Category Archives: History

The politics of personal lives

Another excerpt from Sebastian Haffner’s, Defying Hitler, explains why a first-person account of what it was like to be an ordinary person during a moment in history is valuable, and perhaps more valuable than the usual third-person epic historical survey:

What is history, and where does it take place?

If you read ordinary history books — which, it is often overlooked, contain only the scheme of events, not the events themselves — you get the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be “at the helm of the ship of state” and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history. According to this view, the history of the present decade is a kind of chess game among Hitler, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-shek, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Daladier, and a number of other men whose names are on everybody’s lips. We anonymous others seem at best to be the objects of history, pawns in the chess game, who may be pushed forward or left standing, sacrificed or captured, but whose lives, for what they are worth, take place in a totally different world, unrelated to what is happening on the chessboard, of which they are quite unaware.

It may seem a paradox, but it is nonetheless the simple truth, to say that on the contrary, the decisive historical events take place among us, the anonymous masses. The most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large. It is characteristic of these decisions that they do not manifest themselves as mass movements or demonstrations. Mass assemblies are quite incapable of independent action. Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals.

This is not an airy, abstract historical construction, but indisputably real and tangible. For instance, what was it that caused Germany to lose the Great War in 1918 and the Allies to win it? An advance in the leadership skills of Foch and Haig, or a decline in Ludendorff’s? Not at all. It was the fact that the “German soldier,” that is, the majority of an anonymous mass of 10 million individuals, was no longer willing, as he had been until then, to risk his life in any attack, or to hold his position to the last man. Where did this change of attitude take place? Certainly not in large, mutinous assemblies of German soldiers, but unnoticed and unchecked in each individual soldier’s breast. Most of them would probably not have been able to describe this complicated and historically important internal process and would merely have used the single expletive “Shit!” If you had interviewed the more articulate soldiers, you would have found a whole skein of random, private (and probably uninteresting and unimportant) reasons, feelings, and experiences, a combination of letters from home, relations with the sergeant, opinions about the quality of the food, and thoughts on the prospects and meaning of the war and (since every German is something of a philosopher) about the meaning and value of life. It is not my purpose here to analyze the inner process that brought the Great War to an end, but it would be interesting for those who wish to reconstruct this event, or others like it, to do so.

Mine is a different topic, although the mental processes it involves are similar. They may perhaps be of greater consequence, interest, and importance: namely, the psychological developments, reactions, and changes that took place simultaneously in the mass of the German population, which made Hitler’s Third Reich possible and today form its unseen basis.

There is an unsolved riddle in the history of the creation of the Third Reich. I think it is much more interesting than the question of who set fire to the Reichstag. It is the question “What became of the Germans?” Even on March 5, 1933, a majority of them voted against Hitler. What happened to that majority? Did they die? Did they disappear from the face of the earth? Did they become Nazis at this late stage? How was it possible that there was not the slightest visible reaction from them?

Most of my readers will have met one or more Germans in the past, and most of them will have looked on their German acquaintances as normal, friendly, civilized people like anyone else — apart from the usual national idiosyncrasies. When they hear the speeches coming from Germany today (and become aware of the foulness of the deeds emanating from there), most of these people will think of their acquaintances and be aghast. They will ask, “What’s wrong with them? Don’t they see what’s happening to them — and what is happening in their name? Do they approve of it? What kind of people are they? What are we to think of them?”

Indeed, behind these questions there are some very peculiar, very revealing mental processes and experiences, whose historical significance cannot yet be fully gauged. These are what I want to write about. You cannot come to grips with them if you do not track them down to the place where they happen: the private lives, emotions, and thoughts of individual Germans. They happen there all the more since, having cleared the sphere of politics of all opposition, the conquering, ravenous state has moved into formerly private spaces in order to clear these, too, of any resistance or recalcitrance and to subjugate the individual. There, in private, the fight is taking place in Germany. You will search for it in vain in the political landscape, even with the most powerful telescope. Today the political struggle is expressed by the choice of what a person eats and drinks, whom he loves, what he does in his spare time, whose company he seeks, whether he smiles or frowns, what he reads, what pictures he hangs on his walls. It is here that the battles of the next world war are being decided in advance. That may sound grotesque, but it is the truth.

That is why I think that by telling my seemingly private, insignificant story I am writing real history, perhaps even the history of the future. It actually makes me happy that in my own person I do not have a particularly important, outstanding subject to describe. If I were more important I would be less typical. That is also why I hope my intimate chronicle will find favor in the eyes of the serious reader, who has no time to waste, and reads a book for the information it contains and its usefulness.

Some descriptions of what drove Haffner to leave Germany:

The world I had lived in dissolved and disappeared. Every day another piece vanished quietly, without ado. Every day one looked around and something else had gone and left no trace. I have never since had such a strange experience. It was as if the ground on which one stood was continually trickling away from under one’s feet, or rather as if the air one breathed was steadily, inexorably being sucked away.

