The Waiting Gambit

18 June 2015


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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Grand Strategy Annex

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I have written several posts on human nature, such as it is (or isn’t), and even have human nature as a category. In a post simply titled Human Nature I considered the various views of Thucydides, Sartre, and John Stuart Mill. There I quoted several passages of Thucydides that are classic statements on human nature, I considered Sartre’s explicit skepticism, such that “there is no human nature that we can take as foundational,” and lastly I discussed Mill’s organic metaphor in which he compared human nature to a tree, “which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides.” More recently in Agents and Sufferants I returned to Thucydides to consider human nature in terms of its agency.

Yet more recently I have learned that distinguished anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has written a short book on human nature, The Western Illusion of Human Nature, with the wonderful subtitle, with reflections on the long history of hierarchy, equality and the sublimation of anarchy in the West, and comparative notes on other conceptions of the human condition. I don’t have a copy of this yet, so I am at the mercy of the reviews. The title makes it sound as though Sahlins is a human nature skeptic as thorough as Sartre, but a review says that Sahlins rejects a Hobbesian account of human nature as savage and violent in favor of, “the one truly universal character of human sociality: namely, symbolically constructed kinship relations.” I hope to read the book for myself, but this encounter with another suggestion of human nature skepticism provoked me to further thought.

In addition to several posts about human nature I have also repeatedly quoted a line from Marx, that is one of my favorites:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first paragraph

This Marxian reference to men making their own history ties in with my use of Ortega y Gasset’s line — Man has not an essence but a history — that I quoted in my Human Nature post. I think Marx would have agreed with this. Both Marx and Ortega y Gasset place man within history, and make human nature, if there is any, a function of history.

I realized a couple of days ago that one way to express this would be to say that human nature is a function of the human condition. And the human condition in turn is an historical reality. Thus we could paraphrase Marx as follows:

“Men make themselves, but they do not make themselves as they please; they do not make themselves under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Further, we can observe that the human condition is a function of the longue durée. The longue durée, in turn, is an historical reality, or, rather, a way of looking at history. More importantly, the longue durée endures, but it is not permanent. The apparent rigidity of human nature — which for some recommends the idea, while for others is a reason to reject it — is a function of the human perspective. Given the perspective of the longue durée, human nature is not fixed, but is a function of the changing human condition. However, the human condition changes so slowly that from the perspective of the individual human being, it appears fixed and stable.

The human condition does change, and sometimes it changes dramatically. In The Atomic Bazaar: Dispatches from the Underground World of Nuclear Trafficking, which I just discussed a couple of days ago in The Poor Man’s Bomb, author William Langewiesche wrote, “The nuclearization of the world has become the human condition, and it cannot be changed.” (p. 13) I agree with this. The human condition was changed with the advent of nuclearization (which Karl Jaspers called, “the new fact”), because it represents the practical possibility of the suicide at least of civilization, and perhaps also of our species. This is an important development, and it is a changed aspect of the human condition that will, over the longue durée, result in a changed human nature.

In several posts in which I have distinguished what I have called the divisions of integral history, I have divided history not according to the customary distinctions of Western historiography, but according to primarily demographic concerns, based upon how the bulk of the human species lives. Another way to phrase this would be to say that the human condition was initially that of hunter-gatherers under the nomadic paradigm, which was followed by a human condition of subsistence farming under the agricultural paradigm, and has now become a human condition of mass industrial employment under the industrial paradigm. There is a sense, then, in which each of these primary divisions in the human condition would correspond with a human nature that emerges from these conditions.

Human nature, of course, even when conceived as a function of the human condition, is not monolithic. Small, incremental changes — changes like nuclearization — will make their contribution to a human nature substantially shaped by the institutions of industrialized society. There is room for variation, and even for incommensurable individuals existing within the same paradigm. The world, for all that it has shrunk, is still a very big place, and admits of individual and regional variation as certainly as it admits of temporal variation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Politicized Anger

6 October 2010


“Anger” from Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things.

Lately I have been studying How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror by Reza Aslan. Notice that I do not say that I have “read” the book. This is a book to which I have paid close attention. First I acquired it from the library as a book on CD, listened through it twice in its entirety, then I got the book in book form and am re-reading passages of particular interest to me. Needless to say, the idea of a “cosmic war” is an obvious instance of what I have called the eschatological conception of history, and this makes the book particularly interesting to me. But today I am not going to deal with the main thesis of the book, but only mention it in passing on the way to another topic.

