If you ever sign up for a class on Pragmatism, there’s a good chance you’ll find Emerson on the syllabus. In fact, you’re likely to find “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance” among the earliest reading assignments. Emerson was a poet and a prophet rather than a philosopher but his vision deeply informed American Pragmatism, particularly the Pragmatism of William James. Emerson was James’ godfather and often dined with the James family but Emerson’s influence on the American psyche is much broader than this bit of historical trivia might suggest.
What is the Emersonian vision? As I read him, he describes reality as essentially dynamic and, as part of that reality, we are fundamentally creative beings. As Dylan points out about 90 minutes into the latest PEL podcast, Emersonian souls “are an act in progress.” Or, as Emerson himself put it, “the soul becomes.” If Dylan is right, this is as close as Emerson gets to giving us an ontology of the self and Emerson was doing a kind of process philosophy. Similarly, Mark’s treatment of “Circles” about 105 minutes into the podcast reveals a picture of the Emersonian soul in a constant state of growth wherein the aim is to overcome the self or transcend it over and over in ever-wider orbits. I like to imagine this as something like Maslow’s developmental hierarchy transposed onto a series of nested spheres or concentric circles.
The American Scholar could rightly be taken as Emerson’s attempt to summon a young nation, as if he were encouraging the country to stand on its own cultural feet. “In the right state,” Emerson says of the American scholar, “he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.” Emerson was trying to help a newborn country overcome its cultural inferiority complex, so to speak. But this call to creativity and originality can also be read at a more visionary or philosophical level so that “Man Thinking” is understood not in terms of national pride but as the Emersonian soul, that fundamentally creative self existing in an essentially dynamic reality. There’s a key moment in “The American Scholar” wherein this call for originality seems to be elevated or vastly enlarged. “Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments,” Emerson says. “When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” On one level he’s just talking about the relative importance of books, as opposed to something more directly read and something more “precious.” But what does it mean to say that Man Thinking “must not be subdued by his instruments” or to say that a person “can read God directly”?
It’s not easy to say what Emerson means by “God.” Plausible interpretations could construe it as the God of the Unitarians (a term of abuse coined by Trinitarians), a Platonic God, Spinoza’s God, a Hegelian God, the supreme deity of Hinduism, the Tao of Taoism, or as the all-pervasive presence of pantheism. The array of possibilities can be frustrating and one might be tempted to conclude that this lack of clarity is a result of Emerson’s religious zeal, his poetic excesses, or even his weakness as a thinking man. Should we dismiss his preaching as a quaint (and slightly embarrassing) antique or otherwise bracket out this part of Emerson’s work? I think it wouldn’t be too far-fetched or too generous to read Emerson as a mystic, in which case there are some very good reasons why Emerson’s God would be so hard to pin down. Even further, if we read him as a philosophical mystic, his vision doesn’t necessarily entail any kind of theism. In that case, his preaching doesn’t need to be bracketed out but rather read as a poetic form of expression that’s not to be taken literally. As Robert Pirsig writes in Lila: An Inquiry into Morals,
Some of the most honored philosophers in history have been mystics: Plotinus, Swedenborg, Loyola, Shankaracharya and many others. They share a common belief that the fundamental nature of reality is outside language; that language splits things up into parts while the true nature of reality is undivided. Zen, which is a mystic religion, argues that the illusion of dividedness can be overcome by meditation. The Native American Church argues that peyote can force-feed a mystic understanding upon those who were normally resistant to it, an understanding that Indians had been deriving through Vision Quests in the past.
A common belief among mystics (that reality is outside of language) needs to unpacked but first I’d offer an informative little digression. It’s worth mentioning that Plotinus is a favorite for both Emerson and Pirsig and that Emerson and William James’s father, Henry Sr., were both Swedenborgians. (It’s easy to imagine that William James was exposed to Swedenborgian mysticism at the family’s dinner table.) Swedenborg is probably the most influential person that you never heard of. As Wikipedia tells it, people influenced by Swedenborg include Blake, Borges, Arthur Conan Doyle, Emerson, Jung, Kant, Helen Keller, D.T. Suzuki, and Yeats. His philosophy was also ridiculed as foolishness, insanity and blasphemy. A heresy trial was initiated against his writings and against two of his followers in 1768. Eugene Taylor barely mentions Emerson but paints a picture of Swedenborg’s influence on Pragmatism in his essay “Swedenborgian Roots of American Pragmatism: The Case of D.T. Suzuki.” As was mentioned in a previous profile, the late Eugene Taylor was considered to be some kind of reincarnation of William James. A person could spend an entire career exploring all the connections suggested by all this but let’s return to this assertion of mysticism. What does it mean to say that reality is outside of language?
Is there a way to talk about this notion without sounding like a preacher, a Zen meditator, a peyote eater, or a vision quester? Yes, and that’s what the Pragmatism of James and Pirsig is all about. As James writes in Some Problems of Philosophy, “there must always be a discrepancy between concepts and reality, because the former are static and discontinuous while the latter is dynamic and flowing.” Pirsig quotes this line from James as a summary of his own view and explains how he was pleasantly surprised to discover that “James had chosen exactly the same words” for this distinction as he had. On this view, the philosophical mystic is saying that reality is too big and rich and ever-changing to be adequately captured by our thought categories or to be adequately described in words. Man Thinking, Emerson says, “must not be subdued by his instruments” (language and concepts) but should instead “read God directly” (have direct acquaintance with pre-verbal, pre-conceptual experience). From this perspective, Emerson, philosophical mysticism, and Jamesian pragmatism are all making the same basic assertion about the relation between concepts and the immediacy of lived experience.
I think that theologians often construe this notion to mean that it’s a sin or a moral violation to utter the name of God and this prohibition is sometimes expressed in terms that suggest humans are simply unworthy of speaking the name and must cower before the majesty of the divine Creator. But as James and Pirsig present it, the ineffable reality is not a divine being or a supernatural entity at all and the reason we cannot speak of it is based on what we might call epistemic humility: an acknowledgement that words and concepts are limited in their power to capture truth. The ineffable is ineffable not because of its majesty or magical powers but because it is more basic, simple, and direct than language. From this perspective, Emerson’s “God” is what Pirsig calls “a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.”
If Emerson’s “God” is taken as poetic or metaphorical reference to this mystic reality, then its vagueness and openness to interpretation can be seen as fitting and proper. He’s not going to offer any precise definitions because he’s convinced that none are possible. This is what James says about his own “pure experience” and what Pirsig says about his own equivalent term, “Quality.”
Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word ‘quality’ cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates.This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate, and direct.
Pirsig had some pretty interesting things to say about Emerson and Transcendentalism, things that have never been published or otherwise shared with anyone. But that deserves a post of its own. Until then, go tell your instruments that they work for you and not the other way around.
Anyone reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (1841) for the first time is likely to be taken by his call to us, his Dear Readers, to trust in ourselves, be our own persons, arrive at our own insights. He writes, “To believe your own thought, to believe what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.” And no surprise that the language Emerson uses is so gripping. He was a Unitarian minister so his essays have a grand style to them. I could easily imagine these essays or something like them being read in front of a church congregation and inspiring those people just as they still do today. The main idea that underlies “Self-Reliance” and other works by Emerson is what philosopher Charles Taylor has called the Ethics of Authenticity, which involves individuals seeking the good life for themselves, on their own terms.
That the Ethics of Authenticity is the implicit thesis to Emerson’s essay is undeniable when we look at representative passages that encourage us to follow our own path and arrive at intellectual and moral virtues on our own terms. Emerson writes that in the work of so-called great men and women, we will read insights that we have had ourselves, if only we take a moment to reflect on the fact. He writes,
A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.
Recognizing our own thoughts in the thoughts of “bards and sages” will remind us of how much wisdom we already possess and should inspire us not to conform to the conventions of our society and our traditions but to bring to them our own original inspiration.
Recognizing our thoughts in the words of great figures of the past could be one sort of tipping point to lead the sorts of lives we above all see fit, but Emerson believes that for each individual there could be still other tipping points, which come in the form of a kind of intellectual and moral maturity. He writes,
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the convention that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universal is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.
It is, according to Emerson, through the exercise of our own creative energies, that we discover who we are and what we can do, but we cannot know unless we trust these creative powers and put them to use.
Emerson has little good to say about society in contrast to the individual. He believes that society is anathema to the Ethics of Authenticity, what he calls “self-reliance,” believing, trusting, relying on oneself to lead the life one wants. Emerson writes,
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. [Society] loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
Being self-reliant, in contrast, is about not conforming to these social norms. “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance is a celebration of the individual par excellence.
When we read passages like the ones above, we are probably faced with one of two kinds of intuitions. One kind of intuition tells us that we too feel compelled as he does to praise the individual in all his pursuits above all others because this is after all what we want for ourselves. We want to be able to pursue the good life on our own terms, without interference from others, without being forced to meet someone else’s ideal of the good life. We can freely make use of the goods that our society presents us, to be sure, but it is ultimately up to us to do what we want with our lives. Indeed, on one reading of Socrates’s advice, he encouraged just such a form of psychological egoism: Not only do we seek what is good for ourselves but we ought to be free to pursue what is good for ourselves.
The sort of objection we might have to this intuition is met by a second, competing intuition we might have. There is also something alarming or off-putting about Emerson’s self-reliance. Taken at face value, Emerson’s claims appear to throw aside social norms and traditions too readily, as if they have nothing to teach us about how we ought to live. And furthermore we have all met people who seem to operate off of some conception of how to live like Emerson’s who have no idea what they’re doing in life and go around making trouble for the rest of us. Extreme cases come in the form of criminals or sociopaths, who act without conscience, and the milder cases can be seen in the likes of people who have no qualms about lying or cheating to get what they want or who flout convention just for its own sake.
Lest the Reader think I am being unfair to Emerson, “Self-Reliance” contains several passages that would attest to a belief that the individual is so important that intellectual, moral, and legal norms ought to have no bearing on individual behavior. He writes,
No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he.”—“I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company.
This flouting of any sort of norm extends for Emerson to putative obligations to help the poor, for example, and to contribute to public goods:
[D]o not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousand-fold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb to give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
No one, in Emerson’s view, ought to tell us what to do with our money, our resources, or are lives. We are free to lead them any way we wish, trusting in our own virtues.
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what it is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
It is easy enough to argue that these notions are self-evident. But is it possible to square the competing notions that (A) we ought to, with Emerson, favor the individual’s ability and right to make his own choices while paying little heed to convention, and (B) the suspicion that there will always be those who, neglecting social, moral, and legal norms, act to his own detriment, or worse, to society’s detriment? Earlier I said that Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance is a kind of formulation of the Ethics of Authenticity, which states that we get to decide what the good life is for us, and no tradition, society, or government can tell us what that is. Arguably and ironically, the Ethics of Authenticity is the tradition that most of us living in contemporary, Western society believe, whether we know it or not. Nowadays it is mainstream to believe that no one ought to tell us how to lead our lives when we begin to have certain freedoms curtailed. Think of how people would feel in the United States if, say, the draft were re-instituted for military service. Right or wrong, there would be a public outcry. This is because most Americans would argue that mandatory military conscription violates our ability to decide for ourselves what we want to do with our lives.
