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Category: Philosophy

Philosophers as Politicians

I am rereading (reading) my copy of Plato’s Republic, when I came across the famous argument in chapter 8 that philosophers should become rulers, or rulers should become philosophers.

Personally, I think that’s a great idea. But his reasoning doesn’t seem sound. To review:

1) Philosophers love knowledge, and hence, truth and reality. (Knowledge being the permanent sort as Plato conceived of it)

2) The position of guardianship should be given to those who can uphold the society’s law and customs.

3) If you truly love knowledge, you are necessarily honest, not mercenary, not small-minded, clever and have culture and grace. (proven in painstaking detail)

Hence, philosophers, having all the traits of a ruler, should have political power.

Or, in other words:

Because of A (loves knowledge), B (philosophers are honest etc.).

To be C (a ruler), B.

Hence, those who love knowledge (i.e. philosophers) should C.

Clearly a fallacy?

Atomic theory and determinism

I have recently decided to learn more about science and hence, finished the first of six easy pieces (the lecture series by Feynman). I was reading the chapter on atomic motion, when it struck me how I have not noticed how inherently random things are, how atoms move and vibrate without any set route. Now, determinism has always had a pseudo-scientific bent to it, that we can be reduced to atoms whose behaviour is calculable. Fair enough: as Feynman notes, one theory in biology is that we are essentially atoms and our bodies must be explainable by atomic theory. Yet, atomic motion is random; if we are truly guided on a biological level, and free will is a clever illusion, determinism is not a sensible alternative. Its notion of preset paths is incompatible with the randomness in physics.

{This reminds me of a striking passage from the excellent Lewis Thomas: that we are really controlled by things within cells. Is our conscience just renting a body that does not belong to it? Again, coherent with the literature separating the soul from the body? I’ll quote the text as soon as I can find my book.)

Slavery By Any Other Name

Wolff checks in with an excellent piece on an column by Douthat.

Consider this excerpt by Douthat:

“This is the perverse logic of meritocracy. Once a system grows sufficiently complex, it doesn’t matter how badly our best and brightest foul things up. Every crisis increases their authority, because they seem to be the only ones who understand the system well enough to fix it.

But their fixes tend to make the system even more complex and centralized, and more vulnerable to the next national-security surprise, the next natural disaster, the next economic crisis. Which is why, despite all the populist backlash and all the promises from Washington, this isn’t the end of the “too big to fail” era. It’s the beginning.”

Am I the only one who is thinking of Plato and his philosopher kings? Remember how he argued that just as you wouldn’t argue with a doctor on medicine, you shouldn’t argue with a ruler on how to rule? The interesting question is what if this philosopher king screws up. What then?

Plato would argue right into Douthat’s hands. But what exactly is the problem here? As Douthat himself points out:

“If Robert Rubin’s mistakes helped create an out-of-control financial sector, then naturally you need Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers — Rubin’s protégés — to set things right. After all, who else are you going to trust with all that consolidated power? Ron Paul? Dennis Kucinich? Sarah Palin?”

However, Douthat’s argument suffers from one problem. If the problem in the financial crisis was the deregulation of finance, would even less regulation have made sense? In Douthat’s examples, all the problems were caused by a lack: the lack of financial regulation, a lack of airport security, a lack of European central management. Thus, the rational response is, of course, more of something.

Wolff gives this all a rather sophisticated spin, writing:

“It is exactly what Marx meant by the new system of social relations of production being born in the womb of the old. The reason those in charge do not react to their failures by going backwards to a less centralized time is that, by their conception of rationality, the rational thing to do is to take greater control of what seems to be out of control, which is to say to centralize. Oh, mere self-interest plays a role, but it would be a big mistake to suppose that is all that is at play. Why does Obama ratify the seizures of executive authority pioneered by George W. Bush? Because, confronted with terrorist incidents, it is the rational thing to do. Why does a progressive like Krugman call for greater regulatory oversight? Because that is the rational way to deal with an economic system that is “out of control.””

Wolff is no longer talking about simply filling vacuums; rather he is talking about chaos and our need to contain it. That is certainly the root of human society. There is also a relation between chaos and centralisation. Is that a mistake?

