Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Fewtril #175

Insofar as true nobility of purpose is lacking, we ought to be duly thankful even for mean-spiritedness and strife; for much of the good done in the world is done solely for the sake of making one’s enemies look bad.

Friday, 23 February 2007

Fewtril #174

The good citizen of the bureaucratic state is one who has nothing beyond scrutiny, an open book whose pages can be turned and read at will by its bookkeepers. The perfect citizen would be one whose pages were also written, printed, and bound by that state, the only task of whose bookkeepers would then be to see whether anything unauthorised had been scribbled in the margins.

Fewtril #173

The ease with which moral cowards denounce the committing of lesser evils is a grotesque parody of the difficulty with which the brave have in choosing them.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Notes on Rorty

What Kuhn, Derrida, and I believe is that it is pointless to ask whether there really are mountains or whether it is merely convenient for us to talk about mountains. [1]
Richard Rorty claims it is pointless to talk about the mode of existence of mountains, whether they are ontologically subjective or objective, that is, whether they exist independent of us or not. Are we then to suppose that the belief in mountains might derive from a convenient socio-linguistic construct rather than the impress of their objective existence, and that if one were to climb one or to fall off one, this might be the expression of a powerful metaphor conceived under a social form of thought? If so, then one might consider it is a social and moral failing that we have not found it convenient to talk of wings that sprout from the backs of plummeting mountaineers.
There is no activity called ‘knowing’ which has a nature to be discovered . . . there is simply the process of justifying beliefs to audiences. [2]
It is anybody’s guess how he knows this to be the case — has he discovered the nature of that activity called “knowing” by which he knows that no one may discover the nature of anything, including that activity called “knowing”? If so, he has done what he says is impossible. As regards trying to justify this belief to audiences, let us remain silent.
[T]he relation between our truth claims and the rest of the world is causal rather than representational. It causes us to hold beliefs, and we hold the beliefs which prove to be reliable guides to getting what we want. [3]
If this claim is true of the world, then it represents nothing of the world outside itself, that is to say, it is not true of it; rather it has only been caused by that world. What precisely caused this absurd belief is a matter of conjecture, but how it might prove a reliable guide to getting what we want is a matter of personal exigency, perhaps of the sort that gets one noticed in intellectual circles.
When we say that our ancestors believed, falsely, that the sun went around the earth, and that we believe, truly, that the earth goes round the sun, we are saying that we have a better tool than our ancestors did. . . . The argument between us and our medieval ancestors should not be about which of us has got the universe right. It should be about the point of holding views about the motion of heavenly bodies, the ends to be achieved by the use of certain tools. Confirming the truth of Scripture is one such aim, space travel is another. [4]

Thus: the belief that the sun goes round the earth is “true” only in the sense that it is useful or convenient for our purposes to believe so; the same goes for all beliefs about the motion of heavenly bodies – or for any belief about anything; for no one has access to a mind-independent reality by which he might test his theories. So accommodating a philosophy – where truth is simply what is useful for our purposes – is a sublime gift to charlatanry, if not tyranny.
To say that one should replace knowledge by hope is to say . . . that one should stop worrying about whether what one believes is well grounded and start worrying about whether one has been imaginative enough to think up interesting alternatives to one’s present beliefs. [5]

