Monday, 17 June 2019

On The Libertarian Flags

Why do some libertarian movements use as their flag the picture of a rattlesnake coiled ready to strike with the text “DON'T TREAD ON ME” written beneath it?

I understand that the flag has a historical connection—it was designed in 1775 (during the American Revolution) by the American general and politician Christopher Gadsden. During revolutionary times a flag with this kind of a symbolism is fine, but it makes little sense to use it in times of peace and stability.

When the libertarians use such a flag, they risk sending out the signal that they are extremely dogmatic in their thinking, full of hatred for all non-libertarians (which means vast majority of the population), and alienated from the society. Your philosophical, economic, and political thinking might be good, but very few people will come forward to support your cause if your calling card contains the image of a rattlesnake with its fang bared and the text “DON'T TREAD ON ME”. People have a poor sense of history—most of them may not even know about the connection with the Gadsden flag.

Some libertarian scholars, I have noticed, use the image of a hemp leaf as their flag. Perhaps they think that that the hemp leaf stands for liberty and good life. I believe that people should be free to consume the intoxicants of their choice, but to use a hemp leaf as the flag for a social and political movement is not a good strategy as it creates the impression that this is a movement of the hedonists, by the hedonists, and for the hedonists.

The “DON'T TREAD ON ME” flag and the hemp leaf flag should be rejected because they create the impression that the libertarians are a community of unhinged and alienated people. A social and political movement is also about winning—your flag should be such that it helps you in making a positive impression on maximum number of people.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Skepticism is the Fountainhead of Philosophy

Depiction of the Stone Age
by Viktor Vasnetsov
In his book Way to Wisdom,  Karl Jaspers writes, “The source of philosophy is to be sought in wonder, in doubt, in a sense of forsakenness. In any case it begins with an inner upheaval, which determines its goal.” ~ (Chapter 2: “Sources of Philosophy”)

I think this is correct. Till about 70,000 years ago the human beings were more or less like animals—they did not have the ability to doubt anything and they had to believe all the information that they received through their senses. In such a condition there could be no philosophy.

Philosophy came into being when language become so advanced that the human beings had the ability to communicate to themselves and share with others their doubts about the nature of the world that they perceived around them. The first spark of philosophy must have been lit by the man who for the first time propagated the idea that the things that he and others see can be something else or may not even exist.

This means that the idea that there is a reality outside the mind and that the world that we perceive through our senses is real has been gained through skepticism itself. We can then say that skepticism is the fountainhead of philosophy. Human beings philosophize because we wonder about things, we are filled with doubt and a sense of forsakenness.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

8 Heads of Libertarianism

Libertarianism has eight heads: Anarcho-Capitalism, Civil Libertarianism, Classical Liberalism, Fiscal Libertarianism, Libertarian Socialism, Minarchism, Neolibertarianism, and Paleolibertarianism. However, libertarianism cannot be compared to a Hydra because the eight heads are mostly disjointed from each other—they do not have a common body. Each of the eight heads thinks that it is the “real” libertarianism and the other seven are imposters and charlatans—the thought of coexisting with each other in the same body is an anathema to them.

The Definition of an Intellectual

Eric Hoffer
In his article, “The Definition of an Intellectual,” (February 16, 1969), Eric Hoffer gives a definition of the kind of intellectuals that he despised:
I have been wiping the floor with the intellectuals these many years, blaming them for everything under the sun. Though I have spelled out many times who these intellectuals are, I am still being asked quite often for a definition of the intellectual. Here it is:  
My intellectual is a person who feels himself a member of the educated elite with a God-given right to direct and shape events. He need not be well educated or very intelligent. What counts is the feeling of the being a member of the educated elite. 
What the intellectual wants above all is to be listened to—with deference. He will forgive you everything if you take him seriously, and allow him to instruct you. It is more important to him to be important than to be free, and he would rather be persecuted than ignored. 
He ends his article with these lines: “The intellectual knows with every fiber of his being that men are not equal, and there are a few things he cares for less than a classless society. He is convinced that government is too weighty and complex to be left to common people. He cannot see how anything originating in an uninformed, unprincipled and uncommitted populace could be of any value. There is nothing he loathes more than government by and for the people.”

Friday, 14 June 2019

MacIntyre's Comparison Between the Fall of Rome and Modern Civilization

Alasdair MacIntyre ends his book After Virtue with this paragraph:

“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.” (Page 304-305)

Since the barbarians are not at the gates, but are governing us, what should the modern man do?

Thursday, 13 June 2019

My Thoughts on Objectivism

Ayn Rand
Here are some of my thoughts on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism:

1. Whenever the objectivists are confronted with a new political or social problem, they look backwards towards their messiah, who did her best work between the 1930s and 1950s, to find in her writing what she would think about this problem. So objectivism is the philosophy of past, the philosophy of archivists, the philosophy whose best time is now gone for good.

2. The objectivists are convinced that Ayn Rand has provided the solution to every philosophical and political problem in her writings. Doing your own thinking, coming up with your own ideas, have never been the objectivist way. The objectivists prefer philosophy that comes in a can which carries the label: Ayn Rand Cola.

3. A philosophical movement has not come of age till it outgrows its founder. Objectivism has no chance of outgrowing its founder. When Rand was around, objectivism was like a bonsai plant growing out of a small bottle kept on her study table. After her demise in 1982, Leonard Peikoff transferred the objectivist bonsai plant to his own study table. He waters and tends it as a religious duty everyday but he has no ambition of freeing it from the bottle.

4. The objectivists believe that they are revolutionaries who are fighting to create a better world. But they are not revolutionaries. They are a very small cultish establishment. The objectivist movement was designed as a privately owned “business establishment” by Nathaniel Branden in the 1950s and 60s, and it has continued to function in more or less the same way after his departure in 1968.

5. Rudeness is generally a trait of the philosophers who are dogmatic, intolerant, and not confident of their own knowledge. The objectivists are often rude because they want to hide their intellectual weakness and project the impression of strength.

6. Objectivism cannot be the philosophy of living happily on earth because it has been founded by a lady who herself desperately quested for happiness but found very little of it. The objectivists, who follow Rand blindly, don’t know what happiness is or how it can be achieved.

7. The objectivist project (as conceived by Ayn Rand) is so huge and the people charged with managing it are so “small” that the aims of this project can never be achieved. The objectivist scholars, it seems, have been intellectually and morally crushed by the weight of Rand’s monumental and grandiose undertaking. They appear clueless.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

A Fictitious History of Mankind

In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari uses his fertile imagination to conjure a dark picture of mankind’s past and future. I managed to wade through the first two parts of the four-part book, and now I have decided to take a break from Harari-ism. His book does not contain much actual history— it’s full of wild speculations, brazen lies, and dubious analysis. I don’t see any benefit in reading it to the end. Here's a review of the first two parts of the book:

Harari speculates that the homo sapiens were responsible for destruction of almost every creature that has disappeared in the last 100000 years. He sees the Homo Sapiens as a terror of the ecosystem, and suggests that they were responsible for the disappearance of Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and other creatures of the Homo genus. That our ancestors were victorious over their genetic cousins was, I think, good for us, but Harari is pessimistic about our future. He notes that mankind will vanish in another thousand years because of what the modern man is doing.

