Thursday, 28 February 2019

Genghis Khan’s Order of God and Marxian Dialectics

It is common for societies to arrive at their truth or essence through self-interpretation. Eric Voegelin looks at this issue in Chapter 2, “Representation and Truth,” of his book The New Science of Politics.

He points out that Lord Genghis Khan and his followers were convinced that by the Order of God the entire world was Mongol empire, and that it was the duty of every nation to submit to the authority of Genghis Khan. By self-interpreting themselves as the sole beneficiaries of the Order of God and the rulers of the entire world, they found the inspiration to conduct formidable military campaigns. Here’s an excerpt:
The empire of the Lord Genghis Khan is de jure in existence even if it is not yet realized de facto. All human societies are part of the Mongol empire by virtue of the Order of God, even if they are not yet conquered.  The actual expansion of the empire, therefore, follows a very strict process of law.  Societies whose turn for actual integration into the empire has come must be notified by ambassadors of the Order of God and requested to make their submission.  If they refuse, or perhaps kill the ambassadors, then they are rebels, and military sanctions will be taken against them.  The Mongol empire, thus, by its own legal order has never conducted a war but only punitive expeditions against rebellious subjects of the empire.
Voegelin goes on to make a comparison between the self-interpretation of the Mongol Empire and that of the Marxists:
In Marxian dialectics, for instance, the truth of cosmic order is replaced by the truth of a historically immanent order.  Nevertheless, the Communist movement is a representative of this differently symbolized truth in the same sense in which a Mongol Khan was the representative of the truth contained in the Order of God; and the consciousness of this representation leads to the same political and legal constructions as in the other instances of imperial representation of truth.  Its order is in harmony with the truth of history; its aim is the establishment of the realm of freedom and peace; the opponents run counter to the truth of history and will be defeated in the end; nobody can be at war with the Soviet Union legitimately but must be a representative of untruth in history, or, in contemporary language, an aggressor; and the victims are not conquered but liberated from their oppressors and therewith from the untruth of their existence.
I think this is an amazing analysis. It is the tendency of most nations, even the democratic ones, to think that they are on the right side of history—so some amount of self-interpretation is there in all nations, but the self-interpretation is most pronounced in totalitarian societies.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

On the Cult-Institution of Tragedy

Eric Voegelin notes that the Greeks regarded tragedy as a way of developing spiritual and cultural possibilities in the mind of their people.  In his Order and History, Volume II: The World of the Polis (Chapter 10, “Tragedy”), he writes: “From its very beginning the tragedy was established as a cult-institution of the people.”

This is what he means by a cult-institution of the people: “The truth of the tragedy is action itself, that is, action on the new, differentiated level of a movement in the soul that culminates in the decision (prohairesis) of a mature, responsible man. The newly discovered humanity of the soul expands into the realm of action. Tragedy as a form is the study of the human soul in the process of making decisions, while the single tragedies construct conditions and experimental situations, in which a fully developed, self-conscious soul is forced into action.”

Voegelin sees Aristotle’s treatment of tragedy as a sign that tragedy has now lost its cultural importance and it can be analyzed from a purely aesthetic angle:
The disintegration of tragedy is complete when we reach the standard treatise on the subject, the Poetics of Aristotle. Tragedy has become a literary genus, to be dissected with regard to its formal characteristics, its “parts.” It is the most important genus because of its formal complexity; he who understands tragedy has understood all other literary forms. As far as the substance and historical function of tragedy is concerned, however, there is barely an elusive hint in the Poetics; obviously the problem had moved for Aristotle entirely beyond his horizon of interests. The situation is illuminated by the famous definition of tragedy as "a representation of an action that is serious, coming to an end, and of a certain magnitude enriched by language of all kind, used appropriately in the various parts of the play—representing through action, not through narrative—and through pity and fear effecting catharsis of these and other emotions."
We also find a good analysis of the role of tragedy in Greek society in Voegelin's The New Science of Politics, Chapter II, "Representation and Truth." He writes, "The tragedy was a public cult—and a very expensive one. It presupposed as its audience a people who would follow the performance with a keen sense of tua res agitur."

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Voegelin’s “Gnosticism” Reconsidered

Eric Voegelin
Eugene Webb is an admirer of Eric Voegelin’s philosophical ideas; he is the author of the book called Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History which is on Voegelin’s multivolume work, Order and History. But Webb sees some serious problems in the way Voegelin has used the word “gnosticism” in his writings on political theory. In his essay, “Voegelin’s “Gnosticism” Reconsidered,” Webb lists five problems in Voegelin’s use of such a language:

 1. It begins by claiming to draw out the implications of historical research on the ancient gnostics but does so in ways that conflict confusingly with the meanings given the word by the leading scholars in that field of research in his own time.

2. Even if his use of the term had been in line with that of the scholars of his time, the state of scholarship has advanced considerably in the last half century, in directions that call into question even the most widely accepted scholarship Voegelin drew on.

3. Even if the ancient Gnosticism he appealed to as the source of what he called modern “gnosticism” had not been so clearly disinclined to seek salvation in worldly fulfillment, the historical links Voegelin asserted between that and the modern immanentizing patterns of thought he talked about do not exist in the evidence available, and his assertions of those links did not meet the usual standards of scholarly carefulness that he believed in.

4. When the word “gnosticism” appears in the writings of Voegelin and Voegelinians, it brings with it a host of associations that are likely to confuse the issues its use is intended to clarify, or at least puts out a bone of contention that is likely to distract many readers from the serious problems Voegelinian research tries to bring to their attention.