What was happening openly and clearly in public was almost the least of it. Yes, political parties disappeared or were dissolved; first those of the left, then also those of the right; I had not been a member of any of them. The men who had been the focus of attention, whose books one had read, whose speeches we had discussed, disappeared into exile or the concentration camps; occasionally one heard that one or another had “committed suicide while being arrested” or been “shot while attempting to escape.” At some point in the summer the newspapers carried a list of thirty or forty names of famous scientists or writers; they had been proscribed, declared to be traitors to the people and deprived of their citizenship.

More unnerving was the disappearance of a number of quite harmless people, who had in one way or another been part of daily life. The radio announcer whose voice one had heard every day, who had almost become an old acquaintance, had been sent to a concentration camp, and woe betide you if you mentioned his name. The familiar actors and actresses who had been a feature of our lives disappeared from one day to the next. Charming Miss Carola Neher was suddenly a traitor to the people; brilliant young Hans Otto, who had been the rising star of the previous season, lay crumpled in the yard of an SS barracks — yes, Hans Otto, whose name had been on everyone’s lips, who had been talked about at every soiree, had been hailed as the “new Matkowski” that the German stage had so long been waiting for. He had “thrown himself out of a fourth-floor window in a moment when the guards had been distracted,” they said. A famous cartoonist, whose harmless drawings had brought laughter to the whole of Berlin every week, committed suicide, as did the master of ceremonies of a well-known cabaret. Others just vanished. One did not know whether they were dead, incarcerated, or had gone abroad — they were just missing.

The symbolic burning of the books in April had been an affair of the press, but the disappearance of books from the bookshops and libraries was uncanny. Contemporary German literature, whatever its merits, had simply been erased. Books of the last season that one had not bought by April became unobtainable. A few authors, tolerated for some unknown reason, remained like individual ninepins in the wreckage. Otherwise you could get only the classics — and a dreadful, embarrassingly bad literature of blood and soil, which suddenly sprang up. Readers — always a minority in Germany, and as they were daily told, an unimportant one at that — were deprived of their world overnight. Further, since they had quickly learned that those who were robbed might also be punished, they felt intimidated and pushed their copies of Heinrich Mann and Feuchtwanger into the back rows of their bookshelves; and if they dared to talk about the newest Joseph Roth or Jakob Wassermann they put their heads together and whispered like conspirators.

Many journals and newspapers disappeared from the kiosks — but what happened to those that continued in circulation was much more disturbing. You could not quite recognize them anymore. In a way a newspaper is like an old acquaintance: you instinctively know how it will react to certain events, what it will say about them and how it will express its views. If it suddenly says the opposite of what it said yesterday, denies its own past, distorting its features, you cannot avoid feeling that you are in a madhouse. That happened. Old-established democratic broadsheets such as the Berliner Tageblatt or the Vossische Zeitung changed into Nazi organs from one day to the next. In their customary, measured, educated style they said exactly the same things that were spewed out by the Angriff or the Völkischer Beobachter, newspapers that had always supported the Nazis. Later, one became accustomed to this and picked up occasional hints by reading between the lines of the articles on the arts pages. The political pages always kept strictly to the party line.

To some extent, the editorial staff had been replaced; but frequently this straightforward explanation was not accurate. For instance, there was an intellectual journal called Die Tat (Action), whose content lived up to its name. In the final years before 1933 it had been widely read. It was edited by a group of intelligent, radical young people. With a certain elegance they indulged in the long historical view of the changing times. It was, of course, far too distinguished, cultured, and profound to support any particular political party — least of all the Nazis. As late as February its editorials brushed them off as an obviously ephemeral phenomenon. Its editor in chief had gone too far. He lost his job and only just managed to save his neck (today he is allowed to write light novels). The rest of the editorial staff remained in post, but as a matter of course became Nazis without the least detriment to their elegant style and historical perspective — they had always been Nazis, naturally; indeed better, more genuinely and more profoundly so than the Nazis themselves. It was wonderful to behold: the paper had the same typography, the same name — but without batting an eyelid it had become a thoroughgoing, smart Nazi organ. Was it a sudden conversion or just cynicism? Or had Messrs. Fried, Eschmann, Wirsing, etc. always been Nazis at heart? Probably they did not know themselves. Anyway, I soon abandoned the question. I was nauseated and wearied, and contented myself with taking leave of one more newspaper.

All the same, the temptation to seal oneself off was a sufficiently important aspect of the period for me to devote some space to it. It has its part to play in the psychopathological process that has unfolded in the cases of millions of Germans since 1933. After all, to a normal onlooker most Germans today exhibit the symptoms of lunacy or at the very least severe hysteria. If you want to understand how this came about, you have to take the trouble to place yourself in the peculiar position in which non-Nazi Germans — and that was still the majority — found themselves in 1933, and try to understand the bizarre, perverse conflicts they faced.

