Scattered Thoughts on the American Experiment

America is a strange country. Whatever else you have the urge to say about it, you must concede that it is unusual. And our stories about it grasp at little pieces of what it is but never seem to add up.

I have become increasingly convinced that traditionalism for traditionalism’s sake is simply an absurd proposition, as the notion of a tradition cannot be separated from its content. One can be a royalist, or republican, or even a believer that the American republic works for contingent historic and cultural reasons—but these are arguments in their own right, not some black-box “traditionalism”.

But traditionalism in America is an even more absurd proposition than usual. America is young. If you stretch out to the most distant reaches of the colonial period—a question begging approach given the state of the early colonies—it still gets you to only about 400 years. The war of independence (which for reasons of rhetoric we call a revolution) began only 250 some years ago and ended about twenty years later. We had about 12 years under the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution was ratified less than 230 years ago. We had a protracted and bloody civil war less than a century after the ratification of the Constitution. A few decades later, reformers were building out the modern administrative state, which arguably characterizes our system of government far more than the three-branch structure we force our students to memorize in their civics classes. That character itself is hardly a century old, and many changes have been made in the meantime.

Whither traditionalism? Not two years ago I was arguing on behalf of an American traditionalism, and my opponents asked: how long must something be around before it is a tradition? Good question. Most of the time, it seems both left and right consider American traditionalism to be what we had in the immediate period following the second World War, a period I would consider highly unusual even for our unusual country.

The relationship between our form of government and philosophy is also an open question to me. I’ve taken a stab at answering it before. But it comes back to the relationship between theory and practice, something that simply eludes me. Superficially, the founders were certainly sophisticated in their philosophy and their reading of history. They wrote highly philosophical essays. But they were not philosophers; they were political practitioners in the colonial, revolutionary, and post-revolutionary governments. This is something I feel we often overlook—they were not theorists, but practitioners who were highly educated in the theory of their day.

When I see people invoking the founders, the Constitution, and our political traditions, I find that few seem to provide a picture that adds any of this up in a satisfactory way. The critics and the apologists suffer from this problem to an equal degree, at least that I have seen.

The more I examine the pieces of where we have been, the more I wonder at people who can be so confident in where we are headed. I find arguments that we are in a transition moment persuasive, but the nature of that transition appears, from my limited vantage point, entirely opaque.

Previous Posts in This Thread:

The Charming Bullshit of Romance

Like many of you, when I read Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, I take it as a merciless farce attacking courtly pomp and the institutions of Medieval romance. All that unrequited longing and hopeless, doomed, one-sided love simply reeks of a well-penned “would you look at this shit, already?” He’s right, too. It’s ludicrous, isn’t it? Pining on like a twonk like that. Some manky git fritters his life away for a bird he knows damn well he’ll never so much as catch a whiff of her dirty knickers. Preposterous. And it took this blobby Teutcher to point it out.

scott
Sir Blobby Teutcher

Amusingly, most English language readers appear to have gotten the exact opposite message from it. I’m not sure if it’s still taught in middle schools anymore, but I have a dim memory of reading it sans irony when I was maybe 12 or 13 and thinking it a proper swashbuckler. I was, forgive my trespasses, still enamored of romance. Only upon re-reading it in my 20s with a more cynical eye did I appreciate Scott’s scathing, scornful wit. These days, with the ire of youth dulled, I find a bit more melancholy in there. And not just in this one particular instance, but true of romance in general. Continue reading “The Charming Bullshit of Romance”

Trite Observations on the Dangers of Scientism

I used to be a bit of an economic imperialist, believing many or even most questions could be answered adequately enough with an economist’s toolkit. I still am, to a certain respect, still believing that good sociology(and a large portion of good work done by other social sciences) is just economics in disguise. There’s usually a rigorousness to the thinking that I appreciate. If you want some mushy-headed social science work, check out some of the older work done on sex work, especially those produced by radical feminists*.

