Sunshine Recorder

Link: On Heidegger and Nazism

It’s not news that Heidegger had more than a flirtation with Nazism.

The controversy stirred up by the revelations in Evelyn Barish’s new biography of the literary scholar and “deconstructionist” Paul de Man (which Louis Menand recently discussed in the magazine) will, I suspect, seem like a collegial colloquium compared with the uproar attending the publication of the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s “Schwarzen Hefte” (“Black Notebooks”), written between 1931 and the early nineteen-seventies.

The first three volumes (1931-41), have been released in German in the past few months. They’re being published only now because, according to their editor, Peter Trawny, Heidegger requested that they be the final publications in his complete works. The notebooks have been the talk of European op-ed pages, and much of the discussion—at least, in Germany, France, and Great Britain—is centered on their revelations of Heidegger’s deep-rooted and unambiguous anti-Semitism.

It’s not news that Heidegger (1889-1976) had more than a flirtation with Nazism. After becoming a Party member, in 1933, he was named rector of the University of Freiburg, and he praised the Party in his inaugural address. He resigned from the job the following year (though he remained in the Party). Even as a high-school philosophy buff, in the seventies, I knew of Heidegger’s enthusiasm from reading “An Introduction to Metaphysics,” from 1935, which contains a line of praise for National Socialism. When Victor Farias’s book “Heidegger and Nazism,” which amplified the historical record of Heidegger’s activities and public remarks during the time of the Third Reich, appeared, in 1987, it became, as Menand writes, a central topic of debate in the intellectual world for a time. It also gave rise to Jacques Derrida’s book “Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question,” which defends Heidegger by showing that the underpinnings of his philosophy—his vocabulary and his network of metaphors—were the same as those of the era’s ostensibly liberal thinkers.

But early debate about “Black Notebooks” is focussed on Heidegger’s acknowledgment of the important role of anti-Semitism in his philosophy. Unlike de Man, whose anti-Semitic texts, written when de Man was in his early twenties, seemed mainly a matter of overweening careerism, Heidegger’s “Notebooks” are works of the full flowering of his philosophical maturity, written privately, as a means for him to work out his ideas. Heidegger has long been suspected of anti-Semitism in his private life, as well as of collaboration with an anti-Semitic regime, but, Trawny writes, “nobody would have suspected an anti-Semitism transmuted into philosophy.” (Trawny’s new book is titled “Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy.”)

According to Thomas Assheuer, writing in Die Zeit, “The Jew-hatred in ‘Black Notebooks’ is no afterthought; it forms the foundation of the philosophical diagnosis.” In other words, these newly published writings show that, for Heidegger, anti-Semitism was more than just a personal prejudice. In the GuardianPhilip Oltermann offers some choice passages:

“World Judaism,” Heidegger writes in the notebooks, “is ungraspable everywhere and doesn’t need to get involved in military action while continuing to unfurl its influence, whereas we are left to sacrifice the best blood of the best of our people.”

In another passage, the philosopher writes that the Jewish people, with their “talent for calculation,” were so vehemently opposed to the Nazi’s racial theories because “they themselves have lived according to the race principle for longest.”

The French philosopher Emmanuel Faye picks up on one notably insidious term in the new publications:

We know that [Heidegger] speaks in his “Black Notebooks” of the “worldlessness” of Judaism…. Jews aren’t just considered to lack a homeland, they are said definitively to be worldless. It’s worth recalling that worldlessness is an expression that Heidegger doesn’t even use for animals, which, in a 1929 lecture, he calls “world-poor.” In this complete dehumanization of Judaism, the Jews no longer have a place in the world, or, rather, they never had one. We also discover…that the Heideggerian idea of “being-in-the-world” which is central to “Being and Time” can take on the meaning of a discriminatory term with an anti-Semitic intent.

Oltermann adds that Heidegger also “argues that like fascism and ‘world judaism,’ Soviet communism and British parliamentarianism should be seen as part of the imperious dehumanising drive of western modernity.” Yet, in the magazine Prospect, the philosopher Jonathan Rée attempts to defend Heidegger by minimizing the significance of this idea: “One of his arguments is that Judaism, like Bolshevism and Fascism, participates in the corrosive calculative culture of modernity, even though it goes back thousands of years.” This makes me wonder about Rée as well: Isn’t it a priori anti-Semitic to consider Judaism “corrosive”? And wouldn’t that idea, as Oltermann suggests, place anti-Semitism at the core of Heidegger’s philosophical conception of history?

So the discussion has begun. But the underlying question is: Why the ongoing fascination with deconstructionism and with the work of the philosopher whose radical works inspired it? Why does this philosophical strain seem strangely central to the conception of modern criticism, even as it recedes in influence? And why do these thinkers’ personal lives and ideological compromises seem unusually relevant to their work, beyond the usual scandal-sheet Schadenfreude?

It may have something to do with their distinctive views regarding the relevance (or, rather, irrelevance) of character and personality to the objects of their study. Menand offers a crucial insight in his Critic at Large piece on de Man, explaining that deconstructionism offered a sort of nuclear physics of literature:

It generated intellectual power by bracketing off most of what might be called (with due acknowledgment of the constructed nature of the concept) the real-life aspects of literature—that literature is written by people, that it affects people, that it is a report on experience. But it was exciting to get inside the atom.

The crucial difference is that, when a physicist splits atoms, they’re not the atoms of the chair that he’s sitting on or of the equipment that he’s splitting them with. Deconstruction pulls the chair out from under the reader, compels the reader to undermine his own habits of reading. By dissolving the overt categories of reading—plot, story, style, character, moral—deconstruction wrenched literature away from the amateurs and delivered it to the sole care of academics, who alone had the tools with which to approach it. Thus, it transformed the academic study of literature from a marginal scholarly apparatus of footnotes to the only game in town, thereby turning traditional readers into spectators.

Deconstruction is a reflexive philosophy: it makes the very notion of literary analysis a self-revealing, self-questioning, quasi-poetic creation, undoing the traditional hierarchy by which the literary critic is the handmaiden of the creative writer. This philosophy doesn’t merely study the art of writing, it fuses with the art; instead of depersonalizing literary criticism into a quasi-scientific activity, it turns the literary critic into a self-defined peer of the novelist and the poet. (Similarly, Roland Barthes’s famous “death of the author” was actually the birth of a new author; namely, the critic who proclaimed that death.)

Heidegger happens to have been—a blessing and a curse—a brilliant writer, whose serpentine, spellbinding prose was both an argument against the traditional authority of logical reasoning and a performative undermining of that authority. (De Man, by contrast, is a rather dully mechanical writer; when I read his books in college, I found it strange that his influence should have survived his prose.)

But, even without particular regard to Jews and Nazis, Heidegger’s brilliance was intrinsically political. For Heidegger, the project of rescuing language from the ostensible truth of logic and restoring it to iridescent incantation implied kicking out the intellectual struts from under the claims to progress on the part of technological society. By undermining logic and science, Heidegger also undermined the Enlightenment—and the individualism, the freedoms, the claim to rights that are made in the name of reason and progress. Even apart from his specific ideological pronouncements, Heidegger was, philosophically, an anti-humanist rightist.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) is another splendid writer whose prose is also a performance of his philosophy. But, for Derrida (who was Jewish), the project of deconstruction, with its undoing of long-sedimented hierarchies and categories, was, in effect, a way of attacking traditional power structures philosophically. If I had to sum up his life’s work in a single sentence, it would be: redefining the Heideggerian project as leftist. Derrida is gone now, but, with the discovery of Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks,” this reconstruction of Heidegger may prove harder, in retrospect, for his acolytes to sustain.

Link: Hell on Earth

At the University of Oxford, a team of scholars led by the philosopher Rebecca Roache has begun thinking about the ways futuristic technologies might transform punishment. In January, I spoke with Roache and her colleagues Anders Sandberg and Hannah Maslen about emotional enhancement, ‘supercrimes’, and the ethics of eternal damnation. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

Suppose we develop the ability to radically expand the human lifespan, so that people are regularly living for more than 500 years. Would that allow judges to fit punishments to crimes more precisely?

Roache: When I began researching this topic, I was thinking a lot about Daniel Pelka, a four-year-old boy who was starved and beaten to death [in 2012] by his mother and stepfather here in the UK. I had wondered whether the best way to achieve justice in cases like that was to prolong death as long as possible. Some crimes are so bad they require a really long period of punishment, and a lot of people seem to get out of that punishment by dying. And so I thought, why not make prison sentences for particularly odious criminals worse by extending their lives?

But I soon realised it’s not that simple. In the US, for instance, the vast majority of people on death row appeal to have their sentences reduced to life imprisonment. That suggests that a quick stint in prison followed by death is seen as a worse fate than a long prison sentence. And so, if you extend the life of a prisoner to give them a longer sentence, you might end up giving them a more lenient punishment.

The life-extension scenario may sound futuristic, but if you look closely you can already see it in action, as people begin to live longer lives than before. If you look at the enormous prison population in the US, you find an astronomical number of elderly prisoners, including quite a few with pacemakers. When I went digging around in medical journals, I found all these interesting papers about the treatment of pacemaker patients in prison.

Suppose prisons become more humane in the future, so that they resemble Norwegian prisons instead of those you see in America or North Korea. Is it possible that correctional facilities could become truly correctional in the age of long lifespans, by taking a more sustained approach to rehabilitation?

Roache: If people could live for centuries or millennia, you would obviously have more time to reform them, but you would also run into a tricky philosophical issue having to do with personal identity. A lot of philosophers who have written about personal identity wonder whether identity can be sustained over an extremely long lifespan. Even if your body makes it to 1,000 years, the thinking goes, that body is actually inhabited by a succession of persons over time rather than a single continuous person. And so, if you put someone in prison for a crime they committed at 40, they might, strictly speaking, be an entirely different person at 940. And that means you are effectively punishing one person for a crime committed by someone else. Most of us would think that unjust.

Let’s say that life expansion therapies become a normal part of the human condition, so that it’s not just elites who have access to them, it’s everyone. At what point would it become unethical to withhold these therapies from prisoners?

Roache: In that situation it would probably be inappropriate to view them as an enhancement, or something extra. If these therapies were truly universal, it’s more likely that people would come to think of them as life-saving technologies. And if you withheld them from prisoners in that scenario, you would effectively be denying them medical treatment, and today we consider that inhumane. My personal suspicion is that once life extension becomes more or less universal, people will begin to see it as a positive right, like health care in most industrialised nations today. Indeed, it’s interesting to note that in the US, prisoners sometimes receive better health care than uninsured people. You have to wonder about the incentives a system like that creates.

Where is that threshold of universality, where access to something becomes a positive right? Do we have an empirical example of it?

Roache: One interesting case might be internet access. In Finland, for instance, access to communication technology is considered a human right and handwritten letters are not sufficient to satisfy it. Finnish prisons are required to give inmates access to computers, although their internet activity is closely monitored. This is an interesting development because, for years, limiting access to computers was a common condition of probation in hacking cases – and that meant all kinds of computers, including ATMs [cash points]. In the 1980s, that lifestyle might have been possible, and you could also see pulling it off in the ’90s, though it would have been very difficult. But today computers are ubiquitous, and a normal life seems impossible without them; you can’t even access the subway without interacting with a computer of some sort.

In the late 1990s, an American hacker named Kevin Mitnick was denied all access to communication technology after law enforcement officials [in California] claimed he could ‘start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone’. But in the end, he got the ruling overturned by arguing that it prevented him from living a normal life.

What about life expansion that meddles with a person’s perception of time? Take someone convicted of a heinous crime, like the torture and murder of a child. Would it be unethical to tinker with the brain so that this person experiences a 1,000-year jail sentence in his or her mind?

Roache: There are a number of psychoactive drugs that distort people’s sense of time, so you could imagine developing a pill or a liquid that made someone feel like they were serving a 1,000-year sentence. Of course, there is a widely held view that any amount of tinkering with a person’s brain is unacceptably invasive. But you might not need to interfere with the brain directly. There is a long history of using the prison environment itself to affect prisoners’ subjective experience. During the Spanish Civil War [in the 1930s] there was actually a prison where modern art was used to make the environment aesthetically unpleasant. Also, prison cells themselves have been designed to make them more claustrophobic, and some prison beds are specifically made to be uncomfortable.

I haven’t found any specific cases of time dilation being used in prisons, but time distortion is a technique that is sometimes used in interrogation, where people are exposed to constant light, or unusual light fluctuations, so that they can’t tell what time of day it is. But in that case it’s not being used as a punishment, per se, it’s being used to break people’s sense of reality so that they become more dependent on the interrogator, and more pliable as a result. In that sense, a time-slowing pill would be a pretty radical innovation in the history of penal technology.

I want to ask you a question that has some crossover with theological debates about hell. Suppose we eventually learn to put off death indefinitely, and that we extend this treatment to prisoners. Is there any crime that would justify eternal imprisonment? Take Hitler as a test case. Say the Soviets had gotten to the bunker before he killed himself, and say capital punishment was out of the question – would we have put him behind bars forever?

