John Emerson’s greatest hits: not literature

Below are links to my five (or so) best posts in each in four categories: Philosophy (broadly defined), Laozi and Chinese philosophy, Inner Eurasia and the Mongols, and American politics.

Unlike my literary pieces, these are intended to be read straight, which is why I have two groups. No joking around.

As time goes on this page will be revised, and many posts will be edited. A few links are not yet active.


Attendant Lords

Professionalism produces lackeys and attendant lords at the service of the real movers and shakers. “As a philosopher / lawyer / economist …. I have nothing to say about that question.” Preston declares that since analytic philosophy has no expertise about anything specific and has no specialty, its worship of expertise and specialization makes it self-refuting. To that I add that if philosophy did have a specialty, it would be at risk of becoming subordinate, blind, and destructive (like economics).

I propose an alternative definition of philosophy: along with history and literature, philosophy should be a generalist (and eclectic) discourse rather than a specialist discourse. It would be adjacent to (though distinguishable from) worldly wisdom, aphorisms, maxims, reflections, meditations, utopias, pamphlets, social criticism, historical judgment, fiction, and so on. It would take into account all of the expert professional knowledge available, but would put this knowledge usably into the larger wholes to which it belongs. This could be done at the highest, most careful, most responsible level: philosophers would not necessarily become, as defenders of the status quo suggest, inspirational speakers, self-help gurus, issue de jour advocates, or millenarian prophets.

Les Érudits Maudits: Education and Class

So only the few and the proud will be interested in my érudit maudit concept. In fact, however, our society is opulent enough that it is possible to live decently at quite a low relative economic level. And while certain pleasures and comforts will need to be sacrificed, the most painful sacrifice will be success itself. People often talk about “true success”, but nobody really believes that success is anything but money. Those  making the bohemian sacrifice will have to choose between taking a lot of ribbing and nagging about their personal failure, and just cutting unsympathetic people out their lives. Neither option is an appealing one.

Polypedous and Thick

I would carry the thickening and polypedification of philosophy much farther than Putnam would. Philosophy needs to deal with its own indexicality (so-called “subjectivity”) as something other than a source of error. It has to recognize that the future is open and indeterminate and that, of necessity, all humans face an unknowable future in the process of being made. “Truth” is only about the past and the eternal and universal, but philosophy also needs to learn to deal with the future and projects. Philosophy has to fully accept not only ethics, but also practical reason governing action. Practical engagement is not a debased form of theory, but a way of making reality, and (as a kind of experimentation) an essential source of knowledge. And last of all, thick philosophy, as an essentially-contested, normative form of projective, practical, social / personal reason oriented toward the not-yet (the unknown, unformed, and nonexistent future), needs to be oriented both toward truth and toward persuasion, since the future becomes real in part through human intention.

What was Wittgenstein?

My understanding of Wittgenstein is that in all of his work (including the later work) he was trying, like the other analytic philosophers, to separate the descriptive, universalist, objective, scientific, factual level of language from another level which can be called indexical, existential, self-referential, subjective, emotional, passionate, normative, or projective (in the sense of forming projects or intentions, rather than descriptions). By contrast to the others, Wittgenstein had respect for both sides of the dichotomy and was trying to define each part clearly — in contrast to the kinds of mixed utopian-existential-scientific-expressive discourse that he despised.  Most analytic philosophy simply tries to suppress the existential and minimize the indexical,  producing exactly what Wittgenstein tried to avoid — a truth-valued discourse in which persons are one of the natural kinds of massy temporospatial things (or causes in a chain of causes and effects), and in which ethics is the science of truth-functional ethical facts. In this factual discourse, the existential is lost.

What was Cratylus trying to say?

Contrary to Plato’s wish, the fateful absoluteness of social actions and decisions is not grounded on reasons as absolute as the decisions, but on historical customs and conventions. As a result, we cannot know the answers to (“normative”) social questions the way we know questions of ahistorical scientific fact. And Cratylus can be seen as an ancestor, not only of culture critics such as Nietzsche (who had his own history of the word “virtue”) or more recently Hanna Fenichel Pitkin (writing about the history of word “representation” in all its contexts), but also of the legal scholars who rule our lives an the basis of conventional precedents tracing back to the Norman Conquest.

Daoism and Chinese philosophy

Mystical bureaucrat: the Chinese philosopher Shen Dao

Shen Dao’s detachment also extended to cosmology, and his argument here was not traditional and may have been original to him. The Sage King, whose normal activities bring us peace and order even though he does not concern himself with us, is compared to Heaven and Earth, who likewise do not concern themselves with us, but by their normal activities warm us and feed us just the same. Shen Dao’s universe was as mechanistic and indifferent as his governmental system, but good things could be found within them, and ultimately the serene detachment of Heaven, Earth, the Sage, and neutral bureaucrats became the model for everyone.

