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…)

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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

Among educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR people, a lot of the time the argument goes meta:

Me: The bankrupt bankers are unbelievably arrogant. The beggars seem to think they still own the world.

Educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR person: Well, they’re in a tight situation. A lot of people are gunning for them, and they have to protect themselves somehow. Extorting several trillion dollars from the government by threatening to bring the world economy crashing down was really the only card they had in their hand. I’d say that they’ve played it remarkably well.

This is a good example of the difference between the apodictic reading of a proposition and the problematological reading. From the apodictic point of view, the sophisticated person’s response is adequate. It looks at the face of the proposition itself and answers it based on its meaning, in the context of the tacit (apodictic) background assumptions of the person answering.

Problematologically, however, this response is wrong. The unexpressed context is misread, possibly deliberately*. That is to say, the question to which my statement was an answer was not recognized.

My statement was not answering the question “What would a normally rational, self-interested person do if they were caught leeching billions of dollars from their supposed employer during a period when they were making enormous blunders causing the enterprise to go bankrupt and collapse?”

The question my statement was answering was instead “Why do a few bankers need to be impaled and left out in the hot sun until they expire, in order to give the remaining bankers a clearer understanding of their new place in the world?”

Thus, the educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR person’s response was mistaken.

In my first statement, I had left out the context — i.e., had made an apodictic statement — because I had assumed that every normal human being thought as I did. I found this assumption not to be true when the sophisticated person responded as they did. However, responding directly to the sophisticated person’s clueless statement would have been a big mistake, since doing so would have involved me in a pointless, interminable argument about the wrong question. What I needed to do instead was to explicate the problematological context of my original statement, making it explicit rather than apodictic (assumed).

And that’s what I just did.

* “Possibly deliberately” is inexact. It is true that for skilled, self-aware quibblers and confusionists, deliberately misreading the problematology of a question is a primary tactic. However, the phrase “possibly deliberately” makes it seem that the other alternatives are innocent — merely  accidental, careless, or ignorant. This is not usually the case. For educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR persons, the particular sort of problematological misreading I just exhibited is second nature, part of the very structure of their being, and in fact is the difference defining their species. This particular sort of problematological misreading is essential:  whenever we see it, we know that we are talking to an educated, thoughtful, sophisticated NPR person.

*****

This has been a very brief introduction to the philosophy of Michel Meyer. Rhetoric, Language, and Reason (Penn State, 1994) is a good, still short, but considerably longer introduction. It should be noted, however, that Meyer does not advocate impaling anyone.**

**Nor do I! This has been a purely hypothetical example used entirely for the purpose of exhibiting an instance of problematological confusion. Naive commonfolk dabbling in philosophy customarily fixate on the arbitrary example and miss the real point — another instance of problematological error. They have to realize that the fat man and the trolley car are merely constructions of the mind and do not actually exist, and that the truth being expressed is on the higher, transcendent plane.

One well may wonder how Meyer feels about the fact that his most enthusiastic internet disciple is a scurrilous political polemicist.

My understanding of “too big to fail” is: Tom and Daisy always win. Tom and Daisy are ontologically necessary, like gravity or the conservation of matter and energy: someone has to smash up things and creatures and then retreat back into their money or their vast carelessness. The problem is that too often we think of this as contingent and are borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Tyler Cowen:

Don’t let those switches distract you. My point is simple: it is very hard to find examples of successful fiscal stimulus driving an economic recovery. Ever. This should be a sobering fact.

Response:

But wasn’t the statement he made just kind of ridiculous?

Not only ridiculous — in context it was vicious.

I am a murderous Luddite populist, so of course I fail to understand why people like Cowen are tolerated just because they are competent professionals and fairly pleasant people.

There are lots of Godwinian examples of charming, pleasant people who were fundamentally horrible and vicious. Enough said.

As for competence, who cares? Scientific economists, who have been jerking everyone else around for god knows how long, have just now calmly decided that they don’t know what the fuck is going on. No skin off their asses, they’ll still have their jobs and their lives. An interesting problem indeed. Possibly the most interesting problem since the Great Depression. In the end it may be a good thing for the biz — economists will be more necessary than ever.

There’s an enormous body of physics consisting of definite, reliable answers to definite, consequential questions. On these questions there aren’t schools of thought or nuances of interpretation. That’s why physics sets the standard for successful sciences.

Economics just isn’t like that, and for that reason it would not be reasonable to hope that anyone, once certified, could ever be driven out of the profession because of incompetence, malpractice, malfeasance, misfeasance, nonfeasance, conflict of interest, fraud, misprision, malice aforethought, or any other goddamn thing. This is because to do so would be entirely arbitrary and unfair, because when the chips are down, economists can’t be sure they know anything. They’re nothing but ideologues and mercenary advocates, but with more math and more data.