The plight of non-Nazi Germans in the summer of 1933 was certainly one of the most difficult a person can find himself in: a condition in which one is hopelessly, utterly overwhelmed, accompanied by the shock of having been caught completely off balance. We were in the Nazis’ hands for good or ill. All lines of defense had fallen, any collective resistance had become impossible. Individual resistance was only a form of suicide. We were pursued into the farthest corners of our private lives; in all areas of life there was rout, panic, and flight. No one could tell where it would end. At the same time we were called upon, not to surrender, but to renege. Just a little pact with the devil — and you were no longer one of the captured quarry. Instead you were one of the victorious hunters.

That was the simplest and crudest temptation. Many succumbed to it. Later they often found that the price to be paid was higher than they had thought and that they were no match for the real Nazis. There are many thousands of them today in Germany, Nazis with a bad conscience. People who wear their Nazi badges like Macbeth wore his royal robes, who, in for a penny, in for a pound, now find their consciences shouldering one burden after another, who search in vain for a way out, drink and take sleeping pills, no longer dare to think, and do not know whether they should rather pray for the end of the Nazi era — their own era! — or dread it. When that end comes they will certainly not admit to having been the culprits. In the meantime, however, they are the nightmare of the world. It is impossible to assess what these people might still be capable of in their moral and psychological derangement. Their history has yet to be written.

Private life and liberalism

Sebastian Haffner’s memoir of the rise of Nazism in Germany, Defying Hitler, offers some fascinating insights into the role of development of private life in maintaining a liberal democracy:

After 1926 or thereabouts there was almost nothing worth discussing anymore. The newspapers had to find their headlines in foreign countries.

In Germany all was quiet, all was orderly; events took a tranquil course. There were occasional changes of government. Sometimes the parties of the right were in power and sometimes those of the left. It made no great difference. The foreign minister was always Gustav Stresemann. That meant peace, no risk of a crisis, and business as usual.

Money came into the country, the currency maintained its value, and business was good. The older generation began to retrieve its store of experience from the attic, burnish it bright, and show it off, as if it had never been invalidated. The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries. The public sector required only competent officials, and the private sector only hardworking businessmen. There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal- mindedness, good wages, good food, and a little political boredom.

Everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own tastes, and to find their own paths to happiness.

Now something strange happened — and with this I believe I am about to reveal one of the most fundamental political events of our time, something that was not reported in any newspaper: by and large that invitation was declined. It was not what was wanted. A whole generation was, it seemed, at a loss as to how to cope with the offer of an unfettered private life.

A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions, for love and hate, joy and sorrow, but also all their sensations and thrills — accompanied though they might be by poverty, hunger, death, chaos, and peril. Now that these deliveries suddenly ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful, and worthwhile, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of the political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk. In the end they waited eagerly for the first disturbance, the first setback or incident, so that they could put this period of peace behind them and set out on some new collective adventure.

To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. They began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.

I have already remarked in passing that the capacity for individual life and happiness is, in any case, less developed among the Germans than among other peoples. Later, in France and England, I observed with astonishment and envy, but also learned to appreciate, what a wealth of simple joy and what an inexhaustible source of lifelong pleasure the Frenchman finds in eating and drinking, intellectual debate, and the artistic pursuit of love; and the Englishman in the cultivation of gardens, the companionship of animals, and the sports and hobbies he pursues with such childlike gravity. The average German knows nothing of the sort. Only a certain cultured class — not particularly small, but a minority, of course — used to find, and still finds, similar sustenance and pleasure in books and music, in independent thought and the creation of a personal “philosophy.” For this class the ideals and joys of life were the exchange of ideas, a contemplative conversation over a glass of wine, a few faithfully and rather sentimentally maintained and nurtured friendships, and, last but not least, an intense, intimate family life.

Almost all of this had fallen into ruin and decay in the decade from 1914 to 1924 and the younger generation had grown up without fixed customs and traditions.

Outside this cultured class, the great danger of life in Germany has always been emptiness and boredom (with the exception perhaps of certain geographical border regions such as Bavaria and the Rhineland, where a whiff of the south, some romance, and a sense of humor enter the picture).

The menace of monotony hangs, as it has always hung, over the great plains of northern and eastern Germany, with their colorless towns and their all too industrious, efficient, and conscientious businesses and organizations. With it comes a horror vacui and the yearning for “salvation”: through alcohol, through superstition, or, best of all, through a vast, overpowering, cheap mass intoxication.

The basic fact that in Germany only a minority (not necessarily from the aristocracy or the moneyed class) understands anything of life and knows how to lead it — a fact that, incidentally, makes the country inherently unsuitable for democratic government — had been dangerously exacerbated by the events of the years from 1914 to 1924. The older generation had become uncertain and timid in its ideals and convictions and began to focus on “youth,” with thoughts of abdication, flattery, and high expectations. Young people themselves were familiar with nothing but political clamor, sensation, anarchy, and the dangerous lure of irresponsible numbers games. They were only waiting to put what they had witnessed into practice themselves, but on a far larger scale. Meanwhile, they viewed private life as “boring,” “bourgeois,” and “old-fashioned.” The masses, too, were accustomed to all the varied sensations of disorder. Moreover, they had become weak and doubtful about their most recent great superstition: the creed, celebrated with pedantic, orthodox fervor, of the magical powers of the omniscient Saint Marx and the inevitability of the automatic course of history prophesied by him.

