Category Archives: Philosophy

Sharing the burden of truth

We converse with people we must persuade in one way — we place the burden of proof on ourselves.

We converse with people who must persuade us in another — we the place the burden of proof on them.

A great many people are unphilosophical, and instinctively assess relative power by where the burden of proof is placed. When approached by a person who seeks to persuade, they automatically perceive that person as socially inferior — equal at best — to one who requires persuasion, and thus assumes the role of arbiter.

What is the solution for a philosopher who seeks reasoned consensus in all matters — who wishes to both give and to hear good reasons — but who does not want to be perceived as socially inferior to those who do not share a commitment to reasoned consensus?

Require persuasion to be reciprocal — and when dealing with unphilosophical people, make the other persuade first, before seeking to persuade. In a perfect world, this would not be necessary, but this world is nowhere near perfect.

Performing pluralism

Pluralism is a primarily a performative truth, and only secondarily a propositional truth.

A pluralist acknowledges that we are all free to propose and perform the truth we believe.

But how does a pluralist avoid the performative contradiction of requiring others to perform pluralism if they don’t really accept?

It’s simple: The pluralist steadfastly performs and professes pluralism despite the protests of antipluralists who wish to privilege their absolutist convictions or assumptions. But, just as importantly, the pluralist does not attempt to stop antipluralists from protesting, or professing or performing their antipluralism, as long as they are not interfering with pluralists’ exercise of pluralism.

Of course, antipluralists will always try to impede exercise of pluralism, but this can only happen if pluralists fail to persuade a critical mass of people to voluntarily adopt pluralism.

A pluralist, therefore, is wise to perform pluralism for the benefit of the persuadable — in direct defiance of antipluralists who are never ready to hear a pluralist view, and who believe that they are the arbiters of what is to be said and what ought to be suppressed.

But a pluralist is also free to choose whether to engage pluralism-professing performative antipluralists or not — and I believe it is unwise to bother, unless potential pluralists are present to witness it.

*

Anyone who feels entitled to suppress information that they believe to be untrue or mismotivated is performing antipluralism.

Habermas and the public sphere

I’m reading about Habermas, from (Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series) in preparation for reading some of his core works. This stood out to me:

Habermas claims to have embarked upon a new way of doing social philosophy, one that begins from an analysis of language use and that locates the rational basis of the coordination of action in speech. He associates this new approach with a more general shift in philosophy called the ‘linguistic turn’. This phrase originally designated different attempts by various 20th-century philosophers to resolve apparently intractable epistemological and metaphysical disputes by investigating the conceptual truths inherent in our use of language. The basic strategy was to treat questions of what there is, of what can be known, and of how we can know it, as questions of what we mean, or what refers and how. Habermas applies a similar strategy to the questions of the nature of the social and the possibility of social order.

Anyone who has had the misfortune of reading my blog or conversing with me would be forgiven for assuming that I would oppose any social philosophy “that begins from an analysis of language use and that locates the rational basis of the coordination of action in speech”.

On the contrary, I insist upon it.

Why?

It comes down to Rorty’s concept of public and private projects:

The new distinction is between projects of social cooperation and projects of individual self- development. Intersubjective agreement is required for the former projects, but not for the latter. Natural science is a paradigmatic project of social cooperation: the project of improving man’s estate by taking account of every possible observation and experimental result in order to facilitate the making of predictions that will come true. Law is another such paradigm. Romantic art, by contrast, is a paradigmatic project of individual self-development. Religion, if it can be disconnected from both science and morals — from the attempt to predict the consequences of our actions and the attempt to rank human needs — may be another such paradigm.

Habermas is speaking of public forms of reasoning — the justification of actions and of decisions to which other people will be subjected.

It is my passionate belief that such public justification must be linguistic.

When we subject another group to social control, the reasons for that breach of autonomy must be given, and given so that a healthy majority find these reasons acceptable. If such breaches are not justified to the general satisfaction of the populace the social order will be threatened.

This means that the reasons must not only be given, but also, on the whole, accepted by those to whom they are given. You can’t just make up theories that satisfy yourself and the likeminded, and, on the basis of that self-justification, just impose your will — unless you already have way the fuck too much power.

It is this conviction — the conviction that such power concentrations threaten liberal democracy — that I still call myself left. I’m leftist not because I care about fairness per se, but because I want sufficient equality among classes that they have no choice but to negotiate with one another.

When one group gains enough material power that they believe they no longer must gain majority support, but rather begin to appeal to non-democratic standards — the usual intuitive bullshit offered by the powerful (rights, history, compassion for select categories of people, God’s will, personal feelings, intuitions and other furniture of personal conviction — the group in power will rarely recognize they are oppressing another. They simply feel they are no longer willing to compromise on values that are more important than winning public support for their intentions, and they refuse to bother with it because they don’t have to.

At this point, they stop talking democratically of persuading, building coalitions, winning support or alignment and so on — and begin talking autocratically of using power responsibly, doing what is right, respecting truth, winning the gratitude of the future, and concocting even-steven secular theodicies, where it is all cosmically ok to oppress because you win some and lose some, so why fret when you win and others lose? (Very, very leftist, there.)

If these people of conscience felt a little more vulnerable they might ask themselves some basic Golden Rule questions along the lines of “what if this logic were applied back to me?” — but the powerful generally can’t imagine not having power, and this failure of imagination makes them impossible to reason with. This is why it is that more often than not, the powerful must be forcibly removed from power before they can see why their social inferiors are so murderously furious.

*

It is my position that 1) the widening of the wealth gap, plus 2) changes in the role of technology in our social lives, plus 3) the domination of technology by the ruling class has created a gross power imbalance that now constitutes a threat to our liberal-democratic order.

The threat is manifested as a new moral absolutism, which ideologically excludes the voices of anyone outside its ideological horizons. This absolutism is nearly universally held by the ruling class (the hyper-rich and the professional class that reports to the hyper-rich).

This ruling class is so overwhelmingly powerful that it feels entitled — no, duty-bound — to impose its will on an unwilling population. It explains away the objections of the unwilling using its own psychological and social theories, which are also unacceptable to the hapless folks subjected to these theories. They aren’t indignant at being oppressed and treated with contempt. No, they are “fragile”. See?

And nobody can tell these overclassers that none of this is even slightly leftist, because they, and they alone, decide what is leftist. And what is racist, too. And everything of any social importance. They, as a ruling class, dictate truth, justice and reality itself.

This set of self-serving moral convictions plus the theoretical metabeliefs that protect these convictions from external and internal critique is Progressivism. Progressivism is the dominant ideology of the ruling class, its values are replicated and reinforced through the classic moves of cultural hegemony — and those people dominated by this movement, who benefit from it, are entirely unable and unwilling to entertain the possibility that they are oppressors of the worst sort, because they are desperately self-righteous.

NOBODY in my social group can claim I didn’t tell them so. I am telling every adherent to this class supremacist ideology that they are complicit in an illiberal, antidemocratic, and anti-leftist movement. So far, I’ve only gotten a bunch of complaints about feeling judged, or not quite getting it, or this not being polite. You know — the usual blather one gets when one “speaks truth to power”. But these overclassers see it as their prerogative to decide who has power and who doesn’t. It is just uppity for some random nobody to suggest that they are the power. The overclass has made it very clear how they expect these matters to be seen, so get in your place.

But I am digressing. I assume I’ve lost most of my readers by this point. And good riddance: discussing principles with unprincipled hypocrites is beneath my dignity. I’ve stopped doing it. As Eric Voegelin famously said: “I have been called every conceivable name by partisans of this or that ideology. … Understandably, I have never answered such criticisms; critics of this type can become objects of inquiry, but they cannot be partners in a discussion.”