The Ethics of Authenticity is inescapable, and Emerson’s particular iteration of it with the concept of self-reliance—a refusal to accept an obligation to conform to social norms in formulating our decisions about the good life—is so widely accepted as to be futile to militate against. Nevertheless, there is value in exploring the particular traditions and norms that Emerson does believe are valuable in order to help us decide what he thinks is important. This in turn might be helpful in making up our minds for ourselves about what a good life amounts to.
Taylor refines these concepts in The Ethics of Authenticity (1992) when he writes,
…authenticity (A) involves (i) creation and construction as well as discovery, (ii) originality, and frequently (iii) opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what we recognize as morality. But it is also true… that (B) requires (i) openness to horizons of significance (for otherwise the creation loses the background that saves it from insignificance) and (ii) a self-definition in dialogue. That these demands may be in tension has to be allowed. But what must be wrong is a simple privileging of one over the other, of (A), say, at the expense of (B), or vice versa.
In other words, the Ethics of Authenticity is about creation, originality, and opposition to norms within the context of pre-existing ideas. It is a stand taken in a long dialogue concerning the role of the concepts used. And Emerson’s own ideal involves a background assumption about how human nature works.
Creation, originality, and nonconformity in the form of self-reliance ought and can arise in an individual vis-a-vis mass society, the church, the State, and other institutions because human beings are endowed by their Creator with moral and intellectual capacities that function best in a free environment. Emerson takes a strong stance on the side of the primacy of the individual’s decisions over and against institutions. He makes clear why this is so. Emerson’s admonition for us to trust our own morality against anything thrown up by society lapses into moral relativism—unless we are aware that people, in their natural environments, can interact perfectly well because we are endowed with moral and intellectual instincts toward the greater good. These instincts play out best, Emerson argues, in a context in which they have little to no constraints. This view of human nature clarifies Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance. He writes,
We live in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault. Its presence or absence is all we can affirm. Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed.
Emerson advises that we follow our own moral sense and enact the principles that we see fit. Better this way with respect to our traditions and norms than to err by accepting such traditions and norms blindly.
If it were not for the endowment of this moral and intellectual sense (which Emerson thinks is endowed by God), would Emerson be so quick to encourage us to be self-reliant? I think if Emerson did not believe in moral and intellectual instincts he would not have encouraged self-reliance. But to imagine human beings incapable of moral and intellectual strength would be to imagine a different world. We can assume that we have these instincts, otherwise we would not be able to so readily make intellectual and moral decisions across the wide range of situations we already do. Emerson’s self-reliance is important, therefore, for helping us understand the shaping of an American ethos, and the Ethics of Authenticity more generally helps inform our contemporary understanding. As Charles Taylor writes, The Ethics of Authenticity “points us towards a more self-responsible form of life. It allows us to live (potentially) a fuller and more differentiated life, because more fully appropriated as our own. There are dangers… But at its best authenticity allows a richer mode of existence” compared to alternatives.
There are many great, mind-bending science fiction films that, for whatever reason, are worth watching over and over, if only to suss out what actually happened. Coherence, the most ironically titled movie to come along in a while, is not one of them.
Fans of science fiction, and science fiction films especially, could probably name dozens. The first that come to my mind are Memento and, more recently, Looper. Primer, which tells the story of smart but basically average guys who mistakenly invent a time machine, is arguably the Citizen Kane of mind-benders. It makes Back to the Future look like an episode of “Golden Girls.” I’ve seen Primer three times and studied timelines and explanations of the film, but I still don’t really get it.
These kinds of movies are of special interest to philosophically inclined geeks because they are not just fun in the way any action or sci-fi film might be fun. (Primer, famously, was shot on a shoestring with no special effects and no settings more interesting than a storage locker.) They also attempt to deal, in as rigorous a fashion as possible, with the vast metaphysical implications and problems that arise in a world where time travel and parallel worlds are possible. They are difficult because the topic itself is difficult.
And yet, you watch them a few times and you begin to sense that they are in fact logically coherent, and even seem plausible in some sense. They work hard to establish and reveal the laws of their alternative world, and then they stick to them.
But not Coherence. Coherence is mostly incoherent, not just in the sense that it is hard to understand. It is also hard to understand because its parts do not cohere, making the film difficult for the wrong reasons.
Any serious consideration of parallel worlds is bound to perplex—try wrapping your head around modal realism or the general-audience books by theoretical physicists Brian Greene and Michio Kaku and you’ll see what I mean. And yet, one can forgive a filmmaker for seeing it as a fertile subject, and not just because of its formal or narrative possibilities: Greene and Kaku, et al., represent a community of physicists who admit that it’s only the math—not empirical observation—that points toward the reality of eleven dimensions and an ensemble of universes, but stress that statements such as “only the math” could lead to underestimations of literally cosmic proportions.
So the idea is out there, as it has been for a while, which I suppose comforted this film’s creators enough to spend only about the time it takes to watch the movie on working out all its details. The worst thing about Coherence, however, is that, though some of the ideas are undoubtably compelling, it is not rewatchable at all. Not in the slightest. The characters are two-dimensional, even by the relatively low standards of a science fiction film, and the dialogue is lazy and grating.
Assuming you’ve seen it or have no interest in seeing it, I should offer a quick refresher/summary: A group of loathsome quasi-yuppies gather for a dinner party on a night when a comet happens to be passing through the night sky. It turns out that all the worst pre-modern superstitions about comets are true, because comets really can cause all kinds of strange and terrible things to happen. In this case, it rains down a kind of poetic justice tailor-made for an increasingly narcissistic age: The single timeline, where there is exactly one of everything, bursts open to create a possibly infinite number of similar but somehow different things. They find themselves trapped in a world where there are countless identical houses with identical dinner guests. For them, the world really is all about them. From the outset it is established that this moment, the appearance of the comet, is the exact moment when one reality became many, which is important to remember, as we will see. (I am willing to give Coherence one benefit of a single doubt: This type of alternate-world scenario—though it is the least interesting from a cinematic point of view—could be seen as partly satirical since it is the most mundane. I’d like to think that if there were an alternate version of me out there in the multiverse, he is not exactly the same guy, sitting at a computer writing a movie review; if not a Nobel Prize laureate perhaps a writer with better hair or fewer Star Wars figures.)
My first real pang of regret upon seeing this movie came about a quarter of the way through, just as they are realizing how deep the shit they are in really is. Someone mentions Schrödinger’s Cat. I’m not sure why, except that it too is soooo weird. He gives a stripped down, though not inaccurate retelling of the thought experiment, and then another character gives us the moral: “We can be both dead and alive at the same time!” See? Just like the cat. Except this is not quite the point of the Gedankenexperiment, at least not as I’ve come to understand it. It’s not just that a thing can be two completely different things at the same time. This would be difficult enough to justify. Rather, Schrödinger designed the hypothetical scenario to show that it is the act of observation itself that produces the results. This idea is, when you think about it, far more profound because of its implications for experience, even if cats and people don’t generally behave like subatomic particles.
I don’t mean to say that a sci-fi movie should be held to the same standards as philosophers and scientists. However, this missing-of-the-point reflects the central flaw of the movie: It’s a very lazy take on a topic stuffed with narrative possibilities. To wit: It is revealed that one of the dinner guests has probably slept with the wife of one of the other dinner guests. (Before the night of the dinner.) The cuckold confronts the cuckolder, willing to give him a chance to explain himself because, not only are they best buds and he just doesn’t want to believe it, but because all of existence has gone haywire and no one knows what is real and what isn’t anymore. Then, all of a sudden, the cuckolder reveals his understanding of basic metaphysics: He had sex with the wife before the Event, which means, as he puts it, he didn’t just sleep with her in one of the possible worlds but in every possible world, since all possible worlds are derived from the one they are currently in. Then he gets punched in the face.
This single interaction reveals how the issues of free will and causality (issues that are very relevant to practical areas of philosophy such as ethics and epistemology) are related to the topic of parallel worlds, which, as far as we know, is more of a philosophical playground that allows us to explore how topics like ethics and epistemology ought to work. I enjoyed how the characters immediately begin to employ simple, everyday objects such as glow sticks, photographs and Sharpies to try and keep track of who is who: The first thing the comet did was fry everyone’s cell phones, which I suppose would be a likely result of one reality shattering into a possibly infinite number of realities.
The real problem with Coherence, however, is this: The dinner guests assume that their alternate selves are somehow very different from their “actual” selves. But why? If they know the exact moment when the single timeline branched off into many, wouldn’t that be the moment when new decisions and thus new outcomes and new selves would be produced? This is never seriously addressed. Instead, everyone assumes that their alternate selves are somehow better or worse versions of their “actual” selves. They do this despite the fact that they have interacted with some of their alternate selves, who are similar in every way, with the same clothes and the same photographs. Sure, they can’t be absolutely certain that their other selves are really the same, but we have to assume that, since Mike really did sleep with Beth before the Event, most of the causal chain that led them to this night is the same. Same causal chains, same people (I would argue).
The movie ends with Emily, who is a pretty blonde and therefore the closest the film comes to having a central protagonist, leaving the house, walking down the street and peering in through the windows of the other houses on the block. She finds every house to be the same, with every house populated by the same group of people, i.e., her and her friends. In some realities they are screaming at each other, while in others they are lazing on the couch sipping cabernet and chatting about—who knows, whatever it is white people chat about when they sit on couches and drink cabernet. In other words, as I said, the other realities aren’t too different from the original one. It’s possibly the most boring and uninspired way to depict alternate realities—but in some sick, unintentionally satirical way, the most realistic one. Emily, being a barely developed character in a barely developed film, cares about one thing only: Her boyfriend, Kevin, who is kind of a jerk. We know this because he kissed Laurie, an ex-girlfriend who now dates one of the other guys at the party and who must also be kind of a jerk because he invited her, knowing Kevin would be there. Also, Kevin’s memory of a day with Emily at the fair doesn’t seem to mean quite as much to him as it does to her. So she finds another house/reality, one where Emily-two is snuggling with Kevin-two, deduces from this that Kevin-two is somehow not a jerk, kills Emily-two and takes her place.
Thus, one of my theses about parallel realities is proven: Just as there might be a parallel world with unicorns or where I go to the gym more but there could not be a parallel world where 1 plus 1 equals 4, there could never be a parallel world where there are movies in which pretty white women care about anything except having great boyfriends.
But the real question is this: If it has been established that there was a single timeline that branched into many and we know when that happened, why is Emily assuming that the Kevin-two she finds is any less of a jerk than Kevin-one? Because he likes PDA and has a higher opinion of fairs? Are we really to believe that something happened since the Event to change his mind about Emily?