5. Voegelin’s own use of the term, though richly meaningful when one goes into it in depth and sets aside all the side issues it tends to arouse, covers so many distinct problems that its very richness makes it seem overly general and imprecise—a problem Voegelin seems to have recognized himself when he said in 1978, as I mentioned earlier, that besides what was then usually called by that name, the ideas he was interested in using it to address included many other strands, such as apocalypticism, alchemy, magic, theurgy, and scientism.

I think Voegelin is a solid political thinker. His analysis of what he calls the “gnostic” influences in politics is convincing. But I think Webb has a point — “Gnosticism” is probably not the most perfect word for describing the political forces that Voegelin wanted to oppose.

“Gnosticism” is defined by the Voegelinians as a "type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery of reality. Relying as it does on a claim to gnosis, gnosticism considers its knowledge not subject to criticism. Gnosticism may take transcendentalizing (as in the case of the Gnostic movement of late antiquity) or immanentizing forms (as in the case of Marxism)." 

Monday, 25 February 2019

Pepper’s Response to Logical Positivism

By restricting knowledge to the claims of belief founded on evidence of observable data and formal reasoning, the positivists deny the possibility of metaphysics as a meaningful cognitive enterprise. Stephen C. Pepper’s World Hypothesis can be seen as a direct response to logical positivism. He shows that despite its cognitive attractiveness, the positivist position is untenable.

Here’s an excerpt from World Hypothesis (Page 322):

"If positivism is undogmatic and merely asserts that the refinements of multiplicative corroboration in terms of data are highly reliable, there is no ground for objection to it. But if it is dogmatic, and asserts that multiplicative corroboration is the only legitimate aim of cognition, and that only empirical data are reliable factual evidence, and only logical data reliable means of theoretical construction, then positivism is exceeding the grounds of evidence available."

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Philosophy Begins With Wonder

Sketch of Kierkegaard (1840)
"Aristotle’s view that philosophy begins with wonder, not as in our day with doubt, is a positive point of departure for philosophy. Indeed, the world will no doubt learn that it does not do to begin with the negative, and the reason for success up to the present is that philosophers have never quite surrendered to the negative and thus have never earnestly done what they have said. They merely flirt with doubt." ~ Søren Kierkegaard (The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard)

In Metaphysics, Aristotle says: "For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe." (Metaphysics, Book I, Part II)

Saturday, 23 February 2019

On Dogmatism

The security of cognition, Stephen C. Pepper argues, rests on the evidence itself and on its convergence toward belief, not on an intensity of belief in excess of the actual cognitive value of the evidence. In his book World Hypothesis, Pepper says:

"The desire to know more than one has grounds to know is so strong and pervasive that it is difficult to be convinced of the fallaciousness of dogmatism in principle. Historically, a few men in any cognitive field, whether in common sense, history, science, or philosophy have acknowledged the fallaciousness of dogmatism in principle or abstained from its deliberate employment in practice, especially in the two most common forms of an appeal to self-evidence of principle or immediate certainty of fact." (Page 317-318)

Friday, 22 February 2019

On Representative Government

Here’s Eric Voegelin’s perspective on representative government:

“In order to be representative, it is not enough for a government to be representative in the constitutional sense (our elemental type of representative institutions); it must also be representative in the existential sense of realizing the idea of the institution. And the implied warning may be explicated in the thesis: If a government is nothing but representative in the constitutional sense, a representative ruler in the existential sense will sooner or later make an end of it; and quite possibly the new existential ruler will not be too representative in the constitutional sense.” (The New Science of Politics, Page 49)

According to Voegelin, a political society comes into being when it articulates itself and produces a representative.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

On Deirdre McCloskey’s Postmodern Economics

Deirdre N. McCloskey
For Deirdre N. McCloskey postmodernism is not a dirty word—she calls herself a postmodern, minimal-government conservative. In her The Bourgeoisie Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, she notes that she is in favor of postmodernism in economics. Here’s her perspective on postmodernism (Page 198):
“Postmodernism” does not mean what you may have gathered from the outrage of conservative cultural journalists. It means merely dropping the artificialities of high modernism, and in particular dropping the fact-value split in its cruder forms and the established church of social engineering. 
McCloskey agrees with the postmodern thinker Richard Rorty on several issues and is appreciative of his 1985 thesis on “postmodern bourgeois liberalism”. On page 499, she says:
But if I had to be principled I would reach back before the French Enlightenment, or back into the Scottish Enlightenment, and offer a fourth justification for the free society, namely, that it leads to and depends on flourishing human lives of virtue. My so-called principle shares some features with the “postmodernist bourgeois liberalism” of Richard Rorty, or the “agonistic liberalism” of Isaiah Berlin…
In her essay, “The Genealogy of Postmodernism: An Economist’s Guide,” McCloskey makes a case for postmodernism in economics. She holds that postmodern economics is capable of resisting several of the errors that are there in the economics of modernism. Here’s an excerpt from her article:
As directly as it can be put, ‘postmodernism’ names a tendency since 1970 or so to doubt the tenets of ‘modernism’. In economics it would be against the high modernism, for example, of Paul Samuelson’s program. Though postmodernism more generally has been appropriated by writers innocent of economics or maths or statistics, there is nothing inevitable in this. I am saying that in adopting a pomo attitude an economist need not fear contamination from literary critics, psychoanalysts, and the politically correct. Postmodernism can be given an economic and classical liberal – I did not say ‘conservative’ or ‘reactionary’ – reading.
She ends her essay by asserting that modernism is bad economics, and to fix the problems in modernist economics, the economists should get on with the postmodern project.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

On the Beginning of Political Science

I am now reading Eric Voegelin’s book The New Science of Politics. Voegelin is of the view that a theory of politics must at the same time be a theory of history. He begins his Introduction to the book with this line, “The existence of man in political society is historical existence; and a theory of politics, if it penetrates to principles, must at the same time be a theory of history.”