Is this good advice to a man who needs to cross a wooden bridge, after he has just witnessed a friend fall to his death through one of its rotten boards? I suggest that the interesting alternative of jumping up and down on said boards whilst remaining hopeful of support from good fairies would be inferior to the present and well-grounded belief that doing so is likely to end in tragedy – and that one should therefore hold the rails and tread lightly. Perhaps Rorty would find such an example silly. If so, it is incumbent upon him to explain why.
[I]t is not clear that any of the millions of ways of describing the piece of space time occupied by what we call a giraffe is any close to the way things are in themselves than any of the others. . . . all we need to know is whether some competing description might be more useful for some of our purposes. [6]
That piece of space-time with four-legs and a long neck? — Is that not to what our philosopher is referring, rather than to the ten-legged, short-necked creature that has rocket-fuel for blood? Is not the former closer to the way things are than the latter? Not according to our two-legged, big-brained philosopher of pragmatism. All we need know is which description is more useful for our purposes — and, for some odd reason, none of our purposes has yet found a use for a ten-legged, short-necked creature with rocket-fuel for blood, except in describing the absurdity of a two-legged, big-brained philosopher of pragmatism.
Both the words we use and our willingness to affirm certain sentences using those words and not others are the products of fantastically complex causal connections between human organisms and the rest of the universe. There is no way to divide up this web of causal connections so as to compare the relative amount of subjectivity and of objectivity in a given belief. There is no way, as Wittgenstein has said, to come between language and its object, to divide the giraffe in itself from our ways of talking about giraffes. As Hilary Putnam, the leading contemporary pragmatist, has put it: ‘elements of what we call “language” or “mind” penetrate so deeply into reality that the very project of representing ourselves as being “mappers” of something “language-independent” is fatally compromised from the start.’ [7]
If this is a description of something language-independent, that is, of the objective world, then it is fatally compromised from the start. But apparently, the only descriptions of the world that are not fatally compromised from the start are those descriptions given by famous philosophers and leading contemporary pragmatists when they describe the world as allowing no descriptions of the world that are not fatally compromised from the start. We’ll have to take their word for it.
No organism, human or non-human, is ever more or less in touch with reality than any other organism. [8]
— Professors of philosophy excepted, of course.

Looking at language in [a] Darwinian way, as providing tools for coping with objects rather than representations of objects, and as providing different sets of tools for different purposes, obviously makes it hard to be an essentialist. For it becomes hard to take seriously the idea that one description of A can be more ‘objective’ or ‘closer to the intrinsic nature of A’ than another. The relation of tools to what they manipulate is simply a matter of utility for a particular purpose, not of ‘correspondence’. [9]

Why would one look at language in a Darwinian way if one does not believe — as Rorty does not believe — that the Darwinian way provides any true description of the way things are, including language and its origin? In what way does Darwinism tell us that language does not provide the tools for coping with the representation of objects? If it is hard to take seriously the idea that one description of A can be more objective or closer to the intrinsic nature of A than another, then it is hard to take seriously the idea that Rorty’s description of the nature of description can be more objective or closer to the intrinsic nature of the nature of description than another.
[Y]ou should notice that it would be inconsistent with my own antiessentialism to try to convince you that the Darwinian way of thinking of language — and, by extension, the Deweyan, pragmatist way of thinking of truth — is the objectively true way. All I am entitled to say is that it is a useful way, useful for particular purposes. All I can claim to have done here is to offer you a redescription of the relation between human beings and the rest of the universe. Like every other redescription, this one has to be judged on the basis of its utility for a purpose. [10]
According to his own doctrine, however, he cannot claim to have offered us a true redescription of the relation between human beings and the rest of the universe, for by his own doctrine he is unable to describe anything of the world. On that basis, it is presumably not true, moreover, that his redescription is useful for particular purposes, or that there are any beings in the universe that could find it useful for their purposes, or that every redescription “has to be judged on the basis of its utility for a purpose”. Our pragmatist has found no entitlement.
Being that Professor Rorty believes that all beliefs are held on account of their usefulness for achieving particular purposes, and none on account of their correspondence to reality, what then are the purposes of his antiessentialism? He gives us two:
The first is that it makes it impossible to formulate a lot of the traditional philosophical problems. The second is that adopting it makes it easier to come to terms with Darwin. [11]
The first purpose, then, is one of evasion. Concerning the second, why would one need to come to terms with Darwin if one believed that Darwinian descriptions of the world are no truer than those of Norse mythology? — Is it because the former are widely accepted as true and the latter false amongst the clever or the wise or the academically powerful? Then one accepts such descriptions only because other people believe them, which is quite a strange position for a philosopher to take — no longer a seeker after truth and wisdom, just a seeker after consensus or solidarity. But then it is not called pragmatism for nothing.
For Rorty, a world without objective morality is a world without objective truth. In the words of Yeats, he still wishes to “hold reality and justice in a single vision”; but because he cannot find the objective basis for justice, he refuses to see the objective basis for anything. In his crestfallen mind, if it cannot be both, then it must be neither. Professor Nietzsche made some remarks on this kind of mentality:
The end of the moral interpretation of the world, which no longer has any sanction after it has tried to escape into some beyond leads to nihilism. . . . [T]he untenability of one interpretation of the world, upon which a tremendous amount of energy has been lavished, awakens the suspicion that all interpretations of the world are false. [12]
Rorty tried as a youth to reconcile his sense of reality with his Trotskyism: “I wanted a way to be both an intellectual and spiritual snob and a friend of humanity.” [13] His faith in Trotskyism collapsed, and I suspect it took with it his sense of reality.
I think that ‘relativism’ and ‘postmodernism’ are words which never had any clear sense, and that both should be dropped from our philosophical vocabulary. [14]

