Friday, May 24, 2019


I am not qualified to try to define or analyze populism, and other people who are much more qualified have written about it, but I nevertheless want to think about it, and I think there's a chance, however small, that I might end up saying something worthwhile that hasn't already been said. So here goes.

I think that, at least roughly (and technological advances aside), what a lot of people want is the kind of world portrayed in the Asterix books. There, people live in villages or small towns in which there is one blacksmith, one fishmonger, and so on, or perhaps a small number who, to the amusement of others, are rivals. Employment is basically self-employment, and the secrets to success are hard work, skill, and competitive pricing. So it's fair, and everyone benefits (with possible exceptions: see below). Each village in a given province is similar, but every province or country has its own peculiar culture. The British drink a lot of tea, the Spanish take siestas, etc. People everywhere are basically the same, but there is an entertaining assortment of cultures.

I'm sure things were never quite so rosy as this picture suggests. There have always been wars and plagues and serious inequalities of wealth and freedom. But it seems to be roughly what life was like before the industrial revolution, at least when times were good. The big disruptor of the Asterix model was industrialization, which means the end of cottage industry and leads more people to move into cities. This means there is greater efficiency and profit, but less equality. And if family and local charity were ever enough to take care of old, sick, disabled, and otherwise unlucky people (which is doubtful), they aren't any more.

Another disruptor is feminism (and, in the United States, the civil rights movement). The women in Asterix are much less likely than men to have their own businesses. This is still true, but less so (it seems to me, as I should add to every sentence here). This progress in terms of opportunities for women is good, but it means there is more competition for the fishmonger, etc., and a less cushy life at home as well. So women have more options and are, presumably, happier (which could also benefit men), but life is basically worse for men than it was. Justly, but people don't always care as much about justice as they do about their own comfort.

Thirdly there is globalization or free trade. Like industrialization and feminism, this is good overall, but it has its losers. If goods, including jobs, can easily move from one country to another then this is good for the world's poor (who need it most) as well as for business owners (who don't), but at least potentially bad for those in between, who perhaps find that they can buy cars more cheaply but no longer have as good a job as they once did. Globalization also means that each place comes to seem less unique and more like anywhere else (even if this appearance is combined with persistent deep differences of some kind).