The book is full of quotable lines. Voegelin looks at Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics (on page 28) and offers the following perspective on the origin of the discipline of political science:

“Hence, when political science begins, it does not begin with a tabula rasa on which it can inscribe its concepts; it will inevitably start from the rich body of self interpretation of a society and proceed by critical clarification of socially pre-existent symbols. When Aristotle wrote his Ethics and Politics, when he constructed his concepts of the polis, of the constitution, the citizen, the various forms of government, of justice, of happiness, etc., he did not invent these terms and endow them with arbitrary meanings; he took rather the symbols which he found in his social environment, surveyed with care the variety of meanings which they had in common parlance, and ordered and clarified these meanings by the criteria of his theory.”

I am finding lot of value in Voegelin’s theory of political science. He also offers an impressive perspective on ancient, medieval, and early modern history.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

The Creative Destruction of Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece, according to Josiah Ober, fell for virtually the same reasons for which it had once achieved greatness. In his The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (Chapter 11: “Creative Destruction and Immortality”), Ober says: “Both greatness and fall had similar causes: high levels of specialization, innovation, and mobility of people, goods, and ideas as the result of distinctive political conditions.”

But the fall of Greece was never total—it was more of a creative destructive, rather than a ruinous destruction leading to quick economic and cultural collapse. Several Greek city-states continued to thrive—Ober notes that “by the end of the fourth century BCE, it is likely that more Greek poleis were democracies than ever before.”

When Imperial Rome took over in second century BCE, the Greek world was still flourishing. Impressed by Greek culture, the Roman elites themselves became hellenized and they ensured the preservation of Greek culture and its propagation throughout the expanding Roman Empire. Ober writes:

“By the time imperial Rome took over a still-flourishing Greek world, the Romans had become eager consumers of Greek culture. By the second century BCE, Roman elites were deeply enough Hellenized to ensure the subsequent preservation and dissemination of Greek thought and culture throughout the huge and still-growing Roman empire and across the next several hundreds years. Having jumped scale to become a dominant imperial culture in one of the two biggest empires of the premodern world (the other was Han China), the immortality of Greece was, if not ensured, at least made possible.”

After the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth to seventh centuries, Greek culture was preserved by the Eastern Empire and by the scholars and scientists of the medieval world.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Pepper’s Theory of Everything

I am now halfway through Stephen C. Pepper’s World Hypotheses and it is getting better and better. This book is essentially a project to formulate hypotheses of unlimited scope for viewing the world. In his Preface to the book, Pepper says that he is attempting to solve the “problem of how men can get at the truth in matters of importance to them.”

The three contributions that Pepper makes in World Hypotheses are: first, the theory of development of knowledge (through the refinement of commonsense knowledge); second, the root metaphor theory (which explains the origin of the world hypotheses); third, the analysis of the six world hypotheses that drive all philosophical thought.

I find the root metaphor theory with which Pepper illustrates the origin of hypotheses of unlimited scope quite interesting. Here’s an excerpt which explains the nature of root metaphor theory and its relationship to the hypotheses of the world:
A man desiring to understand the world looks about for a clue to its comprehension. He pitches upon some area of commonsense fact and tries to understand other areas in terms of this one. This original area becomes his basic analogy or root metaphor. He describes as best he can the characteristics of this area, or, if you will, discriminates its structure. A list of its structural characteristics becomes his basic concepts of explanation and description. We call them a set of categories. In terms of these categories he proceeds to study all other areas of fact whether uncriticized or previously criticized. He undertakes to interpret all facts in terms of these categories . As a result of the impact of these other facts upon his categories, he may qualify or readjust the categories, so that a set of categories commonly changes and develops. Since the basic analogy or root metaphor normally (and probably at least in part necessarily) arises out of common sense, a great deal of development and refinement of a set of categories is required if they are to prove adequate for a hypothesis of unlimited scope. Some root metaphors prove more fertile than others, have greater powers of expansion and of adjustment. These survive in comparison with the others and generate the relatively adequate world theories. (Page: 91-92) 
Pepper calls his book World Hypotheses, but it is more than a hypothesis—it is an attempt to discover the hypotheses (or a view) of everything. The book’s subtitle says, “Prolegomena to systematic philosophy and complete survey of metaphysics,” but the scope of the book is not limited to metaphysics; the world hypotheses (or hypotheses of unlimited scope) can also be used to understand the ideas which drive movements in art, literature, politics, culture, religion, and psychology.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

On the Eclecticism of Great Philosophers

Stephen C. Pepper
The idea that a philosopher can develop a fully consistent, fully rational, and complete system of philosophy is a myth. Most great philosophers of the past had an eclectic style of writing — Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Hume, Kant were in various degrees eclectic. In his book World Hypotheses, Stephen C. Pepper offers the following perspective on eclecticism in philosophy:
The literature of philosophy is, of course, full of eclectic writings. Moreover, it is probably true that all (or nearly all) the great philosophers were in various degrees eclectic. There are various reasons for this. One is undue faith in self-evidence and indomitability of fact, another is the desire to give credit to all good intuitions with the idea that these all have to be put inside one theory. But the best reason is that many of the great philosophers were not so much systematizers as seekers of fact, men who were working their way into new root metaphors and had not yet worked their way out of old ones. The eclecticism of these writers is, therefore, cognitively accidental and not deliberate, though psychologically unavoidable. (Page 106) 
According to Pepper, there are two sorts of eclecticism: the static, deliberate sort; and the dynamic, accidental sort. He holds that the dynamic, accidental sort of eclecticism often leads to great literature as well as great philosophy.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Can Philosophy be polemical?