If you need inspiration for kicking your news/politics addiction, and using that time and energy instead to cultivate your own private life, your own individual personality, your own close relationships with other individuals, I hope this helps.

Perhaps that slogan “the personal is political” can be appropriated by liberals and put to good use: For the sake of politics, develop as a person first.

Civilizational mystery

This passage from Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty offers insights valuable to two of my favorite subjects, 1) design, and 2) postaxial conceptions of religion:

“The Socratic maxim that the recognition of our ignorance is the beginning of wisdom has profound significance for our understanding of society. The first requisite for this is that we become aware of men’s necessary ignorance of much that helps him to achieve his aims. Most of the advantages of social life, especially in its more advanced forms which we call ‘civilization,’ rest on the fact that the individual benefits from more knowledge than he is aware of. It might be said that civilization begins when the individual in the pursuit of his ends can make use of more knowledge than he has himself acquired and when he can transcend the boundaries of his ignorance by profiting from knowledge he does not himself possess.”

If civilization begins and progresses by allowing individuals to benefit from more knowledge than we are aware of, design advances civilization by both harnessing and hiding knowledge (in the form of technologies) beneath carefully crafted interfaces, disencumbering users to advance their own specialized knowledge, which in turn can be harnessed and hidden.

And of course, the mention of “transcending boundaries of ignorance” connects directly with my preferred definition of religion as the praxis of finite beings living in the fullest possible relationship with infinitude. My own religious practice involves awareness of how transcendence-saturated everyday life is, especially toward the peculiarly inaccessible understandings of my fellow humans. But study of Actor-Network Theory and Postphenomenology has increased my awareness of how much non-human mediators and actors shape my life. The world as I experience it is only the smallest, dimmest and frothiest fuzz of being entangled within a dense plurality of worlds which overlap, interact and extend unfathomably beyond the speck of reality which has been entrusted to me. Civilization involves us, but exceeds us, and is far stranger than known.

By the way, I still intend to read Jaspers’s and reread Voegelin’s writings on the Axial/Ecumenic Age to better understand the societal forces which produced the recent and idiosyncratic form of religiosity so many of us mistake for eternal and universal. And I’ll read it from the angle that if it has changed before, it can change again. I think human centered design offers important clues for how it can change.

Paranoid style in American politics

If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

… Events since 1939 have given the contemporary right-wing paranoid a vast theatre for his imagination, full of rich and proliferating detail, replete with realistic cues and undeniable proofs of the validity of his suspicions. The theatre of action is now the entire world, and he can draw not only on the events of World War II, but also on those of the Korean War and the Cold War. Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination. In the end, the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.

— from “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” by Richard Hofstadter, Harper’s Magazine, November 1964

Yes, 1964!

I’ve had a copy of Hofstadter’s book sitting on my side table for the last couple of years, but I have never gotten around to reading it. While I find conversation on the substance of specific paranoid fantasies to be tedious, interminable, unproductive and palpably degrading, as an object of inquiry I find the phenomenon of the intellectual style itself to be fascinating and, sadly, relevant. Maybe it is time to pick it up and read it.

Two definitions of justice

For some, justice is primarily a matter of determining guilt and proper punishment. For others, justice is also a matter of determining innocence and proper protection.


I remember back in the mid-2000s, when I was caught up in the general leftist panic about the underlying philosophy of the Neocons and decided to dig into the substance of their thought for myself. The panic turned out to be justified. The passage below comes from Irving Kristol’s Neo-Conservatism: An Autobiography of an Idea:

The main priority of a sensible criminal-justice system — its first priority — is to punish the guilty. It is not to ensure that no innocent person is ever convicted. That is a second priority — important but second. Over these past two decades, our unwise elites — in the law schools, in the courts, in our legislatures — have got these priorities reversed. (Page 362, “The New Populism: Not to Worry”)

That is a pretty weird way to frame justice, but it rings eerily familiar is some conversations I’ve had with Progressivists lately. If you wanna make an omelette, you’ve gotta break some eggs.

Eroding to wisdom

The best quotes are the misattributed ones — overused maxims that become smoother as they tumble from paraphrase to paraphrase until they are worn smooth like river stones.

Whenever I track one of these retroactively adopted orphans back to their birthplace, I discover that almost always its character has been improved by the traumas of public life.

Take for instance the famous quote that Yogi Berra should have said, but actually never did say: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” The original quote appeared in flabbier form in a Usenet proto-meme: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is a great deal of difference.” Incidentally, one Berra quote Berra really did say is “I never said most of the things I said.”

Mark Twain is a popular misattributed source of collaboratively improved quotes, probably because Twain is the only writer of pithy sayings most people know, so if they hear a pithy saying they assume Twain must have said it. A great example of a Twain saying that Twain never said is “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Quote Investigator found the earliest example of this quote to be “Give a boy a hammer and chisel; show him how to use them; at once he begins to hack the doorposts, to take off the corners of shutter and window frames, until you teach him a better use for them, and how to keep his activity within bounds.”