Roache: It’s tough to say. If you start out with the premise that a punishment should be proportional to the crime, it’s difficult to think of a crime that could justify eternal imprisonment. You could imagine giving Hitler one term of life imprisonment for every person killed in the Second World War. That would make for quite a long sentence, but it would still be finite. The endangerment of mankind as a whole might qualify as a sufficiently serious crime to warrant it. As you know, a great deal of the research we do here at the Oxford Martin School concerns existential risk. Suppose there was some physics experiment that stood a decent chance of generating a black hole that could destroy the planet and all future generations. If someone deliberately set up an experiment like that, I could see that being the kind of supercrime that would justify an eternal sentence.

In your forthcoming paper on this subject, you mention the possibility that convicts with a neurologically stunted capacity for empathy might one day be ‘emotionally enhanced’, and that the remorse felt by these newly empathetic criminals could be the toughest form of punishment around. Do you think a full moral reckoning with an awful crime the most potent form of suffering an individual can endure?

Roache: I’m not sure. Obviously, it’s an empirical question as to which feels worse, genuine remorse or time in prison. There is certainly reason to take the claim seriously. For instance, in literature and folk wisdom, you often hear people saying things like, ‘The worst thing is I’ll have to live with myself.’ My own intuition is that for very serious crimes, genuine remorse could be subjectively worse than a prison sentence. But I doubt that’s the case for less serious crimes, where remorse isn’t even necessarily appropriate – like if you are wailing and beating yourself up for stealing a candy bar or something like that.

I remember watching a movie in school, about a teen that killed another teen in a drunk-driving accident. As one of the conditions of his probation, the judge in the case required him to mail a daily cheque for 25 cents to the parents of the teen he’d killed for a period of 10 years. Two years in, the teen was begging the judge to throw him in jail, just to avoid the daily reminder.

Roache: That’s an interesting case where prison is actually an escape from remorse, which is strange because one of the justifications for prison is that it’s supposed to focus your mind on what you have done wrong. Presumably, every day you wake up in prison, you ask yourself why you are there, right?

What if these emotional enhancements proved too effective? Suppose they are so powerful, they turn psychopaths into Zen masters who live in a constant state of deep, reflective contentment. Should that trouble us? Is mental suffering a necessary component of imprisonment?

Roache: There is a long-standing philosophical question as to how bad the prison experience should be. Retributivists, those who think the point of prisons is to punish, tend to think that it should be quite unpleasant, whereas consequentialists tend to be more concerned with a prison’s reformative effects, and its larger social costs. There are a number of prisons that offer prisoners constructive activities to participate in, including sports leagues, art classes, and even yoga. That practice seems to reflect the view that confinement, or the deprivation of liberty, is itself enough of a punishment. Of course, even for consequentialists, there has to be some level of suffering involved in punishment, because consequentialists are very concerned about deterrence.

I wanted to close by moving beyond imprisonment, to ask you about the future of punishment more broadly. Are there any alternative punishments that technology might enable, and that you can see on the horizon now? What surprising things might we see down the line?

Roache: We have been thinking a lot about surveillance and punishment lately. Already, we see governments using ankle bracelets to track people in various ways, and many of them are fairly elaborate. For instance, some of these devices allow you to commute to work, but they also give you a curfew and keep a close eye on your location. You can imagine this being refined further, so that your ankle bracelet bans you from entering establishments that sell alcohol. This could be used to punish people who happen to like going to pubs, or it could be used to reform severe alcoholics. Either way, technologies of this sort seem to be edging up to a level of behaviour control that makes some people uneasy, due to questions about personal autonomy.

It’s one thing to lose your personal liberty as a result of being confined in a prison, but you are still allowed to believe whatever you want while you are in there. In the UK, for instance, you cannot withhold religious manuscripts from a prisoner unless you have a very good reason. These concerns about autonomy become particularly potent when you start talking about brain implants that could potentially control behaviour directly. The classic example is Robert G Heath [a psychiatrist at Tulane University in New Orleans], who did this famously creepy experiment [in the 1950s] using electrodes in the brain in an attempt to modify behaviour in people who were prone to violent psychosis. The electrodes were ostensibly being used to treat the patients, but he was also, rather gleefully, trying to move them in a socially approved direction. You can really see that in his infamous [1972] paper on ‘curing’ homosexuals. I think most Western societies would say ‘no thanks’ to that kind of punishment.

To me, these questions about technology are interesting because they force us to rethink the truisms we currently hold about punishment. When we ask ourselves whether it’s inhumane to inflict a certain technology on someone, we have to make sure it’s not just the unfamiliarity that spooks us. And more importantly, we have to ask ourselves whether punishments like imprisonment are only considered humane because they are familiar, because we’ve all grown up in a world where imprisonment is what happens to people who commit crimes. Is it really OK to lock someone up for the best part of the only life they will ever have, or might it be more humane to tinker with their brains and set them free? When we ask that question, the goal isn’t simply to imagine a bunch of futuristic punishments – the goal is to look at today’s punishments through the lens of the future.

To learn to see—to accustom the eye to calmness, to patience, and to allow things to come up to it; to defer judgment, and to acquire the habit of approaching and grasping an individual case from all sides. This is the first preparatory schooling of intellectuality. One must not respond immediately to a stimulus; one must acquire a command of the obstructing and isolating instincts.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Link: Falling Out With Superman

I stumbled upon Friedrich Nietzsche when I was 17, following the usual trail of existential candies — Camus, Sartre, Beckett — that unsuspecting teenagers find in the woods. The effect was more like a drug than a philosophy. I was whirled upward — or was it downward? — into a one-man universe, a secret cult demanding that you put a gun to the head of your dearest habits and beliefs. That intoxicating whiff of half-conscious madness; that casually hair-raising evisceration of everything moral, responsible and parentally approved — these waves overwhelmed my adolescent dinghy. And even more than by his ideas — many of which I didn’t understand at all, but some of which I perhaps grasped better then than I do now — I was seduced by his prose. At the end of his sentences you could hear an electric crack, like the whip of a steel blade being tested in the air. He might have been the Devil, but he had better lines than God.

I was sold. Like those German soldiers in World War I who were found dead with copies of ”Thus Spake Zarathustra” in their pockets, I hauled my tattered purple-covered copy of the Viking Portable Nietzsche with me everywhere. It was with me when I dropped out of college after a semester to go work in a shipyard, with me years later when, sitting on a knoll on a tiny island off Vancouver, I decided to wake up from my dream of total escape and go back to school. I read him to elevate myself, to punish myself, to remind myself of the promises I had broken. He was the closest thing I had to a church.

Eventually, I stopped going to church. There were various reasons for this, some of them good and some of them not; I couldn’t sort out which was which then, and can’t now. Maybe it was just satiation. The philosopher John Searle once told me that reading Nietzsche was like drinking cognac — a sip was good, but you didn’t want to drink the whole bottle. I’d been pounding Nietzsche by the case.

So I left Nietzsche alone on his mountaintop. But as every lapsed believer knows, you never wholly escape the church. Nietzsche had come to stand for something absolute and pure, like gilded Byzantium or Ahab’s whale; he represented what I imagined I might have been. He had become a permanent horizon.

Oddly, during this long, strange love affair, I avoided learning much about Nietzsche’s life. Maybe this was because I had turned him into a shrine — after all, totems have no history. I knew only the superficials: that he was a desperately lonely man, poor and largely unread, plagued by bad health, who went mad at the age of 44.

Then, last summer, I planned a trip to Switzerland. As a highlight, I decided to visit Sils-Maria — the small village near St. Moritz where Nietzsche spent seven summers and wrote many of his masterpieces. The tourist soon won out over the iconoclast: now that I was going to stand where the Master stood, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t care about how he lived, what people he liked, what he wore. So I immersed myself in various biographical accounts: ”Nietzsche in Turin,” Lesley Chamberlain’s psychologically penetrating book about the philosopher’s final year; Ronald Hayman’s challenging ”Nietzsche: A Critical Life”; and a book that only a Nietzsche cultist would consume, ”The Good European: Nietzsche’s Work Sites in Word and Image.”

It wasn’t the grand narrative of his life but the details that stayed with me. The joke photograph in which he and his friend Paul Ree posed in a cart over which Lou Salome, the 21-year-old woman with whom he was timidly, desperately in love, held a whip. Nietzsche in the Caligari-shadowed last days of his sanity, once again turning himself into a character in an unhappy novel, lamenting that a journey was ”perhaps the most unfortunate I have made” simply because he had climbed aboard the wrong train. The fact that he liked ”Tom Sawyer.” The solicitude of an old female friend who tried to buck him up but was unable to teach him not to let everything wound him. The visitor who simply reported how much he liked Herr Nietzsche, the lonely, earnest professor with the bad eyes.

This wasn’t the Nietzsche I remembered. The philosopher I had worshiped was an uncanny hybrid, simultaneously a terrifying Old Testament prophet and a 19th-century free spirit. To be sure, much of Nietzsche — maybe the best of him — was as lucid, critical and quick-footed as Stendhal. Yet it was the monstrous doctrines at the heart of his thought — the Overman, the Eternal Recurrence — that had drawn me; they hypnotized me because I couldn’t figure out whether they were coming from man or some frightening gospel. Now that I understood how much of Nietzsche’s work was an attempt to turn his personal torment into something lasting, I realized that perhaps those enigmatic pronouncements were best seen not as antitruths handed down from on high, but as words he whispered to himself, beacons he lighted in the darkness to cheer himself up. What was great in Nietzsche was not, I began to see, his holiness, maybe not even his wisdom. It was his courage.

Then I went to Sils.

Sils-Maria is a bland one-horse resort village under spectacular mountains between two crystalline lakes. Terminally respectable Swiss burghers polish their vacation homes; tourists (”They climb mountains like animals, stupid and sweating,” Nietzsche wrote) fill the hotels. The Nietzsche-Haus stands near the center. In his day it was a tea and spice shop whose owner rented an upstairs room to Nietzsche; now it is a museum. In front of the tidy white-and-green building stands a sculpture of a large black eagle — one of the companions that consoled Zarathustra in his last loneliness. On a gray afternoon I pulled open the door and climbed the stairs to his room.

No one was there. I looked in. A small, low-ceilinged room, walls of knotty pine. A lumpy-looking bed. A small table with a green silk cover. A washbasin. A single window, looking out onto a patch of the forest.

We go to literary shrines to touch things. We run our fingers along the writing table, we furtively step over the red velvet rope and finger the water jug by the edge of the bed. Yet to feel the pedestal is to call the very idea of the pedestal into question. Which is why there is something comic in all pilgrimages: while Don Quixote holds loftily forth, Sancho Panza steals the ashtray.

But as I ran my fingertips along the knotty pine, it all rose up: the indelible words that had been created here; the misery of the man who had shivered out his life in this room; and all the years I had spent charting my course by a dream. Standing outside in the hallway, I was surprised to find myself beginning to weep, like the most breast-heaving pilgrim.

A familiar voice, very old and once sacred to me, protested. I could not pity Nietzsche. It was a betrayal of everything he had believed. He had railed against pity. Compassion was for the hearth-huddlers, the followers, those who lacked the strength to turn themselves into ”dancing stars.” The last temptation of the higher man, Nietzsche had taught, was pity; on its far side was a roaring, Dionysian, inhuman laughter.

I could recite this chapter and verse, but I had never been able to live it. It was the most alien and terrifying of Nietzsche’s teachings. Still, long reverence pulled me up short. Here, of all places, I must feel no pity.

But my heart won the war. Maybe it was resignation — the final acceptance that I was not going to forge myself into a new shape. Maybe it was weariness with a doctrine, with all doctrines, that sounded delirious but that couldn’t be used. Whatever it was, I stopped fighting. Yes, part of Nietzsche would always stand far above the tree line, and I would treasure that iciness. But I had to walk on the paths where I could go.

Still confused, I stood in the doorway. And then, as a gift, the following words came into my head, words spoken by Zarathustra to his disciples, disciples that Nietzsche himself never had. ”You revere me; but what if your reverence tumbles one day? Beware lest a statue slay you. You say you believe in Zarathustra? But what matters Zarathustra? … Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you.”

I took a last look at the room. Then I walked out the door. 

Link: Stoicism & Star Trek

Star Trek is a kitsch guilty pleasure with big philosophical ideas. The show’s creator was an atheist and humanist who aimed to show characters co-operating through reason and humanity. First broadcast in 1966, it explored ethics, philosophy and politics and challenged its audience with a multi-racial cast and the first televised inter-racial kiss.

Star Trek’s Mr Spock is probably the Stoic icon of pop culture. His character has brought Stoic ideas to millions. The use of Stoicism was deliberate and the show’s creator is quoted as saying he “gave Stoicism to Spock.” Spock is the ship’s science officer, guided by his Vulcan philosophy which is based on logic and emotional control. He controls his emotions and withholds judgement. He uses meditation and finds human emotions “illogical.” Yet he (as well as Stoicism) is often misidentified as being without emotion, coldblooded and unfeeling. This post looks at Spock’s Stoic virtues as shown by both internal and external conflicts of reason and emotion and asks if Spock truly represents the good Stoic.

Spock’s Stoic Virtues

The following quotes show the similarity of Vulcan philosophy to Stoicism.