Stephen C. Pepper notes that good philosophy is not polemical. Here’s an excerpt from his book World Hypotheses (Page 101):

"Yet a great proportion of philosophical—and not only philosophical—books give a large part of their space to polemic, finding the faults in rival theories with an idea that this helps to establish the theory proposed. The cognitive value of a hypothesis is not one jot increased by the cognitive errors of other hypotheses. Most polemic is a waste of time, or an actual obfuscation of the evidence. It is generally motivated by a proselytizing spirit supported on dogmatic illusions. If a theory is any good it can stand on its own evidence. The only reason for referring to other theories in constructive cognitive endeavor is to find out what other evidence they may suggest, or other matters of positive cognitive value. We need all world hypotheses, so far as they are adequate, for mutual comparison and correction of interpretative bias."

Friday, 15 February 2019

On the Connection Between Athenian Democracy and Warcraft

Greek bust of Herodotus 
The Ancient Athenians had developed their democratic constitution and political institutions more than a century before Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

With the adoption of Solon’s constitution and the reforms of Cleisthenes, Athens had become a democratic state with a federal structure, and this seems to have led to an improvement in the military capabilities of the Athenians. In 506 BCE when Athens was attacked from three sides, they were able to mobilize an army and defeat the invaders.

Herodotus, in his The Histories, connects the performance of the Athenians in the battle of 506 BCE to their democracy. Here’s an excerpt from The Histories (Book 5, Chapter 78):
The Athenians at this point became much stronger. So it is clear how worthy an object of attention is equality of public speech not just in one respect but in every sense. Since when they were ruled by tyrants, the Athenians did not stand out from their neighbors in military capability, but after disposing the tyrants, they became overwhelmingly superior.  
This, then, shows what while they were oppressed, they were, as men working for a master, cowardly, but when they were freed, each one was eager to achieve for himself. 
According to Herodotus, people who are not free cannot be expected to do their best in a battle. He thinks that the Athenians won the battle because they were the collective masters of their own collective fate. They were not being ruled by a tyrant.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Eric Voegelin On The Experience of Tension in Existence

Eric Voegelin, in his essay, “Equivalents of Experience and Symbolization,” talks about man being in a permanent place situated between two poles of existence. He calls the permanent place “Metaxy”—a term that has been defined in Plato's Symposium as the "in-between" or "middle ground”. Here’s an excerpt from Voegelin’s essay:

The question of constants in the history of mankind, it will have become clear, cannot be answered through propositions concern­ing right order, or through a catalog of permanent values, for the flux of existence does not have the structure of order or, for that matter, of disorder, but the structure of a tension between truth and deformation of reality. Not the possession of his humanity but the concern about its full realization is the lot of man.

Existence has the structure of the In-Between, of the Platonic metaxy, and if anything is constant in the history of mankind it is the language of tension between life and death, immortality and mortality, perfec­tion and imperfection, time and timelessness; between order and disorder, truth and untruth, sense and senselessness of existence; between amor Dei and amor sui, l’âme ouverte and l’âme close; between the virtues of openness toward the ground of being such as faith, love, and hope, and the vices of infolding closure such as hybris and revolt; between the moods of joy and despair; and be­tween alienation in its double meaning of alienation from the world and alienation from God.

If we split these pairs of symbols, and hypostatize the poles of the tension as independent entities, we destroy the reality of existence as it has been experienced by the creators of the tensional symbolisms; we lose consciousness and intellect; we deform our humanity and reduce ourselves to a state of quiet despair or activist conformity to the “age” of drug addic­tion or television watching, of hedonistic stupor or murderous pos­session of truth, of suffering from the absurdity of existence or in­dulgence in any divertissement (in Pascal’s sense) that promises to substitute as a “value” for reality lost. In the language of Heraclitus and Plato: Dream life usurps the place of wake life.

Ultimate doctrines, systems, and values are phantasmata engen­dered by deformed existence. What is constant in the history of mankind, i.e., in the time dimension of existence, is the structure of existence itself; and regarding this constant structure certain propositions can indeed be advanced.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Steven Pinker: The True Believer in Climate Alarmism

Steven PInker’s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress is aimed at championing the liberal enlightenment worldview. There is not a single page in this book, in which he is not propagandizing for the liberal establishment. All his blather about human progress and optimism about the future is aimed at establishing the thesis that the "enlightened" liberal politicians and intellectuals (like him) are responsible for much of the progress that humanity has achieved in the last 250 years.

He is so convinced of the moral and intellectual supremacy of people like himself that he makes no effort to prove that there is a linkage between human progress and liberal enlightenment ideas. He takes that for granted. His method in the book is to offer lot of data on human progress (which he could have easily collected by using a team of researchers) in a certain area, throw in some cliched sentences on reason and humanism, and then have a discussion of the liberal views on the same area. But by merely presenting the data on progress alongside the liberal talking points one does not establish a correlation between the two.