Another fake Twain quote: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Quote Investigator explains the earliest English expression of this thought is a translation of a Pascal quote, “My Letters were not wont to come so close one in the neck of another, nor yet to be so large. The short time I have had hath been the cause of both. I had not made this longer then the rest, but that I had not the leisure to make it shorter then it is.” It took 300 years to shorten this quote to its current svelteness.

I even prefer the bastardized versions of properly attributed quotes. William James comes to mind:

When a thing is new, people say: “It is not true.”

Later, when its truth becomes obvious, they say: “It’s not important.”

Finally, when its importance cannot be denied, they say “Anyway, it’s not new.”

Who could possibly prefer the original?: “First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it.”

This meditation on misattributed quotes hints at something important: The lessons of the “gossip game” might need some qualifications. It is undeniably true that factual information passed from person to person does degrade over the course of minutes, hours, days and months. But is this true of wisdom passed from generation to generation over the course of decades or centuries? Perhaps not. Maybe wisdom seeks its perfect form through wear.

The designer in me wants to include physical objects in the set of examples of “wisdom seeking form”. I have always loved the perfection of tradition-worn objects like houses, tables, chairs, knives, pens, teapots, clothes and bicycles. My love of erosive essentializing could make me look like some sort of conservative Platonist type, except for one subtle but crucial difference: the Platonist ideal lives above humanity in a heavenly realm of preexisting perfect archetypes; where my ideal lives among us in an eternal democratic project of iterative design, a trans-generational collaboration to makes things better and better, approaching but never quite reaching perfection.


A friend tells me I buried the lede on this piece, and that this gives the piece a frivolous effect. One thing I have learned reflecting on philosophical communication and my own characteristic miscommunications, is that philosophy tends to reverse normal patterns of explanation. Things don’t progress in the normal subject-to-predicate order. Instead, it goes predicate-predicate-predicate-subject. You don’t exactly know what the work is about until the about finishes abouting about and finally resolves into the “what”. A capacity to enjoy philosophy is tied to an ability to endure whatlessness for long anxious stretches, until the whole mess finally coalesces and crystallizes into clear conception that makes simple sense of what preceded it.

So there’s just no way am I going to put that lede out in front where it belongs. But, being a good Liberal, I do believe in compromise, so here is what I can do: I will exhume the lede, and append it to the end, so anyone who wants to can re-read the original with this explication in mind.

What I wanted to do was to demonstrate a progressive traditionalist attitude.

Progressive traditionalism might seem like a contradiction in terms, but this is a side-effect of unexamined views of tradition that produce two mutually reinforcing oppositions: 1) progressive anti-traditionalism that wants to ignore or trash an unacceptable past in order to clear the way for a better future, and 2) traditional traditionalism that sees the past as better and the present as unacceptable, and therefore wants a future that looks more like the past than the present.

Progressive traditionalism sees tradition as a long process of collaborative improvement. The past is a swirl of good and bad. Humanity, genius is mixed with ignorance and atrocities, and our ability to discern the good and bad is a direct result of the tradition’s progress. We wouldn’t know how appalling our past is if we hadn’t lived through it, learned from it and been changed by it. Further, this work is nowhere close to finished. We are making mistakes this very moment that will be obviously stupid and wicked within a decade. I believe one of those mistakes is thinking we must choose between wholesale condemnation or wholesale worship of the past instead of treating it with the critical respect it deserves.

I wanted to demonstrate this attitude simply, and I believed a good way to do this was to show that old famous sayings can actually improve over time through being worked on by innumerable unfamous people. And I wanted to make fun of our compulsion to project this simplicity back into the past by placing the perfected words into the mouths of acclaimed geniuses. Why would we want to do that? What is the source of this need? The hammer I carry is philosophy, and the nail I see here is the unconscious impulse to preserve the current popular philosophy (also known as “common sense”) at all costs. This current philosophy, by the way, is also producing our political crisis.

There is a lot to say on this subject and it connects with some of the things in my life I value most, including my adopted Jewish religion. But I’ll leave it here for now.

Liberal symbol

I’ve been marking passages in Inventing the Individual that show the emergence of liberal traits. I’m making a list of these traits in the back of the book, with the goal of distilling a set of liberal family resemblances which, when viewed together as a gestalt, might give me new ways to understand liberalism or reveal new kinds of liberalism that better suit the needs of this moment in history.

But this post is not about that project. It is about the circle-L symbol I have been using in the margin to mark the proto-liberal passages. I like this symbol. It is the anarchy circle-A’s elegant cousin.

In these days of rampant illiberalism on both the right and left, where liberal ideas are more likely to inspire doubts, cynicism and scorn than consent, maybe it is time to equip liberalism with a re-revolutionary symbol. Because liberalism is revolutionary, and on the grand scale of history nothing could be more prosaic than a collectivist relapse, however intense the overturning feels.

Four sides to every conflict

In conflicts, there are four sides to every story: there is my side, there is your side, there is what I think your side is, and there is what you think my side is.

