Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Problem With White Supremacy

The problem with white supremacy is the supremacy, not that it is white supremacy in particular.

I could not agree to that statement without reservations. These reservations arise because the way `white' is used as an identity marker can vary from community to community. In at least some cases -- for instance in the work of Sally Haslanger; it's also very common in cultural studies and swathes of the humanities, as well as activist circles influenced by these traditions --  `white' more or less picks out `people at the top of a local racial hierarchy'. Understood in this way then the initial statement might look like it's objecting to concreteness in analysis, objecting to focussing on an instantiation whereby a particular group of people have power, rather than an abstract form of supremacy as such. This, though, is not what I mean to agree to -- I don't want people to pay less attention to the particular mechanisms which underlie or uphold white supremacy, far from it. So since my readership includes people who use the word `white' in a manner that ties it to political domination, I cannot just agree to the opening statement.

There is, though, an interpretation under which I think it says an important thing that ought guide and shape our political action. This is the interpretation under which the opening statement is pointing out that swapping out one ruling class for another is not progress; it's moving sideways on the moral arc of the universe rather than forwards. When I say it would be a good thing to end white supremacy this is not because I think there is some other group of people who are properly to be given the arbitrary advantages, domineering power, or generally favourable position in a hierarchy, that white supremacy currently affords to some citizens. It is rather because I think that nobody should have those arbitrary advantages, nobody should enjoy domineering power over others, and I reject hierarchical modes of social organisation as completely as I can (subject to my own biases and oversights).

This came to mind recently when reading and reflecting on certain practices in leftist circles that I have very mixed feelings about. These, roughly, take the following form -- in conversations about matters related to race, the saying goes, white people need to `take a seat'; and generally acquiesce to what they are told. For an instance of the genre see here. Relatedly, faced with critique (calling out or calling in) for doing some troubling thing, it is for members of the dominant group to apologise and attempt to repair the damage they have caused, not ask for clarification on what they did wrong or attempt to defend themselves. This latter is less explicitly defended -- but I've observed enough cases of people accused of wrongdoing asking for clarification and being told in no uncertain terms that `it's not my job to educate you' or that the request for clarification is a further error, or people finding that attempting to defend themselves leads to general communal condemnation and acrimony.

Why the mixed feelings about this, and what is the relation to the initial point? First, I think there are people in these spaces who do not support these deference mandating norms, and people who do. Of the people who do endorse unequal treatment, there are  (at least) two classes of people. The first class explicitly and consciously endorses these norms because they've thought about the effects and have come to the conclusion that  these norms are instrumental for egalitarianism -- to get from where we are now to a better state, we are going to need (or at least it would be very helpful if it were the case that) a great many white people to suddenly divest themselves, or otherwise be divested whether they like it or not, of a lot of social power. One way to achieve this would be to normalise these different power relations in activist circles. The goal, then, is to get the relevant people used to suddenly having much less power, and vice versa to get people from traditionally marginalised groups used to suddenly having more power; all in a relatively controlled environment. For this first class, unequal treatment is something they would advocate for in these spaces because ultimately they believe it serves the goal of egalitarian relations in broader society. I am not sure if I agree to this strategy, but I can see something to it, and people who have done far more activism than I seem to think there is something to it. I respect their judgement, and trust these people to intervene or work to change the norms when they are no longer useful.

However, I think there is a second class of people who are responding to and deploying these norms without it being part of an explicit plan towards the aim of egalitarianism. For these people, the fact that the white folk are subject to these norms effectively becomes a license to indulge one's will to power. Now is a chance for them to gain the ability to domineer, to arbitrarily order about and sometimes even humiliate, members of the dominant group -- the tables turned, revenge shall be theirs, and a more congenial hierarchy is finally instantiated! I'm inclined to be supportive of the first group of people, while I do not support the second. However, given that it's hard to tell these two groups apart, I overall feel ambivalent toward the norms themselves.

Let's focus on the second group. Lacking explicitly egalitarian goals, this latter group, I take it, can end up supporting just what the opening statement is meant to rule out. It is no political advance at all to simply change who gets to dominate who. To parody a bit: I would not want to replace white supremacy with a beautifully diverse rainbow of oppressors, nor would I want to see white supremacy replaced by some kind of rule by the saints, wherein the woke may dominate the problematic. What is more, I think these norms can, if we are not careful in how we deploy them, generate a kind of servility in people, where they become accustomed not to having reasoned acceptance of claims and a sincere commitment to anti-racism, but rather a pledge to defer to members of a favoured class; a kind of faith-seeking-understanding in their attitude to anti-racist thought. This way lies dogmatism and a dead doctrine, rather than a living tradition. This may not seem a problem if it was just the white folk doing it (maybe the white folk in many Western societies should just be a bit more servile than they typically are when it comes to reasoning about race relations) -- but these norms don't just go for white folk talking about race, they go for any instance of a demographically dominant group reasoning about a matter related to which they have an advantage. We all of us fit under the category `demographically dominant' for some axis or another, and axis of advantage and disadvantage encompass all of social life. We all thereby grow accustomed to being servile, conversation becomes a matter of working out who to defer to on what.

For all that, I really do see the practical or instrumental advantages in something like the norms discussed. The first class of people really do seem to be on to something, even though I think the second class can badly misusing the opportunities for power this norm creates. How, then, to retain those advantages, serve those ends of acclimatising members of a dominant group to relinquishing power, without thereby enabling domineering behaviour, or inculcating servile frames of mind? Of course there are no easy answers, but I wonder if philosophy might help.

Philip Pettit has done much work outlining the Republican ideal of freedom as non-domination. A nice summary can be found here, with the key definition being:

Someone has dominating power over another if
(1) they have the capacity to interfere
(2) on an arbitrary basis
(3) in certain choices that the other is in a position to make.

A good Republican society is one in which we minimise or eliminate dominating power, we make it such that nobody has dominating power over another. I think we can take this and use it as the basis of self-conscious norm creation for activist circles. What we should like is norms for interaction that both acclimatise people to reversals of socially typical hierarchies -- which allow the black folk to tell the white folk what is really up rather than vice versa -- but which also do not allow for dominating power; in particular that do not allow for arbitrariness in application.

While there are difficulties defining exactly what counts as arbitrary, my sense is that a lot of the problems with these norms regulating the speech of dominant groups arise because they are effectively unconstrained in how they may be applied. I think we can agree we are in a situation that involves dominating power: in at least some circles one person or group can simply dictate to some others what is to be taken as the relevant consequences of these norms, and what is more can declare what counts as violation of these norms in a manner that cannot be challenged.  How do we go about removing this dominating power? I think having the Republican ideal in mind when self-consciously framing norms for how we communicate and interact with each other, and in particular framing them in such a way as to make it much more difficult for there to be arbitariness in application, may  be a path forward for trying to shape norms for members of dominant groups in activist circles. I do not know exactly how this would go, and even if I did I would prefer to just offer this as a starting thought and trust in people to reason their way to the better norms themselves; this is just where I think we should begin.

Finally, I want to stress something, lest I be quoted against people who I am actually in great sympathy with. My attitude here might seem like I am being harshly judgemental of people in the second class -- I accuse them of wanting to dominate and humiliate others, surely disreputable desires. But it is well to remember one's own position. While I am a black man in a white dominated field -- I am relatively light skinned, and generally rather meek and soft spoken thereby arousing less of that absurd superstitious fear from white folk than is typically aroused by black men with an otherwise similar build, I grew up in quite a racially integrated environment (South London represent) in a racially integrated family, and my profession and lifestyle grant me a far greater degree of personal autonomy than is typical under capitalism. To summarise, relative to the class of black people in white dominated fields, I am somebody who is least likely to face the kind of pressures, strains, and daily experiences of visceral discrimination that might make the chance to turn the tables so tempting. I would not want, and in any case would have no right or standing, to judge those who, faced with these pressures, use activist spaces to avenge themselves on a world that mistreats them so. The harsh critique of these folk I see from some quarters strikes me as coming from people even worse positioned to judge than me. There but for the grace of God go I, and I do not forget that.

(Lots of thanks to Yuzuko Nakamura for helping me write this post!)


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Conservative Under-Representation in the Academy

The topic of conservatives in the academy has recently gained a lot of attention -- for instance see here. There has been much gnashing of teeth over whether or not conservatives are somehow repressed or otherwise under-represented in the academy. I think this is a bit more diffuse a phenomenon than has been made out, and I think a lot of the works in the genre are either awful or just crude propaganda. So, I think I can do better, and in particular do so with the help of some distinctions because that's how philosophers roll. I begin with a (non-exhaustive) typology of (British and American) conservatisms.