First, Spock accepts reality:

“What is necessary is never unwise.” – Spock’s Father

Or as a Stoic formulation, if it is necessary it is beyond our control. If we fight what is necessary we suffer conflict, if we accept what is necessary we gain tranquillity.   Conversely, we can formulate that what is unnecessary is clearly unwise. Marcus Aurelius observed that most of what we say and do is unnecessary. His advice being: “On each occasion we should ask, is this one of the necessary things?” If unnecessary, simply avoid it. Using logic to find the core necessity simplifies life greatly.

Second, Spock calmly observes without adding opinion.

“Fascinating is a word I use for the unexpected.” – Spock

I love this. One word achieves Epictetus’ emotional distance and definition as something you can or can’t control. To only judge things in your control as good or bad, and all else as “fascinating” brings rapid mental calm. Spock observes and states facts. There is no conflict with reality.

Third, Spock strives for emotional control. Like the Stoics, Spock is misrepresented as lacking emotion, but he neither avoids nor evades emotion, rather:

“Our emotions are controlled, kept in check. This adherence to principles of logic offers a serenity that humans rarely experience in full. We have emotions. But we deal firmly with them and do not let them control us.” – Spock

He works to replace conflicted and destructive emotions with ‘proper’ ones e.g. contemplation not fear. His tranquillity is not upset by others or the unhelpful thinking of his ego. Such emotional control is hard work. Despite constant meditation practice, in one classic episode “The Crying Time” Spock is seen repeating: “I’m in control of my emotions… control of my emotions” before breaking down in tears.

Mr Spock, Dr McCoy and Captain Kirk

In addition to his internal conflicts of reason and emotion, the show’s creator used Spock with two other main characters to work this conflict out in each episode. He realised that TV did not allow the exposition of a character’s stream of consciousness in the way a novel did, and so he:

“Took the perfect person and divided him into three, the administrative courageous part in the Captain (Kirk), the logical part the Science Officer (Spock) and the humanist part in the Doctor (McCoy.)” – Gene Roddenberry

Dr McCoy represents the human irrational appetites. He is guided by emotion, compassion and his Hippocratic oath. His emotions create conflict, his outrage at injustice leads him to act rashly and put himself and others in danger.

Captain Kirk represents the human spirit, guided by his mission statement, human values and morality. His task is to balance the two extremes of reason and emotion.  In a great interview Stephen Fry talks about how he used Star Trek in his dissertation on Nietzsche and the dichotomy of human nature and rational philosophy:

“You have the Captain in the middle, who is trying to balance both his humanity and his reason. And on his left shoulder, you have the appetitive, physical Dr McCoy. And on his right shoulder you have Spock, who is all reason. And they are both flawed, because they don’t balance the two, and they’re at war with each other, McCoy is always having a go at Spock. And Kirk is in the middle, representing the perfect solution. And not only that, the planets they visit usually make the mistake of being either over-ordered and over-reasonable and over-logical (so they kill those who dissent, and they do it calmly and reasonably), and they have to learn to be a bit human. Or, they are just a savage race that needs reason and order.” [1]

Science Officer Spock and Captain Kirk differ in their views of whether a Captain should be ruled by his head or heart:

“I neither enjoy the idea of command, nor am I in fear of it. It simply exists and I will do whatever logically needs to be done.” – Spock

“Intuition, however illogical is a command prerogative.” – Kirk

These two views are echoed in modern neuroscience by Daniel Kahneman. He sees each brain as operating two systems: System 1 makes rapid decisions based on intuition and emotion – while System 2 makes complex decisions based on analysis and logic. [2]

A Stoic is exhorted to act “for the common welfare.” Both these thinking systems can achieve this; System 1 by automatic mental responses where emotion triggers an action to avoid danger or protect those in need and System 2 by logical analysis.

Star Trek depicts these systems in the personality of Science Officer Spock, and Doctor McCoy.

McCoy is System 1, guided by compassion and his Hippocratic Oath he will risk his life for what he feels is right. This is the base human level. But McCoy’s emotions often lead to irrational decisions. Spock is System 2, he works from data to hypothesis to test to conclusion.

Spock and Dr MCoy are seen arguing in nearly every episode as to whether reason or emotion should be their guide.  Spock ruthlessly applies pure logic to ethics:

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one”. – Spock

Spock is following the Stoic exhortation to apply the same logic to yourself as you do to others. He of course takes this depersonalisation to its “logical” conclusion and refuses to save his own father’s life in order to save more lives. He says:

“We have adopted a way of life that is logical and beneficial – we cannot disregard that for personal gain – no matter how important that gain”. – Spock

He believes it is illogical to kill without reason, but if it is logical to kill he will, even if it means sacrificing himself. In one episode Spock decides to sacrifice his life to protect the crew:

McCoy: “I’m sick and tired of your logic”

Spock “That is most illogical, it is more rational to sacrifice one life than six.”

Spock’s unemotional way of making ethical decisions seems to be supported by a 2007 neuroscience study which found the first causal link between emotion and moral decisions. Three groups were tested, Group 1- with brain damage connected to emotion, Group 2 – with brain damage unconnected to emotion and Group 3 – with no brain damage. The subjects were given moral dilemmas about inflicting harm on one person, to prevent harm to many.  20% of Group 2 and 3 were willing, but Group 1 was twice as willing. Moral judgement involves a conflict of emotion and reason at physical and intellectual levels. This was simply not there due to a lack of empathy but arguably did lead to a greater good (saving more people). [4] This raises interesting questions of whether emotion can actually be a limiting factor in decision making if morality is looked on in a utilitarian sense.

The Stoic Ideal – Kirk or Spock?

In conclusion, the character of Spock made a great contribution in bringing Stoic ideas into popular culture. He has shown millions of viewers the concept of a person seeking to control their emotions to achieve tranquillity and good choices.  He is set up to clash with Dr McCoy who represents emotion without reason. McCoy’s emotions are raw and unexamined and he is forced to: “direct the body in one direction, the mind in another, to be torn between utterly conflicting emotions.” – Seneca.

Following these differing views of reason and emotion, I looked to Seneca’s description of the Stoic Captain:

“The pilot’s art is never made worse by the storm nor the application of his art either. The pilot has promised you, not a prosperous voyage, but a serviceable performance of his task — that is, an expert knowledge of steering a ship. And the more he is hampered by the stress of fortune, so much the more does his knowledge become apparent. The storm does not interfere with the pilot’s work, but only with his success. “What then,” you say, “is not a pilot harmed by any circumstance which does not permit him to make port, frustrates all his efforts, and either carries him out to sea, or holds the ship in irons, or strips her masts?” It is indeed so far from hindering the pilot’s art that it even exhibits the art; for anyone, in the words of the proverb, is a pilot on a calm sea……He is always in action, greatest in performance at the very time when fortune has blocked his way. For then he is actually engaged in the business of wisdom”. – Seneca.

In this formulation, the ideal Captain needs four virtues: inner resilience, to avoid self-destruction, to know what is in his control and what is not and most critically, to know when and how toact.

Spock’s logic gets him to the third virtue, but his logic inhibits action. He often says:

“I have insufficient information” – Spock

“Insufficient facts always invite danger.” – Spock

Logic says the least risk is best. Logic says deferring judgement will create better decisions. In fact studies have proven this is a cognitive distortion and there is no correlation between more information and greater accuracy. [4] Logic paralyses Spock into inertia.  When the ship is under attack and all options used, Spock sees no logical move:

“In chess, when one is outmatched, the game is over, checkmate”.-Spock

But to move from uncertainty and to show your skill you must risk. Kirk retorts he doesn’t play chess, he plays poker. In this he is closer to Epictetus’ instruction for life:

“Imitate those who play dice. Counters and dice are indifferent: how do I know what is going to turn up? My business is to use what does turn up with diligence and skill.”

A player needs to know the rules, how to play and how to gamble.  The first two rely on reason, the last on will. Kirk adds to logic with moral precepts which drive action.

Who then is the true Stoic?

I would argue the Stoic ideal is the best of Spock’s thinking with Captain Kirk’s bold heart. Star Trek shows this as follows:

First, that emotion without reason (Dr McCoy) and reason without emotion (Mr Spock) cannot lead to virtuous acts as to live according to reason has a moral as well as logical requirement.

Second, Kirk in representing the human spirit and moral principles shows you can reconcile the unexamined reactions of emotion (Dr McCoy) using counsel from reason (Mr Spock).

Third, Kirk is able to balance logic, principles and emotion to come to ‘proper’ emotions. These proper emotions are the basis to fire him into virtuous acts for the common welfare.

Lastly, Kirk has the will to do ‘the right thing’ when ‘the logical thing’ is inaction. His proper emotions drive virtuous acts, he is in accordance with nature as a moral and logical being.

“No fortune, no external circumstance can shut off the wise man from action”. – Seneca.

So when stuck in a stalemate of reason and emotion, picture Spock and McCoy head to head and follow Kirk’s lead:

“Gentlemen, we’re debating in a vacuum, let’s go get some answers.” – Kirk

Link: "The Present Age" by Søren Kierkegaard (1846)

The present age is one of understanding, of reflection, devoid of passion, an age which flies into enthusiasm for a moment only to decline back into indolence.

Not even a suicide does away with himself out of desperation, he considers the act so long and so deliberately, that he kills himself with thinking — one could barely call it suicide since it is thinking which takes his life. He does not kill himself with deliberation but rather kills himself because of deliberation. Therefore, one can not really prosecute this generation, for its art, its understanding, its virtuosity and good sense lies in reaching a judgment or a decision, not in taking action.

Just as one might say about Revolutionary Ages that they run out of control, one can say about the Present Age that it doesn’t run at all. The individual and the generation come between and stop each other; and therefore the prosecuting attorney would find it impossible to admit any fact at all, because nothing happens in this generation. From a flood of indications one might think that either something extraordinary happened or something extraordinary was just about to happen. But one will have thought wrong, for indications are the only thing the present age achieves, and its skill and virtuosity entirely consist in building magical illusions; its momentary enthusiasms which use some projected change in the forms of things as an escape for actually changing the forms of things, are the highest in the scale of cleverness and the negative use of that strength which is the passionate and creating energy during Revolutionary Ages. Eventually, this present age tires of its chimerical attempts until it declines back into indolence. Its condition is like one who has just fallen asleep in the morning: first, great dreams, then laziness, and then a witty or clever reason for staying in bed.

The individual (no matter how well-meaning he might be, no matter how much strength he might have, if only he would use it) does not have the passion to rip himself away from either the coils of Reflection or the seductive ambiguities of Reflection; nor do the surroundings and times have any events or passions, but rather provide a negative setting of a habit of reflection, which plays with some illusory project only to betray him in the end with a way out: it shows him that the most clever thing to do is nothing at all. Vis inertiae is the foundation of the tergiversation of the times, and every passionless person congratulates himself for being the first to discover it — and becomes, therefore, more clever. Weapons were freely given out during Revolutionary Ages … but in the present age everyone is given clever rules and calculators in order to aid one’s thinking. If any generation had the diplomatic task of postponing action so that it might appear that something were about to happen, even though it would never happen, then one would have to say that our age has achieved as mightily as Revolutionary Ages. Someone should try an experiment with himself: he should forget everything he knows about the times and its relativity amplified by its familiarity, and then come into this age as if he were from another planet, and read some book, or some article in the newspaper: he will have this impression: “Something is going to happen tonight, or else something happened last night!”

A Revolutionary Age is an age of action; the present age is an age of advertisement, or an age of publicity: nothing happens, but there is instant publicity about it. A revolt in the present age is the most unthinkable act of all; such a display of strength would confuse the calculating cleverness of the times. Nevertheless, some political virtuoso might achieve something nearly as great. He would write some manifesto or other which calls for a General Assembly in order to decide on a revolution, and he would write it so carefully that even the Censor himself would pass on it; and at the General Assembly he would manage to bring it about that the audience believed that it had actually rebelled, and then everyone would placidly go home—after they had spent a very nice evening out. An enormous grounding in scholarship is alien to the youth of today, in fact, they would find it laughable. Nevertheless, some scientific virtuoso might achieve something even greater. He would draw up some prospectus outlining systematically some all-embracing, all-explaining system that he was about to write, and he would manage to achieve the feat of convincing the reader (of the prospectus) that he had in fact read the entire system. The Age of Encyclopedists is gone, when with great pains men wrote large Folios; now we have an age of intellectual tourists, small little encyclopedists, who, here and there, deal with all sciences and all existence. And a genuine religious rejection of the world, followed with constant self-denial, is equally unthinkable among the youth of our time: nevertheless, some bible college student has the virtuosity to achieve something even greater. He could design some projected group or Society which aims to save those who are lost. The age of great achievers is gone, the present age is an age of anticipators… . Like a youth who plans to diligently study from September 1 for an exam, and in order to solidify his resolve takes a holiday for the entire month of August, such is our generation which has decided resolutely that the next generation will work very hard, and in order not to interfere with or delay the next generation, this generation diligently — goes to parties. However, there is one difference in this comparison: the youth understands that he is light-hearted, the present age is on the contrary very serious—even at their parties.

Action and passion is as absent in the present age as peril is absent from swimming in shallow waters… .

