Friday, 27 July 2007

The Western Tradition of Humanistic Studies

“So far as there still survives anything of value from the Western tradition of humanistic studies, it is in spite of most of the people in the universities who are the heirs of that tradition.”
David Stove, “A Farewell to Arts: Marxism, Semiotics, and Feminism”, Cricket versus Republicanism (Sydney: Quakers Hill Press, 1995), p.14.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Haldane and Marxism

It is a great pity that J.B.S. Haldane, evolutionary biologist, co-founder of population genetics, and rather clever chap, was addled somewhat by ideology:
[D]ialectical materialism . . . is not merely a philosophy of history, but a philosophy which illuminates all events whatever, from the falling of a stone to a poet’s imaginings. [1]
One can only guess at what deep reasons might have led so clever a man to fall for something so shallow and foolish; but one can see quite clearly that the greatest gift to the persistence of this folly and many others is the favour of such men.
[1] J.B.S. Haldane, Preface to Friedrich Engels’ Dialectics of Nature, tr. C. Dutt, (New York: International Publishers, 1940), reproduced online at (Elsewhere: “I have tried to apply Marxism to the scientific problems of my own day, as Engels did over many years, and Lenin in 1908 [in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism]. I do not doubt that I have made mistakes. A Marxist must not be too afraid of making mistakes.” J.B.S. Haldane, The Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences (London: Random House, 1939), reproduced online at, 2002.

Fewtril #205

Perhaps the efficiency of a process advances to such a stage at which it must decline on account of all the time it frees for bored fools to have their brightest ideas on its improvement.

Fewtril #204

Relativism is the compliment that desperation pays to failing ideas.

Fewtril #203

If it is said that a genius typically read only the last chapters of books, one may take this as another — albeit small — sign of the impetuousness of his genius; if, on the other hand, a fool did the same thing, one may take it as further evidence of his frivolity.

Competitive Moralism

Competitive moralism, of which we see too much, is driven by something amoral and animalistic: it is the age-old struggle for supremacy, the competition of rivals, placed in more respectable terms. The struggle becomes absurd — not in its underlying aims which are ever natural — but in the ever greater distance between high claims and base motives, wherewith the only point is in outdoing one’s rivals in “goodness” whilst not actually caring a damn whether anything good will come of it. Intellectual life — that supposedly higher sphere and haven from beastly struggle — becomes diseased with it, even such that, in terrible and political times, there is a delirium of the senses, and a dulling of the faculties, except for the primitive and still acute instincts for success.

Stubborn Principle

Mental vagueness and ellipsis can help a man to continue to believe in a principle that makes him believe he is tolerant. For example, a man says: “I value opinions that differ markedly from my own – but I cannot tolerate this opinion [that differs markedly from my own]”. Upon actually encountering an opinion that differs markedly from his own, he does not tolerate it, and says so, but continues to hold to the principle; for the principle did not, after all, stipulate clearly that he value all opinions that differ markedly from his own, and so he can quite happily find in practice that he never tolerates any such opinion, whilst still maintaining the belief that he does in principle.

Technology and Genetic Drift

If the development of technology in society shields us from some of the genetically deleterious effects of our behaviour, and weakens the influence of the environment on human evolution, then, being that our genotypes would be driven less by natural selection, thereby giving more freedom for alleles to vary randomly, we would expect to see a greater influence of genetic drift in our evolution the more we develop technologically. (This would depend, however, on the size of the population: a larger gene-pool would lessen the influence; a smaller one would increase it.) Over a lengthy span of time, such genetic drift would likely make us less fitted genetically to the environment, though allowing us to be more fitted technologically, assuming that we would continue to make technological adaptations in place of genetical ones; that is to say, the fitness of our phenotypes would come to depend more on technology, at some proportional expense of the genotypical influence. It may happen, however, that the development of technology in society would itself become part of the changing environment by which alleles are selected or rooted out; but that would depend to a great extent upon the permission of the society in which it is developed, that is to say, upon whether we would allow the technological environment to shape us rather than shield us.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Youthful Voting