Harari hates modernity. In several passages, he suggests that a hunter-gatherer way of life is in some ways better than the life of the modern man. Here’s an excerpt:

“While people in today’s affluent societies work an average of forty to forty-five hours a week, and people in the developing world work sixty and even eighty hours a week, hunter-gatherers living today in the most inhospitable of habitats – such as the Kalahari Desert work on average for just thirty-five to forty-five hours a week. They hunt only one day out of three, and gathering takes up just three to six hours daily. In normal times, this is enough to feed the band. It may well be that ancient hunter-gatherers living in zones more fertile than the Kalahari spent even less time obtaining food and raw materials. On top of that, foragers enjoyed a lighter load of household chores. They had no dishes to wash, no carpets to vacuum, no floors to polish, no nappies to change and no bills to pay.” (Page 56)

Harari’s claims are interesting but dubious. If the life of prehistoric hunter-gatherers was as good as he claims, then why was their life expectancy so low? Most of them used to die before they were 30. He asserts that “the forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do.” This, I think, is pure speculation. He goes on to suggest that in most places, “foraging provided ideal nutrition,” and that such a lifestyle protected the prehistoric men “from starvation and malnutrition.”  He offers an idyllic description of the lifestyle of the hunter-gatherers that we, the modern men, are expected to envy and emulate.

Environmentalism is a key concern for Harari. He holds that mankind has been destroying the environment for the last 70,000 years. He says that “historical record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.” (Page 74) But what is historical record that he is talking about—he does not clarify. “We are the culprits,” he proclaims like a medieval mystic out to damn the sinners. (Page 80)  He ends the Part 1 of his book with a rant about the ecological disasters that humans have caused in the past and warns that modern man is continuing to wreak havoc on the environment.

“Perhaps if more people were aware of the First Wave and Second Wave extinctions, they’d be less nonchalant about the Third Wave they are part of. If we knew how many species we’ve already eradicated, we might be more motivated to protect those that still survive. This is especially relevant to the large animals of the oceans. Unlike their terrestrial counterparts, the large sea animals suffered relatively little from the Cognitive and Agricultural Revolutions. But many of them are on the brink of extinction now as a result of industrial pollution and human overuse of oceanic resources. If things continue at the present pace, it is likely that whales, sharks, tuna and dolphins will follow the diprotodons, ground sloths and mammoths to oblivion. Among all the world’s large creatures, the only survivors of the human flood will be humans themselves, and the farmyard animals that serve as galley slaves in Noah’s Ark.” (Page 82-83)

But Harari does not offer any evidence to prove his theory of First Wave, Second Wave, and Third Wave extinctions. He has little understanding of the historical periods and he tends to make wild speculations about what transpired tens of thousands of years ago. For instance, in Part II of his book he is making the case that the movement into agricultural communities was a mistake, because a hunter-gatherer lifestyle was more easy, full of joy, and healthy. He calls the discovery of wheat, the “history’s biggest fraud,” and tries to make the case that wheat led to the downfall in the quality of life of the farmers. His theories are unbelievable.

According to Harari, mankind is a pestilence that has been ravaging the earth for tens of thousands years destroying every creature and polluting the environment. He offers blood-curdling predictions about human destiny. I don’t know why anyone will take such nonsense seriously. But it is clear that many people are taking Harari’s book seriously—it is in the bestseller list and has garnered several good reviews. That a book containing such amateurish speculation and outrageous falsification of history can become a bestseller is a testament of our low intellectual standards.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Role of Gossiping in Human Progress

Depiction of the Stone Age, by Viktor Vasnetsov
Human beings have a natural and unusual ability for making great progress by indulging in acts that are trivial. It is likely that the wheel was invented around 70,000 years ago when a group of children started using a circular piece of wood or stone as their new toy. After years of watching their children play around with circular objects, some of the grownups realized that the wheel could be used to transport heavy loads across large distances.

Boats, bows and arrows, oil lamps, and needles (which are essential for sewing animal skin) were invented during the same period, probably by children looking for new toys, or foolish adults who didn’t have anything better to do other than tinkering with trivial things and ideas. The dogs were first domesticated about 30,000 years ago and in another 15,000 years all human tribes had their dogs. But it is plausible that the dog was first domesticated by a child looking for a companion, or by a foolish adult or an outcast from the tribe. After it became apparent that the dog could be domesticated, the tribal leaders realized that they could use the animal as a hunting partner and for guarding the tribe.

It is the childish and the foolish minds which venture into areas that are ignored by the experienced and successful members of the community.

Yuval Noah Harari, in Chapter 2, “The Tree of Knowledge,” of his book  Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, talks about the critical role that gossiping, a “trivial” human habit which is often frowned upon, has played in human progress. He writes: “Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.”

According to Harari, language and the human trait of gossiping progressed side-by-side between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. “The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.”

One impact of gossiping was that the size of the average size of the tribes grew to around 150 individuals—this was a fairly large number in that period. Further growth in the size of the tribes happened with the Cognitive Revolution which brought to human beings the power of thinking and talking about things that no one has ever seen, heard, or smelled. When human beings started talking about the supernatural, there was the appearance of legends, myths, gods, and religions. Harari notes that “Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’”

“But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

What sets the human beings apart from other animals on this planet is that for humans the trivial is not trivial—it can be the fountainhead of great progress. The first steps in the advancement of humankind were not taken by the philosophers, scientists, politicians, and businessmen, but by toymakers, gossipers, weavers of myths, and preachers of religion.

(All quotes from Harari’s book that I have used in this article are from Chapter 2, “The Tree of Knowledge”).

Monday, 10 June 2019

“A Paradigm of Philosophical Incompetence”

In his review of Ayn Rand’s For the New Intellectual, the libertarian philosopher Bruce Goldberg calls the book a “paradigm of philosophical incompetence.” He notes that he is tempted to see the book “as a huge joke, a farce by means of which its creator can laugh at the gullible.” Goldberg’s conclusion to the review is quite sharp:
For the New Intellectual is an intolerably bad book. More than that it is a silly book; street corner rabble rousing can affect only the vulgar. That it should have come from the pen of the author of The Fountainhead, which is a genuinely fine novel, is not a little surprising. But as unfortunate as this book is, it would be even more unfortunate if it came to be regarded by anybody as a representative sample of libertarian thought. How easily the Left could shatter capitalism if this were its only defense! Fortunately the superiority of free-enterprise can be demonstrated. But while von Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, to name only a few, make for more difficult reading and demand greater attentiveness than does Ayn Rand, the reward justifies the effort. 
It is not difficult to understand the attraction Ayn Rand has for the uninstructed. She appears, I suppose, to be the spokesman for freedom, for self-esteem, and other equally noble ideals. However, patient examination reveals her pronouncements to be but a shroud beneath which lies the corpse of illogic. Those who are concerned with discovering the principles of a sound social philosophy can read and study libertarian thought at its best. The ludicrously mistitled “philosophy of Ayn Rand” is a sham. To those who are traveling her road I can only suggest its abandonment—for that way madness lies.
There is too much of anger and hatred in Rand's book. In the eponymous title-essay, she attacks several philosophers—Plato, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Comte, Spencer, Nietzsche, Bentham, and the logical positivists. Without offering a single piece of evidence or rational argument, she accuses them of being in bed with Attila and the Witch Doctor. The 41-page essay mentions the word “Attila” 106 times and the words “Witch Doctor” 116 times. Only Aristotle receives a little bit of consideration. Her depiction of Aristotle is incorrect, but at least she shows him some respect.
In a footnote to the title-essay, Rand writes, “I am indebted to Nathaniel Branden for many valuable observations on this subject and for his eloquent designation of the two archetypes, which I shall use hereafter: Attila and the Witch Doctor.” This means that it is Nathaniel Branden who introduced Rand to these hysterical words: “Attila” and “Witch Doctor”. Rand was herself weak in philosophy and the people that she collected around her were as ignorant as she was.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

