In Spirit

Featured Image is Moonrise Over the Sea, by Caspar David Friedrich

In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the Philosopher defended the art of persuasion against the teachings of his master Plato and Plato’s master Socrates. He sought to harness the wisdom of their critiques of the sophists without throwing out the art of persuasion entirely.

The characterization of persuasion as performed by the sophists—handed down to us in the pejorative sophistry—is that of pure manipulation. Other human beings are reduced to means for us to achieve our ends. Alasdair MacIntyre views all persuasion this way. In this, he is more Platonic than Aristotelian.

Aristotle observed that the form of Socratic dialogue doesn’t differ substantially in appearance from the sophist’s rhetoric. Indeed, many would consider Socrates among the worst offenders, where sophistry is concerned.

The difference between dialectic and sophistry is a matter of ethical commitment. Or we could say that it is a matter of committing yourself to the spirit of inquiry, just as the good lawyer interprets the spirit rather than merely the letter of the law, and we honor the spirit of our obligations. In short, it is about practicing in good faith, by honoring the spirit of the practice, rather than cynically and opportunistically bending it for our convenience.

The romantic critics of technology and social science, among whom I would count Heidegger and Gadamer, seem to believe that all technology, science, and bureaucracy are pure manipulation. Yet hierarchy, technology, and inquiry have very long histories. The romantic criticism envisions a past in which we had a more authentic relationship with our tools and our surroundings. It is for good reason that such days-gone-by thinking is derided as romantic in a pejorative sense.

Like rhetoric, the form of the made—from our tools to our organizations—differs only in degree. But differences in kind are determined by the spirit of the thing. A bureaucracy in which everyone holds an ethic of treating one another like fellow full human beings is very different from one in which employees are resources that need to be allocated, like coal.

The technocratic impulse is sold as a detached, rational thing, but in practice it always has a spirit. And in the 20th century, the spirit of technocracy was, ironically enough, usually a species of romanticism.

Thus Heidegger, the critic of technocracy, became an ally to the regime that was iconic for its literal factories of death. Why? Because of the romantic, nationalist spirit behind the thing, evident in their propaganda. The Soviets, which many foolishly put on the opposite end of a spectrum from the Nazis, were basically identical in this regard. Again, just look at their propaganda.


What our age needs is a humanist spirit that has not been warped by romanticism. We need to heal the severed link between spirit and reason. Let us stop thinking of reason as something that concerns narrow, instrumental relationships among objects and objectified subjects, and instead begin thinking in terms of the unity of ethics, politics, and rhetoric.

The current of history runs deep, and there is more to our age than enlightenment and counter-enlightenment, rationalists and romantics. It’s time we began to explore those greater depths again.


Lies, of the Sweet Little Variety

“Tell us a story, Clay.” Brigit forced a smile, but we could all feel the incessant chitter of invisible insect feet dancing the Charleston inside our skulls. It wasn’t as bad on the Puget Sound, but the nearer we drew to the Straits of San Juan de Fuca, the more we felt the dreadful onset of unavoidable madness. The stories helped. Helped to quell the insistence of the alien noises. Helped still the turmoil.

“It’s my turn, eh? What story would you like to hear? I think I remember some old Twain. Who wants to hear me recount the Incredible Tale of the Celebrated… um… Frog of Some Sort of Calevaras County?” Continue reading “Lies, of the Sweet Little Variety”

Migration: a human capability

This essay was originally published at Open Borders: The Case. I’m cross-posting, slightly modified it here in observance of Open Borders Day.

One of the core arguments for free movement of people is the economic logic of the free movement of labor. But of course people are more than just labor, and migrants make the journey for a variety of reasons. If it isn’t for economic gain (or welfare benefits maximization, in the cynic’s version of the narrow economic motive), then the migrant must be fleeing oppression, if the typical migration discussants are to be believed. The role open borders could play in offering sanctuary for the oppressed is important, of course. But this too, is not the full story.

Continue reading “Migration: a human capability”

The Appeal of Fascism

Or: It’s Going To Be All Right

When we call Trump a fascist, we mean something bad, but we don’t mean fascism. If you look at it the right way, the numbers are kind of comforting: About 30% of Republican primary voters, in some states, are all in on Trumpscism, or whatever you want to call the Trump brand of fascism. Populascism? I don’t know. It’s such a fun thing to watch, regardless.