If a precious jewel, which all desired, lay out on a frozen lake, where the ice was perilously thin, where death threatened one who went out too far while the ice near the shore was safe, in a passionate age the crowds would cheer the courage of the man who went out on the ice; they would fear for him and with him in his resolute action; they would sorrow over him if he went under; they would consider him divine if he returned with the jewel. In this passionless, reflective age, things would be different. People would think themselves very intelligent in figuring out the foolishness and worthlessness of going out on the ice, indeed, that it would be incomprehensible and laughable; and thereby they would transform passionate daring into a display of skill … . The people would go and watch from safety and the connoisseurs with their discerning tastes would carefully judge the skilled skater, who would go almost to the edge (that is, as far as the ice was safe, and would not go beyond this point) and then swing back. The most skilled skaters would go out the furthest and venture most dangerously, in order to make the crowds gasp and say: “Gods! He is insane, he will kill himself!” But you will see that his skill is so perfected that he will at the right moment swing around while the ice is still safe and his life is not endangered… .

Men, then, only desire money, and money is an abstraction, a form of reflection … Men do not envy the gifts of others, their skill, or the love of their women; they only envy each others’ money… . These men would die with nothing to repent of, believing that if only they had the money, they might have truly lived and truly achieved something.

The established order continues, but our reflection and passionlessness finds its satisfaction in ambiguity. No person wishes to destroy the power of the king, but if little by little it can be reduced to nothing but a fiction, then everyone would cheer the king. No person wishes to pull down the pre-eminent, but if at the same time pre-eminence could be demonstrated to be a fiction, then everyone would be happy. No person wishes to abandon Christian terminology, but they can secretly change it so that it doesn’t require decision or action. And so they are unrepentant, since they have not pulled down anything. People do not desire any more to have a strong king than they do a hero-liberator than they do religious authority, for they innocently wish the established order to continue, but in a reflective way they more or less know that the established order no longer continues… .

The reflective tension this creates constitutes itself into a new principle, and just as in an age of passion enthusiasm is the unifying principle, so in a passionless age of reflection envy is the negative-unifying principle. This must not be understood as a moral term, but rather, the idea of reflection, as it were, is envy, and envy is therefore twofold: it is selfish in the individual and in the society around him. The envy of reflection in the individual hinders any passionate decision he might make; and if he wishes to free himself from reflection, the reflection of society around him re-captures him… .

Envy constitutes the principle of characterlessness, which from its misery sneaks up until it arrives at some position, and it protects itself with the concession that it is nothing. The envy of characterlessness never understands that distinction is really a distinction, nor does it understand itself in recognizing distinction negatively, but rather reduces it so that it is no longer distinction; and envy defends itself not only from distinction, but against that distinction which is to come.

Envy which is establishing itself is a leveling, and while a passionate age pushes forward, establishing new things and destroying others, raising and tearing down, a reflective, passionless age does the opposite, it stifles and hinders, it levels. This leveling is a silent, mathematical, abstract process which avoids upheavals… . Leveling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear one’s own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless.

One person can head a rebellion, but one person cannot head this leveling process, for that would make him a leader and he would avoid being leveled. Each individual can in his little circle participate in this leveling, but it is an abstract process, and leveling is abstraction conquering individuality. The leveling in modern times is the reflective equivalent of fate in the ancient times. The dialectic of ancient times tended towards leadership (the great man over the masses and the free man over the slave); the dialectic of Christianity tends, at least until now, towards representation (the majority views itself in the representative, and is liberated in the knowledge that it is represented in that representative, in a kind of self-knowledge); the dialectic of the present age tends towards equality, and its most consequent but false result is leveling, as the negative unity of the negative relationship between individuals.

Everyone should see now that leveling has a fundamental meaning: the category of “generation” supersedes the category of the “individual.” During ancient times the mass of individuals had this value: that it made valuable the outstanding individual… . In ancient times, the single individual in the masses signified nothing; the outstanding individual signified them all. In the present age, the tendency is towards a mathematical equality …

In order for leveling really to occur, first it is necessary to bring a phantom into existence, a spirit of leveling, a huge abstraction, an all-embracing something that is nothing, an illusion—the phantom of the public… . The public is the real Leveling-Master, rather than the leveler itself, for leveling is done by something, and the public is a huge nothing.

The public is an idea, which would never have occurred to people in ancient times, for the people themselves en masse in corpora took steps in any active situation, and bore responsibility for each individual among them, and each individual had to personally, without fail, present himself and submit his decision immediately to approval or disapproval. When first a clever society makes concrete reality into nothing, then the Media creates that abstraction, “the public,” which is filled with unreal individuals, who are never united nor can they ever unite simultaneously in a single situation or organization, yet still stick together as a whole. The public is a body, more numerous than the people which compose it, but this body can never be shown, indeed it can never have only a single representation, because it is an abstraction. Yet this public becomes larger, the more the times become passionless and reflective and destroy concrete reality; this whole, the public, soon embraces everything… .

The public is not a people, it is not a generation, it is not a simultaneity, it is not a community, it is not a society, it is not an association, it is not those particular men over there, because all these exist because they are concrete and real; however, no single individual who belongs to the public has any real commitment; some times during the day he belongs to the public, namely, in those times in which he is nothing; in those times that he is a particular person, he does not belong to the public. Consisting of such individuals, who as individuals are nothing, the public becomes a huge something, a nothing, an abstract desert and emptiness, which is everything and nothing… .

The Media is an abstraction (because a newspaper is not concrete and only in an abstract sense can be considered an individual), which in association with the passionlessness and reflection of the times creates that abstract phantom, the public, which is the actual leveler… . More and more individuals will, because of their indolent bloodlessness, aspire to become nothing, in order to become the public, this abstract whole, which forms in this ridiculous manner: the public comes into existence because all its participants become third parties. This lazy mass, which understands nothing and does nothing, this public gallery seeks some distraction, and soon gives itself over to the idea that everything which someone does, or achieves, has been done to provide the public something to gossip about… . The public has a dog for its amusement. That dog is the Media. If there is someone better than the public, someone who distinguishes himself, the public sets the dog on him and all the amusement begins. This biting dog tears up his coat-tails, and takes all sort of vulgar liberties with his leg—until the public bores of it all and calls the dog off. That is how the public levels.

Link: Interview with John Gray

"The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere."

In his new book The Silence of Animals, the philosopher John Gray explores why human beings continue to use myth to give purpose to their lives. Drawing from the material of writers such as J.G. Ballard, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens and others, Gray looks at how we can reinvent meaning in our lives through a variety of myths and different moments in history.

Gray refutes that humanity is marching forward to progress, where utopian ideals of civilisation and enlightenment are the end goals. He sees human beings as incapable of moving beyond their primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts, particularly when factors beyond their control make them more fearful.

I spent two hours with Gray at his publishers’ office in London, drinking tea, discussing philosophy, history and literature. Our conversation covered a wide number of key thinkers, from both the ancient and modern world. He began by talking about one of his literary heroes, the late J.G. Ballard.

Why did you decide to include J.G. Ballard in this book, as an example of someone who uses myth as a central theme in his writing?

Well what I like about his writing is the lyricism: they are full of the most beautiful images. Ballard always said he wanted to be a painter, but didn’t have the talent. But his books are galleries of images. The way I talk about him in The Silence of Animals definitely reflects that. The ability he had was to turn scenes of desolation into beauty. When he walked as a child into a ruined and empty casino [in Shanghai in the 1930s], he said it was like wandering into something from the Arabian Nights. To him it was a realm of magic. What he was able to do from that experience was to conjure beauty out of it. That I believe is the power of myth.

In your new book you say: ‘to think of humans as freedom loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.’ Could you elaborate on this point?

Well there is a certain common view nowadays which says: what human beings have been until quite recently is different from what they really are. And only now do human beings have the chance to be what they are, which many people think is to be free. If we think of Homer; or the way things are described in the Bible; or medieval life: all these other ways of life are somehow today seen as not fully human. There is supposed to be a kind of essence to humanity, in which human beings want to shape their own lives.

So are you denying that it’s a natural human impulse to crave freedom?

Of course not. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the periods of freedom that we’ve had in human history. I’m just saying that it’s not the only human impulse, and rarely is it the most powerful one. You begin to see that when life becomes unsettled, when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand. It’s then that human beings tend to look at solutions to these problems that typically involve restricting freedoms. In other words: when life gets rough, the need for freedom, or the impulse for freedom, which is real —it’s part of the human constitution you might say— tends very commonly to be eclipsed by other needs. These can simply be for security, or they can be darker needs to bolster up an identity to attack, marginalize, or even exterminate others. These are all classic human responses. The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere.

What is your own relationship with religion?

I don’t belong to a religion. In fact I would have to be described as an atheist. But I’m friendly to religion on the grounds that it seems to me to be distinctively human, and it has produced many good things. But you see these humanists or rationalists who seem to hate this distinctively human feature. This to me seems to me very odd. These evangelical atheists say things such as: religion is like child abuse, that if you had no religious education, there would be no religion. It’s completely absurd.

You also say that ‘atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.’ What are you getting at here?

I was referring to Fritz Mauthner, who wrote a four-volume history of atheism. He was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshipping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language. Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this.  But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.

Would you call yourself an existentialist? 

No I think that carries too much baggage. I’m a sceptic, but in a positive sense. I don’t mean just standing back from belief, and not having any. But exploring different views of things that have been part of the human world: like the views of the pagan philosophers, with a view to seeing what benefit they can be to us.

Why do you dispute the notion that knowledge is a pacifying force?

Well there is this notion in some intellectual circles that evil is a kind of error: that if you get more knowledge you won’t commit the error. People often say: if we get more knowledge for human psychology won’t that help? No. All knowledge is ambiguous in this way. The Nazis were very good at using their knowledge at mass psychology. Or if you were a Russian revolutionary like Lenin, you might use the knowledge of the causes of inflation to take control of the central bank, create hyper-inflation and bring about your revolutionary project. So knowledge can never eradicate the conflicts of the human world, or produce harmony where there are conflicting goals to start with.  Because knowledge is used by human beings as a tool to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve.

In one part of the book you ask why humans have such a need for meaning. You’re a philosopher: isn’t meaning important for you?

Well knowledge is important. But I’m not sure if finding a true meaning is. But one of the chief reasons humans need meaning — and I’m only speculating here — is that they are conscious of their own mortality. Even Epicurus said: When we exist death is not, and when death exists we are not. What he was getting at was that we have a different sense of time that other animals don’t have. If we have the idea of our mortality then we see our lives in a different way because we think we see them as a single coherent story.

You also argue that the need for silence is distinctively human. Why do other animals not need this silence?

What distinguishes humans from animals is precisely this need to tell stories. What people seem to want is not to be caught in the shroud of language. Silence for other animals means rest. But the noise that other animals flee is created by other animals. Humans are the only animals that flee internal noise. Humans throughout history, and prehistory, have engaged in all sorts of meditation, either to shift the way they perceive the world, or to produce in themselves, some state of silence, from which something else will come.

Link: Alain Badiou in Southern California: A Politics of the Impossible

This past december, French philosopher Alain Badiou gave a series of three talks in Southern California that collectively address one of the foremost questions of his vast body of work: How do we think the impossible? More urgently, how do we think the impossible at a time when what is “possible” is roughly delimited by the following: the self-perpetuating hegemony of global capitalism, the growing allure of the extreme right, the increasing trivialization of democratic politics, alarming economic disparity, and the notable apathy, even among the Left, about our conceptual dependence on stagnant liberal values? According to Badiou, these general features of the contemporary world are anything but postmodern and innovative. They are not, in a sense, novel or creative, but precisely laid out by Karl Marx in the 1860s, when the conservative reinstatement of state political and economic power quelled the continental revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Communism prophesized late capital; we are now living its full historical unfolding.

Yet, the dramatic increase in global inequality due to capitalism’s all-encompassing reach seems to have been traversed, in recent years, by something else: the stirrings of revolution, the possibility of actual rupture with the state of things and localized historical change. Badiou is no stranger to these forms of events. He is one of our last living continental philosophers (some of his more celebrated contemporaries include Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault) to have fully witnessed the growth of Western Marxism and its revolutionary capacity in the events of May 1968 in Paris, in which Charles de Gaulle’s government was nearly brought to a halt due to worker and student riots. Following this pivotal moment, Badiou remained committed to the militant communism of the Far Left — including the ideas of Mao Tse-tung, about whom he has written extensively — even as the idea of revolutionary Marxism began to severely wane in popularity during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. But now, given the visibility of recent events like the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, it would seem that things may take a turn, both within the academy and far more importantly, outside of it, toward what we can call a resurgence of radical politics after years of dormancy.

A number of fellow philosophers remain committed to a Marxist framework — Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière come to mind — but Badiou’s philosophy is quite distinct. He is a rigorously, at times dizzyingly axiomatic thinker, and is uniquely faithful to the notion of Truth, which he draws from Plato, a somewhat unconventional choice of philosophical predecessor. For Badiou, truths begin as the immanent subtraction to what there is. And what there is falls under the rubric of what Badiou names “democratic materialism”: that there are only bodies and languages, sights of enjoyment and suffering (the body), and a semiotic system in which meaning is produced (language). But for Badiou, truths exempt themselves from what there is: they erupt in the form of what he names an “event” and initiate the new and the formerly impossible.