There’s a danger though on how the limits of human knowledge, understanding, and impartiality can color the sort of work that most would deem well within the realm of proper scientific inquiry. This can be considered feature, not a bug, in fact. Science is about testing and retesting, reaffirming or disconfirming, sometimes, long-held positions. This also means that there will be dead ends. Dead ends in science are inevitable, and that’s okay.

There’s, however, an even greater danger when tools of science start sniffing along the border of that Third Category, unbounded by the chains of normal human conscience and ethics. All it takes is faulty assumptions and one can allow, advocate, and demand all manner of disgustingly subhuman behavior.

 

Trite Observations Spurred on by the Following:

How to Be Reasonable

Does Ethical Theory Still Exist?

Does the Is-Ought Divide Make Atrocities More Palatable?

 

 

*I do not use this term lightly or mistakenly.

Mea Culpa: Free Speech Legalism Edition

Apologies to Ken White for this, he was correct.

More from him:

Patrick: We have an ongoing dispute about whether or not vivid rhetoric implies (totalitarianism! nazis! book-burning!) an assertion of rights. My position is that it does, or at least deliberately blurs the nature of the assertion, and attempts to capture the moral weight of rights and import it into criticism of private speech and action.

In that spirit, I’d rather compare Twitter to Tyrell Corporation or Weyland-Yutani than to Orwell’s imagined society.

It’s not just the blurring the nature of an assertion on the part of the asserter, but the blurring of the nature of the assertion by those on the receiving end of the assertions. I avoided “totalitarianism! nazis! book-burning!”-style arguments, and tried to focus on what sort of self-imposed, self-assumed ethical constraints a private actor is or should be bound when marketing one’s self as a free speech proponent(or, really, proponents of any sort of ideals, virtues, value system), but, having had multiple discussions with unequivocal supporters of Twitter’s actions, failing each and every time come to a mutual understanding of even basic points of contention, I’ve realized it’s all for naught.

As Ken notes in the actual post,

The right to free speech is America’s most important right because it’s how we identify and defend all rights. But you can’t defend a right you don’t understand or can’t define. Distorting or blurring the definition of a right undermines it. In short: free speech legalism matters.

While I don’t “think that Twitter has a civic or moral obligation to uphold “values of free speech””, I do think they have an ethical obligation to not shit that particular bed. However, the power of free speech rhetoric, even with the most careful of wordings, and covered in numerous qualifiers about the non-rights-asserting nature of a particular argument, is in a fragile enough state, that it might be best to abstain completely from its use in private actor concerns. To do otherwise might actually jeopardize real free speech-threatening situations if enough people make distorting or blurring arguments, or enough people distort or blur arguments being made by others that everyone reflexively stops believing the Boy Who Cried Book-Burning, Nazi Totalitarianism.

Poorly-Conceived, Poorly-Written, and Poorly-Edited Thoughts on Twitter Pulled From An Email Thread Written During My Lunch Break

Me:

Where do you come down on this whole Twitter vis-à-vis free speech thing?

 

Pen Pal:

I haven’t really dived into it to be honest. I’m not clear on what precisely they are and aren’t doing.

Mostly I think stuff like this shows that the open protocol people were right from the beginning; it always would’ve been better for us to have had something like email for what we do on Twitter rather than one company that has to make calls about policies like this.

In the particulars, I think both sides are broadly right. It’s scary when a company whose platform is an important nexus of influence starts cracking down for politically motivated reasons, but the stream of vile shit really does make it unusable for a lot of people already. So ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

What about you? Have you paid any closer attention to this? Do you have thoughts?

 

Me:

Tangentially, even after I tried to slough off overtly political follows, it still kept creeping up in my TL(which isn’t helped by whatever the fuck Twitter decided to do to my TL the last few days, before I finally(?) jumped ship). Seriously, I just opened up the mobile app, and the top 13 tweets in my TL are by people I don’t follow. Fuck Twitter.

Like any good libertarian, I say a pox on both houses. I’m even having to cast a pox on some libertarians, too.

