March 2009

Q: What about after you’ve destroyed philosophy, though? What about once trolling has destroyed everything but trolling itself…. leaving nothing but a desolate wasteland haunted by the howling winds and the ghosts of extinct disciplines. Is that what you really want?

— J. Elson

A: Yes, but you forgot the lamentations of their women.

(Note: These days the wreaker of havoc obviously must also be willing to accept male lamentations, but analytic philosophy is notoriously dominated by married feminist dudes.)

With the collapse of the world economy and Western Civilization generally,  my vendetta against academic economics is now less likely to be ascribed to eccentricity, mental illness, or a grudge, but for most, my vendetta against philosophy is still suspect.Why should something as “quixotic”, “mostly harmless”,  and null as academic philosophy rouse any strong feelings whatsoever?

Because of the opportunity cost. Harmless-and-null philosophy is crowding out something better, and has been doing so since 1950 or so. Philosophy did not have to be what it is today; it was made what it is by purposeful, destructive action. The social institution of philosophy (the biz, the forms of production) has  distorted philosophy itself. The job has destroyed the work. Philosophy could be a resource for the educated, thoughtful adult, but it isn’t.

Brian Leiter is indeed a crap philosopher of no real intellectual interest, but my struggle is not with him personally. His institutional importance dwarfs his person and his work. He is the Second Assistant Secretary Philosophy Commissar,  and despite his lowly philosophical status, he’s in command  because he controls  the Philosophy Gourmet Report. This system of rankings provides the default standard according to which the philosophical nomenklatura decide hiring, firing, and promotion. By reading this report, philosophers and would-be philosophers at every level down to high school can find out who’s who and what’s what, what’s hot and what’s not.  The Leiter Report displays and produces the interlocking, mutually reinforcing hierarchies by which students choose schools, schools choose students,  and schools hire and promote.

NOTE: Since my crusade began I’ve repeatedly had to deal with two standard retorts: first, that I don’t enough about contemporary analytic philosophy to criticize it, and second, that the stuff I’m looking for is really out there, but that I just haven’t found it. My recent good-faith efforts to understand analytic philosophy better have been entirely in response to these two criticisms. I’ve never promised to change my ideas about what philosophy can and should be; I’ve  just committed myself to verifying that the stuff I’m looking for really isn’t there.

So what’s wrong with contemporary academic philosophy, and what do I think that it should be instead?

1. Philosophers today (like most other scholars) systematically narrow the  scope of their questioning in order to get more precise and more certain results. This is analyticity, or a version of it anyway. The process of narrowing iterates repeatedly, until finally you’re discussing sub-sub-sub-questions of original questions which have been long forgotten. Beyond that, often enough the analytic method is further ornamented with fanciful counterfactual hypotheticals which themselves can become independent objects of study. The outcome of all this is a perfect Potemkin village of conditionally rigorous conclusions which are irrelevant to anything actual or actually imaginable.

To systematically broaden the scope of questioning in order to bring in additional factors and produce more realistic descriptions of reality, while keeping as much rigor as possible (but not the maximum rigor)  would be an equally valid philosophical strategy — the contextual, constructive or exploratory strategy — but professional philosophers at every level (above all during their Pavlovian early years) are strongly discouraged from doing this.

2. This general philosophy would be readable and usable for thoughtful, educated adults whose training is in non-philosophical fields; in various ways it would help them understand the world better. Philosophy would regain its adjacency to history, literature, maxims, wisdom literature, aphorisms, reflections, meditations, pamphleteering, social criticism, utopias, etc. and would quit pretending to be a expert specialized science (which Aaron Preston has shown it has never been). This philosophy would not privilege proof and science over persuasion, and could be constitutive of persons and peoples.

Historically, some philosophers have been read for pleasure and others not. (It is not a question merely of difficulty). In general, philosophy today models itself on the less readable philosophers: Aristotle, the scholastics, Kant and the Kantians, and the more barbarous writings of the early moderns. Many authors once read as philosophers are now classified by philosophers as mere literature,  and others (e.g. William James) are read purely historically with respect to specific contributions  relevant to the institutional philosophy of today. (According to Wiki, the  philosophy pros blame Russell for giving too much attention to early philosophy in his History of Western Philosophy; I find this highly amusing).

3. The usability of philosophy to which I refer is usability in practice. People go through their lives living mostly routinely, but very frequently they can find themselves facing an unknown, unpredictable future which is  to some degree capable of being formed by human initiatives; such cases range from the trivial and purely personal  on up to the historically decisive and weighty. At these times they can only rely on the  “philosophy” (in the popular sense) which they’ve developed in the course of their lives on the basis of their experience and knowledge. In my opinion, being a resource of for someone forming a personal philosophy is one of philosophy’s primary tasks, but contemporary philosophy minimizes this aspect when it doesn’t aggressively reject it.