Chatter turns once again to the question of lowering the age at which a citizen is entitled to vote. Apparently it has come to the notice of some that, by age sixteen, the average youth in this land has tempered his fancies, and tamed his passions, and become sufficiently knowledgeable and wise in the ways of the world, not just in experience, but in education, — having of course left his excellent state-run school with a basic but firm grasp of history, science, mathematics, reading and writing, and so on, — to help in his small way to guide government policy on a sane and beneficent course, without his being easy prey to manipulation and fantastic promises and stupid but appealing ideas, and, on that account, it is felt that “there must . . . be a formal recognition that young people are, in the main, mature and responsible citizens and entitled to respect as such.” [1] Well, it’s all mad-hopeful and politically-induced drivel, of course — “mature and responsible citizens” does not in the main describe even the adults — but I don’t suppose a greater number of irresponsible voters would trouble a government whose blind instincts are in any case for power rather than anything else; for they are grist to its mill.
[1] Jonathan Pyke, “Let age be no barrierComment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 24th July 2007. (I made the mistake a few weeks ago of watching Question Time, the invited audience of which on that occasion was composed exclusively of various individuals of the species Homo adolescens. I was interested to observe that they whooped like monkeys.)

Friday, 6 July 2007

A Sunday Meeting

Anyone stuck for something to do this weekend might consider attending a meeting of The Stalin Society. It will take place in Birmingham on Sunday the 8th of July from 1pm to 4pm at Café One. A talk will be given by Carlos Rule on How the Soviet Union prepared for the Nazi Invasion:

“Carlos Rule will counter the bourgeois slander that the Soviet Union had not been prepared for the Nazi invasion of 1941.” [1]

No doubt speculation that one’s time and historical understanding would be better served by staying in bed all day, or by toddling off to the park in a seizure of boredom to throw bread at ducks, is bourgeois slander of the worst kind.


Originality has in many ways become “the intellectual pest of our time” [1]. The paramount desire for originality means that truth is of secondary concern, and in some cases, of no concern at all. A man beset thereby seeks to establish his extraordinariness, and, in striving thereafter, he may even refuse to recognise truth too ordinary for his purpose.
It is the most foolish of all errors for young people of good intelligence to imagine that they will forfeit their originality if they acknowledge truth already acknowledged by others. [2]
Striving after originality gives off a reek of desperate mediocrity. [3] If that were its sole result, however, then we should live quite peaceably with pinched and pegged noses; but the fact is that it gives rise also to the silliest conceptions, which have nothing to recommend them and would not be set in print, were it not that they drew attention to the author’s standing as above that of the ordinary man.
Whatever has the air of a paradox, and is contrary to the first and most unprejudiced notions of mankind, is often greedily embraced by philosophers, as shewing the superiority of their science, which cou’d discover opinions so remote from vulgar conception. [4]
It is on account of the esteemed and almost mythic status that geniuses have attained — and on account of all the popular stories told about them which ignore the graft and the strict mastery and which concentrate instead on the fancies and oddities — that there are now so many men who, though possessing no rare talent or sensibility, let alone genius, declare themselves dissatisfied with the boundaries of their discipline, and who thereupon proceed to “transgress the boundaries” with all the grace and intelligence of a gas escaping from a swamp.
[1] [“die jetzige geistige Pest”.] Jacob Burckhardt, Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (Krefeld: Scerpe-Verlag, 1948), p.132.
[2] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Maxims and Reflections, tr. E.Stopp (London: Penguin Books, 1998), §.254, p.29.
[3] “One must possess originality, not ‘strive for it’.” [“Originalität muß man haben, nicht ‘danach streben’.”] Jacob Burckhardt, op.cit., p.133.
[4] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (New York: Dover Publications, 2003), p.19. “The essential thing is not that there be many truths in a work, but that no truth be abused.” Joseph Joubert, The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert, tr. P. Auster (New York: New York Review Books, 2005), Year 1787, p.10.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Hi-Tech Shar’iah

“We set out to prove that computer crime with its high technology is not entirely a new type of crime that needs a new Islamic theory and thus is already covered by the general Islamic Shar’iah laws.”
Mansoor Al-A’ali, “Computer Crime and the Law from an Islamic Point of View”, Journal of Applied Sciences, Vol.7:12, 2007.

