Posts on Philosophy

I have a longstanding interest in philosophy, though by now I’m so disgruntled that I have essentially no interest in philosophy as academically defined.  Of the authors who got me interested while I was still in high school — William James, Nietzsche,  Wittgenstein, and Montaigne — Montaigne is no longer considered a philosopher at all, James is regarded as an obsolete bad influence, Wittgenstein seems to have fallen into disrepute, and only Nietzsche is still taken seriously, for what I regard as the wrong reasons. It may be that I am an anti-philosopher.

At the bottom are links to a large number of polemical pieces which haven’t worn very well, though I may cannibalize them later. I have also left out some unfinished pieces more ambitious than the ones below. Rather few of the piece here can even claim to be philosophy at all; most of them are about philosophy.

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.

Thick and Many-legged

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 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.

How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science

Specialists are workers, and bosses are generalists. For philosophy the cost of specialization has been to become a subaltern null discipline, watching marketers and administrators and publicists and preachers and strategists and financiers and demagogues and promoters make the big political decisions, with no input from philosophy.  The aggressive modesty of analytic philosophy looks cute on paper, but it’s hard for a student of current events to think that there’s something missing nowadays, and that philosophy might be it.

Ressentiment and Schooling: A New Theory of Western Civilization

Sexual repression and hatred of the body are often alleged to be at the root of Western alienation. An examination of a number of key figures (Nietzsche, Rimbaud, and St. Augustine, with glances at Sartre, Pascal and Thoreau) shows that behind the sexual repression and ressentiment often lie years of intensive classical education forced upon these authors by ambitious parents — often mothers, with the fathers absent or ineffectual). The supposed sexual repression is simply the result of the same social-climbing imperatives, which forbid both illicit relationships and marriages into inappropriate families.

While I do not really believe that my theory actually explains Western civilization, I think that it is better than the theories that it parodies, and in fact does describe an important dynamic in Western life.

Could Friedrich Nietzsche have married Jane Austen?

But the big question is this: if Nietzsche had been an Austen character, could he have married one of Austen’s Dashwood sisters? I think that the answer is “maybe — but probably not.” In his favor is Jane Austen’s own bias toward reserved, dignified suitors. When she concocted improbably happy endings for her books, Austen made sure that the “nice guy” got the girl — whereas she forced the dashing, impulsive seducer to slink offstage in disgrace. Now, according to the testimony in Gilman’s book, Nietzsche was tolerably like the characters Austen favored, and during his younger days he probably even had the ardent sincerity Marianne (the “sensibility” sister) demanded. At the same time, however, both sisters expected what we would call an upper class income (1000 to 2000 pounds), and Nietzsche probably would have been out of luck for that reason.

Where Philosophy and Sex Both Went Wrong

By now, the horses of philosophy have been out of the barn for two and a half millennia already and we’re not going to get them back inside, but you have to ask yourself whether modeling the pursuit of truth on an abnormal mental state resulting from a hormone imbalance ever was a good idea. Are truth-seekers indeed needy, obsessive, broken human units whose desired truths are really just distorted, fetishized projections of their own neediness and lack? Is this a desirable state of affairs?

Monomania and Philosophy

Descartes’ paranoid construction joined Socrates’ fantasy idealizations of handsome young soldiers to become the second foundation of Western philosophy. In fact, Descartes’ episode of cabin fever occurred while he was in the Bavarian army, and the philosophy of mind he built on this foundation provided the basis which made it possible to replace Socrates’ erotic men of war (Alexander the Great, the Caesars, the Crusaders, the Caliphate, etc.. etc.) with a new model army, solipsistic, disciplined and less randy (e.g. the soldiers of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, of the absolutist and romantic-nationalist eras, and so on up until the present). In general, bizarre metaphysics is necessary for anyone working to inculcate troops with the combination of disciplined brutality and suicidal fearlessness required for that line of work.