Truths occur in the realm of four generic procedures, according to Badiou: art, science, politics, and love. Following Plato, he draws an important distinction between what knowledge and consciousness can conceive as the “new,” or what we may think is a “truth,” and the idea of the New, of a Truth. Truths are not merely exceptional in Badiou’s thinking, but singular: a truth never repeats what was formerly possible, and thereby always constitutes a break with the rules and limits for what defines possibility in its particular moment. Truth procedures are also singular because they paradoxically reveal their generic character: a Truth is something that can be shared by anyone, rather than merely seized for identitarian interests. Politics in Badiou’s work, for instance, do not refer to the party, the state, or politicians and their maneuvers, but to an idea (Politics) to which ordinary people can collectively be faithful and carry out.

Armed with these general concepts, a reader of Badiou’s work could go in a few different directions: toward the more abstract and somewhat daunting large books that have appeared in translation in the last 10 years — Being and EventTheory of the Subject, Logic of Worlds — or toward Badiou’s steady and short writings that respond directly to a contemporary world in crisis: his surprise hit in France, The Meaning of Sarkozy, a short piece in Le Monde on fanatical secularism, his prompt response to the protests in Taksim Square that concludes: “Long live the uprising of Turkish youth and their allies! Long live the creation of a new source of future politics!” Much continental philosophy of the last 50 to 60 years has been accused (and not without reason) of a certain obscurity and loftiness. But Badiou seems different, articulating passionate claims about the immediacy of politics in often crystalline terms. It’s no wonder that his popularity stateside appears to have grown exponentially beyond his initial appeal in his home country.

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In the first of his lectures (delivered at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena), “Are we really in the Time of Revolts?” Badiou simply and schematically put our current century in perspective with the previous one. He maintained that since the French Revolution, history has played out as a number of social and political contradictions. Badiou drew from the Hegelian dialectic a concept that sees any synthesis or transcendence of terms as an overcoming of their inherently negative or antithetical relationship. But he is also deeply indebted to philosophical Maoism, which emphasizes the nature of division, conflict, and contradiction as the continuous and underlying state of the world. According to Badiou, our current world is defined by two contradictions: first, the division between capitalism and communism; and second, the scission of tradition and modernity. Each form proposes its own internal laws: capitalism commands individual freedom, organizes human relations under competition and private property, and maintains that equality is impossible. According to capitalism, any effort to realize equality will always be violent (Badiou cited the former USSR as a paradigmatic example of this notion). On the other hand, communism does not affirm private property, or competition, or even the state as natural givens.

Another contradiction arises from the schism between tradition and modernity that roughly begins after the Enlightenment. Sedimented identities from the past are typically contained within the notion of tradition — religious, familial, ideological — placing the truth of the present in the past. In this way, tradition opposes innovation; its purpose is to repeat and transmit itself. Modernity wants to further itself as well, but as novelty rather than as pure repetition. Badiou claimed that in the 19th century, tradition aligned with capital (the interests of the bourgeoisie) and modernity with communism (the novel ideas of Marx and Engels). However, in the following era, we find these conflicts creating new and terrifying torsions among themselves: the fascist state, which sought to further genocidal identitarianism within capitalism, and the Stalinist state, whose only claim to novelty was a monstrous version of itself.

Which brings us to our current, and most complex set of entanglements. What is going on now, Badiou suggested, is a particular determination that there is no other kind of modernity than the one that capitalism provides. This is the dominant configuration of the Western world — we don’t have an anti-capitalist modernity that is clear to all. Instead, efforts to enact “strong” change (Badiou cited all recent uprisings, from Occupy to the ongoing situation in Egypt) end up internally fractured by the division between the traditional and the modern. We therefore must propose a rupture between capitalism and modernity, a kind of strong future rather than (to cite Badiou’s own pun on a different vision of human development) “no future.”

It is at this point that many may (and indeed have) taken issue with Badiou’s thought: How can relentless abstraction, and an intimate engagement with ideality, produce a concrete and practical vision of the “new” in the future? Isn’t retrospection really the only affirmation of what is a truth, and what is not? And didn’t Hegel and Mao both teach us that moving past existing contradictions requires something of the suspicious and mystical order of “purification” and, indeed, destruction?

I think that while Badiou’s philosophical writings can be dense, and often difficult to parse in practical terms, his lectures remain full of vibrant and extremely compelling claims. He argues for example that capitalism constructs our notion of what individual freedom is, and that a definition of freedom must affirm equality against capitalism itself, rather than in its service. Or the idea, crucial to the position of the Left today, that we need to elaborate critiques of old forms of political extremes (the fascist state, the communist state) that are different from capitalism’s own critiques of the same entities. Without forms of critique that don’t draw on the language of modern capital, we risk sliding into tautology, repeating capitalism’s subtle but all-encompassing grasp on the definition of our humanism.

In his book The Century, Badiou likens the 20th century — with its simultaneous movements of mass horror and intellectual inventiveness — to an image drawn from Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s poem “The Age.” It is the image of a beast looking history squarely in the eye, producing terror through the acts of thinking and self-reflection itself. If this is the case for the recent past, what then, will the 21st century ultimately look like?

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Badiou’s second talk, at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), followed up on this strange notion of necessary, but excessive and unbearable terror: the idea of the Real. The Real is crucial to one of Badiou’s main predecessors, Jacques Lacan’s, psychoanalytic thought. It is also an idea that many readers find to be missing in Badiou’s work. But in his lecture, “What is the Real?” Badiou considered the Real as the main current for thinking the impossible, and in some ways, for conceiving the space of emancipatory politics.

In Lacanian theory, the real designates what is excessive, unbearable, but also fundamental to subjectivity. The real resists all symbolization, and it is therefore to be distinguished from reality itself, to which it bears no relationship. In order to “touch” or experience the real we would have to surrender the comfortable distance that symbolization (or language) offers us. Nevertheless, Lacan increasingly suggested that mathematical formalization, or what he calls the “matheme,” bore an opening to the real. While it initially appears counterintuitive to claim that, of all things, mathematics, the discipline of proofs and certainty, can unlock this point of the unconceivable, it is worth remembering (as Badiou faithfully maintains) that math is pure presentation. It does not partake in the gap in which language and signification by necessity must ground themselves (a word stand as a placeholder for what is ultimately absent: the thing that it names, but numbers do not designate anything but themselves). Furthermore, mathematics’ seeming finiteness (countable numbers, ordering, rules) belies its extraordinary relationship to infinity (numbers are infinite, so is the void that grounds them): the closest thing we may have (outside of theology) to the “impossible.” For Badiou, infinity as a condition of numbers, and their ultimate possibility, offers a kind of truth of the real.

How can this help us understand contemporary politics? It’s a bit of jump from abstract thinking to the realm of the political, but according to Badiou, if the real is generally what cannot be inscribed inside any kind of formalization, but is a necessary impossibility for form to exist, revolution acts a kind of “real” to the bare reality of the state. Revolution — a rupture with the “finitude” of the state — inaugurates infinity, albeit often terrifyingly and unexpectedly. The political real is thus much more than simply a form of non-meaning. It takes on the resonance of an “act” which subtracts itself from the laws of what is currently possible in any given state-based political situation or reality. For Badiou this act always means declaring equality — capitalism’s point of impossibility — an actual principle. The real is first and foremost an affirmation that “the impossible exists.”

Poetry showcases another opening to the real in Badiou’s thought, a violent struggle for it that he considers “prophetic.” The second half of Badiou’s talk focused on an elegy of sorts for Antonio Gramsci by the Italian poet and essayist Pier Paolo Pasolini entitled “The Ashes of Gramsci.” Buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, a resting place for all exiles, minorities, and general “heretics” to the Catholic state, Gramsci and his death represent for Pasolini an escape into the real. Because his death is so radically removed from all socially sanctioned forms of political life, Gramsci appears outside the state, though for Pasolini he cannot be forgotten, and he leaves traces that can only be thought through in poetic, rather than narrative language. This, for Badiou, is a kind of affirmation of the real.

The issue here is Pasolini’s overtly “tragic” grasp of the real. The poem is no doubt beautiful, poignant, and it pursues something that cannot be fully made clear in prose or description, something we could call “the real.” But there does seem to be an element in Badiou’s reading of Pasolini that gestures toward an obituary for the past: a century that strove for the real, whose own avant-garde managed to let it down.

While Badiou’s discussion of the poetic real in Pasolini seemed less congruent than his opening account of the real of mathematics, the message seems clear: radical thought should be uncompromising and ceaseless, driven toward an absolute, even if that means, as is the case for Pasolini’s vision of Gramsci, that one is exposed to failure. But it also need not be destructive and given to the endless movements of negation. Badiou’s most compelling assertion is that contrary to what we might want to believe, opening ourselves to the real can and should be “joyous.”

Badiou’s final talk, “Theater and Philosophy,” also delivered at UCLA, engaged with the most communal and therefore vital of art forms: drama. Having written a number of plays and commentary on theater since the 1960s, Badiou seems, in some ways, most at ease discussing theater and its relevance to philosophical thought. This final lecture focused on the distinction between Badiou’s preferred thinker, Plato, and everyone else’s favorite, Aristotle. While all of Plato’s writings are in the form of dialogues, a kind of theater, Aristotle inaugurates the chosen format for most philosophical work up until the present day: the academic treatise. But while Plato vehemently cautions against epic poetry and dramatic poetry (forms of theater) in The Republic, for instance, Aristotle maintains the quiet difference between theater and philosophy that should allow both to exist, albeit separately. Aristotelian theater purifies through catharsis, and therefore engages the audience in momentary terror and identification. For the audience, this movement facilitates a complete return from the limits of theatrical excess back to “normal” subjectivity (finally purged of its extreme desires and horrors). But philosophy is notably different: it is objective, and driven by reason.

In some ways, Badiou took us back to the origin of aesthetics in Western thought to consider what art can tell us about political life. Aristotle is at peace with theater, in a finally “indifferent” way. Plato’s version of theater is prone to corruption by dominant opinion, and is therefore dangerous. But it is also a movement and an action, the goal of which is to transform subjectivity. Plato is therefore suspicious of any therapeutic effect theater may have, since it is a movement of thinking, and not an act of representation that buries its own phantasms. Which is why, for Badiou, Plato’s theater is ultimately the “progressive possibility of the impossible.” Rather than a quiet reconciliation, it is the language of violent contradiction, of the engine of the dialectic itself. Like the ideas theater articulates in Plato’s work, theater is “luminous,” pleasurable, and active. And it reaches, most important, toward a truth.

Theater allows Badiou to consider a fundamental question put forth by the origins of philosophy: What is the ideal of existence? A good life or a true life? An acceptance of what exists, or a subjective will to change the world? Or, put another way, we can be at peace with the world as it is, and others as they are, or make a choice — necessarily discontinuous, of the order of rupture — for what must exist: namely the impossible.

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Badiou has become a bona fide celebrity in the philosophy world, enough so that his lectures begin to attract not just students and academics but quasi-leftists of all persuasions.  While many could claim that renewed talk of revolutionary politics is at the end of the day merely armchair radicalism, democratizing philosophy is still crucial to not reproducing the Left’s death grip on its own cultural capital. For this reason alone, it worth considering Badiou’s continued efforts to make the idea of communism more than just a far-off dream with no definite contours. It points us in the direction of collective affirmation that can be at once political, aesthetic, deeply personal, and finally revolutionary.

Link: Learn to Live without Masters, an interview with Slavoj Žižek

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera: You seem to entail that even in democracy we keep looking for new masters, new guidance and new recipes, when in fact we should strive to get rid of them all. To be consistent with that perspective one must then question also the position of the engaged intellectual, such as yourself, which more often than not appears as the ‘advanced’ conscience of society, the one proposing new forms of social and political experimentation and innovation. You have been approvingly portrayed several times as such, as an experimental performer or an innovative thinker, for instance by the San Francisco Chronicle a few years ago, after the screening of the film ‘Zizek!’. However, if you reject this role for the intellectual as a convincing form of political action in the present situation, then what is/should be the proper role of the public or politically engaged intellectual? Have intellectuals done anything of any relevance whatsoever, as a British journalist put it after the death of Jacques Derrida? Or is it their destiny to fail (politically) even when they succeed?

Slavoj Zizek: What can a philosopher do today, what can he or she tell the general public haunted by the problems of ecology, of racism, of religious conflicts, etc.? The task is not to provide answers, but to show how the way we perceive a problem can be part of the problem, mystifying it instead of enabling us to solve it. There are not only wrong answers, there are also wrong questions.

A fake sense of urgency pervades the Left-liberal humanitarian discourse: “A woman is raped every six seconds in this country,” “In the time it takes you to read this paragraph, ten children will die of hunger”… Underlying all this is a hypocritical sentiment of moral outrage. This kind of pseudo-urgency was exploited by Starbucks coffee stores a couple of years ago: at the store’s entrance, posters greeting customers pointed out that almost half of the chain’s profits went into health-care for the children of Guatemala, the source of their coffee, the inference being that with every cup you drink, you save a child’s life. 

There is a fundamental anti-theoretical edge to these urgent injunctions. There is no time to reflect: we have to act now. Through this fake sense of urgency, the post-industrial rich, living in their secluded virtual world, not only do not deny or ignore the harsh reality outside their area – they actively refer to it all times. As Bill Gates recently put it: “What do computers matter when millions are still unnecessarily dying of dysentery?”