4. I do not know how original this next thought is, but in my opinion the situation just described in #3 is the source of ethics and normativity. When facing an open future the questions “What should I do?”, “What should we do?”, “Who am I?”,  “Who are we?”, in one form or another, are unavoidable. The practical is the ethical, the ethical is the practical, and both are inextricable from and constitutive of personal being, belonging,  and  social being. This orientation toward an unknown and open future should be the anchor and reference point for all thinking on normativity, but for most contemporary philosophy it is not. By and large Anglo-American philosophy during the last half-century or more has avoided these questions, or has apodictically declared them to be undiscussable and nonsensical, or has muddied them up with fake precision to the extent that they are difficult or impossible to do anything with.

5. The situation in #3, facing an open, contingent  future partly formable by human actions and human choices, renders some traditional goals of philosophy and science obsolete or even potentially harmful. If the turning points are real turning points, and if there really are two or more  importantly different possible outcomes at many different points in time, of which only one can be realized, and if the actual outcome is contingent and systematically unpredictable, and if there are diverging paths from every moment of decision through new moments of decision onward into the future, then there are important kinds of Truth which are in practice impossible to attain or even state (i.e., possible only in the sense that a million monkeys might eventually type the works of Shakespeare). Tomorrow becomes a single particular partnered with one or more other ghost particulars which never came into being and never will, and the understanding of tomorrow’s outcome reality becomes simply a recognition that it’s there, rather than its explanation in terms of Truth. (Davidson talked about events as particulars two decades or so ago, but no one seems to have gone anywhere with it.)

6. The kind of question described in #5  is much discussed in many  disciplines, but I think that there’s often an attempt to minimize or deny its impact, for example by convergence theories, fluctuation theories, or many-world theories, which all allow you to preserve Truth while making change, indeterminacy,  real multiple possibility, and human choice insignificant. Be that as it may, questions of the type “What should I do?”, “What should we do?”, “Who am I?”,  “Who are we?” are not truth-functional, and do presuppose an open future of real uncertainty. And since the future is by definition as yet undecided, even simple practical statements like “I’m going to build a shed in the back yard” cannot be true, since they are about an act that hasn’t happened and might not, and a thing that doesn’t exist and might never. Projects and proposals can’t be truths, but life consists above all of projects and proposals, and if philosophy is to be usable in the way that  I’ve proposed that it should be, the insistence on Truth is a fatal impediment. Personal identities, group identities, and individual affiliations with groups are all projects and proposals, and group-formation is a multi-dimensional, multi-player process of persuasion involving much more than Truth.   (Whether this has anything to do with Wittgenstein’s assertion that there cannot be a propositional ethics I don’t know;  I think that it does.)

7. Philosophy should be a philosophy of wholes. Holism is distinguishable from generalism, though similar to it, but it’s above all contrastive to universalism. By and large universalism consists of rigorous truths which are everywhere and always true, and truths of this kind (for example in mathematics and logic) are found by narrowing the topic and making the definitions more abstract until finally rigorous Truth is achieved. Generalism uses the opposite method: it expands and contexts the topic, and makes the language more concrete until a realistic  (but less certain) description of a broader reality is achieved.

8. The whole is more than just the general, however; in fact, a whole can be a part. A philosophical whole is an attempted description of everything about a topic — in the most general sense, everything about everything, but most often just everything about some specific question, particular or situation.

Holistic statements are always false. You always leave something out or get something wrong, and in any case, the world’s always changing, so that even if an ambitious holistic statement happened to be true today, it wouldn’t be tomorrow. Any holistic statement — above all any generalist holistic statement — immediately elicits opposition, and this is of necessity. Some will find the proffered holism suggestive, or usable with adaptations; others will find it thoroughly objectionable — and the debate will continue. Nobody should ever take holistic statements at face value.

9. So why do we want wholes at all? For practical reasons; we have no choice. We live our lives in accordance with  our own holistic schemes.  When we make decisions, we make on them on the basis of the whole we have constructed to model our own world, and a new holism presented by someone else might help us to improve the one we already have. No matter what, holism is a a gamble; it accepts responsibility for everything about a topic, including aspects not yet understood, and does the best it can. If we fail or screw up, we cannot (or should not) say things like “How was I to know that? Nobody told me about that” unless the unknown factor was something which was in actual fact unknowable. Holism deals with realities as they present themselves.

Or to belabor the obvious, all actual things and situations are holistic wholes, and the more interesting and important they are, they less likely it is that they can be modeled adequately.