*

I want to turn to the private sphere now — that realm of personal self-development projects. This is the sphere where language must not dominate, where the tacit activity of intuition should reign freely.

Part of why liberalism matters to me so much is that I believe this is where much of the best of human life happens, and that if it is forced to self-justify and give reasons for itself, it will have none.

So, in a liberal democracy, language governs the democratic half, and intuition governs (or at least can govern) the liberal half.

Part of the duty of democracy is to make verbal arguments to protect that part of human life that cannot make verbal argument (or which cannot yet make verbal arguments) — that place where originality emerges. It is my ardent wish to enlarge the private sphere to the greatest possible extent for all people for the enrichment of humanity. Whatever leftism I’ve adopted is there entirely for the sake of liberalism.

And to do this, we must convince the majority of citizens that they benefit and ought to support the maximizing of the private realm through championing real liberalism.

But –[resume diatribe]– when one powerful group loses sight of the requirement to persuade the majority of the value of liberalism and begins to force its opinions of what liberties, beliefs, judgment, intuitions are legitimate on a population that feels its own rights are being violated, they’ll rebel against such “liberalism” in the name of personal freedom.

It is a truly strange situation when autocrats with absolutist notions of whose liberties do and do not matter — a question bound up with the deeper question of who gets to judge these matters — call themselves “liberal” and violate the basic principles of liberalism by deciding these questions of civil liberties unilaterally — and then find themselves opposed by people who hate “liberals” and fight back — weirdly, as liberals.

Strange days.

Militant pluralism

When I was agnostic, religious believers and atheistic nonbelievers would sometimes accuse me of being noncommittal.

Eventually, I found my stance: devout agnosticism.

My devout agnosticism was not on the same plane as factual conviction. It was a commitment to epistemological integrity — and that commitment was every bit as passionate as any atheistic or theistic belief. People find it difficult to imagine that anyone could feel deeply about something as abstract as epistemology, but this incomprehension does not make it any less so. (This passionate commitment, by the way, led me beyond the shallow for-and-against of the debate to an understanding that would have remained inconceivable to me if I had prematurely taken a side.

This experience, in combination with many others, have strengthened my commitment to thinking beyond simple for-against binary antitheticals.

Now I find myself in the same position regarding abortion.

Since the overturning of Roe v Wade in June, several women have engaged me in conversation on this subject, only to inform me, after realizing that my own views differ slightly from theirs, that my opinion on the abortion issue is irrelevant and unwanted. They all say the same thing (in the same words): “they are not ready” to hear any opposing view, because they are still too angry.

But they are especially not ready to hear my particular view, which is, to them, the kind of abstract theoretical opining a person not directly affected by the decision would have. They find it difficult to imagine that I could feel deeply about a position so abstract and “academic” as mine, but (as with my agnosticism) but I do feel very strongly on this matter, and their incomprehension does not make it any less so.

My position is that we must engage our political opponents as adversaries who seek different ends than us within our liberal democratic order, and not enemies who pose an existential threat. To maintain this, it is crucially important to try to see the validity of their positions, however vehemently we disagree with them. Those of us who believe in a woman’s right to make their choice whether or not to abort should work to understand abortion opponents’ various framings of the issue — some of which are, indeed, fundamentalist and others of which are, indeed, cynically partisan — but others of which are motivated by humane concerns, and others of which are focused on protecting our liberal democratic institutions. But you can never understand this if you attribute to them contemptible or insidious motives, declare them existential enemies and refuse to hear what they say. And it is even worse if you coercively silence them or terrorize them into keeping their beliefs to themselves. Our adversaries are not our enemies, and if they sometimes get their way at the expense of us getting ours, this does not constitute an existential threat. But seeing every deep disagreement as a threat, paradoxically is. Turning every disagreement into a literal life-threatening emergency is. It is to our own advantage to understand the full validity of our adversaries’ positions, because this helps us see that they are not monsters, not enemies.

This is the position I have stated, and which my angry female friends have told me they are “not ready” to hear and which apparently “causes hurt” when I state them.

One woman told me it would even be better if I just took the opposing view, because at least it would signal concrete involvement. It is the theoretical stance of the dis-involved that infuriates.

They are perfectly free to postpone the conversation until they cool down and feel ready to discuss it.

What they are not free to do is try to prevent me from stating my opinion, if they are stating theirs, and especially not if the claim is that my opinions cause them emotional distress. Their attempts — increasingly successful — to socially control whose opinions can be voiced and whose must be suppressed is causing me emotional distress. So now what?

*

What I want people to understand is this: There are four sides to this conflict: their side, my side, what they think my side is, and what I think their side is.

For these righteously angry women, however, it appears (to me) there are only two sides: their side and what they think my side is.

It is those two missing sides — precisely the part that is not inside their own heads — that they are “not ready” for — and this is the crux of the matter.

They are never ready to hear those missing sides.

Sacrosanct fury over bodily autonomy and their status as citizens is only the latest excuse for a deeply habitual contempt for whatever transcends their own limited perspective. This time it is too infuriating. Other times they feel endangered. Or they imagine slippery slopes to extremism and violence. Or they see the preservation of an oppressive status quo. Or they attribute hate.

There are always pressing reasons why their own view — the two sides in their own heads — is the only one taken as real.

And it is this refusal to acknowledge the limits of their own perspectives, their refusal to respect other perspectives, and their readiness to use social terror to force others to pretend to agree with their perspective that is my passionate concern.

In other words, it is their antipluralism that offends me.

I hold pluralism sacred. And when pluralism is suppressed, especially in organizations I love, I feel offense and visceral fury.

And the very claim that my offense and fury is less important, or less legitimate, or less deeply felt than the fury of a woman denied the right to abort a fetus — this exemplifies my point.

This, my angry female friend, is not for you to decide.

Does pointing this fact out “cause hurt”?

Your emotional bullying also “causes hurt”. And although you seem incapable of understanding it, this hurt matters every bit as much as yours does.

But you don’t have to understand it. I will demonstrate it to you by meeting your offense, your fury, your force, your eagerness to confront and create conflict — with my own. And in my prolonged, pressurized self-constraint, I have grown immensely furious, and ready to fight back. I have decided that this is a hill I will proudly die on.

But I will not do as you wish and meet you on your level, and oppose you with a simplistic For that mirrors your simplistic Against.

I do not need your understanding and stamp of approval of my position to fight you. I am coming back at you from beyond your understanding.

I’m done holding my tongue for the sake of keeping the peace. This silence preserves your delusions of unanimity, and encourages your aggression. As you so often say: Silence is violence.

*

My new stance is militant pluralism.

I will tactfully advocate pluralism. If pluralism is forcibly suppressed, I will use whatever counter-force I have at my disposal to re-impose pluralism.

And also know: if you use coercive force to suppress pluralism, you are not a mere adversary, but an enemy: an existential threat to what I care most deeply about.

*

Progressivists, I am finished indulging your collective political narcissism.

You don’t get to decide whose indignation is righteous and whose is “fragility”.

You don’t get to decide whose bigotry is antiracist activism and whose is white supremacy.

You don’t get to decide what identities are real and which are not, which are powerful, which are not — and you do not get to assign those identities and deduce who someone is from them.

You don’t get to decide who is and is not privileged.

You don’t get to decide why people really think what they think, act as they act, or vote as they vote.

And you don’t get to decide what this abortion debate is about, and who has a right to an opinion and who doesn’t.

This is a liberal democracy and we come to these decisions together.

Anyone who does not know this is an enemy of liberal democracy, even if they’ve deluded themselves into believing they are its saviors.

*

Does all this still strike you as abstract, academic, detached, cold? Do you still doubt the sincerity, intensity, validity or courage of my conviction?

Then try me.