On the Just Deserts for Stealing Trifles from Natives

“Be very severe if any of your own party steal trifles from natives: order double or treble retribution, if the man does not know better; and, if he does, a flogging besides, and not in place of it.”

Francis Galton, The Art of Travel, or Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries, 5th ed., 1872 (London: Phoenix Press, 2000), p.309.

A New Language

“Gordon Brown’s assertion that the latest terrorists are ‘evil’ recalls George Bush’s notorious axis. . . . If he truly desires change, fresh international dialogue and enhanced national security, it is imperative that he find a new language to express his ideas.” [1]
Would it be better if we described only as bad, misguided, or a wee bit naughty persons who wished to commit mass-murder and spread terror? I myself cannot see how the word “evil” [2] — in the sense of moral wickedness — is misapplied to such persons. Happen I am not so warm and sensitive as our author, nor so prone to the belief that the world will be set aright through the mad insistence that we find a new language by which we should fail to describe it.
[1] Dr Jan Tate, Letter to The Guardian, 3rd July 2007. In a similar vein, cf.: “It is deeply unhelpful for news networks to breathlessly report that the Glasgow attackers were ‘Asian-looking men’.” Josh Freedman Berthoud, “Dangerous little words”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 1st July 2007. (From the context, I have trouble understanding the meaning of the phrase “deeply unhelpful”. Does it mean what it normally means? Is it even English, or some homoplasy?)
[2] The Online Etymological Dictionary has the following entry for evil: O.E. yfel (Kentish evel) “bad, vicious,” from P.Gmc. *ubilaz (cf. O.Saxon ubil, Goth. ubils), from PIE *upelo-, giving the word an original sense of “uppity, overreaching bounds” which slowly worsened. “In OE., as in all the other early Teut. langs., exc. Scandinavian, this word is the most comprehensive adjectival expression of disapproval, dislike or disparagement” [OED]. Evil was the word the Anglo-Saxons used where we would use bad, cruel, unskillful, defective (adj.), or harm, crime, misfortune, disease. The meaning “extreme moral wickedness” was in O.E., but did not become the main sense until 18c. Evil eye (L. oculus malus) was O.E. eage yfel.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Other Idols

On account of the post-war economic strength of Japan, Eric Falkenstein finds it quite silly that Japanese soldiers killed themselves when faced with defeat by the United States in the Second World War.
After watching the movie where the Japanese soldiers were in effect committing suicide on the basis that life would be intolerable if the Americans won, when in fact Japan prospered after WW2, reminded me of the general mistakes people have on the big picture. [1]
Mr Falkenstein makes the mistake of projecting his own interests onto others, and it is unsurprising therefore that he finds their deeds silly.
.....If those Japanese soldiers had been fighting for an economic prosperity within an Americanised society, such as that which exists in Japan today, then their beliefs about the intolerability of Japan in the future would have been false, given that they would have found tolerable what they found desirable; moreover their fighting against the power which would beget such a society would have been irrational; and their suicides in vain. But of course they were fighting for no such thing.
.....Many committed suicide in accordance with a code of honour and in the belief that the order to which they had sworn themselves — which they loved and to which they had devoted their lives — was to be destroyed, an event that has largely come to pass. The Japan that has prospered after the war is a very different Japan; and thus the belief that life would be intolerable if the Americans won was true precisely for those to whom the ensuing society would have been intolerable. Make of that what you will, but understand thereby that not everyone has Mammon for his idol, and not everyone makes his sacrifices thereto.
[1] Eric Falkenstein, “Conventional Wisdom of Future Usually Wrong”, Mahalanobis (Weblog), 1st July 2007, via Tim Worstall, “Quote of the Day”, Tim Worstall (Weblog), 2nd July 2007. (At the risk of being accused of pedantry or churlishness, but to the benefit of a language in which we are all fallible, I must note that the sentence “After watching the movie. . ., reminded me of . . .” is incorrect.)