  • Risk-Averse Conservatism: the basic idea here is that societies are very complicated things indeed, and lives are on the line if we mess up. As bad as things are now, we may still want to be very cautious in reforming things; because short of a state of Hobbesian anarchy they could always be much worse, and our ignorance of the nature of society is such that we are disturbingly likely to blunder into the bad state (or at least a worse one) should we try to interfere with the present order. People in this group are likely to say `Chesterton fence!' more often than a randomly selected member of the population, will probably have read Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, maybe also take inspiration from some of what Oakshott said in critiquing rationalism in politics (I don't know Oakshott as well as I should), and if they are a bit historically aware maybe also the Tamworth manifesto. Looking at this list, it seems like a peculiarly British tradition of thought? That probably just reflects my education!

  • Libertarian Conservatism: this is probably the form of conservatism most familiar to philosophers who are most of my reading audience, so I will say least on it here. Just a note on why I do think (contrary even to some of its proponents) it is properly classified along with the rest of the conservative genre. I take a lot of the spirit of libertarianism to be pacifistic: the underlying emotional core is that coercion is a very bad thing -- one cannot permissibly reach a better state in a way that involves violating people's liberty or engaging in some involuntary coercion (maybe there can be voluntary coercion in some kinds of sexual practice or if I make a binding agreement against future changes of mind -- I don't want to enter into that here). We really should walk away from Omelas. This quite naturally introduces a kind of status quo bias: it makes it harder to move away from wherever we now find ourselves. So, yeah: Rand, Nozick, Hayek -- you know the drill here.

  • Western-Civ Conservatism: comes in (at least) two very sociologically different forms, though I think outsiders often class these together. There is a shared belief that there is something about Western Civilisation which makes it very special and worthy of promotion and protection and special reverence, at least from those of us in the West. There is then disagreement about what the source of this specialness is. The (a) group think that what makes it special is the racial constituents of Western Civ -- the fact that it was distinctively European, a group whose peculiar biological stock make them especially good at civilisation building, or at least a group whose peculiarities are such that unless we act to protect their contributions via some sort of racial selection in who gets to occupy positions of power, cultural esteem, or maybe just physical presence in nations, we shall lose their extremely valuable contributions to world life. Folk arguing for this are effectively the intelligentsia of the alt-right, who have recently occupied so much of our cultural attention. The (b) group are more institutionalist, and usually focus especially on religious and Christian institutions. Some ideological innovation that just happened to occur in the West allowed for massive and special and superior progress to occur there -- maybe it was the Catholic Church, maybe it was Calvinism, maybe it was capitalism or the right kind of property arrangements, maybe all of the above -- and it is vital that we preserve this, preferable that we expand it, for this is the source of the goodfullness and superiority of the West. I see both (a) and (b) Western Civ Conservatism types online -- and they actually get into very heated arguments; this is a difference which doesn't look that significant from the outside but seems (as far as I can tell) to be felt as deeply meaningful from the inside. Both (a) and (b) to some extent represent very traditional lines of conservative thought in the West, but are currently undergoing somewhat of a renewal so it is not yet clear who they will claim as intellectual ancestors -- e.g. I see Weber appealed to far less than I would have guessed given the character of what (b) types say. In any case, a safe bet is that folk in group (b) will have a very high opinion of Aquinas but a more directly relevant intellectual expositor is Weaver, and group (a) must surely see Spengler as some sort of forerunner, though I am a bit less certain of this.
To clarify, I don't think these are always kept entirely separate -- in fact one of my more controversial-among-anyone-who-would-care opinions is that Anna Julia Cooper mixes Risk Averse Conservatism and Western Civ Conservatism (and then both (a) and (b) types) in her thought, in ways that are generally under-appreciated. I just think that these are logically separable ideologies in a way that can make a difference to this debate. Ok, that said, now a few notes on this. First, I think Libertarian Conservatism is pretty well represented in the academy. Tendencies towards it are pretty common in business schools and economics departments; Nozick is required reading in political philosophy; my more thoughtful leftwing academic friends generally cite Hayek's `The Use of Knowledge in Society' as one of the most insightful challenges to their position out there. This is also, mind you, the form of conservatism that is closest to liberalism. But in so far as the claim is that there are just no forms of conservatism that get any love in the academy, I think this falsifies it.

Second, I actually agree that the Risk-Averse Conservatism doesn't get enough attention or due respect in the academy. It is not that I agree with the kind of social philosophy that tends to result from it, and I think that with effort one can generate the sort of considerations characteristic of it even as an outsider. But, it's a set of considerations worth taking into account when one advocates for social change; there are actual examples of disaster following from not being significantly aware of this point. People generally make their own best advocates, so it is worth having about some inclined to think this way, and in any case we could at least make some texts from this tradition required reading -- they do not seem to be the kind of thing that one just encounters as part of a liberal education, and I think that is a shame. I don't think this tradition is actively suppressed, I think people literally just do not so often think about it. 

Third, there is a strand of thought that I have not included here and that some might think I should -- something like Realist Conservatism, whose advocates might be a certain-reading-of Thucydides, Han Fei, or Carl Schmitt. The underlying thought here is something like -- the world is a fundamentally amoral place, one has simply to act effectively to achieve one's goals in a more or less ruthless fashion without any expectation that righteousness or justice shall be rewarded or even noticed. The problem for me is that I have never really understood why this is associated with the right; certainly there have been conservative proponents of it, but I don't think it is such a stretch to put Lenin or Mao in this tradition either (I think Mao actually was a fan of the `legalist' tradition that Han Fei fits into?) and I think that telling. 

Fourth, I do not claim that the above typologies represent the underlying psychological bases of adhering to any of these positions. I think it quite possible that desire to maintain certain gender relations, for instance, is highly significant in determining people's thought towards Risk Averse Conservatism -- but I think there is none the less a difference between the role this plays in that kind of defence of conservatism and, say, the role it plays in Western Civ conservatism, where it can often be an explicit part of the platform. I am trying to track that difference in ideological form, rather than make a claim about political psychology.

Fifth, there is something interesting about the fact that Risk Averse and Libertarian Conservatism are not straightforwardly tied to a particular cultural form, whereas Western Civ is obviously so linked -- though I left it vague what exactly the Western Civ people see as ever so valuable in, well, Western Civ; this because I have not yet been sure myself from reading their stuff. I am focussing on stuff one encounters in the British and American academy or broader society because that's where I know, but I think one can generate analogous arguments to the Western Civ conservatism in other places. Indeed, from what I know of Confucianism and its role in modern China (which in both cases but especially the latter is very limited!) my impression is that not only can one generate some notable equivalencies, but that even the division between (a) and (b) types might reoccur. Note that I said that the first two are `not straightforwardly' tied to a cultural form rather than just ruling out because: one might think that attitude to risk or the value placed on non-coercion are themselves culturally determined, or subtle expressions of cultural conditioning. 

Sixth, I think that it is overwhelmingly Western Civ, and especially but not only type (a), that people are complaining about when they talk about Conservative under-representation or repression in the academy. This for two reasons: in one direction, I think it is the form most likely to actually get one shouted down or cast under social suspicion for advocating. While I don't think Risk Averse Conservatism is well represented, I would be shocked if one got in serious social trouble for arguing that after all social reform is difficult and we should be very careful when we change this that or the other law -- whereas I would not be surprised if one is not so welcome in polite society for trying to advocate that one just so happens to be part of the master race. In the other direction, I do think it is just that kind of disaffected übermensch stuff that people most often point to when they want to say that conservatism is under-represented (I've seen a surprising number of apparently sincere people engage in things that I am barely parodying when I summarise it as: ``The untermench are mean to me when I try and point out that maybe I am the master race!'' One can't help but feel that if they were really that über of a mensch they probably wouldn't be so easily thwarted by tepid statements from the American Philosophical Association.) 

