Jacob Levy’s Liberalism of Tragedy

Featured image is A Club of Gentlemen, by Joseph Highmore

Against a liberalism of pre-political foundations and historical destiny,  Jacob Levy has been working hard to recover a vision of liberalism that appreciates the complex patchwork of social life, is historically contingent, and accepts the existence of irresolvable tensions. Though he has been influenced by Judith Shklar’s “Liberalism of Fear,” the character of his work could better be described as a Liberalism of Tragedy. After a year in which liberalism has taken a beating globally, Levy’s work provides an excellent starting point for a revitalization.

Continue reading “Jacob Levy’s Liberalism of Tragedy”

If by Identity Politics

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about identity politics. All right, here is how I feel about identity politics:

If when you say identity politics you mean the cultural relativism, polylogism, the automatic and unappealable guilt of the white man by the Original Sin of his oppressive tyranny, that engenders antagonism, essentializes individuals by race or gender, destroys discourse with accusations of tone-policing and mansplaining and foists upon us unwanted self-understandings, calls forth a new age of identity-based segregation, yea, literally constructs a new hierarchy of privilege-checked domination to put in chains the pale old masters; if you mean the evil spell that topples the freedoms of speech—yea and to offend—and of association into the bottomless pit of safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions and mattress marches, white fragility and the male gaze, problematizing and Twitter shaming, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say identity politics you mean solidarity, diversity, the realities of present bigotry and discrimination and the legacy effects of ancient oppressions, the idea that our experiences diverge according to the identity groups to which we belong—chosen and unchosen, plural and overlapping—and that to ignore these differences is to paper over injustices—designed or emergent—in rote thrall to a bland ideal of equality that can perpetuate injustice; if you mean activism led by those who know where the shoe chafes; if you mean more deeply plumbing our social well of knowledge by really listening to the testimonies of groups historically ignored; if you mean a rejuvenated liberalism which magnifies our differences not to erect walls between us, but to illuminate the path to a more genuine equality of dignity achieved in our contextual lives and not just in abstract blueprints; if you mean realizing the benefits of diversity, which are the necessary conditions for that Open Society welcoming to individuals of all sexes and genders, races, religions, nationalities, peaceful political ideologies, and body types; if by identity politics you mean loosening up the grand narrative of history’s victors to include alternative and conflicting interpretations, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

Why no Brave New World?

If you’re anything like me, you haven’t read Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic A Brave New World since you were awaiting a slightly overdue deployment in a piss-yellow barracks during the rainy spring of 1995. Twenty years and change hence, most of what I recall from the novel are impressions of its themes. One thing I remember clearly is a certain irritation at being betrayed. I was promised a dystopia, and received instead a glorious paean to a frankly enticing possible future.  Continue reading “Why no Brave New World?”

Reductionist Poetics

Featured image is a Hebrew manuscript

We explain the world we see with concepts that remain unseen. We explain the act of choosing with models unavailable to the choosers. We bridge these gulfs without knowing how it is possible. Our first guess is always epistemology, but the better bet is poetry.

Poetry and prose are not separated by any such gulf. Terseness and parallelism characterize poetry, but both can be found in prose. They form the heart of the poetic function, which beats a steady rhythm in language of all sorts. The particularly poetic enters into prose and the characteristics of prose enters into poetry. It should not then surprise us to find a vibrant poetic heart beating in the breast of scientific language.

Terseness is simple enough, and not so important for our purposes. Parallelism is deceptively simple, and the key to bridging the gulf between life and model.

When language at any level is brought close together, equivalences can create meaning. Similar looking but dissimilar sounding words can be highly significant. Related genre tropes invoked soon after one another can produce a greater effect. Each potential type of equivalence can be combined or operate independently from any other type.

Equivalence highlights difference; to equivocate is not to tautologize. Rhyming couplets produce a similar sound, but different meanings. A connection is drawn by that similarity, but meaning is made in partnership with contrast.

A man has “cried wolf,” and a parallel is drawn with a story. A man is not a story. Or this man is not that story. An equivalence has been drawn, and its value is only possible because of the differences. The man’s life does not have a clear lesson, but the story does. Parallelism can form a bridge to that lesson from the man by drawing equivalences.

The economic man is more equation than story, and men are neither equations nor stories. But even equations and stories are not completely transparent to us, any more than we as equation and story makers are to ourselves.

Economic man is largely unlike us, so putting his decisions in parallel with ours suggests something new. This “something” itself remains more concealed than unconcealed, but its arrival adds to our visible horizon. Unconcealing by drawing together several untransparent elements together: this is the mysterious effect of parallelism. Like the liar who cried wolf, the tension between clear difference and equivocation generates fresh insights. For this reason truth can flower even among false models.

Our horizons may yet be narrowed by an idolatry of the newly unconcealed. Reductionism is the name given to this class of idols. It is the project of not A because B. A table is not a table, but atoms and the void. Love is not lovely, but a brute Darwinian impulse. The world we see is an illusion, the concepts unseen are the true reality. Human experience counts for nothing, the products of human intellect are sovereign.

