A poet is a lazy philosopher – K. Choi, lazy poet

was originally published on Meandering home

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In Defense Of The Philosophy Faculty

When I began studying philosophy in 1997 some people called it navel-gazing. It is no different in 2017, as calls for austerity affect everything that doesn’t generate a direct cash return. The reputation of philosophy, because it has no (and cannot have) direct practical value, is that of a complex game of words that refuses to surrender to the regime of utility.

If philosophy doesn’t demand absolute independence from cultural, economical or religious influences, it ceases to be the love of wisdom and becomes the worship of the power structure that embeds it. Of course it is always embedded in such a power structure (as a faculty with a budget, staffed by people with salaries and affinities); hence a philosophy faculty cannot exist without a permanent struggle to evade canonization as a useful, rational underpinning of the real thing: the worldly sciences.

The idea that such struggle is prima facie, and not only after its effects have been measured, beneficial (to avoid the word useful) with respect to something like truth, is difficult to accept, precisely because it evades the framework of economical usefulness in the most fundamental way: it indefinitely postpones the ‘cashing in’ on its usefulness, something that is anachronistic in an era that is obsessed with realizing the idea of future today.

Is this the cultural bias against the benefits of a strange discipline that appears to force itself to be contrarian? Every time a philosophical theory becomes ‘fixed’ as a useful tool for a particular science, it loses her philosophical essence. At their heart, the theories of Marx, Darwin, Freud and their twentieth-century successors are philosophical new ways of asking questions. Sure, these theories have been refined (or: overcome) but that is not the point. Such theories ask the foundational questions of disciplines. They might have a ‘return on investment’ only in useful applications, but the kind of thinking that gives rise to them can be organized in a properly philosophical environment.

So there are these two lines of argument in favor of the philosophy faculty:
1) The irreducible value of the unique ‘flight forward’ to ever new perspectives due to the proper intention of philosophy to ‘leave nothing unthought’ (which can be read as ‘thinking totality’, or not). The value of philosophy exists in opposition to the cultural context that embeds it. It always has to think this opposition and can therefor never be contained. This restless ‘spirit’ of philosophy is directed towards truth, with which it coincides at the end of days. In a certain way it is the secularized Jewish or Christian (idealist) eschatology.
Giving this philosophical drive a formal place in socity is an existential choice that is and should be presented to the sovereign (the electorate). Personal note: This ride (or rite, in a wink to Derrida’s différance) of truth is invaluable to me.
2) The ability of the philosophy faculty to nurture and disseminate theories that can later be borrowed by other sciences that can make them useful (if and only if they deprive these theories of their philosophical spirit).

The more practical issue is whether the creation and teaching of fundamental and foundational theories should be relegated to a faculty that specializes in them. Of course individual philosophers could be integrated in other faculties, such as physics, anthropology, or law and still be prolific researchers and great teachers. However, this misses one great opportunity of philosophy gives us: mingling between faculties. If students of law, economics, biology and architecture take the very same logic and ethics classes, there is the unique opportunity of cross-pollination, of interesting debates between the students (and who knows, their tutors) that will ultimately sharpen the intellectual contours of society.

I think such classes are best organized by a distinct faculty in order to avoid the possibility of bias. But more importantly, a philosophy faculty should be something like the dedicated and sacred ground of Reason.

In Defense Of The Philosophy Faculty was originally published on Meandering home

Writing exercise #1: Deconstruction

Just for fun writing exercise, this time about a religious Ph.D. candidate in philosophy and what he had to say about Christopher Hitchens. His article can be found in crisis magazine. Please be candid with your comments and lay out to me where grammar and rhetoric are still lacking

I would like to exercise and exorcise the vacuity in a pompous text that I found on the Internet, attacking the Dear Leader of my cult, the late Christopher Hitchens. The author of this text is Sean Haylock, a philosopher who ‘found home’ to Christ, writing in the only publication crisis magazine. He opens his piece with an apology for the fact that he had been ‘taken-in’ by the ‘bravura bombast’ of the Hitch. The superfluous alliteration warned me from the very first sentence that the piece would be tough to digest because this author had been too eager to produce resounding phrases, rejoicing as it were in beautifying his grammar rather than submitting it to critical analysis.

He purchased God is Not Great to the visible dismay of the cashier of his local bookstore? What kind of self-hating bookstore is that, where an employee shows dismay when a customer purchases a product that is sold there? When he reportedly ‘devoured it in a fit of scandalized glee’, as if the book was on the Index and he sought the excitement of doing something forbidden, lacking access to pussy – I got the picture.