Then there was the thief who thought it useful if everyone deemed the words “theft” and “robbery” to be without any clear sense, that both should be dropped from the vocabulary of criminal justice.

[1] R. Rorty, “Does academic freedom have philosophical presuppositions?” in Academic Freedom and Tenure: Ethical Issues, ed. R.T. DeGeorge, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997), p.184.
[2] R. Rorty, “Truth Without Correspondence to Reality”, in Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin Books, 1999), p.36.
[3] Ibid., p.33.
[4] Ibid., “Introduction: Relativism: Finding and Making”, p.xxv.
[5] Ibid., “Truth Without Correspondence to Reality”, p.34.
[6] Ibid., “Introduction: Relativism: Finding and Making”, p.xxvi.
[7] Ibid., p.xxvii.
[8] Ibid., p.xxv.
[9] Ibid., “ A World Without Substances or Essences”, p.65.
[10] Ibid., pp.65-6.
[11] Ibid., p.66.
[12] F.W. Nietzsche, The Will to Power, tr. W. Kaufmann & R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p.7.
[13] R. Rorty, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids”, in op. cit., p.8.
[14] Ibid, Preface, p.xiv.

Friday, 16 February 2007

Fewtril #172

The stupidity of animals amuses us — such as a dog chasing its tail. Against such behaviour, we can cite examples of reflective humanity — such as a man looking for self-esteem.

Fewtril #171

I have heard people criticised, abused, traduced, mocked, upbraided, annoyed, and defamed — but rarely demonised; and yet there is much talk of its happening.

Fewtril #170

The word “God” holds more power now than it has held in many past ages — sometimes its mere utterance is enough to clear a room.

Fewtril #169

Power to the people does not translate into freedom for the person; and one is, after all, a person and not a people. How is it that anyone forgets this? — Because he becomes part of the mass, wherein he loses himself.

Fewtril #168

Every movement must declare itself to be good if it is to become powerful, and every movement that becomes powerful attracts the bad who must declare themselves to be on the side of good. Towards the understanding of what men truly believe, one ought always to have in mind the maxim of the economists: Look at what they do, not at what they say; for one may fairly suppose that bad and ruthless men are not men of their words.

Fewtril #167

Many would find it easier to live a life of abstinence than of moderation; happily for such persons, there is an even easier extreme: a life of indulgence.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Fewtril #166

Many cynical observations of human behaviour may be true — but a widespread acknowledgment of their truth might render human behaviour so base that it would spur even a cynic into a desperate search for signs of nobility.

Fewtril #165

Those who feel the vulnerability of their pretended tastes and convictions are acutely sensitive not only to criticism but also to a lack of approval; wherewith they demand towards those pretences not only sensitivity and approval, but also respect, as though it were their right to secure an imposture by the complicity of those whom it is intended to deceive.

Fewtril #164

A wonderful thing is that the practical side of man always somehow emerges, even if it might mean a logical inconsistency with a set of beliefs to which he is supposedly bound. In this regard, one might consider the old Arabian saying: “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.”