The Myth of the “Saintly” Libertarian

Auguste Rodin's The Thinker 
Like most intellectuals, the libertarians have a contempt for the common folk. They believe that their libertarianism bestows on them some kind of “saintliness”. Their thinking, as reflected in their articles and books, is—I am a libertarian and so I am virtuous and correct; if you question my theories, then you must be ignorant or evil.

The concerns that drive the political choices of normal human beings are “trivial” for the libertarians—their political writing is full of ideas that are monumental, majestic, and sensational. (The truth is that they mostly sound clueless.) Even if 10% of the libertarian political predictions had come true, our civilization would have ended in a giant fireball 20 years ago. But we are still living—and the libertarians are still ranting.

In their writings, libertarians tend to demand instant gratification. They want instant transformation of politics and economy—instant gold standard, instant reform of law & order machinery, instant open borders, instant deregulation of the entire economy, instant abolishment of the entire government or of the superfluous sections of the government.

But the real world does not work on an “instant” basis. The libertarians don’t understand that if any government made such “instant” reforms, it will risk a counter-coup. People have become used to living in a bureaucratized society in the last 200 years, and if they are suddenly given total freedom, they will become confused and disoriented and they might even participate in a socialist revolution. That is why reforms must always be conducted at a pace that does not lead to any drastic and sudden transformations in the nation’s way of life.

The libertarians claim that they are too good to be involved in politics. But they are always hinting that they can run the country in a much better way than the “morons” who are in office. They condemn all politicians, and often call for abolishment of the entire government machinery, but they are themselves not averse to enjoying the perks of political power. In several countries, the Libertarian Parties have been contesting elections (and winning less than 1% of the votes)—they contest elections even though they claim that they stand for abolishing the system of government and establishing an “anarchist utopia.”

The libertarians cannot make a serious dent in politics as long as they regard themselves as saints. Politics is the job of normal human beings, and not of saints. Only a normal human being can empathize with the problems that other human beings are facing—but from the self-proclaimed saints of libertarianism, you can’t expect any understanding.

The Libertarian Political Parties cannot succeed until libertarianism is free of its “saintly” connotations. The word “libertarianism” must become a dirty word. By dirty word, I mean “non-saintly,” or a part of the corporeal world. You cannot win an electoral battle in any advanced democracy unless you are ready to wrestle in the mud. Political battles are fought in the real world and not in some saintly utopia.

I hope that one day there will be the rise of a libertarian politician who is a total scoundrel. It will take a scoundrel to rescue libertarianism from the libertarians who have become convinced that they are saints.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

On the Politics of Libertarianism

Ludwig von Mises
Here’s a rule: Any individualist and liberty oriented political movement that is dominated by intellectuals will over a period of time become collectivist and statist. This happens because most intellectuals have the tendency of falling in love with their own thinking—they love to rationalize. But “individualism” and “liberty” cannot coexist with rationalization, so when the intellectuals are in control, the movement will become collectivist and statist.

The movement of the liberals gravitated towards leftism more than 100 years ago because most liberals were intellectuals. The same thing is now happening with the movement that has inherited the mantle of the liberals, the libertarian movement. I think eventually the word “libertarianism” will go the “liberal” way because the libertarian movement is also dominated by intellectuals. While the intellectuals rationalize and bicker with each other and futilely fantasize about a libertarian utopia, the control of the word “libertarianism” slips from their hands.

A political movement needs two things to expand the reach of its ideas while adhering to its core principles: structure and direction. Libertarianism has a direction but no structure. By structure, I mean a set of institutions which agree on the broad philosophical and political principles. The libertarian institutions have very little agreement—their intellectuals bicker all the time; they accuse each other of being a socialist. It is not clear what libertarianism stands for—does it stand for free market capitalism, anarchism, minarchism, agorism, welfare state, socialism, or something else?

The libertarian political movements can create a structure by removing the intellectuals from positions of power in their organizational set-up, and putting some real politicians in charge. Only the extremely naive will believe that people support a political movement because they like its ideology and are impressed by all the blather about having a rational and free society. That is not how it works. People support a movement because they think that it will lead to an improvement in their own living condition—they are seeking a solution to their own immediate concerns.

I will end on a positive note: some schools of libertarianism have a good sense of the direction in which they want society to move. This is because the libertarians are good economists—they have written a number of books and papers on economics. Even in the areas of political history and moral theory, the libertarian scholars have done good work. They have a clear conception of the economic and political policy that they would like the government to implement. The libertarians can improve their political prospects by putting some actual politicians in charge of their political messaging.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Libertarian Politics is a Failure

The libertarians might be good in philosophy, but their political opinions are often flawed. I follow libertarian writing quite closely, but I rarely get to see a convincing political analysis by a libertarian intellectual. I think this is because most libertarians are too dogmatic—they can’t see beyond the confines of their brand of libertarianism. They don’t consider what is going on in the world and what concerns are uppermost in the minds of the people.

Like Narcissus, the libertarians are obsessed with themselves, not with their good looks (I hope), but with their own thinking which they believe is the best in the world.

You will rarely find a unique perspective on political issues in the articles authored by libertarians—in their articles they mostly rehash the same old viewpoints that you would have already picked up from dozens of media outlets. To make their articles appear unique, they try to insert some libertarian cliches and their own rationalizations, but most readers are not going to be impressed by cliches and rationalizations.

The libertarian political movements cannot win support because they are not being led by real politicians—they are dominated by intellectuals and philosophers who don’t have any political talent and whose perspective on political issues is flawed. A successful politician is not an armchair rationalizer, he is a man of action: he is a communicator; he goes out in society, listens to the people’s problems, and offers his solutions; he gets into verbal duels and even nasty street brawls with his political rivals; he struggles to raise money to fund his campaign; he does all that he can to convince the people that he is the right man for the office.

Instead of men of action, the libertarian political movements are being dominated by theorists who sit in their armchair and rant against their political rivals, or rationalize and pontificate about a “libertarian utopia” that they will create if the masses vote for them. They never listen to anyone who is not a libertarian intellectual like them; they never make the effort to understand the historical nature of the problems that their country is facing. Their thinking is utopian and they are convinced that their libertarian philosophy is a magic wand for curing the world of all its woes and bringing happiness to all.