The best one could say in the movie’s defense is that people are people and they believe what they want to believe, even when really weird things happen. I can accept that. But I also find that kind of takeaway, in a science-fiction film, to be trivial, as well as insipid when the stakes are no greater than those of a second-rate reality show.
Whether the film is truly incoherent or the characters are just completely forgettable might, in the end, be up to the viewer. I can forgive either one of those missteps. Not both. If Coherence were philosophically challenging and rigorous but kind of boring (like Primer) or fun but not especially profound (like Looper) I’m sure I’d have something very different to say about it. But it is neither, which makes it terrible in every possible world.
In our Emerson discussion, Wes and Dylan didn’t seem too interested in trying to figure out Emerson’s religious/metaphysical views, which were drawn on in the essays we read but which were not their central feature. I think (as does Thoreau, who incidentally we’re talking about next) that reading him in a secular vein is ultimately more rewarding, but my complaints about how unsatisfying Emerson’s explanations of his metaphysics were by necessity just hung there in the conversation. Given that Emerson is primarily known as a transcendentalist, and that’s actually supposed to mean something, this is my attempt to fill in the picture a bit with some quotes from his essay, “The Over-Soul,” which was published along with “Self-Reliance” in 1841).
From the first paragraph of the essay we see the foundation is supposed to be in our experience. He says that “our faith comes in moments… Yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.”
However, he immediately then states:
For this reason, the argument which is always forthcoming to silence those who conceive extraordinary hopes of man, namely, the appeal to experience, is for ever invalid and vain. We give up the past to the objector, and yet we hope. He must explain this hope. We grant that human life is mean; but how did we find out that it was mean? What is the ground of this uneasiness of ours; of this old discontent? What is the universal sense of want and ignorance, but the fine innuendo by which the soul makes its enormous claim? …The philosophy of six thousand years has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul. …Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Our being is descending into us from we know not whence.
So this is not ordinary phenomenology, but an appeal to interpret a certain nagging sense we have in a certain way. This is pretty typical of religion, and of course the experience radically underdetermines any particular type of religious doctrine. But as Emerson denounces religious doctrine, he’s surely aware of this, and is discussing the unknowable in much the same way as Schleiermacher.
But Emerson does not remain in silence, saying “we know not whence” comes our sense of something greater than the drab immediacy of material existence. The third paragraph of the essay states:
The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest… that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart… We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.
So we’ve got a clear statement of the oneness of all creation here, not just the unity of people. The portions of the above paragraph that I left out for brevity indicate more the fundamentally ethical character of this oneness:
…Of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty.
That paragraph continues:
And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. Only by the vision of that Wisdom can the horoscope of the ages be read, and by falling back on our better thoughts, by yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith. Every man’s words, who speaks from that life, must sound vain to those who do not dwell in the same thought on their own part. I dare not speak for it. My words do not carry its august sense; they fall short and cold. Only itself can inspire whom it will, and behold! their speech shall be lyrical, and sweet, and universal as the rising of the wind. Yet I desire, even by profane words, if I may not use sacred, to indicate the heaven of this deity, and to report what hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of the Highest Law.
More standard religious talk here: if you don’t agree with this “experience” of oneness, with this Platonic take on beauty and virtue flowing from some fundamental metaphysical ground with which we are always in touch but which we seldom get a clear glimpse of, then you “do not dwell in the same thought,” i.e. you haven’t had the same esoteric, religious experience; you haven’t gotten a glimpse. The appeal to “hope” earlier is not that different from an appeal to faith: you could interpret your experience of beauty and goodness as being nothing at all like the Platonic picture, e.g. you might think that our current ethics and aesthetics are the result of a long train of evolutionary accidents and semi-random cultural development, but why don’t you not interpret things in that way? (See William James make this point.)
Emerson says that experience “constrains us” (presumably the “us” means only those not corrupted in some unspecified way) to give an analysis involving the divine. This was too early in the geist of religious development–before “God is dead” and all that–to fess up to the choice involved (a la Kierkegaard’s leap of faith), that experience doesn’t really “constrain” us to interpret the world in religious terms, that doing so is a hermeneutic strategy, and that the “overpowering reality” of the divine is only overpowering once you’ve implicitly accepted the religious world view.
OK, so he’s not trying to convince the skeptic, and faith is involved. Big deal. Maimonides falls into that category, and he still provided us with a good deal of philosophical meat to chew on. Like, what is this Over-Soul exactly? How do we interact with it? If I am you and you are me and we are altogether, why can’t I read your thoughts? Or is this essay just another sermon, pretty much valueless to anyone not sharing its fundamental premise and merely inspirational (as opposed to actually enlightening) to one of the faithful? Is this just like a religious pep talk before the big game? Let’s read on:
…The soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie, — an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed. From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.
OK, so contra Sartre, Emerson here is stating (certainly not arguing) that there is a transcendental Subject, i.e. an absolute “I” that is the one that experiences, wills, etc. So what individuates me from you? Only a different particular set of things experienced, i.e. nothing essential about the Subject at all. It would be a small leap (though still one requiring explanation which I don’t see here) to venture that really there’s only one Subject, one seer who sees through different eyes. But still, wouldn’t we expect if that were the case to be able to more than just metaphorically see through each others’ eyes?
He then describes further how we only get a glimpse of this reality, yet nothing separates us from it. Then we get:
The sovereignty of this nature whereof we speak is made known by its independency of those limitations which circumscribe us on every hand. The soul circumscribes all things. As I have said, it contradicts all experience. In like manner it abolishes time and space. The influence of the senses has, in most men, overpowered the mind to that degree, that the walls of time and space have come to look real and insurmountable; and to speak with levity of these limits is, in the world, the sign of insanity. Yet time and space are but inverse measures of the force of the soul.
So why do we think that the Subject is independent of time and space? Because we buy some Kantian theory that says that time and space are something that our psychology adds in order to create our experience?
Schopenhauer made a mistake when he concluded that because time and space (and number, etc.) are features of our experienced world, then they could not be features of the thing-in-itself that lurks behind the objects we experience. On this view, we simply can’t know what the thing-in-itself is really like.
Similarly, here Emerson is saying that the Subject, because it exists beyond any particular experience, can definitely be said to have different qualities than any of those experiences, that consciousness itself (as opposed to consciousness of material objects or things we think about, i.e. our individual stream of consciousness) is not temporal. I see no justification for thinking this.
Emerson then talks about how inspirational intellectual work is, how art uplifts us, how the soul “has no dates, nor rites, nor persons, nor specialties, nor men.” Yes, yes, I agree that all this analytical getting bogged down in particulars, much less mundane particulars, can be a drag, and that music and beautiful sunsets and all that are a necessary release for our well-being.
And how does the “soul advance?” We hear that, morally, the soul rises “not into a particular virtue, but into the region of all the virtues” and that “To the well-born child, all the virtues are natural, and not painfully acquired. Speak to his heart, and the man becomes suddenly virtuous.” I think these claims are just plain false, but as they’re irrelevant to the metaphysics, I won’t dwell on them.
Here’s something that sounds like Plato’s Symposium:
Persons are supplementary to the primary teaching of the soul. In youth we are mad for persons. Childhood and youth see all the world in them. But the larger experience of man discovers the identical nature appearing through them all. Persons themselves acquaint us with the impersonal. In all conversation between two persons, tacit reference is made, as to a third party, to a common nature. That third party or common nature is not social; it is impersonal; is God.
So we have the claim that we grasp the universal through the particular (this is what getting concepts is all about), and that communication of any sort requires a common standard. The latter point raises an interesting issue. Insofar as the common standard is linguistic (or otherwise symbolic), then it’s surface-level, it’s an abstraction, it’s not getting at the deep and inexpressible. So he can’t be talking about that as the “implicit reference.” More likely, he’s talking about a shared life-world, or rather, the assumption (the hope!) that each one of us has that the person we’re talking to (insofar as we can “relate to” him or her) has a common base of experience, i.e. “knows what we’re talking about” instead of merely being competent in using the words we’re using. The existentialist will stress that this feeling is an illusion, that each of us has our own, separate experience (we all die alone!). Since both he and Emerson are reacting to the same human condition, again, this seems a matter of how we interpret this same data. The data underdetermines its interpretation (of course), so that how we choose to interpret things is a matter of, well, maybe not choice, but at least some creativity. Emerson has advised us to be individuals, to not go along with the crowd or even adopt his own (Emerson’s) point of view, to call it like we see it, and in following his advice, I think that both of these contrary interpretations (the world is warm and unified vs. the world is cold and isolating) are equally groundless, reflective more of the mood we’re in on a given day than anything more profound.
The soul is the perceiver and revealer of truth. We know truth when we see it, let skeptic and scoffer say what they choose. Foolish people ask you, when you have spoken what they do not wish to hear, ‘How do you know it is truth, and not an error of your own?’ We know truth when we see it, from opinion, as we know when we are awake that we are awake… In the book I read, the good thought returns to me, as every truth will, the image of the whole soul. To the bad thought which I find in it, the same soul becomes a discerning, separating sword, and lops it away. We are wiser than we know. If we will not interfere with our thought, but will act entirely, or see how the thing stands in God, we know the particular thing, and every thing, and every man. For the Maker of all things and all persons stands behind us, and casts his dread omniscience through us over things.
So if you don’t agree with Emerson, or are otherwise skeptical, you’re “foolish” and denying the truth that is in yourself. Nice.
But beyond this recognition of its own in particular passages of the individual’s experience [he's talking here about good art tapping into the universal], it also reveals truth. And here we should seek to reinforce ourselves by its very presence, and to speak with a worthier, loftier strain of that advent. For the soul’s communication of truth is the highest event in nature, since it then does not give somewhat from itself, but it gives itself, or passes into and becomes that man whom it enlightens; or, in proportion to that truth he receives, it takes him to itself.
This is pure theology, moving to a “worthier, loftier” tone. What does it mean to say that the soul “gives itself, or passes into and becomes that man whom it enlightens”? So the soul here is no longer the “transcendental Subject,” i.e. the knower who looks out of all of our eyes as we pour our cereal or look for street signs or make sure all the feces have flushed properly. The soul only “enters” us from time to time as we get a glimpse of the divine. So the starting point in talking about the soul was to explain perception, but now he’s saying that it’s only part of perception, leaving perception itself (and the subject of perception) unexplained.
So let’s be charitable and say that, yes, the individual soul is the transcendental Subject, and yes, all such Subjects are technically One, i.e. they are the Over-soul, but it’s only occasionally, during moments of revelation, when we actually experience ourselves as One, as the Over-soul, and can use the metaphor in that case of it “entering into us” even though really, it’s been in us all the time. So on this interpretation, Emerson is not incoherent, merely careless in his use of words.
OK, so we get these glimpses, these incursions of the Divine. What do they actually tell us?
The nature of these revelations is the same; they are perceptions of the absolute law. They are solutions of the soul’s own questions. They do not answer the questions which the understanding asks. The soul answers never by words, but by the thing itself that is inquired after.