Progressive meditations

Here is a question every privilege-checking progressive “ally” of less privileged people should ask themselves:

Do you really believe you get more power and privilege from your racial, sexual or gender identities — or any intersectional combination of them — than you get from your class identity?

Class identity, of course, includes educational pedigree, social connections and behavioral class signifiers (manners, vocabulary, cultural know-how, and so on).

Another way to approach this question is to ask yourself: Would you be as willing and eager to check your class privilege as you have been to renounce your race privilege?

Ask yourself: do you really think these class signifiers your own class accepts as matter-of-fact qualifications — for knowing truer truths, judging more justly and basically calling the shots on all important matters — are somehow objectively valid — and not just the standard features of every dominant ideology?

Do you really, fully understand that a great many European colonists really wanted to bring Christian salvation to the savages of the Americas? Do you understand that conservatives truly do want to save the lives of fetuses? …In precisely the same way, progressives really do want to protect vulnerable populations?

The notion held by progressives that somehow their own sincere motives differ from those of others — that their sincere altruism differs from the delusional altruism of these others — is the furthest thing from a differentiator. This is the essential commonality of every ideologue.

If you think having the immense unilateral power required to offer these protections to vulnerable groups is just a means to an end — that is only how it looks from the inside. From outside it looks like the protection is justificatory means to the end of possessing overwhelming power.

I don’t want to hear your answers. This is between you and your own conscience. I’m sure you can make arguments proving whatever you want. I just want you to ask yourself these questions, listen to your own answers and really notice if you believe yourself. 

Decency demands it.

You won’t hear me

I keep trying, with increasing desperation, to say the same thing.

But it is exactly the ones I most need to hear it who never will hear it.

And what I want to say is: “You won’t hear me.

Sometimes people need to not hear you.

Their world depends on it.

*

Does it seem improbable to you that a person would murder to avoid feeling like a murderer?

*

Once I realize a person needs to not understand my core truth — needs to not understand me — friendship ends, even if it takes time for that truth to fully dawn.

People who are incapable of understanding can be dear friends… if I believe that they would understand if they could. They might not be able to share doctrine, but they can share faith, and faith matters most.

*

The powerful get to dictate truth, including, most of all, who is — and who is not — powerful.

Second verse, same as the first

We apprehend that something is, but we may not comprehend what it is.

“Apprehending that” establishes something’s existence.

“Comprehending what” establishes its conceptual relations within our understanding.

Sometimes (often, in fact) we apprehend something, but we cannot immediately comprehend it. We either ignore it as irrelevant, gloss over it, or are forced to figure out what it is. Sometimes, after a little effort, we recognize what it is, either with a word, or, failing that, with an analogy that has not yet been assigned a word: “this is, in some sense, like that.” Sometimes this recognition clicks, and we begin to experience it as a given what that thing is. Sometimes the recognition does not click, but we have no better option than to manually recall what we made of it, and hope the recall eventually becomes habitual.

In other words, there is spontaneous whatness, and there is artificial whatness.

In some cases, we can apprehend that something exists, or comprehend what it is, but still have no univocal sense of its meaning (in the valuative sense — moral or aesthetic), either because there is no distinct meaning or because we sense conflicting meanings. We have to reflect on it, turn it and its context around in our minds, and work out how we ought to feel. Sometimes a sense of moral clarity comes to us, but often it doesn’t.

In other words, there is spontaneous whyness, and there is artificial whyness.

We also might apprehend that something exists, or even comprehend what it is, but be unprepared to respond to it practically. We can talk about it, but cannot interact with it effectively. We are forced to think it out, devise a plan and execute the plan before we know what to do.

In other words, there is spontaneous howness, and there is artificial howness.

Perhaps the reverse of these cases is more interesting: sometimes we might lack comprehension, but still somehow still sense the value of something only apprehended. We might even respond practically — pre-verbally — to a realy that is apprehended but which remains uncomprehended.

Does that seem impossible? Do you believe a thing must be comprehended before value can be felt or response is possible? If you believe this, I accept that this is true — for you. I have no doubt this is true for a great portion of modern human beings. I won’t even rule out the possibility this is the case for the majority of educated people living in this era. For this type, reality is intercepted and linguified prior to feeling value or responding practically. And when we do something often we get better and better at it. We begin to think we can train ourselves to understand the world the way we want to, to train our feelings to find goodness or beauty where we want it there to be value, and to train our behaviors to automatically respond as we want them to.

To us, this imposition of artificiality might be acceptable to people accustomed to constantly instructing themselves with words, verbalizing whatever they see, arriving at conclusions using syllogisms or frameworks, and calculate valuations in units of currency. But those of us who value in minimizing linguistic mediation between ourselves and the world, see this aggressive linguification and retraining of our What, Why and How — with little or no concern for the fact that they feel artificial or false to us — seems nothing less than an existential threat. It is social engineering on the micro-scale, and not outside and (hopefully) at a distance, like the grand social engineering of the twentieth century, but in the intimate domain of the personal soul.

And like the old “macro” social engineering projects, this micro social engineering preys on insensitivity to experience and gross over-reliance on verbalized thought. Macro-social engineering believed it would, using iron and concrete, intentionally construct a better society to replace the inadequate one that organically developed unintentionally, or more accurately developed through non-centralized, uncoordinated, distributed intentions. “Oh, you think it is ugly? It is only new and unfamiliar.” They said this about building projects, and they said this about serial music. Both produced blight. Today’s micro social engineering wants to replace inadequately-accommodating concepts and language with new truth constructions with better intentions. “Oh, this seems ungainly and false to you? It is only new and unfamiliar.” I have little doubt that entrusting the construction of truth to overconfident, ambitious wordworlders will produce intellectual and cultural blight. Of course, exactly this kind of person will make relativistic objections: Who are you to judge matters of taste? And indeed, to those without taste, taste is arbitrary. But this does not make taste arbitrary, it only disqualifies them from speaking credibly about taste — at least to others who actually have taste and know better.

*

But isn’t this… conservative? How can we make progress as a society if we must stick to what seems natural and familiar to us?

It seems obvious that what is most familiar to us feels natural to us. Social constructivists (or at least the vulgar majority of them) will insist that these things seem natural only because they have become familiar. But this neglects the possibility that perhaps they became familiar precisely because they naturally and spontaneously appealed to people from the start. And because they felt natural soon after being adopted.

This is why I keep bringing things back to design. Design, or at least good design, aims at intuitiveness, which simply means for non-verbalized cognitive processes. We want the whatness, whyness and howness to be spontaneously understood, and to require the least possible amount of verbal assistance or figuring out.

Familiarity is a key factor in such designs. A mostly-unfamiliar design will require too much adjustment. But the innovations introduced into mostly-familiar designs are not all equal. Some are confusing, or ugly, or hard to interact with, where others, after a moment of adjustment, are experienced as clarifying, or beautiful, meaningful or delightful, or effortless to use — and it is these designs that are adopted and then seem retroactively inevitable.

But our verbal minds and its logic and frameworks do not decide what does or does not make sense or have positive value or affords an effortless interaction. It can only speculate about what might work, and use these speculations to prototype artifacts which are then offered to people’s whatness, whyness and howness intuitions. The intuitions accept them or reject them, and good designers honor this acceptance and rejection over their linguified reason.

Good designers are not really conservatives, but they are even less social constructivists. They seek a better second-naturalness — something that people willingly choose over what was familiar.

The only places where inadequate familiarity (bad conservatism) or ungainly social constructivism (bad progressivism) prevails is where voluntary adoption is not an issue because the adopters lack choice. They cannot escape the situation or have nowhere to go. Or at least the bad conservatives or bad progressivists believe they lack options and must comply.