A Naive Reading of Descartes

The basic “Cartesian” philosophical principles of mind-body dualism, idealism, and the ontological proof of the existence of God are all there in the Discourse on Method, but in such a sketchy form that they don’t seem like philosophy at all. The metaphysical, philosophical part is limited to the six pages of Part Four, and to me seems by far the weakest and least interesting part of the book. What’s really interesting is the description of a practical analytic, atomistic scientific method — including a job description for research assistants, an early version of peer review, and a model for scientific training that looks a lot like “progressive education”.  A naive reading of Descartes’ text finds a pragmatist

Staying at home

Voltaire’s dig was aimed at Maupertuis and the other French geodeticists, who traveled to Lapland and Ecuador to take measurements establishing the exact shape and size of the earth — data necessary for the confirmation of Newton’s gravitational theory. Voltaire’s belief that these trips and measurements were unnecessary was the result of an anti-empirical theoreticist bias. This was the rationalist age, and Voltaire thought that measurements were unnecessary, since Newton’s theory showed what the measurements would be. (Voltaire was all wrong, of course.) The Cynic Emperor

If there was any doubt that the cosmology of The Meditations was politically and not scientifically grounded, and that Marcus speaks from the seat of power, the passages below (along with his passing remarks on the poor little pig and the runaway slave) should lay it to rest:

The universe should be regarded as a kind of constitutional state. (4.3)

If that be so, the world is a kind of state. For in what other common constitution can we claim that the whole world participates? (4.4)

The Aristotle Adventure

For me, with my interest in tidbits of trivia, the more obscure biographies themselves are worth the price of the book: the Syrian Christian father-and-son team Hunain ibn Ishaq and Ishaq ibn Hunain;   John Italus, the son of a Norman mercenary (and contemporary of William the Conqueror), who studied Greek in Sicily and worked in Constantinople; Hypatia, a pagan woman and math/philosophy professor, who was murdered by Christians in 415 AD; and the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, who published Aristotle’s complete Greek works in 1498 in an edition of a thousand copies.

Aristotle and Squid

Of things constituted by nature some are ungenerated, imperishable, and eternal, while others are subject to generation and decay. The former are excellent beyond compare and divine, but less accessible to knowledge. The evidence that might throw light on them, and on the problems which we long to solve respecting them, is furnished but scantily by sensation; whereas respecting perishable plants and animals we have abundant information, living as we do in their midst, and ample data may be collected concerning all their various kinds, if only we are willing to take sufficient pains. Both departments, however, have their special charm. The scanty conceptions to which we can attain of celestial things give us, from their excellence, more pleasure than all our knowledge of the world in which we live; just as a half glimpse of persons that we love is more delightful than a leisurely view of other things, whatever their number and dimensions. On the other hand, in certitude and in completeness our knowledge of terrestrial things has the advantage. Moreover, their greater nearness and affinity to us balances somewhat the loftier interest of the heavenly things that are the objects of the higher philosophy.”

Drakon and Solon

From a contemporary ideological point of view, the Athenian venture is interesting. In Athens the republican state and the individual (and to a degree, the market society) emerged simultaneously — at the expense of myth, tradition, and the extended family. Individualism was made possible by the new state form, but this state form also forbade citizens to act on their desires for revenge and required them to restrain their impulses toward self-assertion. And finally, in Athens equality consisted of extending to commoners the old rights or privileges of the nobility (e.g. jury service, and the right to bring cases to trial), rather than simply stripping the nobles of their privileges and thus attaining a servile equality.


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.

Parmenides in Szechuan

In Chungking, the temporary Nationalist Chinese capital during WWII, Hao Wang (eventually to become Kurt Godel’s literary executor, studied mathematical logic  while Ch’en K’ang was  translating and commenting on Plato’s Parmenides. Oddly enough, Ch’en does not mention two closely  parallel passages between Chuang Tzu (Watson tr., p. 141) and Plato (Parmenides #130c) on the Forms (or Tao) of hair, mud, dirt, piss, and shit.

Schmitt and Strauss: An Unfair Appraisal

Nonetheless, I find the Leo Strauss of the Schmitt/Strauss dialogue completely repellent. It does not seem to me that Germany in 1932 was the right time or place to engage in a deep and thoroughgoing critique of liberalism. (Liberalism here is broadly defined in the European style, according to which Milton Friedman is more liberal than a  liberal Democrat is).

Agamben, Schmitt, Strauss, and Benjamin

This may also what Agamben thinks, but to me it’s all wrong. If the lawless state of exception has become the basis of modern state power, it would seem that the corrective would be a return to lawfulness. Butler is apparently talking about something like Benjamin’s “pure violence”, outside the law, to counter the lawlessness of the state of exception, but for a variety of reasons I think that that proposal is ludicrous. As I’ve said elsewhere, the German Left between the two World Wars has to be regarded as the most unsuccessful political movement of all time, and seems unlikely to provide us with a usable model for our own practice. Furthermore, the violent potentials in the world of today seem almost all to be from the right, and it seems ill-advised to dream of “pure violence”.