And the problem here is that Western Civ, unlike the other two, rests much more heavily on contentious empirical claims. I think that a lot of people on the left (and many also on the right in its other forms) think that they are justified in not crediting Western Civ (a) especially for just the same reason that they are justified in not giving creationism more representation in biology departments -- it rests upon refuted empirical claims, and the academy simply has no general duty to take seriously demonstrably false claims. All the more so, one supposes, when said claims tend to result in serious harm towards people, since there is at least some reason to think there is a historical link between advocating Western Civ positions and genocide and colonialism, and I see relatively little recognition of that or clear differentiation from such murderous projects among people online advocating for Western Civ type (a) or (b). I think it is for similar reasons, for instance, that one finds very few academics advocating Stalinism or Maoism, and one suspects that they would soon find themselves unwelcome in polite society if they did so. I think if members of this group want to be taken more seriously they would do well to first focus on the latter project of differentiating themselves from historical projects of mass murder, since it will be hard to gain a hearing while people see Leopold's Congo somewhere downstream of one's position.

(A friend of mine points out to me that Western Civ (b) type gets some representation in legal theory through this text being required reading, and that Divinity faculties may also contain plenty of people who would agree with Western Civ (b) type. Good points both, and even further complicates the notion that Conservatives do not have representation in the academy!)

So there we go. I think that ``Conservatives are under-represented or repressed in the academy'' is neither straight forwardly true nor false, and must rather be evaluated against a more fine grained under-standing of what conservatism amounts to. Once one does so one sees that the point at which it is most plausible that there is repression is the point at which one might think it is reasonable given general academic norms, but that is not to say I have no sympathy for the position that we ought to take more seriously certain strands of conservative thought.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Schlick's Utopia

Moritz Schlick--  "The 11th
Doctor stole my look."
Sometimes, when philosophers are bored, we get to describing Utopia. A little known fact about one of my philosophical faves (#NoFaves?) is that he indulged in this pass-time.  Shortly before he was murdered in 1936, Schlick had prepared a manuscript for what was to be the basis of a book on social and political philosophy. Drawing entirely from the work of Hubert Schleichert, I'll give a quick summary of Schlick's views on the perfect society. I think it reveals a very different side of Schlick to the one philosophers are familiar with. (How on earth would you verify these propositions!?) Note that I am describing without endorsing - I'll say a bit about what I think of it at the end. It's a long post today!

Schlick starts from the assertion that
There is nothing in our European civilisation that causes more grief than the state. Under it we suffer most.
He then tries to analyse why this is and what we could do to make it better. He has two main reasons for thinking that the state is the source of so much misery:
  1.  It is very difficult to disassociate yourself from a nation state you do not approve of or which is oppressing you. We are forced by the historical accident of where we are born to suffer things which we would never willingly endorse.
  2. The organisation of the world into different territorial states makes war far more likely - we are primed to think of those within our borders as co-citizens, whereas the state is protecting us from those without the borders. They, the foreigners,  must therefore be our enemies.
The first of these reasons is a familiar reaction to what is known as the "social contract" tradition in philosophy. A common philosophical thought has been that a just state is one that rational adults would agree to have govern them - a state is good just in case, all things considered, we all agree it is in our best interests to keep it around. Well, as many many people have gone on to point out, maybe we don't endorse the states which actually exist at all! Nobody ever actually gives us the chance to accept or reject the existence of the state we live under. Even in democracies all we get to have some say over is: who runs the state, not: should there be a state at all? So if what it takes for the state to be justified is that we reflectively endorse it, doesn't that mean that all the states which presently exist are unjustified?

The second of these reasons, though, is a bit less familiar. Per Schleichert's interpretation, Schlick is also responding to the social contract tradition here. A benefit the state is often argued to confer is protecting us from the inevitable chaos which is supposed to follow life without a state. The classical statement of this comes from Hobbes' Leviathon:
Hobbes - "You got the wrong guy!" 
"During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man. 
To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues. 
No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

The state (a "common power to keep [us] all in awe") is meant to solve this by doing violence to anybody who would upset the common peace, or at least credibly threatening to do as much. Since the state will crush anybody who steps out of line, we can all go about our business confident that the threat of anarchic war of all against all has been avoided. So in so far as we all want to avoid "continual fear, and danger of violent death", and in so far as we'd prefer our lives not to be "solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short", we'd all do well to reflectively endorse the state which protects us from this.

However, Schlick was not satisfied with this. Because he noted that not only is the state meant to protect us from those who would do violence against us at home, but it is also meant to meant to protect us from those in other states. Foreigners, after all, are people who have not entered into our social contract - they are precisely the sort of person who state is mean to guard against, per the social contract theory. So just as the state maintains the peace at home, it must prepare for war abroad - and all the peoples of the world who were not born within the same territory as us are reduced to potential enemies. Against this, Schlick noted:
Terrible as they are, one has to acknowledge the fact that civil wars usually do not claim as many victims as wars between states with separate territories have, i.e. between hostile countries.
So, Schlick concluded, we would not endorse states as they exist now on grounds of security. Sure it makes civil wars less likely - but they also make foreign wars possible (and also likely), and those tend to be far more destructive when they do occur.

The solution Schlick proposed was "territory-less states". The common problem in (1) and (2), Schlick felt, was the fact that nation states are tied up with particular territorial areas. This allows for a clear boundary to be drawn between "us" and "them" - this leads to the mutual suspicion which underlies (2). It also means we are grouped together on an arbitrary basis, and it makes it costly and difficult to change state, which is the problem in (1). So, Schlick proposes, we should all organise ourselves into states on some basis other than physical territory. For instance, on the basis of political convictions. In his own words:
In such a case there would be no countries in the usual case, but political organisations, the members of which would live scattered over all continents. Each of these invisible communities could have its own laws and costumes, its courts, police and state form. There could be invisible republics and monarchies, but the presidents and kings would not rule over territories, but only such people as voluntarily belong to their state. Since human convictions can change, it follows from the very principle that one can at any given time move from one organisation to another.
... What does that mean?

Well, since he never got round to actually writing the book on account of being murdered, it's kind of hard to know what Schlick had in mind. Schleichert offers as an example of groups that might be like this the Catholic Church and the Jewish diaspora (though neither are perfect examples). There are rules and rituals associated with participating in these groups, there are even penalties which people will pay despite their being no external control. It's not quite so easy to associate or disassociate with these groups as Schlick imagined for his ideal states, but we can at least imagine something close to them where somebody could join and leave at will. Another good example might be political parties - most of my readers live in nations with different political parties which strongly disagree about how we should govern thins, but which (for the most part) manage to mingle together in peace. In Schlick's utopia, all the socialists could live under their own rule, so could all the capitalists, so could all the fascists, and the theocrats.... etc. They wouldn't have to separate out and live apart, just make it clear who belongs to what state, and associate with each other appropriately within a shared space. It's very vague - but, hey, getting shot to death by Nazi-sympathising students can do that to your clarity, so I don't blame Schlick for the idea not being fleshed out.

So, what do I think of this idea? Well, surely the first thing that comes to mind is how impractical it sounds. What happens if two groups disagree about who gets to use a particular building at a particular time? Schlick, apparently, loosely gestured towards there being a world government for settling disputes between nations - but nothing about the League of Nations (or its successor the UN) gives me much faith in that idea for maintaining peace. And securing peace and co-operation between peoples seems to pretty clearly be Schlick's main goal here. What's more - sure (I'll grant) wars between states are worse than civil wars, but the fact that civil war seems much more likely to afflict me than wars between nations seems to be a relevant consideration that Schlick didn't consider. Finally, much of what drives Schlick seems to be an anticipation of what is now called the "contact hypothesis". This is the idea that if you spend a lot of time mingling with people from groups you wouldn't normally like you come to appreciate their humanity more, and so become less prejudices and hostile towards them. As Schlick put it himself:
Attempts at secession and isolation prevent peace and the development of an international morality. Morality is always a product of living together.
But from what I know the evidence regarding the contact hypothesis has been mixed at best; so this is far from a secure foundation upon which to build utopia.

So I think Schlick's idea is not really implementable and founded on some questionable sociology. Despite this, though, I must admit I have some sympathy for it. Schlick, writing in 1930s central Europe, came to the conclusion that belligerent nationalism and group-identities founded on arbitrary properties like ethnicity were an evil that should be got rid of. In his own words
Living together on the same territory, taken to the principle of belonging together, gives rise to all such evils which dog our divided world the most.
Will I not prefer a thousand times more to cooperate with a reliable Chinese of good character than with an egoistic, insincere European? 
Given how things turned out, who can blame him for the sentiment? And Schlick sometimes expressed himself in passages which seem vaguely mystical, but are for that rather inspiring:
Only good will can be the ultimate principle of unification; the state that is established in this way is the true state of god. 
People of good character, the kind and peaceful, belong together "by nature"; they form the invisible state of god, civitas dei.
Sure, it's vague and seems very naive. But it's also a beautiful sentiment. It surely becomes a philosopher to dream such dreams aloud.