Where rough equality and free choice exist, design prevails.

*

When I philosophize, I think things out. I try different interpretations, different analyses, different syntheses, different articulations. The ideas I devise I then offer to my intuition. If they click, I then try to use these ideas to make intuitive sense of things that matter to me, that seem to require understanding. I see how these ideas perform: do they clarify the matter? help me feel its various values? help me respond more effectively?

As with all other design, there is a strange ambiguity between the designed artifact as an object, the subjective using of the artifact, and the new sense of objectivity as given through the artifact’s mediation. To offer a tangible example, when we use a new digital tool, we are aware of the tool itself, we are also aware that we are using it in some particular way that is patly novel, and we find that what we are using the tool to perceive or act upon (for instance, images we view or images we edit) are understood somewhat differently. All these ambiguities are what designers mean when we say we are designing an experience, as opposed to merely the artifact.

With philosophy, there is language and there are concepts. But there is also a using of these words and concepts, and this using can be effective or ineffective. The using of the words and concepts, once acquired, is applicable even outside of the philosophical artifact itself. It “clings” like the mood of a novel, except it produces intuitive understandings — What, Why and How of various kinds and relations. I’ve called these “conceptive capacities”. New conceptive capacities are what “inspire us” and what “gives us ideas”. Perhaps this very line of thought I’m sketching inspires you and gives you ideas. This line of thought also has given me a world of ideas and thst world is what my book is about. I’ve called this book Second Natural and also Enworldment — the former, because the very goal is to produce a second natural truth that we truly believe, and the latter because radically new second natural truth produces a very different overall understanding of the world and of everything. Which reminds me of an old abandoned third title: The Ten Thousand Everythings, so named because every person is the center of an enworldment, even if, to us, they seem to be a thing belonging to our own enworldment.

Respect requires us to approach all other persons as the center of an enworldment. Our dignity is injured if we are not treated as such.

Yet, tragically, the more brilliant we are, the better informed we are, the more certain we are of our own benevolence and righteousness — and, yes, the more powerful we are — the more likely we are to disrespect those who differ from us, and the more ready we are to injure their dignity by forcing upon them our own self-evidently superior enworldment — which, to them, feels artificial, tyrannical, hubristic and profoundly dehumanizing.

Comprehensive-participatory

Perhaps I should abandon all talk of objectivity and subjectivity, and reseat the conversation on the distinction between comprehensive and participatory knowledge.

Or maybe I should just finish introducing and developing the comprehensive-participatory distinction before associating comprehensive knowledge with objectivity and participatory knowledge with subjectivity.

The paradox of contempt

When we are treated with contempt by someone we respect (or would otherwise respect) we instinctively want our indignation acknowledged by the one who treated us contemptuously.

But the very contempt that caused the initial indignation also prevents the acknowledgment of the indignation. We seek healing precisely where the injury happens and will never stop happening.

The interpersonal pain I have found hardest to overcome has this form.

The political pain I am experiencing now has this form. I cannot be heard.

*

It is difficult to prevent indignation from festering into resentment.

Perhaps I have failed.

Soap bubble

Some kinds of knowledge are simply there for the grasping. You point your head at an object and a fact tumbles into your mind.

Other kinds of knowledge are constructed. Grasped facts are logically or causally linked to produce systems of knowledge. Facts are glued together with “therefores”, “thusses”, “ands” and other operations to make complex assertions. Then the whole assertion is black-boxed, sealed shut and labeled “idea”.

Other kinds of knowledge are analogical. We recognize some abstract characteristic and say “this is like that in x respect”. Then we give x some name, and then that x becomes one more graspable object. Sometimes that named abstraction becomes more real to us than the original this and that. Identity occludes uniqueness.

Some kinds of knowledge — to me, the most fascinating and consequential knowledge — requires us to change ourselves before we acquire the capacity to understand them. Or perhaps it would be better to say: we must change who we are before we have an ability to participate in this knowing. Until we make this change we are inadequate to the knowledge, and we cannot even recognize, conceive or comprehend that there is anything knowable. We are “blind”, or lack “ears to hear” what is meant. We lack the living question to which this knowing is an articulate response.

Until we acquire such a conceptive capacity, though, we will go right along knowing exactly what all this miraculous seeing, hearing and conceiving means. We will overflow with explanations for why people believe it and what kind of validity it has or lacks. We cannot conceive that we don’t really conceive its meaning, because we have no point of comparison.

We are trapped in our unpunctured soap bubble of omniscience, and even if that pops, there is another beyond it, containing it.

It’s soap bubbles all the way out, sahib.

*

Nobody knows more than someone who knows nothing.

*

IN THE NORTHERN DARKNESS there is a fish and his name is K’un. The K’un is so huge I don’t know how many thousand li he measures. He changes and becomes a bird whose name is P’eng. The back of the P’eng measures I don’t know how many thousand li across and, when he rises up and flies off, his wings are like clouds all over the sky. When the sea begins to move, this bird sets off for the southern darkness, which is the Lake of Heaven.

The Universal Harmony records various wonders, and it says: “When the P’eng journeys to the southern darkness, the waters are roiled for three thousand li. He beats the whirlwind and rises ninety thousand li, setting off on the sixth month gale.” Wavering heat, bits of dust, living things blowing each other about — the sky looks very blue. Is that its real color, or is it because it is so far away and has no end? When the bird looks down, all he sees is blue too.

If water is not piled up deep enough, it won’t have the strength to bear up a big boat. Pour a cup of water into a hollow in the floor and bits of trash will sail on it like boats. But set the cup there and it will stick fast, for the water is too shallow and the boat too large. If wind is not piled up deep enough, it won’t have the strength to bear up great wings. Therefore when the P’eng rises ninety thousand li, he must have the wind under him like that. Only then can he mount on the back of the wind, shoulder the blue sky, and nothing can hinder or block him. Only then can he set his eyes to the south.

The cicada and the little dove laugh at this, saying, “When we make an effort and fly up, we can get as far as the elm or the sapanwood tree, but sometimes we don’t make it and just fall down on the ground. Now how is anyone going to go ninety thousand li to the south!” — Chuang Tzu

Golden Means

It is interesting that the Golden Mean can refer either to the Aristotelian Mean or to the Golden Ratio.

The Aristotelian Mean situates virtue in the middle or a moral continuum with deficiency at one extreme and excess at the other. For instance the virtue of courage is found between the deficient state of cowardice and the excessive state of rashness.

A similar idea is present in the Kabbalistic Sefirot, where attribute of God are presented in complex balance with one another. For instance Gevurah, “severity” is balanced with Chesed “love”. If these two attributes fall out of balanced relation they cease to be Gevurah and Chesed but instead degenerate into hatred or sentimentality.

In some forms of Chassidism, the mean between Chesed and Gevurah is not precisely at the mid-point. The ideal is to lean toward Chesed. It seems the same idea could be applied to courage, that perhaps the ideal is tilted toward rashness.

A crazy part of me wants to suggest the ideal point is not at the 50% point, but in fact at the 61.8033988749894…% point.

*

I would like to propose that the virtue of responsibility falls between limitless obligation and limitless freedom.

But it is interesting to ask: in this virtue mean which extreme would be the deficiency, and which the excess? Is excess taking for oneself too much freedom? Or is excess taking on too much obligation? If there is a preferable tilt, which way does it go?

Enceptive-synthetic

Conceptive understanding is a matter of presequence: given some particular fact, to what questions can it be understood to be an answer? This is hermeneutic meaning.

Synthetic understanding is a matter of consequence: given some particular fact, what facts follow, logically and or causally? This is pragmatic meaning.

But “what follows” is determined by (enabled and limited by) what questions we can meaningfully ask. Conceptive understanding is what makes live questions live, what animates our asking, what invests a search with urgency.