You know me, I’m a pretty big fan of Ken White, but I can’t help but disagree strongly with a portion of his post here

I think it is logically coherent to believe or think that Twitter or any other private actor should uphold XYZ values, in this case “free speech values”. This is something that becomes more obvious to me if you believe Twitter’s rhetoric, that they supposedly embrace free speech. I think that might be the crux of why I don’t completely dismiss the concerns of RightWing twitter. If you(Twitter) supposedly care about free speech, like you say you do, you gotta attempt to live up to it. This would be analagous to how FIRE (and Ken White) would critique censorious behavior by private universities as failing to uphold XYZ values(in that case, open inquiry, skepticism, etc etc etc)

Now, his distinction between free speech legalism and the, granted, more amorphous “upholding XYZ values” is important, and way too many socialcon tweeps do conflate 1st Amendment with (lower-case) free speech, and the point is well taken that the mushier language of values makes the discourse more difficult to parse, maybe even impossible, but my response is, “so what?”

Twitter absolutely has every right to disassociate themselves from whomever and they have every right to not provide a platform for whomever, but seemingly arbitrary suspensions/expulsions/etc makes a lie of Twitters supposed commitment to free speech.

I don’t want to go toooooo far though, because then you have scumbag partisans making the illogical leap from “Twitter is sorta, kinda hypocritical when they say they’re big proponents of free speech but suspend/delete accounts seemingly because of political allegiances, since equally vile rhetoric by people who are of a different political bent are not treated the same way” to “I demand Twitter give me a platform because to do otherwise is to trample my free speech rights”

FOH

 

 

 

p.s.

Right Wing Twitter are as big of whiny crybabies as they say SJW Twitter is.

Theory and Practice, Episode Three

Maybe it was a bad idea to cite an acerbic guy like Lubos Motl. When a guy says that a lot of questions are just stupid, that’s not exactly “sweet talk.” Motl has an important point, but I won’t defend his tone.

He did take the time to outline exactly what he means when he says “stupid questions,” and not only does that definition not apply to Adam, it is also fully consistent with the Gadamer quote Adam gave us. In fact, I am as surprised that Adam would quote an argument in favor of authentic dialogue as a response to a criticism of inauthentic questions as I was when Samuel quoted a Situationist to critique my endorsement of Situationism.

Clearly there is a gap between what I think I’m saying and the message I actually manage to convey. And clearly this gap is caused by me because it keeps happening, and I am the common denominator. Motl might be wrong for his aggressive tone, but at least he gets his point across. No such luck for me. Even when my fellow Sweet Talkers agree with me, they think they disagree. Continue reading “Theory and Practice, Episode Three”

Does Ethical Theory Still Exist?

Featured image : philosophy is like a radiant sun that,
from time to time, throws off portions of itself -Isaiah Berlin, Does Political Philosophy Still Exist

There are two types of questions that we know have clear, real answers. The first type of question is empirical, which is to say it can be answered by systematic observation. How much money is in my bank account, how much weight can a particular bridge support and how much money will this tax raise bring to the treasury are all examples. The second type of question is formal. Given certain axioms, and rules for manipulating them, we can get an answer through pure calculation. This kind of question cannot answer questions about the world, except in so far as the axioms and the rules for manipulating them resemble the world as it exists. Taxonomy, logic, and math are all good examples of the second type of question.

For a well formed question of these sorts, even if we do not know the answer, we do know roughly what form an answer would take, that is we can determine whether a particular answer is a possible answer even if we can’t tell if it is a correct answer. We should be able to determine what sort of reasoning, what sort of demonstration, what sort of arguments would be relevant, and which would not.

Where the concepts are clear and their shape is generally accepted, and where the appropriate shape of reasoning is agreed on, only there is it possible to construct something resembling universal knowledge, of whatever kind. Where the questions are not clear, where a concept is not well defined, and no one can agree on what an answer would look like, and the methods and qualifications to answer the questions are entirely in dispute, then we can construct only a pseudoscience, or if we are lucky, a protoscience.

There is however a third category of questions, those which cannot be formulated in either of the two categories which have well defined answers. Does free will exist? What is justice? How can I know whether an action is just? Why should I obey another? We discover that we are not sure, from the very outset, what a clear answer to these questions would look like, whether inductive or deductive. These are the philosophical questions.