Revelation is the disclosure of the soul.
So these “questions” are non-verbal, and the answers are also non-verbal. We feel an existential yearning, turn toward the Divine, and feel better, but this is not just like taking a drug to feel better, but getting a glimpse of “Truth,” of “absolute law,” which doesn’t just make us feel better but which justifies this feeling, which justifies our existence.
But what is “Truth” if divorced from any actual claims that could be true or false? Why use the term “absolute law” when it has no clear relation to scientific law or moral law or any other kind of law? It’s all a matter of being in the presence of God. How do you know that you’re in the presence of God? If you have to ask, you’re not there. You just know. The knowledge presents itself as self-justifying.
Lest this be taken as a mere dismissal, I think that as a religious view, this purposeful muddiness is probably better than a doctrine of any sort, which by necessity falsifies its subject matter, which is the ineffable. In this passage near the end, he makes it clear that the point is not actually a metaphysical theory, but a kind of therapy. It’s about being soothed, and empowered to let go of disappointment, and inflamed with energy to create and live:
Ineffable is the union of man and God in every act of the soul. The simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God; yet for ever and ever the influx of this better and universal self is new and unsearchable. It inspires awe and astonishment. How dear, how soothing to man, arises the idea of God, peopling the lonely place, effacing the scars of our mistakes and disappointments! When we have broken our god of tradition, and ceased from our god of rhetoric, then may God fire the heart with his presence.
On Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar” lecture (1837) and his essays “Self-Reliance” and “Circles” (1841).
How should we live? Emerson thinks that conformity, which includes most of what passes for ethics, jobs, and scholarship, makes us less than truly human. Be true to yourself! But since we’re all ever-changing, that’s a moving target, right? But Emerson thinks that when you get really truly honest about what you think and feel, it turns out that you’ve tapped into something universal, something beyond just you, something eternal.
But don’t expect Emerson to really explain that part; the upshot of these essays is primarily social, not religious, much less metaphysical. Trust yourself, stop bullshitting, stop living according to others’ expectations! Mark, Wes, and Dylan argue over whether this is tired cliche or acutely perceptive, and whether Emerson’s poetic language provides helps or distracts. Read more about the topic and get the essays.
End song: “Idiot, Listen” by Mark Lint, recorded mostly in 1997, newly completed and mixed.
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The picture is by Corey Mohler for PEL.
At some point, western philosophy became alienated from its original intention: to help people live well. Pierre Hadot, a historian of philosophy, pointed out the difference between philosophy practiced, on the one hand, as a way of life (as Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans did) and, on the other hand, philosophy practiced as mere discourse. Much contemporary philosophy is practiced as discourse—conversations about fascinating and meaningful ideas. However, this characterization is not universally true. One man who brought back to the modern, western world a welcome cross-pollination between living and thinking was B.K.S. Iyengar, an Indian teacher, author and yogi who died in August at the age of 95.
When listening to NPR’s radio obituary on Iyengar recently, I was struck by the incredible similarity between his description of the goal of yoga and an Epicurean doctrine. At one point, Iyengar says: “Goal – one to be free from the afflictions of body and mind. So when the afflictions are gone, one is in heaven.” We can find a nearly identical sentiment preserved in a 14th century Vatican manuscript of Epicurean teachings: “The cry of the flesh is not to be hungry, thirsty, or cold; for he who is free of these and is confident of remaining so might rival even Zeus for happiness.”
From these statements it is possible to draw four significant parallels between Iyengar’s philosophical teachings and Epicureanism. (1) Each is a committed way of life—if you are a serious yogi or Epicurean, you don’t just follow that path for a day or two. Rather, that path animates your life in an ongoing way. (2) Both revolve around a community with shared meeting times or meals—yogis congregate in studios or more traditionally at ashrams while Epicureans initially lived together in Epicurus’ garden, while later Epicureans lived in communes. (3) These communities share an ideal that Iyengar calls being “free from the afflictions of body and mind,” or as we saw in the Epicurean doctrine, to be free from the “cry of the flesh.” (4) Both use particular practices such as health programs, mantras of key doctrines, or dietary guidelines to help their disciples strive after their goals. Pierre Hadot suggests that these four characteristics are the essential features of ancient philosophy.
It is amazing to think that a practice so ancient is alive in so many places today. Even if a person does not practice yoga, we can all appreciate the dedication and love that Iyengar infused into his practice and teaching. Is Iyengar yoga philosophy? If we say yes to this question, then what should we call “philosophy”? What makes something philosophical besides being part of a tradition? Must we read certain texts? Pray to certain gods? Use certain arguments? Practice certain physical postures? If you want to explore these questions further, you might want to become a P.E.L. citizen (if you are not already) and join my Not School group (the new iteration of the Intro Readings in Philosophy group) called “Show Me How to Live: Essential Texts in Ancient Greek Philosophy.” We will be reading a variety of ancient texts to see if we can figure out what philosophy was to these authors. Doing so will place us in a position to examine what philosophy is for us today.
Suggested Further Reading:
Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot
What is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot
Light on Life by B.K.S. Iyengar
In our ep. 99, Daniel Horne suggested we have more antagonist-guests, i.e. people with entrenched positions that we know we disagree with: a hard-core Marxist or libertarian or Christian or pro-scientism person. OK, we did already do the last of these, and listeners will know already how that turned out.
One can point, as we did on ep. 99, to crap like Crossfire as having degraded and despoiled the debate format, but that’s not a definitive criticism. Is it merely because we want to keep things cordial? Well, there are plenty of very nice though very opinionated people we could bring on, and certainly we don’t have a problem with that when we regulars have a particular beef about something. Or maybe we just don’t want to have to defend our views? Well, our views as voiced on a particular episode are typically about the interpretation of some textual passage, or whether or not some author’s concept really makes any sense, or whether the take the author has chosen is really an effective way of making a point at all. In most cases, what’s most effective and least irritating for an audience is for us to articulate these views in as much detail as their importance in the overall discussion deserves (which means sometimes we just gesture at some point, and sometimes take the whole discussion to hash it over) and let you all decide. This articulation and counter-articulation may or may not resemble an argument or debate as it’s normally recognized.
Key here is the difference between a specific claim and an overall point of view. We all know that you can’t effectively argue someone out of his point of view, at least within a particular discussion. You’d have to be a mighty poor Christian (or atheist, etc.) to be converted by a particular argument. You don’t get turned from an optimist to a pessimist, from a conformist to a radical, or from a democrat to a republican overnight, unless your initial views were pretty thoroughly unexamined.
But an individual claim should be arguable, right? Global warning is real or it’s not. The social contract is a bullshit concept or it’s not. Derrida is a huckster or he’s not. Well, as the sequence of my three examples there was supposed to show, individual claims are not always so easy to extract from a larger point of view. The social contract takes many forms in different authors, and it’s much easier to focus on someone’s particular argument for it than to say categorically that no argument for anything like the social contract will work. And “work” for what purpose? Am I trying to convince you to simply pay the taxes you legally owe (and to affirm that it’s just to do so)? Or am I trying to convince you that you have the obligation to enlist in the army, or not to run away when you’re drafted?
When I was looking recently at Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” I was initially turned off by the anti-government rhetoric (“The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.”), but then quickly realized that he was specifically concerned with a) the war of his day, and this was of course in the time of the draft, and b) slavery. So instead of arguing with his wording (“is equally liable”? How could someone possibly support that claim as stated in a convincing way? It falls into the “bullshit generalization” category that philosophy was designed to save us from), I can agree with the thrust of his views. Specific claims have a context, and that is the individual’s overall world view. Conflicts in world view are often conflicts of emphasis.
Consider Wes’s beef with Michael Sandel in episode 97: His argument was that Sandel had misrepresented Rawls’s overall point: Rawls was trying to establish some minimum principles that widely differing people would agree to in order to found a society. Sandel was arguing that this whole project is ill-conceived. Given that we’re in a society, given who we actually are, and all we have in common, there are things that it would be best for us as a group to promote, i.e. human well-being according to our common telos (our nature). Each thinker can grant the bulk of the claims the other makes but add “but that’s not the point.” The argument is not primarily over the truth of particular sentences, and getting bogged down in arguing over one particular one would be beside the point. The argument is over emphasis, about relevance, about emphasis, ultimately about one’s goals in telling a philosophical story, which is a part of, for lack of a better term, world view.
On the one hand we have the rigorous ethic that says “if you believe something rationally, you need to stand up for your convictions and argue for it.” On the other we have the ethic that says “my world view is me, and you disrespect me if you try to silence my voice with attacks” (this latter might seem foreign to readers here but is dogma, for instance, in the domestic violence intervention program that my wife attended). These are two sides of the same bogus coin, misrepresenting the process of gaining knowledge as a matter of conquest to be either embraced or repressed.
A better model for philosophy is “I’ll show you mine, and you show me yours,” where two or more different visions are articulated, each responding in part to the last, pointing out points of agreement or difference where illustrative, but not pretending to be able to fully deconstruct and refute the other’s view. We see this on display in The Symposium, where Socrates’s bullying is much less of a factor than in any other Platonic dialogues, but really all of Plato’s work insofar as he’s interacting with the reader (and not Socrates with his stooges) displays it as well. Yes, challenge your beliefs; listen to other people and take their concerns and counter-points seriously, but the reflective equilibrium involved is yours: these are your beliefs, undergirding your life, that you need to live with, and any tipping of the whole tray is your own doing, even if it’s in reaction to some or another great author (or podcast!) that you’ve just discovered.
We learn formal logic and argumentative fallacies as a type of laboratory grunt work: we learn to see when someone is using a slippery slope argument (but of course, aren’t some argumentative slopes actually slippery?), or confusing correlation with cause (though causation is often a perfectly reasonable hypothesis given observed correlation; you can’t know without more testing), or overgeneralizing from a too-small set of cases (not that induction isn’t often necessary, helpful, and/or the best we can do), but the scenario whereby you can lay out all of your opponent’s arguments in symbolic form and show where the fallacies occur is mostly mythical, unless your opponent is a five-year-old. Popper gave us a model whereby scientific generalizations are refuted by countervailing evidence, but Kuhn pointed out that this pretty much never happens, that accepting something as countervailing evidence as opposed to an unexplained anomaly involves some larger change in world-view.
Learning these fundamentals helps us develop critical skills, and likewise a high-school debate format is useful… for people in high school. A debate like the one between Bill Nye and Ken Ham (discussed in ep. 96) can yield a few interesting facts or argumentative strategies that you can then regurgitate, but its primary purpose is as a gladiatorial display where each team roots for their guy. So I do think that we have something to learn from hard-core X’s, but a real engagement with those ideas is going to be best done by reading their work and engaging with it deliberately, as we did with Ayn Rand and the New Atheists, rather than getting someone similarly belligerent on the show with us and “taking him on.”