The primary and universal givens and questions of mundane human life — practical questions concerning other people, faces, animals, natural and artificial objects, dwellings, terrains, emotions, dispositions, intentions, and so on — are universal because all people are concerned with them. Upon these, questions of biological functioning hang. “What is this?” “What can I do with it?” “Is it dangerous?” “Can I use it?” “Can I eat it?” “Should I get away from it?” “Should I approach it?” “Can I break it into pieces?” “Can I make something out of it?”

From these primary givens all manner of complex synthetic understandings can be built up. These ramifying, interconnected syntheses form systems.

Sometimes synthetic systems will “click” and a gestalt will emerge from a system. One suddenly intuits the system as a whole. Or, better, one intuits a whole together with its parts, as an articulated whole. In such cases we develop a complementary mutually-reinforcing conceptive-synthetic understanding.

(Philosophers, especially, love conceptive-synthetic understandings, though they rarely foreground this taste and instead simply look through it at their various objects of thought. But this is how conceptive understandings essentially are: they are not themselves objects of thought, but instead mediate our thinking and produce some sense of objectivity. This makes them impossible to think about if we expect all thinkable entities to be mental objects. Synthetic understanding, failing to find graspable elements to connect, makes an objection: “This does not compute.”)

Conceptive understandings are not necessarily limited to synthesized gestalts — or at least, they don’t have to be, unless we intentionally limit them. To liberate themselves from irrational notions, many rationalists discipline their thinking to fully accept as true only synthesis-vetted conceptions, and to tune out or psychologically compartmentalize the many other conceptions — such as mental, emotional, verbal and imaginative associations, aesthetic perceptions, superstitions, fantasies, etc. — that happen constantly during any ordinary day. We select some conceptions to take seriously and integrate into our sense of truth, and bracket innumerable others that interfere with our systematic understanding of truth built up from primary givens.

My belief is that there is another unacknowledged ground of truth that complements primary givens, with a conceptive understanding of the ultimate whole. But, being conceptive, it shares that unnerving refusal to be an object of thought, and instead mediates our sense of “everything”. I have called this “enception” — that whole from which all conceptive understandings are articulations. I believe it is precisely from our enception that all conceptive understandings derive their meaning, their life, their urgency, their animation. And so, if we only permit truth in the form of synthesis of primary conceptions, our overall sense of meaning in life can become attenuated or even cut off and starved.

I believe all healthy religious life attempts to discipline thought and action to articulate one’s enception in such a way that one’s sense of truth is animated by it. Ideally, because I am both philosophically religious and religiously philosophical, I want the synthetic truths I build up from primary givens to mirror, as exactly as possible, the gestalt givens that I spontaneously recognize in the world around me.

Or to say it better; I want my angels to ascend all the way from Earth and to descend all the way from Heaven on the same ladder.

*

Let’s call the state of full enceptive-synthetic correspondence synesis.

I learned this word from Richard J. Bernstein who died on July 4th this year. May his memory be an ever-expanding, ever-deepening, ever-intensifying blessing.

Re-cranking the writing machine

(I’m trying to get back to publishing my ideas, even when they are far from perfect. For some reason I’ve been inclined to leave most of what I write private, but I’m going to make myself start putting things out there again. )


My immersion in the philosophical work of Jan Zwicky has given me a much sharper sense of what I want my book to 1) be and 2) do.

I want it to be a beautiful and dense work — of the kind I, myself, love. As much as I’d love readers to understand and be persuaded by my thoughts, explanatory or persuasive writing is not what I enjoy doing. Even more importantly, it is not what I love reading. I put enormous effort into cracking into difficult ideas —  if I sense something momentous and sublime in them. I am bored and impatient with books that take on too much of the task of explaining and persuading. I don’t want that understanding done for me. I don’t like reading examples and stories. I’ll find my own meaning, connections and applications.

My book will be as simple as possible, but for the sake of aesthetics, not for making things easy for lazy, complacent, merely curious readers. Those lacking urgency and pain-tolerance are invited to give up. That is a virtue, not a flaw.

I want my book to do several things.

  1. I want by book to defend that mode of understanding that Zwicky calls lyric and connects with gestalt psychology. Lyric understanding responds to reality in a way independent of, irreducible to, but intimately related with the form of thinking she calls analytic. She acknowledges the value of analytic thought, but believes it is currently failing to coexist with lyric understanding, one result of which is seeing nature as something to dominate. She outlines a different relationship — one which balances lyric sensitivity to the real with analytic practicality (and for beings like us an unavoidable necessity) in a stance she calls “domestic”. I have a different vocabulary from hers, and I think it has some powerful application in everyday social life, especially social life infused with design practice. I think design represents not only a way to produce domestic artifacts, but a way to think domestically. I want to design a simple, practical philosophy equipped with sharp, hard, gleaming vocabulary that can be deployed with confidence, force and grace against analytic hegemony — (that mindset I’ve been deriding as “wordworld”) — a language-dominated worldview that according to itself is justified to reject as unreal, or at least irrelevant, whatever cannot be made explicit, said, and, ideally, measured.
  2. I will insist that when words and logic fail to do justice to our intuitive relationship reality, it is the words and logic that must yield — ideally to new and better words and logic that do. Perhaps the words and logic will conform to the intuitive sense, or perhaps word and logic will provide new intuitive access (that is, it will spark a conversion). But both the intuitive sense of reality and the language and logic must be satisfied, neither dominating the other. What absolutely must go is the this modernistic conceit that we can change our nature and sense of reality through brute effort. Whatever we do — whatever we are coerced to do for a long time — will eventually become habit and seem natural.  Change is possible — profound change is possible — but it must, must, MUST answer to our lyric sense, not rape it with logical and conceptual constructs.

  • This is true for art. For instance, serial music is purely synthetic production, and its embrace by the classical music profession helped sink its relevance. It did not become familiar and beautiful to any but a small, determined and concept-bound few.
  • It is true for technology. People have lost the new perspective on digital devices that Steve Jobs taught us (or at least some of us) — that the difference that really makes a difference is experience. We’ve relapsed into spec lists, feature lists, superficial styling. Consequently, the experience of digital interfaces in use (what “user experience” used to mean) have degraded precipitously. Because, for many, these digital interfaces serve as interfaces to much of life itself (we interact with each other, transact through them and learn most of what we know about the world through them) — our lives have degraded with it. Indeed, we ourselves have degraded in ways we are too degraded to notice.
  • And it is true for the ways we think. I do not mean what we think. I do not mean our facility with logic or math. I mean how we intellectually relate ourselves to reality. This intellectual relating produces truth (of varying quality) but is not reducible to truth content. Truth is instaurated in the process of collaborating with reality, not constructed according to our meager stock of concepts and our hopes. To believe truth is purely constructed and that reality will eventually conform to what we construct could be called toxic Apollinianism.

Not every truth construct or art construct or art construct will become, with time and practice, second-nature. Forced exposure or use of a purely synthetic construct will only desensitize our intuitions and alienate us from reality until we no longer expect intuitive contact or miss it if it is absent. The consequence of too much alienation from conceptivity, with too much reliance on synthetic substitutes is nihilism and anomie. I believe this is the core cause of our current cultural crisis. We do far too much synthetic thinking-about, and far too little intuitive interacting-with or participating-in. Consequently reality has become unreal to us. It feels horrible, but the worst afflicted — our children — don’t know there is any other way to be.