(I spoke about the philosophical tradition of Utopianism. But it should be noted that Utopian thinking also has strong, and far older, roots in the Jewish religious tradition. This tradition has been taken up by Christianity - and, I would presume though I know less, Islam. Various texts in the Scriptures describe a world where where the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. We will have a covenant with the stones of the field, and the wild animals will be at peace with us. There will be fair judgement between the nations and the peaceful resolution of disputes for all peoples. Swords will be beat into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will we train for war anymore... etc. I think the imagery in the religious tradition is more striking and more beautiful than the philosophical tradition, with the possible exception of Plato, has tended to be.)

Augustine - "I am in the religious tradition mentioned,
and Schlick is referencing me with talk of "civitas dei""

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Intersectional Alienation

Anna Cooper - ``Liam is a fan of how
generally disappointed with everyone &
everything I seem to be in this photo.''
A long time ago me and some comrades -- the magnificent Dan Malinsky and the terrific Morgan Thompson -- got together to discuss intersectionality theory. Intersectionality theory is a set of ideas that has recently gained prominence after influential work by Kimberlé Crenshaw and the origins of which is often traced back to work by Anna Julia Cooper. It stresses the various ways in which the fact that we simultaneously occupy multiple demographic categories can complicate or undermine social theories that attempt to focus on the consequences of just one demographic category at the time. Examples of allegedly insufficiently intersectional approaches to studying social life are feminist theories of patriarchy, or Marxist theories of class oppression -- the charge of the intersectionality theorist is that something very important is missed out by neglecting the fact that we are not just workers, or women. We are, say, African-American working class women, or Japanese upper-bourgeois immigrant transmen, or.... etc. (In fact the charge is often more specifically that: what happens in non-intersectional theorising is that the most privileged sub groups within the relevant category end up having their perspective and needs taken as representative of the whole: so the slogan goes that when theorising about race and gender, we end up acting like ``all the women are white and and all the blacks are men''.)  What is more, there is usually an eye to policy or activism (often especially as it pertains to the oppression of black women) in light of our knowledge; it is a branch of theorising with a distinctly pragmatic or political bent -- the point is not just to understand the world but to change it.

Malinsky - ``Liam is very very confident
that I am not going to be happy with the fact
that Liam described me as `terrific' above.
But if I don't like it I should probably just
start my own blog or maybe stop always
being so generally terrific, so it's not like I
really have grounds upon which to complain.''
Well, my comrades and I are all broadly interested in methodology in the human sciences, and are interested in various matters relating to social or political organisation. Morgan Thompson brought to our attention the fact that for certain intersectional claims, ones that she was interested in testing in spheres of mutual interest, there was no agreed upon methodology for testing them on large data sets. What is worse, as we looked around the sociological literature, it became apparent that intersectionality theorists have often been charged with failing to offer a coherent methodological perspective, and there are even claims out there to the effect that this methodological slipperiness is effectively letting intersectionality theorists dodge falsification of some of their characteristic claims. So, we thought, here was a chance for us to advance our own research and also use our skills in a way that might be beneficial, and we produced a paper outlining means of adapting certain statistical tools so that they are appropriate for represent and test characteristic claims of intersectionality theory. The paper was eventually published earlier this year, it's called `Causally Interpreting Intersectionality Theory' (CIIT), and it's available here if anyone wants to give it a read.
Morgan Thompson - ``OK, but how would
it even help if we had our own blogs
 though? How would that stop you writing
awkward effervescent praise? That doesn't
even begin to make any sense, Liam.''

A couple of citations to CIIT have recently caught my attention and made me think about our relationship to how our work is received. The first of these is in a paper in a journal that focusses on gender relations in the sociology of work and organisations. A section of the paper is dedicated to looking at ways of `operationalizing' intersectionality theory. They set up the problem of the section we feature in as follows:
For scholars in work and organizations, this challenge can be daunting as we need to address the two thorny issues inherent in all intersectional research design. First, to translate intersectionality theory into concrete methodologies (Christensen and Jensen, 2012) and, second, to develop analyses that interrogate intersectional paradoxes insightfully while capturing the simultaneous interrelations between the subjective and the structural. In addition, as scholars in work and organizations, we also need to engage with the reality that our discipline is dominated by a functionalist epistemology and positivist methods... 
And go on to discuss a number of methods of dealing with it. Our work features in the following way:
Recently, some scholars (e.g. Martinez Dy et al., 2014; Woodhams et al., 2015a, 2015b) have drawn on a critical realist positioning to expand both the methodological understanding as well as the empirical study of intersectionality in work and organizations. Empirical works following this approach have used quantitative analyses of large data sets to measure identities as variables, determining their interrelationships and ultimate impact on different material realities (e.g. employment outcomes). They argue that quantitative methods allow scholars to test empirical hypotheses and relationships among variables, have the potential to offer definitive evidence of causal relations, and account for non-additive relationships (Bright et al., 2016). For example, Bright et al (2016) argue that interventionism and causal graphical modelling using Bayesian statistics may provide a means for testing claims based on the intersection of certain variables. The argument for positivist, quantitative approaches is bolstered by the legitimacy and authority afforded to them in what counts as rigorous and legitimate knowledge production in the field of work and organizations.
Liam Kofi Bright - ``Yo dawg
I heard you like recursion...''
So we don't quite advocate Bayesian statistics but this isn't bad. We do indeed provide arguments for (a particular set of) quantitative approaches to studying intersectionality. And I am happy to hear that an additional benefit thereof will be helping people gain legitimacy in their field when they engage in such studies. Among the coauthors of CIIT there would probably be differences in opinion as to how we would want to relate to positivism -- but we ourselves describe our project as one of explication, so it's not entirely off. Also I strongly suspect that in the relevant disciplines ``positivist'' just means ``uses statistics'' or something close to this, so this was less an acknowledgement of our shout out to Carnap and more just a way of saying we do stats. In any case, upon reading this I was largely happy that our work had been understood, and even virtues that I had not fully realised it possessed were appreciated.

Nothing so nice, alas, can be said regarding our place in the second paper of interest. Here we play the villain. The author sets up a contrast as such:
....intersectionality has been used either radically, when it acknowledges lived experiences and context to advance transformative politics against domination, or ornamentally, to accommodate other theoretical frameworks, subsequently depoliticising and limiting its transformative scope.... This distinction is akin to debates within intersectionality over its methodology: we can identify the contrast between an additive model of political inclusion (‘adding up’ identities, differences, and experiences to ‘include’ them into a schema -1), and a politics of radical change, which dismisses boundaries and mere counting.
The `-1' in that is a footnote, which leads to CIIT's citation: ``Intersectionality has even been coupled with ‘graphical causal modelling’ – see Bright et. al. (2016)''. So here, it seems, our use of intersectionality is an especially striking example of the ornamental, merely additive, depoliticised, limited, maybe some kind of boundary enforcing, but in any case `mere counting', use of intersectionality. Not so good.

Naturally, of course, I don't agree! We actually expend a great deal of effort in the paper ensuring that the picture of intersectionality one gets is not one of merely additive difference made by considering various demographic categories; we have an extended discussion (section 5 of CIIT) about the advantages our model confers in planning policy or action designed to change the world rather than just study it; we are explicit at multiple points that we are not arguing against more qualitative methods, we are not involved in boundary policing them away. Indeed, who is boundary policing who, given that the complaint seems to amount to that we are using quantitive methods (we are among the `mere counters') in a domain in which the author does not approve of them, coupled with an objection to accommodating various theoretical frameworks?

Such, at least, was my first reaction. But when I thought about it, I came to see it in a different way. The second citation is, in some sense, the pessimistic mirror image of the first. The first cites us thankfully, thinking that by showing that intersectional theorising can be done with the kind of `positivist' methods folk in their part of gender studies value we shall therefore boost the esteem of intersectionality theory, encouraging more people to work on it and take it seriously. The second cites us scornfully, apparently taking us as just an especially outlandish warning sign of the gentrification to come, wherein intersectionality will suffer a kind of death by kindness. Sure people increasingly will pay lipservice to intersectionality, but this is at the cost of losing sight of the original theoretical goals and values that underlay it. Both papers, then, predict that intersectionality theory's fortunes-in-terms-of-popularity are waxing, and both papers cite us as exemplary of (and maybe even causally relevant to) this turn of events. But the difference between them is what they think shall result from increased popularity; pessimistically, will intersectionality theory be hollowed out, become ornamental, a mere buzzword? Or optimistically, will it be strengthened, renewed, developed to new heights?