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Parachronistic Piffle

I’ve always fancied that if one is to draw conclusions from history, one ought at least to make the effort to get the very basics right. What a shame it is, then, that our bold journalists — who are ever eager to turn their pens to almost anything, even should they know almost nothing — are rarely bothered by such concerns! A specimen:
The Scots have always been fiercely independent. Ask the Romans. While they rolled their franchise out across Asia and middle Europe, they never quite managed to tame the Scots. Not even the Romans, with their military brilliance, smart, coordinated uniforms and innovative tortoise fighting strategy, could extend their sphere of influence much beyond Selkirk. And if you’ve been to Selkirk, you’d understand why. So fearful were they of the Scots that they had a chap called Hadrian build a wall to keep us out. I ask the Geordies and Mancs to review their historical ‘hardness’ in the light of such compelling evidence — the peoples of Newcastle and Manchester were conquered and to this day remain wall-free. [1]
It staggers me that someone could be paid to write such piffle. If the author had made the slightest effort to understand that neither Scotland, nor England, nor Manchester, nor Newcastle existed at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain, and that the Scots and the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain in significant numbers only after the Romans had left, then perhaps he would have been aided in his journalistic efforts. No doubt we all have our blind-spots of ignorance, and we all make mistakes, but is it too much to ask that a journalist make at least some effort to know something about which he writes, instead of boldly spreading his ignorance? And is it too much to ask that the editors of our “quality” newspapers be discriminating enough to exclude that which would not have found its way into a school-magazine a hundred years ago? I suspect it is.

[1] Hardeep Singh Kohli, “Forget the boost for Scotland – it’s the English who would really benefit from a disbanded Union”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 8th February 2007.

A Complex Question

The question of climate-change is a very complex one for the layman. For it is not merely the question of whether global or regional climates vary over time, irrespective of man’s activities, on various time-scales ranging from decades to millions of years. It is not even the complex question of whether there could also be any significant anthropogenic factors. Rather it is a question made still more complex by its political element — such that it might even include the question of whether one ought to become a member of the Church of Al Gore, Latter-Day Saviour. This complexity is to be regretted.
.....Back in the days when climate-change was more the object of scientific interest than the subject of politically-driven hysteria, I wrote my undergraduate-dissertation on human cognitive evolution, whereof I cited climate-change as an indirect cause. Nowadays, however, I cannot hear talk of climate-change without being reminded that the neocortex — despite its enlargement — is still at the mercy of more primitive structures.

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Fewtril #163

For the same reason that it was once said that mankind could not hear the music of the spheres — because it was a constant to which he had grown accustomed —, so too we might say that mankind barely notices the monotonous hum of madness that accompanies his everyday affairs.

Fewtril #162

If it is a kind of progress to learn from experience, then it is a kind of regress to damn as outdated the social manifestations of that experience.

Fewtril #161

The only way that some people can feel useful is if they can persuade themselves that almost everyone else is useless.

To be Left Alone

I take it — as Schopenhauer took it — that one has to work out one’s own redemption in life. To free oneself from politics would be a start; but to do so is difficult in the age of the mass; for “from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason” [1]; and insofar as the wish to be left alone has itself become a political idea, it bears witness to the degree to which one cannot be left alone. “My experience of the world”, said T.H. Huxley, “is that things left to themselves don’t get right” [2]. Thereto I must add that to mess things up thoroughly, one must be unable to leave them alone — and furthermore, that to help people until they can no longer help themselves is not a kind of redemption, but a kind of enthrallment.
[1] J.E.E Dalberg-Acton (Lord Acton), “The History of Freedom in Antiquity” (1877), reprinted in Selected Writings of Lord Acton, Vol.1: Essays in the History of Liberty, ed. J.R. Fears (Indianapolis: Liberty Classsics, 1985), p.5.
[2] T.H. Huxley, Aphorisms and Reflections From the Works of T. H. Huxley, selected by H.A. Huxley (London: MacMillan & Co, 1907),
§.CXXV, published online at The Huxley File.