This blog is on Pinker’s advocacy of the Global Warming/Climate Change agenda which is dear to the modern liberals. So I will go directly to the Chapter 10, “Environmentalism,” in which Pinker asserts that he is a supporter of enlightened environmentalism.

Here’s an excerpt:
Whenever we burn wood, coal, oil, or gas, the carbon in the fuel is oxidized to form carbon dioxide, which wafts into the atmosphere. Though some of the CO2 dissolves in the ocean, chemically combines with rocks, or is taken up by photosynthesizing plants, these natural sinks cannot keep up with the 38 billion tons we dump into the atmosphere each year. As gigatons of carbon laid down during the Carboniferous Period have gone up in smoke, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen from about 270 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution to more than 400 parts today. Since CO2, like the glass in a greenhouse, traps heat radiating from the earth’s surface, the global average temperature has risen as well, by about .8° Celsius. The atmosphere has also been warmed by the clearing of carbon-eating forests and by the release of methane from leaky gas wells, melting permafrost, and the orifices at both ends of cattle. It could become warmer still in a runaway feedback loop if white, heat-reflecting snow and ice are replaced by dark, heat-absorbing land and water, if the melting of permafrost accelerates, and if more water vapor (yet another greenhouse gas) is sent into the air. 
If the emission of greenhouse gases continues, the earth’s average temperature will rise to at least 1.5°C above the preindustrial level by the end of the 21st century, and perhaps to 4°C above that level or more. That will cause more frequent and more severe heat waves, more floods in wet regions, more droughts in dry regions, heavier storms, more severe hurricanes, lower crop yields in warm regions, the extinction of more species, the loss of coral reefs (because the oceans will be both warmer and more acidic), and an average rise in sea level of between 0.7 and 1.2 meters from both the melting of land ice and the expansion of seawater. Low-lying areas would be flooded, island nations would disappear beneath the waves, large stretches of farmland would no longer be arable, and millions of people would be displaced. The effects could get still worse in the 22nd century and beyond, and in theory could trigger upheavals such as a diversion of the Gulf Stream (which would turn Europe into Siberia) or a collapse of Antarctic ice sheets. A rise of 2°C is considered the most that the world could reasonably adapt to, and a rise of 4°C, in the words of a 2012 World Bank report, “simply must not be allowed to occur.”
Pinker wants his readers to blindly accept that rising levels of CO2 is responsible for Global Warming or Climate Change. But what is the proof? CO2 levels have been rising and falling on this planet before human beings even evolved. For instance, in the Jurassic Period, the CO2 levels were much higher. But Pinker is alarmed by the present levels of CO2 and he calls for all kinds of coercive measures, including the policy of carbon pricing, which entails “charging people and companies for the damage they do when they dump their carbon into the atmosphere.”

I think, Eric Hoffer would have called Pinker a true believer.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

On Skepticism, Atheism, and Dogmatism

Atheism means skepticism about the existence of God, but if this position is taken seriously, then it necessarily leads to a dogmatic belief in God’s nonexistence. Therefore every utter atheist is essentially a dogmatic believer in a negative, which is God’s nonexistence.

Here’s a perspective from Stephen C. Pepper’s World Hypotheses (Page 4-5):

"What can the utter skeptic himself mean? Does he mean that all facts are illusory and all statements are false? But this position is not one of doubt, but of downright disbelief. It is disbelief in the reliability of all evidence and in the truth of all statements; or, contrariwise, it is belief in the unreliability of all evidence and the falsity of all statements. For every instance of disbelief is simply the reverse of belief; it is belief in the contradictory of what is disbelieved. If a man disbelieves in the existence of God, he necessarily believes in the nonexistence of God. A dogmatic atheist is as little of a doubter as a dogmatic theist. It is the agnostic who completely doubts the existence of God. He genuinely doubts. That is, he finds the evidence on both sides so evenly balanced in this matter that he neither believes nor disbelieves, but holds the proposition in suspense."

Monday, 11 February 2019

Eric Mack’s Rescue Operation for Ayn Rand’s Ethics

Ayn Rand
Today I read Eric Mack's essay, “Problematic Arguments in Randian Ethics,” (The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies; Vol 5; No. 1; Fall 2003; Page 1–66), which, the author declares, is a rescue mission to save Ayn Rand’s deep ethical insights from her own awful line-by-line arguments.

Mack approaches Rand’s ethics through Craig Biddle’s book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-interest and the Facts that Support It, which is a primer on Rand’s ethics. While conducting a critical analysis of Biddle's presentation of Rand's arguments, Mack conducts a critical analysis of Rand’s own writings in ethics.

That Mack is inspired by Rand’s ethics is beyond doubt—why would he launch a rescue operation if he wasn’t? He writes:

“I think that Rand has offered us some very deep ethical insights, e.g., about the essential relationship between valuing and the human good and about the relationship of affirming the ultimate separate value of each individual's good and affirming each individual's possession of moral rights. Beyond that, Rand is simply without peer as an insightful, powerful and heroic ethical crusader on behalf of individualism, individual freedom, and a free social and economic order.”

But in the lines that follow, Mack notes that Rand’s arguments are awful:

“Unfortunately, I also think that line-by-line many of Rand's ethical arguments are just awful. It is not merely that she does not bother with fine distinctions and academic niceties. Rather, her arguments all too often consist of gross misrepresentations of her opponents's views, conflations of importantly distinct doctrines, crucial equivocations, and massive beggings of the questions at hand. And the awfulness of these arguments is compounded by the arrogance, contempt, and hostility with which they are usually expressed.”