Love and Anger in the City, by Norma Ascencio.

There is a certain poetic or (if you like) dialectical appropriateness that I should write about anger today, since yesterday I wrote about love in Two Loves: Human and Divine. There is a thin line between love and anger, as there is a thin line between love and hate, since they are complementary states of consciousness, apparently dialectically opposed but nevertheless closely related. When love lapses, it often gives way to anger, and anger is often the response to unrequited love.

Jacques Callot, The Seven Deadly Sins (ca. 1620) - Anger

In any case, in going through Reza Aslan’s book again today I was reminded how he quoted the well-known George Marsden line that, “A Fundamentalist is an Evangelical who is angry about something.” (p. 88) In this, they are following a tradition as old as Protestantism. Kenneth Clark mentions a letter from Erasmus to this effect: “At the end of Erasmus’s letter in which he describes the surly Protestants coming out of church, he adds that none of them, except one old man, raised his hat.”

Aslan also relates in his book the consciously cultivated siege mentality among Fundamentalist Christians in the US, citing the more unpleasant and well-known sources such as the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and even the disgraced Ted Haggard. He goes on to say:

“As the sociologist Christian Smith has noted, the evangelical movement’s vibrancy, its ability to sustain a distinctive religious subculture, is owed precisely to this constructed sense of siege. Without it, Smith writes, the movement would ‘lose its identity and purpose and grow languid and aimless’.”

Reza Aslan, How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, p. 91

An angry outlook upon life is not something exclusive to Protestants, Fundamentalists, or to the political right. There is plenty of anger on the political left as well. And the angry left, like the angry right, paints itself into a corner and cultivates a siege mentality in order to keep the community stirred up and motivated. This anger on the left is frequently expressed in intellectual if not scholastic terms.

A few years ago the book Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization made a splash by trying to systematically demonstrate that everything we think of as the cultural heritage of western civilization, especially our Graeco-Roman heritage, can be traced farther back to non-western sources. The book was a piece of angry scholarship, representative of an institutionalized anger over what is perceived as the imperialism and impunity of the traditional representatives of western civilization. It was supposed to take this tradition down a notch by ascribing its greatest contributions to earlier, non-western sources. But there is nothing at all new about this thesis. It was, in fact, the traditional position of archaeology at the beginning of the discipline.

Recently I have also been studying Colin Renfrew’s Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, in which he recounts the doctrine of ex Oriente lux, or light out of the east, which was expressed by the great philologist and archaeologist Gordon Childe as follows: “The sole unifying theme of European prehistory is the irradiation of European Barbarism by Oriental Civilization.” That the thesis is not new is no surprise, but that it has be reintroduced in an angry, accusatory tone is a novelty. And this trend has only escalated since Black Athena was published.

Both the political left and the political right cultivate anger as a means to political action: angry people can be organized to take action on behalf of a cause that they believe to be just, and which they also believe to be under threat by the outside world, of which they do not count themselves a part. But the cultivation of anger is not exclusive to this US political dichotomy between left and right. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion goes into some detail about how rabble-rousers in the Muslim world sought to whip up anger about the now well-known cartoons depicting Mohamed in the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten. When the campaign of agitation began, almost no one knew of the cartoons. After the campaign of agitation had done its work, several people had died in riots and a great deal of property damage had occurred.

Ortega y Gasset in his The Revolt of the Masses, titled his Chapter VIII “THE MASSES INTERVENE IN EVERYTHING, AND WHY THEIR INTERVENTION IS SOLELY BY VIOLENCE.” This chapter title sums up much of the thesis of the chapter. Ortega y Gasset expands on the theme of violence thus:

“Man has always had recourse to violence; sometimes this recourse was a mere crime, and does not interest us here. But at other times violence was the means resorted to by him who had previously exhausted all others in defence of the rights of justice which he thought he possessed. It may be regrettable that human nature tends on occasion to this form of violence, but it is undeniable that it implies the greatest tribute to reason and justice. For this form of violence is none other than reason exasperated. Force was, in fact, the ultima ratio. Rather stupidly it has been the custom to take ironically this expression, which clearly indicates the previous submission of force to methods of reason. Civilisation is nothing else than the attempt to reduce force to being the ultima ratio. We are now beginning to realise this with startling clearness, because “direct action” consists in inverting the order and proclaiming violence as prima ratio, or strictly as unica ratio. It is the norm which proposes the annulment of all norms, which suppresses all intermediate process between our purpose and its execution. It is the Magna Charta of barbarism. It is well to recall that at every epoch when the mass, for one purpose or another, has taken a part in public life, it has been in the form of “direct action.” This was, then, the natural modus operandi of the masses.”

Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, Chap. VIII

What we are seeing here, with the cultivation of anger by political pressure groups of all descriptions and orientations, is the implementation of a mass political culture formulated to appeal to mass man. And mass man as homo politicus a nearly mindless cipher. Ortega y Gasset, in the same chapter of The Revolt of the Masses as quoted above, also wrote, “The individual finds himself already with a stock of ideas. He decides to content himself with them and to consider himself intellectually complete.” This type has become all-too-familiar today, and indeed I recently noticed the term “political sock puppet” as an entry in the Urban Dictionary that captures the spirit of Ortega y Gasset’s description.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More on the Philosophy of History

Natural History and Human History

The Continuity of Civilization and Natural History

An Exposition of Hegel

Of What Use is Philosophy of History in Our Time?

Philosophy of History in Our Time, Revisited

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Recently my attention was brought to a blog that is dedicated to the critical discussion of the Technological Singularity, Blogging Against ‘The Future’. The author of the blog read my posts about artificial intelligence, machine consciousness, and the Technological Singularity from earlier this year and quoted me in one of his posts. I have already received a half dozen referrals from his website, and several of my posts that hadn’t been accessed in some time have shown up as having been read again.

It took John Locke a long time to write a book, and for good reason.

Somewhere, some years ago, I read that John Locke said that he would write a manuscript and then stick it away until he forgot about. Some time later he would take it out again, and from this later perspective he was able to criticize his own work more effectively. I know what he meant by this, and I have experienced it myself. (However, I have also experienced coming back to something I wrote and not being able to pick up the thread of understanding again.) So it was when I went back and re-read some of my Singularity posts.

In my Blindsided by History (a post I had almost completely forgotten), I wrote, “if and when machine consciousness emerges in history, it will be incomprehensibly alien, perhaps unrecognizable for what it is, because it will have emerged from a different evolutionary process than that from which we emerged.” When I read again this I was reminded of a famous quote from Ortega y Gasset: “Man has not an essence but a history.” Over the years I have thought a lot about this line, and I think it is an exceptionally profound observation. Not only man, but much else in the world, probably most of the world, has not an essence but a history. This, if extrapolated to complete generality, becomes a philosophy that is the antithesis of Platonism, but neither is it constructivism or antirealism or any other familiar doctrine formulated in contradistinction to Platonism. We could, if we liked, call it historical constructivism, and this has a certain intuitive plausibility.

José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883 - October 18, 1955)

José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883 - October 18, 1955)

Machines, too, have not an essence but a history. Perhaps they have an essence too, in addition to a history, but it is the history that crucially demarcates organically emergent beings from mechanically emergent beings. Man and machine have different histories, and if Ortega y Gasset is correct, and if we may make a valid extrapolation from his observation, because they have different histories they are differentiated on a level that previous history would have mistaken for essence, i.e., an essential difference.

I might also add to what I wrote in Blindsided by History about unpredictability: “Present technologies will stall, and they will eventually be superseded by unpredicted and unpredictable technologies that will emerge to surpass them.” It is precisely because future technologies will be unpredicted and unpredictable that the future itself will be unpredicted and unpredictable. History emerges from the cumulative events of passing time; it is built upon the details of individual lives, specific technologies with their advantages and disadvantages, particular circumstances, and concrete facts. The unpredictable emergence of technologies contributes its measure of instability to the general instability of history.

History is always in tension between equilibrium and instability. Sometimes the slow and steady accumulation of the minutiae of time changes the world so gradually that we don’t notice that anything has changed; it is only in reflection, retrospectively, that we are able to realize that the world is a different world than it was. sometimes the accumulation of relentless change spills over in a sudden revolution, a punctuation in the equilibrium of history, but in either case the steady rate of background change continues apace.

Evolution is by its nature unpredictable in its outcome. We can predict that certain selection forces will come to bear, that certain selection events will occur, and that certain entities (say, men and machines) will be subject to these forces and events, but we cannot say what will come of it all. But we can say with confidence that the distinct histories of man and machine will issue in distinct and divergent futures.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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