Friday, 30 March 2007

The Trousers of Decorum

“Every man has also his moral backside which he does not show without need and which he keeps covered as long as possible with the trousers of decorum.”
[“Jeder Mensch hat auch seine moralische backside, die er nicht ohne Not zeigt, und die er so lange als möglich mit den Hosen des guten Anstandes zudeckt.”]
G.C. Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher, (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1984), B.74 from Sudelbuch B (1768-1771), p.42.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

A Former Guest

While Voltaire was an exile in England, he observed that the peasants were “not afraid of increasing their stock of cattle, nor of tiling their houses from any apprehension that their taxes [would] be raised the year following.” [1] Doubtless there are present-day descendants of those peasants who have never heard of Voltaire, though, if they still live in the land of their forefathers, they should have no difficulty in determining from his description that he hasn’t visited the place in quite a while.
[1] François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), Letters on the English, Letter IX — On the Government, The Harvard Classics, Vol.34, Part 2, (New York: P.F. Collier & Son Co., 1909–14), §13, reproduced online at

Thursday, 8 March 2007

In Keeping with the Times

“Nothing avails: one must go forward—step by step further into decadence” [1]. Nietzsche was never one to understate his case; but if one has not yet succumbed to the doctrine of the proverbial ostrich, one might still see that customs, old institutions, anything that smacks, in a word, of tradition: all such must now be cast aside in keeping with the times, that is to say, in keeping with a political passion and a public temper that cannot tolerate anything that might hold it back; for there has crept into the mind of modern man a quite pathetic submission to the practicalities of political power.
The dangers we have to fear may roughly be summed up in the single word — disintegration. It is the end to which we are being driven, alike by the defective working of our political machinery, and by the public temper of the time. [2]
The odd thing about modern “progressive” man — what sets him apart from his forebears — is that when some old custom or institution, tamed and made humane by time and bitter trial, is said to be not in keeping with the present times, then it is not the present times to which he directs his critical eye, so as to see what therein makes it intolerant of that thing, but rather his eye fixes narrowly on that thing itself, as though it were the wild and dangerous upstart, the foreign interloper — and this in an age that quite ludicrously prides itself on its tolerance! It is an age, however, in which the greater part of tolerance is given over to that which destroys.
Nowadays it is enough that any idea or proposal be meant in the conservative’s sense for it to come to nothing; only that which disintegrates and levels has any real power now. [3]
The present merits of an old custom or institution, its historic service to ideals such as harmony, authority, liberty, or justice — always imperfectly realised — cannot bear scrutiny in a mind that has been seduced by the promise of perfection, still less in one that has been flattered into believing that this perfection is a birthright soon to be realised in the practical application of political power.
Devices laboriously set up to keep popular passions within bounds are now derided as little better than superstitions. [4]
The hubris with which modern “progressive” man proceeds will likely lead to all the adverse consequences which experience relates, unless, that is, there will be something new or hitherto unseen in the unfettered but harnessed expression of popular passions, something that leads to more than just a practical, brutish, and uncultured system for the accrual of power and wealth. One would have to be quite the hopeful fool to believe it likely — and quite in keeping with the times.
[1] F.W. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), §43, p. 547; original emphasis.
[2] Lord Salisbury, “Disintegration”, in Quarterly Review, October 1883, quoted by Andrew Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan (London: Phoenix, 2000), pp. 274-5.
[3] [“Es genügt heutigentags, daß irgendein Gedanke, ein Vorschlag im Sinne der Konservativen gemeint sei, so ist es praktisch nichts damit; nur das Auflösende und Nivellierende hat jetzt wirkliche Kraft.”] Jacob Burckhardt, Brief an Friedrich von Preen, 17. November 1876, Briefe (Leipzig: Dieterich, 1929), p. 421.
[4] Richard M. Weaver, “Review of Betrand de Jouvenal, On Power: Its Nature and the History of its Growth”, The Commonweal, Vol. 50:19, 9th August 1949; reprinted in In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963, ed. by T.J. Smith III (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), p.514.
NB: This post also appears at James Higham’s weblog Nourishing Obscurity.

Fewtril #177

There are some who — if it were not for exaggeration — would find it difficult to believe anything they were told.

Fewtril #176

There is so little trust amongst people nowadays that in despair we might exaggerate how little there is, which may have the consequence of fulfilling the degree of distrust stated in the former exaggeration.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Decency and Democracy

One often hears the call for a purer democracy, as if more of the disease would abate the symptoms; and of those symptoms one is meant not to be ashamed, but rather to be boastful, as though they were the bravely-taken pains of progress.
[I]t’s still dispiriting that the face we show the world, via America, is so often the one of aristocracy and deference, with barely a nod to the diverse, churning society we actually live in. [1]
Perhaps some still have the decency to be embarrassed by the reality of the “diverse, churning society” in which we live.
The reactionaries of the 19th century . . . feared the accrued wisdom of the ages would be lost if the vulgar mob were allowed a vote, believing that Britain was best governed by a class of experts. Theirs is not some dispute about procedure or constitutional mechanics. It is an argument against democracy itself. [2]
Looking in vain for a trace of the wisdom of the ages in the present government is forsooth a damned good argument against democracy. It is not true, however, that our democracy is the rule of the mob; such is direct democracy. Ours is a representative democracy, that is to say, the rule of the representatives of that mob.
[1] Jonathan Freedland, “We lecture the world on democracy, but still don't elect our upper house”, The Guardian, 28th February 2007.
[2] Ibid.

A Flutter

“I do not believe in democracy,” wrote H.L. Mencken, “but I am perfectly willing to admit that it provides the only really amusing form of government ever endured by mankind.” [1] For the sake of amusement, and for possible financial gain, I am thinking of having a flutter on the race for the Labour leadership. It is not quite as enthralling as throwing money away on thoroughbred beasts made to jump over hurdles, though it bears some comparison.

[1] H.L. Mencken, Preface to A Mencken Chrestomathy, (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), p. viii.

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.