Populism is unhappy about these trends. Hardly anyone opposes the industrial revolution, but plenty of people are unhappy about at least some of its effects. The left-wing version of populism, if there really is such a thing, opposes globalization and, especially, inequality. The right-wing version (which is much more noticeable) opposes feminism and globalization. But there is often more to it than this. Here's a list of other features:
  • Fight response (as in fight or flight). People on the right, and especially on the far right, like military stuff, but they especially seem to think of it as a necessary response to a perceived threat. Hence the 'response' part. I suppose this is part of why such people are called reactionaries.
  • Racism. The Asterix books are not exactly free of racism, even if it is intended to be friendly or at least inoffensive. And populism is always likely to involve stereotypes and caricature. But the right-wing version embraces this aspect of populism and digs its heels in (and mixes its metaphors). Cultures are not (regarded as) just different: some are (regarded as) better than others. And the (supposedly) better ones just happen to be those that come from around here, wherever here is in any particular case.
  • Social Darwinism. A major reason why cultures cannot be thought of as simply different is because they are conceived as being in competition with one another. This relates also to the fight response feature of this kind of mindset. Others are (perceived as) a threat. Their appearance requires a defensive response. So globalization, increased openness to interaction with strangers, just as such, is scary. 
  • Tribalism. This is related to racism but prior to it. A tribalist, in my sense, need not think of his or her tribe as better than any other. But they will think of themselves as a member of this or that tribe (rather than as simply an individual). Jonathan Haidt, if I'm remembering correctly, has found that conservative people tend to be sports fans, affiliating themselves with groups, such as sports teams. This is an aspect of Aristotle's idea of the political animal: we are naturally social beings. It relates also to the idea of justice found in Book I of Plato's Republic (but rejected by Socrates) that justice is a matter of helping one's friends and hurting one's enemies.
  • Relativism. Tribalism is also part of Devlin's idea that people need a society, which in turn depends on shared morals, and that these morals need not be particularly good. We just need to have some sort of code, and serious threats to this code cannot be permitted. The conventions matter much less than that we conform to them. This is hard to take seriously unless we abandon the idea that one set of conventions can be better than another. And (so?) one kind of right-wing person is a relativist about ethics. We are better than them, but not in a particularly ethical way. Betterness is more a matter of mere feeling. This is likely to be expressed in more concrete terms--we are more intelligent than them, more ethical, and so on--but if any specific claim to superiority is disproved it will be met with an "Ah, well, nevertheless..." What matters is not so much being better, or even good, as expressing and believing in the superiority of one's own tribe.
  • Irrationality, by which I mean positive hostility to reason (and science, expertise, etc.). Loyalty to the code of one's tribe means rejecting the very idea of objective or dispassionate assessment of norms. (Which is why I think it's questionable to link objectivity with white supremacy culture.) Passion must trump reason. And one's own tribe, and those like it, must be preferred to others, so there can be no respect for the "global community" or humanity in general. The Enlightenment can be championed as a feather in the hat of one's own tribe (if one happens to be European or white or more or less plausibly related in some such way to the Enlightenment), but actual Enlightenment ideals such as human rights or the value of reason (except as understood in tribal terms) are to be rejected. (Which all makes it unsurprising that populists are more likely to believe conspiracy theories.)
  • Anti-individualism. The group and its conventions come first, and assertions of one's own identity or ethics are a threat to this. They ought not to be argued against (although there might be some show of 'arguing', especially if one regards the Enlightenment as a badge of honor as described above) but should be suppressed in other ways, such as mockery and violence. So being trans or vegan, or different in many other ways, is not allowed. Once a kind of difference is conventionally accepted, though, then it's OK. So being gay might be accepted, but any kind of difference is always likely to be (regarded as) dangerous.
  • Immorality, i.e., positive opposition to (some) ethical behavior. The conscience, so far as it is the voice of reason or individual belief, is not to be trusted. It must be overcome. This takes "strength." And strength is already considered a virtue because of the importance of fight response, social Darwinism, and manliness.    
  • Manliness. The ideal person is a not-too-rational team player who is willing to fight, a manly man. This is likely to be an especially popular view among anti-feminists. There's been a lot of attention paid to young incels, but there are also a lot of bitter, divorced, older men out there. 
I don't mean that every populist has all of these features. But they do seem to go together, in practice as well as in theory, and perhaps thinking them through like this helps to bring the connections out.

OK, that's about all I have. If you're disappointed, try this instead: "What We Know Now About Bias". 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The meaning of Iris Murdoch's work

Philosophers were invited to write on a postcard (to be sent to a randomly chosen fan, I think) what Iris Murdoch's work means to them. The answers are available to read here. Some of my favorite philosophers are there, and it's interesting just to read all the answers as a kind of summary of what Murdoch has to offer.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Nothing to be said?

Here's a chunk from my old paper "Nothing to be Said" (pp. 253-254):

In comments starting here Reshef asks some questions and I sometimes get close to responding relevantly and then sometimes don't. After which he offers a kind of summary of what he's been trying to get at:
I’ve been trying to look through the eyes of the unhappy, or of the happy for that matters. Through their eyes human nature is morally significant. They are responding morally to it. The happiness/unhappiness is their response. 

What I fear, again, is that if we say that not anything could be brought into a moral relation with our lives, we will deny ourselves access to these happy/unhappy points of view: to these moral reactions (also reactions to human nature). I’m not saying that the happy or the unhappy is right. I’m not so much asking this question. And I agree that not everyone will agree. I agree that not on every view of what moral thinking consists in human nature can be a moral issue. I am just worried of a kind of meta-ethics that does not leave room for views, or attitude to life (because I'm not sure we should call happiness or unhappiness “views”), in which human nature is or can become a moral issue.
I want here to get clearer about what I have been saying (what I said in that old paper still seems right to me) and what Reshef is saying. I say "It is not that just anything can be given a moral application" and "It would be a mistake to claim that just anything could be brought into a moral relation with our lives." This certainly sounds like a denial by me that anything whatever could have a morally significant place in one's life. But that isn't what I mean. What I mean is that, although a very wide range of things (including both physical objects, ideas, and sentences) can be morally significant, as can be shown by various examples, these examples do not show that absolutely anything whatsoever could be morally significant. Perhaps it can be, but (as far as my investigation goes) that remains to be seen.

