presented insuperable problems. Civilization emerged as a “solution” to some of these insuperable problems.

These problems persist today in different forms. I discussed the desire of dictators to preserve their personal or dynastic rule in The Imperative of Regime Survival. There I quoted one of my favorite passages from Gibbon:

“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.

The principle that Gibbon expresses here (a principle I have elaborated elsewhere in Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone) is formulated in terms of formal legal institutions — an assembly of legislators — but it is equally true in pre-literate proto-civilizations that possess only the informal institutions of spoken language and social ritual, both of which, without some method for the preservation of tradition, would rapidly mutate beyond recognition due to the openness to change of informal institutions.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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