  1. I want to lay out a framework I’ve been using for the last fifteen years to think about design research and craft.
  • Like art, design is a coordination of meaningful wholes and parts (which are themselves wholes): this is conceptive. It “together-takes” new givens, which can then be thought about synthetically.
  • Like engineering, design is a coordination of functional parts into systematic wholes: this is synthetic understanding. It explicitly “together-puts” givens into theories, arguments, proofs and so on, which sometimes but often cannot be conceived as new givens.
  • Design, unlike art and engineering, attempts to accomplish both orders at once. When we do this successfully, we achieve what I believe Zwicky calls “domesticity”. I’ve suggested to her that the book I am writing is an outline of domestic philosophy.

I’m ending here. This is pretty bad, but it will help me rebuild momentum.

Milosz on Ketman

I have been reading Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. According to Wikipedia:

The Captive Mind was written soon after the author’s defection from Stalinist Poland in 1951. In it, Milosz drew upon his experiences as an illegal author during the Nazi Occupation and of being a member of the ruling class of the postwar People’s Republic of Poland. The book attempts to explain the allure of Stalinism to intellectuals, its adherents’ thought processes, and the existence of both dissent and collaboration within the postwar Soviet Bloc. Milosz described that he wrote the book “under great inner conflict”.

Like many, I am most fascinated by his description of a phenomenon he calls ketman.

Ketman is a strategy for coping with ideological oppression. I would characterize ketman as a practice of method acting ideological conformity, while carefully maintaining an inner intellectual life partially or wholly in conflict with the ideology.

Milosz watched the intellectuals around him — at least the ones with active aesthetic or intellectual intuitions — cope with the spiritual impossibilities of totalitarian Soviet domination by adopting varieties of ketman, each of which he describes at some length. Below is the beginning and end of his chapter on ketman, but skipping his typology.

Officially, contradictions do not exist in the minds of the citizens in the people’s democracies [Soviet Bloc states]. Nobody dares to reveal them publicly. And yet the question of how to deal with them is posed in real life. More than others, the members of the intellectual elite are aware of this problem. They solve it by becoming actors.

It is hard to define the type of relationship that prevails between people in the East otherwise than as acting, with the exception that one does not perform on a theater stage but in the street, office, factory, meeting hall, or even the room one lives in. Such acting is a highly developed craft that places a premium upon mental alertness. Before it leaves the lips, every word must be evaluated as to its consequences. A smile that appears at the wrong moment, a glance that is not all it should be can occasion dangerous suspicions and accusations. Even one’s gestures, tone of voice, or preference for certain kinds of neckties are interpreted as signs of one’s political tendencies.

A visitor from the Imperium [the Soviet Bloc] is shocked on coming to the West. In his contacts with others, beginning with porters or taxi drivers, he encounters no resistance. The people he meets are completely relaxed. They lack that internal concentration which betrays itself in a lowered head or in restlessly moving eyes. They say whatever words come to their tongues; they laugh aloud. Is it possible that human relations can be so direct?

Acting in daily life differs from acting in the theater in that everyone plays to everyone else, and everyone is fully aware that this is so. The fact that a man acts is not to his prejudice, is no proof of unorthodoxy. But he must act well, for his ability to enter into his role skillfully proves that he has built his characterization upon an adequate foundation. If he makes a passionate speech against the West, he demonstrates that he has at least 10 percent of the hatred he so loudly proclaims. If he condemns Western culture lukewarmly, then he must be attached to it in reality. Of course, all human behavior contains a significant amount of acting. A man reacts to his environment and is molded by it even in his gestures. Nevertheless, what we find in the people’s democracies is a conscious mass play rather than automatic imitation. Conscious acting, if one practices it long enough, develops those traits which one uses most in one’s role, just as a man who became a runner because he had good legs develops his legs even more in training. After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans. To identify one’s self with the role one is obliged to play brings relief and permits a relaxation of one’s vigilance. Proper reflexes at the proper moment become truly automatic.

Ketman as a social institution is not entirely de­void of advantages. In order to evaluate them, one need only look at life in the West. Westerners, and especially Western intellectuals, suffer from a special variety of taedium vitae; their emotional and intel­lectual life is too dispersed. Everything they think and feel evaporates like steam in an open expanse. Freedom is a burden to them. No conclusions they arrive at are binding: it may be so, then again it may not. The result is a constant uneasiness. The happiest of them seem to be those who become Communists. They live within a wall which they batter themselves against, but which provides them with a resistance that helps them define themselves. Steam that once evaporated into the air becomes a force under pres­sure. An even greater energy is generated in those who must hide their Communist convictions, that is, who must practice Ketman, a custom which is, after all, not unknown in the countries of the West.

In short, Ketman means self-realization against something. He who practices Ketman sufers because of the obstacles he meets; but if these obstacles were suddenly to be removed, he would find himself in a void which might perhaps prove much more painful. Internal revolt is sometimes essential to spiritual health, and can create a particular form of happiness. What can be said openly is often much less interesting than the emotional magic of defending one’s private sanctuary. For most people the necessity of living in constant tension and watchfulness is a torture, but many intellectals accept this necessity with masochistic pleasure.

He who practices Ketman lies. But would he be less dishonest if he could speak the truth? A painter who tries to smuggle illicit (“metaphysical”) delight in the beauty of the world into his picture of life on a collective farm would be lost if he were given complete freedom, for the beauty of the world seems greater to him the less free he is to depict it. A poet muses over what he would write if he were not bound by his political responsibilities, but could he realize his visions if he were at liberty to do so? Ketman brings comfort, fostering dreams of what might be, and even the enclosing fence affords the solace of reverie.

Who knows whether it is not in man’s lack of an interal core that the mysterious success ot the New Faith and its charm for the intellectual lie? By subjecting man to pressure, the New Faith creates this core, or in any case the feeling that it exists. Fear of freedom is nothing more than fear of the void. “There is nothing in man,” said a friend of mine, a dialectician. “He will never extract anything out of himself, because there is nothing there. You can’t leave the people and write in a wilderness. Remember that man is a function of social forces. Whoever wants to be alone will perish.” This is probably true, but I doubt if it can be called anything more than the law of our times. Feeling that there was nothing in him, Dante could not have written his Divine Comedy or Montaigne his Essays, nor could Chardin have painted a single still-life. Today man believes there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything, even if he knows it to be bad, in order to find himself at one with others, in order not to be alone. As long a he believes this, there is little one can reproach in hs behavior. Perhaps it is better for him to breed a full­-grown Ketman, to submit to pressure and thus feel that he is, than to take a chance on the wisdom of past ages which maintains that man is a creature of God.

But suppose one should try to live without Ketman, to challenge fate, to say: “If I lose, I shall not pity myself.” Suppose one can live without outside pressure, suppose one can create one’s own inner tension — then it is not true that there is nothing in man. To take this risk would be an act of faith.

Ecologic

Ecology is situated between comprehending supersystem and comprehended subsystem.

Supersystems that contain and involve the comprehender are not objectively comprehensible. An understanding of the incomprehensibility of containing systems is, however — as is the fact that the proper response to the condition of containment is participation in the system. Rather than participate in what contains and involves us, however, we tend to truncate, encapsulate or even evert it to objective form conducive to our usual thing-manipulating mode of thought. This objective deformation is, in my opinion, the kernel of “taming wicked problems” — situating ourselves outside a problem whose problematic nature is our situatedness within it.

This is why we find all eco- realities — including ecology and economics — so difficult. We know the containing whole largely through our participation (or non-participation) in it, and many of us lack any mode of understanding beyond objectivity. If a reality refuses objectification, it is excluded from consideration.

*

Ecologic is understanding situated between comprehending supersystem and comprehended subsystem that seeks to relate both to each other and to the system one is oneself.

*

My theology is an ecologic. Before I saw theology this way, theologies were nonsense to me. After, everything and more-than-everything was inextricably bound up in practical metaphysics.