Werewolves and the State

So the werewolf is Socrates, the state of exception, the tyrant, and Solon (the founder of Western Civilization, and the tyrant). Following David Gordon White you could throw in Saint Christopher, Romulus and Remus, and the primal ancestor of the Turkish and Mongol hordes. Wolves symbolize the state of nature, tyranny, founding violence, restorative violence, rebellious violence, and anarchy. And government is the monopoly of legitimate  violence — even Weber knew that, though “legitimate” has no definable meaning here . All order is founded on violence. You want one founder, preferably in the distant past. You really don’t want lots of founder.development.

Le Real” is a kind of Sturgeon

So we could paraphrase Kant, “A hundred real reals do not contain a centavo more than a hundred possible reals.” Seemingly, the Real is the cash value — the kingly, the important, the inherited realm, landed property, and the gold and silver coins. Philosophical realism is the philosophy for which Ideas or Forms are important because they are royal and real because they are thinglike – which seems to destroy the purpose of the Ideas, which supposedly gain their power via their distinction from mere physical objects. And in Spain and Portugal, royalty remains “real” to this day, whereas in France since 1789, even the word real itself has been banished from the language. (What does Lacan have to say about all this? “The Real is impossible.” Thanks a lot, Jacques!)

Kenneth Burke did it too

Five of my favorite quotations, three of which are unattested and probably apocryphal, and one of which isn’t a quotation at all, but just a rough paraphrase. But that’s OK! Because the highly-esteemed Kenneth Burke used fake quotes too, and by my great good luck his fake quotes talk about approximately the

What was Wittgenstein?

Why was Wittgenstein blocked? My own feeling is that he was still stuck in the universality trap and was not able to move to the indexical perspective. Second, he attached himself to the mystical notion of silence, without having involved himself in actual mystical practice. (If he had done so, he would have found that the mysticism of silence are supported by extensive bodies of writing; “silence” is a teaching device, not a dogma or absolute rule). And finally, the peculiar form of existential ethics he was born to, a rigorist sort of Germanic Christianity, was not, in my opinion, well-suited to philosophical same thing that mine do!

Freud and Me

Did incontinent early man have the habit of putting out forest fires by pissing on them? Did early woman invent weaving in the process of trying to make herself little penises out of her pubic hair? My conclusion is that Sigmund Freud needed either a reality sense or an editor.

Why I Never Studied Critical Theory

The irony and darkness of history comes only in small part from the abstruse self-misunderstandings uncovered by critical theorists.  They come mostly from the fact that individuals and groups are always working toward different ends and thus often impede and sabotage one another, as well as from the fact that, by definition, most ventures fail.

Becker on the Family

When the child-commodity turns eighteen, it becomes independent. At that point the little child-commodity (which had been producing “psychic income” — p. 194) turns into human capital — i.e., an independent adult selling its labor on the market. At this point the parental unit of human capital has nothing to show for his efforts. The child-commodity upon which he had lavished so much money and time is gone forever, to be replaced by an independent, competing unit of human capital.

Relativism as an Institution

“Truth on one side of the Pyrenees, error on the other” (Pascal).

Relativism is to a large degree institutional and legal in origin. The international system, federalism, limited government, secular government, and individual rights (as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights) all have a relativizing effect. What’s legal in one place is illegal in another — not just from nation to nation, but from state to state, city to city, and even from county to county. (In some states of the US each county has its own liquor laws.) Likewise, in a secular state guaranteeing individual rights, you are able to do whatever you want to, within the law, even if everyone in your community hates what you’re doing. The tendency in the West over the last several centuries has been to relax the bonds of absolute values, especially religious and traditional values, and to replace them with more limited and more explicit legal codes, thus creating large zones of individual freedom which are differently defined from one political unit to another.

Philosophers and Nuclear War (around 1950)

While looking for other things entirely, during the last few days I’ve run across some citations from the years 1947-1952 which put philosophy in a rather odd light. The topic is nuclear warfare, and the authors are Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and the process philosopher and theologian Charles Hartshorne.