He takes Rand to task for her tirades against historical philosophers, chiefly David Hume and Immanuel Kant. “One of the major defects in Ranďs ethical expositions is antecedent to her arguments per se. It consists in her frequent misdescription of the targets of her criticism and her conflation of distinct philosophical stances under a single label.”

On Biddle’s remark on Hume, Mack says:

“Biddle's remark reveals colossal ignorance about a man [Hume] who, e.g., articulated a powerful theory about the rationality of compliance with principles of justice and who, throughout his life, strove to advance a secular, religion-free defense of commercial society. Biddle's linkage of Hume to Hider replicates the lowest moments of Randian rhetoric.”

On Biddle’s remark on Kant, Mack says:

“Rand condemned Kant; so Biddle feels that somewhere he must also do so. He does this by declaring Kant to have been the "father"of "social subjectivism" which, in the relevant paragraph, is characterized as "the notion that truth and morality are the creations of the mind of a collective (a group of people)—or matters of social convention.” Now there is a sense in which the mind, as reason, does have primacy in Kantian metaphysics and ethics. But this primacy of mind as reason is a long way from the subjectivism that Biddle has targeted—in which the notion of arbitrary, nonrational will is paramount. Whatever the ultimate philosophical errors of Kant, it is a canard to accuse him of advocating the primacy of arbitrary will in metaphysics or ethics.”

Mack goes on to note three interconnected features in Rand’s writing:

“The first is enormous ignorance about the actual views of the thinkers discussed—especially the views of those on Ranďs philosophical enemies list The second is an inclination to conflate into one strawman many distinct views, so that these views can all be tarred with the same broad brush. The third is a tendency to cast all opposing views in their most unfavorable light—as views that only an idiot or moral monster would advocate.”

The problem, according to Mack, is that Rand exercises such power on the mind of her followers that they cannot conceive of making any corrections and improvements in her arguments. The mere thought that Rand can be wrong on anything is an anathema to her followers, who continue to use her awful arguments in their own writing. There is, however, much more in Mack’s essay than what I can say in this article.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

The Ancient Greeks and Their Walls

Part of Themistocles's wall in Kerameikos
In his book The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, Josiah Ober points out that as the city-states in Ancient Greece grew wealthier they began to fortify themselves by investing in long walls and other systems of defense. Plato was against the idea of border walls, while Aristotle favored walls. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 2, “Ants Around a Pond: An Ecology of City-States”:

In the Early Iron Age of the eleventh and tenth centuries BCE, Greek settlements were unwalled. But in subsequent centuries, along with developing forms of social organization that prompted effective mobilization of soldiers, Greek poleis increasingly invested in substantial fortifications: urban circuits, and later in long walls connecting cities to harbors, and forts and towers to protect rural populations and assets. The preference for strong walls was not universal: Sparta remained unwalled throughout the classical period, believing that “our men are our walls.” Some Greek political theorists, notably Plato in the Republic, argued against walling the city on the grounds that brave men ought willingly to fight their enemies in the open field. But by the end of the classical period, this was a minority position: Aristotle thought it badly outdated. Fortification policy was one way in which Greek poleis became more similar to one another over time.

Fortification walls were costly… Yet the no-wall option clearly became less attractive over time, as Greek poleis grew wealthier. Fortifications figured in early stages of Greek state formation and, from the early fifth century BCE to the fourth century, more Greek cities were increasingly heavily fortified. Late classical city walls were on the whole more substantial (built of stone, rather than mud-brick), more highly developed (towers, crenellations, indented trace), and in many cases augmented with outworks and elaborate systems of rural defense (forts, watchtowers, pass-control walls).

Friday, 8 February 2019

On The Economic Success of Ancient Greece

Good philosophy usually flourishes in a society with a flourishing economy. In Ancient Greece, the politicians and businessmen came before the philosophers, and they created a stable society with a healthy economy which could sustain the institutions of philosophy, science, and art.

I am currently reading Josiah Ober's The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. In the first chapter, “The Efflorescence of Classical Greece,” he offers an interesting account of the economic conditions in Ancient Greek city-states. Here's an excerpt:
The powerful role that specialization and cooperative (mutually beneficial) market exchange can play in promoting economic growth was recognized and described in the later eighteenth century by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations. Greek specialization was often more horizontal (workshop and individual craftspeople specializing in the production of specific goods) than vertical (factories employing specialist labor at each phase of a production process). And ancient Greek writers never produced a work of economic analysis to rival Smith’s hugely influential book. Yet it is now very clear that specialization and exchange flourished at different levels in Hellas and, moreover, that the core principles of relative advantage and rational cooperation were understood by the ancient Greeks. 
According to Ober, the individual Greek city-states had developed specialities based on resource endowments relative to other city-states. The competition, specialization, and cooperation among them gave rise to a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

The Modern Dwarfs

Such proud modesty is not to be found in most modern philosophers who call themselves the philosophers of reason:
“We are like dwarfs, seated on the shoulders of giants. We see more things than the Ancients and things more distant, but it is due neither to the sharpness of our sight nor the greatness of our stature, it is simply because they have lent us their own.” ~ Bernard of Chartres 
You can’t possibly preach about reason without first preaching about what is reasoning and what isn’t reasoning, that is, without talking about logic.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

On Pre-Moderns, Moderns, and Postmoderns

We like to call ourselves modern and postmodern, but we are essentially grappling with the same philosophical problems which exercised the thinkers 200 years ago. When our philosophy is mostly pre-modern, there is no justification for using the labels modern or postmodern. Here’s an interesting paragraph from Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (Page 235):