The only people that the libertarians can hope to impress with their philosophizing are other libertarians. The man on the street is unimpressed by libertarianism, because he is not looking for philosophy; he is looking for concrete solutions to specific problems; he is looking for politicians who are capable of taking “actions” to solve social problems. I am not saying that the political choices that the voters make is always correct—often they end up voting the wrong political force into office with disastrous consequences for their society. But they will generally vote for politicians who offer a plan for action and not for philosophers whose entire campaign consists of rants, philosophical theories, and rationalizations.

In most Western and Asian democracies, the libertarian movements fail to get more than 2% of the vote. All the rationalizations and pontifications of the libertarian politicians and intellectuals is having no impact on the people. The general public is not going to be impressed by the libertarian political movements as long as these movements are dominated by intellectuals and philosophers who don’t listen to anyone and preach without getting up from their armchair.

I don’t see any major progress happening in the libertarian space in the next 20 years. The libertarian political movements will continue to be dominated by philosophers and intellectuals who have zero understanding of the political realities.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

The Truth, According to William James

William James
I see William James’s pragmatism as a form of skepticism—this is primarily because it holds that truth is something that has to be invented bit-by-bit by a number of inventors. The nature of the truths that we hold, according to pragmatism, is dependent on the caprice and knowledge of the inventors: one set of inventors may give rise to one kind of truths, while another set of inventors may create a wholly different set of truths.

Henri Bergson offers a good insight into James’s view of truth in his essay, “On The Pragmatism of William James.” Here’s an excerpt:
More precisely, other doctrines make of truth something anterior to the clearly-determined act of the man who formulates it for the first time. He was the first to see it, we say, but it was waiting for him, just as America was waiting for Christopher Columbus. Something hid it from view and, so to speak, covered it up: he uncovered it. —Quite different is William James's conception. He does not deny that reality is independent, at least to a great extent, of what we say or think of it; but the truth, which can be attached only to what we affirm about reality, is, for him, created by our affirmation. We invent the truth to utilize reality, as we create mechanical devices to utilize the forces of nature. It seems to me one could sum up all that is essential in the pragmatic conception of truth in a formula such as this: while for other doctrines a new truth is a discovery, for pragmatism it is an invention.  
It does not follow, of course, that the truth is arbitrary. The value of a mechanical invention lies solely in its practical usefulness. In the same way an affirmation, because it is true, should increase our mastery over things. It is no less the creation of a certain individual mind, and it was no more pre-existent to the effort of that mind than the phonograph, for example, existed before Edison. No doubt the inventor of the phonograph had to study the properties of sound, which is a reality. But his invention was superadded to that reality as a thing absolutely new, which might never have been produced had he not existed. Thus a truth, if it is to endure, should have its roots in realities; but these realities are only the ground in which that truth grows, and other flowers could just as well have grown there if the wind had brought other seeds. 
According to Bergson, pragmatism is a continuation of Kantianism. He writes: “The structure of our mind is therefore to a great extent our work, or at least the work of some of us. That, it seems to me, is the most important thesis of pragmatism, even though it has not been explicitly stated. It is in this way that pragmatism continues Kantianism. Kant had said that truth depends upon the general structure of the human mind. Pragmatism adds, or at least implies, that the structure of the human mind is the effect of the free initiative of a certain number of individual minds.”

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Philosophy is a Never-ending Dialogue

The School of Athens, by Raphael
Many modern readers regard philosophy as a procession of great figures whose ideas are supposed to be final. But that is not the right view of philosophy. There is no figure in philosophy so great that his ideas cannot be attacked. Julia Annas makes an interesting comment in her book Ancient Philosophy (Page 17):
Ancient philosophy (indeed, philosophy generally) is typically marked by a refusal to leave things opaque and puzzling, to seek to make them clearer and more transparent to reason. Hence reading ancient philosophy tends to engage the reader’s reasoning immediately, to set a dialogue of minds going.  
Ancient philosophy is sometimes taught as a procession of Great Figures, whose ideas the student is supposed to take in and admire. Nothing could be further from its spirit. When we open most works of ancient philosophy, we find that an argument is going on – and that we are being challenged to join in. 
In philosophy, everyone is a mortal, everyone dies, and every philosophical idea can be attacked. You can argue against any idea—you can even argue that the reality that you see with your own eyes does not exist and several philosophers have done that in the past with great success. The process of arguments and counter-arguments never ends in philosophy.

A piece of knowledge is philosophy only so long as it is being defended by philosophical arguments, and where there are arguments, there will always be counter-arguments. If scientific proof is found for any philosophical idea, then that idea will cease to be philosophy—it will be regarded as a scientific or mathematical fact.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Legends and Civilization

Homer and His Guide
by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
There is no antagonism between legends and philosophy. The legends are not ideologies, but by giving shape to new gods and inspiring a sense of identity in people, they can give birth to a culture with a new kind of philosophical thinking. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt notes that the legends have served as the spiritual foundations of all ancient cities, empires, and civilizations. Here’s an excerpt from Arendt’s book (Chapter 7: “Race and Bureaucracy”):
Legends have always played a powerful role in the making of history. Man, who has not been granted the gift of undoing, who is always an unconsulted heir of other men's deeds, and who is always burdened with a responsibility that appears to be the consequence of an unending chain of events rather than conscious acts, demands an explanation and interpretation of the past in which the mysterious key to his future destiny seems to be concealed. Legends were the spiritual foundations of every ancient city, empire, people, promising safe guidance through the limitless spaces of the future. Without ever relating facts reliably, yet always expressing their true significance, they offered a truth beyond realities, a remembrance beyond memories.  
Legendary explanations of history always served as belated corrections of facts and real events, which were needed precisely because history itself would hold man responsible for deeds he had not done and for consequences he had never foreseen. The truth of the ancient legends—what gives them their fascinating actuality many centuries after the cities and empires and peoples they served have crumbled to dust—was nothing but the form in which past events were made to fit the human condition in general and political aspirations in particular. Only in the frankly invented tale about events did man consent to assume his responsibility for them, and to consider past events his past. Legends made him master of what he had not done, and capable of dealing with what he could not undo. In this sense, legends are not only among the first memories of mankind, but actually the true beginning of human history. 
Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin have suggested that the philosophical tradition begins not with Socrates and Plato but with Homer. In his book The World of Polis, Voegelin says that the Homeric poems led to the formation of Hellenic cultural consciousness by giving it a common past and by superimposing the gods of its pantheon on the various local cults. This means that the Homeric poems contributed to the creation of a culture in which philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle could do their work.

Monday, 3 June 2019

The Ignorant are More Wise than the Learned

Eric Hoffer, in his article “The Cauldron of Youth” (Published on Feb 11, 1968), writes:
The ignorant are a reservoir of daring. It almost seems that those who have yet to discover the known are particularly equipped for dealing with the unknown. The unlearned have often rushed in where the learned feared to tread, and it is the credulous who are tempted to attempt the impossible. Where you see a revolution taking place without revolutionaries there the vulgar and the ignorant are at work.  They know not whither they are going, and give chance a chance. 
Often in the past the wise were unaware of the great mutations which were unfolding before their eyes. How many of the learned knew in the early decades of the 19th century that they had an industrial revolution on their hands? The discovery of America hardly touched the learned, but it influenced the minds of the common folk.
I think Hoffer is spot-on. A country of ignorant and hardworking folks is more likely to succeed than a country dominated by intellectuals.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

On the Regime of Ignorance

Here’s an excerpt from the speech by Thon Taddeo in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz:

"Ignorance has been our king. Since the death of empire, he sits unchallenged on the throne of Man. His dynasty is age-old. His right to rule is now considered legitimate. Past sages have affirmed it. They did nothing to unseat him.


