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.