Against this fake urgency, we might want to place Marx’s wonderful letter to Engels of 1870, when, for a brief moment it seemed that a European revolution was again at the gates. Marx’s letter conveys his sheer panic: can’t the revolutionaries wait for a couple of years? He hasn’t yet finished his Capital. A critical analysis of the present global constellation - one which offers no clear solution, no “practical” advice on what to do, and provides no light at the end of the tunnel, since one is well aware that this light might belong to a train crashing towards us - usually meets with reproach: ‘Do you mean we should do nothing? Just sit and wait?’ One should gather the courage to answer: “YES, precisely that!” There are situations when the only truly “practical” thing to do is to resist the temptation to engage immediately and to “wait and see” by means of a patient, critical analysis.

There is a well-known Soviet joke about Lenin. Under Socialism, Lenin’s advice to young people, his answer to what they should do, was ‘Learn, learn, and learn’. This was evoked at all times and displayed on all school walls. The joke goes: Marx, Engels and Lenin are asked whether they would prefer to have, a wife or a mistress. As expected, Marx, rather conservative in private matters, answers ‘A wife!’, while Engels, more of a bon vivant, opts for a mistress. To everyone’s surprise, Lenin says: ‘I’d like to have both!’ Why? Is there a hidden stripe of decadent jouisseur behind his austere revolutionary image? No – he explains: ‘so that I can tell my wife that I am going to my mistress, and my mistress that I have to be with my wife…’ ‘And then, what do you do?’ ‘I go to a solitary place to learn, learn, and learn!’

Is this not exactly what Lenin did after the catastrophe of 1914? He withdrew to a lonely place in Switzerland, where he ‘learned, learned, and learned,’ reading Hegel’s logic. And this is what we should do today when we find ourselves bombarded by mediatic images of violence. We need to ‘learn, learn, and learn’ what causes this violence.

This, of course, in no way means that one should agree with the liberal common wisdom according to which philosophers in politics stand for a catastrophic misfortune: starting with Plato, they either miserably fail or succeed… in supporting tyrants. The reason, so the story goes on, is that philosophers try to impose their Notion on reality, violating it - no wonder that, from Plato to Heidegger, they are resolutely anti-democratic (with the exception of some empiricist and pragmatists), dismissing the crowd of “people” as the victim of sophists, at the mercy of contingent plurality… So when the common wisdom hears of Marxists who defend Marx, claiming that his ideas were not faithfully realized in Stalinism, the reply: thanks God! It would have been even worse to fully realize them! Heidegger at least was willing to draw consequences of his catastrophic experience and conceded that those who think ontologically have to err ontically, that the gap is irreducible, that there is no “philosophical politics” proper. It thus seems that G.K.Chesterton was fully justified in his ironic proposal to install a “special corps of policemen, policemen who are also philosophers”:

“It is their business to watch the beginnings of this conspiracy, not merely in a criminal but in a controversial sense. /…/ The work of the philosophical policeman /…/ is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime.”

Would not thinkers as different as Popper, Adorno and Levinas, also subscribe to a slightly changed version of this idea, where actual political crime is called “totalitarianism” and the philosophical crime is condensed in the notion of “totality”? A straight road leads from the philosophical notion of totality to political totalitarianism, and the task of “philosophical police” is to discover from a book of Plato’s dialogues or a treatise on social contract by Rousseau that a political crime will be committed. The ordinary political policeman goes to secret organizations to arrest revolutionaries; the philosophical policeman goes to philosophical symposia to detect proponents of totality. The ordinary anti-terrorist policeman tries to detect those preparing to blow up buildings and bridges; the philosophical policeman tries to detect those about to deconstruct the religious and moral foundation of our societies…

One should thoroughly reject not only this criminalization of intellectuals, but, even more, the defensive domestication of radical intellectuals who, so the story goes, offer a provocative correction to democracy which, through his exaggeration, renders visible the inconsistencies and weaknesses of the democratic project. The idea is that radical theories are provocations which are not really “meant seriously,” but aim, through their “provocative” character, to awaken us from the democratic-dogmatic slumber and thus contribute to the revitalization of democracy itself… This is how the establishment likes “subversive” theorists to be: turned into harmless gadflies who bite us and thus awaken us to inconsistencies and imperfection of our democratic enterprise – God forbid to take their project seriously and try to live them…

Link: Reflections on Free Will

Daniel Dennett reviews Sam Harris’s book Free Will, calling it a “museum of mistakes.”

Sam Harris’s Free Will (2012) is a remarkable little book, engagingly written and jargon-free, appealing to reason, not authority, and written with passion and moral seriousness. This is not an ivory tower technical inquiry; it is in effect a political tract, designed to persuade us all to abandon what he considers to be a morally pernicious idea: the idea of free will. If you are one of the many who have been brainwashed into believing that you have—or rather, are—an (immortal, immaterial) soul who makes all your decisions independently of the causes impinging on your material body and especially your brain, then this is the book for you. Or, if you have dismissed dualism but think that what you are is a conscious (but material) ego, a witness that inhabits a nook in your brain and chooses, independently of external causation, all your voluntary acts, again, this book is for you. It is a fine “antidote,” as Paul Bloom says, to this incoherent and socially malignant illusion. The incoherence of the illusion has been demonstrated time and again in rather technical work by philosophers (in spite of still finding supporters in the profession), but Harris does a fine job of making this apparently unpalatable fact accessible to lay people. Its malignance is due to its fostering the idea of Absolute Responsibility, with its attendant implications of what we might call Guilt-in-the- eyes-of-God for the unfortunate sinners amongst us and, for the fortunate, the arrogant and self-deluded idea of Ultimate Authorship of the good we do. We take too much blame, and too much credit, Harris argues. We, and the rest of the world, would be a lot better off if we took ourselves—our selves—less seriously. We don’t have the kind of free will that would ground such Absolute Responsibility for either the harm or the good we cause in our lives.

All this is laudable and right, and vividly presented, and Harris does a particularly good job getting readers to introspect on their own decision-making and notice that it just does not conform to the fantasies of this all too traditional understanding of how we think and act. But some of us have long recognized these points and gone on to adopt more reasonable, more empirically sound, models of decision and thought, and we think we can articulate and defend a more sophisticated model of free will that is not only consistent with neuroscience and introspection but also grounds a (modified, toned-down, non-Absolute) variety of responsibility that justifies both praise and blame, reward and punishment. We don’t think this variety of free will is an illusion at all, but rather a robust feature of our psychology and a reliable part of the foundations of morality, law and society. Harris, we think, is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

He is not alone among scientists in coming to the conclusion that the ancient idea of free will is not just confused but also a major obstacle to social reform. His brief essay is, however, the most sustained attempt to develop this theme, which can also be found in remarks and essays by such heavyweight scientists as the neuroscientists Wolf Singer and Chris Frith, the psychologists Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, the physicists Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, and the evolutionary biologists Jerry Coyne and (when he’s not thinking carefully) Richard Dawkins.

The book is, thus, valuable as a compact and compelling expression of an opinion widely shared by eminent scientists these days. It is also valuable, as I will show, as a veritable museum of mistakes, none of them new and all of them seductive—alluring enough to lull the critical faculties of this host of brilliant thinkers who do not make a profession of thinking about free will. And, to be sure, these mistakes have also been made, sometimes for centuries, by philosophers themselves. But I think we have made some progress in philosophy of late, and Harris and others need to do their homework if they want to engage with the best thought on the topic.

I am not being disingenuous when I say this museum of mistakes is valuable; I am grateful to Harris for saying, so boldly and clearly, what less outgoing scientists are thinking but keeping to themselves. I have always suspected that many who hold this hard determinist view are making these mistakes, but we mustn’t put words in people’s mouths, and now Harris has done us a great service by articulating the points explicitly, and the chorus of approval he has received from scientists goes a long way to confirming that they have been making these mistakes all along. Wolfgang Pauli’s famous dismissal of another physicist’s work as “not even wrong” reminds us of the value of crystallizing an ambient cloud of hunches into something that can be shown to be wrong. Correcting widespread misunderstanding is usually the work of many hands, and Harris has made a significant contribution.

The first parting of opinion on free will is between compatibilists and incompatibilists. The latter say (with “common sense” and a tradition going back more than two millennia) that free will is incompatible with determinism, the scientific thesis that there are causes for everything that happens. Incompatibilists hold that unless there are “random swerves”that disrupt the iron chains of physical causation, none of our decisions or choices can be truly free. Being caused means not being free—what could be more obvious? The compatibilists deny this; they have argued, for centuries if not millennia, that once you understand what free will really is (and must be, to sustain our sense of moral responsibility), you will see that free will can live comfortably with determinism—if determinism is what science eventually settles on.

Incompatibilists thus tend to pin their hopes on indeterminism, and hence were much cheered by the emergence of quantum indeterminism in 20th century physics. Perhaps the brain can avail itself of undetermined quantum swerves at the sub-atomic level, and thus escape the shackles of physical law! Or perhaps there is some other way our choices could be truly undetermined. Some have gone so far as to posit an otherwise unknown (and almost entirely unanalyzable) phenomenon called agent causation, in which free choices are caused somehow by an agent, but not by any event in the agent’s history. One exponent of this position, Roderick Chisholm, candidly acknowledged that on this view every free choice is “a little miracle”—which makes it clear enough why this is a school of thought endorsed primarily by deeply religious philosophers and shunned by almost everyone else. Incompatibilists who think we have free will, and therefore determinism must be false, are known as libertarians (which has nothing to do with the political view of the same name). Incompatibilists who think that all human choices are determined by prior events in their brains (which were themselves no doubt determined by chains of events arising out of the distant past) conclude from this that we can’t have free will, and, hence, are not responsible for our actions.

This concern for varieties of indeterminism is misplaced, argue the compatibilists: free will is a phenomenon that requires neither determinism nor indeterminism; the solution to the problem of free will lies in realizing this, not banking on the quantum physicists to come through with the right physics—or a miracle. Compatibilism may seem incredible on its face, or desperately contrived, some kind of a trick with words, but not to philosophers. Compatibilism is the reigning view among philosophers (just over 59%, according to the 2009 Philpapers survey) with libertarians coming second with 13% and hard determinists only 12%. It is striking, then, that all the scientists just cited have landed on the position rejected by almost nine out of ten philosophers, but not so surprising when one considers that these scientists hardly ever consider the compatibilist view or the reasons in its favor.

Harris has considered compatibilism, at least cursorily, and his opinion of it is breathtakingly dismissive: After acknowledging that it is the prevailing view among philosophers (including his friend Daniel Dennett), he asserts that “More than in any other area of academic philosophy, the result resembles theology.” This is a low blow, and worse follows: “From both a moral and a scientific perspective, this seems deliberately obtuse.” (18) I would hope that Harris would pause at this point to wonder—just wonder—whether maybe his philosophical colleagues had seen some points that had somehow escaped him in his canvassing of compatibilism. As I tell my undergraduate students, whenever they encounter in their required reading a claim or argument that seems just plain stupid, they should probably double check to make sure they are not misreading the “preposterous” passage in question. It is possible that they have uncovered a howling error that has somehow gone unnoticed by the profession for generations, but not very likely. In this instance, the chances that Harris has underestimated and misinterpreted compatibilism seem particularly good, since the points he defends later in the book agree right down the line with compatibilism; he himself is a compatibilist in everything but name!

Seriously, his main objection to compatibilism, issued several times, is that what compatibilists mean by “free will” is not what everyday folk mean by “free will.” Everyday folk mean something demonstrably preposterous, but Harris sees the effort by compatibilists to make the folks’ hopeless concept of free will presentable as somehow disingenuous, unmotivated spin-doctoring, not the project of sympathetic reconstruction the compatibilists take themselves to be engaged in. So it all comes down to who gets to decide how to use the term “free will.” Harris is a compatibilist about moral responsibility and the importance of the distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, but he is not a compatibilist about free will since he thinks “free will” has to be given the incoherent sense that emerges from uncritical reflection by everyday folk. He sees quite well that compatibilism is “the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will” (p16) but adds:

However, the ‘free will’ that compatibilists defend is not the free will that most people feel they have. (p16).

First of all, he doesn’t know this. This is a guess, and suitably expressed questionnaires might well prove him wrong. That is an empirical question, and a thoughtful pioneering attempt to answer it suggests that Harris’s guess is simply mistaken.2 The newly emerging field of experimental philosophy (or “X-phi”) has a rather unprepossessing track record to date, but these are early days, and some of the work has yielded interesting results that certainly defy complacent assumptions common among philosophers. The study by Nahmias et al. 2005 found substantial majorities (between 60 and 80%) in agreement with propositions that are compatibilist in outlook, not incompatibilist.

Harris’s claim that the folk are mostly incompatibilists is thus dubious on its face, and even if it is true, maybe all this shows is that most people are suffering from a sort of illusion that could be replaced by wisdom. After all, most people used to believe the sun went around the earth. They were wrong, and it took some heavy lifting to convince them of this. Maybe this factoid is a reflection on how much work science and philosophy still have to do to give everyday laypeople a sound concept of free will. We’ve not yet succeeded in getting them to see the difference between weight and mass, and Einsteinian relativity still eludes most people. When we found out that the sun does not revolve around the earth, we didn’t then insist that there is no such thing as the sun (because what the folk mean by “sun” is “that bright thing that goes around the earth”). Now that we understand what sunsets are, we don’t call them illusions. They are real phenomena that can mislead the naive. 