"Tomorrow, a new prince shall rule. Men of understanding, men of science shall stand behind his throne, and the universe will come to know his might. His name is Truth. His empire shall encompass the Earth. And the mastery of Man over the Earth shall be renewed. A century from now, men will fly through the air in mechanical birds. Metal carriages will race along roads of man-made stone. There will be buildings of thirty stories, ships that go under the sea, machines to perform all works.


"And how will this come to pass?" He paused and lowered his voice. "In the same way all change comes to pass, I fear. And I am sorry it is so. It will come to pass by violence and upheaval, by flame and by fury, for no change comes calmly over the world.”

He glanced around, for a soft murmur arose from the community.

“It will be so. We will not will it so.”

“But why?”

"Ignorance is king. Many would not profit by his abdication. Many enrich themselves by means of his dark monarchy. They are his Court, and in his name they defraud and govern, enrich themselves and perpetuate their power. Even literacy they fear, for the written word is another channel of communication that might cause their enemies to become united. Their weapons are keen-honed, and they use them with skill. They will press the battle upon the world when their interests are threatened, and the violence which follows will last until the structure of society as it now exists is leveled to rubble, and a new society emerges. I am sorry: But that is how I see it."

(A Canticle for Leibowitz; Chapter 20; Pages 214-215)

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Reading Kant in the 1790s

Jakob Friedrich Fries
The 1790s were the period when Germany witnessed the pantheism controversy, the effects of the French Revolution and the rise of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. Jakob Friedrich Fries was introduced to Kantian philosophy by one of his teachers Karl Bernhard Garve at the Moravian seminary in Niesky where he was studying in the years 1792—1795. The brethren at the Moravian seminary considered Kant’s thought bad for religious faith and they did not take kindly to Garve’s endeavors for acquainting his students with Kantianism. Garve was relieved of his duties, but his efforts had the intended effect—at the top of the reading list of his students was Kant.

In his book The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism, 1796-1880, Frederick C. Beiser gives the following description of Fries’s attempts to read Kant at the seminary:
"At first the only books he could obtain were the Prolegomena and the so-called Prize Essay, that is, Kant’s 1764 pre-critical work Untersuchung über die Deutlichkeit der Grundsätze der natürlichen Theologie und der Moral. Fries was greatly impressed by both works, which, he said, taught him a completely new method of doing philosophy. But how was Fries to get Kant’s masterwork, his Kritik der reinen Vernunft? Only with great stealth. Against regulations, Fries sneaked out of the seminary and walked to the bookdealer in neighbouring Görlitz. There he bought only parts of the book, some printed sheets; he dared not buy a whole bound copy, because this would have attracted the suspicion of the inspectors. When the seminary’s doctor visited the bookshop in Görlitz, the bookdealer praised the youth’s intellectual curiosity; the doctor raised alarm, and the inspectors duly confiscated the sheets. Fries managed to get them back by convincing the inspectors that he would do it again anyway." 
Beiser notes that “Kant had become “forbidden fruit” for students at the seminary. The temptation of reading him was all the greater precisely because it had been prohibited.”

Friday, 31 May 2019

On the Jewishness of Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust
In The Origins of Totalitarianism (Chapter 3: “The Jews and Society"), Hannah Arendt calls attention to Marcel Proust’s perception of his own Jewish heritage.

“When Marcel Proust, himself half Jewish and in emergencies ready to identify himself as a Jew, set out to search for "things past,” he actually wrote what one of his admiring critics has called an apologia pro vita sua. The life of this greatest writer of twentieth-century France was spent exclusively in society; all events appeared to him as they are reflected in society and reconsidered by the individual, so that reflections and reconsiderations constitute the specific reality and texture of Proust's world. Throughout the Remembrance of Things Past, the individual and his reconsiderations belong to society, even when he retires into the mute and uncommunicative solitude in which Proust himself finally disappeared when he had decided to write his work. There his inner life, which insisted on transforming all worldly happenings into inner experience, became like a mirror in whose reflection truth might appear. The contemplator of inner experience resembles the onlooker in society insofar as neither has an immediate approach to life but perceives reality only if it is reflected. Proust, born on the fringe of society, but still rightfully belonging to it though an outsider, enlarged this inner experience until it included the whole range of aspects as they appeared to and were reflected by all members of society.”

There is a famous passage in Remembrance of Things Past in which Proust draws a comparison between two persecuted minorities—Jewish and sexual. Arendt takes note of this passage in her book:

“There is no better witness, indeed, of this period when society had emancipated itself completely from public concerns, and when politics itself was becoming a part of social life. The victory of bourgeois values over the citizen's sense of responsibility meant the decomposition of political issues into their dazzling, fascinating reflections in society. It must be added that Proust himself was a true exponent of this society, for he was involved in both of its most fashionable "vices," which he, "the greatest witness of dejudaized Judaism" interconnected in the "darkest comparison which ever has been made on behalf of Western Judaism": the "vice" of Jewishness and the "vice" of homosexuality, and which in their reflection and individual reconsideration became very much alike indeed.”

Taking into account the description of Jews in Proust’s novels, Arendt talks about the Jewish assimilation into society. She notes that while the Jews were supportive of the bourgeois revolution and they played an important role in financial and industrial growth as well as in politics, journalism, and the military, Jewish integration in society was primarily an upper-class phenomenon. But this does not mean that these well-to-do members were “cleansed of their Jewishness.” She is of the view that Judaism was reduced to a difference, to a strangeness, even to an object of psychic or moral curiosity. By relinquishing Judaism as a religious sign, Jewishness came to be identified with closed clans. She mentions Proust’s quote on Hamlet. Here’s an excerpt:

“Proust's "innate disposition" is nothing but this personal, private obsession, which was so greatly justified by a society where success and failure depended upon the fact of Jewish birth. Proust mistook it for "racial predestination," because he saw and depicted only its social aspect and individual reconsiderations. And it is true that to the recording onlooker the behavior of the Jewish clique showed the same obsession as the behavior patterns followed by inverts. Both felt either superior or inferior, but in any case proudly different from other normal beings; both believed their difference to be a natural fact acquired by birth; both were constantly justifying, not what they did, but what they were; and both, finally, always wavered between such apologetic attitudes and sudden, provocative claims that they were an elite. As though their social position were forever frozen by nature, neither could move from one clique into another. The need to belong existed in other members of society too—"the question is not as for Hamlet, to be or not to be, but to belong or not to belong" "—but not to the same extent. A society disintegrating into cliques and no longer tolerating outsiders, Jews or inverts, as individuals but because of the special circumstances of their admission, looked like the embodiment of this clannishness.”