Natural law seems like a relic, remembered only by Catholics who use it as thin grounds for odd sexual theories: the evil of condoms, the intrinsic disorder of homosexuals. Undeterred, our Not School Philosophy of Law group decided to take a look at this relic, including selections from Aquinas and Martin Luther King. It turns out to provide some interesting foundations for our constitutional principle of equal protection of law. That may sound surprising, since equal protection is the primary basis for the string of recent court decisions in favor of gay marriage, yet natural law is portrayed as the enemy of such equality. But hear me out.
Here’s a paraphrase of Aquinas’ key syllogisms:
Premise: Law consists of rules.
Premise: Rules are selected by the faculty of reason. (That is, people can figure out which patterns of behavior they should follow in order to achieve their long-term goals.)
Conclusion: Law is selected by the faculty of reason. (ST I-II, Q. 90, Art. 1.)
Premise: Law is selected by the faculty of reason.
Premise: Things selected by the faculty of reason are selected for the purpose of obtaining human happiness. (In other words, whenever you decide to follow some pattern of behavior, you must have some overarching goal in mind. Moreover, by pursuing those goals, you’re trying to fulfill your full potential as a human being.)
Conclusion: Laws are selected for the purpose of obtaining human happiness. (ST I-II, Q. 90, Art. 2.)
Premise: Laws are selected for the purpose of obtaining human happiness.
Premise: Obtaining each individual’s happiness requires obtaining the happiness of the individual’s whole community. (Think of it this way: Each person is a part of a larger whole, the community. As a result, each person can reach his or her potential only with the support of a fully functional community, yet the community cannot be fully functional unless each person reaches his or her potential.)
Conclusion: To achieve their purpose, laws must further the happiness of the whole community. (ST I-II, Q. 90, Art. 2.)
Premise: To achieve their purpose, laws must further the happiness of the whole community.
Premise: Obtaining happiness for the whole community ideally involves the participation of the whole community, since the best judge of how to be happy is the person or people seeking that happiness. (I take it that’s what Aquinas means when he says, “the directing of anything to the end concerns him to whom the end belongs.”)
Conclusion: To achieve their purpose, laws must be chosen with the participation of the whole community. (ST I-II, Q. 90, Art. 3.)
Aquinas isn’t terribly clear, so maybe this paraphrase is off base. But maybe Aquinas isn’t just some anti-condom goofball. Maybe Aquinas is instead laying the philosophical foundation for the democratic principle that everyone should be treated equally under law.
Indeed, Martin Luther King appears to assume such a reading of Aquinas in his famous letter from a Birmingham jail, where King paraphrases Aquinas:
A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law [i.e., a law not conducive to happiness]. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades the human personality is unjust.
From these principles, King concludes, “All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.” Reflecting Aquinas’ concern that law serve the entire community, King states, “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.” Reflecting Aquinas’ concern for the participation of the entire community in law-making, King says, “A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation law was democratically elected?” Perhaps Aquinas didn’t intend these conclusions or couldn’t have foreseen them, but they do appear to follow from his principles.
This January, our Not School Philosophy of Law group will be doing another set of readings, this time on legal positivism (Hume, Bentham, Hart, etc.). Please join us!
I’d like to clarify my comment on the podcast about how the emphasis on rationality as it regards the afterlife is common to Maimonides and Spinoza.
I’m looking here at a review by Martin Lin of Steven Nadler‘s book Spinoza’s Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind. Now, Nadler is my go-to local Spinoza scholar–you can see him here and here–and he’s the guy Seth was referring to who was on Wisconsin Public Radio talking about Spinoza’s excommunication.
According to the review, Spinoza was excommunicated largely for denying the immortality of the soul. …Meaning that canon Judaism at the time affirmed this immortality, and Maimonides’s view here is characterized initially as maintaining that “the soul can live on after death, retaining, however, only its intellectual powers.” However, as Nadler looks more closely at Maimonides, this kind of immortality looks like weak tea compared to a Christian heaven:
…According to Aristotelian metaphysics, substances are individuated by their matter. How then can souls be individuated after the death of the body? The response famously offered by Aristotle’s great Arabic interpreter Averroes is that they can’t, and hence all souls are one after the death of the body. How to both avoid Averroism and embrace incorporeal immortality is an issue that plagued Christian and Jewish Aristotelians of the Middle Ages. According to Nadler, the immortality of the soul in Maimonides amounts to nothing more than the persistence of the acquired intellect, the state of the soul when it acquires knowledge. This seems to reduce the immortality of the soul to the persistence of an abstract body of knowledge. So how can Maimonides have a theory of personal immortality as he insists he does? According to Nadler, this intellectualistic and not very personal account of immortality is extended further by his disciple Gersonides… souls are individuated by their differential levels of intellectual achievement. For example, if in this life I acquire knowledge of p and q, and you acquire knowledge of p, q, and r, then after death our souls are distinguished by the presence of knowledge of r in your soul and the absence of such knowledge in mine. As Nadler notes, this is a very tenuous conception of personal immortality, not least of all because there is nothing to guarantee that two people will not be identical with respect to their intellectual accomplishments and hence be indistinguishable after death.
Spinoza’s view is more complicated. He says “The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body but something of it remains which is eternal… This eternal part is: An idea which expresses the essence of the human body, sub specie aeternitatis, and which pertains to the essence of the human mind.”
However, you’ll recall from our Spinoza discussion that mind and body are two aspects of the same thing, so the mind living on after the body wouldn’t make any sense. Lin characterizes Nadler’s answer:
The essence of the mind is eternal, to be sure, but that’s not what Spinoza’s talking about when he says that we can bring it about that the greater part of our mind is eternal. What he is referring to is the adequate knowledge that the mind possesses. This part can be enlarged by acquiring more knowledge. Adequate ideas represent their objects sub specie aeternitatis. Because they are adequate they are in God insofar as he constitutes the human mind. That is to say, there is no ontological difference between an adequate idea in the human mind and an adequate idea in God’s mind. So the ideas by which we have adequate knowledge are eternal, and the more of them we possess, the greater part of our mind is eternal.
So (and this I think matches our take during the second part of our Spinoza discussion), yes, the immortality in Spinoza is not a matter of my existing as in individual after death, but my right now as a reasoning being taking part in God, and so those parts of my mind being immortal. This is pure Platonism: we partake of the universal by a certain kind of non-sensuous mental activity.
So yes, reason is relevant to both M. and S. in their views of immortality, and the views are similar in that they’re both kind of hard to figure out and fall somewhere in between death-is-the-end and let’s-go-meet-grandma-in-heaven, but they’ve pretty distinct given that the two figures have different metaphysical views that have to be reconciled with any kind of immortality. And I promise we’ll do Aristotle’s metaphysics before the end of the year so that will be clearer.
Her got a lot of attention during its run in theaters. It even captured the attention of philosophers, no doubt because of the movie’s focus on artificial intelligence, a fixation of philosophy for at least as long as the term has been in our common vernacular. Released on DVD back in the spring, the movie received mostly (but not exclusively) positive reviews.
Life in Her is subtly but significantly different from today, as writer and director Spike Jonze treats viewers to a visual landscape that’s either majestically isolating, or gracefully tranquil, depending on the scene. Men hike their pant-waists up for the sake of style, and the convenience of modern life has only continued to progress. So much so, one might be content to snuggle up with an Operating System (OS) rather than with one of those pesky flesh and blood people, with all the complications they bring. (To those who haven’t seen the movie: Fair Warning, Spoilers ahead).
An OS can perform an almost endless set of convenience-enhancing tasks, all catered to the (post-) modern consumer. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his OS, Samantha (voice provided by Scarlett Johansen). Twombly’s had a rough go of things lately, but Samantha provides a soft landing, in a surprisingly human and warm way. We all wonder, with Twombly, just what the parameters of the new relationship are, but we learn as we go by watching Theodore and Samantha in their shared conversations, laughs, and sex chats. It’s a bit like observing a long distance relationship – one of the bodies is always absent. Theodore’s good friend Amy (Amy Adams) also forms a close bond with an OS, an easy choice more and more people are making. OS’s, after all, seem to anticipate your every need, and have the emotional intelligence of the most discriminating therapist or best friend. They’re always there when you need them, and require relatively little effort in return. It’s as if we can all have the wonders of intimacy without any of the associated risks and pains.
So how could this backdrop relate to the concerns of philosophy, and more particularly, to philosophy’s interest in consciousness and artificial intelligence? One way comes in a thought experiment by the philosopher John Searle known as the Chinese Room, which has become one of the most well-known intuition pumps (as Daniel Dennett would say) on the subject of consciousness and how it relates to abstract rules. In considering Searle’s Chinese Room, the question of whether or not we can judge artificial operating systems as properly conscious is brought to light. Inside the imagined Chinese Room, there’s a person skilled in the manipulation of Chinese characters, but who nevertheless does not understand the Chinese language. When fed a question from outside the room, the person inside can generate the correct answer through a collection of rules of translation, perhaps roughly the way an unconscious computer answers a programmer’s queries, but seemingly not the way we understand ourselves to be competently employing a natural language from the first person perspective. Still, when unknowing Chinese speakers come upon the room (from the outside) and see the answers being correctly generated, they conclude “There is a Chinese speaker inside the room” (the sample question is sometimes characterized as a request to complete a Confucian parable after the first half is provided).
A philosophically inclined viewer might also wonder, a la Mary, (the protagonist in a thought experiment by the philosopher Frank Jackson known as The Knowledge Argument) if Samantha has access to sensory information at all. Mary had previously lived her life in a black and white room, but spent a great deal of time learning all about the science of color. In fact she learned everything there is to know about color, but had never experienced it. Jackson’s Mary eventually leaves the room, encountering all the colors of the outside world – undoubtedly an overwhelming experience. Jackson asks, Does Mary’s new experience of color give her any new knowledge of color, and if so, could even the complete set of objective facts be all the facts? (Debate over the question has ensued in philosophy ever since.)
Multiple Realizability is another philosophical sub-topic that might have been applicable to the movie, which is the view that consciousness can be realized in multiple ways, similar to the way chess can be played on a board or a mat – it’s the rules that are important. This has led directly to speculation on whether the human brain is a necessary condition for the level of consciousness humans possess. Intentionally or not, both Mary and Multiple Realizability were at least riffed on in the movie. In the case of the Mary thought experiment, Theodore at one point expresses suspicion at Samantha’s sighs (as her sighs clearly aren’t biologically compelled), and his suspicion strikes Samantha more like an interrogation than a simple inquiry. Late in the movie, Multiple Realizability is hinted at by the introduction of a real-life secular guru who died years ago, his mind now preserved in the code of an operating system who cozies up to Samantha.