If you want to know a person’s soul, don’t be distracted by how that person represents himself in a conflict. You’ll learn far more about who he is listening to what he has to say about his enemy.

If you hear dark and incredible tales of depravity and deviousness, take extreme care. Being on the side of good, facing such enemies, the righteous man might be forced to do evil things to defend himself and his people. If he has foresight and strong resolve he might even take preemptive action in order to avert an inevitable catastrophe.



Slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notions of interpersonal being

Wow, this post really sprawled out. It hits a lot of my enduring interests. I’m not sure it is suitable for reading. It might just be a personal journal entry written to myself. Feel free to eavesdrop if you wish, but I cannot promise it will make sense or yield any value.


I listened to a fascinating Radio Open Source podcast on Hannah Arendt’s conception of evil, which ended with a wonderful discussion on empathy.

Jerome Kohn: Empathy is a fancy word or fancy theory that she argued passionately against. First of all she thought it was an impossible notion in the sense that it really means feeling what someone else feels. Sympathy, fellow feeling, is another thing. But empathy is the claim that you can actually feel what someone else is feeling. And for that Arendt found no evidence whatsoever. One could say it’s even the opposite of her notion of thinking from another person’s point of view. What you have to be able to do is to see a given issue from different points of view, to make it real. And then through those different points of view, with your own eyes, you don’t feel what the other person is feeling, you see what he is seeing through your own eyes, and then you can make a judgement. The more people you can take into consideration in this enlarged mentality, that actually is the foundation of reality for Arendt, the more valid your judgement will be.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Jerry’s exactly right. Hannah Arendt was always opposed to these slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notions about what binds people to each other. And she felt very keenly that what really binds one person to another is a commitment to try to see the world from that person’s point of view with your own eyes. Not to subscribe to their point of view or to merge with their point of view, but to be able to walk around and see what the world looks like from where they’re standing. But looking at it with your own eyes, so that you can then, as it were, discuss it with them. Not merge with them in some way, but discuss it with them. She was all about discussion. Not empathy in that sentimental way.

Christopher Lydon (host): And yet, well, there are distinctions without huge differences in some way. To put oneself in another’s mind is the beginning of something important.

EYB: To think that you can put yourself in another’s mind in the beginning of a terrible arrogance which has tremendous consequences. It’s a difference with great consequences. People who think they that they can know what another person thinks or feel what another person feels are narcissistic.

CL: Well, ok, I don’t want to make a philosophical or an endless argument about it. Isn’t it the incapacity and the lack of interest in that perspective precisely what she found at the core of Eichmann’s banality and Eichmann’s evil, really?

JK: Well, no, it was his thoughtlessness, his inability to think from any other point of view but his own.

EYB: Exactly. And these are very important distinctions.

This exchange is especially interesting to me for three reasons.

First: as a Human Centered Design researcher/strategist/designer, I am constantly telling people that I am in the “empathy business.” However, I have long been uncomfortable with the characterization of what I do as “empathy”. To characterize understanding another person subjectively as primarily a matter of experiencing how they feel misses the mark in a very Modernist way. (em- ‘in’ + pathos ‘feeling’). While feelings are important to what I do, they are not the primary focus. I would prefer to characterize my work as concrete hermeneutics, but words like that do not fly in the flatlands of business where thinking lags a minimum of three philosophical generations behind. So, I’ve adopted “empathy” and accepted the inevitable misconceptions that attend it, because that’s what it takes to be understood at all by most people.

It is hardly surprising that I see things similarly to to Young-Bruehl and Kohn, because I belong to their tradition. Heidegger taught Arendt and Gadamer who both taught my favorite thinker Richard J. Bernstein. A Clifford Geertz quote from Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism has stayed with me as an anchor for my understanding of what a good human centered designer does.

Second, I think that when we see things this way, we tend to treat emotionally-oriented people who are very sensitive and sentimentally responsive to people around them as having some kind of monopoly on human understanding. In my experience, there are multiple stages of coming to understanding of another person, and a talent for sensing and responding does not always correspond with a talent for grokking the “logic” of other people’s worldviews, nor an ability to think, speak and create from another worldview. It takes a fairly vast range of talents to function pluralistically.