The numbers, not too long ago, were much more disturbing, back when everyone went in for fascism, properly speaking; the entire Western world went all-in for fascism, right before all the homosexuals, blacks, Jews, and other undesirables were cleared off the streets and disappeared. The difficult truth about disappearing the undesirables made fascism itself undesirable, so it fell out of favor as a term with the university class. Now fascism is a moniker for something else, a name for the perversion of conservative political doctrine.

We ought to be careful about calling Trump a fascist and a racist, despite the elements of fascism and racism attached to his message and persona, and despite the fact that he’s running in the GOP, which is also the home of conservatives, mainly because that’s an awfully broad brush which covers people who aren’t fascists, while it leaves unpainted actual fascists, who probably don’t have any party affiliation.

When you offer a general population the following planks in a campaign platform: strong national identity, strong central government, (un)willing participation of corporate entities, high taxes paying for universal services, while also demonizing opposition (and even sabotaging the opposition’s efforts), well, you’re going to get some votes. Wiser politicians than Trump have long known how to offer fascism without the nasty side-effect of attracting an openly racist voter bloc, that which is the final plank in the platform known as fascism. Without racism, it’s an appealing political doctrine today, and it held the world in sway, once upon a time, when history was still in black and white.

The conservative argument against the appeal of fascism, whatever its actual name today, is that it can’t really be done without a great deal of disruption. The characteristics necessary to create a leader who will implement that platform is unlikely to produce a leader who will observe the pleasanter traditions of constitutional democracy. Liberal and Leftist pundits will be wise to note that the conservative movement in the United States has vociferously rejected Trump (see National Review), especially where his doctrine (such as it is) overlaps with a properly defined fascism. Those conservative voices in popular media who actually have endorsed Trump are hardly making a conservative case for him–because it’s impossible.

Now, as for the name fascism, and its application to perversions of conservative doctrines: well, it’s a tough cruel world, and conservatives are going to just have to get over it, continuing to argue for free markets, smaller federal governments, the Western canon, inter alia, acknowledging weakness and pointing out strength.

No worries.

Warning: For Some Values of X, Y = Genocide

Featured image is by Willem van de Velde the Younger.

Let’s say that human beings could only perceive the world, and decide how to act, based on mathematical equations. Further, there are many such equations we could choose from.

Each equation has a history; originally formulated by specific people, with variations devised by other people. Often, attempts at creating wholly original new equations end up having clear predecessors.

Let’s say that there’s one particular equation that outputs flourishing, happiness, and a meaningful life for the widest range of values for the variable X.

Only for a specific set of corner cases of X, its output is that nationwide ethnic cleansing is permissible.

Question: should we throw that equation out entirely?

Well, that depends on what the other equations get you, right? What if all the viable alternatives get you genocide for a wider range of X values? Or what if they give you some horrible outcome other than genocide, how would you even being to weigh different possible horrors?

I don’t have the equation for you to answer those questions.

But even if it ended up being the best of all possible equations, wouldn’t you still want to know that some X values lead to a horrible outcome? Even if you couldn’t determine precisely what those X values were?

And wouldn’t you want to look into the history of the thing, to see if you could find any information on what sorts of horrors it’s capable of producing, and what exactly have caused it to produce it in the past?

I’d hope you would.

Previous Posts in This Thread:

The capacities approach of Will Wilkinson

In a 2007 blog post (Web Archived here), Will Wilkinson explored the limits of the crisp, clean, Boolean distinction between negative and positive liberty, using as his foil the Objectivist philosopher David Kelley’s treatment of the subject. The post itself forcefully argues that there is no reliable and useful way to separate positive (freedom to x) from negative liberty (freedom from interference). Many of the things we value in life depend critically on the beliefs and actions of other individuals, but have nothing to do with interference as commonly understood. That’s well and good – read the whole thing – but here I’d like to recast Wilkinson’s analysis of liberty as the liberty of the capabilities approach.

Continue reading “The capacities approach of Will Wilkinson”

Why philosophy?

Written without any prior knowledge of Adam’s post, I swear.

“Is all philosophy bullshit?”

The question wasn’t glib, and it was coming from a fellow student in a European graduate philosophy program. My answer, mirroring the question, had the same false appearance of being glib:

99% of philosophy is wrong. But a significant minority of that is productively wrong. Why still read Plato? Not for his answers, for his questions.

Continue reading “Why philosophy?”