Orwell and Pacifism

Why do we honor Orwell today? We admire him, not because of his courage in raining abouse on pacifists in his wartime journalism, but primarily because of two books and an essay: Animal Farm, 1984, and “Politics and the English Language”. Animal Farm is an anti-Communist parable, and this is the Orwell of Kelly, Hitchens, and Sullivan. 1984 is anti-Communist too, but it also portrays a propaganda state permanently mobilized against shifting enemies selected on realpolitik principles. “Politics and the English Language” favors clear writing and opposes the use of bad bureaucratic or ideological writing to obscure meaning, but it also rejects the kinds of smearing of opponents which he himself at times did.

When American hawks picked up the Stalinist “objective fascist” phrase, they were taking as a model works of Orwell of which he repented; and in fact, the “objective Fascist” smear could have been found in the writings any of hundreds of his Stalinist agitprop contemporaries.

Bertrand Russell’s “Power: A New Social Analysis”

When I started reading Power, I expected to whip through it, make some comments on the two Russells, and be done with it. A quick scan shows it to be the work of a philosophe, comparable to the writings of Macauley or Gibbon. Ungrounded generalizations, snap judgements, and moralisms stud the pages. The book apparently was constructed entirely with the use of Reason, Common Sense, common knowledge, and secondary sources, with no experimentation, research, or data collection to speak of. So I had a snappy, snarky dismissal all ready to go. However, I’ve found that Russell’s theories mesh with things that I’ve recently concluded for myself.

Material Implication

However, my conclusion is, first, that people who use ordinary-language implication in their work will gain nothing whatever from its formalization as material implication, which is directed toward entirely different purposes. And second, that people inventing examples of implication for textbooks in formal logic should simply avoid real-world examples. After all, some crows are white. In truth, in the ordinary-language real world, there’s very little outside the most basic physical science rigorous enough to profit from rigorous formulation as implication.

The Heap

However, it’s absolutism which (paradoxically) leads to the slippery slope. With relative concepts you have known ends, and argue about the middle. With absolute concepts you have one end which is perfect and basically imaginary; everything else is equally imperfect, and first trimester abortion is the same as murder. With two ends given, you can argue about the middle without making either end disappear entirely (i.e., without either making everyone tall, or everyone short). To my mind, Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu in Chinese philosophy had solutions to this problem superior to Plato’s.

Simples (unfinished draft)

The pure formal experience described by the three philosophers resembles the dimensionless points of geometry (or Newton’s real infinitesimal) in that it is imaginary. It doesn’t seem, though, that anything as powerful as geometry rose from the fiction of an atom of consciousness; my understanding is that Artificial Intelligence developed from quite different, more pragmatic origins (mostly attempts to model animal behavior).

On the Correct Handling of Contradictions  among the Philosophers

To my mind Whitehead’s method is the most reasonable of the three. He only claims that an internal inconsistency in Locke’s philosophy (supposedly corrected by Hume) actually was an imperfect anticipation of the correct view. In Whitehead’s view, Hume’s revision of Locke was internally more consistent but led to a subjectivism which misdirected modern philosophy. Locke’s incoherent statement, by contrast, at least left the problem for others to solve, and he did express the correct view a few times, though not in a fully-developed form.

By contrast, Derrida and especially Strauss used an extreme form of the philological lectio difficilior rule, which even as a carefully-used technical tool often leads to problems. Foucault criticized Derrida for proposing “a pedagogy that gives to the master’s voice the limitless sovereignty that allows it to restate the text indefinitely”, and the same criticism of Strauss would be valid a fortiori. Within their frameworks, the more erudite author can say anything he wants to, and there are really no criteria for argument or disagreement. Strauss assumes that the authors he reads are perfect, without inconsistency and perhaps even without internal development, whereas Derrida seems to assume that the authors he discusses are identically self-refuting and only of interest as Derridian takeoff-points.

There is good to be found in everything, of course, but on the balance I think that the effects in the scholarly world of Strauss’s Jesuitical cabbalism and Derrida’s euphuistic Gongorism have been more harmful than beneficial.


To my mind my argumentative, ranting pieces haven’t worn well, though I think I will eventually be able to salvage something from them.

Polemical pieces generally worse than those above

Polemical pieces which are generally still worse

Published on January 11, 2014 at 2:39 am  Leave a Comment  

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