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Neo-Kantians Versus Materialists

Frederick C. Beiser defines neo-Kantian philosophy as “the movement in 19th-century Germany to rehabilitate Kant’s philosophy”. He sees neo-Kantianism as not merely a doctrine or an approach to philosophical questions, but also a strategy to promote a certain kind of interpretation of the Kantian philosophy.

Beiser gives an interesting account of the conflict between the neo-Kantians and the Materialists. Here’s an excerpt from Beiser's book The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism, 1796-1880:
"Materialism had become a powerful intellectual force in Germany during the 1850s in the wake oof the materialism controversy. The writings of Ludwig Buchner (1824—1899), Heinrich Czolbe (1819—1873), Karl Vogt (1817—1895) and Jakob Moleschott (1822—1893) had become popular, spreading the message far and wide that materialism is the new philosophy of the natural sciences. The Kantian counter-attack against materialism, which began in the 1860s in the works of Jurgen Bona Meyer and Friedrich Lange, effectively blocked the materialist advance. The neo-Kantians put forward two powerful arguments against the materialists: first, they could never bridge the chasm between matter and consciousness; and second, they were naive and dogmatic, simply assuming the reality of matter, as if it were a pure given, completely ignoring the physiological and intellectual conditions of knowledge in the world." (Chapter 2: "The Rise of Neo-Kantianism") 
Beiser notes that by the 1870s, the neo-Kantians seem to have triumphed. They had defeated their two main rivals, materialism and speculative idealism.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

“Secularization" and The Lowering of The Goals of Human Action

Burke; Rousseau
Leo Strauss is averse to the idea of secularization for a good reason—he thinks that secularization hinders us from understanding the nature of the modern project. He notes that both Edmund Burke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to tame providence in their own way. For Burke, the English constitution was the best constitution, and he viewed the rights of the Englishman as “providentially” given. Rousseau saw his time as being “providentially” enlightened.

In his Natural Right and History, Strauss observes that “Kant has interpreted the teachings of Rousseau’s Second Discourse as a vindication of Providence. Accordingly, the idea of history, precisely like modern political economy, could appear to have emerged through a modification of the traditional belief in Providence. That modification is usually described as “secularization.” (Page 317).

Here’s Strauss’s explanation of the role that the idea of secularization has played in modern thinking (Page 317):
"Secularization" is the "temporalization" of the spiritual or of the eternal. It is the attempt to integrate the eternal into a temporal context. It therefore presupposes that the eternal is no longer understood as eternal. "Secularization," in other words, presupposes a radical change of thought, a transition of thought from one plane to an entirely different plane. This radical change appears in its undisguised form in the emergence of modern philosophy or science; it is not primarily a change within theology. What presents itself as the "secularization" of theological concepts will have to be understood, in the last analysis, as an adaptation of traditional theology to the intellectual climate produced by modern philosophy or science both natural and political. The "secularization'' of the understanding of Providence culminates in the view that the ways of God are scrutable to sufficiently enlightened men. 
The theological tradition used to hold that the designs of God in history are inscrutable to man, but the modern philosophers like Burke and Rousseau thought that they could divine God's Providence. But if the historical process is itself rational then the ground of morality — the distinction between good and evil — loses its meaning. And this kind of thinking leads to the lowering of the goals of human action. Strauss writes:
The theological tradition recognized the mysterious character of Providence especially by the fact that God uses or permits evil for his good ends. It asserted, therefore, that man cannot take his bearings by God's providence but only by God's law, which simply forbids man to do evil. In proportion as the providential order came to be regarded as intelligible to man, and therefore evil came to be regarded as evidently necessary or useful, the prohibition against doing evil lost its evidence. Hence various ways of action which were previously condemned as evil could now be regarded as good. The goals of human action were lowered. But it is precisely a lowering of these goals which modern political philosophy consciously intended from its very beginning.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Fear and Trembling

I am reading Alastair Hannay’s translation of Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard; Translated by Alastair Hannay; Penguin Classics). In the final section of his 30 page Introduction to the book, Hannay suggests that there are parallels between the theme of Fear and Trembling and Kierkegaard’s life. He notes that as an expert psychologist Kierkegaard was quite capable of using the medium of his literary work to reflect on the issues in his life. Here’s an excerpt from Hannay’s Introduction (Page 35):

"Fear and Trembling belongs to the series of works (Either/OrRepetitionStages on Life’s Way) concerned with ‘realizing the universal’, a theme close to Kierkegaard’s heart in view of his decision not to proceed with his marriage. But in Fear and Trembling this theme is set in sharp juxtaposition with two others, faith and sacrifice. The relevance of the latter, and thus also the appeal to Kierkegaard of the story of Abraham and Isaac, is obvious enough. In one respect Kierkegaard was sacrificing Regine, who obviously wanted the marriage; in another he was sacrificing himself, since he obviously wanted Regine; and in yet another he perhaps felt that his whole life had been sacrificed through his father (Abraham?), at least ruined as far as being healthily adapted in mind as well as body to accepting the responsibilities and pleasures of family life and a solid job is concerned, and therefore a preparation for some higher mission. As an expert psychologist Kierkegaard was well able to sort out these possible constructions of his situations for himself, and to question the corresponding motives, as well as his own motives for adopting any of them. Thus, to think of the pain he caused Regine as a sacrifice to a higher mission the pain his father caused him had somehow prepared him, and maybe even specially him, to carry out, could well be a stratagem to conceal some less worthy motive. The ways in which he thought of handling the break with Regine are repeated (from his journal) in the final version he constructs of the legend of Agnete and the merman. So too with faith. In his journals he wrote that if he had had faith — faith for his life — he would have stayed with Regine. But that too would have required sacrifice, at least of his career as a writer and all that his life had seemed to be a preparation for."

Monday, 27 May 2019

Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer

Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer
Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer is an oil-on-canvas painting done by Rembrandt in 1653. The painting was commissioned by Rembrandt’s Sicilian patron named Don Antonio Ruffo, who did not request any particular subject.

The painting shows Aristotle, wearing a gold chain, resting his hand on a bust of blind Homer, a legendary figure from three centuries earlier, and thoughtfully looking at it. The gold chain that Aristotle is wearing is presumed to have an image of Alexander the Great. Some scholars have interpreted the painting as a morality tale—Aristotle, a successful and well-dressed courtier, is envying Homer who was blind but lived like a free spirit and did not have to wear any chain.

The painting was purchased by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1961 for $2.3 million. 