10. “Personal philosophy” is holistic, and public philosophy is also holistic, and holistic philosophies developed within the university could conceivably be resources for  either of them. But they seldom are.  One present-day impediment is the liberal dogma that individuals are all strangers to one another, so that personal philosophies are subjective and purely private, which makes it an intrusion on privacy and a violation of freedom for anyone to try to influence someone else at any very deep level. (People today are exceedingly scrupulous about “not telling others how to live their lives”.) A second major impediment is the scientistic dogma that every statement that’s not a statement of fact is meaningless hand-waving nonsense, and you still do find many traces of this in academic philosophy and social science.  But the most destructive impediment at all to the development of a usable philosophy in the universities is the enforced principle that only truth is important, and that all truths are specialist truths.

11. Holistic thinking is managerial thinking. Specialist thinking is subaltern thinking — specialists are docile bodies and attendant lords. (See Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds.) Even in philosophy, which I think should be the broadest and most independent field of study, the university trains philosophers to do their jobs according to apodictic rules (paradigms) which are  not to be questioned or even to be discussed much, but are only to be obeyed. The university does not teach freedom or free citizenship, and for good reason: free minds make managements’ job more difficult, and nowadays everything is managed. The university is managed by university managers, politics is  managed by PhD politicos, and government is nothing but management by experts.  This is the golden age of management, and for the nomenklatura it’s really terribly unfortunate that Western Civilization is collapsing right at the point when they were ready to achieve total world domination.

12. What do the managers — the real men — study? Well, they’re all practical, high-testosterone men, some of them (e.g. Karl Rove) with very little formal education indeed.  Managers are as smart and hard-working as academics, and they resent academic arrogance and take pleasure in making academics look bad (not that it’s hard). Their educations seem mostly to be in engineering, economics, finance, law, and mushy quasi-fields like international relations, public relations, and management. Graduates of Bible colleges are probably as common as humanities graduates.

And without much help from philosophy or any of the liberal arts, they’ve all patched together their own holistic personal philosophies, and based on what we know, these personal philosophies are horrible indeed. And they rule the world, and we obey them.

13. So the world fares on, its docile, jellified citizens obediently performing their assigned tasks and  intermittently emitting subjective, purely-private grumbles about the management they always obey. High above them, the real decisions are being made by real men, and down at street level unemployed humanities majors scuffle for scraps and remember the far-off days when anyone gave a shit what they did. (more…)

I’ve just found my favorite election of all time: the 1936 Congressional contest in Minnesota’s Eight District. This election provides us with  an  example of how democratic government ideally should work,  and offers us guidelines for election reform.

In 1934, legislative stalemate blocked redistricting, and all Congressional candidates ran at large. Minnesota effectively had a three-party system at that time, with the leftist Farmer-Labor Party fighting the Republicans for control of the state and the Democrats bringing up the rear (and sometimes threatening to disappear entirely.)

The ninth and last Congressional slot was claimed by Francis Shoemaker, a leftist muckraker and scandalmonger who looked like a tough-guy detective in a noir movie. In the 1929 Congressional election he had done well in defeat,  even though he had been indicted and briefly jailed on charges of libeling a local banker as a “Robber of Widows and Orphans” (which the banker probably was). In 1930, after the election, Shoemaker was finally convicted of libel and given a suspended sentence, but because of his defiant attitude in his newspaper account of the trial the suspension was revoked, and he spent a year in Leavenworth.

For the rest of his career he bragged about his time in prison, while continuing to slander opponents and to physically assault critics and various others. (He was arrested for assault twice during his single Congressional term; neither attack was politically motivated). He was an undistinguished Congressman, and after one term he left the House to challenge Minnesota’s mealy-mouthed Farmer-Labor  Senator Shipstead. He threw a scare into Shipstead at the FLP convention, but was soundly defeated in the primary.

In 1936 Shoemaker was back in action  despite various legal problems, some of them rising from his support of the Trotskyist Teamsters Local 574 in the bloody 1934 trucker’s strike. (He succeeded in pissing off  the Trotskyists as much as he did their opponents). He decided to challenge Republican Congressman Pittinger in the Eighth District. Whether or not Shoemaker had been an effective Congressman, and despite the fact that he was opposed by the Farmer Labor Party leadership, he was a fearsome, no-holds-barred campaigner and Pittinger dreaded  the thought of having to run against him. Through an intermediary Pittinger donated money to Shoemaker’s primary opponent, John Bernard, who defeated Shoemaker but also defeated Pittinger and became the district’s Congressman .

Bernard (a Corsican immigrant miner and fireman with a fondness for the poetry of Lamartine, Musset, and Racine)  was probably a Communist Party member. This period, specifically in Minnesota, was the high point of Communist influence in America, and Bernard was one of the very few Communists ever elected to national office. He distinguished himself as the only Congressman in any party to oppose Roosevelt’s weaselly pro-Fascist neutrality policy in the Spanish Civil War, a  stand which gained him the fierce opposition of the Catholic Church and others, and he was defeated in his run for re-election.