To eliminate A with B is to cut the threads of parallelism. These threads stitch together human intellect itself. Sovereign intellect without parallelism is little more than a chimpanzee with a crown. Without the table we see, we would not seek the atoms. The “true” reality can only come into view in parallel with the “nominal” one of appearances. The great unconcealments of the era put formal models in parallel with appearances, as the liar is put in parallel with “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” With the unconcealing power of parallelism, even higher primates such as we have achieved kingly deeds.

Science must proceed poetically to proceed at all, and poetry makes meaning by drawing parallels.

Word Games

Featured image is Lower-Austrian Peasant Wedding, by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller

J. L. Austin made a tremendous breakthrough in linguistics and the philosophy of language when he demonstrated the performative character of language—that is, by saying something we are always doing something. Extreme cases include “I now pronounce you man and wife,” which, when uttered in the right circumstances, changes the status of two people from being single to being married.

The problem with operationalizing this comes in with the notion of “in the right circumstances.” Can these be specified in advance? At what level of detail? How small do deviations need to be before the speech act is nullified (or “infelicitous” as Austin put it)? Are some infelicities more important or decisive than others, and does this vary for each sort of speech act?

Austin ultimately gave up on a completed system, though many speech act theorists since him have taken up the torch. Among these, his former student John Searle is the most notable.

But I stand with critics like Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish in thinking that a high degree of uncertainty is required by the subject matter. Derrida has pointed out that if the successful performance of a speech act is determined by context, and context is boundless, then we can never know with the certainty of mathematical or logical necessity that we have avoided infelicity. There may be aspects of the speech situation that we did not notice at the time which invalidate it retroactively, and the uncertainty around this is ineradicable.

It is akin to digital security—we may use top of the line cryptography, we may use stricter than best practice implementations, but we cannot know about security holes that haven’t been discovered yet. If we could, then we would have discovered them already. There is no reducing, much less eradicating, uncertainty of this sort—in security or in speech acts.

The point is not that no speech act ever succeeds, but that it isn’t something we can really measure externally from the situation and the people involved. Moreover, even to participants it is not known with the certainty of the solution to mathematical problems.

Without pretending to such certainty, I’d like to build off of our previous discussion of Aristotle’s notions of actuality and potentiality, as well as efficient and finals causes, in order to continue the discussion of when speech acts go right or wrong. Continue reading “Word Games”

Where Do Beliefs Come From?

Featured image is Sunset, by Caspar David Friedrich.

This post is dedicated to Drew Summitt, who has relentlessly pushed Aristotelian metaphysics upon me. It is also a technical followup to this piece.

To have beliefs, one must have a lot of other beliefs. This is John Searle’s summary of the point that, in analytic philosophy anyway, goes back at least as far as W. V. Quine. No lone belief is coherent in isolation, but only as part of a web of beliefs that provide it with context.

Rather than a web, Searle spoke of a Network. At first he believed the Network was a set of unconscious beliefs that provide context for conscious beliefs. But in time he came to see that the notion of an “unconscious belief” is dubious. Instead, we ought to speak of having the capacity to generate some specific belief.

We think of memory as a storehouse of propositions and images, as a kind of big library or filing cabinet of representations. But we should think of memory rather as a mechanism for generating current performance, including conscious thoughts and actions, based on past experience.

(…)

Instead of saying “To have a belief, one has to have a lot of other beliefs,” one should say “To have a conscious thought, one has to have the capacity to generate a lot of other conscious thoughts. And these conscious thoughts all require further capacities for their application.”

The Network is the specific set of capacities for generating the relevant beliefs. It is a subset of the Background, which are all of the non-mental capabilities that generate mental states.

I find this taxonomy compelling. I would summarize the basic insight as follows: consciousness, knowledge, beliefs, and all mental states are performed, not stored. As Richard Moodey put it, “I imagine ‘knowledge’ as inseparable from acts of knowing, as something performed, rather than possessed.”

So we have performed mental states, and we have capacities for generating them. What is the ontology of these capacities? Continue reading “Where Do Beliefs Come From?”

Malum in Volente

Indecisive wind moped through the savage trees of Anacortes. Dave and I begged the pitiable sloop to pass unmolested through Deception Pass. Land, as they say, was quite nearly ho. Audra’s icy blue eyes peered out of the cabin at the crags drifting past overhead.

“You ever wonder about the nature of evil, Sam?”

Dave had startled me. I was lost in reverie, pondering the inky boundaries between fantasy, dream, prophesy, and madness. Even when the ocean wasn’t whispering terror into my ears, I often found the lure of introspection difficult to resist when the wind moaned and the waves lapped. “I don’t know. Maybe. I always just sort of reckoned it was a term of approbation.” I shook my head. “No, wait. That means approval, right? The opposite of that. Opprobation.” Continue reading “Malum in Volente”