The sociology of virtue, the ideology of reason, the politics of liberty—the ideas still resonate today. But they carry with them the accretions of more than two centuries of historical experiences and memories. And other ideas now compete for our attention: equality, most notably, but also nationality and ethnicity, class and gender, cultural diversity and global homogeneity. If the three Enlightenments ushered in the modernity—or at least a new stage of in modernity, or new variations on modernity—the postmodernists may be justified in calling this a postmodern age. Yet the ideas of virtue, liberty, and reason did not originate in modernity; nor have they been superseded or superannuated by postmodernity. We are, in fact, still floundering in the verities and fallacies, the assumptions and convictions, about human nature, society, and the polity that exercised the British moral philosophers, the French philosophes, and the American Founders.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The Art of Reclaiming a Word: Ayn Rand and Deirdre McCloskey

Ayn Rand; Deirdre McCloskey
In her moral theory, Ayn Rand aspires to reclaim the word “selfishness.” In her economic theory, Deirdre N. McCloskey aspires to reclaim the word “bourgeois.” But there is a significant difference in the method adopted by the two thinkers for reclaiming the word of their choice.

Rand’s case for the word “selfishness” is contained in a few short essays in her only book on ethical theory The Virtue of Selfishness. But these essays do not hold up very well because many of her assertions are not backed by evidence. She does not acquaint the readers with the background of the problem: How did the concept of selfishness originate? How did the wrong meaning got attributed to this word?

Rand does not consider the actual arguments of the other thinkers who have philosophized on the concept of selfishness. Did she believe that she was the first thinker in history to regard selfishness as a virtue? I don’t know the answer to that, but what I know is that the idea of selfishness being a virtue has been expressed by several thinkers before Rand.

One of these thinkers is Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733)—in his famous work The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Public Benefits, he has challenged the traditional ideas of morality and religion. He argues that happiness and progress are possible only when men are left free to pursue their material self interest. But there is no mention of Mandeville in Rand’s book. I am not saying that Mandeville’s conception of selfishness is same as that of Rand, but he was writing in the 18th century and for his time he was a very original thinker on this subject.

By neglecting the philosophical evolution of the word “selfishness,” and confining her thesis to merely lambasting the traditional conceptions of morality and religion, Rand has created a rather weak system of morality. Her thesis on selfishness being a virtue is not convincing.

In contrast to Rand, Deirdre McCloskey offers an engrossing thesis on the word “bourgeois.” She has written three books (combined length of around 2000 pages): The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce; Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World; Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World.

McCloskey talks about the way in which the philosophers and theologians have vilified the markets for almost two millennium, and the scornful manner in which the intellectuals, artists, and politicians have treated the bourgeois class in the last 150 years. She offers arguments to prove that the arguments against the markets and the bourgeois class are wrong, and shows that the bourgeoisie is a noble class, that it is the chief repository of the virtues instilled by commercial life, and that there is a strong correlation between bourgeois virtue and laissez-faire capitalism.

Rand’s case for reclaiming the word “selfishness” is not strong because she is unable to offer convincing philosophical arguments. McCloskey has done a far better job in making a case for reclaiming the word “bourgeois.”

Monday, 4 February 2019

The Myth of Vincent van Gogh’s Madness

Self Portrait of Vincent van Gogh (1887)
Vincent van Gogh is remembered as a tortured artist who battled with mental illness for much of his life. His paintings are regarded as the works of a mad genius. The problem with this view of van Gogh is that it is not true.

Deirdre N. McCloskey, in her book The Bourgeoisie Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, (Chapter 13: “Van Gogh and The Transcendent Profane”), points out that “Vincent was a poet in paint, a self-educated sophisticate. He read novels and journals of opinion ravenously in four languages, taking themes for paintings directly from them, and wrote letters in three of the languages often and well, especially to his equally sophisticated art-dealer brother, Theo.”

Van Gogh was a sane, rational, sophisticated, and artistic man for almost his entire life. He was ill only for the last nineteen months of life, and that too, only from time to time. McCloskey writes:
Van Gogh’s illnesses did not make his art. They blocked it. In his estimation, sex did, too. He declared in a letter of June 1888 to his young artist friend Émile Bernard: “Painting and fucking a lot don’t go together, it softens the brain. Which is a bloody nuisance.” His art certainly did not derive from his madness, or from his sexual activity, or from his bodily pains, or from his drinking. He painted when he was well and sober. His art had nothing to do with being sick.  
What is this insistence on the mad, alcoholic artist? Such a man (always a man) is above all imprudent. He does not plan. He can’t handle money. He injures himself. The bourgeois is known as a seeker of safety—this against the fact of risk in a commercial life. The mad artist rejects safety. The myth is an antibourgeois faith in the autonomous human spirit—this against the opportunities for expression in a commercial life. Who is in love with the myth? Sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie. 
McCloskey doubts the famous story of van Gogh cutting his ear. She suggests that the painter Paul Gauguin could be responsible for that incident. “In his painting van Gogh was not foolish or mad. There is even doubt, by the way, about the circumstances of the ear-cutting-off. A German art historian, Rita Wildegans, claims that Gauguin did the ear-cutting, and that van Gogh was covering up for his friend by claiming that he himself did it.”

The legend of van Gogh’s madness was created by the art critics six months before his death. McCloskey says that the critics might have been inspired by Émile Zola's 1886 novel L'Œuvre. Zola was advancing the theories of the doctor and criminologist Cesare Lombroso that men of genius were mentally ill—for example, epileptic. Van Gogh objected to being labeled insane. He wrote a letter to an art critic called Albert Aurier and pointed out that the kind of paintings that he was doing could not be the work of a madman. But the legend of his madness became unstoppable.