The PhD-candidate continues with an admittedly well-chosen adjective, debonair, but he overdoes it. Of course Hitchens could ‘pitch you into elated laughter’ with ‘bawdy asides’, but he uses this description to obfuscate the untruth that follows: “if you were on his side, of course”. What nonsense! There have been many believers who laughed out loud and visibly enjoyed the man’s great taste and eloquence in debate. An example might be Tony Blair. Now our author has ‘shifted against him on most matters that he cared about’. There is only one matter here: the existence of a supernatural being. Or are you saying that you shifted against him on matters such as genital mutilation, climate change, honor killings, homosexuality? All ‘matters’ were Christopher quite simply held the right view, and I would defend these views against everybody who things otherwise.

The next paragraph opens with the baffling claim that Hitchens was above all an entertainer, supported not with arguments but with a supposedly witty comparison. Hitchens has a larger than life character and effortless erudition (another irritating alliteration). A man who consistently fought against the delusion of religion and held contrarian views informed by his own rational considerations alone, not by an authority, wants to convince, not to entertain. It is a gross and quite unforgivable insult and, of course, a counterproductive way of neutralizing the force of Hitchens’s arguments.

Next we must ‘acquaint ourselves with the private being that dwelt in the shadow of that vivid façade’ because that private being, ‘in its frailty and nakedness and immutable beauty is wat matters most about each person’. I used to call this the moralistic rape of your audience. Add in a tear-jerking sentence and another blatant and for religions authoritarians very convenient lie, namely that only the person matters. God damn it, what matters is what the man said.

Once the sluices to the ad hominem are opened wide, the mud starts flowing. About the claim that Hitchens would be a narcissist our author writes “there is some truth in that”. How can he know? For all I know the man was eloquent, don’t conflate the two because it might haunt you one day, when you gain an ‘undaunted style’ or even or the ability to think for yourself, the latter faculty conveniently dismissed as ideological idiosyncracies. Next, our author uses the anecdotal evidence that he doesn’t feel trusted as a reader, that there is the ‘distance of lacquered artifice’. He missed the ‘intimate contact of souls’ that he yearns for as a religious person and because he didn’t feel good about the packaging, he disposes of rational argument altogether. But what our zealot dismisses as ‘arrogance parceled out in witticisms’ is the heart-felt indignation over the horrors committed in the name of religion. The next untruth this self-righteous scribbler feels the need to proclaim is again an ad hominem, saying that simply because Hitchens is capable of the art of polemics, he couldn’t do justice to matters of moral consciousness? Our benighted Christian forgets that the allegedly objective moral truths his tribal faith claims to know must be independent of our own morality, in fact Christianity depends for a large part on the idea that crooked men have the ability to see the light and be reborn in Christ. The atheist, of course, is not only crooked but should be confined to hell and eternal damnation. Apparently, it is only by denying truth and humanity in everybody else that Christians can uphold the consistency of their narrative. The all-encompassing inclusion of the loving father-god is predicated on the exclusion, and if (indeed historically whenever) they get away with it, extermination of infidels. But enough. In the same paragraph, our writer dares to doubt Hitchens’s personal integrity, as if eloquent rebuttals are in any way comparable to the indoctrination of faith and the mutilation of genitals. Another vile smear, and he isn’t done yet.

It gets worse. This bloke calls Hitchens a demagogue and a charlatan because he deployed rhetoric with passion and vehemence. This is a non sequitur if there ever was one. He accuses him of using ‘flashy rhetorical gambits’ without any real argument. That gambit goes “that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. It is ‘redolent of verificationism’ and would lead to obscurantism, while Hitchens would be not aware of the ‘developments in the twentieth century’ of the philosophy of science. These ‘developments’ are of no importance to the argument at hand, but just serve, again, to obfuscate that our author has just attempted to perform a sleight of hand. Of course the right to assert something without evidence is no greater than to dismiss it. This is precisely what guards us against obscurantism. Besides, Hitchens was well aware of Karl Popper, thank you very much.

Our bigot continues, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse. After saying that Hitchens is worshiped or even idolized, he calls his agonizing struggle with cancer and his death ‘humiliating’. Humiliating to whom? To your heavenly father, whose sordid morals you see so proudly vindicated? How dare you! Yes, he was an iconoclast made icon, and imitated (not emulated) by the young. So what? You didn’t present one single argument in your confused and stilted rant.