Putting Rorty to work

This lifted from an evolution map my team is currently working on. I’m posting this here because the concepts of “progress from” and “progress toward” were derived from Richard Rorty.

 

(For context: the purpose of an evolution map is to sketch our a phased approach to a service, where each phase delivers a useful, usable, desirable, coherent service that builds on the last phase, and sets the stage for the next. The future phases, though, can be too distant to predict with any degree of confidence. This is why we call the furthest phase the “north star”. We navigate by it, but do not seriously expect to arrive at the future we describe. We think about the present in reference to it, always anticipating where we might go next.)

Proclass chord

The following quotation chord sounds the root notes of my antipathy toward the dominant ideology of the professional-progressivist class. Two of the three authors are left-liberals.

1.

Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country:

The academic, cultural Left approves — in a rather distant and lofty way — of the activities of… reformists. But it retains a conviction… that the system, and not just the laws, must be changed. Reformism is not good enough. Because the very vocabulary of liberal politics is infected with dubious presuppositions which need to be exposed, the first task of the Left must be, just as Confucius said, the rectification of names. The concern to do what the Sixties called “naming the system” takes precedence over reforming the laws.

“The system” is sometimes identified as “late capitalism,” but the cultural Left does not think much about what the alternatives to a market economy might be, or about how to combine political freedom with centralized economic decision-making. Nor does it spend much time asking whether Americans are undertaxed, or how much of a welfare state the country can afford, or whether the United States should back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the Right proclaims that socialism has failed, and that capitalism is the only alternative, the cultural Left has little to say in reply. For it prefers not to talk about money. Its principal enemy is a mind-set rather than a set of economic arrangements — a way of thinking which is, supposedly, at the root of both selfishness and sadism. This way of thinking is sometimes called “Cold War ideology,” sometimes “technocratic rationality,” and sometimes “phallogocentrism” (the cultural Left comes up with fresh sobriquets every year). It is a mind-set nurtured by the patriarchal and capitalist institutions of the industrial West, and its bad effects are most clearly visible in the United States.

To subvert this way of thinking. the academic Left believes, we must teach Americans to recognize otherness. To this end, leftists have helped to put together such academic disciplines as women’s history, black history, gay studies, Hispanic-American studies, and migrant studies. This has led Stefan Collini to remark that in the United States, though not in Britain. the term “cultural studies” means victim studies.” Cellini’s choice of phrase has been resented, but he was making a good point: namely, that such programs were created not out of the sort of curiosity about diverse forms of human life which gave rise to cultural anthropology, but rather from a sense of what America needed in order to make itself a better place. The principal motive behind the new directions taken in scholarship in the United States since the Sixties has been the urge to do something for people who have been humiliated — to help victims of socially acceptable forms of sadism by making such sadism no longer acceptable.

Whereas the top-down initiatives of the Old Left had tried to help people who were humiliated by poverty and unemployment, or by what Richard Sennett has called the “hidden injuries of class, ” the top-down initiatives of the post-Sixties left have been directed toward people who are humiliated for reasons other than economic status. Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer­park studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not “other” in the relevant sense. To be other in this sense you must bear an ineradicable stigma, one which makes you a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely of economic selfishness.

This cultural Left has had extraordinary success. In addition to being centers of genuinely original scholarship, the new academic programs have done what they were, semi­ consciously, designed to do: they have decreased the amount of sadism in our society. Especially among college graduates, the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century. The tone in which educated men talk about women, and educated whites about blacks, is very different from what it was before the Sixties. Life for homosexual Americans, beleaguered and dangerous as it still is, is better than it was before Stonewall. The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers at as “politically correct” has made America a far more civilized society than it was thirty years ago. Except for a few Supreme Court decisions, there has been little change for the better in our country’s laws since the Sixties. But the change in the way we treat one another has been enormous.

2.

Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible:

Living in the world of Surkov and the political technologists, I find myself increasingly confused. Recently my salary almost doubled. On top of directing shows for TNT, I have been doing some work for a new media house called SNOB, which encompasses TV channels and magazines and a gated online community for the country’s most brilliant minds. It is meant to foster a new type of “global Russian,” a new class who will fight for all things Western and liberal in the country. It is financed by one of Russia’s richest men, the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who also owns the Brooklyn Nets. I have been hired as a “consultant” for one of SNOB’s TV channels. I write interminable notes and strategies and flowcharts, though nothing ever seems to happen. But I get paid. And the offices, where I drop in several times a week to talk about “unique selling points” and “high production values,” are like some sort of hipster fantasy: set in a converted factory, the open brickwork left untouched, the huge arches of the giant windows preserved, with edit suites and open plan offices built in delicately. The employees are the children of Soviet intelligentsia, with perfect English and vocal in their criticism of the regime. The deputy editor is a well-known American Russian activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, and her articles in glossy Western magazines attack the President vociferously. But for all the opposition posturing of SNOB, it’s also clear there is no way a project so high profile could have been created without the Kremlin’s blessing. Is this not just the sort of “managed” opposition the Kremlin is very comfortable with? On the one hand allowing liberals to feel they have a free voice and a home (and a paycheck), on the other helping the Kremlin define the “opposition” as hipster Muscovites, out of touch with “ordinary” Russians, obsessed with “marginal” issues such as gay rights (in a homophobic country). The very name of the project, “SNOB,” though meant ironically, already defines us as a potential object of hate. And for all the anti-Kremlin rants on SNOB, we never actually do any real investigative journalism, find out any hard facts about money stolen from the state budget: in twenty-first-century Russia you are allowed to say anything you want as long as you don’t follow the corruption trail. After work I sit with my colleagues, drinking and talking: Are we the opposition? Are we helping Russia become a freer place? Or are we actually a Kremlin project strengthening the President? Actually doing damage to the cause of liberty? Or are we both? A card to be played?

3.

Another from Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country:

It is as if, sometime around 1980, the children of the people who made it through the Great Depression and into the suburbs had decided to pull up the drawbridge behind them. They decided that although social mobility had been appropriate for their parents, it was not to be allowed to the next generation. These suburbanites seem to see nothing wrong with belonging to a hereditary caste, and have initiated what Robert Reich (in his book The Work of Nations) calls “the secession of the successful.”

Sometime in the Seventies, American middle-class idealism went into a stall. Under Presidents Carter and Clinton, the Democratic Party has survived by distancing itself from the unions and from any mention of redistribution, and moving into a sterile vacuum called the “center.” The party no longer has a visible, noisy left wing — a wing with which the intellectuals can identify and on which the unions can rely for support. It is as if the distribution of income and wealth had become too scary a topic for any American politician — much less any sitting president — ever to mention. Politicians fear that mentioning it would lose them votes among the only Americans who can be relied on to go to the polls: the suburbanites. So the choice between the two major parties has come down to a choice between cynical lies and terrified silence.

If the formation of hereditary castes continues unimpeded, and if the pressures of globalization create such castes not only in the United States but in all the old democracies, we shall end up in an Orwellian world. In such a world, there may be no supemational analogue of Big Brother, or any official creed analogous to Ingsoc. But there will be an analogue of the Inner Party — namely, the international, cosmopolitan super-rich. They will make all the important decisions. The analogue of Orwell’s Outer Party will be educated, comfortably off, cosmopolitan professionals — Lind’s “overclass,” the people like you and me.

The job of people like us will be to make sure that the decisions made by the Inner Party are carried out smoothly and efficiently. It will be in the interest of the international super­-rich to keep our class relatively prosperous and happy. For they need people who can pretend to be the political class of each of the individual nation-states. For the sake of keeping the proles quiet, the super-rich will have to keep up the pretense that national politics might someday make a difference. Since economic decisions are their prerogative, they will encourage politicians, of both the Left and the Right, to specialize in cultural issues. The aim will be to keep the minds of the proles elsewhere — to keep the bottom 75 percent of Americans and the bottom 95 percent of the world’s population busy with ethnic and religious hostilities, and with debates about sexual mores. If the proles can be distracted from their own despair by media-created pseudo-events, including the occasional brief and bloody war, the super-rich will have little to fear.