It is much closer to our intent, of course, that our paper should bolster or advance intersectional theorising, and we ourselves do try and maintain solidarity with its original spirit by offering pragmatic defences of our explication, in terms of the benefits that may be accrued to helping guide political action. We came to praise intersectionality, not to bury it. But what these two responses to CIIT really drove home to me is just how powerless we are in this regard. The content of our paper, the specifics of the arguments we gave, seem to me just not the kind of thing that will make a difference as to whether the world goes in either of those directions. If the optimistic scenario comes about, I really doubt it will be even a little bit because people were convinced by our arguments. Whereas if the pessimistic scenario comes about, I don't think anything we have done or said in the paper will prevent our work being used in a way that renders the intersectional theorising a mere ornament. Now the paper is out there, how it is received, which (if either) of these futures shall be realised, is to some very significant extent beyond our control. Perhaps to more experienced scholars this is old hat, and in any case if I reflect on the fact-value distinction, or inductive risk, or the difference between the context of discovery and the context of justification then I can probably make this salient to myself by such a priori means. But I am a junior scholar, and this was striking to me. The alienation of labour under capitalism extends even into the rarified world of academic intellectual production.

Before closing, I thought I'd just note a nice coda to all this. In that first paper, wherein we are discussed in a manner that is mostly coincident with our intent, I am listed in the bibliography as L. F. Bright. My middle name is in fact `Kofi'. The author is well and truly dead.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Defending the Technocrats

Today I read this rather interesting post relating Berlin's critique of analytic philosophy, especially its then-inattention to political matters. While we do pay more attention to politics now, part of Berlin's critique still holds some water. This because he worries about `technocratic' modes of political thought where it is presumed there is agreement about the goals or ends of social life, and what remains is to work out how we reach or advance those goals. Such a presumption is dangerous, per Berlin, because it leads us to just ignore some of the hardest political problems we are faced with -- as Schliesser puts it, `it takes as settled what ought to be an achievement'. So while we have returned to political philosophy as a valued area of philosophy in analytic thought, it must be admitted that this kind of technocratic work still occurs. Indeed, as Schliesser notes in the linked post, this seems to be a part of Rawls' project, which is especially significant given the influence this latter has had on the development of political thought among analytic philosophers.

This was a particularly nice expression and accompanying exposition of the concern. But in fact I hear this kind of concern expressed a lot, in various guises, in some of the non-analytic circles I run in: analytic political philosophy is shallow, because it more or less involves working out the details of an agreed upon liberal framework. But political struggle and political thought ought properly concern itself with exactly whether or not that liberal framework should be adopted! It's a fair critique; to the extent that we really do limit ourselves to such matters, we're cutting ourselves off from an incredibly important realm of political activity. What is more, I share Berlin's concerns about philosophers fulfilling the role of Weberian functionaries. I like Weberian functionaries, I have more time for them than most. But it is, I think, very rare that this is the best use of a philosopher's skill set -- I think we frequently do more benefit to society by challenging such things and offering critique and alternatives. Or, at least, some of us should, and probably more of us than currently do. So I have a lot of sympathy for this critique.

However, I very find that people who put forward this critique or something like it just don't address the argument from the other side. When I read people from the early 20th century, and this also comes across in Soames' history of analytic philosophy, discussing their reluctance to issue normative pronouncements I frequently get something like the following impression. (Note that unfortunately I don't now have my books with me so I cannot give specific quotations or references, but I will express from memory what I take the counter-point to be.) Our forbearers were very keen to avoid any suggestion that others should defer to their pronouncements on moral matters, they really did not think they should be deferred to as if they were some kind of intelligentsia secular-priesthood. They wanted to avoid it being possible to illegitimately translate the epistemic authority and bully-pulpit one gains as a professor into an ability to command or sway others with especial authority, since they thought that we have not earned that or for other reasons should not be granted it. Of course one gets involved in moral and political life as a private citizen; but one does so there as an equal, one voice among many. Where one is in some sense speaking or acting with professional authority one must avoid treating one's lectern as a bully pulpit, since one has no right to that bully pulpit.

Standing behind this (though rarely worked out in satisfactory detail) is some kind of egalitarian ideal of non-imposition, and a vision of the proper role of intellectuals in public life. I find that people launching the Berlin-esque critique frequently just brush this aside, and treat these people like they are shallow technocrats with no interest in public life. (I don't know Berlin's work well enough to know if he personally does address this somewhere. His value pluralism does seem to provide a kind of alternate approach to avoiding the worry.) But it seems to me that it's at least plausible that the early analytics were on to something important here, that is worthy of serious reflection in metaphilosophy, and it wasn't just a refusal to engage but a bit of principled egalitarian politics that guided their decisions. As it stands I don't think this non-imposition ideal is quite viable in our present social circumstances --  this because I think that if we none of us say explicitly say ``I think you should adopt these ends'' but it just so happens that all of the professoriate only treat certain goals as worth taking seriously, we have collectively violated the spirit of this egalitarian ideal of non-imposition, even if no-one of us did individually. But those social circumstances are potentially subject to change, and in any case perhaps the ideal could be refined to account for that.

Plenty of my colleagues in philosophy are responding to recent events by saying that we should, as a profession, be more involved in public life. I quite agree, and as noted I think Berlin was on to something in his critique of the more limited or technocratic mode of political engagement. But I also do sometimes get the impression that some (as noted, probably not Berlin personally) of those who launch critiques of technocratic political philosophy really do have designs on operating as a kind secular-priesthood, and have authoritarian ideas of how `layfolk' should relate to the moral-expert professoriate. The early analytic reluctance, when under the guise of a moral professor, to issue normative pronouncements about the proper ends of social life can start to seem very sympathetic to me when I am struck by this. So I hope that not only do we start to engage more with the world of practical affairs, but that as we do so we are self-conscious and reflective about the way in which we relate to our fellow citizens.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Lifeworld of the (Analytic) Metaphysicians

Eric Schliesser -- ``Those who
like obnoxious in-jokes will be
happy to learn that I almost used
a picture of a balloon flying over
Ghent to accompany this caption.''
I really enjoyed this recent post by Eric Schliesser, and I am going to say a bit about why here.  The theme of my post is: I think it speaks really well for a philosopher or school of philosophy if one can discern an underlying emotional basis for their work; if one can see not just what it would take for their words to be true (and I guess whether or not what they say is true), but also what kind of person one would have to be to think it true, to feel towards the world as the philosophy would have you feel, to truly inhabit the lifeworld it constructs.

Sometimes it is clear what this would entail (the dark pessimism of Schopenhauer, the fearful opportunism of Lao Tzu, the meliorative optimism of Condorcet and les philosophes) but I often think people give up too quickly in seeking for this emotional basis. For instance, people rarely see this in analytic philosophers or schools of thought, and while this is quite right in some cases (e.g. some are not consistent, or speak in too pro-forma a style) in other cases I think people are just missing what is not obvious.

Tim Williamson, I have long felt and argued before, is a philosopher from whom one does get, I think, a real sense of an underlying emotional basis to their work. So I'll illustrate what I mean here with a broad impressionistic sweep over his work. Williamson's is a world over which we have less control than we may think, a world which in all sorts of subtle ways reveals itself to be beyond our grasp or ken, and which we can modify around the edges (in ways that may even be very important to us), but in some deep and fundamental sense we must learn to accept and conform ourselves too.

Even the aspects of Williamson that don' seem to comport with this readily turn out to. For instance, Williamson on some occasions argues that knowledge that it might be thought hard to get (knowledge of counter-factuals, say) is actually quite readily attainable, and stresses a link between knowledge and speech-action, in particular assertion. This seems suggestive of a somewhat different lifephilosophy, somewhat less fatalistic than perhaps the above sounded. But, even here I think the underlying unity of the picture of the lifeworld is revealed, because these initially incongruent elements of his thought can very easily be weaved in. What one sees here is this kind of sense of futility -- for the knowledge which is surprisingly easy to get (concerning counter-factuals) turns out to ground or underlie the discovery that a load of things you might have thought were contingent are actually necessarily as they are.