Lo and behold, the next paragraph presents the accusation, again phrased in meanspirited suggestiveness, that Hitchens’s ‘inability to offer more than the most perfunctory denunciation of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is significant’. No it isn’t. Since when do deranged philosophies like Ayn Rand’s deserve more than perfunctory denunciation and derision? There is a reason why Hitch didn’t rebut such repugnant sophistry and it is not because of a lack in his thought or ‘wild imbalance in his priorities’. It is because Ayn Rand’s reasoning does not exculpate, motivate and perpetuate suffering the way the ‘reasoning’ of religion does.

It gets more preposterous. He claims, again without even a shred of evidence, that Hitchens wasn’t able to see the ‘penetrating and insightful exploration of the mystery of transubstantiation by [Christian philosopher] Elizabeth Anscombe. It is allegedly beyond Hitchens’s intellectual powers, which is, given Christopher’s resume, an adventurous claim. And frankly, why in the hell would Hitchens, or anyone, occupy themselves with the turning of a loaf of bread into the symbolical (pardon, real) body of Christ? Anscombe’s beautiful and ‘penetrating’ analysis doesn’t make this bronze age buncombe any more true, just like Hitchens’s rhetorical tour de force doesn’t alter the meaning of his arguments.

In yet another bewildering paragraph, the PhD-candidate continues to say that Hitchens’s sense of dignity is perverse because he refuses to pick truth over consoling lies. It’s more of the same smooth pulpit talking, really, and as vacuous as everything we’ve read before. The idea of a god figure as necessary condition for ethical behavior (compassion) is briefly invoked but of course not supported with any arguments because there exist none.

In his closing phrase, this light-weight verbal pugilist delivers yet another underhand blow by saying that for Christopher the world was a debating hall, an arena, an editorial page, a stage, while for Christians it is a gift that is ‘bewildering in its excess and perplexing in its simplicity yet undeniably precious’. Perhaps the author, who refuses to come down from his moral high horse, has never heard Hitchens saying very similar things about the bewildering beauty of the universe, the mind-boggling idea that we can see billions of years in the past or that our bodies are host to billions of fellow organisms. This vengeful Christian denies Hitchens the full extent of his own emotions by saying his world view was ‘only black and white’, and he has to do this because he himself logically depends (in fact: believes that his life depends) on a world view that is strongly authoritarian and must deny others soul and sanity. I cannot personally feel anything but disgust about such a lazy and cowardly assessment that, as I’ve sufficiently shown, is devoid of arguments.

This is empty language, comrades. I fear that such a PhD-candidate will eventually receive his doctorate and continue to fabricate the sophisms he needs in order to support his ‘faith’. We need to call this bluff and we need to make it very clear that the purported rationality of such people’s arguments is in fact a dangerous quagmire that, unlike Socrates, deceives the youth into renouncing the capacity to think for themselves.

Writing exercise #1: Deconstruction was originally published on Meandering home

The contiguous society

Image Wikipedia

The exponential growth of computing power has created unprecedented possibilities for the democratic organization of a people. Looking at the current voting system of democracies around the world however, very little of these digital innovations to improve the finding and execution of the ‘will of the people’ have been realized. It is largely unchartered territory, in which smaller nations with little bureaucratic inertia will forge ahead by experimenting. Think of a country like Estonia, that became the first nation to hold national elections using Internet voting in 2005.

Using the Internet for casting ballots is merely an improvement in efficiency (if we can be sure that the systems are safe). It doesn’t affect the nature of democracy. Voting is still an event that happens once every four years or so, and democratic societies oscillate between rallies for the party and complaints about the disconnect of their elected representatives. Politics proper, the art of transferring power from the people to a select group of law-making and executive personnel, is a seasonal thing.

Does not our fast world require fast politics? Does not our contiguous society require contiguous politics? What I mean is this. In our always-online world, the event has been replaced by the stream. Everything is in flow; you never browse the same time line twice. Receiving a letter, for example, used to be an event. It was separated from other events by time. It was assumed that the recipient didn’t reply immediately, people didn’t experience a stream of communication, but a series of events. The fact that Facebook allows us to share “life events” shows how the stream is usurping the event. We graduate, fall in love, marry, give birth and die, somewhere on the way scrolling down.

The notion of an event has in fact become almost synonymous with destruction. We think of a terrorist attack (or a government trying to prevent one) that can disrupt our Internet. It seems to be archaic that we still stick with elections as events.