Trivia: one of the other Communist Congressmen, Vito Marcantonio, began his career in the Republican Party. More trivia: Bob Dylan was born in Bernard’s Communist district only five years after Bernard left office.

The Moral of the Story

(Is Emerson Really Serious About This?)

I’m more serious than you are, buddy. Look at your own Congressman. How well is he responding to the present economic crisis? Better than Bernard and Shoemaker would have?  Almost certainly the answer is “No!”

We’re headed into The Second Great Depression. Almost no one in our present political establishment has any clue as to what’s happening or what to do about it. Most of them are bought and paid for, and the vast majority are jellified lackeys who are incapable of any initiative on a topic more substantial than earmarks and constituent service.

Our political elite is offering us two choices. Obama, Summers, and the machine Democrats propose that we give finance almost everything it asks for, wait for things somehow to get better, and start thinking about squeezing the money out of Social Security and “entitlements” somewhere down the line. Meanwhile the Republicans and Blue Dogs are hoping for Obama to fail so that they can take over and institute “Hooverist” austerity measures immediately. (These are really Mellonist measures:  Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate…. purge the rottenness.)

You’re asking yourself:  “Does Emerson really believe that a Communist or a thuggish populist demagogue would better serve the American people than the Congressman I actually do have?”

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m willing to bet 10-to-1 that your Congressman is effectively worthless.

Neither Bernard nor Shoemaker would put up with any of the Obama / Blue Dog / Republican bullshit. Either of them would have the good sense to scream bloody murder about what they saw happening. But your own Congressman will almost certainly do nothing much at all about all this.

You should be working to bounce him from Congress, but I doubt that you are.

I’m serious and you aren’t.

(Part II will explain the institutional reasons why Minnesota’s political system was healthy in 1936, in contrast to America’s present toxic system.)

“From Leavenworth to Congress”, Frederick L. Johnson, Minnesota History, Spring, 1989.

“The One Man Who Voted ‘Nay'”, Barbara Stuhler, Minnesota History, Fall, 1972.

Over the last few years I’ve gained troll cred mostly by trolling liberal intellectual (“weenie”) blogs from an elusive, erudite, eclectic, generalist, humanist, populist, leftist perspective. I am familiar with all troll traditions and my deployment of the resources available to trolls has been recognized as masterful. (In academic terminology trolling is called “ethnomethodological intervention”.)

My main targets have been centrist machine Democrats, the economics biz, and the philosophy biz. (“Biz” is the demystified term for “profession”: a corrupt cartel of subsidized thinker-nonthinkers obedient to a specific, enforced thinking-nonthinking paradigm.) A biz, of course, is a sociological entity rather than a body of thought, as many philosophers and economists have pointed out to me, but that’s my point: in academic economics and academic philosophy, the biz has dominated and strangled the work, the way property relations sometimes lower productivity, or the way democratic institutions sometimes crush democracy.

Recently it has become much less necessary for me to troll economics, since without further help from me it seems almost certain to collapse into rubble, in synchrony with the world economy it has been misrepresenting. All of the various cute, ingenious kludges and shims and jimmies and adapters and epicycles and bricolages, and sophisticated-unrealistic models and formalizations, and auxiliary and/or counterfactual assumptions, and so on, that they’ve been using all these years  in their attempts to jam historical reality into static models, are now starting to look tattered and ugly. You can’t argue with success, but these guys are now failures.

No actual economist will be hurt as economics withers, along with the economy itself, and Summers and Rubin and Geithner will not be prevented from doing as much as they can to maximize the destruction in the service of their orc masters; but economics itself will disappear. When the dust settles, enough people will understand what happened that the biz will be totally discredited, and the orc masters will have to find some other science to use to spread confusion and preclude popular understanding of what’s going on in their lives.

Philosophy is another question entirely:

I, too, dislike it. There are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. Philosophy makes nothing happen: it survives in the valley of its making where executives would never want to tamper; a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it.

So the question with philosophy is different than the question with economics. If the philosophy biz in its methodological Siberian forest collapsed into rubble, how would anyone know?

Next week I will explain more clearly why contemporary Anglo-American-Norse philosophy rankles my ass (and should rankle yours), whether or not you call it “analytic philosophy”. (“Opportunity cost” and “crowding out” are key terms.)

My most recent troll

Key responses:

Harry and Chris: why, oh why, do you permit comments on threads pertaining to matters philosophical?

— First Secretary of the People’s Philosophy Union

This thread should have been terminated long ago – I’m closing it now.

— Attendant Lord