The Sage in the Daodejing

Here the sage’s attitude toward the people is compared to the Olympian indifference of Heaven in a naturalistic universe. Heaven is neither friendly nor hostile toward man and does not intervene in human lives, but does give men what they need, if they know how to use it properly. This naturalistic universe sharply contrasts with the Mohist universe, within which the spirits are constantly approving or disapproving human actions, with the Mencian universe which is slanted toward goodness, and with the universe of Chinese popular belief. The Confucian Xunzi was the most explicitly naturalistic of all, and for the legalists generally the Sage ruler did what needed to be done without concern for whatever momentary cruelty was involved.

The early layer of the Daodejing

As mentioned above, this early layer generally lacks polemical and expository writing and discussion of political and strategic methods. This layer also includes neither the almost-cynical methods proposed in chapters 36, 57, 58, and 65, nor the primitivist utopianism seen in chapters 3, 13, 17, 18, 19, 53, 75, and 80. The Sage is seldom seen and the phrase “Therefore the Sage” 是以聖人 does not appear at all. There are few signs of the ingenious argumentation learned from the School of Names 名家 (for example, the metaphysics of 無 and 有: presence and absence / being and nothing) or of any other engagement with the discussions of the Hundred Schools 百家 era. Traces of the the militarist Sunzi 孫子 or the “Legalists” 申不害 Shen Buhai and 慎到 Shen Dao , common in the non-early chapters, are likewise absent.

While this layer of the Daodejing does not include the ingenious political methods characteristic of the non-early layer, it is not entirely devoid of politics. Princes 王 are mentioned in chapters 16 and 25, Lords and Princes 侯王 in chapters 32 and 37, the state 國 / 邦 in chapters 10, 54, and 59, the 有 “realm” in chapter 14, and the Sage in chapters 5 and 28. In many of these passages there are vague promises of almost magical success, and there are also hints of magic in chapters 32 (“Heaven and earth will unite and 甘露 sweet dew will fall”), 35 (“Hold the 大象 great image and the Empire 天下 will come to you”), 50 (“There is no place for the rhinoceros th drive his horn….because he has no死地 death-spot on him”) , and 55 “Wild beasts will not seize [the newborn baby] 猛獸不據赤子”.

Yang Chu’s Discovery of the Body

(Philosophy East and West, Volume 46-4, October 1996, pp. 533-566).

From our Western point of view, the Yangist liberation was only partial,  and never succeeded in establishing either the “autonomous individual” or the “free citizen” in China; it is best called “privatism”, rather than “individualism”.  The change in Chinese life which can be attributed to the Yangists (and which was always resisted by the Confucians) was the valorization of private and family life at the expense of public and court life.  The “Chinese self” never ceased to be defined relationally, primarily in terms of kin relationships;  but for most Chinese (the Confucian elite always excepted)  the relation to the Emperor or to feudal superiors, and to public life generally, became an external and often onerous concern.  This change coincided, and effectively was identical with,  massive changes in governmental organization (initiated by government officials and military leaders),  whereby rational decision-making (cause and effect, end and means, military expansion, maximization of revenues) came to replace traditional, ritualistic patterns of action.  One consequence of this rationalization was to make government officials instruments of the crown, rather than ethically responsible, culturally splendid, and largely autonomous occupants of meaningful public positions.  One way or another, most early Chinese philosophers either participated in this transformation, or responded to it.

Parmenides in Szechuan

Among the Chinese Nationalist refugees were three philosophers: Ch’en K’ang, Fang Tung-mei, and Hao Wang. Ch’en was well-established and had already published in German and English on the Plato’s Parmenides, while the other two men still had their careers ahead of them. Fang went on to be an important public intellectual in Taiwan and wrote several books in English, and Wang migrated to the U.S. and became an important figure in mathematical logic and the literary executor of the renowned Kurt Gödel.

Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, “This thing called the Way — where does it exist?
Chuang Tzu said, “There’s no place it doesn’t exist.”
“Come,” said Master Tung-kuo, “you must be more specific!”
“It is in ants.”
“As low a thing as that?”
“It is in the panic grass.”
“But that’s lower still!”
“It’s in the tiles and shards.”
“How can it be so low?”
“It is in the piss and shit!”
Master Tung-kuo made no reply.

— Zhuangzi

PARMENIDES: Are you also puzzled, Socrates, about cases that might be thought absurd, such as hair or mud or dirt or any other trivial and undignified objects? Are you doubtful whether or not to assert that each of these has a separate Form distinct form things like those we handle?