Libertarians would balk at the suggestion that chaos is best countered by centralisation (an idea which, if pushed, will lead to  world government). Socialists (John Lennon in particular) might be slightly more pleased by the prospect. But either way, the human spirit is surrendering control to one aspect. The conservatives and libertarians yield their control to the free market: chaos is controlled through the free market system. This is an important consideration for any claims about the merit of the free market system inadvertently compare it favourably to the bureaucracy of government. Bureaucracy and free markets both involve an individual surrender of control, and neither are inherently good nor bad. The real question is which system is more effective in dealing with human needs and wants.

Back in the 20th century, it was a decisive victory for free markets, but in the 21st century, government competency is leading a well-deserved comeback. Political caricature have created this ridiculous conventional wisdom that free markets are better because they are free. This is ridiculous if you would observe any early capitalistic laissez faire society before social safety nets were erected. Up till now, free markets were better because they were more suited to our needs.

My argument is that we should not judge anything by the illusionary criterion of freedom. The very existence of society is contradictory to the idea of perfect individual liberty. Whatever the system, and however it sneaks the label free into its title, it is always slavery by any other name.

P.S. This is Wolff’s essay, the Future of Socialism. I’ll read and comment on it some other time.

Dead Language

An excellent essay; I’m sure many of you will agree with Wolff’s position. Certain examples spring to mind in our context: “out of bound markers”, “regrets to inform you”, greetings like “good evening, ladies and gentlemen”, “of biblical proportions” etc.

A striking excerpt:

I often think that George Orwell would have been quite delighted by the phenomenon of the macro, had he lived long enough to see it. In his great essay, “Politics and the English Language,” written in 1946, Orwell, you will recall, talks about the corruption of political thought and language that is manifested in the mindless repetition of standardized phrases. He gives lots of examples, such as “a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind,” and “bloodstained tyranny,” and “achieve a radical transformation,” and “leaves much to be desired.” Had he written the essay only a few years later, he could have added “the free world,” and “communist dictatorship,” and perhaps “tax and spend liberal.” He would have enjoyed the idea of politicians – or their speech writers – programming these and other phrases into their computers as macros, so that they could be produced by a single keystroke or two with no thought whatsoever. We Kant scholars have some rather specialist cant phrases for which macros might be appropriate – my favorite is “conditions of the possibility of experience in general.” These reflections were prompted, several semesters ago, by an incident in a seminar I was teaching on ideological critique. The participants were a group of extremely intelligent and widely read graduate students – all impeccably radical. Despite my heroic efforts to focus their attention on particular, concrete examples, such as the controversy that has developed among ethnographers of the northern Kalahari desert, the students persisted in speaking and writing in the most suffocatingly abstract and stereotypical fashion. Things finally blew up when one member of the class, making a class presentation, referred in passing to “racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.” The phrase rolled off his tongue as though the individual words were simply syllables of one great polysyllable – stuck together by some sort of syntactical glue. Everyone in the class was quite comfortable with the phrase. It seemed to me that they found it reassuring, rather in the way little children snuggle down in bed when they hear “Once upon a time.” All except a rather abrasive German student who interrupted to protest that she, for one, had nothing against classism. Indeed, she said, she regularly judged people according to their economic class, and thought it quite the right way to go about things. The class came to a dead halt, and no one knew what to say. None of the students had ever heard anyone question the appropriateness of the phrase “racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia,” used as a term of opprobrium. It was as though, in the middle of a class preparing little Catholic boys and girls for First Communion, a smart-mouthed trouble maker had piped up and said, “I can take the Father and the Son, but you can keep the Holy Ghost.”

I pounced on the intervention – as the French have taught us to call it when a student says something in class – and did everything I could to make it the occasion for a searching examination of unacknowledged ideological presuppositions. That was, after all, the subject matter of the course. But it was a total flop. I simply couldn’t get the students to see how mind-numbingly banal, how drained of all genuine thought, that phrase had become. I could not even get them to attune their ears to the ugliness of it as language. Freud says somewhere, talking about the dynamics of psychoanalytic therapy, that if there is a single topic that it is not permitted to examine in an analysis, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that topic. I have always found this a profound insight into what happens in the classroom as welL A classroom in which it is socially or pedagogically unacceptable to question the appropriateness of the phrase “racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia” is a classroom in which neither real teaching nor real learning can take place.”

I would also like to recommend Robert Paul Wolff’s blog for any aspiring academics out there, or any potential Kant scholars. His memoirs (published in instalments) are especially entertaining.