McCloskey says that the critics and moviemakers continued to depict van Gogh as a madman because “it fits well the late-Romantic, wannabe-aristocratic notion of the mad artist, as in Kirk Douglas’s riveting but nutty performance in the movie Lust for Life.” She conjectures that if van Gogh had not fallen sick in 1888 and he had not committed suicide in July 1890, then “we would have more of his art, with the same qualities—which were technical developments, not effusions of madness—at a lower price per painting, unhyped by the Romance of his illness and death.”

Sunday, 3 February 2019

On The Counter-Enlightenment

A Painting of Rousseau (1753)
The term “counter-enlightenment” became popular about 200 years after the Enlightenment, when Isaiah Berlin used it in his essay, “The Counter-Enlightenment,” to refer to the opposition to the French Enlightenment. The essay was published in 1973, and in 1981, it was reprinted in a collection of his works, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas.

Berlin argues that the central principles of the French Enlightenment were “universality, objectivity, rationality, and the capacity to provide permanent solutions to all genuine problems of life or thought, and (not less important) accessibility of rational methods to any thinker armed with adequate powers of observation and logical thinking,” and the opposition to it “occurred in various forms, conservative or liberal, reactionary or revolutionary, depending on which systematic order was being attacked.”

He names philosophers like Giambattista Vico, Johann Georg Hamann, Joseph de Maistre and a few others as the chief architects of the Counter-Enlightenment. Berlin describes in detail the illiberal ideas of de Maistre to establish the point that the Counter-Enlightenment was a force of evil. Here’s an excerpt:
In a striking image de Maistre says that all social order in the end rests upon one man, the executioner. Nobody wishes to associate with this hideous figure, yet on him, so long as men are weak, sinful, unable to control their passions, constantly lured to their doom by evil temptations or foolish dreams, rest all order, all peace, all society. The notion that reason is sufficient to educate or control the passions is ridiculous. When there is a vacuum, power rushes in ; even the bloodstained monster Robespierre, a scourge sent by the Lord to punish a country that had departed from the true faith, is more to be admired - because he did hold France together and repelled her enemies, and created armies that, drunk with blood and passion, preserved France - than liberal fumbling and bungling. Louis XIV ignored the clever reasoners of his time, suppressed heresy, and died full of glory in his own bed. Louis XVI played amiably with subversive ideologists who had drunk at the poisoned well of Voltaire, and died on the scaffold. Repression, censorship, absolute sovereignty, judgements from which there is no appeal, these are the only methods of governing creatures whom de Maistre described as half men, half beasts, monstrous centaurs at once seeking after God and fighting Him, longing to love and create, but in perpetual danger of falling victims to their own blindly destructive drives, held in check by a combination of force and traditional authority and, above all, a faith incarnated in historically hallowed institutions that reason dare not touch.
Berlin notes that the failure of the French Revolution to achieve its objective of creating a better society marks the end of the French Enlightenment as a movement and a system. But the surprising thing is that he does not hold the philosophers of the French Enlightenment—Rousseau, Diderot, and others—accountable for the bloodbath of the French Revolution. He absolves them, even though the French Revolution was an outcome of their teachings.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

On The Philosophy of Labor

Karl Marx looked at labor as the very essence of man. He proposed a system of education that was weighted towards labor. In his Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, he says: “When the working class comes to power, as inevitably it must, technical instruction, both theoretical and practical, will take its proper place in the working class schools.” He believed that such technical education (vocational training) would make workers fit for “a variety of labors, ready to face any change of production,” thus solving the problems of excessive specialization and redundancy in the division of labor.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her book The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, Page 65),  makes the following comment on Marx’s thoughts on education and labor:

"This concept of education was no passing thought on Marx’s part. Almost twenty years earlier, in The Communist Manifesto, he had derided the “bourgeois claptrap” about education, proposing, as an intermediate step on the road to communism, free education with the proviso: “combination of education with industrial production.” One is reminded of Hannah Arendt’s observation that no thinker ever reduced man to an animal laborans as totally as Marx did. Locke made of labor the source of property; Smith made of labor the source of wealth; Marx made of labor the very essence of man."

Friday, 1 February 2019

On The Modesty of Adam Smith

Portrait of Smith by John Kay, 1790
Why did the British Enlightenment succeed in creating a better society, while the French Enlightenment led to the bloodbath of the French Revolution? I think, we can draw some inferences from a comparison between the character of the British philosophers and their French counterparts.

The British philosophers of that period were modest and down-to-earth—they were not autocratic; they did not see themselves as intellectually and morally superior to other human beings; they philosophized extensively about the common human nature and the natural equality of all people.

Adam Smith, the most important figure of the British Enlightenment, asserts the common humanity of the street porter and the philosopher. Here’s an excerpt from Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (Book I, Chapter 2):
The difference of natural talents in different men, is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education… By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter, as a mastiff is from a greyhound, or a greyhound from a spaniel, or this last from a shepherd's dog. 
David Hume and Edmund Burke have also philosophized on the idea of all men being created equal. On the other hand the major French philosophers of the 18th century were autocrats; they thought that the philosophers like themselves are superior to everyone else in society. It is impossible to imagine Rousseau and Diderot likening themselves to a street porter. They believed that they were destined by nature to pick up the burden of guiding the political and cultural future of their country.