Timothy Williamson -- ``One might
 question the wisdom of some grad student
 treating my philosophy in exactly
the kind of vague, loose, impressionistic
way I frequently protest against. But, hey,
you do you. Who needs a job anyway?''
Whereas one can contrast that with what turns out not to be knowable. Where we can draw the line that demarcates what is tall or bald... or, perhaps, beautiful or good or just or responsible... or any of the many many things we encounter, and that can be deeply important to our sense of self and the way we organise society, but that are plausibly subject to vagueness where they appear in degrees. And we are trapped in other tragedies too: in a variety of ways through his work we learn that we may just be entirely wrong about things that are of the utmost importance to us and in who we trust as experts, and have no way of knowing it and have made no culpable error that we could ourselves detect, but be none the less wrong in the fullest sense. And that link to speech? Now it rebounds on us! For knowledge is what it takes for an assertion to be justifiably uttered -- but see what we can know, and what we cannot!

There's something kind of (but only kind of) Stoic, or Buddhistic, about Williamson's philosophy, and I'm always kind of puzzled that for all the attention his work gets, this particular aspect of his thought doesn't generate scarce any discussion. Anyway, I guess what the linked Schliesser piece does, I think, is draw this out, and acknowledge it, and place it against the current moment. That's not the only reason I really enjoyed the post (I recommend following the link concerning true and false philosophy) and I am not sure Williamson himself would recognise or welcome these reflections -- but such is what I thought when I read his metaphysics, his epistemology, his work on language, and perhaps most especially his recent book the Tetralogue.

For my part, I really value the ability to produce such an emotionally coherent philosophy in humanistic thinkers. One -- not the only, nor even the most important, but one -- valuable thing I think we can offer as humanists is placing facts, arguments, perspectives, into such a light as they provide a kind of unified perspective on the world, that they can shape and guide a coherent approach to life's many problems and joys. I don't think this need be the explicit subject matter of what is done, indeed I think it is often best done kind of obliquely as one focuses on more immediate or precisely formulated problems. Indeed, a lot of what I say here is shaped by my reading of Carnap, who I think also deliberately did this obliquely, and ends up painting a very different picture from Williamson. But some of my favourite thinkers are such precisely because they have the ability to conjure in me a window into their lifeworld. I think analytic philosophy has greater potential to contribute to this kind of humanistic project than even some of its own practitioners admit; and as I develop as a thinker I aspire to have such a vision emerge from my own work.

Eric Schliesser's post, I think, does a great job of not just pointing to Williamson's lifeworld but also exemplifying what it would be to live in it. One gets the sense that even in the face of personal and social catastrophe, even where others cannot be brought to see it, there is still a value to be found in discovering the world as it is and acclimatising to it, terrible tough it may be. The determination to gain that knowledge and comport oneself accordingly just is a good, and that value is invariant across the waxing and waning of fortune.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Du Bois and the Alt Right

In the Proceedings of the 1909 National Negro conference there is a W.E.B. Du Bois paper called `Evolution of the Race Problem'. Since I have seen some of the arguments he is addressing put forward in slightly adapted modern contexts I thought I would relay some of his reasoning here, and give a little commentary of my own at the end. I note that, first, I am not going to cover all the material in this essay and, second, philosophyheads may be interested to know that Dewey also has a short piece in this volume.

Ok so Du Bois is concerned to argue against the following line of reasoning, popular (he says) in America and gaining increasing sympathy in Europe in the wake of growing acceptance of Darwinism: the white race is generally superior, and superior owing to some biological facts about white people that make them as such. In order to secure the advantages of a superior people governing and contributing what they can to world culture, we should use legal and social sanction to prevent whites and non-whites interbreeding, and secure the military and political superiority of white over non-white nations through Imperialist foreign policy and segregationist domestic policy (including formally denying black people the ballot).

Against this Du Bois launches three lines of counter-attack, each of which build upon the previous and which are interesting in the extent to which they concede various parts of the above argument. First, there is an argument from risk aversion. Our present [1909] understanding of the relevant biology is so limited that ``it is indefensible and monstrous to pretend today that we know with any reasonable certainty'' (pg.151) who exactly the superior stock are.

Second, Du Bois points out that there are undoubtedly individuals from various races who are clearly of a superior or exceptional sort -- and that the effect of white supremacy at home or abroad is to render the Best of the non-white races subordinate to just all members of the white race. The point being that if you grant that there is not a strict dominance argument, that it is not the case that every white person is superior to every non-white person by whatever standard of civilisation you are interested in, then suddenly white supremacy as a foreign and domestic policy looks too crude. Even if in general white folk have the greater part of the Superior people, or produce a disproportionate share of them, Imperialism and White Supremacy still cut at the wrong joints, by forcefully elevating white folk over non-white folk. As Du Bois memorably puts it, this theory `makes the possession of Krupp guns the main criterion of mental stamina and moral fitness' (pg.154). White supremacy, in short, is insufficiently discerning, it s a sledgehammer where a scalpel is needed.

Third, there is an appeal to the superior humanity of a kind of liberal or soft eugenics. As he puts it on page 156:
The civilised method of preventing ill advised marriage lies in the training of mankind in the ethics of sex and childbearing. We cannot ensure the survival of the best blood through the public murder and degregation of unworthy suitors, but we can substitute the civilised human selection of husbands and wives which shall ensure the survival of the fittest. Not the methods of the jungle, nor even the careless choices of the drawing room, but the thoughtful selection of the schools and laboratory is the ideal of future marriage.
Whereas, in contrast, white supremacy and imperialism are sure to foster violent resistance, and thus lead to misery and bloodshed.

These arguments, I think, build on each other to get a consistent picture of 1909 Du Bois on eugenics and social Darwisnism. He does not doubt that we should attempt to self-consciously breed for human improvement, and place the superior stock in control of political, economic, and cultural life. He even (pg.152) writes quite movingly on the matter:
What the age of Darwin has done is to add to the eighteenth century idea of individual worth the complementary idea of the physical immortality of the human race. And this, far from annulling or contracting the idea of human freedom, rather emphasises its necessity and eternal possibility -- the boundlessness and endlessness of possible human achievment. Freedom has come to mean not individual caprice or aberration, but social self-realisation in an endless chain of selves, and freedom for such development is not the denial but the central assertion of the evolutionary theory. So too the doctrine of human equality passes through the fire of scientific inquiry not destroyed but transfigured: not equality of present attainment but equality of opportunity for unbounded future attainment is the rightful demand of mankind.
Here, then, is our chance, to take control of our destiny as a species, and through wise breeding create the conditions for a future utopia. What he objects to in White Supremacist and Imperialist arguments is, in fact, the degree to which they don't take this seriously. Rather than, with a patient scientific spirit, trying to work out a rational plan for ensuring The Best are able to breed with The Best, and in the mean time have control over political and social life, they simply give blanket military and cultural superiority to one group defined by its physiological qualities and without regard to merit. In fact they take great risks with our future, not engaging in serious social and biological inquiry as to who is worthy of Elevation and how we can ensure this comes about, not being nearly discerning enough in who they elevate and who they demote and subjugate, ignoring policy options that could ensure the Best breed with the Best without engendering resistance to the eugenicist programme. The problem with the white supremacists is, in effect, that they are not eugenicist enough.

This, then, is 1909 Du Bois. People who know of my great interest in Du Bois' work are often somewhat surprised by how harsh I can be towards him, how negative my judgements of him often are. This sort of thing is why -- whatever the soaring egalitarian rhetoric he could produce from time to time, Du Bois could be astoundingly elitist. How liberal and humane, for instance, will his soft eugenics really be towards disabled people?

W.E.B. Du Bois -- ``Ok I kind of see it but I
still basically think it was just click bait to use
the word `Alt-Right' in the title of this post.''
But he was also a smart bloke, and this stuff is worth taking seriously. I have seen in various online forums people expressing arguments very similar to the one Du Bois was responding to here. The difference, I should say, is that modern exponents of the view don't tend to have the position that the white nations should attempt to conquer the rest of the world, focussing instead on a kind of `fortress Europe' or `White Australia' or `Neo-Jim-Crow' style hopes to create enclaves of whiteness. But beyond that its similar premises and argumentative strategies applied within these enclaves -- white folk are the superior stock who produce the best stuff, we need to implement policies to a ) ensure they selectively only breed with white people and b ) are elevated to positions of cultural, economic, and political superiority, in order to gain the benefits of that superiority. What this Du Bois piece shows is that you can (just as Du Bois did) agree to the general eugenicist picture, and even agree that on average white people tend to be producing the better stuff (well it's not quite that Du Bois agrees to this he just doesn't contest it in this essay), and still block the conclusion.