I think a lot of the political problems we are experiencing today result from shoddy and retrogressive philosophical conceptions of alterity (“otherness”), which still see understanding of other people as very literally empathic. To know what is going on with another person, we must ourselves have had the experiences and emotions that other person has had. In an effort to understand and to demonstrate our understanding we must induce emotions similar to theirs. Two consequences follow: 1) The one who understands must try to produce the right emotions, and this production of emotion is the demonstration of understanding, which leads to some fairly repulsive public displays of political sentimentality. 2) The one who is understood is put in a position of judging the authenticity of those emotional displays, which is more or less being given the role of arbitrary judge. And if the feelings of the understood is viewed as the central datum or a special kind of insight (being “woke”) into a political situation (typically gauging the degree of prejudicial unfairness, its impact on those victimized by that prejudice and what is required to rectify that unfairness) this amounts to extreme epistemological privilege. Only the victim of prejudice has access to the reality of the situation, and those who are not the victims are incapable of perceiving how they participate in the perpetration, so to use the charming the formulation of today’s hyper-just youngsters, it is their job to STFU and to accept the truth dictated to them. It never occurs to anyone within the power hierarchy of wokeness that there’s anything superior to all this illiberal mess to awaken to. There are philosophical worldviews that are more thorough, more comprehensive and more expansive than the dwarfish ideology of the popular left, but for all the reasons they are eager to point out to anyone who defies them, they are entirely incapable of seeing beyond the motivated reasoning of their own class interests. (This does not mean I think the popular right is any better. It is not. We are in a Weimaresque situation of resentful evil left idiocy vs paranoid evil right idiocy, with the reasonable voices shoved to the margins.)

Third, I’ve found myself misunderstood by many close friends on how I view relationships, and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl did a great job of capturing how people think I see them: a “slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notion about what binds people to each other.” I think the misunderstanding is rooted in this same conception of human understanding being primarily an emotional phenomenon. When my own ideal of marriage or of friendship is strained through the filter of today’s left worldview, it looks like a mystical merging of souls that arouses (and should arouse!) suspicions of domination and anxieties around loss of self. But any attempt I make to try to explain the difference between what I have in mind looks like, well, an attempt at philosophical domination and a threat to the selfhood of whoever is foolish enough to take it seriously. Who am I to tell someone something they don’t already know? And anyway, it smells very cultish to listen to someone claiming to know better than the public what is true and right. So, by the circular logic of the popular worldview of the left, it is superior to form one’s own individual opinion (never mind that this opinion on opinions is a product of an unexamined and manifestly broken worldview.)

Obviously, this means extreme alienation for anyone who adopts a sharply differing worldview that affirms the importance of collaboratively developing shared understandings with those around them. In an environment of extreme ideological conformity (with brutal social consequences for infractions) that exalts above all the importance of intellectual independence — but strictly within its own confined philosophical horizon — a philosophy of interdependence, of collaborative development of the very concepts one uses to form one’s opinions, and exalting a togetherness in shared worldview is marked for expulsion.

Anyway, what I really have in mind when I imagine ideal personal connections is, once again, that ideal sketched out by Bernstein, captured so well by Geertz, which I will now go ahead and re-re-quote.

…Accounts of other peoples’ subjectivities can be built up without recourse to pretensions to more-than-normal capacities for ego effacement and fellow feeling. Normal capacities in these respects are, of course, essential, as is their cultivation, if we expect people to tolerate our intrusions into their lives at all and accept us as persons worth talking to. I am certainly not arguing for insensitivity here, and hope I have not demonstrated it. But whatever accurate or half-accurate sense one gets of what one’s informants are, as the phrase goes, really like does not come from the experience of that acceptance as such, which is part of one’s own biography, not of theirs. It comes from the ability to construe their modes of expression, what I would call their symbol systems, which such an acceptance allows one to work toward developing. Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem — than it is like achieving communion.

And now I will quote myself:

“Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem…” or knowing how to design for them.

A design that makes sense, which is easy to interact with and which is a valuable and welcome addition to a person’s life is proof that this person is understood, that the designer cared enough to develop an understanding and to apply that understanding to that person’s benefit.

A good design shares the essential qualities of a good gift.

The kind of merging I have in mind is just sharing a worldview and using it together to live together, what Husserl (Heidegger’s teacher) called a “lifeworld“. I’ve called the process “enworldment”.

The merging aspect of this ideal enters the stage through my belief (shared, I believe by Process Theology) that souls are universe-sized. The pragmatic consequence of what one means when one says “everything” is the scope and density of one’s soul. To enworld* with another is to bring two “everythings” into harmonious relationship, and to begin to function more like a culture than two isolated individuals within this isolating milieu so many of us, without ever choosing, without even knowing we had a choice, inhabit as prisoners of our own destitute freedom.

(Note: that “enworld” link above is a pretty old post, and I’m not sure right now how much of it I still agree with. It makes me want to engage my old self in dialogue and try to discover how much common ground we have. How enworlded am I with my 9-years-ago self?)

Critical reverence

In Torah study my fellow students regard our heritage with a distinctive attitude that can be characterized as critical reverence. We are horrified by much of what the Israelites did in God’s name, but we know that this is where we, who now judge, learned our judgment. Without them, we would not be in a position to see how we would prefer them to have behaved. And we can only hope our children and all of posterity will regard us with the same attitude, gratefully accepting what we bequeath but — even better, refusing to repeat our mistakes.


The Left and the Right seem to agree on at least one thing: they both think that criticism and reverence are incompatible. If you revere, you cannot criticize. If you can criticize, you can no longer revere. This is a side-effect of philosophical impoverishment. True reverence and criticism are mutually dependent. Criticism without reverence (or respect) is condemnation. Reverence without criticism is delusional fanaticism.

When the Left learns to revere as it criticizes, and the Right learns to criticize as it reveres we will be prepared to reconcile and recommence our national project.