Given the rapid increase in technological power, we have the means to change this. What lacks is the desire to do so: in the offline world we are still very much (or even more) fond of our habits. We celebrate elections and cherish the illusion that every citizen makes a ‘decision’ by casting their vote. But societal processes are essentially continuously run algorithms and that means they can be optimized like algorithms. A true democracy would be a continuous polling machine that is never switched off. The electorate can vote anywhere, anytime, resulting in a real-time representation of the ‘will of the people’. This doesn’t mean that the government will change every week, because there will be constitutional thresholds for the amount of disagreement with the current government that is expressed in the continuous poll to have political consequences. Constitutional? The most effective threshold will be calculated by another algorithm. The Constitution is a set of preconditions that algorithms are designed to satisfy continuously.

Apart from voting, we can deploy an algorithm to calculate individual tax rates (positive and negative tax, or “basic income”) optimizing the amount of distributive justice in society according to the same continuous democratic preferences. Receiving wellfare or “paying your taxes” ceases to be an event. In the contiguous society, it is part of the stream.

The Constitution is a set of preconditions that algorithms are designed to satisfy continuously.

There are a lot of interesting philosophical implications that are beyond the scope of this note. If our social actions are no longer events, they also lose the “narrative arc”, the anticipation or regret that is perhaps our main supplier of meaning. Thus, human interaction and language will be different. One could also say that the Event is always – and never – happening.

The contiguous society was originally published on Meandering home

Self-confidence

Because of all the wonderful and extraordinary selves that are currently on display if you are bored enough to browse the Internet, it is easy to misconstrue the nature of self-confidence. Our Internet heroes have grandiose that make them seem independent. The veil of their staged independence is paper-thin, but no-one cares to lift it lest they spoil the entertainment.

Of course, selves only have any meaning in relation to other selves. Self-confidence only emerges, as a comfortable emotion or as a painful lack, when there is more than one self involved. A lone survivor of a plane crash can be described as ‘courageous’ and ‘confident’ but this is a translation back into the language we are familiar with. Sure, the wilderness survivor trusts himself, relies on himself. When he stares in the eyes of a beast, he might feel fear or blood lust, but these emotions are to be distinguished from self-confidence, for the simple reason there is no self involved.

The abstract and shared concepts that are the unique accomplishment of our species, are of no use against a furry nonverbal opponent. It would most likely be a fatal distraction from the bloody reality of claws and jaws. In our society on the other hand, navigating the delicate web of power relations is what enables us to firmly position ourselves within that web. In other words: we develop our selves as we are situated in power relations with our fellow humans. In puberty, we discover the boundaries of our parents and peers, and develop certain expectations we adjust our behavior to. These expectations enable us to ponder power relations before they occur.

We know that we can deal with the expectations we have of each other in a different way than we would with expectations of natural events. If I know it is going to rain, my self-confidence would only warm up my brain and waste precious energy. When in human company, however, I can use language games and thereby avoid physical violence. I can put into words which position in the web of power that our social fabric is I deem fittest for my own survival. And if I do so, I become aware of the relations between me and the others. I will say only that the self is fundamentally relational. My intention is to share a modest observation, not a conclusive philosophical tractate on some alleged ‘nature’ of the self.

When the self is deeply relational, self-confidence becomes a quality of those relations. It is not (only) trust in one’s self and abilities, but trust in others. I like this result more when I think of an example. An employee is full of self-confidence because she knows that tomorrow, she can finally receive her promotion. What she is really confident in, is not her own achievements, but the expectation that her boss will judge them favorably and grant her a promotion. A writer is confident that he will be successful, because he trusts others to buy his books. A politician shines with self-confidence because he trusts that people will campaign and vote for him (and thereby confirm his political self). A religious person can be a self-confident zealot because he knows there will be enough other zealots around to applaud him en allow him his place in the web of power we kindly call society.

The more we trust others (not just all others, the ones most relevant for our position in the web of power) the more self-confidence we will experience. When we say we ‘trust the future’, come what may, we mean that we have positive expectations of others, we believe that they will treat us well, give us jobs, sell us food, and so on. When we have low self-esteem it means we don’t occupy an adequate position in the web of power. We lack people to trust.

I’ll leave it at that. I would like to receive suggestions for improvement of this essay, but please keep it philosophical. I desire philosophical debate beyond an exchange of feelings and subjective imagery.

Self-confidence was originally published on Meandering home