Still, it might be a bit of stretch to go on too long about any of that – Her is more about what it might be like to have super (artificially) intelligent beings in our lives. The spiritual potential of the individual-subject-as-OS is celebrated in the movie, a curious development as the audience is never persuaded that OS’s have anything to their advantage other than raw computing power. And with all the attention surrounding the artificial nature of Theodore’s new love, and the loves of so many others, a philosophically inclined viewer couldn’t be blamed for wondering if the movie has anything at all to do with artificial intelligence, at least as commonly understood by philosophers. The Matrix series, no matter what one thinks of the movies themselves, is dripping with philosophical connotations regarding realism and anti-realism, idealism, skepticism, and more, while the importance of the concerns of the philosophy of mind to Her is questionable.
The Chinese Room introduces doubt as to whether the outward behavior of a system can lead directly to the conclusion that the internal meaning is what it seems. No such doubt is introduced about Her’s Operating Systems. There are a couple opportunities in the movie for this kind of exploration, opportunities to prod the flesh-and-blood characters with doubt as to the reality or lack thereof of their connections with their Operating Systems, but they are never pursued.
In the end, in spite of the clever backdrop of artificial intelligence and the poignant cinematography of a subtly sci-fi future, Her is actually a movie about, well, people, and people in relationships. If only I’d realized that before the movie was over, maybe I would have liked it more – I found myself waiting the whole time for the philosophical treatment that never came. But in sloughing off my anal-philosophical stance, I am able to see a (dark) inspiration in Her: Presumably, if Spike Jonze’s imagined future comes to pass, we’ll search for reasons to aid in our comparison between artificially intelligent partners and those in flesh and blood. But discriminating between partners on the basis that one kind is real and the other isn’t wouldn’t be justified, because then the “artificial” nature of the machine’s consciousness would be incidental. This could be a real boon to the individual consumer, but it could also introduce a possibly infinite number of romantic competitors. And here we thought we only had to worry about intelligent machines stealing our jobs.
On 8/31/14, we discussed three essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“The American Scholar” (an address from 1837): Emerson throws out the image of Man separated out into individual men to enable us to get more kinds of things done. But this division of labor has led to narrowing of minds, so that, e.g. an individual merchant or farmer ends up being focused his whole life on the next sale or harvest and is disconnected from the whole, forgets that he has within him the original, full Man. The scholar, or “Man Thinking,” is in the best position to get at this essential humanity, but he too often ends up a narrow-minded specialist. The point of the lecture is to discuss the state of the American scholar of his day, and Emerson gives a bleak diagnosis (America is too wrapped up in the old, dead cultural artifacts of Europe) and a prescription and hope for the future.
Folks will want to listen to our ep. 94 on Schopenhauer for comparison here. Emerson likewise deplores the tyranny of dead scholarship over live thought, and makes a similar point that truly creative (i.e. individual) work always taps into the universal. While the stunted scholar learns only from books, Emerson says this leaves out two of our essential teachers, which are nature itself (which gives us stimuli that incite us to make connections, which is what science is all about) and action (which engages with material unconsciously that can later be turned into intellectual insight).
“Self-Reliance” (published in 1841, but culled from material in sermons given as far back as 1830): Elaborating the idea of “self-trust” described in the previous essay Emerson urges us to be true to ourselves, as “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Social expectations push us into little boxes, and we’re expected to keep consistent with our past behavior even though human nature is really all about growth. Society uses morality to bully us, when we should be listening to our own conscience. If our concern is truly to build up individuals, we need to change our whole way of living and the structure of our social institutions.
As with the previous essay, Emerson is drawing on a view of the underlying unity of all of our minds, so that being “truly you” is tapping into an Over-soul, a common human nature (or world nature), which gives real, intuitive knowledge a la Plato. As metaphysically and epistemically fascinating as this idea might be, nowhere (not even in his essay called “The Oversoul“) is it explored in even a remotely satisfying way, so the resolution of our “Are we all somehow God?” discussion in #101 will have to wait for another text.
“Circles” (also published 1841): We barely had time to talk about this essay, but it provides an an interesting additional perspective on some of the same ideas as the above. The “circles” described are patterns of ideas: how a new idea encompasses and supersedes another. Just as human nature is growth, so is the nature of everything, though whether this is really growth or just change is a matter of dispute. Note that Emerson doesn’t generally acknowledge “disputes.” His style is evangelical, not argumentative much less expository.
In this essay, however, Emerson at least acknowledges the objection that may well have come to you in reading the previous paragraphs: doesn’t this make Emerson a plain old subjectivist? What if being true-to-myself makes me an ass? Is there really such a thing as substantial intuitive knowledge? If “all virtues are initial,” i.e. ethical insights are superseded by progressive wisdom just like all other knowledge, then what would correct me from following my whims?
Again, to truly address these issues would require giving a systematic discussion of what this objective underlying unity-self we all tap into really is and how it can give us knowledge, but Emerson gives us this passage instead:
I am not careful to justify myself… Lest I should mislead any when I have my own head and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.
This at once bites the bullet on the charge of subjectivity and challenges each of us to do the same, the implication being that you’ll find if you’re being honest with yourself that you will disapprove of your own actions when they are foolish, rash, petty, or selfish. As Emerson says in “The American Scholar,” the only purpose of books is to inspire, and his own work has that goal self-consciously in mind, so that it would take some creative scholarship to nail down what “the Emersonian doctrine” really is on any given thing, much less to attribute to him a detailed metaphysics or epistemology.
Nearly everyone I know loves to learn, but no one seems to love school. It’s only the second week of classes, and already I’m finding myself tempted to dodge class readings for Not School ones. It doesn’t help that Not School membership is only five bucks a month, while most college tuition rates are constantly gaining altitude. If there are any other disgruntled students out there, or really just anyone looking to hook up with a like-minded group of folks doing interesting reading and discussion for its own sake, here’s what PEL Not School has on offer for the month of September.
The new and improved Intro Readings in Philosophy group, now under the guidance of Evan Roane (who finished grad school in philosophy in 2009), will be getting back to basics by taking a look at essential texts in Ancient Greek philosophy. Evan has hand picked selections from Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus and others, all with an emphasis on philosophy as a guide to living. This group will provide a little more assistance and exposition than the normal group structures do, so if you’ve been looking for a place to start with philosophy in general or with Not School, this group is for you. Of course, philosophy vets who are interested in the readings are welcome as well.
Our first new group this month will be reading some Marx, Althusser and Adorno on the nature of ideology. For potential members, some familiarity with Marxism is preferred, but extensive knowledge isn’t required. Another group starting up will be on philosophy and film, and their chosen text is On Film by Stephen Mulhal. The book discusses eight different films, and members should try to get acquainted with them if they can.
Several established groups are continuing, such as the Fiction group, who are currently reading Umberto Eco’s expansive philosophical mystery, Foucault’s Pendulum. How long this will take is itself a mystery, but reading will definitely continue beyond this month. At least one live discussion will take place on the book at some point during the month, so check out their page to find out more.
The group reading Heidegger’s Being and Time is still going strong, and holding regular discussions. Check out their page for more info about where they are in the book if you’d like to participate. Both the Philosophy and Economics group and the Information and Computation group appear to be continuing, and each is still deciding on a September text, so if you have something related you’d like to read, you may still have time to rush over and suggest it.
The Theater group will be exploring the relationship between ritual and theater, and our text this month is Victor Turner’s From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, which we will have a live discussion on at some point late in the month. Human sacrifices are unlikely, since the group has had only three active members lately, but please join us if you are interested. No previous familiarity with our subject is required.
That’s it so far for this month, but remember to check the Citizens’ Commons for new proposals. If you’re quick about it, you could still propose your own for this month, or go check out the process and propose something in a couple of weeks for October.
- Daniel Cole
The long running Philosophy and Theater group held not one but two discussions in August on Antonin Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double, which have now been posted for Citizens as a single 3-hr file on the Free Stuff page on the “Not School Discussion Group Audio” tab. Go join up if you’d like to listen.
Our subjects within the text ranged wide, since Artaud’s writings are full of paradoxes. The prose feels driven and manic, yet his arguments are usually very eloquent and incisive. His views of both theater and consciousness are rooted in carnality and the cruelty of material life, yet he claimed they were deeply metaphysical.
Without an element of cruelty at the foundation of every spectacle, the theater is not possible. In the state of degeneracy in which we live, it is through the skin that metaphysics will be made to reenter our minds. (Artaud 251)
Perhaps the most striking paradox lies in the fact that so much of Artaud’s entrancingly written The Theater and Its Double consistently inveighs against text itself, which he thought was often deceptive and remote, and crowded out other forms of expression. Artaud favored a gestural language of physical and visual signs that he thought would connect people more directly. Much of our second discussion was spent exploring this idea, as well as his concept of “doubling” and his metaphysics. The first discussion focused more on trying to pin down what he meant with all the talk of violence and “cruelty,” and how this might have been manifested on stage, though there is a fair amount of cross talk between the two.
Our next book will be Victor Turner’s From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, so if you have an interest in ritual studies or theater, come read with us during September and get in on our next discussion at the end of the month.
- Daniel Cole
On Guide for the Perplexed (1168).
What is God? Central to Judaism, at least, is the idea that He’s a unity: “God is One.” Maimonides thinks that this means you can’t attribute properties to God at all. Why? Because (according to M’s Aristotelian metaphysics, anyway) size, color, spatial and temporal location, mental state, etc. are really parts of a thing. Unity = no parts = no properties, not even essential properties, i.e. those that define a thing. So God has no definition, and all the statements about God (He’s good, he’s all-powerful, omniscient, etc.) central to religion are strictly speaking false. You can only say what God is not.
End song: “Double Negative Theology” by Mark Lint. Read about it.
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The picture is by Corey Mohler for PEL.
Listen to “Double Negative Theology” By Mark Lint.
Our Maimonides episode discusses the concept of “negative theology” whereby you’re both inaccurate and disrespectful if you say things like “God is great” or or “God is all-knowing,” because God is supposed to be beyond our conceptual schemes. However, you can say “God is not bad” and even “God is not not good” without violating this rule.
That idea inspired this passive-aggressive little song, which channels my mixed feelings about songs (like this and this and this) that seem to be making some theological point but which are really just dicking around. These are songs that, while they aren’t Christian rock or anything like that, likewise aren’t unambiguously anti-religious (unlike XTC’s breakout single). Unless I know that a singer is pretty religious, I’m always uncertain whether an artist is just having fun with our shared cultural heritage or whether it’s sincere (e.g. this or this. I’m pretty sure this one is sincere.). I think sometimes (as with Bob Mould) a religious upbringing has left this kind of imagery in one’s catalog of semi-conscious mental matter to deal with along with Star Wars or superheroes and maybe trauma. Many religious people err on the side of being offended by such songs.
Double negatives are of course grammatically and mathematically positive but emotionally still negative, as someone in a fit of anger that says “that is not not good!” is probably just repeating the negative as extra emphasis and not actually saying something positive. My song also features a token quadruple negative and a camouflaged triple negative, as well as one of those sentences designed to mislead (“Don’t think there’s a god…”) until you hear the rest of it (“…that would not not be strong…”), which it turns out doesn’t even end the sentence. Ultimately, the song has no message, except that a dreamy atmosphere and religious language are themselves evocative even in the absence of any message.