Reshef seems to be saying that someone might have an ethical view, or attitude, according to which everything one cares about is morally significant, precisely because one cares about it. And this (the thing cared about) might be anything at all.

This is a view that I find hard to get in focus, but I don't think I'm ruling it out as a possibility at all. I'm just not endorsing or adopting it.

Am I perhaps trying to do meta-ethics without ethics, and is that a tenable distinction? And what about the points made by Cora Diamond that I quoted here? Not to mention the paper by Anne-Marie S√łndergaard Christensen that I mentioned here. There are reasons to think that I might need to change my tune and not just stick with what I wrote twenty years ago. But at the moment it still seems OK to me.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The absolutely right road

Tommi Uschanov and Reshef have a nice discussion here about what Wittgenstein might mean when he talks about the absolutely right road in the Lecture on Ethics. Tommi provides a link there to this essay by Arto Tukiainen. Tukiainen writes:
Wittgenstein himself connects ethics with logic when he compares absolute goodness to an absolutely right road that everyone chooses with logical necessity after having become aware of it (1965, 7). He qualifies this by saying that if we don't choose absolute goodness, we feel guilty. One might wonder how it is possible to feel guilty for not choosing absolute goodness if choosing it happens with logical necessity. Is it not the case that not choosing absolute goodness and feeling guilty about this excludes choosing it and being happy? So how can choosing absolute goodness happen with logical necessity? How can Wittgenstein compare absolute goodness to a road we choose with logical necessity? (p. 105)
There seems to be a mistake here. Wittgenstein says:
I said that so far as facts and propositions are concerned there is only relative value and relative good, right, etc. And let me, before I go on, illustrate this by a rather obvious example. The right road is the road which leads to an arbitrarily predetermined end and it is quite clear to us all that there is no sense in talking about the right road apart from such a predetermined goal. Now let us see what we could possibly mean by the expression, "the absolutely right road." I think it would be the road which everybody on seeing it would, with logical necessity, have to go, or be ashamed for not going. And similarly the absolute good, if it is a describable state of affairs, would be one which everybody, independent of his tastes and inclinations, would necessarily bring about or feel guilty for not bringing about. And I want to say that such a state of affairs is a chimera. No state of affairs has, in itself, what I would like to call the coercive power of an absolute judge.
I take the alleged logical necessity to be, not that one takes the absolutely right road, but that one either takes this road or feels guilty. So there is no need to wonder "how it is possible to feel guilty for not choosing absolute goodness if choosing it happens with logical necessity". Choosing it does not happen with logical necessity. (Unless I'm misreading the text.)

It's interesting that Wittgenstein says that there is no such state of affairs. How does he know? He goes on not to give evidence (unrepentant murderers, etc.) but to ask what people, including himself, who still want to talk about absolute value have in mind and mean to express. And he thinks then of cases in which he would use such language. Here he starts talking about psychology, and certain kinds of experiences, in the hope that the audience will call to mind similar experiences of their own. (This all sounds like the kind of thing he later recommends not doing in philosophy, although given his particular purpose here perhaps even his later self would be OK with it.)

When he considers these experiences the first thing he has to say is that their verbal expression is a nonsensical misuse of language. These experiences seem to people like him to have "in some sense an intrinsic, absolute value." But a few lines later he concedes that, "it is nonsense to say that they have absolute value." Shortly after that (I'm going through this too fast: one day perhaps I'll write a line-by-line exegesis) he realizes that nonsensicality is the essence of the expressions he is concerned with.

I think, then, that it's not an accident that there just happens to be no state of affairs with the power of a coercive judge. Any such state of affairs, if it did exist, would not be what is wanted. An object or person that made one do what it wanted or else feel mental pain would be evil (cf. Kant, who, however, doesn't say exactly the same thing, and this from Wittgenstein: "If I thought of God as another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful, then I would regard it as my duty to defy him." (Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. Rush Rhees, Oxford University Press, 1984, pp. 107-8)--quoted here). To see what Wittgenstein means to help you see, though, you ought to go through the twists and turns in the lecture.