Link: "This is Water" by David Foster Wallace

This is the commencement address he gave to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005. It captures his electric mind, and also his humility—the way he elevated and made meaningful, beautiful, many of the lonely thoughts that rattle around in our heads. The way he put better thoughts in our heads, too. 

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story [“thing”] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think”. If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your scepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education—least in my own case—is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master”.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.

Link: How Capitalism Influences Our Morality

When most people criticize capitalism and its corporations for allegedly creating certain problems in society, they are keen to expose and analyze problems that are very clear and conspicuous. These problems can range from starving minimum wages, pollution of the planet, profit-driven war, inequality of wealth, inefficiency and many other social issues that are concrete and visible. There is one peculiar and more abstract social theory however that is less widely known, and it is the ability in capitalism or any socio-economic system to create and control our ethical beliefs, beliefs that can render our public verdicts on anything from illegal substances, abortion, racism, premarital sex or any particular issue of the day. By use of a known Marxist theory, in this post I shall examine a couple of historical and contemporary ethical issues to draw direct causal links from the economic phenomenon of capitalist profit to ethical behavior or belief. Moreover, because of issues like these I’ll defend that the theory ought to be taken more seriously at least in regards to the morality of our day.

In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and other works, Karl Marx argued for a particularly bold social theory called the base and superstructure. For Marx, the base is the given socio-economic system of a time period, “socio-economic” in the sense of how people work, who owns and manages their workplace, and who picks the fruits of the laborer’s work in the format of profit. The superstructure is essentially the category which contains every other aspect of human society, which includes morality/ethics, religion, family, the state, politics, law, media and so forth. Marxist theorists have argued that the base is what creates and influences the superstructure, and moreover that the superstructure is something which rationalizes and defends the base. Since the two groups are connected, a particular superstructure changes only when the base does too. In his Critique of Political Economy, Marx gives us a rough outline of how this theory works:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

[…] No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Marx is very firm and adamant about drawing a direct causal link between the economic system of a time and the previously described phenomena that compose the superstructure. Since his original theory is radical in arguing that most everything reduces to an economic system, many contemporary social scientists do not agree that is the case for absolutely every element of the superstructure. Acknowledging this criticism however, is it possible to understand at least moral opinion or behavior in the context of this theory? Let’s examine two possible applications of Marx’s theory, of which the first will be a function of racism against American blacks in the days of slavery and the second of the legal and moral views on marijuana.

In his highly influential A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn not only plays his historian’s role of detailing the atrocities of racism in the 19th century US but also boldly argues for its material function in society in the master-slave relationship. Far from racism simply being a result of physical discrimination of persons who look very much different from another, racism is a crucial tool for the slaveholding capitalist class to keep slaves in their subservient position required for the slaveholder’s profit:

It may be that, in the absence of any other overriding factor, darkness and blackness, associated with night and unknown, would take on those meanings. But the presence of another human being is a powerful fact, and the conditions of that presence are crucial in determining whether an initial prejudice, against a mere color, divorced from humankind, is turned into brutality and hatred.

[…]

Racism was becoming more and more practical. Edmund Morgan, on the basis of his careful study of slavery in Virginia, sees racism not as “natural” to black-white difference, but something coming out of class scorn, a realistic device for control. “If freemen with disappointed hopes should make common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done. The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous black slaves by a screen of racial contempt.”

By this view, racism would rest in the superstructure and function as something created and guided by Marx’s base, which in this specific scenario is capitalist slavery. The capitalist has legal ownership and management of the slave’s workplace and the slave’s created profit from the products the slave creates but does not keep. It would be absurd for us to imagine an American slave society, which Zinn argues was historically of the time one of the worst in the world, as being absent of viewing the subjugated group as a lower people. As mentioned before, the superstructure often does prop up and defend the base, which would give racism the function of legitimizing and rationalizing the capitalist base. For example, one common point of racist ideology was and is to compare blacks to wild monkeys in appearance, behavior, and intelligence and to deduce from this that a black person is not socially fit to live independently from slavery. Clearly showing superstructural belief, the racist slaveholder in this case argues that slavery and their participation in it is a vital necessity for society.

More than a century later, American capitalism continued to grow in concentration and de-emphasize smaller level hierarchy like with chattel slavery and instead focus on the corporate model. This also paved the way for new and more complex methods to influence law and ethics. For most of human history, including in the US, cannabis was a substance that was freely produced and consumed.1 In 1619, the Jamestown Colony went as far as to mandate and encourage the growth of the plant because of its immense economic benefits. Not including the many contemporary US presidents who admit to cannabis use, cannabis was also a substance that was used and farmed by many Founding Fathers from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson.2 Lacking any moral and social stigma for much of American history, the legal and ethical climate behind marijuana began to dramatically change starting with the 20th century.

The eventual increased ease and affordability of processing cannabis into many other valuable forms, such as paper and plastic, seriously began to threaten the profit models of established capitalists who owned businesses related to these materials.3 William Randolph Hearst, one such capitalist who owned the nation’s largest chain of newspapers, regularly published propaganda in his papers. In one example, black men became berserk because of cannabis use and raped white women. The chief financial backer of the petrochemical company DuPont, which still exists today, appointed Harry J. Anslinger to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1931 who campaigned against marijuana. Anslinger also lobbied for the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act which passed in 1934 allowing individual states to regulate the substance.The definition of illegal use of cannabis was continuously expanded over the years by additional laws to ultimately bring us to the status quo.

Even today, lobbying against the growing acceptance and legalization of the plant continues to be purely dominated by capitalist interests whose profit models would be seriously threatened by legal and more widespread use of the plant. Among the top five special interest groups doing so include alcohol companies, private prisons, and the pharmaceutical industry.5 Alcohol companies would face more serious competition in regards to what people recreationally consume, and so they lobby against laws to legalize and tax the plant like with California’s Proposition 19 in 2010. Private prisons, whose populations are composed of huge portions of drug offenders allowing them to make millions of dollars through incarceration, frequently bankroll anti-cannabis politicians and worm their way into our state to combat legalization. Pharmaceutical corporations understand that cannabis is a highly effective replacement for countless prescription drugs that have side effects, and so they are the second most tenacious lobby against legalization. The latest data shows that a majority of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, and yet this corresponds to a majority of states keeping it strictly illegal.6 With the previously described capitalist businesses, it becomes clear then that there is a huge potential for economics being a primary culprit in this with corporations influencing the legal and ethical superstructure.

If Marx’s theory holds any kernel of truth in regards to culture and morality, then there is a serious systemic problem brought on by capitalism which exists in our society and impacts this. If the problem is systemic, then certain social approaches we believe need to be more aggressively pursued will hold little to no societal sway due to attacking the symptoms and not the disease. For example, many anti-capitalists believe that the US government should have gone on a spree of legal prosecution of bankers and other capitalists who contributed to the current economic crisis like in Iceland.7 Presumably such an event would create a legal and moral precedence against others who play the capitalist game to not ever repeat such a catastrophe. A systemic approach to attacking capitalist ethics and behavior would unfortunately not find such a thing effective, as behind the courtrooms and legal codes still exists the socio-economic system of capitalism which drove such behavior in the first place.

By this approach, a paradigm shift is then necessary for all reformers and anti-capitalists if they wish to truly become more effective in reducing capitalism’s power in shaping our moral beliefs and behaviors. Instead of appealing to raw ideas about justice, equality, and altruism within capitalist society in hopes of fighting its morality, we should instead play the role of the social scientist as Marx would recommend and locate the systemic problem: capitalism itself. By doing so we would rattle the foundations of Marx’s base and consequently cause its collapse and that of the superstructure also. Society would finally be free of such economic relations built on hierarchy and self-interest which have a stranglehold on our morality, and we would be able to pave the way for a new economic system which allows the possibility in society to finally enter into the ethical relationships we desire.

Link: Understanding Marxism

"Understanding Marxism" by Geoff Boucher. Acumen, Durham, 2012. 260pp., £14.99 pb

In the study of Marxist theory, a person may be forgiven for the apprehension which they may feel when they approach the subject. Does one for instance begin with the work of Marx and Engels? Or perhaps with one of the plethora of commentaries written about them or their work? Or do you bypass Marx and Engels’ work altogether and go straight to a more contemporary variant of radical political theory? These are often the questions that students and also established academics find themselves asking. Marxism, generally speaking, is one of the most discussed intellectual enterprises of the modern era. Its intellectual and political theories are often underpinned by a jargon-filled theoretical framework. Given the wealth of content that is available to those who are interested in the subject, choosing where to begin may be a daunting task. Geoff Boucher’s Understanding Marxism provides an excellent entry-point for students as well as established Marxist philosophers and political theorists.

Understanding Marxism is the latest in the Understanding Movements in Modern Thought series by Acumen Publishing. This series is dedicated to providing accessible texts which introduce the major theoretical movements in history. Boucher’s contribution to the series offers a rigorously researched book, which provides a superb outline of the major contributions to Marxist theory and the radical political thought that has developed out of Marx. The aim of the book, states the author, ‘is to understand the greatness and limitations of Marx and Marxism’ (2); this comes out of Boucher’s claim that the book defies the ‘prohibition on radical alternatives’ (2) that has been a mainstay of liberalism. What sets Boucher’s work apart from other introductions to Marx and Marxism is that it does not focus on a singular aspect, but constructs a continuing line of inquiry that gives an insightful overview of the major contributions to Marxist theory, including thinkers, concepts and movements.

Rather than focus on Marx’s contributions too heavily, Boucher offers a sketch of the major contributions in the introduction to the book. He briefly, yet expertly, provides the reader with enough knowledge of concepts such as Historical Materialism, Alienation labour, the labour theory of value as well as social classes and women’s liberation. This is really all that is needed, as each of these concepts is then elaborated in different ways. For instance, Boucher takes up the question of Marxism and Women’s liberation by using Michele Barrett’s work in the chapter on structural Marxism. Likewise, questions about the construction of Historical Materialism permeate the text, from Classical Marxism’s acceptance of historical Materialism to those who present critiques of Marx’s theory of history.

The book is comprised of nine chapters (including the Introduction). Each chapter provides a detailed outline of the most important movements in Western Marxism, such as Hegelian Marxism, the Frankfurt School and Structural Marxism. It also includes a chapter on Classical Marxism, as well as more contemporary attempts at establishing radical leftist projects in the form of Analytical Marxism, Critical Theory and post-Marxism. Every chapter is constructed in a similar way: Boucher will briefly describe the raison d’etre of the movement in question, as well as introducing some of the major figures involved in the realising of the movement. The majority of the chapter is given over to the methodologies of these movements. For instance, the chapter on Classical Marxism tends to focus on the economic aspect, looking at productive force determinism and modes of production, while Hegelian Marxism looks at the theory of reification by Lukács and the theory of Hegemony of Gramsci. While these lines of inquiry may seem divergent, Boucher shows how each movement subsequently built on the foundations of the movement that came before it. An example of this is the influence of Lukacs on the Frankfurt School, yet the obvious difference between both groups’ understanding of Historical Materialism. This is also seen in the chapter on post-Marxism, where Boucher shows how Laclau and Mouffe built their project on a post-structuralist understanding of Gramsci and Althusser, but ultimately discarded universal, monistic Historical Materialism in favour of a discursive theory of Hegemony, which accentuates the particularistic antagonisms of contemporary political society. The drawing of these connections by Boucher makes the book seem less like an introduction, and more like a critical analysis of the intellectual evolution of Marxist and radical theory. At the end of each chapter, bullet points summarize the key points to be found. This style gives the feeling of a textbook, which should be appealing to those looking for an easily accessible introduction to Marx and Marxism. However, this same textbook feel may be a turn off to those looking for a deeper understanding of the various schools which come under the umbrella term of ‘Marxism’. Boucher’s careful and prodigious research, which can be accessed through the numerous references within the text and the bibliography that follows it, should appease those who may not like the bullett point summaries.

While consisting of nine chapters, the book feels as if it could easily be divided into Marxist and post-Marxist categories. The inclusion of movements such as Analytical Marxism, Critical Theory and post-Marxism in a book called Understanding Marxism may be seen as controversial, given the amount of work that has been done in criticising these movements for their supposed anti-Marxism. The second half of the book moves towards more controversial endeavours. ‘Alongside Analytical Marxism and Critical Theory, post-Marxism represents a provocative and challenging effort to reconstruct the project of the left while still preserving the emancipatory impulse of Marxism (216). As Boucher rightly acknowledges, these theoretical movements have been maligned for their views as much as they have been celebrated. He obviously disagrees with others, such as Norman Geras (whom he mentions directly), and Ellen Meiskins Wood, who view these movements as non-Marxist. As Boucher himself mentions in relation to Analytical Marxism, many of the thinkers associated with these groups, including Jürgen Habermas (Critical Theory) and Chantal Mouffe (post-Marxism) have recently aligned themselves with more liberal theories, and while Marx and Marxism may still seem to influence these thinkers, it is much more of an influence from the shadows rather than a direct influence (such as in the case of the Marxists of Hegelian Marxism, Structural Marxism and the Frankfurt School). While I think the inclusion of these thinkers and movements in a book about Marxism shows the enormous breadth of Marxist theory today, I do believe that more needed to be done to justify their relation to contemporary Marxist theory. Because of this, Boucher’s book may actually raise more questions about the idea of Marxism then it answers.