YOUNG SOCRATES: Not at all; in these cases the things are just the things we see; it would surely be too absurd to suppose that they have a Form. All the same, I have sometimes been troubled by a doubt whether what is true in one case may not be true in all. Then, when I have reached that point, I am driven to retreat, for fear of tumbling into a bottomless pit of nonsense. Any how, I get back to the things which we just now were speaking of as having Forms, and occupy my time with thinking about them.

PARMENIDES: That is because you are still young, and philosophy has not yet taken hold of you as firmly as I believe it will some day. You will not despise any of these objects then; but at present your youth makes you still pay attention to what the world will think.

— Plato, Parmenides

Inner Eurasia and the nomads

Why the Mongols?

To sum up: the Mongols started out with the same advantages that nomad cavalry armies had always had over sedentary armies defending fixed lines and vulnerable real property. Over the course of centuries hybrid nomad-sedentary states developed whose armies combined the strengths of sedentary and nomad armies. This process culminated during the period 900-1200 AD in the north and northwest of China, where for a century or more armies of this type contended with one another and with the still-nomadic Mongols. At the beginning of the thirteenth century Genghis Khan unified the Mongols and formed them into a disciplined military-politico unit. Gradually this unified nomad force gained dominance over the hybrid states confronting it, and upon doing so absorbed many of their military specialists and other  military units. The century of warfare had served as a military training-ground, and when the resulting force finally broke out of the intercivilizational area where it had been formed, it was unstoppable and swept everything before it.

The politics of Genghis Khan

On the steppe, with its virtual absence of infrastructure, the function of political organization was almost entirely military, and the great Khans could maintain themselves only by extracting wealth from the sedentary world and redistributing it to their followers. Thus, when Temujin became Genghis Khan in 1206 A.D., he had only a small window of opportunity within which he had to score some successes against the Hsi-hsia, the Jurchen Chin in Northern China, or the Khwarizmians in Turkestan. Hsi-hsia and the Chin both capitulated fairly quickly, though both proved treacherous, and with the voluntary enlistment of the Onggut and Uighurs Genghis Khan quickly came to control the Silk Road. Had he been solidly defeated by his first targets, the Chin, his khanship would simply have disintegrated, and the names “Genghis” and “Mongol” would only be footnotes in history.

The Comanche empire

On the steppe, with its virtual absence of infrastructure, the function of political organization was almost entirely military, and the great Khans could maintain themselves only by extracting wealth from the sedentary world and redistributing it to their followers. Thus, when Temujin became Genghis Khan in 1206 A.D., he had only a small window of opportunity within which he had to score some successes against the Hsi-hsia, the Jurchen Chin in Northern China, or the Khwarizmians in Turkestan. Hsi-hsia and the Chin both capitulated fairly quickly, though both proved treacherous, and with the voluntary enlistment of the Onggut and Uighurs Genghis Khan quickly came to control the Silk Road. Had he been solidly defeated by his first targets, the Chin, his khanship would simply have disintegrated, and the names “Genghis” and “Mongol” would only be footnotes in history.

The barbarian reservoir

(To be revised)

The barbarian invaders from the steppe have been compared to reservoirs (geothermal, electrostatic, or thermodynamic), volcanoes, lightning, storms, black holes, and wombs. Their real nature and their actual relationship to civilized society have been  properly understood by very few. For two thousand years they shaped civilized society from the uncontrolled steppe as a threat, and between about 200 A.D. and about 1300 A.D. almost all of the civilized world came under barbarian control.

Climate and the Mongol Invasions

At the same time, however, this discussion may now be entering a new era, when the theory can actually be tested against data and refined or rejected accordingly. If the data keep coming in, at some point it should be possible to produce a nuanced case-by-case history of the two millennia of nomad incursions within which the role of climate change and weather variations can be plainly seen, in some cases driving desperate refugees from the steppe to become either bandits and raiders or mercenary defenders of civilization depending on their reception, and in other cases allowing the nomads to build up enormous, well-fed armies capable to sweeping all before them. But it seems highly unlikely that these new histories will include grand universal theories of the Huntington-Toynbee type, which seem to me so weakly grounded that they should just be forgotten.

2000 years of barbarians

My 4000-word attempt to summarize the role of the Steppe Barbarians in the military and political history of Eurasia from 700 BC to 1300 AD. For 2000 years, the steppe brought order and disorder to the civilized world.