One final note. The first paragraph of the lecture (there are two in all, the second being the longer) ends thus:
My third and last difficulty is one which, in fact, adheres to most lengthy philosophical lectures and it is this, that the hearer is incapable of seeing both the road he is led and the goal which it leads to. That is to say: he either thinks: "I understand all he says, but what on earth is he driving at" or else he thinks "I see what he's driving at, but how on earth is he going to get there." All I can do is again to ask you to be patient and to hope that in the end you may see both the way and where it leads to.
This, again, warns against relying on a summary of what the lecture says, but it's possible that it isn't just a coincidence that Wittgenstein uses a road metaphor here as he does in explaining what he means by "absolute value," etc.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Burrow

Anscombe was a big fan of Kafka's short story "The Burrow." Unfortunately, I don't know why. She said she didn't understand it at first, so my working hypothesis is that she came to think that she did understand it and that she liked it because of what she took its meaning to be. But what was that?

Coetzee also seems to be a fan, and has a lot to say about time in the story. (In case that link doesn't work for you, the paper is "Time, Tense and Aspect in Kafka's "The Burrow"," in MLN Vol. 96, No. 3, April 1981, pp. 556-579.) A few quotes from this paper might give some idea of what the story is about, and hence of what Anscombe might have taken it to be about:
The state in which Kafka's creature lives is one of acute anxiety (one would call it irrational anxiety if there were any reliable opposition between rational and irrational in his universe). His whole life is organized around the burrow, his defense against an attack which may come at any moment and without warning. (p. 574)
Time in "The Burrow" is discontinuous in a strictly formalizable sense. Any moment may mark the break between before and after. Time is thus at every moment a time of crisis (from Greek krino "to separate, to divide"). Life consists in an attempt to anticipate a danger which cannot be anticipated because it comes without transition, without warning. The experience of a time of crisis is colored by anxiety. The task of building the burrow itself represents a life devoted to trying to still anxiety, naturally without success; for without warning "the enemy" is in the burrow. (p. 575)
What we have in "The Burrow", rather, is a struggle--not only the representation of the struggle but the struggle itself--with time experienced as continual crisis, and experienced at a pitch of anxiety that leads to attempts to tame it with whatever means language offers. (pp. 576-577) 
I don't know whether, or why, questions about tense and time would have interested Anscombe especially (although of course they might have), but I wonder whether it's too fanciful to see a connection with some of what Father Zosima says here (from The Brothers Karamazov):

To transform the world, to recreate it afresh, men must turn into another path psychologically. Until you have become really, in actual fact, a brother to every one, brotherhood will not come to pass. No sort of scientific teaching, no kind of common interest, will ever teach men to share property and privileges with equal consideration for all. Every one will think his share too small and they will be always envying, complaining and attacking one another. You ask when it will come to pass; it will come to pass, but first we have to go through the period of isolation.”

“What do you mean by isolation?” I asked him.

“Why, the isolation that prevails everywhere, above all in our age—it has not fully developed, it has not reached its limit yet. For every one strives to keep his individuality as apart as possible, wishes to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself; but meantime all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but self-destruction, for instead of self-realization he ends by arriving at complete solitude. All mankind in our age have split up into units, they all keep apart, each in his own groove; each one holds aloof, hides himself and hides what he has, from the rest, and he ends by being repelled by others and repelling them. He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, ‘How strong I am now and how secure,’ and in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence. For he is accustomed to rely upon himself alone and to cut himself off from the whole; he has trained himself not to believe in the help of others, in men and in humanity, and only trembles for fear he should lose his money and the privileges that he has won for himself. Everywhere in these days men have, in their mockery, ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the time, and people will marvel that they have sat so long in darkness without seeing the light. And then the sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the heavens....   

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Taking Back Philosophy

My review of Bryan W. Van Norden's book Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto is, for a limited time, available here. Basically, I agree with him that Western philosophy departments should either rename themselves as such (rather than as simply philosophy departments) or else teach more non-Western philosophy.