Contemplation of this possible world invites two responses from the Left. The first is to insist that the inequalities between nations need to be mitigated — and, in particular, that the Northern Hemisphere must share its wealth with the Southern. The second is to insist that the primary responsibility of each democratic nation-state is to its own least advantaged citizens. These two responses obviously conflict with each other. In particular, the first response suggests that the old democracies should open their borders, whereas the second suggests that they should close them.

The first response comes naturally to academic leftists, who have always been internationally minded. The second response comes naturally to members of trade unions, and to the marginally employed people who can most easily be recruited into right-wing populist movements. Union members in the United States have watched factory after factory close, only to reopen in Slovenia, Thailand, or Mexico. It is no wonder that they see the result of international free trade as prosperity for managers and stockholders, a better standard of living for workers in developing countries, and a very much worse standard of living for American workers. It would be no wonder if they saw the American leftist intelligentsia as on the side of the managers and stockholders — as sharing the same class interests. For we intellectuals, who are mostly academics, are ourselves quite well insulated, at least in the short run, from the effects of globalization. To make things worse, we often seem more interested in the workers of the developing world than in the fate of our fellow citizens.

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

4.

Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal!:

Our story begins in the smoking aftermath of the 1968 election, with its sharp disagreements over the Vietnam War, its riots during the Democratic convention in Chicago, and with a result that Democrats at the time took to be a disastrous omen: their candidate for the presidency, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, lost to Richard Nixon. Soul-searching commenced immediately.

There was one bright spot in the Democrats’ 1968 effort, however. Organized labor, which was the party’s biggest constituency back then, had mobilized millions of working-class voters with an enormous campaign of voter registration, pamphlet-printing, and phone-banking. So vast were their efforts that some observers at the time credited labor with almost winning for Humphrey an election that everyone believed to be lost.

Labor’s reward was as follows: by the time of the 1972 presidential contest, the Democratic Party had effectively kicked the unions out of their organization. Democratic candidates still wanted the votes of working people, of course, as well as their donations and their get-out-the-vote efforts. But between ’68 and ’72, unions lost their position as the premier interest group in the Democratic coalition. This was the result of a series of reforms authored by the so-called McGovern Commission, which changed the Democratic party’s presidential nominating system and, along the way, changed the party itself.

Most of the reforms the McGovern Commission called for were clearly healthful. For example, it dethroned state and local machines and replaced them with open primaries, a big step in the right direction. The Commission also mandated that delegations to its 1972 convention conform to certain demographic parameters — that they contain predetermined percentages of women, minorities, and young people. As it went about reforming the party, however, the Commission overlooked one important group: it did nothing to ensure representation for working-class people.

The labor leaders who, up till then, had held such enormous sway over the Democratic Party could see what was happening. After decades of toil on behalf of liberalism, “they were being taken for granted,” is how the journalist Theodore White summarized their attitude. “Said Al Barkan, director of the AFL/CIO’s political arm, COPE, early in 1972 as he examined the scenario about to unfold: ‘We aren’t going to let these Harvard-Berkeley Camelots take over our party.’”

But take it over they did. The McGovern Commission reforms seemed to be populist, but their effect was to replace one group of party insiders with another — in this case, to replace leaders of workers’ organizations with affluent professionals. Byron Shafer, a political scientist who has studied the 1972 reforms in great detail, leaves no doubt about the class component of the change: “Before reform, there was an American party system in which one party, the Republicans, was primarily responsive to white-collar constituencies and in which another, the Democrats, was primarily responsive to blue-collar constituencies. After reform, there were two parties each responsive to quite different white-collar coalitions, while the old blue-collar majority within the Democratic party was forced to try to squeeze back into the party once identified predominantly with its needs.”

Years ago, when I first became interested in politics, I assumed that this well-known and much-discussed result must have been an unintended effect of an otherwise noble reform effort. It just had to have been an accident. I remember reading about the McGovern Commission in my dilapidated digs on the South Side of Chicago and thinking that no left party in the world would deliberately close the door on the working class. Especially not after workers’ organizations had done so much for the party’s flat-footed nominee. Besides, it all worked out so very, very badly for the Democrats. Neglecting workers was the opening that allowed Republicans to reach out to blue-collar voters with their arsenal of culture-war fantasies. No serious left politician would make a blunder like that on purpose.

But they did, reader. Leading Democrats actually chose to reach out to the affluent and to turn their backs on workers. We know this because they wrote about it, not secretly — as in the infamous “Powell Memo” of 1971, in which the future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell plotted a conservative political awakening — but openly, in tones of proud idealism, calling forthrightly for reorienting the Democratic Party around the desires of the professional class.

I am referring to a book called Changing Sources of Power, a 1971 manifesto by lobbyist and Democratic strategist Frederick Dutton, who was one of the guiding forces on the McGovern Commission. Taken along with the Republican Powell Memo, it gives us the plans of the two big party organizations as the country entered upon the disastrous period that would give us Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Gingrich, and the rest. Where Powell was an arch-conservative, however, Dutton was a forthright liberal. Where Powell showed a certain cunning in his expressed desire to reverse the flow of history, Dutton’s tone is one of credulity toward the inflated sense of world-historical importance that surrounded the youth culture of those days. In the book’s preface, for example, he actually writes this: “Never has the future been so fundamentally affected by so many current developments.”

Dutton’s argument was simple: America having become a land of universal and soaring affluence, all that traditional Democratic stuff about forgotten men and workers’ rights was now as relevant as a stack of Victrola discs. And young people, meaning white, upper-middle-class college kids — oh, these young people were so wise and so virtuous and even so holy that when contemplating them Dutton could scarcely restrain himself. They were “aristocrats — en masse,” the Democratic grandee wrote (quoting Paul Goodman); they meant to “rescue the individual from a mass society,” to “recover the human condition from technological domination,” to “refurbish and reinvigorate individuality.” Better: the young were so noble and so enlightened that they had basically transcended the realm of the physical. “They define the good life not in terms of material thresholds or ‘index economics,’ as the New Deal, Great Society, and most economic conservatives have done,” Dutton marveled, “but as ‘the fulfilled life’ in a more intangible and personal sense.”

 

Participatory empiricism

I was talking with a friend about my suspicion that understandings empiricism as based primarily on perception rather than on interaction has distorted not only our epistemology, but our ontology of knowing. This perception-centricity is at the heart of what we think knowing is, how we think knowing works, and what we hope knowing might accomplish. (I have to wonder how many skepticisms are the result of dashed episto-ontologies? “If truth isn’t what I conceived it to be — well, it must be an illusion!”)

When we take perception as our paradigmatic intuitions, truth becomes about a reality “out there” — seen, heard, or otherwise witnessed from a distance. This, I believe, encourages us to assume an impersonal god’s-eye-view from nowhere/everywhere (what I’ve called “eclipse”) when meditating on ultimate realities.

I prefer to see truth as something that emerges in our interactions with reality and which informs our ongoing participation in a reality that includes and involves but also exceeds us. Our truth is something we draw around us, like a blanket, which informs our understanding and our responses to our environing reality. We enworld ourselves within reality. An empiricism rooted in interactions encourages a human-situated perspective (what I’ve called “solipse”), as opposed to eclipse.

My friend suggested calling this empiricism based on interaction “participatory empiricism” in contrast to the more usual “perceptive empiricism”. That is exactly the right term.

Participatory empiricism.