I don't think we should grant those premises, I don't think we should adopt eugenicist social goals, and I don't think the science since 1909 has tended to favour the social Darwinist view. But internal critique has its place, and more generally even if I disagree with Du Bois' strategy I think that now is the time for us as intellectuals in America to actually start trying to address these overt white supremacist arguments which have gained some currency in the population, whether we like it or not.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Informal Omega Inconsistency

Sad Carnap -- ``I guess it just doesn't
feel great that other thinkers got real
pictures and actual discussion of their
work whereas I am reduced to a literal
actual cartoon in this blog post?''
Just a quick blog post writing up a thing that no doubt people in the informal logic literature know a lot about but which I don't know the term for so I invented my own. I call it Informal Omega Inconsistency, in honour of Rudolf Carnap's logical work. I find it... the fallacy not Carnap's work... very annoying. As I shall argue below, I think we should all be prepared to see a lot of Informal Omega Inconsistency after the US election.

Informal Omega Inconsistency is when people agree to a general (existential) claim but will stubbornly deny or remain absurdly sceptical as to every particular instance of it you produce. So, somebody may well agree that there are bad drivers in Pennsylvania -- but every time one points to a particularly erratic person on the road in the state they will say that, no no, this is not a bad driver, this is somebody whose car has suddenly and inexplicably stopped working, or is cursed, or at least they will not believe it is a bad driver till these possibilities have been ruled out, or... whatever. Just for some reason every instance that might witness the existential claim granted turns out not to be granted as an actual instance, no matter what lengths must be gone to deny as much.

Sounds wacky, right? Maybe, but I think it will be easily recognised as a very common by anybody who has ever argued about racism. Of course everybody will agree there are racists, certainly, it's still a terrible problem and there are lots of liberal pieties I could complete this list with that would gain equally near universal assent in my social circles. But this or that particular instance? Oh no, you have to understand, he's a very kind soul, you must be misinterpreting what he meant by ``All coloureds must die'' -- maybe he was talking about a novel method of rendering crayons reusable? And, look, he really likes dress up even months after halloween, so that was probably just a ghost costume, and of course he's a very devout man so he likes to build crosses wherever he goes, but alas he's a smoker (nobody's perfect!) so he probably was getting his lighter out then he tripped and fell and it just happened to set the cross ablaze, and....

I parody, but not by as much as you'd like. Lots of people are Informally Omega Inconsistent and it's super annoying. I think what prevents more general recognition of this fallacy is two things. First, it's a fallacy that is only recognisable in aggregate. On any one occasion it's consistent to deny that this witnesses one's general claim -- it only becomes Informal Omega Inconsitency once it's apparent that this is a matter of policy, that this is how the person always responds to apparent instances of the general claim being made. Second, for reasons that are a bit opaque to me, we tend to think that people `want' to make the strongest claim they can, so it seems that if somebody wanted to make the general claim they'd be only too happy to grant some instances -- but not so, as this experience has taught me.

In the other logical direction, so to speak, we can also get fallacious reasoning. This is where somebody affirms a universal generalisation but comes up with some ad hoc excuse to explain away any particular apparent counter example. This is the well known No True Scotsman fallacy. I suspect that this fallacy is better known because in some sense the logical error is immediate in one case -- if you affirm a universal generalisation then deny an instance you are there and then contradicting yourself. The Informal Omega Inconsistent reasoner, on the other hand, has on no particular occasion shown their hand.

Xunzi -- ``But why though?"'
Anyway here is why I think we are going to need this concept around when we are done with this election. A lot of people have said that one thing this election has done is made it no longer possible to reaasonably deny that America is a place riddled with various prejudices. Quite so, I expect the general claims that such prejudices are rife shall henceforth receive more ready assent from a wide variety of the population. But my overall prediction is that what we shall ultimately see is more Informal Omega Inconsistency, rather than more productive dialogue -- in just the same way that Victorian sexual mores lead to more hypocrisy, rather than less shagging. As I reflect on this election, and everything about it, and everything I expect to result, I am basically just all the more convinced of Xunzi's great maxim: human nature is bad.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Open Philosophy

Here are two ideals of openness in inquiry, both of which are independently attractive on both ethical and epistemic grounds.

Per the first ideal, call it openness-to-challenge, scholars are such that their pronouncements are as falsifiable as possible; as much as can be facilitated the scholar renders themselves capable of being shown wrong, if indeed they are. The goal here is to avoid gurus and unchallengable experts. The power to have people believe what one says, especially where that is likely to guide policy and action, is, after all, a very significant source of cultural power. Epistemically, falsification is attractive for all the reasons you would guess it is attractive: it helps ensure we can set ourselves aright where we go wrong, and makes debate between opposing viewpoints more liable to end in fruitful resolution. Ethically, the significance of this ideal is grounded in the fact that epistemic power is no small thing. We should like it to be the case that if somebody gains epistemic power it is not unassailable, that there are ways of challenging what is said and ensuring that where they are in error this can be recognised and corrected, and if they too frequently try to lean on their authority that we can show them up and remove them from their position of power rather than be bamboozled.

Per the second ideal, call it openness-to-participation, scholars should be such that their pronouncements can be understood and engaged with by a broad class of people. The ideal here is to avoid esotericism, and ensure that the public have access to knowledge that affects their lives. Epistemically, this allow us to gain the benefit of receiving input from as many different independent sources as possible, as more people are able to participate in discussion and debate. Ethically, again, precisely because epistemic power is an important source of social influence, we who are democrats should like as many people to have potential access to it as possible, and this means letting people into the fold by writing and studying in an accessible fashion.

Sometimes the first and second ideals play nicely together. Generally, if more people can participate in a discussion there will be more opportunity to challenge what is said, and indeed one might expect a wider variety of considerations to be brought to bear and thus a wider variety of types of challenge. Good stuff!

But, alas, the world is not always so kind. Suppose we are reasoning about the price of some good, or the load a bridge can safely take, or...  -- or, in general, the value that some variable X will take in some range of circumstances. Two proposals are made ``The value of X is given by <some formula>'', where <some formula> requires knowledge of calculus to understand, and ``The value of X will be around r'', where r is some real number and `around' isn't further specified. It may well be that whenever the former is true the latter is. But, none the less, here the two ideals are going to come apart.

To one who values openness-to-challenge, the former looks preferable. Through greater precision the scholar who offers the proposal has opened themselves up to challenge -- their statement is in some sense more falsifiable, there are more observations we could make that would more decisively refute it, and thus challenge the epistemic power of the one who uttered it. But it involves knowledge of calculus, which is a barrier to entry for many in the population. Whereas the second involves no non-trivial mathematics. The person who wants openness to participation therefore has some reason to prefer the latter contribution. (Of course there are other ideals besides these which may give us reason to all-things-consider prefer one or the other contribution, I am just noting the direction in which I think the two openness ideals respectively pull.)

More generally, there will be situations where precisification will be the natural route to openness-to-challenge, but the tools necessary to achieve this will involve moving one away from openness-to-participation. What to do?

Alas, if you are looking for neat answers, I haven't got them. (Tell truth, if you are looking for neat answers and your first thought was to check the philosophy blogosphere... I have other questions.) There's a place for both these ideals, but working out how they should be balanced is difficult. I just want to stress here that this trade off exists and must be faced, that both openness-to-challenge and openness-to-participation can reasonably be seen as valuable ideals of clarity, but that they do not speak with one voice. I think very often people in philosophy unreflectively interpret just one of these ideals as the content of `clarity', do their best to act in accordance with it, and proceed to see others as being obtuse and unclear when in fact they are optimising against a different metric. I don't now have a solution to this conflict, but I would like us in our metaphilosophy to come to self-consciousness about it.