A short history of Populism in America

Everyone is talking about populism, but no one can define it.” The opening sentence of Gellner’s introduction to the 1971 anthology Populism: Its National Characteristics remains more or less true today – in Laclau’s words, “A persistent feature of the literature on populism is its reluctance – or difficulty – in giving the concept any precise meaning”.1 As a result, anyone can be a populist. Rush Limbaugh drinks $300 bottles of wine and vacations in the south of France, and he’s a populist. The Koch brothers are two of the ten richest Americans, and they’re populists. Rand Paul is a goldbug, and he’s a populist. The requirements are easy to meet: you just have to be angry, anti-intellectual, bigoted, demagogic, and right wing. (You know who else was a populist? Hitler.) And as I’ve found, all good liberals, Democrats, radicals, and political scientists steer clear of populism…..

Or to put it in more contemporary terms, populists are the Other of the dominated fraction of the the dominant class: the intellectuals and the political-managerial-scientific-academic elite. Populists are the less-educated mass of the poor and middling (lower middle) classes – the people without taste, class, and style – or more simply, the majority. Even today a certain proportion of the intelligentsia have plebian backgrounds (though this is less true by the year). Anyone who has made the jump can remember the hazing period at the start of introductory classes, when the student finds out that everything that he knows (and everything anyone in his reference group knows) is wrong.To be admitted into the elite, you have to believe three impossible things before breakfast, and those who fail to do this are squeezed out, usually in an especially humiliating fashion. In PolSci 101 you learn that “By the people, for the people, and of the people” is pure disastrous nonsense. The “counterfactual assumptions” of Ecpon 101 are too many to count, but since there’s a lot of money in econ, Students eagerly play along. Examples can be multiplied from other disciplines.

The tweakers are crashing on us

So here’s my explanation of the present Collapse of Western Civilization: amphetamines. The world of finance is a rather small one, populated entirely by supersmart, extremely aggressive and competitive men (mostly) who have to go at top speed twelve or more hours a day, day after day. How do they do it? Performance-enhancing drugs, that’s how: legally-prescribed amphetamines. (Cocaine is uncool, and so Eighties.) [I was probably wrong about this].

And since finance controls the world, when the tweakers crash, the whole world crashes with them. Like a football team collapsing in the fourth quarter, the world has run out of beans. We’ve had our jag, and now we’re crashing. Not much fun.

In my small experience, amphetamines are very nice. The world becomes a happy place. You get smarter and have lots of energy, and you can keep on going indefinitely. Complex ideas seem simple and all of your ideas look good. The crash isn’t even that bad if you use in moderation. But amphetamines are not conducive to moderation.

The Bourbon Democrats in the Middle West: 1865-1896

Merrill’s book tells the story of the Midwestern branch of the “Bourbon Democrats”, the dominant Democratic faction during the three decades following the Civil War. “Bourbon Democrats” may sound like fun, but they were nothing but a coterie of wealthy, corrupt wheeler-dealers whose only interests were feathering their own nests and keeping small farmers and labor out of power. The Bourbons did not need to win, and seldom did; they only needed to keep control of the party.

Grover Cleveland, the only Democratic President in the 47 years between Appomattox and the election of Woodrow Wilson (and one of the most anti-labor Presidents of all), was a model Bourbon on policy questions, though he differed from the rest in being less corrupt and was nominated for that reason.  

How did Iceland go bankrupt?


Since the mid-‘ 90s, the country’s center-right government has pushed free-market reforms–privatizing banks, ditching price controls and slashing taxes. Companies now pay just 18 percent on profits, down from 50 percent. “The same economic laws apply whether a country is small or large,” says Finance Minister Geir Haarde. “We are experiencing the fruits of a very determined and consistent policy.”


The small and hitherto very prosperous nation of Iceland seems likely to go bankrupt. At the moment they don’t have even enough foreign exchange to import food (which they can’t grow themselves), and because Icelandic banks have defaulted on British depositors, Britain has rather ludicrously declared Iceland to be a terrorist nation. The future is uncertain, but it seems sure that every Icelander will see a big decline in their standard of living, and that includes many who never really profited from the recent boom.

Indispensable Enemies

(Review of Indispensable Enemies, Walter Karp, Franklin Square Press, 1993 / 1973)

Karp makes one point that I can’t develop here, but which is dear to my heart. He asks the reader to assume that political players are agents and know what they’re doing, so that if the players’ actions don’t make sense in terms of their professed goals, we should conclude that their actual goals are different. This goes against fifty years of lumpen-wonk truisms about how politics works. Wonk Democrats seem to be fanatically committed to the idea that blind forces decide everything and that no one ever really knows what they are doing or why, and they automatically accuse anyone who believes that politicians do things for reasons of being a paranoid conspiracy theorist.

Published on January 16, 2014 at 6:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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