Sunday, 26 May 2019

On Rousseau’s View of Man

A Painting of Rousseau (1753)
Leo Strauss notes that Jean-Jacques Rousseau has to be seen as a modern Epicurean or an atheistic and materialistic thinker. In his book Natural Right and History (Chapter 6: “The Crisis of Modern Natural Right”), Strauss offers the following perspective on Rousseau’s Second Discourse (The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality):
"The Second Discourse is meant to be a “history” of man. That history is modeled on the account of the fate of the human race which Lucretius gave in the fifth book of his poem. But Rousseau takes that account out of its Epicurean context and puts it into a context supplied by modem natural and social science. Lucretius had described the fate of the human race in order to show that that fate can be perfectly understood without recourse to divine activity. The remedies for the ills which he was forced to mention, he sought in philosophic withdrawal from political life. Rousseau, on the other hand, tells the story of man in order to discover that political order which is in accordance with natural right. Furthermore, at least at the outset, he follows Descartes rather than Epicurus: he assumes that animals are machines and that man transcends the general mechanism, or the dimension of (mechanical) necessity, only by virtue of the spirituality of his soul. Descartes had integrated the "Epicurean" cosmology into a theistic framework: God having created matter and established the laws of its motions, the universe with the exception of man's rational soul has come into being through purely mechanical processes; the rational soul requires special creation because thinking cannot be understood as a modification of moved matter; rationality is the specific difference of man among the animals. Rousseau questions not only the creation of matter but likewise the traditional definition of man. Accepting the view that brutes are machines, he suggests that there is only a difference of degree between men and the brutes in regard to understanding or that the laws of mechanics explain the formation of ideas. It is man's power to choose and his consciousness of his freedom which cannot be explained physically and which proves the spirituality of his soul." 
Like Lucretius, Rousseau regards man as naturally independent, self-sufficient, limited in his desires, and therefore as happy. He sees society as the creator of all the artificial desires and false opinions which give rise to conflict and misery. Both Lucretius and Rousseau have a non-teleological view of man’s passage from nature into history.

Strauss points out that on “reason” Rousseau draws his conclusion from Hobbes’s premises which Hobbes had not drawn. Strauss writes: “For the same reason for which natural man lacks pride, he also lacks understanding or reason and therewith freedom. Reason is coterminous with language, and language presupposes society: being presocial, natural man is prerational… To have reason means to have general ideas. But general ideas, as distinguished from the images of memory or imagination, are not the products of a natural or unconscious process; they presuppose definitions; they owe their being to definition. Hence they presuppose language. Since language is not natural, reason is not natural.”

Saturday, 25 May 2019

On The Unifying Power of Hatred

Eric Hoffer
The True Believer has a section entitled “Unifying Agents,” in which Eric Hoffer talks about the elements that hold a mass movement together. Hatred, he notes, is the most important of these elements. Hoffer writes:
"Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents. It pulls and whirls the individual away from his own self, makes him oblivious of his weal and future, frees him of jealousies and self-seeking. He becomes an anonymous particle quivering with a craving to fuse and coalesce with his like into one flaming mass… Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil."
Hoffer is correct when he says:
"Whence come these unreasonable hatreds, and why their unifying effect? They are an expression of a desperate effort to suppress an awareness of our inadequacy, worthlessness, guilt and other shortcomings of the self. Self-contempt is here transmuted into hatred of others and there is a most determined and persistent effort to mask this switch. Obviously, the most effective way of doing this is to find others, as many as possible, who hate as we do. Here more than anywhere else we need general consent, and much of our proselytizing consists perhaps in infecting others not with our brand of faith but with our particular brand of unreasonable hatred."
Every movement or cult which believes that they own “the one and only truth” will try to unify its members by preaching hatred against its ideological or political enemies. Hoffer notes that in the long run hatred comes at a heavy price: “We pay for it by losing all or many of the values we have set out to defend.” I think one should always distrust those who blindly follow someone else, never questioning their own beliefs.

Friday, 24 May 2019

On The Dark Side of Reason

How rational are the people who assert that they are the men of reason? Why do social philosophies that are based on the perfection and application of reason for the solution of society’s problems transform or harden into fascism? Why is it that the pursuit of rationality often leads to an explosion of irrationality?

Such are the questions that Justin E. H. Smith is grappling with in Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason. In the Introduction to his book, he points out that the faculty of “rationality” or “reason” was discovered by the Ancient Greeks, but it was elevated to a divine status in the modern period in Europe. Here’s an excerpt:
"For the past few millennia, many human beings have placed their hopes for rising out of the mess we have been born into—the mess of war and violence, the pain of unfulfilled passions or of passions fulfilled to excess, the degradation of living like brutes—in a single faculty, rumored to be had by all and only members of the human species. We call this faculty “rationality,” or “reason.” It is often said to have been discovered in ancient Greece, and was elevated to an almost divine status at the beginning of the modern period in Europe. Perhaps no greater emblem of this modern cult can be found than the “Temples of Reason” that were briefly set up in confiscated Catholic churches in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789. This repurposing of the august medieval houses of worship, at the same time, shows what may well be an ineliminable contradiction in the human effort to live our lives in accordance with reason, and to model society on rational principles. There is something absurd, indeed irrational, about giving reason its own temples. What is one supposed to do in them? Pray? Bow down? But aren’t these the very same prostrations that worshippers had previously performed in the churches, from which we were supposed to be liberated?" 
According to Smith, the problem of "reason" or "rationality" is of dialectical nature, “where the thing desired contains its opposite, where every earnest stab at rationally building up society crosses over sooner or later, as if by some natural law, into an eruption of irrational violence. The harder we struggle for reason, it seems, the more we lapse into unreason. The desire to impose rationality, to make people or society more rational, mutates, as a rule, into spectacular outbursts of irrationality. It either triggers romantic irrationalism as a reaction, or it induces in its most ardent promoters the incoherent idea that rationality is something that may be imposed by force or by the rule of the enlightened few over the benighted masses.”

P.S.,  I think that Prof. Justin E. H. Smith is suffering from an acute case of “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” I got his book yesterday and right now I have read only the Introduction—in the 22 page Introduction he rants against Trump seven times and twice draws a very silly kind of ideological connection between Trump and Putin. I have a feeling that the rest of the book would also be full of such rants. Yikes! Why clutter a book of serious philosophy with such petty political rants? But I still think that Smith has written a good book. I am impressed by his unorthodox approach to the problematic history of reason and enlightenment. I think I will enjoy reading this book.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

The Ayn Rand Cult

In her novels Ayn Rand introduces us to characters who are heroic, individualistic, moral, intelligent, wise, hardworking, ambitious, and capable of emotional self-control. But the Objectivist philosophical movement that she founded was an antithesis of all the values that she has preached in her fiction — from the beginning Objectivism was an atheistic religion and a cult.

I think Rand was a fine fiction writer, but she didn’t have the knowledge, patience, talent, and the energy for developing a system of philosophy and managing a philosophical movement. That she became convinced that she was the world’s greatest philosopher is by itself a proof of her lack of wisdom.

In his book The Ayn Rand Cult, Jeff Walker exposes objectivism as a classic cult. In his Introduction to the book, Walker says:

“In her fiction Rand portrayed a constellation of values, reality, objectivity, reason, egoism, individual rights, heroism, and laissez faire that underwent severe contortions during their attempted embodiment by a real-life movement. As many government interventions in the economy accomplish precisely the opposite of their intent, so Rand's formative influences made it likely that she would adopt a set of ideas which, if probed deeply enough or if embodied in real people, could be seen as accomplishing precisely the opposite of her intent. That opposite is the ultimate destination of her exclusive concern for the Nietzschean overachiever, who must be protected via absolutized individual rights, which are justified only by Reason.”