(This post inspired by Eric Schliesser's recent illuminating post on ideals of clarity and their role in the history of analytic philosophy. In general I know Eric thinks about this a lot, so if you are interested in the metaphilosophical role of clarity ideals he's a good person to speak to. To ward off some misunderstandings: neither openness ideal is fully realisable. A canny interlocutor can always dodge falsification if they try hard enough. And in so far as we express our thoughts linguistically, there is always at least the barrier of understanding the language. It's also not the case that in moving away from one ideal you automatically move towards the other -- I'll let readers fill in their own favourite example of something that is both esoteric and also not easy to test or refute. The relationship between these ideals then is not straightforwardly competition, confrontation, or coherence.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Negro Scientist

Yesterday I came across a fascinating new paper by Du Bois on the sociology of science. It's called The Negro Scientist, and it's published in a 1939 edition of The American Scholar. The piece is framed by the following remark:

Some time ago a great American scientist noted in public print how few Negroes had made their mark in science. They were heard of in music and literature, on the stage, in painting and in some departments of public life, but not often in exact science. I called his attention to the fact that it was not easy for an American Negro to pursue science and he admitted that there might be difficulties. But I think that along with most Americans his private belief was that the exact and intensive habit of mind, the rigorous mathematical logic demanded of those who would be scientists is not natural to the Negro

Nice to see a shout out to mathematical logic from Du Bois! But in any case, his response strategy then is two fold. First, he gives an account of a series of (quasi anonymised) Negro scientists whose careers have obviously been held back by the fact that they were black. He also notes (then) recent testimony from white instructors that they had plenty of Negro students of great scientific ability in their class room, but who were not able to make it in professional science.

Second, he notes a number of results of colour prejudice which will predictably hold Negro scientists back. Such folk's...
... only opening lies in the Negro university of the South. This in itself has much to commend it. It should mean that some of the best-trained Negroes are going to teach their own youth and give them the advantage of superior education. But the difficulty here, of course, is that very few of these institutions have the facilities for research, nor can they grant teachers the time to devote to it. The young scientist who goes to such an institution is usually given a heavy load of teaching covering several branches of scientific work. If he can find any time for research he not only has few facilities at his disposal at the institution, but he has a body of college students handicapped by restricted high school and elementary school training. Few of them have seen laboratories before coming to college or have been used to rigorous scientific methods. Their English and their mathematics have suffered from poor teachers and schooling
Ernest Just -- ``I am one of the talented but
under-appreciated scientists Du Bois drew
attention to. And I have a badass name.''
And what's worse, a lot of cultural and intellectual life is shut off from Negro scientists even in this environment. Public libraries and museums will not admit Negroes in the south, inter-library loan programmes with white institutions are impossible since they refuse to loan their books out to Negro schools, scholarships and prizes are just as discriminatory as other aspects of higher education, and it is hard for Negroes to gain external funding for their work. (To illustrate that latter point he recounts the difficulties his own pioneering Atlanta sociological studies had in securing funding -- it's an interesting tale, so for a more detailed account of these difficulties I'd recommend checking out Morris' The Scholar Denied.) Finally, with all this done, he notes that this creates incentives for Negro children of scientific talent not to go into science; first they may think why bother, if this is the treatment you will receive? (He notes that at least one of the talented Negroes held back by prejudice in academia ended up making it in industry.) And second their academic advisors may perceive this prejudice themselves, and so advice young Negro aspirant scientists to pursue other options.

So, then, putting all this together, we get Du Bois' response to the `great American scientist'. His claim is, first, there is evidence that there is prejudice against Negro scientists in the academy which largely prevents them getting employment outside of Southern Universities. Second, this prejudice has the predictable consequence of making it materially harder for Negro scientists to do research, which in turn creates incentives for bright students not to go into science in the first place. It's a tidy piece of work; the evidence for the premises, that there is prejudice against Negro scientists and this prejudice affects their ability to gain access to resources, is somewhat anecdotal but on the whole seems pretty solid; could anybody really deny that there was prejudice against Negro scholars in 1930s America? And the degree of materialism (to whit: you need material support and equipment to do successful research) you need to buy into to go from the premises to the conclusion that Negroes cannot make their mark in American science under present conditions seems hard to deny. In short, this is an instance of the classic Du Boisian explanatory pattern: take some racial disparity which people might have been tempted to explain in terms of some inherent inferiority in the Negro, and give a sociological explanation for it in terms of cultural attitudes, their material consequences, and the incentives this creates. I'd recommend this essay to anybody interested in seeing an especially clean and easy to follow example of Du Bois' argumentation at work.

A couple of points of my own in response. First, one may wonder whether Du Bois' arguments still apply? To take a case I have done research on myself: black people are under-represented in US philosophy, and our work does not often appear in top journals. Could Du Bois' argumentative strategy work here? Well, I'd say it's an open question. The material conditions of the mid 2000s are not the material conditions of late 1930s, and some of the effects of formalised segregation are no longer with us. However, as I have explored elsewhere and Du Bois raises in his own discussion, in many respects perceptions are what drive incentives. In particular, Du Bois notes that the perception of prejudice is enough to create barriers to entry for Negro students -- why go into a scientific career if you can do better elsewhere, less encumbered by this prejudice? Presumably this still goes, and importantly it only has to be perceived relative degree of prejudice rather than perceived absolute prejudice for this argument to go through. It may not matter that in an absolute sense conditions now are after all better than the 1930s if still people think that academia (in this case philosophy especially) is worse relative to available options.  (This point is discussed a bit by Dotson here, and I am sure there is an essay where Haslanger makes a similar point but I cannot now remember what it is called, so if any readers know please fill me in.) Since it is not just academia but other aspects of professional and cultural life that have improved for black people in the US since the 30s, it may still be that philosophy is relatively unappealing and relatively difficult to gain the material support necessary for success within, and for that reason is avoided by black potential-philosophers.

I don't mean to endorse this explanation of black under-representation in philosophy. In fact, another Du Boisian point I am in great sympathy with is: people rush to conclusions on the basis of incredibly flimsy evidence when they are reasoning about very complex sociological matters regarding race in America. People who know me will know that I often speak in defence of scepticism as a viable position rather than bogey man to be avoided; it is partly on the basis of reflecting on these matters that I think as much. A much greater degree of hesitancy and tentativeness is generally called for, and I have tried to exhibit it in my own work on the matter; black people deserve better than the shoddy scholarship we give them, we are vastly underserved by the academy and we should be angry about it. So, without meaning to commit a sin which is one of my bugbears, I only mean to point out that the fact that formal legal segregation is no longer with us does not by itself rule out Du Bois' argumentative strategy here.

My second reflection is on a short passage that is especially interesting to social epistemologists. Du Bois says:
One may say in answer to all this: so what? After all there are plenty of white men who can be trained as scientists. Why crowd the field with Negroes who certainly can find other socially necessary work? But the point is that ability and genius are strangely catholic in their tastes, regard no color line or racial inheritance. They occur here, there, everywhere, without rule or reason. The nation suffers that disregards them. There is ability in the Negro race - a great deal of unusual and extraordinary ability, undiscovered, unused and unappreciated. And in no line of work is ability so much needed today as in science.
W.E.B. Du Bois -- ``You are probably going
to see this picture a lot on this blog so I guess
you should get used to it? Liam is going to have
a hard time thinking of a new caption every time.''
So by excluding talented Negro scientists we miss out on their potential contributions to science, and given the social value of science means we are paying a large opportunity cost for our bigotry. When applied to the position of women in science I (following Eric Schliesser) referred to this as `Platonic Feminism'. I guess this makes Du Bois a Platonic Anti-Racist? In any case, I just want to note two readings of Du Bois' particular form of Platonic Anti-Racism. First there is a kind of Romantic genius reading, relying on something like the non-substitutability of persons. Here the idea is that the particular forms of genius and talent held by particular Negroes will be forever lost unless we employ those particular persons, we cannot get equivalent labour from employing white scientists. Second, there is a kind of no-diminishing returns (or we-are-nowhere-near-saturation) assumption, where the point is that so long as you grant that black folk are capable of fruitfully contributing to science, we're better off employing as many productive scientists as possible and so removing needless barriers to entry. Egalitarian that I am I prefer the second of these readings, but knowing Du Bois I strongly suspect he meant to endorse the first.

(The social constructivist move on display in this essay is easy for us to make now, but it's worth noting that Du Bois was a real pioneer of this kind of social constructivist explanatory strategy in research on race. His speech transcript `The Conservation of Races' is viewed by many to be a foundational text for modern philosophy of race precisely because it clearly points to the need for some kind of social constructivist theory of race, and a recent article in Science credits `The Health and Physique of the American Negro' with being the first rigorous attempt to carry out large scale sociology on the basis of a social constructivist theory of race. I am not sure I agree with that priority claim -- for one thing why not Boas' work? To be fair the Morris book linked to above takes some time to dispute Boas' priority here, but ok going back to even earlier Du Bois, I think one can pretty clearly see this social constructivist strategy on display in Philadelphia NegroBut, history of social constructivism aside, all this does speak to the continued influence of Du Bois' social constructivist strategy on modern intellectual life in the sciences and humanities.)