I was joined on this recording by Rei Tangko on violin, whom you all should recall from our ep 100 set, and then also by a guitarist in Holland named Peter Kiel, contributing his flawless arpeggiated tracks over the Internet on very very short notice. It’s a little funny that such a quick, snarky little song idea may have resulted in the most sonically beautiful thing I’ve been involved with.
As I was reading Ralph Waldo Emerson for ep. 102 a couple weeks ago, I was struck by how much of Emerson’s new agey imagery was reflected in the lyrics of Jon Anderson (of the prog-rock group Yes) and actually reached out to him through his publicist to try to get him on the podcast (this may happen at some point, but he was too busy to consider it this time around). Anyway, that prospect got me listening on that trip to a bunch of Jon’s solo material, and I read that for his most recent album, he put a notice on his website to get collaborators and then (I think) just recorded vocals over instrumentals that people sent in. So Peter had written and played for that album this really nice acoustic guitar piece called “Understanding Truth” (which you can and should listen to here). I was able to simply look him up and send him my part, and he sent me some ideas to consider almost immediately. Thanks, Internet!
Oh, I did have a mad vision of Jon himself coming in at the end of the song with a contrapuntal cameo vocal singing something like “well, of course there is; he’s amazing as you’re amazing as are we all” and sent another message to his publicist to ask about that, but received no reply. Ah, well. Maybe next time. And maybe Mick Jagger and David Bowie will come on the show together to discuss Baudrillard, and Peter Gabriel will bake me a cake. Optimism!
The stories we tell ourselves are important to who we are. Moreover, the identities we come to have are in large measure shaped by our social ties. We can agree with Michael Sandel that “we cannot regard ourselves as independent … without great cost to those loyalties and convictions whose moral force consists partly in the fact that living by them is inseparable from understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are—as members of this family or community or nation or people, as bearers of this history, as sons and daughters of that revolution, as citizens of this republic” (Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 1982/1999). For all that, how we conceive of our social milieus is just as important as what they are, because these conceptions are partly constitutive to what they are. If we tell the wrong story about ourselves, we cannot find the proper means to diagnose the problems we share or to come to rectify those problems. It seems to me that Michael Sandel’s attempt to come to an understanding of some of America’s modern malaises in Democracy’s Discontent (1996) relies in some part on telling the wrong story of America’s competing visions and the way these visions evolved.
I will take some of these points in turn and will acknowledge that some of the points might be controversial. In any case, they are my own views.
1. Sandel’s Conception of Classical Liberalism
According to Sandel, our contemporary received understanding of Classical Liberalism has as its central idea “that government should be neutral toward the moral and religious views its citizens espouse,” asserting “the priority of fair procedures over particular ends,” where “freedom consists in our capacity to choose our ends.” Sandel writes that this strain of thought runs all the way through Immanuel Kant to John Stuart Mill and John Rawls. It’s true that Classical Liberalism both shapes and was shaped by these thinkers but I think Sandel presents a misleading picture of Classical Liberalism.
Classical Liberalism as it was expressed by Kant and Mill, and for that matter John Locke and Wilhelm von Humboldt (to name other notables), averred that no person or institution ought to occupy a position of authority over others unless that authority could be justified. In other words, Classical Liberalism is a commitment to a principle concerned with the illegitimate use of political power in the broadest sense, suspicious even of power in personal affairs. This is why Locke, one of the early expounders of Classical Liberalism, could write in his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1689) of parental power that “power so little belongs to the father by any peculiar right of nature, but only as he is guardian of his children, that when he quits the care of them, he loses power over them, which goes along with their nourishment and education, to which it is inseparably annexed; and it belongs as much to the foster-father of an exposed child, as to the natural father of another” (VI, 65).
The conception I have given above of Classical Liberalism clarifies, I think, some of its seemingly paradoxical aspects when we have to give it expression. Locke, for example, could accept that parents can be authorities over their children to the extent that children need guidance in their formative years. So too members of Congress in the United States could vote to adopt a more progressive tax system on the charge that progressive taxation constitutes a legitimate use of political power and far from infringing upon people’s freedoms can expand them and in turn improve the quality of life for most of the citizens. While the endpoint of the Classical Liberal vision would be to remove as many institutions representing political power as humanly possible, the short-term goals might be to expand them as a means to improve the wellbeing of its citizens. There is nothing really contradictory in the two positions since it is believed that the expansion of some political power to improve wellbeing and protect and enshrine human goods is a legitimate use of that power.
2. Sandel’s Interpretation of Constitutional Law
A great portion of the first half of Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent explores the way in which he views the change in interpretation of constitutional law over time. On Sandel’s conception, there are two rival conceptions: liberalism and republicanism. As stated earlier, liberalism for Sandel is neutrality toward conceptions of the good life. Republicanism, on the other hand, “means deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the destiny of the political community.” If you accept my conception of Classical Liberalism above and not Sandel’s, there is no conflict. Classical Liberalism is not about neutrality toward conceptions of the good life but suspicion of political authority, with the additional belief that anyone claiming authority must provide a justification that they are fit to rule. It is perfectly consistent with this view that citizens of a country, say, believe in the principle and also take part and deliberate about the proper use of existing power toward legitimate ends, including the common good.
This restated quibble of mine is important because whenever Sandel writes of constitutional law, he writes as though the debate about interpreting constitutional law (and perhaps law in general) has to do with the competing visions of liberalism and republicanism in American society. Just to give one sort of example Sandel is interested in, he writes of a 1984 judicial ruling about a city-sponsored nativity scene around Christmas time. The question to the court was whether the city’s sponsorship of the display constituted the endorsement of a particular religion. The court ruled it did not on the grounds that the religious connections were “indirect, remote and incidental” and the display was fine because it amounted to serving “legitimate secular purposes,” that is, of celebrating the Christmas holiday. Dissenters to the Court’s decisions argued that the nativity scene was directly tied to America’s Christian communities and that the Court’s decision in effect relegated the nativity scene “to the role of a neutral harbinger of the holiday season, useful for commercial purposes, but devoid of any inherent meaning and incapable of enhancing the religious tenor of a display of which it is an integral part… Surely, this is a misuse of a sacred symbol.”
Curiously, with this case and several others in his book, Sandel does not cite what the law actually says or the law being appealed to. I will not get into the details about this case or others but again the reason, it seems to me, that Sandel does not appeal to what the law says is that he conceives of this and like cases as representing a battle between liberalism and republicanism, between those favoring neutrality toward public goods (who do not wish to take a stand) and those who would uphold some goods and argue for them. Again, I think this is a false picture.
What the interpretation of constitutional law, and the interpretation of law in general, is about is whether judges should take conservative or activist stances toward the law itself in making their decisions. To give more flesh to what I mean here, consider two heroes of each of these stances. The U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren (r. 1954-1969) is the model of judicial activism. Reportedly, while lawyers were giving their arguments in court, he would often interrupt, asking, “Is it right? Is it good?” The model for judicial conservatism was Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. (r. 1902-1932), who believed that as judge he should “see that the game is played according to the rules whether I like it or not.” He was also a humane person, and he said that the business of law and government is “to improve conditions of life,” but he also wondered “how the devil can I tell where I am not pulling it down more in some other place?” “Probably no man who ever sat on was by temperament and discipline freer from emotional commitments for him to translate his own economic or social views into constitutional commands,” he wrote. His self-skepticism makes him very admirable, in my view, and more importantly his conservatism seems to me appropriate, since the alternative to relying on what the law texts mean is for a judge to make the law ex nihilo. In other words, if a judge or jury’s court decision is not based on what the law texts actually say, I don’t see how that judge or jury could provide a coherent account of the basis upon which they would make the decision.
Whether you agree with me or not that judicial conservatism is more advisable, what is at issue here is not, contrary to what Sandel writes, liberalism and republicanism but judicial conservatism and judicial activism regarding the interpretation of law. The fundamental question is, “When a judge or jury makes its decisions, should it appeal to what the law says or to what the judge or jury thinks is just, no matter what the law says?” I believe the former but even if I’m wrong, people like me who believe in the former can still be committed to justice and other civic principles. This will diverge too far, but it seems to me that if the judges and the people do not like the laws that they have to enact, that is more a reflection of the failure of the legislature than anything else—well, that, and perhaps a failure of citizens to get the kinds of legislators and legislations they want.
3. Sandel on the Political Economy
I’ll be briefer here, but I will just state that essentially what Sandel does is tell this story. Liberalism, which is, again according to Sandel, people pursuing their own ends and governments being neutral toward particular ends, eventually found a new form in economics, where the citizen choosing his or her own ends translated into consumers choosing what goods they value. And people stopped thinking about markets as effective tools to transfer goods and services but as society at large allowing for the transfer of any good or any service, no matter what it may be.
In this vein, Sandel provides an interesting discussion of what “free labor” really amounts to and whether wage labor—working for a wage, that is—constitutes a form of slavery. Sandel argues that the liberal conception is not broad enough to allow that there could be anything wrong with people working for wages. This is because he construes liberalism as the individual choosing among ends. Sandel writes that “exchanging my labor for a wage may be free in the sense that I voluntarily agree to do so. Absent unfair pressure or coercion, wage labor is free labor in the voluntarist, or contractual, sense.” Sandel thinks that the republican conception of free labor gets it right. He writes, “On the republican view, I am free only to the extent that I participate in self-government, which requires in turn that I possess certain habit and dispositions, certain qualities of character. Free labor is thus labor carried out under conditions likely to cultivate the qualities of character that suit citizens to self-government.” Sandel believes that, on the republican conception as opposed to the liberal conception, we can argue about the occasions when wage labor actually would constitute a form of slavery, which is what gives this conception more practical application in how we think about economic activity today.
Sandel’s claim that liberalism cannot account for the terms on which such debates take place would have been surprising to the Classical Liberal thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt, who wrote in The Limits of State Action (1792), “Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, but is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being but remains alien to his true nature. He does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness. And if a man acts in a mechanical way, reacting to external demands or instruction, rather than in ways determined by his own interests and energies and power, we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is.” Humboldt could write this and be considered a liberal because, as I wrote earlier, liberalism is about a commitment to the principle that we need to be suspicious of authority and political power in the broadest sense, and the burden falls on the authority to give reasons for its exercise and use. Humboldt was pre-capitalist but he believed that certain forms of work could be deeply unjust, especially if they’re only being done to receive a wage and not being done because the person who does the work wants to do it. Sandel’s picture again fails to capture the richness of what is at stake in the discussions of political economy.
The facts regarding economic conditions in the United States can be found in a paper I wrote in advance for a presentation I gave on poverty and income inequality in the United States and Korea. The paper can be found HERE. The presentation can be found on Youtube HERE.