One of the many strengths of this book is its ability to be read in a number of ways. For instance, as an introductory text for casual readers of Marxism, or undergraduates interested in this topic, the book does not suppose any prior knowledge about Marx or Marxism. The first chapter, Marx without Marxism (13-47), explains the central ideas of Marx’s philosophy ‘as the essential background to Marxism’ (13), presenting topics such as dialectics, alienated labour, ideology and the labour theory of value in such a way that the reader does not feel burdened by these difficult concepts. However, those who already have knowledge of these essential aspects of Marxism, such as postgraduate students and established academics, will find it easy to skip to the chapters which would most inform their own research.

Boucher presents an excellent piece of work that provides a clear exegesis of the major currents that have swept through Marxist theory. What is truly remarkable is the amount of effort that has gone into the research of each individual chapter. The book should be commended for the skill with which the author moves between a general overview of Marxism, and an understanding of the particular schools of thought that it has inspired. Understanding Marxism is a superb book, and would serve any instructor well in undergraduate and graduate courses on radical political theory. Not only does it offer a comprehensive introduction to Marx, Marxism and contemporary radical theory for those who are new to radical politics, but also to the learned academic who would like to know where to look next to further their understanding.

Link: Jacques Ellul on Technology

Transcript of The Betrayal by Technology: A Portrait of Jacques Ellul by Jan van Boeckel and Karin van der Molen

1. One of my best friends is a very competent… was a very competent surgeon. During a discussion in which he participated, about the problems of technology and progress, someone said to him: “You, as a surgeon, surely know everything about the progress in surgery?”

He gave a humorous reply, as always: “I am certainly aware of the progress in the medical field. But just ask yourself the following question: currently, we carry out heart transplants, liver transplant and kidney transplants. But where do those kidneys, that heart and those lungs come from, in fact? They must be healthy organs. Not affected by an illness or the like. Moreover, they must be fresh. In fact, there is just one source: traffic accidents. So, to carry out more operations, we need more traffic accidents. If we make traffic safer, fewer of those wonderful operations will carried out.”

Of course, everyone was rather astonished and also somewhat shocked. It was very humorous, but it was also a real question.


2. Human technology is created from the moment that it is felt that people are unhappy. City dwellers, for example, live in a completely dead environment. Cities consist of brick, cement, concrete, and so on. People cannot be happy in such an environment. So they suffer psychological problems. Mainly as a result of their social climate but also as a result of the speed at which they are forced to live. Yet man is specifically suited for living amidst nature. So man becomes mentally ill. And for the relief of those psychological illnesses there is human technology, just as there is medical technology. But human technology must enable man to live in an unnatural environment. As in the case of deep sea diving. Divers have a deep sea diving suit and oxygen cylinders in order to survive in an abnormal environment. Human technology is just like that.

I know many people who like watching commercials because they’re so funny. They provide relaxation and diversion. People come home after a day’s work, from which they derive little satisfaction, and feel the need for diversion and amusement. The word diversion itself is already very significant. When Pascal uses the word diversion he means that people who follow the path of God deviate from the path which leads them to God as a result of diversion and amusement. Instead of thinking of God, they amuse themselves. So, instead of thinking about the problems which have been created by technology and our work we want to amuse ourselves. And that amusement is supplied to us by means of technology. But by means of technology which derives from human technology. For example, in a work situation people are offered the diversion which must serve as compensation. 

The media era is also the era of loneliness. That’s a very important fact. We can also see that in the young. In 1953 you had the so called “rebels without a cause”. Students who revolted in Stockholm. That was the first revolt of the young rebels without a cause. They had everything. They were happy. They lived in a nice society. They lacked nothing. And suddenly, on New Year’s Eve, they took to the streets and destroyed everything. No one could understand it. But they needed something different from consumption and technology.

If people lose their motive for living two things can happen. It only seldom happens that they can accept that fact. In that case, they develop suicidal tendencies. Usually, either they try to find refuge in diversion. We’ve already discussed this. Or they become depressed and begin swallowing medicines. So if people become aware of their situation they react to it as usually happens in Western society: they become depressed and discouraged. So they just don’t think about their situation and simply carry on. They drive faster and faster. Never mind where, as long as it’s fast.


3. One of the illusions which some try to put across to people today is to get them to believe that technology makes them more free. If you just use enough technical aids you will be freer. Free to do what? Free to eat nice things. That’s true, if you have money, that is. Free to buy a car so that you can travel. You can go all the way to the other side of the world. To Tahiti.  So you see: technology brings freedom. We can acquire knowledge in the whole world. That’s fantastic. So a world of freedom is open to us. Just to give a small example in connection of the use of cars: As soon as the holidays begin, three million Parisians decide independently to one another to head for the Mediterranean in their cars. Three million people all decide to do the same thing. So then I ask myself if the car really brings us much freedom. Those people haven’t given it a moment’s thought that they are, in fact, completely determined by technology and the life they lead. That, in fact, they form a mass. A coherent whole.


4. In a society such as ours, it is almost impossible for a person to be responsible. A simple example: a dam has been built somewhere, and it bursts. Who is responsible for that? Geologists worked out. They examined the terrain. Engineers drew up the construction plans. Workmen constructed it. And the politicians decided that the dam had to be in that spot. Who is responsible? No one. There is never anyone responsible. Anywhere. In the whole of our technological society the work is so fragmented and broken up into small pieces that no one is responsible. But no one is free either. Everyone has his own, specific task. And that’s all he has to do.

Just consider, for example, that atrocious excuse… It was one of the most horrible things I have ever heard. The person in charge of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen was asked, during the Auschwitz trial… the Nuremberg trials regarding Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen: “But didn’t find you it horrible? All those corpses?” He replied: “What could I do? The capacity of the ovens was too small. I couldn’t process all those corpses. It caused me many problems. I had no time to think about those people. I was too busy with that technical problem of my ovens.” That was the classic example of an irresponsible person. He carries out his technical task he’s not interested in anything else.


5. What is sacred in one society is not always sacred in another. But people have always respected sacred matters. And if there was a force which destroyed those sacred matters, those elements regarded as sacred in certain society, then this new force was revered and respected by the people. For it was clearly stronger. So there was a new thing that was more sacred than the old one. 

What is now so awful in our society is that technology has destroyed everything which people ever considered sacred. For example, nature. People have voluntarily moved to an acceptance of technology as something sacred. That is really awful. In the past, the sacred things always derived from nature. Currently, nature has been completely desecrated and we consider technology as something sacred. Think, for example, on the fuss whenever a demonstration is held. Everyone is then always very shocked if a car is set on fire. For then a sacred object is destroyed.


6. That is one the basic rules of technology. Without a doubt. Every technological step forward has its price. Human happiness has its price. We must always ask ourselves what price we have to pay for something. We only have to consider the following example. When Hitler came to power everyone considered the Germans mad. Nearly all the Germans supported him. Of course. He brought an end to unemployment. He improved the position of the mark. He created a surge in economic growth. How can a badly informed population, seeing all these economic miracles, be against him? They only had to ask the question: What will it cost us? What price do we have to pay for this economic progress, for the strong position of the mark and for employment? What will that cost us? Then they would have realized that the cost would be very high. But this is typical for modern society. Yet this question will always be asked in traditional societies. In such societies people ask: If by doing this I disturb the order of things what will be the cost for me?

Wisdom does not come from intellectual reflection. It is achieved in a long process of transfer from generation to generation. (It is) An accumulation of experiences in direct relationship with the natural social climate. Nature served as an example for us. We must divest ourselves of all that. For in a technological society traditional human wisdom is not taken seriously.


7. Technology also obliges us to live more and more quickly. Inner reflection is replaced by reflex. Reflection means that, after I have undergone an experience, I think about that experience. In the case of a reflex you know immediately what you must do in a certain situation. Without thinking. Technology requires us no longer to think about the things. If you are driving a car at 150 kilometers an hour and you think you’ll have an accident. Everything depends on reflexes. The only thing technology requires us is: Don’t think about it. Use your reflexes.


8. Technology will not tolerate any judgment being passed on it. Or rather: technologists do not easily tolerate people expressing an ethical or moral judgment on what they do. But the expression of ethical, moral and spiritual judgments is actually the highest freedom of mankind. So I am robbed of my highest freedom. So whatever I say about technology and the technologists themselves is of no importance to them. It won’t deter them from what they are doing. They are now set in their course. They are so conditioned. For a technologist is not free. He is conditioned. By his training, by his experiences and by the objective which he must reach. He is not free in the execution of his task. He does what technology demands of him. That’s why I think freedom and technology contradict one another.


9. Because of our technology, we now have a world in which the situation of mankind has totally changed. What I mean by that is: mankind in the technological world is prepared to give up his independence in exchange for all kinds of facilities and in exchange for consumer products and a certain security. In short, in exchange for a package of welfare provisions offered to him by society. As I was thinking about that I couldn’t help recalling the story in the Bible about Esau and the lentil broth. Esau, who is hungry, is prepared to give up the blessings and promise of God in exchange for some lentil broth. In the same way, modern people are prepared to give up their independence in exchange for some technological lentils. The point is simply that Esau made an extremely unfavorable exchange and that the person who gives up his position of independence lets himself be badly duped too, by the technological society. It boils down to the fact that he gives up his independence in exchange for a number of lies. He doesn’t realize that he is manipulated in his choice. That he is changed internally by advertisements, by the media and so on. And when you think that the manipulator, the author of advertisements or propaganda is himself manipulated, then you cannot point to one culprit as being responsible. It is neither the advertiser nor his poor public. We are all responsible, to the same extent.


10. Right from the start I have often been sharply criticized in the United States, for example, for allegedly being a Calvinist. And a Calvinist is pessimistic, and so on. But I’m not a Calvinist at all. They haven’t understood anything of my theology, but it doesn’t matter.

But what does matter is that pessimism in a society such as ours can only lead to suicide. That’s why you must be optimistic. You must spend your holiday in Disneyland. Then you are a real optimist. With all that you see there you no longer have to think about anything else. In other words, those who accuse me of pessimism are in fact saying to me: You prevent people from being able to sleep peacefully. So if you let everything to take its course, never interfere, and you just go to sleep peacefully, all will end well.

I would certainly not want my words to be too pessimistic and too inaccessible. And I would like to explain that people are still people a bit—notice I say a bit—and they still have human needs; and they can still feel love and pity, and feelings of friendship.

The question now is whether people are prepared or not to realize that they are dominated by technology. And to realize that technology oppresses them, forces them to undertake certain obligations and conditions them. Their freedom begins when they become conscious of these things. For when we become conscious of that which determines our life we attain the highest degree of freedom. I must make sure that I can analyze it just as I can analyze a stone or any other object, that I can analyze it and fathom it from all angles. As soon as I can break down this whole technological system into its smallest components my freedom begins. But I also know that, at the same time, I’m dominated by technology. So I don’t say, “I’m so strong that technology has no hold on me”. Of course technology has hold on me. I know that very well. Just take… a telephone, for example, which I use all the time. I’m continually benefiting from technology.

So we can ask ourselves whether there is really any sense in all this to be investigated. But the search for it cannot be a strictly intellectual activity. The search for sense implies that we must have a radical discussion of modern life. In order to rediscover a sense, we must discuss everything which has no sense. We are surrounded by objects which are, it is true, efficient but are absolutely pointless. A work of art, on the other hand, has sense in various ways or it calls up in me a feeling or an emotion whereby my life acquires sense. That is not the case with a technological product.

And on the other hand we have the obligation to rediscover certain fundamental truths which have disappeared because of technology. We can also call these truths values – important, actual values which ensure that people experience their lives as having sense. In other words, as soon as the moment arrives, when I think that the situation is really dangerous, I can’t do anymore with purely technological means. Then I must employ all my human and intellectual capacities and all my relationships with others to create a counterbalance. That means that when I think that a disaster threatens and that developments threaten to lead to a destiny for mankind, as I wrote concerning the development of technology, I, as a member of mankind, must resist and must refuse to accept that destiny. And at that moment we end up doing what mankind has always done at a moment when destiny threatens. Just think of all those Greek tragedies in which mankind stands up against the destiny and says: No, I want mankind to survive; and I want freedom to survive. 

At such a moment, you must continue to cherish hope, but not the hope that you will achieve a quick victory and even less the hope that we face an easy struggle. We must be convinced that we will carry on fulfilling our role as people. In fact, it is not an insuperable situation. There is no destiny that we cannot overcome. You must simply have valid reasons for joining in the struggle. You need a strong conviction. You must really want people to remain, ultimately, people. 

This struggle against the destiny of technology has been undertaken by us by means of small scale actions. We must continue with small groups of people who know one another. It will not be any big mass of people or any big unions or big political parties who will manage to stop this development. 

What I have just said doesn’t sound very efficient, of course. When we oppose things which are too efficient we mustn’t try to be even more efficient. For that will not turn out to be the most efficient way. 

But we must continue to hope that mankind will not die out and will go on passing on truths from generation to generation.