I need to read about Gershom Scholem‘s life. Scholem, along with his best friend, Walter Benjamin, could be a Northwest Passage from Judaism into those aspects of Nietzsche which remain as compelling to me today as when they blew me to pieces in 2003. I can feel Nietzsche’s perspective(s) inside Scholem’s driest historical accounts. I fully expect to read another of one of those Nietzsche encounters, similar to Jung’s, which stimulated his beautiful but bonkers Red Book.

Vision and voice

People love to watch an artist draw. He draws a line and slowly it becomes a shape. He adds more lines, and introduces shading. So far, the relationships are all within the page; a composition takes form. But the drawing suggests that it is a drawing of something — but of what? Here is where the suspense is concentrated. The interrelated elements on the page taken as a whole point beyond themselves, to realities beyond the page. In figurative art, the reference is to physical objects. But this is only the basest reality. Beyond it is mood, and the mood is connected to the figures. And beyond that, there are layers of symbol, starting with shared cultural meanings, proceeding onward to more obscure and personal intimations.

I think storytelling is a mode of speech that imitates drawing. Human beings are predominantly visual, and whatever modes of thought make use of the visual modes of thought gain an advantage.

Maybe objectivity is preferred over subjectivity because objectivity is more optical. When we don’t want to follow some involved line of thought, when we don’t want to reach the conclusion by the path of personal realization, but just want the bottom-line result, what do we ask for? A synopsis.


Martin Buber: “The Greeks established the hegemony of the sense of sight over the other senses, thus making the optical world into the world, into which the data of the other senses are now to be entered. Correspondingly, they also gave to philosophizing, which for the Indian was still only a bold attempt to catch hold of one’s own self, an optical character, that is, the character of the contemplation of particular objects.”

More and more, I am understanding Judaism to be a perpetually developing religion of time and speech subsuming space and sight, eternally at odds with the eternalizing religions of space and sight which look forward to the end of time (which entails an end to speech). Jews hear truth and say truth. In the process truth is revealed. Truth is a relationship. “Gentiles” see the truth and assert the truth. Truth is a thing.

To flatten the history of the Jews into a series of factual ethical assertions strung together on a thread of narrative is to misunderstand it (almost) completely.


Here’s the Ricoeur passage that set me off on this line of thought:

…polysemy is the pivot of semantics. …we there come marvelously upon what I have called the exchanges between the structure and the event. In fact this process presents itself as a convergence of two factors, a factor of expansion and, at the limit, of surcharge. By virtue of the cumulative process… the word tends to be charged with use-values, but the projection of this cumulative process into the system of signs implies that the new meaning finds its place within the system. The expansion, and, if the case obtains, the surcharge is arrested by the mutual limitation of signs within the system. In this sense we can speak of a limiting action of the field, opposed to the tendency to expansion, which results from the cumulative process of the word. Thus is explained what one could call a regulated polysemy, which is the law of our language. Words have more than one sense, but they do not have an infinity of meanings.

This example shows how semantic systems differ from semiological systems. The latter can be treated without any reference to history; they are intemporal systems because they are potential. Phonology gives the best illustration of this. Only the binary oppositions between distinctive units play a role. In semantics, in contrast, the differentiation of meanings results from the equilibrium between two processes, a process of expansion and a process of limitation, which force words to shape themselves a place amid others, to hierarchize their use-values. This process of differentiation is irreducible to a simple taxonomy. Regulated polysemy is of the panchronic order, that is, both synchronic and diachronic to the degree that a history projects itself into states of systems, which henceforth are only instantaneous cross-sections in the process of sense, in the process of nomination.

We then understand what happens when the word returns to the discourse along with its semantic richness. All our words being polysemic to some degree the univocity or plurivocity of our discourse is not the accomplishment of words but of contexts. In the case of univocal discourse, that is, of discourse which tolerates only one meaning, it is the task of the context to hide the semantic richness of words, to reduce it by establishing what Greiman calls an isotopy, that is, a frame of reference, a theme, an identical topic for all the words of the sentence (for example, if I develop a geometrical “theme,” the word volume will be interpreted as a body in space; if the theme concerns the library, the word volume will be interpreted as designating a book). If the context tolerates or even preserves several isotopies at the same time, we will be dealing with an actually symbolic language, which, in saying one thing, says something else. Instead of sifting out one dimension of meaning, the context allows several to pass, indeed, consolidates several of them, which run together in the manner of the superimposed texts of a palimpsest. The polysemy of our words is then liberated. Thus the poem allows all the semantic values to be mutually reinforced. More than one interpretation is then justified by the structure of a discourse which permits multiple dimensions of meaning to be realized at the same time.

In short, language is in celebration. It is indeed in a structure that this abundance is ordered and deployed; but the structure of the sentence does not, strictly speaking, create anything. It collaborates with the polysemy of our words to produce this effect of meaning that we call symbolic discourse, and the polysemy itself of our words results from the concurrence of the metaphorical process with the limiting action of the semantic field.