Now the history of human knowledge has been the gradual shifting of the philosophical questions into one or the other of these two compartments. The nature and composition of the stars was once a philosophical question, and it could not be clear ahead of time what part should be played by observation and what by a priori teleological notions, and the questions asked could not be neatly divided into formal and inductive categories. As methods competed and technologies of observation and technique advanced, the questions became well formed, and the science of astronomy was born. You can begin to see the outlines of the death of philosophy of mind and the birth of a science of mind already, or hedonic philosophy being transformed into a science of happiness. For studies at this boundary, not quite science and not quite philosophy, meaningful dialogue can take place. A philosopher who attempts to answer an empirical question, without using an empirical method, is sure to be spouting nonsense, and a scientist who attempts to answer a non-empirical question using an empirical method will be answering a different question than she thinks.

There is however also a category of philosophical questions which stubbornly resist resolution into well behaved categories. The efforts at least from Plato onwards to found a systematic scientific account of ethics or aesthetics has repeatedly failed. Relativism, emotivism, skepticism always break back in. Ryan condemns all of philosophy, however his particular concerns seem to be with what is broadly politics, that is how we should treat others and what the ultimate aim of our actions should be. But this is not an empirical question, like how we *do* treat people or more specifically who treats whom in what way, when and where and under what circumstances. It is not a clearly deductive question either, like whether a particular action violated custom or law.

What makes such questions as justice and ethics properly philosophical is precisely that there is such widespread disagreement about what kind of reasons are valid, and what the shape of a valid argument looks like. The methods of answering look very different for theists and atheists, reductive materialists and Christians, Romantics, Marxists, Feminists and Nihilists. The differences between them are not empirical disagreements, nor are there a set of axioms to which we can garner universal consent, nor even a process for generating axioms. The reason why philosophy is necessary, the reason why it arose in the first place, is precisely because of this disagreement.

If everyone agreed on ultimate ends, the questions that are supposed to arise out of political and ethical philosophy would reduce to a inductive problem of what sort of actions increased utility, or a statistical analysis of what actions in what situations increased happiness. If everyone agreed on axioms, or agreed on the process for generating axioms, then politics and ethics would reduce to calculation based on the ten commandments or the categorical imperative. It is precisely that persistent disagreements, systematic disagreements, continue to exist, that the chain of arguments do not follow the same family of paths, that the form of solutions is fundamentally unresolved, that requires the answer remain philosophical.

It is entirely legitimate, and possibly correct, to argue that philosophical methods cannot produce truthful knowledge about the world or ourselves, and is at best rationalizations of deeper processes. Prior to the 18th century or so slavery was an accepted part of the social order, and ethics was concerned mainly with the appropriate manner in which slaves should be treated. People with as contradictory ethical systems as the Epicureans and the Stoics neverless agreed that slavery was acceptable, as did the medieval Christians and Muslims and Hindus. By the end of the twentieth century, neo-stoics, neo-Epicureans, Utilitarians and Deontologists, no matter their other substantial disagreements all agree that slave holding is impermissible. It was not new knowledge, but new social convention that changed the ethical theory. By contrast stoic logic, though incomplete, is as valid now as when it was formulated, and the Greek proofs that the world is round are as acceptable today as when they were first observed. Answers to philosophical questions are genuinely different than answers to well formulated questions.

Nevertheless, to argue that everyone knows what actions will increase happiness, and further that everyone wants to increase their own happiness and that of others is a well formulated empirical question, and one need only look at the contrast between the actions of the average person compared the findings, such as they are, from happiness research to indicate that either people do not know what makes them and others happy, or else that they do not think that happiness is the meaning of life and basis of ethics. However humans are social, and so the game of giving and asking for reasons must continue. The problem of competing ethical systems is not that different people might disagree about the best way to achieve identical ends, but that different people will do different things for reasons that others will find unacceptable, or towards ends that they find incomprehensible. To argue that it does not matter why a person gives money to the homeless so long as he does so, is only a gracious concession that it does not matter why someone agrees with you, so long as they do.