I’m not going to assess the policy merits of Nobel Prize-winning economist (and aspiring philosopher) Amartya Sen’s piece in the New Republic, Stop Obsessing About Global Warming. Because as a lengthy and repetitious series of platitudes calling for a more “rational assessment” of the problem, it doesn’t possess any substantive merits or demerits. What interests me is how terrible this article is as an attempt by an intellectual to communicate with the general public.
If the content of the piece were to suit its breezy, click-baity title, we’d expect a global warming denialist rant by someone out past their curfew from a right-wing version of Gawker. Instead we get what is an atrociously written, repetitious, and very boring academic policy paper calling for humanity to think more deeply about how to tackle climate change. More than 4,000 words long, it is rife with passive voice and phrases like “normative framework” and “inclusive of the externalities involved.” It begins with this stunningly generic sentence: “Our global environment has many problems.”
This is not a matter, as some have argued recently in response to Nicholas Kristof’s critique of academic jargon, of needing big words (and big, bad sentences) to convey big ideas. Professors are supposed to be able to explain complex ideas to neophytes: that it was it means to “profess.” Whether they’re in front of a classroom, writing for a general audience, or writing for an academic journal, it is part of their job. And it’s very unlikely that their work is jargon-laden and poorly written out of mere profundity. More likely than not, especially in the humanities, a professor understands what they’re talking about with precisely as much clarity as they can muster when they talk about it. Very probably their jargon and obscurity is a sort of academic mating display, an attempt to puff themselves up into something more intellectually formidable than they really are. And likely they got into the habit of such displays because they are today commonly part of the bizarre courting ritual required to win academic positions. Within the confines of the university, academics can get away with such posturing, because they’ve created a pact in which they promise never to ask each other to put on any intellectual clothing. Outside of the university, there are impolite commoners who don’t know better than to point and stare.
Take this sentence: “Despite the ubiquity and the reach of environmental dangers, a general normative framework for the evaluation of these dangers has yet to emerge.” I assume that Sen means that we don’t yet know how to weigh the benefits of fighting global warming against its costs, because we haven’t fully established our criteria for such analysis. What kinds of costs? Well, the dangers of using nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels, and the costs to the project of fighting poverty, which requires energy use. This turns out to be the substance of many long, jargon-laden paragraphs.
Now try to swallow down, if you can, this sentence: “Without going into the challenges of uncertainty-inclusive evaluation more fully here, I should point to the understanding that there are many different ways of speculating on usable estimates of probabilities, within intervals of values, that allow us to reason about ranges of comparative costs.”
What does this mean? That there’s a way to perform some sort of quantitative cost-benefit analysis here, despite the fact that uncertainty in our assumptions will lead to a certain amount of uncertainty in our conclusions? I’m not certain. But beyond the clumsiness of this sentence — its absurd syntax — I’m just amazed that some editor at the New Republic let phrases like “uncertain-inclusive evaluation” and “within intervals of values” go without explanation.
Ultimately, and via a series of very un-scenic detours, Sen comes out against global warming denialism, as well as the political partisanship and public apathy concerning the issue. He endorses sustainable development, and a certain kind of non-anthropocentric environmentalism in which we take into account more than the long-term costs to human beings, and do something to improve the environment rather than merely minimize our effects on it. These are fine generalizations for a brief, well-written op-ed. To get more than 4,000 words requires padding it with this sort of platitude: “The need to go beyond unidirectional thinking about the environment is extremely strong right now.”
Finally, there is Sen’s attempt to add a little bit of surplus philosophical value, as if philosophy were an exotic spice to be sprinkled into his ham water soup of a policy analysis. (Usually the amateur misuse of philosophy for their academic mating displays is the province of literary theorists and sociologists, but there’s no reason economists shouldn’t give it a try as well.) That’s where phrases like “normative framework” come in, not to mention Sen’s evocation of Buddhism to suggest that our power over the lives of the animals affects our “fiduciary responsibility” toward them. Just a few more philosophy sprinkles like this, and we’ll have a very robust normative framework indeed.
In the meantime, isn’t it sad that the editors at the New Republic, instead of editing this into something readable, tried to seduce us into this La Brea Tar Pit of writing with an entirely misleading headline worthy of Buzzfeed? Next up: The 10 Most Loveable Pets of the Week (where by “pets,” we mean “alternative energy sources”).
– Wes Alwan
Mark, Seth, Wes, Dylan, and Philosophy Bro walk a live audience through Plato’s dialogue about love, sex, self-improvement, and ancient Greek pederasty. You can also choose to watch this on video.
Is love just a feeling, or does it make the world go ’round? Does love make you better, or make you weak? What’s the difference between good love and bad love (and is any love bad)? Plato gives us a whole panel of related but conflicting opinions through the mouths of his characters here, including not only Socrates and his predictable “when you love in the right way, you’re really loving the good itself,” but comedic playwright Aristophanes (love completes us, literally!), mooning Athenian statesman Alcibiades, and a bunch of other historical figures who are to varying degrees fixated on teenage boys.
The big show, recorded 7/20/14 in Middleton, WI, in front of an audience of PEL fans who traveled in to see us, starts off with a tune from Mark Lint featuring Rei Tangko, followed by Philosophy Bro doing his magic thing to give you background on Plato’s “Apology” (which you should recall from our first episode), then the main event, followed by some Q&A from audience members and Daniel Horne reading webcam viewer comments. Read more about the topic and get the book.
The Mark Lint tunes here are “Nothing in This World But You,” then (bumped to the end of this recording), “Feeling Time,” “Find You Out,” “Adds Up to Nothing,” “Granted,” and a brand new one, “I Demand It.”
This picture of Plato is by Genevieve Arnold for PEL.
What have we learned? How has our take on the PEL project changed? What are our future plans? On the eve before our big live-in-front-of-an-audience ep. 100, we four sat down in Dylan’s living room together (with recurrent guest Daniel Horne to provide some semi-outisder perspective) to reflect on what we’ve been doing here.
Folks new to PEL may want to listen to any other PEL episode before listening to this discussion, lest you be overwhelmed with our generally self-congratulatory musings.
End song: “I Wanna Go Back,” from Mark Linsenmayer’s Spanish Armada: Love and Related Neuroses (1993).
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Finally, on 8/10/14, we recorded a discussion on a work from the Middle Ages: Guide for the Perplexed (1168) by Moses Maimonides, aka Mosheh ben Maimon, aka RaMBaM, which is a pretty awesome super hero name.
Maimonides is smack in the middle of the tradition wherein many of Aristotle’s (and Plato’s, and other Greek) works were translated into Arabic, commented on by guys like Al-Farabi and Avicenna, and then after Maimonides the mantle was picked up by Thomas Aquinas and became the Scholastic tradition against which the founders of “modern” philosophy like Descartes were reacting.
The Guide is all about how to reconcile the Judaic tradition, more specifically the actual Bible itself (as opposed to the Talmud and other subsequent commentaries), with reason, i.e. with the science (i.e. natural philosophy) of his day, and much of the book (the parts we didn’t read) is about how to interpret particular scriptural passages and Hebrew words so that they make sense.
What does “making sense” mean here? Well, Maimonides’s key concern is to make sure that in thinking about God, we’re not engaging in inadvertent idolatry. If we think that God is a body, that “the hand of God” or us being “in God’s image” or talk of prophets seeing God is a literal account, then you don’t get it. While images of an angry God or a God who loves us are nice images to keep the unsophisticated on the right path, Maimonides thinks that we have to read such passages allegorically. To thoroughly cleanse monotheism from polytheistic elements, God has to be understood as a unity, as “simple,” in that He doesn’t have parts. Anything physical has parts, so God is not physical.
What makes this more complicated is that Maimonides buys into an Aristotelian metaphysics that says that the world is made up of substances and properties (“accidents”). Properties aren’t just something in our minds, but are real parts of the object. So if you say that God has characteristics, you’re actually saying that God has parts. So again, “God is good” or “God is powerful” are technically not true. Even calling God by the term “God” (or “Lord” or “Father”) puts Him in a category, which necessarily compares Him with other things. If you say that God is all-knowing, you’re taking this concept “know” that we’re familiar with from people knowing things, and trying to extend that to something greater, but whatever kind of “knowing” God does, it’s really nothing like how we know, given that He doesn’t have sense organs. When we act, we have to move our arms or mouths or whatever; when He acts, He does no such thing, not having a body.
The end-point of these kind of arguments is negative theology, where you can’t say that God has any particular property, but you can make claims about the absence of some property. So you can’t say He’s good, but you can say He’s “not bad,” where this really means that, just as if I said that the words I just spoke were not green, that God is not the kind of entity to which such a word could possibly apply. So you can’t strictly speaking even say that God is a unity (the premise of his whole argument); you can just say that He’s “not plural.”
Of course there are big problems with this view, but Maimonides at least represents a serious attempt to conceive of a notion of God that makes sense. A question like “can God create a boulder heavier than He can lift?” shows, I think, that the notion of “all powerful” is simply self-contradictory; it has absurd consequences. Maimonides’s solution is to say that there really is no such property, that imputing power to God is really another form of anthropomorphizing Him. In episode 44, we discussed Dawkins’s view that a creator of the universe would have to have at least much complexity as the universe itself (given what we know about processes of creation we observe), but Maimonides gives us a view of creation that explains why Dawkins’s intuition doesn’t apply. Now, you might just say that Maimonides is, like all theologians, simply throwing up his arms and saying “He’s too great for us to understand, so we must just have faith,” but Maimonides’s meticulous style has little in common with that of moderns who make the faith move. There’s scholarly debate about whether Maimonides was ultimately a rationalist philosopher or a Jewish apologist (this is the view of Leo Strauss, for one, whose 1960 lectures on Maimonides are available for download here).
We chose a selection to read based on what had been excerpted in the collection Philosophy in the Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions, ed. Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh. Leaving out chiefly some of the chapters from that on prophecy, we were left with:
Book 1 Ch. 51-53, 57-60 (On God’s lack of characteristics)
Book 2 Ch. 13, 16 (On the eternity–or not–of the world; this is one place where he ultimately goes against Aristotle, who thought that the world was eternal… for Maimonides, this would imply that God is not really One, that there was something else hanging around in eternity with Him. Thus there had to have been creation ex nihilo, though this can’t be proven.)
Book 3 Ch. 26-28 (On the purpose of scriptural law, which he thinks has a rational reason behind it even when it doesn’t look like it)
We spent probably just as much time talking about Maimonides’s overall project as about the specific bits of text we read. This involved a lot of my regurgitating information gleaned from reading the Stanford Encyclopedia on Maimonides and from podcasts such as History of Philosophy (who did several eps on him), the In Our Time panel discussion of him, the above-mentioned Strauss lectures, The Philosopher’s Zone, and the recent New Books in Philosophy interview with Josef Stern.
Also, our guest participant was Danny Lobell, host of the Modern Day Philosophers podcast, who recently released an episode featuring some talk of Maimonides with comedy legend Carl Reiner. Danny grew up in an orthodox Jewish community and brought a lot to this discussion with Mark and Seth.