On page 17, Walker notes, “The explicit message of Objectivism is optimistic, benevolent, and life-affirming, but Objectivism, beginning with Rand's writings, is actually more preoccupied with contempt and disgust for the real world.” On Page 26, Walker says that the Objectivist movement took on the characteristics of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Almost every member of Rand’s inner circle in the early years of the objectivist movement was a relative or friend of Nathaniel Blumenthal (Branden). Nathaniel didn’t have the knowledge, wisdom, and patience to manage a philosophy movement—Rand probably granted him so much power because she was in a relationship with him. The members of “the Blumenthal bunch,” as Walker calls them in his book, were 25-35 years younger than Rand and they literally worshipped her. Here’s Walker’s description of the Blumenthal bunch (page 26):

“The core of the Collective was largely made up of Canadian Jews, most of them closely related… Leonard Peikoff. initially a lowly member of the Collective, though he was one day to become Rand's heir, hailed from Manitoba, as did Joan Mitchell Blumenthal, Rand's close friend for a quarter-century, and Peikoff’s cousin Barbara Weidman (Barbara Branden). With Toronto natives Nathan Blumenthal (Nathaniel Branden), a Blumenthal sister and her husband, and cousin Allan Blumenthal, Rand’s inner circle was nearly complete.”

It is surprising that Rand, a writer of several bestselling novels, didn’t have the sense or ability to find some competent and wise intellectuals to develop her philosophy and manage her movement—she handed over all the power to a bunch of under-informed, over-enthusiastic, and excessively sycophantic youngsters being led by an extremely rude, unwise, and supercilious man like Nathaniel Branden. According to Walker, the gang of youngsters made it impossible for Rand to continue normal relationship with her own peers. They were “barking at her feet all the time. Nobody wanted to deal with these hangers-on.”

I started reading the book today. Currently I am on page 47 of the 396 page book—I will have more to say on the book once I finish reading it.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The Hedonism of John Locke

Portrait of John Locke 
In Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss characterizes John Locke as a Hobbesian thinker and concludes that Locke is a hedonist. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 5, “Modern Natural Right”:
"Locke is a hedonist: "That which is properly good or bad, is nothing but barely pleasure or pain." But his is a peculiar hedonism: "The greatest happiness consists" not in enjoying the greatest pleasures but "in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasures." It is not altogether an accident that the chapter in which these statements occur, and which happens to be the most extensive chapter of the whole Essay, is entitled "Power." For if, as Hobbes says, "the power of a man ... is his present means, to obtain some future apparent good," Locke says in effect that the greatest happiness consists in the greatest power. Since there are no knowable natures, there is no nature of man with reference to which we could distinguish between pleasures which are according to nature and pleasures which are against nature, or between pleasures which are by nature higher and pleasures which are by nature lower: pleasure and pain are "for different men ... very different things." Therefore, "the philosophers of old did in vain inquire, whether summum bonum consisted in riches, or bodily delights, or virtue, or contemplation?" In the absence of a summum bonum, man would lack completely a star and compass for his life if there were no summum malum. "Desire is always moved by evil, to fly it." The strongest desire is the desire for self-preservation. The evil from which the strongest desire recoils is death. Death must then be the greatest evil: Not the natural sweetness of living but the terrors of death make us cling to life. What nature firmly establishes is that from which desire moves away, the point of departure of desire; the goal toward which desire moves is secondary. The primary fact is want. But this want, this lack, is no longer understood as pointing to something complete, perfect, whole. The necessities of life are no longer understood as necessary for the complete life or the good life, but as mere inescapabilities. The satisfaction of wants is therefore no longer limited by the demands of the good life but becomes aimless. The goal of desire is defined by nature only negatively--the denial of pain. It is not pleasure more or less dimly anticipated which elicits human efforts: "the chief, if not only, spur to human industry and action is uneasiness." So powerful is the natural primacy of pain that the active denial of pain is itself painful. The pain which removes pain is labor. It is this pain, and hence a defect, which gives man originally the most important of all rights: sufferings and defects, rather than merits or virtues, originate rights. Hobbes identified the rational life with the life dominated by the fear of fear, by the fear which relieves us from fear. Moved by the same spirit, Locke identifies the rational life with the life dominated by the pain which relieves pain. Labor takes the place of the art which imitates nature; for labor is, in the words of Hegel, a negative attitude toward nature. The starting point of human efforts is misery: the state of nature is a state of wretchedness. The way toward happiness is a movement away from the state of nature, a movement away from nature: the negation of nature is the way toward happiness. And if the movement toward happiness is the actuality of freedom, freedom is negativity. Just like the primary pain itself, the pain which relieves pain "ceaseth only in death." Since there are therefore no pure pleasures, there is no necessary tension between civil society as the mighty leviathan or coercive society, on the one hand, and the good life, on the other: hedonism becomes utilitarianism or political hedonism. The painful relief of pain culminates not so much in the greatest pleasures as "in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasures." Life is the joyless quest for joy."
According to Strauss, Locke’s hedonism is quite pessimistic because it aims at avoiding pain which cannot be avoided, because life is not only without virtue but it is aimless, possessive, hopeless and miserable. The essence of Locke’s ethics is that “life is the joyless quest for joy.”

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

On The Impact Of Language On Sensations

Henri Bergson points out that language gives a fixed form to the fleeting sensations that we experience. Here’s an excerpt from his book Time and Free Will (Chapter 2, “The Idea of Duration”):
Our simple sensations, taken in their natural state, are still more fleeting. Such and such a flavour, such and such a scent, pleased me when I was a child though I dislike them to-day. Yet I still give the same name to the sensation experienced, and I speak as if only my taste had changed, whilst the scent and the flavour have remained the same. Thus I again solidify the sensation; and when its changeableness becomes so obvious that I cannot help recognizing it, I abstract this changeableness to give it a name of its own and solidify it in the shape of a taste. But in reality there are neither identical sensations nor multiple tastes: for sensations and tastes seem to me to be objects as soon as I isolate and name them, and in the human soul there are only processes. What I ought to say is that every sensation is altered by repetition, and that if it does not seem to me to change from day to day, it is because I perceive it through the object which is its cause, through the word which translates it. This influence of language on sensation is deeper than is usually thought. Not only does language make us believe in the unchangeableness of our sensations, but it will sometimes deceive us as to the nature of the sensation felt. Thus, when I partake of a dish that is supposed to be exquisite, the name which it bears, suggestive of the approval given to it, comes between my sensation and my consciousness; I may believe that the flavour pleases me when a slight effort of attention would prove the contrary. In short, the word with well-defined outlines, the rough and ready word, which stores up the stable, common, and consequently impersonal element in the impressions of mankind, overwhelms or at least covers over the delicate and fugitive impressions of our individual consciousness. To maintain the struggle on equal terms, the latter ought to express themselves in precise words; but these words, as soon as they were formed, would turn against the sensation which gave birth to them, and, invented to show that the sensation is unstable, they would impose on it their own stability.
According to Bergson, the language that we use to analyze and describe our feelings leads to a distortion of the same feelings. We discern a certain kind of feelings as violent love or a deep melancholy because our immediate consciousness is overwhelmed by our language.